Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The healed toe effect: Blue Devils to win national championship

ON BASKETBALL

One toe, ultimately, will decide a national championship.

So what's new on Tobacco Road?

In my mind, just how healthy Kyrie Irving is -- and how quickly he can return to pre-toe injury form -- will determine whether the Blue Devils cut down the nets in Houston, completing Mike Krzyzewski's second back-to-back titles run.

If Irving doesn't regain his game, this tournament is wide open. Ohio State is probably the most well-rounded team. But the Buckeyes could lose as early as the Sweet 16 against an uber-talented Kentucky team. Kansas is the deepest team, but Louisville -- a potential round of 16 matchup -- is as dangerous as anyone.

It's just hard to know. Impossible, really. That's the beauty of this tournament.

But, ultimately, I'm expecting a healthy, productive Irving -- just like Ty Lawson for the Tar Heels two seasons ago -- and, thus, another national title for the Blue Devils (and the third in a row for North Carolina's Triangle).

Here are the picks:

EAST

First Round
1 Ohio State def. 16 UT-SA-Alabama State: Um, yeah, I feel safe making this pick before the "First Four" game tonight.
8 George Mason def. 9 Villanova: Name a team in the tournament that's looked worse than 'Nova recently...
12 Clemson def. 5 West Virginia: Tigers have been playing extremely well coming in and give Mounties issues with their size.
4 Kentucky def. 13 Princeton: This Princeton team doesn't even play slow-it-down Princeton basketball. Wildcats a little more used to running.
6 Xavier def. 11 Marquette: Musketeers always find a way to win a few tournament games. This time, it's Tu's turn.
3 Syracuse def. 14 Indiana State: Larry Bird isn't walking through those doors...
7 Washington def. 10 Georgia: Huskies are one of country's most bipolar teams. I'm thinking the scary-good one shows up for this.
2 North Carolina def. 15 Long Island: LIU bring the nation's longest winning streak into this one. UNC is a bit of a step up from the Northeast, however.

Second Round
1 Ohio State def. 8 George Mason: No miracle this time for the Patriots. Sullinger dominates down low and home crowd helps Buckeyes pull away.
4 Kentucky def. 12 Clemson: Wildcats win the battle of tempo, wearing out the three-games-in-five-days Tigers.
3 Syracuse def. 6 Xavier: Orange's big guards give Tu fits, and Musketeers have nowhere else to turn.
2 North Carolina def. 7 Washington: Huskies might be capable of this upset if it were in Seattle, not Charlotte.

Regional Semifinals
1 Ohio State def. 4 Kentucky: Buckeyes bend but don't break, getting big 3s from veterans Diebler and Buford.
2 North Carolina def. 3 Syracuse: In racehorse game, UNC's Mr. Clutch freshman Harrison Barnes does it again.

Regional Final
1 Ohio State def. 2 North Carolina: Buckeyes are too solid for inexperienced Heels. Aaron Craft gives Kendall Marshall all kinds of fits and OSU's wings dominate UNC's.

WEST

First Round
1 Duke def. 16 Hampton: My only interest in this game: How much will that Kyrie guy play?
8 Michigan def. 9 Tennessee: One team is playing its best basketball of the season. The other is playing its worst.
5 Arizona def. 12 Memphis: Derrick Williams is the least-talked-about All-American candidate in the country. Tigers have no one to match him.
4 Texas def. 13 Oakland: The Grizzlies are scary (just like the bear) and are used to playing high majors. But they won't have an answer for Texas swingman Jordan Hamilton in this one.
11 Missouri def. 6 Cincinnati: Tough call here because the Tigers have been horrible lately, but it's just a feeling. Their hectic style will fluster the Bearcats.
3 Connecticut def. 14 Bucknell: Hard to pick against Kemba, although I'm tempted to go with giant killer Bucknell (remember, Kansas?).
10 Penn State def. 7 Temple: DO NOT WATCH THIS GAME IF YOU LIKE POINTS. Why PSU? The Lions are excited to be in the tournament; the Owls are a bad tournament team.
2 San Diego State def. 15 Northern Colorado: Congrats to Northern Colorado for making its first Big Dance. It will end quickly.

