First, a quick congratulations to Japan for successfully defending their WBC title. Good event, even if the basketball kinda took my attention away from the later rounds. Baseball is clearly growing as a global sport. I promise not to let anything other than work do that for hockey at the 2010 Olympics or the World Cup that summer! Also, Ken Davidoff’s idea of the Tokyo Dome hosting the next WBC final is a good one. Doing it in March would be an issue given the long flights so close to the start of a new MLB season, not to mention time zone differences which would hurt TV viewership in North America and the Caribbean. Maybe sometime in the not-too-distant future though…
Okay, time for picks, courtesy of my top-9%/34,790th place facebook bracket.
Midwest: Louisville over Arizona (I had Wake getting this far…) and Michigan State to beat Kansas (I expected the Spartans to play West Virginia but Dayton knocked the Mountaineers out in the first round). Louisville will win the regional final.
West: I nailed the four teams to make it to Phoenix. UConn will beat Purdue while Memphis takes out Missouri. Only Marquette’s win over Utah State denied me a perfect first two rounds in this region. I picked Memphis to beat UConn but I’m not so sure about it after seeing the Huskies dismantle UT-Chattanooga and Texas A&M. Memphis played well against Maryland too, but I think Connecticut may be peaking again at just the right time. Final prediction once I see the regional semis, but for now I will stick with my bracket and say Memphis pulls it out. Both teams are as complete as you can get.
East: I expect Pittsburgh to beat Xavier (I predicted Florida State would be the Panthers’ opponent, but Xavier won a pretty good second-round game with the Seminoles). It will be an all-Big East affair as Villanova beats Duke to get to the regional final (I thought Texas would beat Duke with their interior game… oops). Another great regional final, and while a Villanova win wouldn’t shock me because of their workmanlike attitude (mixed with Scottie Reynolds and co.’s pretty good talent), I do think Pittsburgh is better with their core of Levance Fields, Sam Young, and DeJuan Blair, so they will prevail.
South: Again, I correctly picked the four teams who would make the regional semis down in Memphis. As that city’s legend would say, Thank you, thank you very much. Okay, moving on from the predictable joke, North Carolina should beat Gonzaga. Good game because Josh Heytvelt of Gonzaga is a strong inside player to deal with Tyler Hansbrough, but unless UNC switches off its intensity or Ty Lawson’s toe injury flares up again (he expects to play), they simply have too many options for the ‘Zags to counter all of them. Meanwhile, Syracuse vs. Oklahoma might be the game of the round (so fittingly, we come to it last!). Not quite a head-to-head matchup between Blake Griffin and Jonny Flynn because they play different positions, but two teams playing really well right now. I picked Syracuse in my bracket because of lingering momentum from the Big East tournament and the favorable draw they got for the first two rounds (which didn’t tax them too much). But Griffin continues to play at a high level, and Syracuse’s multitude of big men might not stop be able to stop him even if they were all on the court at one time. So it will probably come down to how well both teams’ guards play. Flynn and Eric Devendorf have played inspired basketball throughout the Orange’s run, and I’ll stick with them to pull it out again. Not so in the regional final, however. UNC knows neither Syracuse nor Oklahoma would be an easy opponent, but this is what they’ve been thinking about all year. A chance to get to another Final Four, avenge last year’s ugly performance against Kansas (which was over before halftime), and send Hansbrough and the other potential NBA-picks out in style. They might fall short of the title next weekend, but I do think they’ll at least get there.