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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Expert NCAA Tournament bracket picks: LB’s 2014 March Madness selections

LB is wasting no time getting his bracket picks out for the 2014 NCAA Tournament. You asked for them? You got ‘em.

Unlike the last two years where there was a pretty strong favorite to win it all — and both times those teams delivered — there is no clear-cut favorite. There isn’t a Louisville from a year ago, nor a team as loaded as Kentucky was with Anthony Davis in 2012. For that reason, seeing any number of teams win it all wouldn’t surprise me. I could easily see Florida, Michigan State, Louisville, Virginia or even Kansas (depending on the health of Joel Embiid) winning it all in March Madness.

Thanks to the way the seeding broke down, I have two No. 4 seeds reaching the Final Four, as well as two No. 1 seeds. I like Florida and Michigan State meeting in the final four; Louisville and Arizona in the other; and I have the Gators bringing home the third title for Billy Donovan in a win over the Cardinals.

I have a few upsets sprinkled in throughout the early rounds and Sweet 16, but no teams seeded lower than fourth in the Elite Eight, which probably will turn out to be incorrect. However, it’s not worth the risk of lowing points by sending a lowly-seeded team that far unless you are supremely confident in them. And, hey, if there’s a Steph Curry at a small school in this tournament, let me know and I’ll change my picks.

You can see my full 2014 NCAA Tournament brackets below — loosely called “expert” picks — but I do watch and write about sports for a living, so I suppose that makes me an expert in theory. Click twice to see the large version:

NCAA Tournament expert picks 2014

NCAA Tournament expert picks

More in-depth breakdown of each region below.

South Region

I really like Florida coming out. Kansas is a very good team, but their interior defense is somewhat vulnerable with Embiid out. He’s projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and a huge difference-maker inside. Even without Embiid, freshman Andrew Wiggins is a stud and can carry the team a few rounds. I don’t think the Jayhawks reach the Elite Eight, however. I have Syracuse getting that far.

Sure, the Orange are 2-5 in their last seven and have not been playing well, but Jim Boeheim tends to get a lot out of his players in March, and I imagine that will happen this year. They got so much magic throughout the regular season, I think some of it that was lost in the past few weeks will return during the tourney.

Stephen F. Austin is a popular upset pick in the 12-5 matchup against VCU — for understandable reasons — but I’m not picking them. VCU is 12th overall in KenPom’s ratings and has the second-best adjusted defense in the country. There’s a reason why Shaka Smart’s teams always do so well in March, and it’s their “havoc” defense. Stephen F. Austin might have been my upset pick had they been playing another five seed, but I don’t see Shaka going down early. Tulsa will not be an easy game for UCLA, which is coming off a win over Arizona in the Pac-12 conference tournament championship game, but the Bruins should take that one. In an offense vs. defense game between the Bruins and Rams, I’ll take defense.

The bottom line for me is that the Gators take this region. They enter the tournament on a 26-game winning streak, which saw them sweep through SEC play undefeated. They have depth, size, outside shooting and they play very well on both ends of the floor. About my only concern with them is free throw shooting — they’re only at 66.7 percent as a team, which could be the difference between winning and losing a close game in the later rounds.

East Region

Virginia is the top seed here and an excellent team. Coach Tony Bennett’s trademark has always been a slow-down pace and stingy defense that doesn’t allow his opponents much. They’re not going to light it up on the offensive end, but they will outscore simply because they don’t allow much on defense. Ordinarily I’d have them going to the Final Four, but I hate that their Sweet 16 matchup will likely be against Michigan State.

It’s a simple rule when picking brackets for March Madness that you advance Tom Izzo’s team two rounds further than where you really think they will go. I think Virginia is probably a better team, but I have the Spartans beating the Cavaliers and then advancing to the Final Four. It’s the Izzo plus two rule. Izzo is generally a humble coach, but he has been saying that this team will reach the Final Four. He’s been to six of them, so if he sees his team getting that far, you better, too. His team just beat Wisconsin and destroyed Michigan to win the Big Ten tournament. They’re getting healthy and hot at the right time. They’re going to AT&T Stadium — book it.

The bottom half of this region is very weak to me. I don’t think Villanova is very good, which is why I have them getting bounced in the second round. North Carolina may have the daunting name, but they are not very good this season. I have Iowa State making the Elite Eight from this group. They’re heating up right now and coming off four straight wins, including a championship run at the Big 12 conference tournament. I like teams that have some star power, and between Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang, and DeAndre Kane, the Cyclones certainly have that.

West Region

You know what all four of Arizona’s losses have in common? They all came when Brandon Ashley didn’t play (or played only two minutes because he got hurt in the loss to Cal). Arizona certainly deserved the No. 1 seed, and I do have them going to the Final Four, but I have serious concerns about them. They’ve lost two of their last four games (albeit in close games) and can’t afford to see Aaron Gordon brick 3-pointers during the tourney.

Despite my concerns over the Wildcats, I don’t see a team better than them in this region. San Diego State plays excellent defense, but they can’t score enough to keep up with Arizona, and they certainly won’t be able to score on the Wildcats’ defense. Creighton’s offense is excellent, but they’re no lock to come out of their half, especially with their size concerns on the inside.

Two teams to watch out for in this region are North Dakota State — one of my upset picks — and New Mexico State. North Dakota State has a stud in senior guard Taylor Braun. Remember that name, because it’s one you’re going to hear a lot in the first week. He’s averaging 18.2 points per game this season and is capable of leading the Bison to an upset win over Oklahoma. New Mexico State is another fun team to watch because of 7-foot-5 center Sim Bhullar in the middle. This isn’t just some oversized stiff; Bhullar had a double-double in four straight games recently and looked good in the WAC tournament. They’re not a bad upset pick, and they should make it a fun first-round game against the Aztecs.

I also have Oregon pulling off a couple of big wins in the bottom half of this region. The Ducks are an interesting team in that their two three players — Mike Moser, Joseph Young and Jason Calliste — are all transfers. Until losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 tourney, the Ducks had won 8 in a row, including victories over Arizona and the Bruins. They’re a team that can score and will be dangerous.

Midwest Region

This is by far the toughest region in the NCAA Tournament. Wichita State, which went undefeated in the regular season, completely got screwed by being the No. 1 in this bracket. Louisville is the No. 4 seed and really should be a No. 1. Michigan and Duke — the two and three seeds — are two of the best offensive teams in the country. Even Kentucky and Kansas State might be the best 8 and 9 seeds in the tournament.

Seriously, it doesn’t get much more loaded than this bracket.

I have Louisville winning this bracket and reaching the title game. They are stacked, have tournament experience and are playing very well. I don’t see them being stopped.

One team that will surprise is Tennessee. They have to beat Iowa in the play-in game, but as long as they win that, they can do some damage. Despite being an 11-seed, the Vols are ranked 13th overall in Ken Pom’s ratings. Senior Jordan McRae and junior Jarnell Stokes have what it takes to lead this team to a few tourney victories. Xavier and NC State will have a tough play-in game — that’s a hard one to predict — but both teams are good and capable of beating Saint Louis in the first round. I think Xavier will be that squad.

Whatever you choose to do for your March Madness brackets picks, make sure you pick at least one 12-5 upset, have some 10 seeds and 9 seeds winning, and don’t put all No. 1 seeds in the Final Four — especially this year.

Oh, and whatever you do, remember to have fun!



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