Archive for March, 2014

MLB Standings Predictions- NL

Posted: 03/31/2014 by levcohen in Baseball

Before I even knew it was coming, the non-Aussie portion of the MLB season started last night with San Diego’s comeback win against Brian Wilson and the Los Angeles Dodgers. I’m a little late, but here are my NL Standings predictions (hint: the Phillies don’t fare very well).

NL East:
1. Washington Nationals (93-69). I was on the Braves bandwagon for much of the offseason, saying that I thought they still had a great chance of repeating and finishing above the Nationals for the second consecutive year. But with all the injuries to their pitchers (Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor, etc.), the Nationals have regained their clear edge in this division. Although the Nationals did just lose Doug Fister for perhaps a month to a strained lat (maybe the Tigers knew he was an injury concern, which would explain why they gave him up for pennies), they still have the depth to sustain injuries to their pitching staff. The three aces- Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez- are all in their primes. Strasburg is 25, Gonzalez is 28, and Zimmermann is 27. I wouldn’t be surprised to see two or even all three of them have career years, which is saying something given that, over the past three years (nine total for the three pitchers), none of the three had a season with a worse ERA than Gonzalez’s 3.36 last year. Those three guys are going to be good. The lineup is a mix of youth and experience. Jayson Werth (who had a career year last year), Adam LaRoche, and to a lesser extent Denard Span are the veteran hitters, while Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, and Wilson Ramos constitute the new guard. Both Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond are in their statistical primes. That’s the starting lineup right there, so you can see that this is a both deep and well balanced team.

2. Atlanta Braves (85-77). The focus for the Atlanta Braves should now be on a wildcard spot, and not on the division, whereas before the major injuries to Beachy and Medlen they probably were gearing for another tough race with the Nationals for the division. I can’t underscore enough how important and damaging those two injuries in particular were to the Braves’ playoff chances. The Braves will now likely enter the season with Julio Teheran as the only sure thing in the rotation, with unproven Alex Wood and David Hale, recently signed Ervin Santana, and soon-to-be-36 year old journeyman Aaron Harang. Mike Minor should be back, which will provide relief, but this rotation, so deep in years past, is anything but right now. The Braves will now have to put great strain on their MLB-best bullpen of last year. Craig Kimbrel is great, but the bullpen might not be as good after factoring in a likely increase in innings. The hitting, which looks decent, also has some big holes. Will we see the B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla of last season, when they were historically bad? Or will they bounce back and become the players they were earlier in their careers? Andrelton Simmons is great defensively, but can he get on base enough? Is Evan Gattis legit (likely not)? Is Chris Johnson legit (likely not)? How far can Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton take this team? That’s a lot of questions, and I’m leaning toward a negative answer with a lot of them. But B.J. and Uggla must bounce back at least a little, so that should be a few extra wins there. I think 85 wins and a run for the wildcard is a fair expectation.

3. New York Mets (75-87). Is this a playoff sleeper? Or are they destined for a last place finish without ace Matt Harvey? I think they are somewhere in the middle. The rotation, led by Zack Wheeler, Bartolo Colon, and Dillon Gee, the rotation is solid. The bullpen is weak, but the lineup features David Wright, and, er… David Wright. Yeah, you’re right. This team doesn’t have that much. They need Travis D’Arnaud to have a great rookie year, hit with power, and win the NL ROY. They need Curtis Granderson to magically become a 40-homer player again. They need Chris Young to be the Chris Young of 2010. They need top prospect Noah Syndergaard to become this year’s version of Wheeler. That’s a lot of needs, and I think the Mets are going to finish 12 games under .500. They have hope, though, because there is a lot of talent here. I just don’t think it comes together this year.

4. Miami Marlins (72-90). Just like with the Mets, there is hope here. Assuming they hold onto Giancarlo Stanton, the 1-2 punch of Stanton and Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez is set to lead the team into the future. And there is also help coming. Christian Yelich, a top prospect, is already making an impact. Four of their starters are under 25 years old. Colin Moran, a great hitter who was the Marlins’ top pick last year, could make an impact as soon as early next season. Jake Marisnick was sent to MLB too early last year. He’s still raw, but he will be good. The Minor Leagues are brimming with pitching prospects, led by future ace Andrew Heaney. It’s clear that the rotation is and will be the strength of this team. Fernandez is already one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Heaney might soon join him. If the Marlins had even a passable offense, they could make the playoffs this year. But their offense still has a long way to go. There are five or six guys in the lineup that might not start on any other team. That’s o.k., though, because the Marlins know this isn’t going to be their year. After they had a terrible winter last year (trading many of their best and most established players) and the year before (signing most of said players), the Marlins now have a direction. 72 wins and improvement from the young guys would be just fine for Miami this season.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (68-94). What are the chances that Cliff Lee is a Philadelphia Phillie on August first, the day after the trade deadline? 20%? Lower? I would certainly bet against it, because this team is going to want to start offloading their aging assets for young talent as soon as they realize they won’t come close to contention. Lee is probably going to go; Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins (although he has a no-trade clause), and nearly anyone else could be next to go. There are really only a few possible future contributors on this team. Dominic Brown, Ben Revere (maybe), Maikel Franco, Jesse Biddle, Cesar Hernandez, J.P. Crawford, and Roman Quinn come to mind. But even some of those guys might not pan out. It’s time for a rebuild, and it’ll probably be a long one. That is definitely better than a slow unraveling, though, because at least then the Phillies might end up with some assets. Expect Lee and others to be dealt at the deadline, and expect a downward swoon immediately afterwards.

NL Central:
1. St. Louis Cardinals (92-70). The Cardinals are probably the deepest and one of the most talented teams in baseball. Future aces Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez are both serving in short relief. Top prospect Oscar Taveras, who is ready for Big League baseball, remains in AAA because of the outfield depth. Jon Jay, who has been a solid all around starting outfielder throughout his Cardinal career and is just 29, will serve a bench role. It’s simply an embarrassment of riches, and it’s amazing that the bottom of the lineup, featuring Matt Adams, Jhonny Peralta, and Peter Bourjos in the 6-7-8 spots, is so good. In Yadier Molina, the Cardinals have the best catcher in baseball. In Adam Wainwright, they have one of the best pitchers. Matt Carpenter had the most hits in baseball last year, Allen Craig has a .850 career OPS, and Matt Holliday is one of the most consistent hitters in baseball. I didn’t even mention the rotation, which features Wainwright, emerging ace Michael Wacha, and a ROY Candidate from last year, Shelby Miller, as the #4 starter. This team is stacked.

