We are less than a day away from the first tip-off of the NCAA Tournament. I have gone back and forth on how I see things turning out since the brackets came out, but I think I am confident in my outlook now. This tournament strikes me as quite different from last year - there don't seem to be as many legitimate contenders that could win it all this year as there was last year. That should theoretically make it easier to look like a genius when your picks come true, but nothing is easy about filling out a bracket. Here's how I see things breaking down this year with my Final Four picks:
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This one is reasonably straightforward in my mind as I only see three really legitimate contenders. Of the top four seeds, I have a very hard time believing in Kansas. They just don't have the depth, the experience, or the talent to go all the way this year. Wake Forest is a very good team, but they aren't a particularly reliable one. I like them a lot when they are at their best, but I am very concerned that they lost badly to Maryland in the first round of the ACC Tournament. A good team ready for a deep run should have been more prepared for their conference tournament. Wake Forest could be a Final Four team, but I don't see them get past Louisville in the Sweet 16.
That leaves the top two seeds. Michigan State is a good team, and I have a ton of respect for the Big Ten this year. I think they definitely have the talent to make it to the Elite Eight, and I am confident that that is where they will end up. I just don't see them getting past the Cardinals, though. Louisville is red hot after winning the Big East. They didn't look good trough January, but no one in the country has looked better since then. They are led by Earl Clark, one of the best players in the country. He is custom built for tournament success. The team plays excellent defense, moves the ball well, has solid depth, and is coached by a guy who knows how to win. Louisville will be in the Final Four.
I may regret saying this, but I don't see how this doesn't become a showdown between UConn and Memphis for the Final Four berth. UConn will likely play the winner of Purdue and Washington. Those two teams should play a great game, but neither is good enough to get past UConn on their best day. Missouri is the biggest test that Memphis has to look forward to, but I am not convinced that they have the depth or experience to overcome the stifling Memphis defense.
Two months ago I would have picked UConn over Memphis without hesitation. The Huskies looked as good as a team can look, while Memphis looked like a team with work to do. Since then, though, the Huskies have looked vulnerable, while Memphis just keeps looking better and better. The Tigers lost three key players last year, but they still have some key depth, and Tyreke Evans has evolved into a real beast. Memphis has the look of a Final Four squad to me.
This one is all about Pitt. They need to stay healthy, and that isn't always easy when they play the incredibly tough, physical game that they do. Barring any setbacks, though, I don't see where they will get beat before they leave for Detroit. The biggest challenge comes from Villanova, a team that beat the Panthers in the regular season. That game was in Philadelphia, though, and the crowd won't be as much of a boost this time around. Duke is the other likely Elite Eight opponent. Duke is rounding into form, but they had a lousy conference tournament, and I just don't see how they can match up to Pitt's strength and vicious inside presence. The other possible contenders are Xavier and Florida State, but neither one of those squads can measure up to the Panthers.
The picks have been reasonably chalky and straightforward so far, so I had better go off the board here. I don't have a whole lot of faith in either one of the top two seeds in this grouping. North Carolina isn't the team they were last year, and Ty Lawson isn't at his best. I really think the Tar Heels will lose one of their first three games. I don't have any more faith in Oklahoma. They have the best player in the country and a very talented freshman in Willie Warren. Those two just haven't been enough to keep this team on track - they have lost four of their last six and have looked unfocused. They could certainly lose a game they shouldn't.
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I have a challenge with this region - I don't like the top two, but I don't know who I trust in their place. Gonzaga and Illinois are both very capable, but they can also be lousy. Arizona State is tough and could ride James Harden a long way. My personal bias makes me want to believe that Michigan can pull of the impossible in their first tournament in a decade. The way I am ultimately going to go, though, is Syracuse. Their conference tournament run was epic, and it showed just how tough this team is. They are very well coached, and Jonny Flynn is a machine. They would have to pull off a big upset or two to make the Final Four, but we've certainly seen that they have the capacity to pull off an upset.
The Final Four
I wish Louisville and Memphis weren't lined up to play in the semifinals because I think they are the two best teams right now. It will be a heck of a game, but I give Louisville an edge. On the Other side, I think Pitt has a clear edge over Syracuse. That all-Big East affair sets up an all-Big East final. Louisville beat the Panthers in their first meeting, and I expect them to do it again. Rick Pitino and company are my pick to cut down the nets.