Second Round
1 Duke def. 8 Michigan: Bring back the rivalry of the early '90s!! These Wolverines are tough and have played their share of top teams (OSU three times, Kansas), but beating Duke in Charlotte? No chance.
4 Texas def. 5 Arizona: Plenty of talent on the court, but Longhorns' depth will be the difference.
3 Connecticut def. 11 Missouri: Rematch of '09 regional final game. Same result. Kemba factor. Mizzou has no one close to him in talent.
2 San Diego State def. 10 Penn State: Another low-scoring affair; against Aztecs' stingy 'D', Nittany Lions will struggle to hit 50.

Regional semifinals
1 Duke def. 4 Texas: The potential guards matchup: Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph vs. Nolan Smith and Kyrie. Mismatch!
2 San Diego State def. 3 Connecticut: Aztecs are getting tired of taking on national player of the year candidates. Jimmer, now Kemba? They shut him down and move on.

Regional final
1 Duke def. 2 San Diego State: This will be a great game in Anaheim -- huge homecourt advantage for SDSU -- and it's tempting to pick the Aztecs. But the combination of Smith and Irving will be too much to overcome for D.J. Gay and company.

SOUTHWEST

First Round
1 Kansas def. 16 Boston U: The 'U' has a great study abroad program. I went through it to visit Australia and enjoyed my time there. ... Their hoops program? Not so strong.
8 UNLV def. 9 Illinois: The Illini have shown no interest, really, in pulling out games lately. The Rebels are battled-tested after a handful of games against BYU and SDSU.
12 Richmond def. 5 Vanderbilt: An annual rite of mine? Choosing Vandy to lose in the 12-5 game. The 3-point shooting Spiders will take 'em down just like Murray State did a year ago.
4 Louisville def. 13 Morehead State: Player to watch -- Kenneth Faried, the nation's ALL-TIME leading rebounder. He plays for Morehead. If only he had more of a team around him.
6 Georgetown def. 11 VCU/USC: I don't really care whom they play. If Chris Wright plays like he's capable of, this Hoyas team is as good as any Big East squad.
3 Purdue def. 14 St. Peters: The Peacocks -- great name! -- scored 30 points in their season opener and then improved. I expect the parabola to be completed against the defensively strong Boilers.
10 Florida State def. 7 Texas A&M: Another "this guy is back and will make the difference" situation. In this case, Chris Singleton pushes the Seminoles into the second round.
2 Notre Dame def. 15 Akron: The Zips are a tough, fighting outfit (see the end of the MAC title game). Speaking of toughness, only one team has a Hansbrough...

Second Round
1 Kansas def. 8 UNLV: There's plenty of talent in the Mountain West, but nothing like the Morris twins.
4 Louisville def. 12 Richmond: Cardinals' four-guard lineup will give Spiders fits on the perimeter, disrupting their long-range shooting.
3 Purdue def. 6 Georgetown: Hoyas have no answer for JaJuan Johnson. None.
2 Notre Dame def. 10 Florida State: Defensive Seminoles will be able to muck this one up, but Fighting Irish are quite used to such games. They won a few games in the Big East, ya know?

Regional semifinals
1 Kansas def. 4 Louisville: Jayhawks have the ballhandlers to deal with Louisville's pressure. Cardinals don't have the answer for Jayhawks' big-time boarders.
2 Notre Dame def. 3 Purdue: How 'bout that? A pair of strong NCAA teams dominated by seniors. Irish's five-senior starting lineup will outdo Johnson and E'Twaun Moore.

Regional final
1 Kansas def. 2 Notre Dame: Kansas will keep throwing more and more speed and athleticism at the Fighting Irish, who will inevitably be worn down by  40 minutes of playing against fresh bodies. And the 3-pointers will start to fall short.

