In our third year of previewing the March Madness tournament, the staff ran into a bit of a problem. Selection Sunday is still two weeks away, and yet we don’t print another issue before then. So we decided to make our predictions ahead of time, way ahead of time. So pardon me if this year my predictions don’t hold up as well as they did the last two years, even Nostradamus wouldn’t be able to win money in Vegas this early.
So buckle up and get ready to have your life filled with Gus Johnson and his lovely voice, because life isn’t truly a party until Gus does your wedding play-by-play.
In your mind, what are the surprise stories of this year?
David Maystrovsky: A definite surprise has to be the ascention of Tennessee. For the first time in a while, they really matter. In a state with Memphis and Vanderbilt, UT has finally claimed its spot at the top. Sure they were the No. 2 seed couple of years ago, but did anyone really think that they deserved it? This year, they took down Memphis, attained the top ranking for the first time in school history and are on the verge of getting a top seed in the tournament.
Another surprise is the decline of Kelvin Sampson for improper phone calls to recruits. I doubt his career can recover.
Dana Hilfinger: As a Big Ten fan, the biggest surprise this year has been the resurgence of Purdue as a consistent top-25 team. While I was hoping that a different midwest team would make a run this year, I’m excited to see that the Big Ten conference as a whole is making a push this year on the national scale.
Cornell’s performance this year is also notable. The Big Red are going to the tournament for the first time in 20 years. It is also the first time a team other than Penn or Princeton has made the tournament coming out of the Ivy League in over a decade.
Alex Moeller: It’s not really a surprise anymore, but the freshmen are once again using their mandatory year between high school and the NBA to light up college scoreboards. Everyone knew these guys would be good, but Michael Beasley, Eric Gordon and Kevin Love have really exploded onto the scene, with Beasley the favorite for player of the year. Of course, the suspension of Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson for NCAA violations was also a big surprise, but in reality it’s only the tip of the iceberg that is what’s wrong with big-time college sports.
Any top teams that you think did particularly poorly this year?
DH: The only real disappointment for me this year has been the play of Syracuse. Maybe I hold the Orange to high expectations, but it is frustrating to see them go through another season where their talent has left them as nothing more than a bubble team in March. I expected a little bit more out of a program who won a national championship five years ago and that has been a perennial title contender prior to these past two years.
AM: The big disappointment is Ohio State. I understand that they lost Greg Oden to the NBA, but the national runner-up isn’t supposed to be on tournament life support the following year. The Big Ten isn’t a pushover, but it’s certainly not one of the top conferences in the country and to be just 8-8 in conference play is something Ohio State fans shouldn’t be proud of. I’m not saying coach Thad Matta is on the hot seat, but he needs to get it together next season.
DM: Florida and Ohio State have fallen on some tough times this year. After last year’s title game, both of the teams are on a rapidly-shrinking bubble. What a difference a year makes. Sure, both teams lost some good players, but what’s with the drop-off? Both teams seemed to have recruited decently, so at least there is hope for next year, which is a lot more than many senior-ladened mid-majors can say.
Any surprise teams that jumped out at you this year?
DM: Without a doubt, Drake has to take the prize. The small school from De Moines, Iowa that was picked to finish at the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference ended up 25-4. The team is filled with the same mix of seniors and younger players that propelled George Mason to the Final Four. Don’t be surprised if Drake makes a serious run because its stands to get a decent seed for the tournament and will probably get a few easy games.
Which bubble teams need to do well in their conference tournaments to get in to the March Madness?
AM: This one is for the upstate New Yorkers – Syracuse needs to pull off the Big East Tournament miracle again this season. The glimmer of hope is that they have done it before. Two years ago, the Orange survived close games, overtimes, last-second shots and three nationally ranked teams to pull off the miracle and earn an automatic spot in the Big Dance. All the bubble teams need to worry about the mid-major conference tournaments almost as much as their own at this point, because every small school that pulls off an upset takes a spot away from a struggling power school.
DM: Will someone seriously please take a look at Syracuse. Since the departure of Carmelo Anthony, that team has needed a lights-out performance from MacNamara and last year missed the tournament with pretty much the same record. It’s recent loss to Pitt won’t help any. Speaking of Pitt, here’s another team that needs to at least get to the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament to really have a chance to make a statement during March Madness.
DH: In my mind, probably the biggest one is Kansas State. Everyone wants to see Michael Beasley be fabulous in the tournament, but the Cats are far from a shoo-in. Especially after having lost five of its last six games, KSU will have to go far in the Big 12 contest to contend for a spot. In the Big East, the Orangemen will need to advance deep into their conference tournament if they want to be considered. Ohio State also needs a strong showing. Despite their win against Purdue this past week, the Buckeyes still have a lot to prove. Prior to Saturday’s win over the Boilermakers, OSU had lost four straight – including a 10-point defeat to Michigan, who, sadly, has been sub par at best this year – and with only one game left this season, will have to show their promise in the Big Ten tournament.
