The first two rounds of this year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament provided sports fans with some of the greatest entertainment in recent history. It has been full of dramatic endings and incredible Cinderella stories. America loves to root for the underdog and that is why we become so engrossed in March Madness. Who cares that I had Kansas winning the championship game this year, or that you picked Villanova to advance to the Final Four? It’s all about rooting for the underdogs now. Although I will certainly be pulling for these Cinderellas to continue their runs, which teams will actually advance to the Final Four?
Let’s start in the Midwest where the top seed, Kansas, has been eliminated along with Georgetown and Maryland. In this already depleted region, Michigan State will be playing without Kalin Lucas. When Lucas injured himself earlier this season, the Spartans lost three consecutive games in which Lucas either did not play or played limited minutes. If Northern Iowa can keep Michigan State off the offensive glass, and if Ali Farokhmanesh can hit his threes, Northern Iowa will come away with another upset. In the other Sweet 16 matchup, Ohio State plays Tennessee. Behind Evan Turner, Ohio State has lost only once since late January. Tennessee has beaten both Kansas and Kentucky this season, which must scare Ohio State, but if Jon Diebler and the rest of Turner’s supporting cast can continue to produce, then Ohio State should beat the Vols and subsequently easily handle Northern Iowa. Diebler has averaged 18 points per game over his last six games and has made 11 of 22 threes so far this tournament. Ohio State’s talent and depth will overwhelm Northern Iowa, and send the Buckeyes to the Final Four.
In the West region, Kansas State and Syracuse have proven to be as good as advertised. The Orange have played extremely well behind Big East Player of the Year, Wesley Johnson. Butler, which looked unimpressive in a victory over Murray State last round, will not be able to keep up with Syracuse if Johnson and his teammates are able to make shots from beyond the arc. Syracuse should manage to come out on top in a good defensive game. Kansas State, meanwhile, will have their hands full with Xavier. Xavier’s guard, Jordan Crawford, has been nearly unstoppable so far. Even though Xavier looked impressive in their victory over Pittsburgh, Kansas State’s terrific guards will prove too much to handle. In a physical game, Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente will lead Kansas State to the Elite Eight where they will meet Syracuse. Syracuse will rely on their 2-3 zone defense to harass Kansas State’s playmakers. If Andy Rautins can keep making threes, then Syracuse should make it to the Final Four, even if Arinze Onuaku can’t play. Other players such as Rick Jackson, and freshman Brandon Triche have proven that they can step up in the clutch, and the Orange will advance.
The East region has two of the three double-digit seeds remaining in the tournament, but top seeds Kentucky and West Virginia have been dominant. Cornell proved that they were worthy of a much better seed as they dominated Temple and Wisconsin. Unfortunately, they must deal with Kentucky’s talented group of freshmen in the Sweet Sixteen. With Louis Dale and Ryan Wittman scoring from the perimeter, and Jeff Foote controlling the interior, Cornell is a solid, balanced team. Kentucky, however, is simply too athletic. Led by the trio of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe, they are the most talented team in the country. Unless their lack of experience begins to show, Kentucky will defeat Cornell. Their next opponent will be the winner of the Washington-West Virginia game. Washington is on a 9-game winning streak and is fresh off of a dominant performance against New Mexico. They are a very talented team led by lightning fast point guard Isaiah Thomas and forward Quincy Pondexter, but they have been inconsistent. Unfortunately for West Virginia, Washington is peaking at exactly the right time. Da’Sean Butler and company will have to control the pace of the game if they want to make it out of the round of sixteen. West Virginia will play a physical game, and will eventually wear Washington down. Behind Butler and freshman Devin Ebanks’ physical play, West Virginia should sneak by Washington. When West Virginia faces Kentucky, however, Wall and Cousins will again rise to the occasion. The Wildcats have a physical inside presence in Cousins and if they can continue to get production out of their role players like Darius Miller, then they will continue their march towards a national title.
From the beginning, the South was certainly the weakest region in the tournament. Villanova was not worthy of a number 2 seed and Purdue was missing Robbie Hummel. Without Hummel, however, Purdue has surprised people. Now they face a Duke team that has played very well, and missing their best player will finally hurt them. Duke, as always, is a fundamentally sound team that plays good defense and spreads the ball around. They have solid scoring options in Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith, and unless a player like E’Twaun Moore has a huge game, expect Duke to advance to the Elite Eight. Baylor should be able to dispose of Saint Mary’s by putting a lot of defensive pressure on them and pushing the tempo. They have a strong inside player in Ekpe Udoh and a great scorer in LaceDarius Dunn. With their superior talent Baylor will advance to play Duke despite the best efforts of Omar Samhan and St. Mary’s. Duke has had a lot of problems in the past with physical, athletic teams like Baylor. Point guard Tweety Carter will allow Baylor to play at a fast pace and the Bears will simply wear Duke down with their physicality. Baylor will be the Final Four representative from the South.