SOUTHEAST

First Round
1 Pittsburgh def. 16 UNC-Ashville: I thought the Bulldogs showed a lot of heart in their "First Four" win last night. They'll need a little more than heart against the Panthers.
9 Old Dominion def. 8 Butler: Gosh, I HATE the selection committee. "Why don't we put the scariest two mid-majors against each other in the first round??" Grr... This year is ODU's turn (see: second round).
5 Kansas State def. 12 Utah State: Anyone remember that K-State was ranked in the preseason Top 5? Recently, the Wildcats have been playing like that.
13 Belmont def. 4 Wisconsin: I was here in D.C. three years ago when the Bruins came within a point of knocking off second-seeded Duke. Taking down the 33-point Badgers won't be as difficult.
11 Gonzaga def. 6 St. John's: INJURY ALERT! The Red Storm are still dangerous, of course, but losing leading rebounder D.J. Kennedy to a torn ACL hurts. The 'Zags are due for a tournament run.
3 BYU def. 14 Wofford: One of those tempting upset games, but I think Jimmer might be able to take Wofford all by himself.
10 Michigan State def. 7 UCLA: This will be an ugly, defensive game between two established programs. Only one team has Kalin Lucas, however.
2 Florida def. 15 UC Santa Barbara: In Tampa, the Gators are playing 135 miles away from home; the Gauchos? 2,496 miles. Jet lag, anyone?

Second Round
9 Old Dominion def. 1 Pittsburgh: My big upset of the opening weekend. Nobody in the nation hits the offensive boards harder than the Monarchs, who won't be intimidated. Pitt always seems a bit tight come tourney time.
5 Kansas State def. 13 Belmont: Jordan Henriquez-Roberts (name drop!) is a 7-footer who's been giving good minutes off the Wildcats' bench. Look for him to dominate the boards against Belmont's small lineup.
3 BYU def. 11 Gonzaga: In the Battle of the West, I'm going with Jimmer's crew. Why? Because of Jimmer, obviously. I have no other reason.
2 Florida def. 10 Michigan State: Playing in Tampa with a senior-dominated lineup, the Gators outlast the inconsistent Spartans.

Regional semifinals
5 Kansas State def. 9 Old Dominion: Remember the last time Jacob Pullen and "The Beard" played in the Sweet 16? Look it up. I expect a repeat performance.
2 Florida def. 3 BYU: Jimmer's magic runs out against the balanced Gators, who, coincidentally, like to shoot 3s from Jimmer range but also have more of an inside presence than Brandon Davies-devoid BYU and rebound very well.

Regional final
2 Florida def. 5 Kansas State: The Gators already beat the Wildcats this season. Of course, that was in December and means nothing. In a close game, however, Florida's chemistry and confidence will shine through.

FINAL FOUR
1 Duke def. 1 Ohio State: This will be one heck of a game. The Blue Devils' bigs will be able to contain Jared Sullinger with their length. The teams' 3-point shooting will even out. The difference? Smith and Irving's ability to penetrate and make plays late in the game.

1 Kansas def. 2 Florida: It was a good run for the Gators, but they'll be overwhelmed by Kansas' depth. Florida can rebound with Kansas, but its scoring guards will be hassled by fresh Jayhawks guards all game long. Jayhawks bench players Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson will be the difference.

CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
1 Duke def. 1 Kansas: It's been exactly 20  years since these powerhouses met in the Final Four during the Christian Laettner era, and the result will be the same. It will be an entertaining game full of playmaking. The Jayhawks have a huge advantage down low with the Morris twins. But if Duke's role players perform anywhere close to the level that they played at in the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils will come out on top with seniors Smith and Singler plus that Kyrie guy -- and his toe -- leading the way.

The Big Dance is already underway. And it's wide open. Enjoy the madness, sports fans.

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