As the excitement ramps up to fever pace heading into the first round of action for the 2012 NCAA Tournament today, we inevitably have to jump into the discussion around our favorite picks for this year’s Big Dance, and highlight what we think the match-up advantages will be for teams pursuing the long and arduous road to New Orleans, Louisiana, which plays host to this year’s Final Four. If one thing is for certain, it’s that everyone has an opinion about the NCAA Tournament and how the brackets will play out, and arguably it’s almost just as likely for someone having no College Basketball intuition to have as much success picking tournament games as someone who’s studied and analyzed the game for decades. Just look at what happened in last year’s tournament for proof of that. That said, being basketball educated somewhere right in the middle of the range between a seasoned NCAA Basketball veteran analyst and a complete College Hoops noob that just got an email from a friend to join a bracket challenge (albeit I’ve also watched north of 500 games this season alone, which should count for something, right?), I’ll throw my hat into the ring of wannabe pickers who think they know just how this year’s tournament is going to play out. Without further adieu, these are my picks and thoughts about this year’s exciting NCAA Tournament, starting first and foremost with the South Region, where we find this year’s #1 overall tournament entry, the #1-ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
There’s little dispute that head coach John Calipari’s Wildcats (32-2) deserve the #1 overall seed based on their strength of schedule, their dominance of the SEC (16-0), and the impressive composure of an extremely talented but very young line-up. This is without any doubt one of the most well-balanced basketball teams in the nation this year despite their youth, led by 6’10″ Freshman Anthony Davis (14.3 points, 10 rebounds/game). Featuring three talented freshman, alongside Davis you will find Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (11.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Marquis Teague (9.4 ppg, 4.8 assists/game), who combined with sophomores Doron Lamb (13.2 ppg) and Terrence Jones (12.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg) to make for the most formidable starting five in the whole tournament. The big question looms however; how will these youngsters react to playing in their first tournament games, especially coming off a tough loss in the SEC final to heavy underdog Vanderbilt? The answer is, probably really well, taking into consideration their ability to shrug off bad performances, and their relatively good looking path towards the Final Four and possibly the national championship. Kentucky will draw the winner of the Western Kentucky vs. Mississippi Valley State game played out this evening, which will make for a nice prelude for the Wildcats to the tougher competition that will come knocking on their door. It’s most likely that they’ll see UConn in the Round of 32, who of course is last year’s tournament champion, but UConn doesn’t have the depth or the physicality to contend with the Wildcats bigger, more physical youngsters this year.
That sets up an interesting match-up for Kentucky in the Sweet 16, most likely coming out of the victor from a very exciting match-up between Indiana and Wichita State. Again, Kentucky has a big advantage over either of these two teams, by virtue of their size and depth, but this will likely be the first real test for the Wildcats, thus making for a great contest to pay attention to. On the bottom half of the bracket, Kentucky will eventually have to deal with a collection of contenders ranging from #2 seed Duke, always a threat in the tournament with the mind of head coach Mike Krzyzewski behind the Blue Devils, to #3 Baylor, a team that suffers from inconsistent play but one that is also chock full of talent, and #7 Notre Dame, who while not nearly as deep as Kentucky, could create problems via their stingy defensive play.
Though many of these threats to Kentucky’s run at a Final Four appearance could be valid, none of them, on paper or by schedule anyway, will stand in the way of the Wildcats reaching the Superdome on March 31st. Mark it Kentucky in the South Region Dude, they are in it to win it all and anything shy of cutting down the nets on April 1st will not properly suffice for UK Nation.
So with Kentucky as the favorite to reach the Final Four out of the South, we have to take a look at which other teams stand a good chance at becoming a Wildcats victim in this bracket, or at least which teams have the best chances to win given the match-ups they’ll likely be handed in the days to come. Despite whether or not certain teams advance, there are a number of intriguing match-ups in the South Region to make each round highly contested, and very watchable.
Mid-Major Match-up Well Worth Watching: #5 Wichita State vs. #12 Virginia Commonwealth
It’s really a shame these two teams have to meet up in the Round of 64, because otherwise both would arguably have a decent shot at an appearance in the Sweet 16 this year. By now you should be familiar with the VCU Rams, last year’s Cinderella story that reached the Final Four coming out of Colonial Conference obscurity. VCU head coach Shaka Smart is everything his last name implies, and knows how to get the best out of his teams despite having to deal with a very young roster of players. One big asset carried over from last year’s tournament run is sophomore Juvonte Reddic (10.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), who could make a big difference in the tough first round draw against a much more veteran team in the Wichita State Shockers. However, what turns me off of VCU this year, is despite their defensive prowess (the Rams allowed just 59.8 points/game this season), they haven’t been a very good shooting team at 41 percent from the floor as a team. In the face of a Wichita State team that shoots at a 48.5 percent field goal rate behind their big 7-foot senior center Garrett Stutz (13.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and the hot outside hand of Joe Ragland (13.4 ppg, %56.7 from the floor, %50 from beyond 3-pt range), VCU is going to have to have a dramatically improved offensive performance to keep pace with the Shockers wealth of offensive options. Wichita State has the physical stature, shooting proficiency and veteran leadership that could make for a good run, and at the least they’ll get by VCU in the first round.
