Monday, March 15, 2010

You heard it here first, The Monk's annual NCAA predictions

This is the easiest NCAA Tournament to pick that I've ever seen. One team will win all six of its games by at least 15 points, probably 25+. That team: Connecticut. Go out and bet it in all your brackets.

Except for the one problem you have: no one runs a women's hoops bracket. So yes, there will be a repeat champion in 2010 from 2009 -- as Geno Auriemma's women storm to another victory, undefeated season, and his seventh championship. And to think, he once was an assistant to Virginia's Deb Ryan . . .

Anyway, let me burnish my credentials once again. Last year wasn't my best, but I picked UNC to win the whole thing, told Seth Davis he was a fool for putting Wake in the Final Four (lost to a #13 seed by 15 in the first round), and pumped the analysis for determining Final Four teams. I also hit 5 of the eight Elite Eight teams. In '08, I picked 3 of the Final Four; in '07, I picked the whole Final Four; and in '04 and '05 I picked three of the Final Four. We don't discuss 2006.

These are the top Final Four contenders: Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse, Kansas State, Ohio State, BYU, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Duke. Based on the Ken Pomeroy analysis, Duke is the best of the bunch because it is the most efficient offensive team in the country and #4 in defensive efficiency. Kansas is #2 and #5. In 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009, all four Final Four teams were ranked in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency -- points per possession for versus points per possession against. Of those 20 teams, only last year's Villanova team didn't rank in the top 10 in one of those two categories. I'm discarding 2006 because it's a freak year, but national champ Florida had the same rankings as this year's Kansas team. By Pomeroy's rankings, the best bets to make the Final Four are Duke and Kansas, and the best choices in their respective regions are Wisconsin (East) and Syracuse (West) because Wisco has a defensive efficiency in the top 10, and its rankings (Offense #13, Defense #7) are higher than Kentucky's (18, 10) and Syracuse has a top 10 offense to complement its #20 defense.

Before picking a Final Four, we need to shape the brackets. I don't have a Final Four yet (I will later this week). This year, even though there are really only about five or six teams that can win the whole thing, there are a lot who can win 1-3 games and a number of potential rematches from last year that may have opposite results. Some scouting.


This is easy. It should be the Duke Invitational. If Coach K cannot get his team to the Final Four from this sorry bracket, the team is either completely talent deficient or stunningly inept. The #4 seed (Purdue) lost its best player and was THUMPED 69-42 by 13-loss Minnesota and scored 11 points in the first half of that debacle. Ultimately, basketball is about who can score more points, not who defends better, because it is impossible to have a shutout in a game between two college teams. Purdue can't score, Purdue can't win.

In the other half of the bracket, the #3 team (Baylor) is an overachiever. The #2 seed (Villanova) is overseeded, slumping, and defensively challenged (#62 in Kenpom ratings). The best chances for NOTduke to win are Louisville in a second-round upset after it dispatches Cal, or Texas A&M to win in the Sweet 16 before a near-home crowd in Houston. If Villanova and Duke rematch their Sweet 16 clash from 2009, I'd be shocked if the '10 Dookies take a 23-point beating from the Wildcats again.

Possible upsets: Richmond over Villanova, Siena over Purdue, Utah State winning the Aggie Bowl against Texas A&M because those 5-12 matchups are tossups (last year the #12 seeds won three of the four). Siena is a trendy pick because the Saints only lost to overall #1 seed Louisville by 7 in the second round last year, but beware lower seed trend picks. Siena was a #9 in '09; it's a #13 this year.


Kentucky has a tough #2 seed in its region and a tough #4. West Virginia is the Big East Tournament champ and beat every good team in the Big East except Syracuse. Wisconsin is the ACC champ . . . or could be -- it beat both ACC regular season co-champions, Duke and Maryland. Then again, Wisconsin lost to 14-loss Illinois twice. Big T(elev)en teams with good athletes often play above their seedings in the NCAA Tournament because their opponents are unaccustomed to the brutal physical play that Big T(elev)en teams use, but the midwestern barbarians can match up with their opponents' athleticism. This is The Monk's theory for how Wisconsin ('00), Indiana ('02), and Michigan State ('05, '09) won surprise Final Four spots in the past decade. But I'm not sure Wisco can run with the 5-star talent Calipari has at Kentucky.

