Mineral Wells Index
By CLINT FOSTER
March Madness is upon us, yet again.
For the next three weeks, starting Thursday, countless folks will carve out 40-minute increments of their days – at times, forsaking school or work – to take part in watching the most thrilling and emotional postseason in the entire Jock Kingdom: the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament.
This year's tourney will culminate in our own backyard, with the Final Four hosted at none other than Jerry Jones' personal Taj Mahal of sports venues, AT&T Stadium, in Arlington.
But long before any team achieves its collective dream of cutting down the nets where the Dallas Cowboys play, the business at hand is for those of us in the viewing public to fill out our prospective brackets and thus declare who we believe will be the eventual 2014 National Champions.
Millions have already chronicled the path of their favorites and Cinderellas this year, myself included, but many still are holding out before the field of 64 get to playing in a couple days.
So, whether you're stumped on who to pick between Virginia Commonwealth and Stephen F. Austin, or you've got three of your Final Four teams figured out, never fear. You have picked up the right newspaper!
For what it's worth (yep, that's the title of my new column series), here are five of my predictions for this year's NCAA tournament and my picks for the Final Four and National Championship.
1. Wichita State won't make Elite Eight
Much has been said about the injustice of our neighbors to the east – the SMU Mustangs – being left out of the NCAA Tournament after a historic 23-9 campaign. Instead, the Ponies' season garnered a No. 1 seed in the grand consolation prize known as the National Invitation Tournament.
But I would suggest no team got as hosed this postseason as the 34-0 Wichita State Shockers.
After running through the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, the Shockers became the first team to enter the NCAA tourney undefeated since the 1991 UNLV Runnin' Rebels – a squad that rode four first-round NBA talents, including Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, to a National Championship appearance against the Duke Blue Devils.
Rather than awarding the Wheat Shockers for their achievement, the tournament committee opted to all but ensure an impossible road to the Final Four. Sure, Wichita State got the No. 1 seed in the Midwest bracket, but they will be joined in that region by some of the toughest competition in the nation, including Michigan, Duke, Louisville and Kentucky, just to name a few.
Make no mistake, Wichita State has a great team. Led by Cleanthony Early (15.8 points per game) and Fred VanVleet (12.1 points per game and a 3.9 assist-to-turnover ratio), they are a veteran squad with NCAA tourney experience that can play with anybody. But winning six straight games is hard, especially when you're facing some of the best each time out.
I have faith the Shockers will make the Sweet 16. This is partially because I see Kansas State upsetting Kentucky in the first round, but, regardless, I like Wichita State against either group of Wildcats.
But then comes the Louisville game and the Cardinals just look too good. No. 1 seed-worthy in many experts' eyes, the Cards are playing their best basketball all season, going 11-1 in their last 12 games and destroying their last five opponents by an average margin of 29.2 points. This isn't a team that anybody wants to run into right now, especially in the third round, where Wichita State's dream season will unfortunately end.
2. The Big 12 will flex its muscles
The Big 12 proved this year that it was the best men's basketball conference in the nation. The NCAA recognized this by sending seven Big 12 teams to the tournament – more than any other conference.
I believe, by and large, the Big 12 will prove the committee right and flex its muscles with multiple deep runs in this year's bracket.
Although fifth-seeded Oklahoma has a surprisingly tough draw with North Dakota State, the only team I see making a first-round exit is the seventh-seed Texas Longhorns, who will play the Arizona State Sun Devils. Neither team is particularly hot right now (both 6-6 in their last 12 games), but the 'Horns simply aren't as good of a shooting team as the Devils, which is a cause for concern this time of year. Arizona State's 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski should also be able to at least hold his own against Texas' biggest strength: their massive frontcourt.
The Sooners, on the other hand, have the potential to make it at least to the Sweet 16 if they can survive their run in with the hot Bison and their stingy defense.
I see sixth-seeded Baylor and ninth-seeded Kansas State making second-round exits, as K-State's experience should win out over Kentucky's talented freshmen and Baylor – who is playing their best basketball right now – should handle Nebraska before running into trouble against Creighton.