2. Cincinnati Reds (86-76). In Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds lost their leadoff hitter and catalyst, and it’s a huge loss. But Choo is basically all the Reds lost, and I’m confident that they can replace Choo, if not his on-base prowess. The loss of Bronson Arroyo, which subsequently allows Tony Cingrani to enter the rotation, was addition by subtraction. Cingrani, along with Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, and Homer Bailey, make a rotation that has a lot of promise. A lot of things could also go wrong, though. Cingrani relies mostly on his fastball, and it’s possible that hitters will start to figure him out in his second season. Cueto missed a large part of last season with injuries, Latos is already hurt, and Bailey had a nice year last season but could be in for some regression. I have confidence in this rotation, though, and it will need to be very good if the Reds want to win the 86 games I’m predicting that they will win. On the hitting side of things, Joey Votto will continue to lead the team. Votto is incredibly valuable, and he probably makes everyone else on his team better by getting on base time and time again and instilling caution and fear in opposing pitchers. Billy Hamilton should add a new dimension; that of true hustle and speed. Hamilton could become the first player to steal 100 bases in a season in 27 years given the tear he went on in just one month last year. Jay Bruce has power, and Ryan Ludwick should add some more. There are holes, none bigger than the fact that, outside of Votto, nobody gets on base much. But if enough goes right, the Reds should be back in the playoffs.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (83-79). I also think that the Brewers will be in the playoff race until the end. I believe that, sans steroids, Ryan Braun is going to have a great year. Yes, he’s a jerk, but he’s also a great hitter, even without steroids. He might not be an MVP-caliber player, but he will hit. I think that Braun and Khris Davis, who went berserk in limited time last year, could combine to hit 70 homers. This team has a lot of homer potential, with the two mentioned above, Carlos Gomez, one of the most underrated players in all of baseball in Aramis Ramirez, and one of the best catchers in MLB in Jonathan Lucroy. This is, more than anything else, a team filled with question marks. Specifically questions about regression. Can Davis sustain that power? Will Jean Segura, the best shortstop in MLB in the first half of last year before falling off in the second half, regress? How about Gomez, who had career highs in everything imaginable last year? How much did the steroids aid Braun? The pitching staff, much maligned, could be underrated. I expect Yovani Gallardo to bounce back, Matt Garza was signed, and Kyle Lohse is always solid. Marco Estrada, another member of the rotation, has the third best K/BB rate of anyone in the MLB with more than 250 innings in the last two years. He’s behind just Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright. He could also become an ace. I really like this Brewers team, but again there are too many questions to make them a playoff team.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (78-84). I hate to say it, but I think the Pirates are going to take a step back this year, for a number of reasons. First, I think they performed above their talent level last year, and that will even out. Second, they lost a bunch of contributors from last year’s playoff team. A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau, and Garrett Jones come to mind. Third, they didn’t really replace those losses. Their top free agent signing was Travis Ishikawa, who had 20 plate appearances last year. That hurts, and I don’t think the Pirates, Andrew McCutchen and all, will be able to bounce back from it unless they make a couple of big trades.

5. Chicago Cubs (64-98). The Cubs are basically in the same place as the Marlins. They have a ton of talent, but it’s still a few years from really making an impact. Another bad season and top pick is probably in store, but what really matters is the development of the young prospects.

NL West:
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (97-65). The Dodgers get a lot of press, so I’m not going to write much about them. It’s a super talented, super expensive team, and my only big concern right now is Clayton Kershaw’s back. If his injury is minor, the Dodgers will be one of the best teams in baseball. You can count on that.

2. San Francisco Giants (90-72). It’s an even year! The last two even years, the Giants have won the World Series. I don’t think it will happen again, but this is the second most talented team in the division, and probably one of the four most talented in the NL. The 1-2 tandem of Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, who will bounce back after an unlucky year last season, is one of the best in baseball. It’s hard to believe that Bumgarner is still just 24, because he is entering his fifth season and has 115 career starts. Bumgarner’s ERA went down three-fifths of a run last year all the way down to 2.77, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go down even further. I don’t know why his name isn’t mentioned more often as an ace. The Giants also have Buster Posey, the best hitting catcher in baseball, and Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval will have a big year because he’s motivated, as this is his contract year, and Sandoval is often the key to the Giants’ success. When he’s good, the Giants can score runs and pitch well and generally win a lot of games. When he’s off, they often struggle to score runs, and the good pitching is wasted. I also love Brandon Belt, an underrated first baseman who had a terrific year last season and could make an all-star team. The talent is there, and it’s an even year. I don’t think the Giants will win the World Series again, but I think they’ll head back to the playoffs.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (80-82)
4. Colorado Rockies (78-84)
5. San Diego Padres (77-85)
I’m putting these three teams together because I honestly have no idea how this will end up. All three teams have talent, and all three teams have glaring holes. The Padres’ talent lies in their pitching, the Rockies’ talent lies in their hitting, and the Diamondbacks’ talent lies in their depth. The Diamondbacks have a star player in Paul Goldschmidt, but lost their best pitcher, Patrick Corbin. The Rockies have Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, but both are very injury prone. The Padres are without a star, but have a deep rotation with a few breakout candidates (Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross come to mind). So for these three teams, your guess is as good as mine.

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Elite Eight Sunday Predictions

Posted: 03/30/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

Florida and Wisconsin punched their tickets to the Final Four yesterday, which means that I went 1-1 but 2-0 against the spread. Dayton kept it fairly close against Florida en route to barely covering the 10.5 point spread, and Wisconsin won a close overtime game against Arizona, the finishing touches of the demolition of my bracket. For the tournament, I’m now just 31-25 straight up, and 30-25-1 against the spread.

4 Michigan State (29-8) vs 7 Connecticut (29-8) in New York
Spread: Michigan State favored by 5.5
Michigan State continued their run of close, physical wins in their close, physical, 61-59 victory over Virginia. It was a tremendous game that was close throughout. Michigan State led by slim margins for the entire first half, before Virginia edged ahead at the beginning of the second half. Michigan State fought back, before Virginia tied the game with a Justin Anderson three with 1:53 left in the game. Despite Michigan State taking a lead and shooting free throws well, Virginia stayed in the game thanks to three pointers by Anderson, Joe Harris, and Malcolm Brogdon in the final two minutes. It was actually pretty surprising to see Michigan State give up those three pointers, because their defense has been so terrific for the entire tournament. The fact that they’ve done it even as some of their key players haven’t played well is even more impressive. Keith Appling, the point guard and a double digit scorer in the regular season, has scored just eight points total in three tournament games while playing 83 minutes and getting off just nine shots. He might still be injured. Gary Harris, a presumptive top 10 pick in the upcoming draft and the team’s leading scorer, is averaging just 11.3 points per game on 25% shooting from three point range. In their tournament-opening win, Adreian Payne saved MSU with 41 points, eight rebounds, and 17-17 shooting from the line. In their last two wins, Branden Dawson has been the savior, scoring at least 24 points and rebounding the ball at least nine times in each game. He has shot 68% from the field in the last two games. If everyone starts playing well for Michigan State, watch out, because they just beat one of the best teams in the country with star players performing at less than peak performance.

Connecticut is peaking at the right time, and this feels eerily similar to Kemba Walker’s run to become NCAA Champions a few years ago. Everyone knows about Shabazz Napier, who is serving as Kemba. Napier scored 24 points in their first round scare against St. Joe’s, 25 against Villanova, and 19 against Iowa State. But he has also had some help. Guard mate Ryan Boatright is averaging close to 15 points per game in the tournament, DeAndre Daniels went 27 and 10 against the Cyclones, and Niels Griffy, a senior who averaged just 24 minutes per game and 3.8 rebounds per game in the regular season, is over 32 MPG and seven rebounds per game in the tournament. The contributions are coming from everywhere, which explains why UConn has knocked off the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in their region in consecutive games. Can they upset Michigan State? I think they can, and I think they should be favored based on how each team has played this season. But I think that Harris and/or Appling will bounce back, and I think that will be the difference. Michigan State wins. Barely. 76-72.