The Monk thinks Kentucky's path to the Sweet 16 is the easiest of the #1 seeds because #8 Texas and #9 Wake both have talent without discipline or chemistry. A second round beating should be in order. The question is whether the Temple/Wisco winner can hold UK down.

The bottom of the bracket should be the West Virginia invitational. Clemson and Missouri could give WVU trouble because they play tough defense, but neither is particularly good on offense.

As for the early round games, don't be surprised if Washington drops Marquette. That should be the biggest possible upset.


This is supposedly the most difficult region because it has the second-best #2 seed (Big Ten champ Ohio State), an immensely talented #3 seed (Georgetown, which resided in the top 10 for much of the season), and both the ACC and Big T(elev)en regular season co-champs, Maryland and Michigan State. Supposedly, this is unfair to overall #1 seed KU. But KU only has to go through two of those teams to win the region, and shouldn't have trouble during the first weekend. Maryland is a team that has been carried primarily by Greivis Vazquez all year, and should not beat Michigan State. The Spartans are the quintessential Big T(elev)en chameleon -- they can pound a team into submission or run it off the court, just as they did last year against Louisville and UConn in consecutive games in the 2009 Tourney. But without Kalin Lucas at 100%, Sparty is very ordinary. Neither team has enough players to challenge KU. A Sweet 16 rematch of MSU-KU would reverse last season's MSU victory.

The bottom of that bracket will be decided by which Georgetown team shows up -- the one that shot 69% against Syracuse in the second half last Thursday and roasted Marquette by 23 and dumped Duke by 14 and hung 103 on Villanova, or the one that went to the Carrier Dome and got whacked by 17 after taking a 14-point lead, lost to So. Florida at home, and Rutgers. The Hoyas have a loaded lineup that could win the region, or at least get the honor of losing to Kansas in the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, Thad Motta's Ohio State team is another fake Big T(elev)en team -- too much athletic ability for that conference, much less Ivan Drago style. Ohio State can win this region -- it has the best player (Evan Turner) and that counts for a lot.

I think the first round games should essentially follow form based on seeding, with a possible bonk by Tennessee as the lone upset.


Dick Vitale said that even though Syracuse is getting shipped West and was seeded behind Duke for the Tournament (why? was it Duke's impressive 14-point beating from Georgetown, its narrow ACC Tourney wins over three teams that couldn't crack the top half of the Big East, or its shellacking of lost and addled North Carolina? The Monk does not recall a Duke win as good as SU's in Morgantown and DC), Coach Boeheim should not be displeased with the draw. Yes and no.

SU got the toughest #16 seed. Yeah, I know. But all three other possible #16 seeds and most of the #15 seeds are ranked lower than Vermont and don't have the very decent talent Vermont has. And SU also drew the toughest 8/9 matchup winner -- underseeded Gonzaga or Florida State (the best defensive team in the country). But if SU thinks it is better than Duke, it needs to beat both the #16 seed and either a Gonzaga team that Duke whomped by 35! or the offensively inept Seminoles (#119) who share the inept offense/stout defense profilesimilar to SU's first-round opponent in 2009, Stephen F. Austin.

The big question is whether Arinze Onuaku will be available to SU -- if his injury is like Ty Lawson's toe or Blake Griffin's concussion in 2009 or Austin Freeman's (treated) diabetes this year (e.g., all nonfactors), then SU is the best team in the region and can go to the Final Four despite bonking in the Big East quarterfinals. If AO is unable to play on Sunday (assuming SU doesn't become the first-ever #1 seed to bonk to a #16), SU could be the first #1 seed to lose in the second round since Kentucky and Stanford did in 2004. The best sign for the Orange: Big East Player of the Year Wes Johnson went 10-17 in the loss to Georgetown last week -- his first game with better than 50% shooting since he injured his hand on February 2.

The Sweet 16 opponent for Syracuse, if it survives the weekend, is difficult to predict. Any of Butler, UTEP, Vandy, Murray St. can win two games. None of them should be able to beat Syracuse if it gets that far (although Vandy's shooting could turn that game in its favor).

The K-State side of the bracket has a pile of unknowns: can Pitt regain its early January form? can Xavier continue its 2010 success (16-4) or will it revert to its early season struggles? Is BYU really the most egregiously underseeded team in the Tourney? BYU or KState should be the Final Eight representative from that side of the bracket. And again, a 2009 rematch should have a reverse result -- if Xavier plays Pitt, the Muskies should avenge their Sweet 16 defeat last year.

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