Posted on 14 March 2011.
The field is set, and the match-ups are penciled in. Millions of people have already filled out their brackets, and the analysts have done their due diligence in preparation for what is widely considered the greatest three weeks in all of sports.
Yes, it’s March Madness.
Two days before the insanity commences, here is my preview of what I consider to be the most intriguing matchups of the first and “second” rounds. This is not to say these are going to be closest games, but they really stood out to me when I first saw the bracket. I shall begin with my team, the Michigan Wolverines.
(8) Michigan Wolverines vs. (9) Tennessee
Like most other basketball fans, I was surprised with many seedings in this field, and my school was no exception. I expected an 11, or a 10 if we were lucky. But instead we got an 8 and a match-up with a team that plays a far different style of basketball than any team in the Big Ten. I generally associate the Big Ten with smash mouth, physical basketball where teams run off 30 seconds of the shot clock before considering putting up a shot. Enter Tennessee. The up-and-down, chaotic style that the Volunteers play is something that Michigan has not seen since December, and it will pose a big challenge to the young Wolverines. Tennessee is very aggressive on defense and will feed the post at the offensive end, while Michigan shoots a ton of three-pointers and packs in their defense to make up for a lack of size inside. I expect a lopsided game, with one team really outplaying the other… I just don’t know which way it will go. I’m hoping my Wolverines watched the Fab Five documentary and come out inspired and firing on all cylinders.
(4) Wisconsin vs. (13) Belmont
Staying in the Big Ten, I turn my attention to Wisconsin, which scored 33 points against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. Jimmer Fredette scored than many in the first HALF of a conference tournament game that same day. Their opponents are maybe the best-kept secret in the NCAA – the Belmont Bruins, who sit as a 13-seed despite notching 30 victories this season. They haven’t beaten any major basketball team, but they do rank 11th in the nation in scoring despite having nobody on their roster who scores more than 12 points per game. The Badgers, meanwhile, are nearly 200th nationally in scoring, but play stingy defense and wind down the clock on nearly every possession. Keep in mind that Wisconsin has a bad track record when it comes to the NCAA Tournament – remember Cornell last year and Xavier the year before. This is one upset that I am picking, and I’m fairly confident that the Bruins out of the Atlantic Sun will come away with a victory.
(6) St. John’s vs. (11) Gonzaga
Another intriguing match-up of very different programs, the Red Storm return to the NCAA tournament after several years of mediocrity, while the Bulldogs are the definition of consistency. This may be one of the most thrilling first round games of the tournament, and I can only hope Gus Johnson has the call. Robert Sacre is the X-factor for the Zags, as he should be able to score at will against St. John’s slew of smaller big men. Justin Burrell may be strong inside, but Sacre should be able to limit his production. And without DJ Kennedy, the Red Storm are going to be without who I consider to be their most important player – despite playing multiple positions, he still led their team in rebounds this season. The WCC champions are much more experienced and have been on this stage many times before, while the new and improved St. John’s are going to have to learn to win outside the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden. The Big East squad’s athleticism will keep them in this until the end, but I think Gonzaga will escape in the final moments.
(7) Washington vs. (10) Georgia
Last year I felt smart because I picked Washington to make the Sweet 16 and they did just that. This year, I strongly considered doing the same, but Georgia is a team that will not go down without a fight, similar to Marquette last year. The Bulldogs are very skilled, with two future NBA players in Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie. Most people know about Thompkins, who is a dynamite basketball player and has been credited with a lot of UGA’s success. But Leslie, at just 6-4, pulls down over seven rebounds per game. Nevermind the fact that he plays more like a forward and doesn’t rack up the assists or three-pointers – Thompkins and Gerald Robinson do a lot of that stuff. And when up against the small Washington guards, Leslie should be able to pull down a lot of boards, especially on the offensive end. But Isaiah Thomas is a special player at point guard, and Matthew Bryan-Amaning will work tough on Thompkins. I expect this game to go down to the wire just like every other 7-10 matchup, and I also expect the star power of Thomas and Thompkins to shine late in the game.
(4) Texas vs. (13) Oakland
Another 4-13 game which has upset written all over it, this game is going to be a high-scoring affair with a lot of highlights. If Oakland does not pull of the upset, then Texas has grown up a lot in the past few days, because this Longhorn team is young and inconsistent. The Longhorns have had a rough few weeks, and after making a nice little run in the Big 12 Tournament, they finally hit the wall against Kansas. Oakland, however, has lost one game since December 23 (a big loss at Ohio State). Keith Benson and Tristan Thompson will battle down low, while Jordan Hamilton will square off with Reggie Hamilton on the perimeter. While I firmly believe Jordan Hamilton will have his way with Reggie, I also think the freshman Thompson will have a lot of trouble with Benson. All season I have said that Texas will be susceptible to upsets, and this is no different. Oakland is used to playing tough competition, and this will be essentially a road game for the Golden Grizzlies, but I think Greg Kampe will have his guys ready for everything Rick Barnes throws at them.
That about sums up my first round preview. Hopefully I will get another preview before the second round begins on Saturday. For now, good luck to everybody and may this tournament be filled with fun and exciting moments… and lots of Gus Johnson madness.