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March Madness Kicks Off Thursday

Pheiffer Offers Look At NCAA Brackets

By Rory Pheiffer

March Madness is upon us yet again. It just seems like not too long ago that the Duke Blue Devils were cutting down the nets, celebrating their first NCAA championship in 10 years. Can they do it again? They’ve been the odds-on favorite for most of the season, but with the twists and turns over the course of the season and in last week’s conference tournaments, naming a clear-cut favorite isn’t easy.

One thing that is easy to do is to fill out a bracket. It’s fun and a good diversion from course work heading into spring break. Here’s a quick breakdown of this year’s tournament to help you fill out your brackets.

Maryland leads East Region

Out of the four regions, the East definitely has the best chance to end up being a bloodbath for anybody’s bracket sheet -- there are many upsets just waiting to happen.

But first, the top teams. The number one seed, Maryland, has recently been playing some of the best basketball in the country, but they won 13 games straight before being tripped up by North Carolina State in the ACC semifinals. This might just have a humbling effect on the team, so Maryland should win their first round game easily.

Other easy winners in this bracket for the first round should include Connecticut, Georgia, Texas Tech and Wisconsin.

The other match-ups in this bracket all should be very interesting. Kentucky, a four seed after a rough season finish, faces the Mid-Continent conference champion Valparaiso in round one. You might remember Valpo’s 1998 run to the Sweet Sixteen -- the Crusaders still have a lot of shooters on their team, as well as experience with three seniors and a junior starting. The Wildcats have been facing so many problems off the court the past few weeks that all it takes is a hot shooting night and Valpo could easily stick it to the Wildcats. With that said, I think Tubby Smith can rally his team to battle out a close one against Valpo.

The winner faces the winner of Marquette and Tulsa. Marquette played solid all season, finishing up at 26-6. Tulsa, which also finished with the same record, lost three times to Hawaii this season, and played tough on the road against Kansas. If this team can work together to shut down Dwayne Wade, they stand a very good chance of toppling Marquette. I think they’ll shut him down and advance to the second round.

Another intriguing first round match-up is seventh seeded North Carolina State facing red-hot Michigan State. The Spartans are not nearly as talented as in past years, but sophomore Marcus Taylor led them to win five of their last six when they were in a must-win situation to qualify for the tournament. However, N.C. State is one of the most overlooked teams in the tournament. N.C. State has a talented and experienced backcourt, and they proved they could play with anybody this past weekend by upending Maryland 86-82. Look for that experience to shine through as they edge the younger Spartans.

The real bracket-busting could very well happen in round two. Wisconsin may slow down Maryland a bit, but the Terps are just too dominant to be upset by the Badgers. Moving down the bracket, if you go with Marquette in the first round, I like them to beat either Kentucky or Valpo in second round. Take Tulsa, and I think Kentucky will prevail into the Sweet Sixteen. Finally, in a Tulsa-Valpo match-up, I take the Golden Hurricanes, as they are much more tournament-prepared than Valpo, which plays a large role in second round match-ups.

In the bottom half of the bracket, I like Texas Tech, coached by tournament-tough Bobby Knight, to upset Georgia. Although he has not led a team to the Sweet Sixteen in his last six tournament appearances, look for Knight to continue to defy the critics as he has all season. Texas Tech has proven they are for real, finishing 10-6 in the very tough Big 12 conference. Georgia has been playing uninspired basketball as of late, including recent losses to Auburn, Tennessee, and Louisiana State. Even more surprising will be my pick for the Red Raiders of Texas Tech’s opponent, the North Carolina State Wolfpack. Experienced backcourts often prove very important come tournament time, and N.C. State has just that. I look for the Wolfpack to continue shooting the ball well and to upset the Huskies, who will probably be looking further down the road to a potential match-up against another ACC team, Maryland.

To wrap-up this region, I expect Maryland to beat whoever emerges as their opponent. In a match-up between N.C. State and Texas Tech, I like Bobby Knight’s chances against the Wolfpack. Taking N.C. State to the Elite Eight is a very risky maneuver, as is the case with any streaky shooting team. The Wolfpack could very well lose in the first round, and are no sure thing against Connecticut, so if you are taking them to the Sweet Sixteen, it is probably best to hedge your bet on them there.

I’ll take Maryland advancing to the Final Four. Maryland is clearly the best team in this region, and I fully expect them to come out much unscathed from the East. Opponents that might give them trouble (Kentucky, Connecticut, and Georgia) will be hard-pressed to get the opportunity to face Maryland, let alone beat them.

Kansas should be tops in Midwest

Up until Sunday afternoon’s loss to Oklahoma, everybody was talking about how unstoppable Kansas was. They went undefeated in the Big 12, something no team has ever done before. Look for them to obliterate Holy Cross in the opening round. Other games that should go smoothly for teams in the East include Oregon, Mississippi State, Illinois, and Florida. Illinois has been playing better as of late, but not nearly as well as they were expected to at the beginning of the year. Most of the season Illinois has seemed to struggle with motivation, but if you cannot get motivated for March Madness, maybe you should not even be in the tournament. They should be able to beat San Diego State to open the tourney.

