(This story was originally published on Raleigh & Company)
Hello, comrades. In these, our trying times, we rally together and prepare ourselves for a month of glory. This is March. And in March, we watch basketball. March Madness is upon us, and I intend to let it wash over me like an all-consuming wave, dragging me under as the siren song of the mermaids calls out that Wichita State got screwed by the committee and Carolina didn’t deserve a 1 seed.
Last season, I put my faith in Tom Izzo, and like any good Spartan, he made sure I regretted it. I’m looking at you, guy who stole my beer after almost hitting me with your car in East Lansing. You know who you are. The year before that, I trusted my gut, and my tuition check, and rode my Blue Devils all the way to Indianapolis. That weekend was easily the best of my life, and I’ll cherish it always. Not because we won — that was a bonus. But because we won after I called it two weeks in advance like a goddamn oracle. Let me be clear — I am all knowing. I can see the future, and it is…well honestly since November it hasn’t looked that great, but nevermind that now. The only thing that matters is shootyhoops. The basketsport. And I am the master of the hoop. Or the rim. Or whatever it was that Ted Cruz called itbecause he’s a lizard king, not a person.
This is my fourth, and possibly final Tournamentapalooza. I’ve loved ignoring my classes and responsibilities to bring you this, my labor of love, each of the past few springs. But this summer brings new challenges in the form of gainful employment (hopefully), and I fear my future potential employer may not think highly of a worker who spends hours obsessing over Luke Kennard’s hairline, and how many times Kennedy Meeks could bench press Roy Williams — for the record, I think like seven or eight times. Roy would start squirming.
But for now, I only have one focus: survive and advance. So let’s get started.
Oh wait — one more thing. A disclaimer: these picks will be subjectively objective. Sometimes they’ll be the result of research, and hours of film consumed over the course of months. Other times, they’ll happen because I have a good joke planned. Don’t think too much into it. Just brace yourself. It’s here.
NCAA TOURNAMENTAPALOOZA 2017
Remember when we used to call these the First Round? That was dumb. So is the First Four. Call them what they are: play-in games. These last eight teams didn’t deserve a ticket to the dance. They have to fight for our respect in the gym. Just like prom in high school. Oh, y’all didn’t have to do that? Just me? Cool. Awesome. Love being a nerd.
16. Mount Saint Mary’s v. 16. New Orleans
Ahh, a classic match-up. A den of sin takes on a religious figure. Nothing screams college like taking your extremely buttoned-up buddy out for the first time in his life, and watching him make terrible decision after terrible decision until you feel so bad about it that you apologize and buy him lunch for a week.
Jason, I’m sorry.
New Orleans moves on.
11. Providence v. 11. USC
See: Mount Saint Mary’s v. New Orleans. Eventually, sin always wins. Will the kind school from Los Angeles please step forward.
16. NC Central v. 16. UC Davis
FLY, EAGLES, FLY. DURHAM PRIDE. NCCU ONTO THE NEXT ROUND.
11. Kansas State v. 11. Wake Forest
Wake can ball. John Collins is a revelation. Wake moves on.
ROUND OF 64: IS THIS LIT?
THE EAST REGION
1. Villanova v. 16. New Orleans
A 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed. This won’t be the year it happens. Move along.
8. Wisconsin v. 9. Virginia Tech
Oh, Wisconsin. Remember how we used to dance by the lake. The one out near Indy. We’d sing, and we’d laugh, and you’d blow a second half lead and let Grayson Allen son you a handful of times. It was love. Or what’s that thing like love, but the opposite. Hate. Yes, that’s it. I hate Wisconsin. Unfortunately, Wisco is solid this year. Virginia Tech falls to the Badgers. Gobble in peace, lil Hokies. Gobble in peace.
5. Virginia v. 12. UNC Wilmington
I don’t fucks with branch campuses. Especially branch campuses that nearly knocked Duke out last year. Wilmington is good. They have some weapons. But in a battle of up tempo and down tempo teams, slow basketball is almost always going to win. Talent too. Onward Hoos.
4. Florida v. 13. East Tennessee St.
Florida finished their season with a limp, losing two straight games to Vanderbilt. Ignore that. This is an exceptional basketball team. This won’t be close.
6. SMU v. 11. USC
No more parties for LA. Ponies win.
3. Baylor v. 14. New Mexico State
Baylor’s athletic department is sickening. They win this game on talent, but I’m not happy about it.