2 Michigan (28-8) vs 8 Kentucky (27-10) in Indianapolis
Spread: Kentucky favored by 2
This is a great match-up. It’s Michigan’s shooting against Kentucky’s inside dominance. Michigan’s skill and Kentucky’s power. Michigan’s consistency throughout the year and Kentucky’s recent explosion. I keep saying that Michigan isn’t going to go far in the tournament because they eventually will go cold and won’t be able to hit their shots. But Michigan is still alive, simply because they haven’t gone cold, at least for long enough to cost them. They beat Tennessee by two points because of their terrific shooting in the first half, and their poor shooting in the second half didn’t come back to haunt them. The problem is that Kentucky is more talented and better than Tennessee. Michigan will need to shoot well throughout the game if they expect to beat the Wildcats, who are suddenly one of the title favorites. Inside dominance, unlike shooting, doesn’t come and go; it should be a consistent strength for Kentucky. The keys to this game are Nik Stauskas and Julius Randle, the star of each team and embodiment of each team’s philosophy. Stauskas, the Big-10 player of the year, has hit 10 threes so far in the tournament, and is becoming more and more reliant on the three point shot. In the regular season, 52% of Stauskas’s shots came from three point range, and that is all the way up to 70% in the tournament. 45% of his points during the regular season came from three point range, and that’s also up to 65%. Again, he’d better be hot today. Randle, a likely top-5 pick in the upcoming draft, has a double-double in each of Kentucky’s three tournament games. He’s averaging 15.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, five free throws made, and 50% shooting in the tournament. Of Kentucky’s incredible 38 offensive rebounds, Randle has 13. Again, it simply comes down to strength against strength. And I have more confidence in Kentucky’s strength. And no, I’m not a Michigan “hater”. 74-69.

Saturday Elite Eight Predictions

Posted: 03/29/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

It’s a good thing I didn’t pick yesterday’s Sweet 16 games, because if I had, I’m pretty sure I would have done my normal overthinking thing and gone 1-3 or 0-4. So I avoided that, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to avoid another goose egg tonight. There are just two games on, which means fewer games that I can get right. Before I make my picks, here are the odds for each remaining team to win it all, with some thoughts after them.
Dayton- 50:1
Connecticut- 18:1
Wisconsin- 12:1
Kentucky- 10:1
Michigan- 8:1
Michigan State- 5:1
Arizona- 4:1
Florida- 5:2

The Dayton odds immediately pop out for obvious reasons. I understand that they are the outsiders here (along with UConn to an extent), and I also understand that they are heavy underdogs against Florida. But 50:1 at this stage? There’s really only a two percent chance that Dayton wins three more games?
I also disagree with the Michigan odds. Although they beat Tennessee, I like them less than I did before that game. Michigan needed very hot shooting (11-20 from three point range) and allowed Tennessee to snag 11 offensive rebounds. The lead, 11 points at halftime, was two by the end of the game. I find it hard to believe that Michigan can shoot that well for three more games against teams who are better than Tennessee. Kentucky clearly has their mojo, and they are in many ways a better version of Tennessee. That will surely be a struggle, unless Michigan goes cold and UK blows them out. Can Michigan win? Sure. But 8:1 seems like very short odds. Kentucky is more likely to win it than they are at this point.
The rest of the odds seem pretty good, although I think Wisconsin is being underrated while Florida is being a bit overrated.

1 Florida (35-2) vs 11 Dayton (26-10) in Memphis
Spread: Florida favored by 10.5
On paper, this shouldn’t be much of a game. Florida has a long winning streak, is the No. 1 seed, and has cruised to the Elite Eight, winning each game by double digits. Dayton is a Cinderella story who had their nice little run and should be going home right about now. So can Dayton keep it close? I think Florida will win the game, but Dayton has the depth to stay in the game. When you see a Cinderella meeting a Giant at this point in the tournament, the most likely result is the better team tiring out the Cinderella and pulling away at the end. I don’t think that will happen against Dayton. The Flyers have shown that they can win low scoring games (against Ohio State and Syracuse) and in high scoring games (over Stanford). I suspect that the second style is the one they prefer to play, but it’s not one that’s going to be able to beat Florida. For Dayton to keep it close, they’ll need to play better defensively than they did against Stanford. If they keep the game in the 60 point range, they have a chance to keep it close. But if they get into a transition game with the superior Gators, it’s going to be a long night. I’m done doubting Dayton. Florida wins, but not by a ton. 71-65.

1 Arizona (33-4) vs 2 Wisconsin (29-7) in Anaheim
Spread: Arizona favored by 3.5
This is a true tossup game. Arizona needed a late outburst from Nick Johnson, who started the game 0-10 from the field, to seal their win over San Diego State, and I think this game against Wisconsin will be similar. The difference is that Wisconsin is a terrific offensive team, while SDSU is not. I’ve really underestimated the Wisconsin Badgers, especially heading into their Sweet 16 game against the Baylor Bears. They won by 17, but it felt like much more. Wisconsin’s defense, worse than it has been recently under Bo Ryan, looks to have turned it around. They throttled an offensively-talented Baylor team, holding them to 52 points and 32% shooting. This is a team that really plays together, and this might be the test of talent vs chemistry and depth. Arizona is talented, but are just six deep after the loss of Brandon Ashley. Wisconsin, on the other hand, can go 10 deep and could easily tire Arizona out and put them in serious foul trouble. This will be a low scoring game, and I think it could go down to the last possession. As much because I want to stick with my preseason pick to win it all as anything, I think Arizona wins a very close game. 66-65

Sweet 16 Thursday Predictions

Posted: 03/27/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

After three long days, the NCAA tournament is back with four games tonight and four tomorrow. By Monday morning, there will be just four teams left, and just two tough games separate these 16 teams from the Final Four. While there have been a few big upsets, and while there are three double-digit teams in the Sweet 16 with an assurance of at least one in the Elite Eight and a good shot at another, most of the favorites are still in the tournament. The “smart” money had Florida, Arizona, Louisville, and Michigan State all participating in the Final Four, and all four teams are still alive. But there have been some shifts in the hierarchy. Most notably is the terrific win by Kentucky over Wichita State. I had Wichita State, saying that, for Kentucky to win, they would need to show us something they hadn’t yet this season. Well, they did, and they edged out a Wichita State team, who, by the way, played pretty darn well themselves. Please do not take anything away from Wichita State’s season. They are a great team who played great basketball all season. They just ran into a Kentucky team who will surely make the Final Four if they play like that. Kansas, Duke, and Wichita State are all out, but those teams were never favored to come out of their regions anyway. Most of the big shots remain, and, while there might not be as many upsets as there were in the first couple of rounds, this is when the basketball becomes really fun to watch.

