(This piece originally ran on NCAA.com. The full feature can be read HERE.)
The college baseball preseason polls are out and there are high expectations for the top SEC baseball teams once again.
Eight SEC teams populate all three preseason polls, with 2018 NCAA tournament teams like South Carolina and Texas A&M on the outside of the top 25 looking in. There is plenty to watch this season in the SEC alone, but here are five things that we are really excited for in 2019.
There is arguably no more intriguing prospect in the 2016 MLB Draft than Florida’s Buddy Reed. While it is difficult to project this year’s top-ten and even top overall pick, it is seemingly even harder to figure out where Reed will go. There hasn’t been a prospect like Reed on this year’s draft board. He is a prospect that could go as early as the top-15 or as late as the middle of the second round.
The Georgia Bulldogs are making a switch this weekend in one of the oldest and most heated rivalries in sports. Tom Brady is good, and the Patriots are heading for a repeat. Turns out it doesn’t matter how little air the NFL’s best QB needs in his balls.
It’s FINALly here, folks. The Rematch tips off at 6:09 to begin the festivities. It has been one of the most exciting (and baffling) tournaments in a long time. There really is no telling what will happen tonight.
What have we learned from 2014’s version of March Madness? We definitely now know that the one-and-done rule has leveled the playing field and mid-majors are truly a threat to all of the powerhouses that use to run the tournament. I doesn’t seem that college sports looks for parity, however. They want conference and school domination. Look at what the BCS created in college football. The SEC (most notably Florida, Bama, Auburn, or LSU) made an appearance in the Championship Game seemingly every year. The Frozen Four of NCAA Hockey is the same way as Boston College, Michigan, and Wisconsin always seem to be in the hunt right until the end. Just ask Arizona State or Florida State what it’s like NOT to be in contention for the College World Series. They wouldn’t have an answer because they always are. In college hoops, however, the powerhouse teams have a new crop of their own freshman and a new starting line-up of their own each season making a repeat extremely difficult. Case in point? Not one Final Four team from last year remains in the hunt.
We also learned that I am finally getting this predicting thing down. My actual projections for the Final Four were off (Syracuse, Michigan State, Louisville, and Oklahoma State as the sleeper), however, I did say that the only number one seed that had any chance at a Final Four appearance was Florida. I also said that it would be seeds 4 and lower that would dominate this years’ bracket and sure enough, we have a 7 and an 8 seed playing in North Texas tonight. So who will be playing Monday night to cut down the nets at the end of the Madness?
I really have no freaking clue. So much of me wants to go ahead and put UConn or Florida down as the winner, but I think that is based on my hatred of John Calipari. He seems to prove on a yearly basis that cheaters always win. Let’s look at each team and see what they bring to the table.
#2 seed Wisconsin (30-7): This is a weird Wisconsin team. Bo Ryan has built this club on the grinder philosophy. Year in and year out they put you to sleep with solid defense and long offensive sets. This year they are running more, and Ryan is at last in the Final Four. Perhaps it is because Frank Kaminsky is a match-up nightmare. If Brian Scalabrine, Shawn Bradley, and Dirk Nowitzki mated, you would get Kaminsky. Standing at 7’0” tall, he can burn you in a lot of ways. If you defend him one-on-one, he is going to beat you off the dribble. If you leave him alone, he is going to bury the three. If you let him in the paint, he’s going to post you up and posterize you. Is he enough to beat this surging Wildcats’ team? I don’t think so, but he has the ability to help Wisconsin move on all by himself a la Never Nervous Pervis.
#8 seed Kentucky Wildcats (28-10):
Once again, John Calipari has built an NBA team in Lexington. Way back in late 2013, this team was the Preseason #1 in college hoops. Like many of Calipari’s past free agents, pardon me, rookies, they simply needed more time to gel together and didn’t get off on the right foot. Plagued by inconsistency, this team dropped some big games. Then the Big Dance started and these guys found their rhythm. The NCAA Championship isn’t always about the best team winning, it is about the hottest team surging to victory. Right now, that is Kentucky. They have defeated three teams in a row that were in last season’s Final Four. On top of that, all three of those teams were legitimate #1 seeds in this tourney (Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan). Julius Randle is an absolute beast on the boards (12 per game in the tourney) and the Harrison twins are on fire. Calipari has the best team money can buy in the match-up and Kentucky advances to the Championship.
#1 Florida Gators (36-2): 30 straight wins, people. The Gators haven’t lost in over 4 months. As many of you are aware, their last lost was to this UConn Huskies team they play this evening. Florida is a much different team than that last meeting: Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill weren’t healthy and Chris Walker wasn’t allowed to play. Since they have been healthy and at full force, they have been literally unbeatable. The only disadvantage I see Florida having is that they have yet to really be challenged in this tournament. Pittsburgh was a good team, but not great. I thought UCLA would really give them a run, but it turned out that they caught fire in the PAC-12 Tourney and ran out of gas by the time the Sweet 16 rolled around. Getting to play Dayton in the Elite 8 was no challenge. As hot as the Fliers were playing, they weren’t good enough to go much further, especially against an elite powerhouse like Florida. Billy Donovan has his squad playing team basketball and all of their cogs are moving together like a well oiled machine. This should be a great game.