7. South Carolina v. 10. Marquette
Let this be a reminder: the selection committee is filled with assholes. South Carolina had a fine season, sure. But not much better than Marquette did. And how were the Golden Eagles repaid? With a de facto away game in Greenville, SC, a mere 90 minutes from the Gamecocks campus. Justice prevails. Marquette advances.
2. Duke v. 15. Troy
THE WEST REGION
1. Gonzaga v. 16. South Dakota State
8. Northwestern v. 9. Vanderbilt
LOOK AT THIS MAN. LOOK INTO HIS PIERCING BROWN (blue? green? I can’t tell) EYES. THIS MAN DID THE IMPOSSIBLE. HE TOOK NORTHWESTERN TO THE TOURNAMENT FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER. AND THE MEDILL GRADS SANG FROM THE HEAVENS. Or the pits of hell. Who can say for sure? Anyway, Wildcats by 6.
5. Notre Dame v. 12. Princeton
Every year, an Ivy League team is the hot pick to pull a first round upset. Every year (except for that one time Cornell got hot), it doesn’t happen. South Bend takes this one.
4. West Virginia v. 13. Bucknell
West Virginia has one of the most efficient defenses in the country, per Kenpom. In contrast, Bucknell, uhh, well they don’t. They lost to Loyola, LaSalle, and Sienna. Not happening. West Virginia to the second round.
6. Maryland v. 11. Xavier
WHAT. IS. A. TERRAPIN? SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME. Just call it a goddamn turtle and let’s move on.
Oh yeah, also, Xavier wins this game in the first upset on my bracket. IN STAINBROOK‘S NAME, AMEN.
3. Florida State v. 14. Florida Gulf Coast
Remember Dunk City? Remember how fun it was watching them beat Georgetown? Remember when their coach basically signed a new contract with USC during the tournament and got his ass out of town as fast as he could? Yeah, that was fun. Seminoles by 15.
7. Saint Mary’s v. 10. VCU
Any team that had a role in making Delly into the enormous shitburger he is deserves my praise. Saint Mary’s has an Australian pipeline, and pumps new Delly’s in each and every fall. To stop them, I propose building a wall through the Pacific so tall, that planes can’t bring in new scrappy white Aussies. In the meantime, the fightin jerkoffs beat VCU.
What’s that? You like the HAVOC? THE WALL JUST GOT TEN FEET HIGHER.
2. Arizona v. 15. North Dakota
Fargo was a dumb show. Arizona rolls.
THE MIDWEST REGION
1. Kansas v. 16. North Carolina Central
Rock Chalk Jayhawk is a dumb chant. Whatever. They’ll still win this game.
8. Miami v. 9. Michigan State
TRUST IZZO IN MARCH, THEY SAID. STATE IS TOO GOOD NOT TO WIN, THEY SAID. MIDDLE TENNESSEE WON’T RUIN YOUR BRACKET. WELL GUESS WHAT? THEY DID. AND I’M STILL SALTY. I TRUSTED YOU, SPARTY, AND YOU RUINED ME. I HOPE THEY GET ROCKED LIKE A HURRICANE. I HOPE BRIDGES DECLARES FOR THE DRAFT. I HOPE LANGFORD TRANSFERS. I HOPE THE MASCOT FINDS OUT HE HAS LUPUS.
5. Iowa State v. 12 Nevada
On their way to their third Big 12 title in four years, the Cyclones took out Oklahoma State, TCU, and West Virginia. They took Baylor and Kansas during the season, and narrowly lost to Gonzaga. Iowa State is for real, and Monte Morris is not to be trifled with. Iowa State moves on.
4. Purdue v. 13. Vermont
I need to get this off my chest: I love the Catamounts. Just love em. They went undefeated in conference, nearly beat Houston in the non-con, and their mascot is described by the internet as “any of various wild cats.” What’s not to love?
Yeah though, Purdue is going to beat the stuffing out of them. Have you seen Caleb Swanigan? He’s very large.
6. Creighton v. 11. Rhode Island
There are two kinds of 11 seeds: the power conference team who limped its way into the tourney, and likely won’t see another game, and the talented, but not too talented mid-major coming off a hot streak with a chance to make some noise. Rhode Island is the second one. E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin are the truth, and as good as Creighton is, they won’t win this one. Rhode Island to the second round.
3. Oregon v. 14. Iona
Oregon lost one of its best players to an ACL tear this week, and still nearly won the PAC 12 title. They’re not losing to Iona.