The winner of the VCU vs. Wichita State match-up looks headed for a battle with the #4 seed Indiana Hoosiers, who would have been my pick to make a deeper run were it not for the fact that they’ll likely have to battle through Wichita State without their senior point man Verdell Jones III (7.5 ppg, 3.5 apg), and even if they do get past the Shockers, they’ll have to deal with Kentucky in the Sweet 16. I’m reluctant to think they even make it that far this year, as Wichita is going to give them a heck of a run in the round of 32 with their veteran lineup and equally impressive shooting form. However, this will be a great match-up of top outside shooting teams, and Indiana should have enough in them to pull through given the fact that they’ve overcome much bigger challenges during their tough regular season schedule, beating #1 Kentucky, then-#2 Ohio State, and then-#5 Michigan State to name a few.
Another first round match-up that should be highly contested is a tough draw for #7 Notre Dame against #10 Xavier, in what should be interesting considering that neither team has played that well away from their home court this season. Xavier, led by senior Tu Holloway (17.0 ppg, 5.1 apg) and Mark Lyons (15.5 ppg), is an intriguing pick here, if it weren’t for their documented struggles against their better opponents (they are 1-5 in their last 6 contests against teams currently in the NCAA Tournament). Notre Dame on the other hand played very well in the tough Big East this year, racking up a 13-5 conference record, but they enter this match-up losing 3 of their last 5 and could be in danger of being bumped out early if they allow Xavier to shoot well. That said, Notre Dame’s defensive prowess is enough to get them through the first round, but will run into trouble with #2 Duke in the second round and find themselves as an early tournament exit, left to wonder what this season could have been had it not been for Tim Abromaitis tearing his ACL in late November.
#8 Iowa State vs. #9 UConn is another tricky pick, especially because the Cyclones have shown their scrappy play down the stretch with wins over Kansas and Baylor down the stretch. Iowa State, led by Royce White (13.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg), wouldn’t be an upset pick by virtue of their higher seeding this year than the Huskies, but it would be an upset in the sense that last year’s tournament champion would be going home in the first round. UConn should step up here behind Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb, both of whom were a part of last year’s title team, and because of coach Jim Calhoun’s legacy of getting great play out of his boys come tournament time, but my gut says they’ll get past Iowa State especially after having seen them play a much better game in the close 58-55 loss to Syracuse in the conference tournament last week.
#2 Duke Will Face #3 Baylor in the Sweet 16.
This should be a good match-up between two teams that have a range of offensive talent, but have both been exposed for their defensive struggles this season. Duke on the one hand has been able to get past most of its competition with great outside shooting and an ability to simply outscore its opponents, but has lots of troubles defending inside against bigger, quicker opponents (such as was the case in their 18-point home loss to North Carolina on the last day of the season). Austin Rivers however could be the clutch performer that defines Duke’s run through the South region, and will lead them past #15 Lehigh, and also #7 Notre Dame. However, they are going to see a lot better pressure from #3 Baylor around the bucket especially, as the Bears’ Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy have the talent to keep Duke’s Plumlee brothers (Mason and Miles) and Ryan Kelly in check with more physical play. That inside presence should be enough to get Baylor past #14 South Dakota in the first round and #6 UNLV (my pick over Colorado) in the second round and into this match-up in the first place. However, the perimeter game will be where the eventual (and hopeful) match-up with Duke is won or lost. Baylor has seen good outside play from Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip, both of whom are talented three-point shooters that can defend well against Duke’s Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, but their 2-3 zone could be tested by the Blue Devils’ ability to move the ball around and find open looks outside the perimeter. If Baylor can control the pace against Duke, and get their outside shooters to have a good night against a susceptible Duke perimeter defense, the Bears will come face to face with Kentucky in the Elite 8. While I’m always a fan of a classic match-up between two powerhouses like Duke and UK, I think Baylor finds a way to stay hot enough to move past Duke this year, who has been known to fall out of the brackets early on in recent tournament play.
So there you have it for the South Region. There’s plenty of intriguing match-ups to follow, and a number of possible upsets to be made, and although I’m being awfully boring in the fact that I’m going hand-in-hand with most analysts’ predictions that Kentucky emerges as the Final Four entrant out of the South, the truth of the matter is that they’re simply the team to beat, and neither Duke, nor Baylor, nor Indiana has the skill set to take them down. Stay tuned for more predictions on the West Region NCAA Tournament Bracket to come, and remember that when checking out the online sports betting options for all these games coming down the pipe in the days and weeks to come, make sure to visit one of the best online sportsbooks reviewed here for the most secure, most thoroughly tested sportsbooks found anywhere.