Well, it’s early, but that doesn’t mean we have to wait to make predictions. And in my opinion, you don’t waiver. You make statements and projections and you stand by them, regardless of what happens in the coming weeks. Hold me to the following bold predictions about the NCAA tournament:
No Big East team will reach the Final Four: Another big haul for the Big East. Nine of its teams will participate in this season’s edition of the NCAA tournament. But I don’t think the conference will send any teams to New Orleans. I think Syracuse, a team that’s vulnerable due to its challenges on the glass, has a tough path in the East with Ohio State and a pair of hot squads (Florida State and Vandy) standing in its way. Georgetown, Cincy and UConn could lose in the first round. Marquette has to get through Missouri. I just don’t see it. No Big East in the Big Easy.
The Big 12 will send two squads to New Orleans: Among the 2-seeds, Missouri has the easiest path to New Orleans. The Tigers’ speed and perimeter versatility will pose matchup problems for every team in the West Region, including No. 1 seed Michigan State. Kansas losing in the first round to Detroit? Nah. The Jayhawks will beat every team in the Midwest, including the Tar Heels if they face them in the Elite Eight.
Vanderbilt will reach the Final Four: I know it’s the sexy pick following its win over Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game. But the Commodores shouldn’t be judged by that victory. And they shouldn’t be dismissed because of premature exits in past years. They have veterans. And they’ve built momentum down the stretch, a la Connecticut a year ago. They’ve hit nearly 40 percent of their 3s this season. The East Region is stronger than it looks with teams such as Syracuse, Ohio State, Florida State and Wisconsin in the mix. But the Commodores can emerge with their senior leadership and shooting. Plus, they have the confidence that comes from beating Kentucky, a team that they challenged in two previous meetings, too.
Iona will win two games: I don’t agree with the Gaels’ inclusion. Washington and Drexel had stronger arguments. But just because many don’t believe they belong doesn’t mean that they won’t prove critics wrong. I think the Gaels, who own the No. 1 scoring offense in the country (83.3 ppg), are dangerous. To reach the third round in the West Region, the Gaels will have to get through BYU in Dayton and Marquette in Louisville. Mark it down. The Gaels are playing a pair of shaky defensive teams. They have three NBA-level talents in Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Lamont “Momo” Jones. As much I thought Iona didn’t have a case for a slot in the field of 68, I think the Gaels can show doubters that they’re worthy.
The Badgers will go home early: I’m picking Montana over Wisconsin in the 13/4 matchup in the East Region. Wisconsin’s offense has stalled multiple times in recent weeks. Even though the Badgers are capable of neutralizing any offense, they’ve had problems capitalizing due to their own inconsistent offense. Montana will be ready. The Grizzlies beat their Big Sky rivals Weber state by 19 points in the conference’s tournament title game, their 14th consecutive victory. Plus, Will Cherry (16.0 ppg) can match Jordan Taylor. Grizzlies will advance.
Long Beach State is a Sweet 16 team: Numerous NCAA tournament teams have hungry veterans. But few upperclassmen have gone through the things that T.J. Robinson, Larry Anderson and Casper Ware have throughout their careers. The seniors missed the past two NCAA tournaments after losing in the conference tournament title game to UC Santa Barbara twice. But this season they earned the Big West’s automatic bid. If Anderson’s not ready (knee injury), then that will change Long Beach State’s March Madness potential. But even without Anderson, the league’s defensive player of the year, this is a talented team that’s played the top nonconference schedule in the country. The 49ers will not be intimidated. They’ll beat New Mexico and Louisville on their way to the Sweet 16.
Michigan State will be the first No. 1 seed to fall: Call me crazy. But I think Memphis’ athleticism will create problems for the Spartans in the third round. I understand the “How will the Tigers guard Draymond Green?” question. But what about Will Barton and Joe Jackson? In the Big Ten, the Spartans didn’t play teams that possessed the raw athleticism that’s anchored Memphis’ roster. The Spartans will be tougher than the Tigers in this East Region matchup, but the latter has an element that Michigan State hasn’t faced since its season-opening to loss to North Carolina.
Doug McDermott will outplay Harrison Barnes on Sunday: I expect North Carolina and Creighton to advance and set up a Sunday matchup in the Midwest Region between former high school teammates Doug McDermott and Harrison Barnes, who earned two state titles together at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa. The Tar Heels will win the game, but McDermott will be the star. Both guys have talked about this potential matchup in the past. The McDermott vs. Barnes buildup will be immense. But McDermott will outperform his prep teammate in their first collegiate meeting, albeit in a loss.
The VCU/Wichita State winner is headed to the Sweet 16: It’s unfortunate that this game will eliminate a potent mid-major. Wichita State and VCU, a Final Four team last year, are two of the best in the country. I predict that the winner of this game will end up facing Kentucky in the Sweet 16. They’re both tough, physical defensive teams that will pressure Indiana in the round of 32. The Hoosiers have struggled outside of Bloomington. And whether they face the Shockers or the Rams, they’ll be in for a battle, one that I expect them to lose.
The West Coast Conference won’t win one game: BYU will lose to Iona. Saint Mary’s will go down against Purdue. West Virginia will beat Gonzaga. I thought the WCC would turn the corner this year with the way BYU, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga fought for the WCC title. But all three have looked vulnerable in recent weeks. I just don’t think they’re going to advance. Plus, tough matchups for all three teams in their first games. Iona is very talented. The Boilermakers are tough, too. Kevin Jones will lead the Mountaineers to a win over the Bulldogs.