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Matt Vautour: NCAA tournament bracket loaded with upsets

There are few more annoying phrases in March than “I picked that upset in one of my brackets.”

Office pools are about bragging rights and showing that you know more than your boss, the woman two cubicles over and the obnoxious Syracuse fan who wears an orange shirt every day from Selection Sunday until the Orange get ousted (spoiler alert).

But they’re also about honor and making the hard choice. It’s not easy to determine whether Michigan will lose to VCU in the second round or advance to the Final Four.

I’ve gone back and forth between Duke and Louisville winning the Midwest since the bracket came out. But you’ve got to make the choice. One team wins, one team loses. If you want to do a strength-of-mascot bracket or which-coach-has-the-best-hair bracket and enter that for fun, that’s OK. But no bet hedging. Decide who you think is going to win and own it. Play with honor.

I’m making lots of hard choices this year. All season long the would-be elite teams have taken some bad losses. There is no lock in the tournament to reach the second weekend. So I’m picking early upsets. A lot of them.

This is my bracket:

MIDWEST

There are three teams in this region that could legitimately win the whole thing — Louisville, Duke and Michigan State. If the Cardinals really are the No. 1 overall seed, the committee did them no favors with the other teams in this region.

Best chances for an upset: No. 12 Oregon over No. 5 Oklahoma State and No. 11 St. Mary’s over No. 6 Memphis — The Ducks are seeded way too low. The Pac-12 champs certainly aren’t six seeds worse than conference mates UCLA and Arizona. St. Mary’s barely belonged in the field, but its resume isn’t that much worse than the Tigers. This is not the Derrick Rose-led Tigers. Memphis’ record is overinflated and it hasn’t been tested in a while.

History has shown there is sometimes momentum for the play-in team and the Gaels could have it.

If you get bonus points for picking upsets, take Cincinnati over Creighton as either one will lose to Duke in the second round.

Don’t fall into the trap of: Picking Valparaiso to beat Michigan State. Everyone remembers Valpo as a tournament darling when Bryce Drew hit the buzzer beater against Mississippi in 1998. But this isn’t that Valpo team and Michigan State rarely gets beat in the first weekend.

From unknown to legend candidate: If New Mexico State finds a way to upset Saint Louis, 7-foot-5 Sim Bhullar could become a household name. He’s not quick, but he’s not a stiff either, averaging 10.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. And American sports fans love guys with unusual body shapes.

Thanks for showing up (out in round of 64): North Carolina A&T, Colorado State, Oklahoma State, New Mexico State, Memphis, Valpo, Creighton, Albany.

Two and Out: Missouri, Oregon, St. Mary’s, Cincinnati.

Sweet 16: Louisville over SLU. Saint Louis’ slow defensive style could be Cardinal kryptonite, but coach Rick Pitino, with time to prepare, is among the best there is. Duke holds off Michigan State in a battle between Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski and future enshrinee Tom Izzo.

One to the Final Four: Louisville. I planned to pick the Cardinals as the national champs before the bracket came out and I’m sticking to it, but this is a brutal bracket. Duke is good enough to beat anybody (because Maryland isn’t in the tournament). But I’m still picking the Cardinal, albeit reluctantly.

WEST

Every time I look at this bracket I wonder if the selection committee took Butler guard Rotnei Clarke’s midseason neck injury into consideration when it seeded the field. Every defense of Gonzaga being a No. 1 included that one of its two losses came to a very good Butler team. Butler is very good, but Clarke, its best player, was out when it played the Zags.

He was also out when La Salle beat Butler, a win that helped put the Explorers in the field.

Best chance for an upset: No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Arizona — The Bruins are one of the better small conference teams in the country and the Wildcats have been vulnerable all year.

Don’t fall into the trap of: Expecting a deep run out of Gonzaga. The Zags are good, but when you’ve been playing in a slow-pitch softball league for the past two months, it’s hard to adjust to Major League pitching.

Pittsburgh’s inside game is enough to slow Gonzaga inside and that’s enough to create a second-round upset.

From unknown to legend candidate: Ian Clark. The senior guard from Belmont shoots 46.3 percent from 3-point range and is averaging 18.1 points per game. Arizona should be terrified.

Thanks for showing up (out in round of 64): Southern, Wichita State, Mississippi, La Salle, Arizona, Harvard, Notre Dame, Iona.

Two and Out: Iowa State, New Mexico, Kansas State, Gonzaga.

