There are a couple of things analysts, amateur analysts and just know-it-all bracket lovers, always look for when it comes to picking teams to go deep in the NCAA Tournament. One, you don't pick against great coaches. When Tom Izzo's team is playing in the tourney, it doesn't really matter what their record during the season was. You just don't pick against them. Same thing with Bill Self, or Roy Williams. If you can ask someone who only watches college basketball in March who _______ is, and they can tell you he's the coach of ________, then you don't pick against that team.
Second, you go with who's hot. It's true in every sport, not just basketball, but the one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament makes it even more likely that a hot team could run the table. Moreover, the quick-paced nature of the tournament itself often wreaks havoc on the ability of teams to prepare for their opponents, particularly if the opponent in question is a small school with a real dearth of video on record. What all of that means is the hot team is always a solid selection.
Third, and perhaps most importantly: guards win in March. Most years you can set your watch by the teams that receive the best run of guard play getting deep into the tournament. You want the formula for a successful tourney run, you've got to have guards. The smallest, quickest players on the court, slashing and shooting, racking up steals and points and just generally making life miserable for opponents with their athleticism and speed.
So, how did those tourney axioms hold this year?
Of the four coaches left — Bill Self of Kansas, John Calipari of Kentucky, Rick Pitino of Louisville and Thad Matta of Ohio State — only Matta is not a household name. The hot hand rule, though, hasn't really applied all that much this year. Louisville did win their conference tournament, beating Cincinnati to collect the Big East title, but none of the others went on particularly memorable runs going into March.
The final rule is the one that really broke down this year. If you bet with the guards when filling out your brackets, you didn't get the kind of results you would have most years. This year has not been dominated by the small, quick players shooting the lights out and dishing the ball to the open man. In fact, all four of the teams left have the exact opposite primary characteristic. All four teams left in this year's iteration of the tournament are defined not by their guards, but by their big men.What to Like
The two K teams, Kentucky and Kansas, have the most noticeable bias toward their big men. Both have dominate forwards in Thomas Robinson and Anthony Davis, who could arguably be called the two best players in the nation.
But Robinson, paired with KU's seven-foot center Jeff Withey, give Kansas the strongest inside combo of any team left, at both ends of the floor. Withey in particular has been an absolute monster defensively since the tournament kicked off and showed his mettle as clearly as ever in Kansas' 80-67 dismantling of North Carolina in St. Louis last weekend, disrupting the Tarheels' ability to post up despite their remarkable trio of talented big men.
That said, Kentucky's Davis is still the most talented player left in this tournament, and an almost surefire future NBA star. The freshmen forward for Calipari's Wildcats is a little like the old Rodgers and Hammerstein song: anything you can do, he can do better. Whether it's offensively — averaging 14.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game this season — or defensively — blocking six shots against the Baylor Bears in the Elite Eight — Davis can do virtually anything his team could ask of him to help get the win.
While Kentucky and Kansas may have most of the hype, Ohio State's big man, Jared Sullinger, is no slouch himself. Coming into the season Sullinger was receiving some player of the year hype himself, and while he didn't quite live up to those lofty expectations, he did still turn in a fine, fine season. The sophomore from Columbus, Ohio, averaged 17.6 points per game, adding 9.3 rebounds and consistently drawing the lion's share of attention from opposing defenses. He's the engine through which Ohio State runs this year, and he can score from anywhere in the paint. Stopping Sullinger is the key to beating the Buckeyes, plain and simple.
Louisville is the least-heralded of all the teams left in the tournament. Their big men are the least-known as well. All the same, they have a dynamic and dangerous combination of two bigs to match up with anyone in the country. Gorgui Dieng, a 6'11" sophomore, has averaged — averaged! — more than three blocked shots per game, and Chane Benahan, a freshman forward with the body of a full-grown man at 6'6" and 250 pounds, is one of the most powerful physical presences in all of college basketball.So, You Want Picks?
Every once in a while the sporting gods give you a gift. Louisville and Kentucky playing each other in the Final Four is one of those. They're one of the great rivalries in all of college sports — a Missouri/Kansas or Michigan/Ohio State or Texas/Oklahoma writ large in basketball terms — and an almost guaranteed great game. Adding to the rivalry is that Pitino led the Wildcats to a national title back in 1996 before leaving to the NBA and then taking the Louisville job. Now he'll be trying to keep John Calipari from leading Kentucky back to the promised land yet again.
And amid all the hype, I'll take Kentucky over Louisville. While I think the defense of Pitino's team will put a damper on the Wildcat offense (and Kentucky has had difficulty at times this year against teams with great size) I think in the end the superior talent of Kentucky carries them through.
The other game, Ohio State against the Jayhawks of Kansas, isn't fraught with nearly the same kind of intrigue. Two historic programs, to be sure, and both outstanding teams this year, but there's no bad blood down deep in the mountains of a shared state in this game. In that matchup, I believe the superior combo of Withey and Robinson will simply prove to be too much for Ohio State. Sullinger is a great player, but Jeff Withey has the size to guard him straight up, and that's just what's going to happen. With Sullinger and Withey locked up, the Buckeyes will have no answer for Robinson, who has a huge game of his own, staying in lockstep with Davis as the draft approaches.
The championship game? It's a toss up, but I picked Kentucky to win it all back when filling out my bracket for the office pool, and I'm going to stick with it now. It's the only thing that can save my bracket after two of the three "golden rules" of tourney selection let me down.