Record: 29-23

— South Region —

10 Stanford (23-12) vs 11 Dayton (25-10) in Memphis
Spread: Stanford favored by 3
It’ll probably come back to bite me, but I’m going to start off by saying that I think it’s highly unlikely that the winner of this game will upset UCLA or more likely Florida. Those two teams are just so much more talented and have been so much better all season. Then again, I could have said the same thing about Ohio State, New Mexico, Kansas, and Syracuse, and these two teams had to knock off all four of those teams to advance to this point. It’s clear that Archie Miller’s Dayton (fifth placed finishers in the A-10 and on the bubble throughout the season) and Johnny Dawkins’s Stanford (fourth placed finishers in the Pac-12 and on the bubble throughout the season) aren’t the same teams they were in the regular season.
Dayton’s transformation has come on the defensive end. They have given up just 59 and 53 points against Ohio State and Syracuse, respectively, and those two teams have shot just 43% against the Flyers. They also have a great coach. The problem I have with Dayton is that they were very mediocre throughout the season, and even more importantly have been fairly mediocre in the tournament. Their two wins were impressive, but were by a combined three points and could easily have been losses. I thought it was fair to say that Ohio State lost the game rather than Dayton winning, and I would say the same about Syracuse. Dayton ran into two teams who weren’t playing well, and capitalized… Barely.
When Stanford came into the tournament, they were a team that sorely needed the two wins they got in the Pac-12 tournament. Had they lost in the first round, they probably would be in the NIT right now, but by the time they were crushed by eventual tournament champion UCLA (an Elite Eight rematch could be in store), they were safely in the tournament. What we couldn’t have expected, though, is that this team would still be playing on the second weekend. A key is Chasson Randle, the offensive sparkplug who needs to score a lot of points for Stanford to feel safe about this game. Another key is the frontcourt duo of Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic. Both can score, but both can also get into a lot of foul trouble.
I see a low scoring game here, and I think it will be a tossup. A lot of people are pointing out that Dayton is 11-0 when holding opponents under 60 points, but Stanford is also 10-1 in those situations. I know it’s hard to believe, but most teams do well when they don’t allow their opponents to score a lot of points. It’s going to be close, but I think Stanford is slightly better. 59-56.

1 Florida (34-2) vs 4 UCLA (28-8) in Memphis
Spread: Florida favored by 4.5
Florida is the best team in college basketball right now, and I’m not going to pick against them here. I learned from my mistake in picking Pittsburgh over the Gators, as for the first time I watched an entire Florida Gators game. It was close in the first half, but Florida was always going to win that game. I also underestimated both the fierce, tremendous defense that DEFENDS WITHOUT FOULING (very important in a five foul game), and Scottie Wilbekin. Wilbekin made an unlikely Panthers comeback impossible. Every time the Gators had the ball, Wilbekin dribbled the ball around outside the three point line, and then with about five seconds left on the shot clock drove to the basket. He made the shot every single time. It’s hard to come back against a team that defends so well and has such a calm, composed, and all around good point guard. Florida is the real deal.
UCLA cruised in their first two games. They looked unstoppable offensively, as they have so often this season, in their wins over Tulsa and Stephen F Austin. But both of those teams were thoroughly outclassed against the Bruins, and Florida is a different story. UCLA causes matchup problems with Kyle Anderson, a Magic Johnson-esque guard/forward/center. Florida can negate that with 6’8″ Will Yeguete, a defensive stopper who plays just 23 minutes per game (the Gators have depth) but could play a lot more against Anderson. UCLA should and will keep it close, because they aren’t the best match-up for Florida. They deal well with a press, and don’t turn the ball over much. But in a clash of offense against defense, I think it will be Florida who ends up prevailing. 71-65.

— West Region —

2 Wisconsin (28-7) vs 6 Baylor (26-11) in Anaheim
Spread: Wisconsin favored by 3.5
Wisconsin had to rally to beat Oregon, but they are still playing great basketball right now, at least offensively. They have scored at least 75 points in four straight games, and all five starters scored in double figures against Oregon and at least seven points against American. Offensively, this is a well rounded team that can hit threes in droves, get to the line, and make their free throws. Defensively, though, there have been some holes, which is puzzling given that Bo Ryan is normally a defensive-oriented coach. The Ducks shot 49% against the Badgers, hit eight threes, and even got to the free throw line 23 times, making 21. Remember, Wisconsin fouls less than almost any other team, so that stat is perhaps the most worrying. The Badgers have given up at least 70 points 11 times in their last 21 games after giving up that many points just twice in their first 14. That’s also worrying. Taking a glass half full approach, take a look at Wisconsin’s starting lineup; Ben Brust, Sam Dekker, Josh Gasser, Traevon Jackson, Frank Kaminsky. All five can hit long distance shots. That’s great against most teams, but absolutely vital against the Baylor zone. I don’t think Wisconsin will have trouble scoring the basketball, but can the defend well enough?
Baylor could well have even more talent than Wisconsin. They are 12-2 in their last 14 games, including an 8-2 mark against NCAA tournament teams. Their 85-55 win over Doug McDermott and Creighton might have been the most impressive I’ve seen in the tournament. They held the best shooting team in the country to 40% from the field and a dismal 5-24 from three point range, while sending them to the free throw time just nine times. McDermott got in foul trouble in the first time in a long time, and scored an unthinkably low 15 points. The Creighton bench went 4-13 for 11 points. Baylor, on the other hand, shot 64% from the field (!), 11-18 (61%) from three (!), and hit 14 free throws. They are a big, physical team, and I think they’ll kill the Badgers on the board. They average 38.7 rebounds per game, 24th in the NCAA, while Wisconsin is at 33.2, 261st. I think that they’ll score easily from the paint against an un-Bo Ryan like Wisconsin team. I think they’ll hit their threes close to their 39% season average, top-25 in the nation, with Brady Heslip, fourth in three pointers made in the NCAA, leading the way. Just as Oregon destroyed the Badgers, I think the Bears can too. In a similar game, I just think Baylor will close the door on the Badgers in a way that the Ducks could not. 81-77

1 Arizona (32-4) vs 4 San Diego State (31-4) in Anaheim
Spread: Arizona favored by 7.5
I like Arizona in this game, but not by the point spread. I think this game will come down to the wire, as two defensive-minded teams duke it out in one of the two Sweet 16 rematch games (Kentucky-Louisville is the other). Xavier Thames, who was so good against North Dakota State, is the X factor. When Thames is anything less than his very best, San Diego State struggles to score points, and will struggle even more against a physical Arizona team. Right now, I think Arizona is one of the two best teams in college basketball, and I think they are just about on level terms with the #1, Florida. The result of this game will be the same as it was in November 14th, but I think it will come down to the wire in a close, physical game between the second ranked defense (San Diego State: 56.6 points allowed per game) and the fifth ranked defense (Arizona: 58.3 points allowed). Arizona wins 63-58.