7. Michigan v. 10. Oklahoma State
HOT TAKE: The Big 10 is bad and so is Michigan. Bet the over in this game. Oklahoma State wins.
2. Louisville v. 15. Jacksonville State
Birds are dope.
THE SOUTH REGION
1. North Carolina v. 16. Texas Southern
It’s a good day to be a Tar Heel. It’s a bad day to go to Texas Southern.
8. Arkansas v. 9. Seton Hall
Seton Hall almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the last month against Nova before star player Angel Delgado missed a bunny at the buzzer. Still, Seton Hall beat Butler and Marquette en route to a respectable 21–12 record. Unfortunately for them, their season ends here. Arkansas is a solid team with an efficient offense, and a logo that’s just an angry pig. I grew up Muslim. I don’t mess with pigs.
5. Minnesota v. 12. Middle Tennessee State
Minnesota trash. Minnesota straight trash. Minnesota’s seeding will remain one of life’s great mysteries, right up there with “WHY DIDN’T SHE GO TO WISCONSIN,” and “can you drink beer on antibiotics,” and “why do flamingos exist?”
How they finish ranked higher than Wisconsin — a team that beat them twice and made the conference title game — is beyond me. And so they’ll fall here. Middle Tennessee won 30 games this year. They beat Vandy. They beat Mississippi. They beat UNCW, and they beat a boatload of scrubs. Might as well add another to the list.
Flamingos are astoundingly stupid creatures.
4. Butler v. 13. Winthrop
This is where I’m introducing the Rule Of Dogs: If a team with a dog as a mascot plays a team with another animal mascot, you always pick the dog team. Always. Butler is a very good team, yes they are, yes they are.
6. Cincinnati v. 11. Wake Forest
Cincinnati chili is garbage. It’s spaghetti with bullshit on it. They’re losing to Wake.
3. UCLA v. 14. Kent State
I’ll keep this short. Point guards win games in March. Lonzo Ball is a very good point guard. UCLA will win games in March.
7. Dayton v. 10. Wichita State
This is a great match-up of up and coming coaches who will turn down the NC state job next month. Loser moves to Raleigh. Looking at you, Archie Miller.
2. Kentucky v. 15. Northern Kentucky
See: point guards, UCLA. De’Aron Fox is one of the best in the country. Don’t sleep on him.
ROUND OF 32: THE CEILING IS THE ROOF
But is the sky the limit?
THE EAST REGION
1. Villanova v. 8. Wisconsin
Last year, in my infinite wisdom, I picked Arizona to upset Villanova in the Sweet 16. Arizona was a team that was seeded lower than it should have been, and was going up against a Jay Wright team. Easy, I thought. Jay Wright could never make a Final Four.
About that — Nova won the whole damn thing. And it looked good doing it. I don’t think they can repeat, but I won’t make the same mistake here. No early knockout this season. Villanova to the Sweet 16.
5. Virginia v. 4. Florida
The first “good” game of the tournament! Both Florida and Virginia check in inside Kenpom’s top 10. Neither team is all smoke, and either could give Villanova fits in the Sweet 16. Florida brings the fourth ranked defense in the country, and a well rounded offensive attack that should give Virginia fits. The Gators beat Kentucky this year, and have shown to be a consistently menacing team. Still, the Cavaliers win this game. Virginia plays the slowest tempo in the NCAA, and backs it up with the top ranked defense, and a ruthlessly efficient offense. This isn’t last year’s Virginia team, and they’ve struggled at times this season, but London Perrantes should keep them competitive. Virginia moves on.
6. SMU v. 3. Baylor
Y’all remember that scene in the first Avengers where all the good guys work together and basically slingshot each other into the aliens to save the world? That’s basically SMU basketball. Now officially Larry Brown-less, the Mustangs boast the fifth best three point shooting in the country, coupled with the eighth best offensive rebounding rate. Their offense is dangerous, and checks in at 11th, and their defense is top 30.
What I mean to say is this: Semi Ojeleye is going to dunk on Baylor so hard, they’ll lose their accreditation. And no one will feel bad about it.
10. Marquette v. 2. Duke
BATTLE ROYALE ALERT: Duke is gonna play, and beat the stereotypical Duke player. His holiness, Wojo, now the head coach at Marquette, has whipped the boys into shape. With wins over Nova, Creighton, and Xavier, the Golden Eagles are not to be trifled with. They lost Henry Ellenson, and still had a respectable season. But it comes to an end here. Duke Duke, Motherfucker.
