I'm done posting screenshots of my bracket. You don't need to know much else other than: Duke is the only Elite 8 team I got right, and all of my Final Four is done already (I'm looking at you, Kansas, Indiana, Saint Louis, and New Mexico). According to Yahoo! Sports, where I submitted my "official" bracket, I'm in the 23rd percentile, which may indicate the quality of the analysis contained within this blog. My defense? March is Mad. Three years ago, during Duke's magical run to the title, I correctly picked them to win and also had Butler (!!!) and Syracuse in the Final Four (along with Kansas, which lost to Northern Iowa, so not perfect). After that ended up in the 99.9th percentile, my picks have gone sharply downhill, with percentages below 50 each of the last two years. March is Mad.
One thing I did learn: this year I really wanted to pick mid majors to go far. I was/am tired of feeling conflicted when a Big 6 school plays someone small (like Western Kentucky), and I root hard for the upset, but then take guilty pleasure in the end when my bracket survives along with the favorite. I wanted to have that feeling of picking a Cinderella again, like my Butler pick in 2010. Problem is: neither Saint Louis nor New Mexico can really be considered Cinderellas. They were both seeded too high. Ditto for VCU and Butler, each with obvious flaws. What I should have done was to pick Wichita State, a team I believed in (but not enough to beat Pitt, stupid, stupid) to come out of a weak region (or at least play OSU). If I'm going to pick true upsets, might as well go bolder.
I digress. How did the Sweet Sixteen play out? I watched at least half of every game. You know the drill:
Louisville over Oregon: The Cardinals were too much for the Ducks on the perimeter. Oregon's guards looked slow, and even with Peyton Siva out for the majority of the first half, they couldn't keep up with the faster Cardinals. In his absence, Russ Smith stepped up his game and took it into the paint time after time, using quickness to maneuver around Duck defenders. In the second half, even the refs started getting into it, calling Oregon for some very dubious block/charges and couple of reaches that were all-ball. This game felt like it should have been closer, but in 40 minutes, still could not find an answer for Russ Smith, and I think the Cardinals are the better team.
Duke over Michigan State: Too much Curry early, and too much defense late. That was the ball game. Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook stepped up the ball pressure on Keith Appling and Gary Harris, making it hard for them to feed the ball to Nix on the interior. And even though Mason Plumlee again got in foul trouble early in the second half, he was able to avoid fouling while still challenging certain shots, picking and choosing his spots. Duke threw out a very interesting double-team look in the post area with Plumlee, Kelly, and Hairston, which they were able to do because of MSU's lack of shooting. You would frequently see all five Duke defenders well within the arc except when pressuring the ball up top. I know this year's MSU team has focused more on the 3, but it didn't seem like they had any creative sets to back screen Duke and get some open perimeter shots.
Finally: Seth Curry. If it wasn't for a ridiculous Trey Burke game (see below), this would have been Curry's day. At one point, he hit three straight threes in the second half before Tom Izzo decided it would be a good idea to face guard him (that was successful). When it got close in the early part of the second half, Curry wouldn't let Duke relinquish the lead. In the next game, I think it will be a challenge for Thornton and Cook to contain Smith and Siva. If they are able to do so, I think Duke has a chance. It will also be tough for Curry given the short turnaround and his shin, so I think someone else needs to step up: Sulaimon (great tonight), Kelly (terrible the whole tourney, needs to fix his 3-point mindset), or Plumlee, who will have his hands full with Gorgui Dieng. I have no basis upon which to make picks at this point, but what the heck: I like Duke. One caveat: the only time a 30-win Pitino team did not make it to the Final Four was his 2009 team which ran into the Michigan State defensive grinder. And that Spartan team rode their defense all the way to the title game (I won't mention what happened there for brevity and convenience). I think the next game against Louisville will require a perfect game from Duke to make up for Seth Curry's shins, and I think the Cardinals squeak past.
Wichita State over La Salle: Too much talent at Wichita State and a terrible time for La Salle to go cold. They had long stretches when they couldn't score, and outside one brief 10-0 run, Wichita State really controlled the game. The Explorers had a 6-minute and 3-minute scoreless stretches in the first half, and the Shockers led 14-3 and 36-22, respectively, after each of these periods.
Ohio State over Arizona: This was a great game. I thought Arizona had a great chance to steal this with their size and athleticism. Wildcat fans can't really complain about losing on the last play, a clutch three from LaQuinton Ross. It was well played on both sides, and Arizona just needed one jumper in the last five minutes to fall. In the next game, what the heck. Go Shockers! Beat the Buckeyes!