Round of 32 Sunday Predictions

Posted: 03/23/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

And it gets worse. I went 3-5 yesterday, and was a victim of over thinking (Pittsburgh over Florida), picking based on the point spread (Villanova over Connecticut), underestimating (San Diego State and Dayton). My fifth incorrect pick (Oregon over Wisconsin) looked good at half time, but the Ducks blew a 49-37 half time lead. Overall, it was a bad day, and not just because my picks were poor. Only one of the eight games ended in a margin of fewer than seven points, and that game was a Syracuse-Dayton game that was sore on the eyes to say the least. Let’s hope for a better day both in terms of watch-ability and in terms of my picks.

Record: 24-20

— South Region —

2 Kansas (25-9) vs 10 Stanford (22-12) in St. Louis
Spread: Kansas favored by 6
Coming into Friday’s round one games, it looked as if there would be three really enticing games in the next round (today). A suddenly hot Oklahoma State against a suddenly shaky Arizona, perfect performance (Wichita State) against talent (Kentucky), and Kansas, without their center Joel Embiid, against an underseeded New Mexico team. Well, guess what? Two of those three potential games was thwarted, and I ended up going 0-3 on the three first round games. Now, it looks like Kansas, who were very shaky in their opening round win, as they ended the first half tied with Eastern Kentucky tied 32-32 and didn’t pull away until the end, has a fairly easy road to the Sweet 16 and possibly beyond. But I learned from Dayton and San Diego State that I shouldn’t underestimate any team. So let’s take a look at the actual match-up. Does Stanford have a chance of upsetting a wounded giant (get it? Kansas the team is a wounded giant, and their big man is also a wounded giant. Double meaning there).
I watched the game between Stanford and New Mexico, and to be honest I thought that New Mexico was the better team. Even in the second half, when Stanford was clinging to a lead, I was confident that UNM would come back and take the game. But it didn’t happen. Give Stanford the credit; their defense was terrific, holding New Mexico to 37% shooting and 4-21 from three point land. We also, unfortunately, saw that Stanford is a very flawed team. They had trouble scoring, shooting just 39% from the field. They also showed a lack of depth, especially in the front court. Their two big men, Stefan Nastic and Dwight Powell, were in foul trouble throughout the game (they ended up with nine combined fouls). But Stanford kept them in the game for the most part, and in the brief glimpses I saw of backup John Gage, I saw a big man who could shoot threes but struggled defensively. Additionally, both guards played the whole game, and played tremendously, scoring 33 combined points out of Stanford’s 58. Stanford has a chance to win this game because Kansas really hasn’t been playing well, but there are just too many things that could go wrong (foul trouble, inability to capitalize on Kansas’ poor defense), and I’m going to pick Kansas in a close one. 70-66.

4 UCLA (27-8) vs 12 Stephen F Austin (32-2) in San Diego
Spread: UCLA favored by 9
This game has the most lopsided spread of any of the eight games today, and I understand why. Stephen F Austin barely pulled out a win over VCU, needing a miraculous four point play in the closing seconds to force overtime, while UCLA cruised against an outmatched Tulsa. UCLA is on quite a run, having won the Pac-12 tournament championship. Plus, this game is in San Diego, which is pretty close to Los Angeles and a heck of a lot further from the Texas-Louisiana border, where SFA is located. Stephen F Austin have two main strengths: they are good at forcing turnovers (24.1% of the time- fourth in the NCAA), and they are good at offensive rebounding (38.5%, 11th). Unfortunately, UCLA has a great point guard in Kyle Anderson who has an assist to turnover ratio of 2:1 and are also great on the defensive boards. Anderson, in fact, might be the difference maker in this game. He’s a 6’9″ point guard or point forward or whatever you want to call him who averages 15 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists per game. That is very rare, and it’s going to be a matchup nightmare for SFA. And I haven’t even mentioned UCLA’s best player, Jordan Adams, a sophomore 6’5″ guard who averages 17 points, five rebounds, two assists, and close to three steals per game. UCLA’s starting lineup is (from point guard to center): 6’9″, 6’5″, 6’4″, 6’10”, 6’10”. They also have likely top-10 pick Zach LaVine as their 6’5″ sixth man guard. Stephen F Austin’s starting lineup is: 5’9″ (gulp), 6’3″, 6’4″, 6’5″, and 6’6″. So UCLA is almost two feet taller than Stephen F Austin on their starting lineup, and that will be too much. UCLA wins 76-56.

— Midwest Region —

1 Wichita State (35-0) vs 8 Kentucky (25-10) in St. Louis
Spread: Wichita State favored by 4.5
If I had to choose between talent and chemistry, I’d take talent every time. But what if I had to choose between a. talent and dysfunction, and b. talent, proven performance, AND chemistry? I’d obviously take the second one every time. And I think that’s what we have right here. Kentucky is obviously a very talented team, but they haven’t put it together. I didn’t see any proof that they had improved at all in their win over Kansas State, which looked like one mediocre team beating another. On the other hand, Wichita State is a somewhat soft 35-0, but just because they haven’t had a tough schedule doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t beat talented teams. Remember, this is a better team than the one that made the Final Four last season. And they also have some pretty talented players. Cleanthony Early will likely go in the first round of the NBA draft. Point guard Fred VanVleet, a sophomore averaging 11.8 points, 5.3 assists, and just 1.3 turnovers per game is also a likely future NBA player. So there’s talent there. I don’t think Wichita State will win it all, but then again the odds are against any single team winning it. Wichita State should take this unless Kentucky suddenly shows something we haven’t yet seen from them. 67-59.

11 Tennessee (23-12) vs 14 Mercer (27-8) in Raleigh
Spread: Tennessee favored by 8.5
Finally, a prediction I can feel good about. No, I did not foresee Mercer knocking off Duke. But I did have Tennessee penciled into my Sweet 16 or Elite 8, and they have started off tremendously. Their win over UMass was very impressive, and the game was never in doubt. Defensively, this Tennessee team is one of the best in the country, and they have been getting better and better on the other side of the ball.
I think we all underestimated Mercer, whose win over Duke was not a fluke. They know what they are doing, and I don’t think anybody will underestimate them after the win over the Blue Devils. Mercer has been able to get the ball in the basket all season long, and in a lot of ways this is a strength versus strength match-up. Mercer’s offense against Tennessee’s defense. Both are great on the boards. Can Mercer win this game? Absolutely, and I don’t think the spread should be so high. But I think Tennessee ends up winning. 67-64.

— East Region —

3 Iowa State (27-7) vs 6 North Carolina (24-9) in San Antonio
Spread: Iowa State favored by 1.5
This spread would probably be closer to five had Iowa State not suffered a huge injury in their opening round win. But big man Georges Niang, who scored 24 points against North Carolina Central and averaged a team high 18.7 points per game during the Big 12 tournament, broke his right foot. Even worse is the fact that Niang is sorely needed against North Carolina. UNC has three 6’9″ forwards in┬áKennedy Meeks, James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson who combined for 44 of North Carolina’s 79 points in a two point win over Providence. But UNC was shaky defensively in that game, and I think Iowa State will play motivated and continue to be explosive offensively. Remember, this is one of the best teams offensively in the country. By the way, remember how I said the AAC was the conference that was going to be poor in the tournament? I was wrong. It’s the ACC, which everybody thought was so strong in the regular season. Duke and Syracuse were upset in the first and second round, and NC State was also knocked out in the first round. Virginia and North Carolina barely won first round match-ups against lesser teams, and Pitt didn’t pose much of a threat for Florida in the second round. I think Iowa State edges out a victory over a struggling North Carolina team. 80-77.

