Sunday, March 17, 2013

Take My Advice: Pencil In Louisville, Gonzaga

March is the month when we fall in love with college hoops. It’s a birthright, in America, to fill out tournament brackets, and then witness the suspense, the excitement and thrills, the disappointments and underdogs of college basketball. Our infatuation with underdogs and the best tournament in all of sports captivates our heart and souls, grabbing the attention of all men and bringing offices together with conversations about the madness near the water cooler and the boxes of Dunkin Donuts on the back table.

The madness is upon us, and the irony of the game today is at a time when it is not as fun to watch with college hoops becoming a one-and-done system, the annual rite of spring still overwhelms employees in the office. All next week, no doubt, March Madness pools will generate attention and productive employees will stop what they are doing in the workplace. March will always be fun because of thrilling upsets, breathtaking finishes and the influence of brackets.

The real fun of March Madness, whether the program is an underdog or a favorite, is the interesting match ups and the drama. This year’s tourney, clearly, is intriguing, with solid match ups and refreshing storylines. This has been a crazy season of college basketball, and since college basketball is so unpredictable in March, here are the keys to filling out those NCAA Tournament brackets.

Top Contender In the Country: Louisville

By now, you should be sharping your pencils and choosing Louisville to prevail in a tough Midwest Region. There appears to be no one who can beat the Cardinals, a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, a 28-5 squad, a favorite to punch a ticket to Atlanta, Ga. and win an NCAA tournament. The Cardinals ended the season on a tear, with an astonishing turnaround after Notre Dame upset Louisville 104-101 in a five-overtime thriller back in February, winning 10 straight games and capturing the Big East title, the school’s second straight.

You never know about March Madness — Louisville will emerge as a Final Four team. It’s possible coach Rick Pitino’s team is the deepest that he’s had during his tenure at Louisville. Have you seen Louisville lately? If not, it’s the hottest team in the nation and senior Peyton Siva, an efficient point guard who had 11 points and eight assists to lead No. 1 Louisville to a 78-61 victory over No. 19 Syracuse on Saturday night, is the heart and soul of the Cardinals.

There’s absolutely no sense to discount the Cardinals from the Final Four or even call the team a disappointment, because this season is their time to cut down the nets and raise the trophy. So there’s a sense that the Cardinals, having defensive-minded center Gorgui Dieng who was recruited out of Senegal, are the team to beat and no team in their region stands a chance against them. It’s a team you would, well, respect in this tournament, when the Cardinals are well-coached and play fundamentally sound, when the Cardinals have the No. 1 defense and the No. 15 offense, run by Siva who speeds up the tempo and then there’s two-guard Russ Smith who presses and pushes in transition, accelerating and finishing at the rack.

Louisville, fast and experienced, thrives on turnovers and moves the ball along in transition for points. The road to Atlanta seems realistic for Louisville, but it won’t be easy. They will have their work cut out for them against eighth-seeded Colorado State or ninth-seeded Missouri, who are among the nation elites, and then later in the regional title game they can either meet No. 2 Duke or No. 3 Michigan State. The last time Pitino won a national title was in 1996 at Kentucky, and the Cardinals have the recipe for success.

It probably won’t even matter now, as Louisville has an elite defense, who they will play throughout the tournament. And now the Cardinals, forcing 59 turnovers in victories over Villanova, Notre Dame and Syracuse, have been penciled in, and as a result, the NCAA selection committee rewarded Louisville the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. The committee was right, no matter how many people disagree, no matter how many people think they will be a major disappointment. The committee made a good choice, whether you like it or not. It’s Louisville. And guess what? My bold prediction: Louisville advances to the Final Four and wins the 2013 national title. Yeah, and so what if I’m wrong?

What if I’m right?

Gonzaga Is No Easy Out

In the West Region, I like the Gonzaga Bulldogs. If you don’t have Zaga going to the Final Four, you don’t know college basketball. That’s the truth, and sometimes, the truth hurts. The chalk it is for No. 1 Gonzaga, who may play No. 2 Ohio State in the West Regional in Los Angeles. There are no secrets to the way Zaga has dominated all season to be rewarded a No. 1 seed, and longtime coach Mark Few has done an amazing job in turning the Bulldogs into a national brand. Will it happen this time?

It’s a much different team this year, and even the vibes are good for those who are Zag fans, cheering on and believing in the Bulldogs. Get past Ohio State, and we can move on and talk Final Four, such as 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk. The Bulldogs star is Olynyk, a versatile Canadian who can play forward and maybe even shooting guard, averaging 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. It’s a Gonzaga team that can beat anybody in its path. There’s no way — at least I don’t see it — that the Bulldogs will obliterate brackets with a stunning loss in the first round.

Keep your eyes on Louisville and Gonzaga.

They will have a date in the Final Four.