Michigan over Kansas: The game of the tourney, hands down. Kansas was controlling this game with their bigs, and despite a huge night from Mitch McGary, it seemed like the Jayhawks' combination of Kevin Young and Jeff Withey would allow them to survive another tough game. You know what happened next. After Elijah Johnson missed a huge front-end of a one-and-one, Michigan came back and Trey Burke hit the shot of the tournament, a 35 footer to send the game to overtime. In overtime, he continued to pump in shots, along with some clutch play from Mitch McGary. I thought Kansas' last possession was a good idea: down 2, you want to draw a play for 3. However, the back screen for Tharpe never materialized, and Elijiah Johnson had a good chance at a layup to tie. The play design was interesting for this reason though: Ben McLemore, the Kansas freshman who may be a high lottery pick in this year's NBA draft, was notably absent. In fact, he was notably absent throughout the game. Sure, he was Kansas' top scorer with 20 points, and I know he's on a senior-laden team that relies on other guys, but at some point, like Burke, you want a lottery talent to exert his supremacy. Maybe this is just the wrong group of guys for him to do that, but I'd be hesitant about taking him high, and really think he should think about staying another year and becoming "the Man." As for trey Burke? He already is the man, and that earns him a shot at the Final Four.
Florida over Florida Gulf Coast: FGCU jumped out to a huge lead and I though: here we go again. The Gators were not executing offensively, and even good looks weren't going down, leading to FGCU's patented fast break. But then the game slowed to a crawl and so did the Eagles' offense. They failed to score for minutes at a time, and as Florida packed it in on defense, it seemed that FGCU's offensive sets stagnated into the same motion time after time. Good teams find ways to get easy points out of creative offense, running counters and stuff on the weakside to free shooters or enter the ball deep in the post, but FGCU seemed constrained to passing around the perimeter. On offense, Florida also struggled, but they had the post execution and size inside to suck in the FGCU defenders. Time after time, FGCU would have to send multiple guys to pull in a defensive rebound, which dramatically slowed down their fast break as guards like Sherwood Brown would have to fly in for boards. Who wins between Michigan and Florida? I like the way Michigan is playing. I like the Mitch McGary move, and I think they can play even better. I like them to beat Florida and make the Final Four.
Syracuse over Indiana: I knew Indiana had obvious flaws, and I'll admit it: after picking a 3 seed and 4 seed to make the Final Four (I know shocking, right? Not), I wanted to pick two 1 seeds on the right side of the bracket in Kansas and Indiana. The problem? There is no support backing up that rationale. Still though, Syracuse just flew from New York to California, and now back to Washington D.C. But strangely, it was the Indiana offense that seemed fatigued and unable to solve the Orange zone.
Indiana looked lost trying to pass against it, with the ball rotating from side to side, but not into the middle, where you really cause the zone to collapse and discipline breaks down. I put this on Indiana's coaching, as a hallmark of a zone offense always involves at least one pass into the middle, something you can see from this old Coach K drill (2:10), this Izzo drill (1:38), and this Boeheim video (1:33). Point is: you need to pay intelligently and use different ways to reverse the ball, enter the post, and generally, make the zone move and break down. Indiana had a lot of guys standing around which makes passing into the middle much more difficult. You have to use the dribble and alter spacing in order to create angles into the low and high post.
The other problem for Indiana was Tyler Zeller. He has been an enigma the whole season, with stretches of dominance against bad teams, but shrinking against physicality in big moments. As Indiana's most skilled big, you have to make yourself available as an option in the zone, and he was unable to do so. I know he was getting hacked and not getting the calls, but you have to play through that. This game was just a microcosm of his very frustrating season. About the only thing going for the Hoosiers was Victor Oladipo's defense (a given), and Will Sheehey's offense. Sheehey was fun to watch: moving from sideline to sideline, finding those precious passing angles, diving into the defense for jumpers, and dishing to Zeller and others.
One offense, Michael Carter Williams was a joy to watch: he's another long point guard like New Mexico's Snell who has that Shaun Livingston look. He ran the team well, got them in good situations, and seemed to jell well with Boeheim on the bench. One thing he needs to work on is taking full advantage of his body. On drives, he needs to shield the ball more aggressively with his off hand and really use his length to find angles. On defense, I think he has the potential to be more disruptive. Triche was another difference maker for the Orange, taking it into the paint, and challenging the soft (I said it) Indiana bigs over and over again.
Marquette over Miami: I picked Miami in this one, and I maintain that the game was much close than a 10-point difference. I don't want to be overtly critical of officiating, but the refs really blew it for the Canes in the second half, just like they did in the Oregon game. However, Marquette played well, and like Louisville, probably would have won a tight game against Miami, although you can never really know. Miami's offense looked stagnant and they weren't able to generate leverage inside, resulting in a lot of missed 3s. Marquette was long and athletic along the perimeter, something that Miami doesn't see a ton of in the ACC. Vander Blue had another efficient game for the Golden Eagles, who have a tendency sometimes to go one-on-one a little too much, but they shared the ball decently in this one (9/10 players had at least one assist) in this one. As for the game against Syracuse? I think Marquette will play the Orange tougher than Indy having seen that zone so many times, and I like the length on the perimeter for the Golden Eagles. However, I think their tendency to force stuff into the defense can be a detriment against Syracuse's discipline, a discipline that really requires 25-30 seconds of good offensive motion to crack. I'm picking Syracuse in a close one.