1 Virginia (29-6) vs 8 Memphis (24-9) in Raleigh
Spread: Virginia favored by 6
I’m not going to write much about this game, because I’m really not a big fan of either team’s chances going forward against Michigan State and possible beyond. Memphis, who edged George Washington by five points in the weakest 8-9 match-up in the tournament, came into the tournament with three losses in their last five games. They rely on forcing turnovers and getting out in transition. If they can do that against Virginia and play at a high pace, they will win this game.
That’s really what it comes down to (the pace of the game, that is). Virginia has given up at least 75 points three times all year, and lost all three. They are the best defensive team in the country, but there’s no margin for error because the offense is so poor. Against a mediocre Coastal Carolina defense, Virginia scored 70 points. And that might be a best-case scenario, because they shot the ball well and got to the line a lot in that game. Again, it’s about the pace. If Memphis can push it, they’ll win the game. If not, Virginia will win it ugly. If either team scores 70 points, I think it will be Memphis. 71-66.

— West Region —

3 Creighton (27-7) vs 6 Baylor (25-11) in San Antonio
Spread: Creighton favored by 3.5
Baylor had no trouble against Nebraska, and I’ve gotten more and more confident in the Bears. I just think that they are a better all around team than Creighton. Now, if Doug McDermott scores 50 points, which he could easily do, that will be a moot point. But if Baylor keeps him under even 35, I think they win. They are simply the better team, and could be a Final Four team. I think they are that good. Baylor wins 84-81.

1 Arizona (31-4) vs 8 Gonzaga (29-6) in San Diego
Spread: Arizona favored by 7.5
Before their win over Oklahoma State, I hadn’t realized just how good Gonzaga’s offense was. Some of the names are recognizable from last year’s #1 seed. Kevin Pangos in particular sticks out. Pangos, who scored 26 points against Oklahoma State, is averaging 15 points per game and nearly two and a half made threes per game. Three other players also average double figures for a Gonzaga team that shoots 49.8% from the field and 39.4% from three point range, numbers that rank fifth and 16th in college basketball. Unfortunately, I don’t think good shooting alone is going to beat Arizona. Arizona is terrific defensively, and I think they cause some match-up problems for Gonzaga. I do think it’s a close game so Gonzaga will cover the spread, but Arizona will win. 66-61.

Round of 32 Saturday Predictions

Posted: 03/22/2014 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

I had a bad day yesterday. During March Madness, it happens to the best of us. I went 7-9, and my record for the tournament is now a ghastly 21-15. I feel like yesterday in particular, all of the games that I was 50-50 on, I lost. I originally had Stephen F Austin, but switched to VCU. Same goes for UCLA-Tulsa, Memphis-GW, and Providence-North Carolina. I also went 0-3 on the 8-9 games yesterday, which is tough to do. I did have a 14 seed beating a three, but it was the wrong one, even though I had Mercer keeping it close against Duke. Oh well. In related news, there is now only one perfect bracket in America. Let’s go Brad! I can’t say that an all-Michigan final is all that likely, but Brad’s done well thus far. Let’s hope he keeps it up. Anyway, there’s no time to breath, as the next round happens this very weekend. I’m not going to get this post done in time for the Pittsburgh-Florida game, but I won’t look at the score before I post.

Record: 21-15 (very imperfect)

—South Region—

1 Florida (33-2) vs 9 Pittsburgh (26-9) in Orlando
Spread: Florida favored by 5.5
And here is that very enticing aforementioned first game of the day. For me, it was one of the toughest games to pick when I originally made a bracket that now lies in some dumpster. Florida, as the #1 overall seed, was everyone’s favorite to make the Final Four out of the South, but I was more skeptical. I ended up taking Ohio State to make it, which is a totally different issue. Anyway, Florida has shown cracks all season long, and those cracks were clear in their rocky 12 point win over an Albany team that frankly should have been overwhelmed. To be fair, the Gators did out shoot the Great Danes 51% to 39%, but they never really pulled away. This Florida team is one of the best in the country defensively, and they have won 27 straight games, but they do sometimes struggle to put up points even when they are shooting well, with the Albany game as evidence. Part of that has got to be a lack of offensive rebounding, and another is 67% free throw shooting. It’s clear that Florida can’t score at will. To be fair, neither can any of the other #1 seeds this year with the possible exception of Wichita State.
Based on their thrashing of an undermanned Colorado team on Thursday, Pittsburgh is going to be tough to beat. Methodical is the word that best describes their win over the Buffs. Defensively, they were terrific, as they have been for most of the season. Colorado managed just 18 points in the first half after scoring five points in the first 11 minutes of the game. Even with star Lamar Patterson playing poorly, Pittsburgh still put up 77 points, thanks mostly to 51% shooting and 17 turnovers forced. For the season, they’re averaging 72.5 points, 46% shooting, and 10 turnovers forced per game. If they have the same success against Florida in the transition game and offensively as they did against Colorado, then this will be a rout, because Florida won’t be able to score easily. But I don’t think Pitt is tremendous offensively either, and I think the first to 60 will win this game. It’ll be a nail biter, and the Panthers haven’t been great in close games. In the end, it comes down to free throw shooting, and the Panthers shoot the ball better (71%) than the Gators. I don’t feel great about it, but I’ll take Pittsburgh by a score of 56-54

3 Syracuse (28-5) vs 11 Dayton (24-10) in Buffalo
Spread: Syracuse favored by 7.5
After picking them to lose in the round of 32 before the tournament, I’m back on the Syracuse bandwagon. It didn’t take much, but then again I probably never should have doubted this team. They were magnificent in the first round, proving that they are, in fact, a good basketball team, and not the one that lost five games in such a swift manner. People forget that Jerami Grant, the team’s fourth leading scorer and leading rebounder, was out injured. He’s back now. People also forget that just over a month ago, Syracuse was the consensus #1 overall seed with a 25-0 record. Then there’s the zone. It really is tough to prepare against, and Syracuse should probably be considered the favorite to come out of the South. Kansas doesn’t shoot the three very well (vital to beat the zone) and Florida (and Pittsburgh, for that manner) can’t be considered jump shooting teams.
Dayton won the game on Thursday against Ohio State, but the Buckeyes really lost it with a poor performance. As mentioned before, Dayton also struggles to hit threes. I don’t think they have much of a chance. Syracuse wins 72-60.