THE WEST REGION
1. Gonzaga v. 8. Northwestern
Rule of Dogs. Northwestern’s season comes to a close. But it’s not all bad. This is the farthest they’ve ever gotten. It’s not their fault Gonzaga has Przemek Karnowski.
5. Notre Dame v. 4. West Virginia
50 SHADES OF BREY. THE IRISH ADVANCE.
11. Xavier v. 3. Florida State
There’s a joke here about Catholics vs. Convicts. There is. Hold on. Give me a second.
Whatever. Convicts win. As always.
7. Saint Mary’s v. 2. Arizona
A while back, I was talking about how Virginia plays the slowest tempo in the country. Saint Mary’s plays the second slowest, and it works for them. Unfortunately, Arizona play pretty slow themselves, and they’re better offensively, and defensively. And they have Alonzo Trier. Death. Taxes. Guards in March.
THE MIDWEST REGION
1. Kansas v. 8. Miami
If there were ever a team that reminded me of Duke’s 2015 roster, it’s this one. Kansas runs a small ball lineup with Josh Jackson at the 4, and a sub-6 foot point guard running the show. It’s not always pretty, but boy is it consistent. This is the first season since 2004 that Perry Ellis won’t suit up for the Jayhawks. Let us toast in his memory.
Also, Kansas is gonna eat Miami. Don’t think too hard. It won’t be close.
5. Iowa State v. 4. Purdue
Caleb Swanigan is a monster, and he’ll forever be the GOAT for committing to Michigan State — an addition that would have made them an even stronger title contender — and then recommitting and choosing Purdue 12 days later. For his indecisiveness, he gets a date with Iowa State in the second round. Still, doesn’t matter. Iowa State advances.
BONUS JOKE: Purdue? More like Purdon’t. Amirite? Is this thing on?
11. Rhode Island v. 3. Oregon
Rhode Island: neither road, nor island. Discuss.
And while you’re discussing, Dillon Brooks will eat your backcourt, and carry his team to its second straight Sweet 16.
10. Oklahoma State v. 2. Louisville
I have a dream. That one day, my children can watch a Louisville sporting event without some megalomaniacal pizza baron doing burnouts in a football stadium, kissing Peyton Manning, buying endangered big cats, or just generally wandering around plastered at halftime.
Bad ingredients. Terrible Pizza. Papa John’s.
Louisville still wins tho. BIRDS A COMIN.
THE SOUTH REGION
1. North Carolina v. 8. Arkansas
WINE AND CHEESE! WINE AND CHEESE! WINE AND CHEESE!
Really though, when Joel Berry gets hot, it’s hard to stop the argyle socks. Justin Jackson was named ACC POY, though I’m still waiting for Jordan Horowitz to tell me they mistakenly read the wrong name. Carolina moves on, but I’m not happy about it.
12. Middle Tennessee State v. 4. Butler
RULE. OF. DOGS.
11. Wake Forest v. 3. UCLA
Quake for Wake has been my motto the last few weeks. John Collins is the most dominant big man in the country’s best conference, and he’ll undoubtedly give TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh problem down low. Against most teams, that would be enough. But UCLA isn’t most teams. A one-two punch of Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford in the back court makes UCLA especially tough to deal with. The Bruins ride the third best offense in the country to the Sweet 16.
10. Wichita State v. 2. Kentucky
We need to talk about something for a second.
In 2014, coming off a Final Four appearance, Wichita State won 34 games, and lost none. 34–0. They were the 1 seed in the Midwest Region. And then the committee did something unthinkable. They put Kentucky, the preseason number 1 who crawled to a 24–10 record, in the same bracket as the 8 seed. A Kentucky team with not one, not two, but SEVEN future professional basketball players. You know how this story ends. Kentucky beats Wichita by 2, and rolls all the way to the National Championship, where they lose to Connecticut.
The Shockers deserve revenge. They’re good enough to beat this Kentucky team. They are. But they won’t. Malik Monk and De’Aron Fox are just too good. I’m sorry, Gregg Marshall. You deserve better than this.
Me, reckoning with my decision to advance Kentucky.
MY SUPER SWEET 16
THE EAST REGION
1. Villanova v. 5. Virginia
So uh, I really like Virginia. Like a lot. Something about slow, methodical basketball that suffocates opponents’ will to live calls to me on a spiritual level. Sure, UVA has struggled this season, and their brand of stalwart defense isn’t as good as it has been in years past, but they can still give Nova a fight, right?