The poster children for the Big 12 will be Oklahoma State, Kansas and Iowa State – all three of whom I predict will finish in the Elite Eight.
Iowa State is for real. The Big 12 Tournament Champions have an outstanding combo in point guard DeAndre Kane and power forward Melvin Ejim that run a lethal, fast-paced offense. If it weren't for an imminent meeting with Michigan State in the Elite Eight, they would have been one of my favorites to make the Final Four out of the No. 3 seed in the East.
Second-seeded Kansas has the best freshman in the nation in Andrew Wiggins who can simply take over games. Even if he is without talented post Joel Embiid, he is more than capable of carrying the Jayhawks deep, past the likes of New Mexico and Syracuse. A meeting with No. 1 seed Florida and their dominant defense would be too much to overcome in the Elite Eight.
The No. 9 seed Oklahoma State Cowboys are one of my surprise teams to look out for. Led by sophomore point guard Marcus Smart, the Cowboys are a dangerous shooting team. Since Smart's return from a suspension following an altercation with a Texas Tech fan, the Pokes are 5-2 and rolling.
A second-round meeting with No. 1 seed Arizona will be the big test, but the Wildcats aren't exactly healthy and aren't the best from the field. I think the Cowboys can pull off the shocker en route to a trip to the Elite Eight and a meeting with the stout Wisconsin Badgers.
3. St. Joe's will wear the glass slipper
Every year there is a Cinderella team that the nation falls in love with. There are plenty of potential suitors, but this year, I believe the shoe fits the Saint Joseph's Hawks.
The Hawks are red hot after a victory over the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the Atlantic 10 Championship and will be coming into the tournament as a No. 10 seed in the East region.
This team can shoot from just about anywhere on the floor. They also get great senior leadership from the likes of Langston Galloway, Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic – a severely under-rated strength come tournament time.
If they can make it past Connecticut in the first round, and I believe they will, the Hawks will likely draw a rematch with the Villanova Wildcats. In their last meeting, Dec. 7, the 'Cats embarrassed the Hawks at home, 98-68. But these are two totally different teams at this stage.
While the Hawks have been heating up, 'Nova has been fairly inconsistent recently. That, combined with the Wildcats' heavy reliance on the three-pointer, should be enough to help St. Joseph's win a trip to the Sweet 16 and the hearts of a nation.
4. Watch out for Creighton
Don't sleep on the No. 3 seed Creighton Blue Jays. The small Nebraska school with great basketball tradition has a solid product on the court this year led by future NBA talent and likely Wooden Award winner, Doug McDermott.
McDermott, who reminds some of NBA legend Larry Bird, is a scoring machine, posting 26.9 points per game to go along with an average of seven rebounds. Largely because of his presence, the Blue Jays average 79.5 points per game and shoot 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from behind the arc. They also aren't slouches rebounding.
I expect the Jays to overpower Louisiana in the first-round and survive a matchup with the dangerous Baylor Bears in the second, en route to the Sweet 16. The biggest test will then come against Wisconsin – a powerful offensive team that doesn't beat itself.
Don't expect the Blue Jays to outlast the Badgers, but if they do, they are certainly Final Four material.
5. Spartans, what is your profession?
So who wins the Championship? Look no further than the No. 4 seed Michigan State Spartans.
At long last, the Spartans are finally healthy and fresh off of a Big 10 Tournament Championship over rival Michigan, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better team in the nation.
They've got a dominant backcourt with Keith Appling and Gary Harris and an outstanding big man in Adreian Payne. Combine that with championship coach Tom Izzo and how could Sparty not be the favorite to cut down the nets?
It won't be the easiest road to Dallas, but none really is. After facing the winner of Harvard and Cincinnati, Michigan State will likely run into the No. 1 seed Virgina Cavaliers in the Sweet 16.
If the Spartans can survive Virginia's dangerous half-court style, they'll face a polar opposite opponent in Iowa State. After the Cyclones, I see a date with the Florida Gators, leading up to the National Championship game against Louisville.
Although the Cardinals bested the Wolverines in the championship last year, I don't see them getting the better of a Michigan school this time around. It will be a thrilling game, but in the end, it will be the green and white celebrating in the big D on April 7.