This is the time of year when college hoops are particularly hazardous to the workplace as employees piss off their bosses with office pools, wandering from their workstations to watch games from their mobile devices and have conversations with their co-workers about their busted brackets near the water cooler.
This is the time of year when we fall in love with the cutest March fairy tales, as underdogs beat high-seeded teams to notably stun the world and annihilate our brackets. This is the time of year when fans embrace the drama and thrilling finishes that have come to define March Madness. The only thing crazier than upsets and buzzer beaters is Warren Buffett’s willingness to pay $1 billion to anyone with a perfect bracket, which seems humanly impossible when there are usually sleepers and creepers in each region. The odds of successfully picking all 63 teams are one in 9.2 quintillion, realizing that predicting a perfecto is highly unlikely — even for those with vast knowledge of college basketball.
This could be the year — and yes, I’m going to take a beating for it — when No. 14 Mercer upsets No. 3 Duke. The two teams are fairly evenly matched, and even some experts across the country are putting their money on Mercer to pull off an upset. This is, after all, a dangerous team that comes out of the Atlantic Sun, much like Florida Gulf Coast last season. The Bears, led by senior shooting guard Langston Hall, are fully capable of putting together a run and believe they can win. This is a year when we’ve seen Duke’s Jabari Parker, widely considered the nation’s top freshman, dunk over people and amaze a national audience with his best all-around performances.
Parker is maybe the best player in the nation and potentially is a No. 1 NBA draft pick, but as of now, he’s more focused on helping the Blue Devils in the NCAA tournament. If anybody watched the Bears play this season, you know they have size, talent and an array of guards. If anybody watched Mercer this season, you can imagine it beating Parker and Duke on Friday. This is a year when we’ve seen Creighton star Doug McDermott, the most popular All-American walk-on, absolutely dominate the Big East and reach 3,000 career points, laying his claim to being arguably the nation’s best player.
He’s the kind of player who can gain so much fame during the Bluejays’ NCAA tournament run. Much will be made, and should be, of McDermott’s dominance. There’s a feeling he can, dare I say it, become a legend and hijack this tournament, making it all about him and nobody else when he’s the most unstoppable force on the floor.
The 2014 NCAA tournament field is now set, and it is now time for the craziest and most drama-filled games in all of sports. We’ve seen in the tourney heart-breaking endings and fantastic finishes over the years. We’ve seen in college hoops agony and ecstasy over the years. This year’s controversy came on Selection Sunday when the committee surprisingly placed Louisville in the toughest region as a No. 4 seed. There’s much debate about whether the Cardinals deserved so much better than a lower seed — seeded lower than No. 2 Michigan and Duke. If you’re unhappy that Louisville was screwed after playing the best basketball the last couple of weeks of the season, you haven’t invested much of your time watching the Shockers from Wichita, Kansas.
Louisville unquestionably is national championship favorites, but it will have to get through Wichita State, a team that has two top-flight scorers in Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker. The time is right — finally — for the Shockers to survive and back it up with a national title victory that would silence the haters who believe Wichita State is overrated. Yes, you can argue that Louisville, the defending champions, is far more superior to anyone in the Midwest region. The Shockers, in the meantime, could potentially meet a relentless Kentucky squad for a third-round game and a tough Kansas State team, then the possibility of having to play Louisville in the Sweet 16.
It doesn’t matter who the Shockers face or what comes next, with a chance to cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas two weeks from now. If they were to win it all, it would be fair to say they earned it by beating somebody. The Shockers are up to far more challenges, and Gregg Marshall said his players have a chance to play with and beat anyone in the country.
There’s a sense Wichita State can make it back to the Final Four, that stunning the nation is not beyond the realms of possibility for a school destined to reach the highest pinnacle. The feeling is that the unbeaten Shockers are no longer national darlings of March and will be a heavy favorite, as Wichita is no pushover and can stand up to a number of big-name schools. Last year, the Shockers busted all sorts of brackets, reaching the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. This year’s team earned a No. 1 seed in the Midwest, the toughest of the four regions. The dominance of Wichita State, finishing the regular season 34-0, is highly regarded on a national scale. It’s fair to say that the Shockers could compete at the top of any league in the nation.
If it’s any satisfaction for the Florida Gators, it’s because they earned a No. 1 seed, and after enjoying a phenomenal season, they can carry it over into the tournament. You have a fierce competitor, a defensive-minded squad and a brilliant coach, Billy Donovan. I have Florida reaching my Final Four, in part because of Florida’s team defense. The success of Donovan’s team under his watch is indescribable, during which the Gators have been the most dangerous team in the Southeastern Conference after finishing the regular season 32-2, although they barely survived Kentucky Sunday in the tournament championship. If the Gators win, they could very well have to get past No. 2 Kansas in the South Regional final.
Look, you can predict Florida to win all you want, but I’m picking Michigan State to beat the Gators in the Final Four. The good news is the Spartans, one of the deepest and most fundamentally sound teams in the nation, appears to be healthier than ever at the right time, spearheaded by seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. There’s never a doubt in our minds that Tom Izzo won’t have his boys well conditioned and prepared to play efficiently in the spring as his MSU teams usually dominate in the month of March.
Congratulations to Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his kids. This has been nothing short of impressive, for a program that has only entered the tournament as a No. 1 seed four times in school history and the first time since 1983. With Bennett’s craft as a head coach, he has resuscitated two programs in his career. He is one of the most influential coaches in college hoops, and there’s no question he has the coaching credentials, well after he built a foundation at Washington State before migrating to Virginia, where he has given a program its identity.
The excellence of the Arizona Wildcats, led by an enthusiastic coach Sean Miller, resulted in a No. 1 seed in the West region. And there’s no need for anyone to try to say the Wildcats are not a Final Four contender, when in reality, they are clearly the best team on that bracket. While fans complain and whine about the seedings, the committee has made this tournament much more interesting and fun to watch. Maybe Louisville was seeded so poorly, but seeding doesn’t even matter anymore, especially when the Cardinals are still considered the team to beat by many.
We all should know, by now, that you can’t please everyone, and you certainly can’t please everyone at this time of year. There’s nothing wrong with the committee ensuring that this tourney has a competitive balance. At least, that’s what I get from all of this.
From looking at my bracket, I like what I see. That’s a field of 68.