Wrong. Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins exist, and are playing some of the best ball of their lives. Hart is Kenpom’s player of the year, and it’s not hard to see why. Posting nearly 19 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, he’s a force to be reckoned with. Last year, I stated plainly that Villanova wouldn’t win the title. I was wrong. This fall, I said they wouldn’t have a chance to repeat. I was wrong then too. Villanova beats Virginia, and advances to the regional final.
6. SMU v. 2. Duke
As it stands, there’s a non-zero chance that we’re on our way to a Duke-North Carolina national title game. Please, please don’t let that happen. I won’t be able to handle the stress. The biggest rivalry in the sport in the biggest game of the year? I’d rather take a cyanide pill. I won’t do it. You can’t make me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. SMU is a fun team with an efficient offense and a probable first round draft pick in Devil-turned-Mustang Semi Ojeleye. The old Durhamite will give Duke some trouble, but in the end, the four headed monster of Kennard, Allen, Tatum, and Jackson will be too much for SMU to handle. Amile Jefferson will quietly put up 12 and 14. Duke to the Elite Eight.
THE WEST REGION
1. Gonzaga v. 5. Notre Dame
Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski are two of the most consistently stellar upperclassmen in the NCAA this season. The junior point guard and senior big man have time, and time again carried the Bulldogs to victory. But this is the end of the road. For the umpteenth time, Mark Few’s squad will fall short of the Final Four trip they crave. The stellar ball security (top in the nation), and quick-run scoring ability Mike Brey’s Notre Dame team possesses will be too much for the Bulldogs to handle. Our first Big Time Dog Loss of the tournament happens here. A number one seed has fallen, and Touchdown Basketball Jesus couldn’t be happier.
3. Florida State v. 2 Arizona
Okay so Arizona is going to win this game. Just wanted to get that out of the way. Can I talk about Lauri Markkanen for a second?
Imagine, if you will, a seven foot tall, 230 pound Eastern European big man who can pass from the post, rebound, defend, and drain threes. He’s a unicorn. College basketball’s answer to Kristaps Porzingis, and the future’s answer to Dirk Nowitzki. With endless potential, and an offensive rating so completely improbable for a big man, Markkanen makes Arizona a tough beat. Throw in Alonzo Trier and Rawle Atkins, and the Wildcats have enough talent to beat just about anyone. To the last eight they go.
THE MIDWEST REGION
1. Kansas v. 5. Iowa State
Kansas didn’t look great in their Big 12 tournament loss to TCU. The Jayhawks looked limp, and uninterested, and the result showed it. The last time these two teams met, Iowa State left Allen Fieldhouse with a win — the only team to manage that feat this year. The Cyclones have the talent to frustrate Kansas. Monte Morris, Nazareth Mitrou-Long, Matt Thomas, and Deonte Burton give Iowa State senior leadership and tournament experience. Not many people thought they’d have a chance to duplicate last year’s success, and this might be their last chance to make some noise in March. The seniors will put up a fight, but it just won’t be enough to carry them past the round of 16. Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason III have been next level for Kansas this season, and when Coach Self lets them run their death lineup (Josh Jackson at the 4), it’s hard to see who could beat them.
Monte Morris’s college career ends with a loss to one of his fiercest rivals.
And now his watch is ended.
3. Oregon v. 2. Louisville
BATTLE OF THE BIRDS. CARDINALS VERSUS DUCKS. PUDDLES VS. WHATEVER KIND OF WINGED BEAST RICK PITINO MASQUERADES AS BY NIGHT.
Oregon brings Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, and Chris Boucher, while Louisville matches with Donovan Mitchell, Quentin Snider, and Deng Adel. If Oregon wants to break through to the Elite Eight, they’ll need to find a way to break Louisville’s sixth ranked defense. The Cardinals have managed to pressure opponents into turnovers, and poor shot selection all season. They held Duke, Purdue, Kentucky, and Notre Dame below 70 points in wins this year. They’ll do the same against Oregon.
Goodnight, sweet Puddles. You were too pure for this world.
THE SOUTH REGION
1. North Carolina v. 4. Butler
Two buzzer beaters. Two different outcomes. Shared heartbreak.