— Midwest Region—

4 Louisville (30-5) vs 5 Saint Louis (27-6) in Orlando
Spread: Louisville favored by 9.5
It makes me sick. It really does. Since I don’t really care about my bracket anymore, the biggest thing I’m rooting for in this tournament (besides a Villanova championship) is for Louisville to lose. As soon as possible. It’s nothing personal, but I’m tired of Rick Pitino. I love Russ Smith and the rest of them, but they won it last season. I want to see something new. And though Manhattan were in their first round game against Louisville throughout, they never really had a chance. This was probably the best case scenario for Louisville. Their first round game is close, but they win it. They now won’t take any opponent likely. A Manhattan team that had a former Pitino disciple coaching and probably new most of the tricks in Pitino’s book kept it close, but were not able to win. And in the other Midwest game in Orlando, we saw a poor (there is no other way of putting it) Saint Louis team edge North Carolina State in overtime. This was an NC State team that led for most of the game and was the better team throughout. I don’t want to say they “choked”, but they did miss free throws and handed the game to Saint Louis. It’s fair to say that, like Dayton, Saint Louis didn’t win the game but their opponent lost it. I fear a blowout here. Louisville wins 78-62.

2 Michigan (26-8) vs 7 Texas (24-10) in Milwaukee
Spread: Michigan favored by 4.5
Michigan needs to watch out here. I’m not a big fan of this Texas team, but if Michigan goes cold from the floor, they can easily lose. I wasn’t impressed with their win over Wofford. Wofford looked pretty bad, and Michigan put up just 57 points. More than ever, this looks like a vulnerable team. If Big 10 player of the year Nik Stauskas goes cold, watch out, because the Wolverines don’t really have any other good scorers with Mitch McGary out. Caris LeVert and Glen Robinson III, both NBA prospects, show flashes, but they are nowhere near the consistent second and third options a contender should have. I think that will come back to bite them, but I’m not sure it will against Texas.
Texas beat Arizona State 87-85. So yes, they won the game, but they gave up 85 points. In regulation. And Michigan is one of the most efficient teams offensively in the NCAA. The one thing Texas really has going for them is Cameron Ridley. Since Michigan is without a consistent big man, Ridley might have a huge game here. He put up 17 and 12 against the Sun Devils, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more of the same against Michigan. I just don’t think it will be enough to knock off the Wolverines. Michigan wins 72-68. All I can say is that, if you expect Michigan to go far in the tournament, you’d better hope that Stauskas stays hot.

— West Region —

4 San Diego State (30-4) vs 12 North Dakota State (26-6) in Spokane
Spread: San Diego State favored by 3.5
SDSU is another team that got very lucky in the first round, as it took them overtime to defeat a New Mexico State team that had outplayed them for the entire second half. San Diego State’s vaunted defense showed itself in the first half, when they gave up just 20 points. In the second half, though New Mexico State put up 40. That’s concerning. Also concerning is San Diego State’s poor shooting. They have shot it poorly all season, and Thursday night was no exception, as the Aztecs shot just 39% from the field against a mediocre defensive team. You might why their poor shooting matters. They did shoot just 44% during the season and still lost just four games, right? It’s a fair point, but North Dakota State is 19-1 when they give up 70 or fewer points. San Diego State averages just 70. The way to beat NDSU is offensively, because they showed against Oklahoma that they can really put the ball in the basket. Four players hit double figures, the team shot 53%, and the Bison also shot 43% from three point land and 91% (20-22) from the free throw line. Those numbers aren’t flukes, either; the Bison shot 51%-75%-37% over the course of the season. So while you could argue that NDSU hasn’t faced a defensive team as good as SDSU, I would counter with the fact that SDSU hasn’t faced an offense as good as North Dakota State’s. I think the Bison are just better defensively than the Aztecs are offensively, which will be the difference in this strength against strength and weakness against weakness game. North Dakota State wins 71-64.

2 Wisconsin (27-7) vs 7 Oregon (24-9) in Milwaukee
Spread: Wisconsin favored by 5.5
A couple points were added to the spread because the game is basically being played in Wisconsin University’s backyard, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to explain the 5.5 point spread. Oregon is a very good team, probably at the level of Wisconsin. Both teams were good in first round wins, as Wisconsin’s 75-35 win over American really jumps off the page. But I think Oregon’s win over BYU, which was in doubt for at least part of the second half, was even more impressive. The Ducks ended up winning 87-68, but it’s not the final score that was so impressive. It’s the fact that Oregon shot just 2-13 from three point range and still managed to put up 87 points that impresses me. I wouldn’t say that Oregon lived and died by the three point shot, but they definitely relied on it to an extent. They hit nearly eight threes a game and shot it at a 39% clip. To put that in perspective, Oregon finished 20th in college basketball in three point percentage and 47th in three pointers made. Somehow I don’t think they’ll finish 2-13 again. What really saved the Ducks was the fact that they shot 31-38 from the free throw line against BYU. Free throw shooting, I think, will quickly turn into a storyline in this game between the Ducks and the Badgers. The Ducks’ performance against Brigham Young was not a fluke, as they shot 77% over the course of the season. But Wisconsin allows opponents to shoot free throws fewer than almost any other team. In a game between evenly matched teams, the number of times Oregon gets to the line will likely decide it. I picked Oregon to get to the elite eight before the tournament, and I don’t know why I’d change my pick here. Oh, besides the fact that all my other predictions have been wrong. Oregon wins 75-72.

— East Region —

4 Michigan State (27-8) vs 12 Harvard (27-4) in Spokane
Spread: Michigan State favored by 7.5
It’s telling that Harvard was able to pull off the mini upset over Cincinnati without even playing particularly good basketball. The Crimson turned the ball over 12 times, shot 43% from the field, missed 11 free throws, and shot just 6-17 from three point land. And they still won the game over the regular season AAC Co-Champion. Impressive. But I can’t bring myself to pick them over Michigan State. Michigan State is basically Cincinnati except they can also score. So they aren’t really like Cincinnati at all. I’ll be cheering for Harvard but picking Michigan State. I like how that works. 70-65.

2 Villanova (29-4) vs 7 Connecticut (27-8) in Buffalo
Spread: Villanova favored by 3.5
3.5? Really? I know, I know. Connecticut matches up really well against Villanova with their fantastic guards (Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright) and they have their mojo back after beating Saint Joe’s in overtime on Thursday. In fact, this looks like a similar team to the one Kemba Walker led all the way to the NCAA Championship, with Napier starring instead of Walker this time around. Plus, Villanova hasn’t beaten a really good team since November and struggled to put Milwaukee away on Thursday after losing their first game of the Big East tournament against Seton Hall. They seem ripe for an upset. But I was still shocked to see the spread at 3.5. Connecticut will probably win this game, but Villanova had a heck of a season, even if they were blown out by Creighton twice. And because I’m shocked by the low line, I’m going to take Villanova. Take that, oddsmakers! By the way, I probably just doomed Villanova. And I didn’t talk about the specific match-ups for a reason (hint: it’s because it doesn’t look good for the Wildcats). Oh well. 77-70.

Now for the other two regions.