Sweet 16: Wisconsin comes in hot after a strong Big Ten tournament and advances over Pitt, which usually struggles in March. Ohio State ends Belmont’s fun ride.

One to the Final Four: Ohio State beats Wisconsin in a Big Ten title rematch.

SOUTH

The South is bursting with blue bloods. Since 1985, 10 of the 16 teams in this region have played in the Final Four.

I wish I had the guts to pick Florida Gulf Coast to upset Georgetown because it could happen.

VCU is good enough to reach the Final Four, but Michigan was a bad matchup for it.

Best chance for an upset: Minnesota over UCLA. The Gophers were beaten down late in the year by the ridiculously tough Big Ten, but against an often soft UCLA team, Minnesota breaks through.

Don’t fall into the trap of: Falling in love with Kansas. The Jayhawks have two All-Americans in Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey, but when KU has struggled, it’s very beatable. On a bad day it could lose to Western Kentucky. If North Carolina doesn’t get it in the second round, Michigan will in the Sweet 16.

From unknown to legend candidate: Nate Wolters. The South Dakota State point guard is among the best mid-major players in the country. If he outplays Michigan first-team All-American Trey Burke, he’ll get well known in a hurry.

Thanks for showing up (out in round of 64): Western Kentucky, Villanova (advance it far if you use the which-coach-has-better-hair picking method), Akron, South Dakota State, UCLA, Northwestern State, Oklahoma, Florida Gulf Coast.

Two and Out: San Diego State, Minnesota, VCU, Kansas.

Sweet 16: As long as nobody calls a timeout they don’t have, the Wolverines edge the Tar Heels. Florida over Georgetown.

One to the Final Four: On my bracket I have Florida crossed out and replaced with Michigan. I think the Wolverines would win this game, but they’re more likely to get upset along the way which would make Florida a safer choice. But I’m not betting against Burke.

EAST

Miami might be the scariest team in the bracket. It can make or break somebody’s chances at winning a pool.

The Hurricanes dominated Duke and North Carolina this season, but also lost to Wake Forest. They have no tournament experience, but they have coach Jim Larranaga, who led George Mason to the Final Four, and Shane Larkin, the best point guard in the region. They could make the Final Four or be done before the weekend is out.

Best chance for an upset: This region is loaded with upset possibilities led by No. 12 California over No. 5 UNLV. This is example No. 1 that shows how bad the committee was at seeding this field.

This matchup shouldn’t be happening given that they played once already this season and it certainly shouldn’t be happening in San Jose, a short drive from Berkeley, making Cal, the lower seed, the de facto home team. But it is happening and the Golden Bears will pull the upset.

Don’t fall into the trap of: Picking a deep run for Syracuse. The Orange have been shaky since January and Montana is mature and talented. Syracuse’s chances to advance are tough. If it wins, it would either face Cal in California or a very good Vegas team.

From unknown to legend candidate: Mike Muscala. The Bucknell center might be the best mid-major player in the country. He’ll play a big role in neutralizing Butler’s rebounding dominance.

Thanks for showing up (out in round of 64): James Madison, Temple, UNLV, Syracuse, Butler, Marquette, Illinois, Pacific.

Two and Out: Colorado, Davidson, Montana, N.C. State.

Sweet 16: Indiana and Miami end the magical runs for Cal and Bucknell, respectively.

One to the Final Four: This is a bad matchup for Indiana. Reggie Johnson can neutralize Cody Zeller inside and Shane Larkin is the best point guard in the game moving Miami to Atlanta.

FINAL FOUR

There isn’t another region that Ohio State could have won other than the West. Louisville will roll over the Buckeyes in the semifinals.

In the other half, the national coach of year will beat the national player of the year as Larranaga’s Hurricanes beat Burke’s Wolverines.

What will make Kentucky fans more angry?: Not getting in the NCAA tournament, losing to Robert Morris in the NIT, or Louisville winning the national championship.

I expect we’ll find out.

Louisville edges Miami in a good one.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at @GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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Gazette Sports Podcast: Breaking down NCAA bracket

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Do not fill out your NCAA Tournament bracket before listening to this week’s Daily Hampshire Gazette sports podcast. Jim Pignatiello is joined by Gazette UMass beat writer Matt Vautour, who breaks down each region, picks some significant upsets and makes his Final Four picks. They also discuss UMass’ NIT chances heading into Wednesday’s first-round game against Stony Brook at the … 0

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