Who do you think is the biggest freshman sensation this year?
DM: After the Kevin Durant and Greg Oden craze that gripped basketball last year, I was surprised that only a few of the freshmen this year are considered to be NBA prospects. I would have thought that there would be more freshmen to be buzzed about. However, it seems to be that only Michael Beasley and Kevin Love are garnering any publicity. This is partly because a lot of the freshmen came to college and faced stiff competition for the first time and thus fell off the casual fan’s radar. But I truly think that if any freshman has a chance to be the National Player of the Year, it has to be Beasley because of the way that he almost single-handedly brought the Kansas State Wildcats back into the national picture.
DH: I have to agree with Dave – I love Michael Beasley. I think he is the most exciting player in college basketball and, even though I am usually not a fan of the one-man team, I can’t deny the fact that he is the reason Kansas State is even being considered for the tournament. Going back to my obsession with the Big Ten, I think Purdue’s freshman duo of E’Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel has been overlooked, despite the fact that they both average more than 10 points per game and have led Purdue to a No. 15 ranking.
Any “Cinderellas” this year?
DM: This is probably the third year that I have trumped UMass, but come on, it’s gotta work this time. They have a legit scorer this time and a shot-blocker who can alter games from the defensive end. Also, as always, don’t sleep on Vanderbilt this year. After knocking off the top team in the nation at home, they might be able to make some noise. There are some questions about their abil
ity to play away from home.
DH: I like Cornell. They’ve won 12 straight, and I feel that, in the past, momentum has been a huge factor in the post-season. Plus, the Ivy League is always overlooked – it would be fun to see a team that’s not Penn compete against the likes of Duke and UNC. Also, people don’t talk much about Michigan State, and, while they wouldn’t quite qualify as a Cinderella, look for the Spartans to make a run deep into the playoffs thanks to the senior leadership of Drew Neitzel and the emergence of Raymar Morgan as a offensive force.
Who will be the No. 1 seeds in the tournament?
DH: I have Memphis, Tennessee, UCLA and North Carolina as top seeds in each region. It would be possible for Duke to jump in there with a win over the Tar Heels this Saturday, but I can’t really see Coach K’s team beating the UNC, considering how hot the Heels has been in February.
AM: It’s the NCAA tournament, and thus North Carolina receives a top seed by default. Seriously though, the Tar Heels deserve it based on their body of work. They have been solid all year despite the loss of playmaker Ty Lawson. I’ll give another No. 1 seed to Memphis, a team that will probably finish the year with just one loss.
The team that beat the Tigers, the Tennessee Volunteers, should get the third spot, and I’ll round out the toppers with an option pick. If Duke can win the ACC tournament, they get the seed. If not, I’ll give it to the Bruins of UCLA, who I think could be in danger of being “that team” that goes home early in this year’s tournament.
DM: I got Memphis, UNC, Kansas and UCLA. Tennessee just seems to be star-struck after being No. 1, and I’m not sure that being the top seed in a regional is the right thing for them. Kansas is going through the same thing this year as last year and I highly doubt that they will win anything. UNC and Tyler Hansborough look like champions.
Who is your pick for the National Player of the Year?
DM: I think this might be the second year in a row that a freshman wins the award. However, I don’t think that Beasley will take home the crown. Part of his problem is that his team is only on the bubble for the tournament and I believe that in order to win you must make March Madness and make a splash.
With that in mind I think that my pick would have to be Kevin Love, the freshman center from UCLA. His stats, 17.3 points and 11.1 rebounds a game don’t inspire much adoration.
But his presence has stabilized the defense in the paint and has provided last year’s Final Four team with the inside scoring presence that they have lacked in the past. With Love, UCLA have legitimate dreams of being crowned the National Champions.
Last, but certainly not least, who is your pick to win the national championship?
DM: UNC because of Tyler Hansborough and Ty Lawson (if he can stay healthy). They can run with anyone and if the situation calls for it, they can slow it down and grind out a win. Plus, with a nickname like Psycho T, how could you go wrong? And yes, I know, they’re also my No. 1 seed. Hey, you never know when the big boys might rise up and crush their competition.
DH: My fake pick: UNC. Tyler Hainsborough is ridiculous, and the Tar Heels will build off their current seven-game win streak and capture the National Championship. My real pick: Michigan. Go Blue.
Maystrovsky is a member of the class of 2009.
Hilfinger is a member of the class of 2010.
Moeller is a member of the class of 2009.