— South Region—

7 New Mexico (27-6) vs 10 Stanford (21-12) in St. Louis
Spread: New Mexico favored by 3
I’m a big fan of New Mexico, and I think they were drastically underseeded. This is a team that beat San Diego State twice and Cincinnati once, won the Mountain West conference championship, has one bad loss (against UNLV, who have an RPI of 104), and has lost just three games by more than three points. They are good defensively, good offensively, great on the boards. The Lobos have a 7’0″ center named Alex Kirk who averages 14 and nine and can shoot the ball from mid range. Their leading scorer, Cameron Baristow, exploded this season after averaging just 9.7 points per game in his junior year (he’s at 20.3 this year). Baristow gets to the line nearly nine times per game, and this is a team that gets to the line 26 times per game. That should be enough to stave off an upset, at least in the early going. I don’t have much to say about Stanford. They’re a good team, but I don’t think they are much more than that, and I think New Mexico is. New Mexico wins 70-66

2 Kansas (24-9) vs 15 Eastern Kentucky (24-9) in St. Louis
Spread: Kansas favored by 13
You should watch this game, but not because it’s going to be an upset. Kansas will win, but it’ll be interesting to see how they play without Joel Embiid. Embiid is out at least until the sweet 16, and coming before that could be a match-up against New Mexico. Depending on how Kansas plays today, they might well be underdogs against New Mexico in the next round, Andrew Wiggins and all. They should haven’t defended well without Embiid. Hopefully that changes today, but, assuming New Mexico wins, they’ll have a tough match-up in the next round. Kansas wins 84-73.

5 VCU (26-8) vs 12 Stephen F Austin (31-2) in San Diego
Spread: VCU favored by six
Talk about an enticing game. It’s everybody’s favorite underdog (VCU) against this year’s likely best chance at a poorly seeded team making a chance. I’ll start out by saying I like Stephen F Austin in this game. VCU is a good team, but they don’t have the type of team that plays well as favorites. They rely on turnovers, leading the nation in steals, but they have losses to Georgetown, Northern Iowa, and Florida State. What I’m trying to get to is that, while they are good, they can be beaten by pretty mediocre teams when they fail to force turnovers. Stephen F. Austin lost at Texas by 10 and at East Tennessee State by eight. That’s all that separates them from perfection. On the other hand, their best win is over Towson, and they have four wins over top-150 teams, three of them against the same team (Sam Houston State). But then again, they’ve won 28 straight. Nobody on their team averages more than 1.7 turnovers per game. You know what, I’m going to change my pick. I keep looking for other reasons to pick SFA, but I can’t find any. All I’ve gotten really is their 28 straight wins. But again, their best win was over Towson. I think VCU (a great offensive rebounding team) is going to destroy SFA (#335 in defensive rebounding) on the boards. I also don’t think Stephen F Austin has faced anyone close to as good as VCU before. Texas was the closest, but remember, Texas wasn’t supposed to be good, and at the beginning of the season (when the two played), they weren’t that good. VCU wins 71-65.

4 UCLA (26-8) vs 13 Tulsa (21-12) in San Diego
Spread: UCLA favored by 8.5
I don’t really like either of these teams. Tulsa isn’t a great team, but they caught fire at the end of the year. UCLA is a team that is ripe for an upset, but I’m not sure Tulsa is the team to do it. I think I dislike UCLA more than I dislike Tulsa, so I’ll go with Tulsa (that’s logical, right?). Tulsa wins 76-72.

— East Region —

8 Memphis (23-9) vs 9 George Washington (24-8) in Raleigh
Spread: Memphis favored by 4
There’s always a conference who teams do much worse than expected. I think this year it might just be the AAC. The AAC got four teams in the tournament, and most people think SMU should have joined Memphis. But the bottom of the conference was terrible, with teams like South Florida and Temple giving the top-5 some easy wins. And I think thay might be showing in the tournament. Cincinnati was upset by Harvard yesterday. Louisville barely escaped 13th seeded Manhattan, and UConn needed overtime to shake Saint Joe’s. The A-10, on the other hand, was 2-1, with Dayton defeating Ohio State and St. Louis edging out NC State. George Washington has been underrated all season, and while Memphis might have more talent, I think GW is the better team and will win this game. 71-69.

6 North Carolina (23-9) vs 11 Providence (23-11) in San Antonio
Spread: North Carolina favored by 4
This North Carolina team is not the type that does well in the tournament. Despite starting the season poorly, they started overachieving and continued to do it, winning 12 straight games. But this is the same team that lost to UAB, Miami, and Wake Forest. That’s three losses against sub top 100 teams, and that shows how inconsistent this team can be. They also shoot just 62.5% from the free throw line, and even more concerning is the fact that they hit just four three point shots per game. Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald can both hit threes, but the rest of the team has hit 17 three point shots combined all season. So they can’t shoot from the line, they can’t shoot from beyond the arc, and they’re mediocre defensively. How are they top 50 in points per game at 76.3 points per tilt? I’ll tell you why: offensive rebounding. UNC gets a ton of extra possessions, as they are averaging more than 14 offensive rebounds per game, near the very top of college basketball. Those extra possessions mean extra shots and extra points. So to beat UNC, you need to limit them on the offensive glass. It’s as simple as that. Now, can Providence do it?
The short answer is “probably not”. The long answer is that UNC will probably still get a bunch of offensive rebounds, but Providence is capable of holding them below their season average. The Friars aren’t a great defensive rebounding team, but they aren’t terrible either. And if they limit UNC at all, they’ll probably win the game. They are a terrific free throw shooting team at 78%. That’s a huge advantage. They have the best player on either team, Bryce Cotton. Cotton is averaging 39.9 minutes per game (!), and he was just as strong in the Big East tournament as he was at the beginning of the season. He should be even better with some rest. I really don’t know who to pick here. It’s a true toss up. My gut says it’s Providence, though. 74-72

1 Virginia (28-6) vs 16 Coast Carolina (21-12) in Raleigh
Spread: Virginia favored by 20.5
20.5? More than Arizona is favored by? I’m splitting hairs here, but I think Arizona should be favored by more than Virginia is. Maybe Weber State is just that much better than Coast Carolina. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I like Virginia here. 77-62.

3 Iowa State (26-7) vs 14 North Carolina Central (28-5) in San Antonio
Spread: Iowa State favored by 8
I’m going to go with the upset here. North Carolina Central is the rare #14 seed who has a win over an at-large tournament team on the road (over NC State). They lost in Cincinnati by just 13 and at Wichita State by just 11. They’re also just 1-5 if you remove non top-150 wins, but let’s not focus on that. The Eagles are good offensively and tremendous defensively (58.5 points per game allowed, seventh in the country). Jeremy Ingram is their best player, averaging 21 points per game. He’s a senior who hits two threes per game. They also shoot 73% from the line.
Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament. They went 26-7, and they have nine top-50 wins. Melvin Ejim, the power forward, was the Big 12 player of the year. He and DeAndre Kane are a great 1-2 punch on a team that scored 83 points per game and led the nation in assists per game. Sounds good to me. So why am I picking them to lose? Because they are just 4-6 on the road. Because they give up 74 points per game. Because they force just nine turnovers per game. I could be dead wrong. Iowa State has the talent and pedigree to be a Final Four pick. In fact, I probably will be wrong. But I’m going to pick the North Carolina Central Eagles anyway. 74-70