Florida is similar to Illinois; much was expected of the Gators, but they have not lived up the hype. Florida is cold right now, but they certainly have the talent to make a deep run in the tournament. Boston College, which slid in the tournament with an eleven seed, has a tough first-round opponent in Texas. To make matters worse, the game is being played in Dallas. The good news for the Eagles is that the Longhorns have not been playing very well lately. I think that the more experienced and talented BC backcourt will step it up for the tournament and knock off Texas.

Everybody seems to like Pepperdine for an upset pick over Wake Forest, but I am not so sure. Pepperdine has indeed been impressive, including big road wins over UCLA and USC, but Wake Forest has played one of the toughest schedules in the country. They lost to Duke three times, Maryland twice (once by one point), Cincinnati once (by nine), and Kansas once (by seven). Wake Forest should hold seed this year, battling out a tenacious Pepperdine team.

The best first round match-up is definitely Stanford and Western Kentucky. Everybody knew the Hilltoppers were dangerous since their first game of the season, when they surprised Kentucky 64-52. Western Kentucky has compiled a 28-3 record, including reeling off 18 straight heading into the tournament. I like Stanford to win in a tight one.

Things do not get any easier for the Cardinals in the second round, where they face Kansas. I don’t think Kansas is going to look forward to meeting either Stanford or Western Kentucky. However, I think neither of those teams will be able to recover in time to hang with the Jayhawks. Roy Williams’ club should advance to the Sweet Sixteen without too much difficulty. I would rider the hotter team into the Sweet Sixteen, so place your bets on Illinois to face Kansas in Madison, Wisconsin.

On the other side of the bracket I have hometown Boston College as my upset special. Look for the Eagles to knock out an inconsistent Mississippi State team that peaked too early by winning the SEC tournament. The Bulldogs have been hot lately, and have lots of talent, but last year I picked against the hometown favorites and did so correctly and this year I feel like that BC is primed to make a small run in the tournament. In the other second round game I look for Oregon to be too much for either Wake Forest or Pepperdine, as the Ducks advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1960.

In the Sweet Sixteen look for both Kansas and Oregon to win without too many problems. Oregon will run through the Eagles and Kansas has too many weapons for Illinois to stop. This should set-up perhaps the best Elite Eight match-up, Kansas versus Oregon. Both teams won their regular season conference championships but failed to win their respective tournaments. In the end, I like Kansas slowing down the Ducks enough to win by about ten or so. Kansas has so many tools and are capable of playing any style of basketball. Williams’ is a great head coach and should develop a plan that will mitigate the Oregon fast break and help Kansas hold seed by advancing to the Final Four to face Maryland.

Top seed Duke picked from South

The South has been tabbed as the easiest of the four, and with good reason. Although second-seeded Alabama has proven many doubters wrong with a solid season all-around, they appear to be the weakest second seed in the tournament. Couple that with a third seed whose star player is injured, Pittsburgh’s Brandin Knight, and the only real dangerous team for Duke is the fourth seeded USC Trojans.

Duke, Alabama, USC, Indiana, and Notre Dame should all advance to the second round. While the Indiana-Utah match-up looks enticing, the loss of Utah star Chris Burgess has been a huge blow to the line-up of the Utes, who should fall to Indiana. Pittsburgh has been dominant all season long. The Panthers dropped only three games in the Big East, but their opponent is the hottest team in the country, Central Connecticut State. CCSU has won 19 straight and are looking to upset the Panthers. Nonetheless, I think Pitt will manage to win, based on CCSU’s poor performance in non-conference play.

Look for Pitt to make it to round two where they could face Pennsylvania. Penn has a legitimate chance to beat California, but they do not match-up well against the Bears. Both teams are very athletic, but from a talent stand point, Cal has the leg-up. I like Cal pulling away from Penn late. Everybody’s favorite match-up in this bracket seems to be the 7-10 game, where Oklahoma State faces the talented Kent State Golden Flashes. Kent State surely has the experience, depth, and winning ability to knock off the streaky Cowboys. Of course, then they managed to get blown-out by Texas Tech in the Big 12 quarterfinals by a score of 73-51. So which Oklahoma State team will show-up? My instinct is to go with Oklahoma State, because I have every confidence in coach Eddie Sutton to rally his troops.

This sets up in the the top eight seeds advancing. I do not think that any of the lower teams match-up well enough to pull any upsets. In the second round, Duke should shut down Notre Dame, and Pitt should not struggle too much with Cal, who by the second round will be too tired and worn out to win another “road” game.

The USC-Indiana match-up should be a dandy. USC has three starters returning from the team that made it to the Elite Eight last year, and Indiana has received solid contributions from many players. In the end I see Indiana’s supporting case outplaying USC’s, and I’ll take Indiana in a close one. The winner of the Oklahoma State-Kent State game is being given a legitimate shot at Alabama difficulties by most experts, but I think only Oklahoma State really stands a good shot of being able to match-up against Alabama. Still, Oklahoma State won’t have nearly enough momentum to knock-off the consistent and tough Crimson Tide. This sets up a battle of conference champions in the bottom half of the bracket, with Alabama vs. Pitt. If Pittsburgh can manage to get the Alabama starters in foul trouble, they will have a good chance of beating the Crimson Tide since Alabama lacks frontcourt depth. But look for Alabama to face Duke in the Elite Eight.