Both North Carolina and Butler know what it’s like to see a season slip away as the horn sounds. For Butler, it was missing by an inch as Duke claimed the 2010 title. For Carolina, it was watching their hero tie the game only to lose moments later. Pain knows no boundaries. It sticks with you forever — a constant reminder of our mistakes, and our choices. For Carolina, that pain is more recent. Most of this roster watched Kris Jenkins’ shot fall from mere feet away. This year means something. It’s a second chance. Butler got it in 2011, and let it slip.
Carolina will try their hardest not to make the same mistake. Tar Heels by 8.
3. UCLA v. 2. Kentucky
BLUE BLOOD SIREN: WARNING. DO NOT WATCH THIS GAME IF YOU SUFFER PANIC ATTACKS, HAVE IRRITABLE BOWL SYNDROME, OR HAVE HEART PROBLEMS. EXCESSIVE EXPOSURE TO DOPE ASS BASKETBALL CAN LEAVE YOU SEIZING IN CASES WHERE DE’ARON FOX AND LONZO BALL FIGHT TO THE FUCKING DEATH.
CONSULT A DOCTOR TO FIND OUT IF COLLEGE BASKETBALL IS RIGHT FOR YOU.
And if it is, make sure to watch this goddamn game. Coming into the tournament, Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Kansas, and UCLA were my teams with legitimate shots to win it all. These two meet in the Sweet 16. UCLA has played poorly of late, but that’s of no concern here. Steve Alford will have his team ready to go. In the end though, it won’t matter. Kentucky moves on to play North Carolina in the Elite Eight, and I’m already sweating thinking about it.
ELITE EIGHT: POW POW
1. Villanova v. 2 Duke
Can you hear that? That’s the sound of network executives everywhere salivating over this game. The defending national champions against the team that won the year before? That’s a ratings dream. Villanova’s second ranked offense and 12th ranked defense will prove tough for the Devil’s to handle, and if they bring anything less than their best, Duke will find themselves on the outs.
But lucky for them, they won’t. Behind Melo lite Jayson Tatum, Manu 2.0 Grayson Allen, White Lightning Luke Kennard, and I still haven’t given him a nickname yet Frank Jackson, the Devils have an unstoppable array of wings who can beat you off the catch, or on the drive. As good as Josh Hart and Nova have been the last 24 months, this is where their fairy tale ends.
Do not weep for Nova. They won their ring. Now, it’s time to restore order. DUKE BACK.
5. Notre Dame v. 2. Arizona
After knocking off top seeded Gonzaga, Notre Dame has to find something left in the tank to beat Arizona. The Wildcats will throw everything they have at the Irish, attacking with Lauri Markkanen, and Alonzo Trier, until Bonzie Colson has had enough. On a neutral court with a week of rest, I might have the Irish winning. But two days after giving it all to beat the Zags, I don’t know if they can do it. Arizona advances to the Final Four. I’m not happy about it, though.
1. Kansas v. 2. Louisville
Between Quentin Snider and Donovan Mitchell, Louisville has a dominant backcourt that can frustrate even the best of opponents. Mangok Mathiang and Ray Spalding provide the Cards with the size to bully Kansas’s smaller frontcourt, and they have the speed on the wings to keep up with Kansas’s best athletes. Unfortunately for them, it won’t be enough. The Jayhawk’s death lineup is brutal, and not many teams have the talent to break it. Louisville has the coaching, and the athleticism to match it, but in the end, Kansas’s well balanced attack and solid defense will be the difference here.
Louisville loses its final bird fight. Pour some seed out in tribute.
1. North Carolina v. 2. Kentucky
North Carolina is arguably the best team in the country. They have a point guard who makes clutch shots look easy in Joel Berry, an ACC Player of the Year winning forward in Justin Jackson, and a space eating monster in the paint in Kennedy Meeks. Each of them has something to prove. For Berry, it’s that he can carry the mantle after living in Marcus Paige’s shadow last season. Like his predecessor, Berry has a predilection for big moments. In Carolina’s regular season win against the Blue Devils, Berry dropped 28 on 64 percent shooting. On his wing, is Justin Jackson. A possible draft selection last year, Jackson is proof the NBA Combine works. The Tar Heel left with a message from NBA scouts — he needed to improve his range. So what did Jackson do to show his talents? Oh, only broke North Carolina’s 3 point shooting record. Nothing special. And as for Meeks, he’s always been a great space eater, but with Isaiah Hicks at his side instead of Brice Johnson, he needs to do more than he did last year for Carolina to dominate the glass.
The formula is simple: if all three are on, Carolina is a tough beat. Unfortunately, Kentucky is one of the few teams that can beat them. They’ve done it before, and it’ll happen again, here. Behind Monk and Fox, Calipari returns to the Final Four.
For the third year in a row, the best team in the country won’t win the championship. Kentucky didn’t win in 2015, Carolina didn’t win last year, and they won’t win this year either. Kentucky moves on.
FINAL FOUR: CAN YOU SMELL WHAT THE SHOCK IS COOKING
2. Duke v. 2. Arizona
A little less than a month ago, Duke looked like its season was going nowhere. After reeling off seven straight, they fell to Syracuse and Miami, and limped into the ACC tournament. Grayson Allen was hurt. Giles was an afterthought. And Jackson hadn’t shown enough to warrant a bump in play time. But then something happened.
Because Allen wasn’t healthy, K started Frank Jackson. At first, it was out of need. Allen couldn’t play a full game at max effort. And so Duke figured out how to play without one of its stars. It struggled in the first half against Clemson, and then picked it up. Against Louisville, the same thing happened. Allen came off the bench. But this time, something different happened. He was a spark. Almost Manu-esque off the bench, the spark plug junior guard took over against Louisville, scoring 18 as the Devils marched to victory. Against Carolina, again he scored 18 off the bench — this time adding five assists. The emergence of Frank Jackson in hand, Allen as a sixth man gave Duke a new dimension.
Allen’s rise to stardom came from a bench role. He’s always been Duke’s energizer bunny. Our microwave when we needed to get hot. And now, as he stares an NBA future in the eyes, Grayson Allen carries his team to the title game once more. Duke’s “trip” continues.
1. Kansas v. 2. Kentucky
When these two programs met in January, something strange happened. Kansas, then the second ranked team in the country, fell behind early. After 10 minutes, the Wildcats led by 12, and it looked like we were headed for an upset. Kentucky, ranked fourth, was no slouch, but still — that big of a deficit was surprising. But then it happened. By halftime, they cut the lead to five. By the midpoint of the second half, they took the lead, and by the end, they were up 10.
Kansas can do these things because of Frank Mason III, and because of Devonte’ Graham, and because of Josh Jackson. They can manufacture these methodical runs that keep them competitive, waiting until just the right moment to charge. Kentucky is fierce — there’s no doubt of that. Per usual, their roster is filled with future pros. Malik Monk and De’Aron Fox could both hear their names called early in the draft. As could Bam Adebayo. Kentucky is well coached, and has all the weapons to make the title game. But Kansas is just too good. Briscoe and Willis can’t beat Jackson on the wing, and Graham and Mason should be able to match Kentucky’s formidable guards. It’ll be close, but the Jayhawks will return to the national championship game for the first time since 2012.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
2. Duke v. 1. Kansas
A battle of blue bloods. This is what March is all about. The last time these two met, Kansas eked out a victory after Frank Mason III stunned the Madison Square Garden crowd with a game winning jumper. It was devastating. After being down 12 in the second half, Duke clawed back, and tied the game with seconds to go. Playing without Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, or Marquis Bolden, this seemed like a message to the rest of the country: if you think we’re good now, just wait till you see what happens when we’re healthy.
Unfortunately, that day never really came. Giles — the former future Anthony Davis — hasn’t lived up to his billing, and Bolden doesn’t factor into the rotation at all. But Jayson Tatum has. The latest in a lineage of Duke forward one-and-dones, Tatum represents the change Duke underwent all year. He started slow after missing time early. He was inconsistent, showing flashes of greatness, and then going unnoticed for games at a time. But then, as the season came to an end, he awoke.
Against Florida early, he broke out, twice showing the New York crowd his Carmelo impression. Over his last ten games, he exploded, averaging 19 points and 7 boards. As Kansas manages an answer for Luke Kennard, and Grayson Allen, and Amile Jefferson, it’s Tatum who’s poised to lift the Devils to their sixth title in what could be Coach K’s final season. Jackson v. Tatum is a match-up we’ve craved for months, and now, on the sport’s biggest stage, we’ll get it. If Jefferson and Giles can stay out of foul trouble, and allow Duke to play small, Tatum will be the difference here. These are two of the best teams in the country, but only one will cut down the nets.
In the end, it’ll be Duke lifting a banner. And it’ll be Mike Krzyzewski riding off into the sunset.