Duke can very easily have a bad game on any given night. There have been a few games this season where Duke’s three-pointers were not falling, and Duke has not shot well from the free throw line all season. However, Duke’s backcourt is much more talented, both defensively and shooting the ball, and therefore, Duke should not struggle with the Hoosiers too much. If Duke lost to Alabama, I think most of the nation would be shocked.

Yes, that’s three number one seeds into the Final Four. Not very gutsy on my part I suppose. However, all season long Duke, Kansas, and Maryland have been consensus number one seeds for a reason. These three teams are just a cut above the rest of the field. Now honestly, what’s the likelihood of all three favorites surviving four rounds each in the NCAA tournament? Not all that great. Chances are at least once will get tripped up somewhere along the way. So either play it safe and take all three to the Final Four, or select one and have them get upset somewhere earlier in the bracket.

Go for Oklahoma to make Final Four run

Easily the most difficult bracket of the bunch, the West region should provide for some exciting action early and often in the tournament. The first round should be fairly easy for the likes of Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Arizona, Ohio State, and Gonzaga. All five of these teams won their conference tournaments and should be able to parlay those championships into first round victories.

Miami will find it difficult to parlay anything into a victory against their opponent, the Missouri Tigers, who were ranked as high as number two this season. If they can get Miami in foul trouble, they should be able to force the upset since the Hurricanes do not have any depth, but if the Tigers keep up their underachieving ways look for Miami to hold off the talented Tigers.

The 7-10 matchup in the West is intriguing. Xavier won 25 games and Hawaii racked up 27 victories, but both teams were fairly untested. It could go either way, but I would go with the Xavier, because they have an advantage down low. In UCLA vs. Missouri, UCLA was predicted by many to win the Pac-10 this year. Mississippi doled out a few trouncings this season, but has been sub-par away from home. This game is a coin toss; since both are 4-6 in their last ten games, you have to look to experience. This leads me to take the UCLA Bruins, which starts three seniors, over Missouri, who starts three sophomores, a junior, and a senior.

I see the favorites advancing out of the first round, with this side of the tournament much cleaner than the other side. If you are looking for a few first round upsets, your best bets are to go with Utah and Kent State in the South and Ole Miss, Hawaii, and Missouri in the West. Moving along to second round match-ups, I think that Cincinnati will be out to prove that they deserve the number one seed and therefore will dispose of their second round opponent. I think in this year’s tourney all four number one seeds will advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Miami should advance to the Sweet Sixteen if it gets by Missouri, as Ohio State does not have the talent in the paint to beat Miami. If Ohio State was playing Missouri, I would take Ohio State because the solid guard play and defense of Ohio State would likely cause problems for the Tigers. Skipping down to Oklahoma’s game against Xavier, I don’t see the Sooners struggling too much. Oklahoma looked phenomenal in winning the Big 12 tournament, and has only dropped four games all season long.

Gonzaga, stiffed by the committee in receiving a six seed against the Arizona Wildcats, has been surprising everybody with their ability to play with the best since the season began. Arizona has lost to some top-notch teams, including Kansas and Oregon, but they have impressively beat Maryland, Florida, and Texas all on the road, as well as Illinois, Pepperdine, and plenty of Pac-10 teams in the tournament. While I like the Zags and think that they deserved a higher seed than they did, the Wildcats are the favorites and most likely the victors in this intense match-up. Be sure to catch this one.

Cincinnati should be able to utilize its tenacious defense to break down the starting five of Miami and move on without too much trouble. The Bearcats might be able to avoid coming home earlier than expected. This win should set-up a game against Oklahoma. A number of experts are selecting Arizona to beat out Oklahoma and actually make it to the Final Four, but I think that by winning the Big 12 tournament in the manner that they did that Oklahoma proved they are tournament tough. I see Oklahoma advancing to the Final Four.

Pheiffer picks Maryland to win it all

Again, not a very bold Final Four, but from a betting standpoint, I think that this Final Four is a very logical choice. It is probably in your best interest to stick with at least two, if not three of these Final Four teams and then go out on a limb with your fourth. You might consider taking a chance on UConn or Kentucky in the East, Oregon or Illinois in the Midwest, and Alabama or USC in the South. In the West your best upset picks are Arizona and Miami.

As for my Final Four predictions, I will not elaborate much, but I will just make a few quick picks. Currently I’m leaning one of two ways, either Duke over Maryland in the final, or Maryland over Oklahoma. My heart tells me Duke, but for the record, I’m going with Maryland to cut down the nets in Atlanta this year. Maryland has everything they need for a tournament run: an experienced and talented starting line-up, a bench with plenty of depth and talent, a winning attitude, and a winning coach.

Most Likely Final Four Candidates: East -- Maryland; Midwest -- Kansas, Oregon; South -- Duke, USC; West -- Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri.

Most Likely National Champions: Kansas, Maryland, Duke.