#7 seed UConn Huskies (30-8): Nobody is giving these guys a chance, and you can’t really blame them with the way Florida is playing. But there is one reason I am giving them a chance: #SHABAZZKETBALL!!!Shabazz Napier is the best player in the whole Final Four. He has been pretty much the best player on the court in every previous round. He has put up a Player of the Year-type season, but here’s what has happened along the way. DeAndre Daniels has stepped up his game and now Napier has a wing man. Daniels had a monster game against Iowa State in the Sweet 16 and a solid game against Michigan State in the Elite 8. Ryan Boatright has also improved his play over the last few weeks giving the Huskies a very formidable trio. Niels Giffey and Philip Nolan have turned it up and the UConn Huskies have transformed from Shabazz Napier and friends to a well-rounded basketball team. They can key their improved defense and rebounding as the reasons they were able to upset #2 Villanova, #3 Iowa State, and, the team who many considered to be the best team in the tournament (why would I side with Obama? I should have known better), #4 Michigan State. The only thing that is left for them to do is to take down a number one seed, so why not tonight? UConn wins at the buzzer and ends Florida’s 30-game win streak and season.
So, there you have it. I foresee a #7 vs. #8 final. That being said, should Florida win, it will be simply amazing that we get an all-SEC Final. The SEC was arguably the weakest of the “power” conferences in the tournament, yet all three of their teams were represented in the Sweet 16, now two are in the Final Four, and it is highly likely that Kentucky will get one last chance to figure out Florida on Monday night. Whatever happens, we are in for a great weekend of college hoops.
Till next time , folks, we are one step closer to One Shining Moment!
Happy Monday, folks. First and foremost, I must apologize to The Wayniac Nation faithful. In my 80 days of blogging (yes, today is day 80) I have not missed a Sunday post. This week was different as we may have just experienced one of the craziest opening weekends of March Madness I can remember. It would have been an injustice to write about it before it was complete, so I waited until today.
We did some serious dancing over the last four days, didn’t we? The Mercer Bears busted a lot of people’s brackets, but I still think they became the most beloved team in the nation by taking down Coach K and his Dookies. Harvard shocked the world and took down a heavily favored Cincinnati club. They then put a huge scare into Michigan State, but inevitably the Spartans were their last waltz. There was little doubt in my mind that UConn was going to upset Nova in Round 2 (I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I’m not changing my stance and calling this Round 3). Shabazz Napier is a total beast and he had a total beast game against Jay Wright and his Wildcats. UNC suffered a controversial loss in one of the most bizarre endings to a tourney game since UNC watched C-Webb call a time-out. I think someone needs to be held accountable and removed from officiating for the rest of the tournament. Although UNC fans, like Wayniac Nation’s own Mike Dunton, have argued that they should’t have let their lead slip away in the first place, to lose the game on an officitaing/score table error is atrocious and unacceptable. But the Dance rolls on. The Dayton Flyers became the scourge of Ohio when they took down the beloved Ohio State in a huge upset. Considering that the only people who are Buckeye fans either live in Columbus or are alumni, most of America became enamored with the Flyers. I was, too… until they beat Syracuse. Now they can go to hell for all I care. What a terrible first weekend for me. My Blue Hens, my Orange, and both of my brackets are in the toilet. Well, that’s not entirely true.
If you remember in my preview, I told you to be weary of the higher seeds, especially the # 1s. That being said, my Final Four is still intact, so despite the whirlwind of upsets I technically have a chance. Before we look at what’s in store for next weekend, let’s have a quick recap of the one through five seeds, since that is essentially your Top 25.
One seeds: Shockers are out — Gators, Arizona, and Cavaliers remain. UVA looks great, but of these three remaining teams, their days are numbered with Michigan State on deck.
Two seeds: Nova and Kansas have gone home (without Joel Embiid, I projected Kansas was not making it out of the first weekend) — Wisconsin and Michigan remain. Considering the Wolverines should have been a one seed, there is no surprise here.
Three seeds: These guys took the biggest hit. In case you forgot, let me remind you that Duke has been eliminated after being knocked out by the 14th seeded Mercer Bears in one of the most exciting games of the tournament thus far. Cuse and Creighton have also been bounced. If Tyler Ennis drove the lane instead of pulling up for a terrible shot, my prediction of a Cuse/ Florida showdown was highly likely. Alas, the Orange suffered another close loss to a team they should have beaten. Iowa State remains, however their days may be numbered without Georges Niang.
Four seeds: All four remain. This is not a surprise at all. These are the strongest seeds in the tourney, and I have Michigan State and Louisville pegged for the Final Four.
Five seeds: Zero remain.
The end result of the opening weekend of the tournament is that only 12 of the Top 25 in the nation remain in the hunt for the 2014 NCAA Championship. That is absolutely insane. The slate of games for the upcoming weekend is titillating, so let’s take a gander at what we have in store. (It’s always exciting to find a use for the word titillating, isn’t it?)
The South: #11 Dayton vs. #10 Stanford is not a match-up anyone had projected and probably had a hand in ending the chances of the billion dollars from Warren Buffet (Well, that and the 1 in 9.4 quintillion chance of predicting a perfect bracket, but I digress). The exciting part of this game is that we know for sure we have a double-digit seed in the Elite 8. I would have to think the Cardinal, coming out of the ultra competitive Pac-12, has the upper hand. Speaking of the Pac-12, the #1 Florida Gators will have their hands full with the #4 UCLA Bruins. I have this slated as the second best game of the Sweet 16. UCLA has already taken down current number one seed Arizona to win the Pac-12 tourney. They aren’t afraid of anyone. Billy Donovan has his Gators looking like the ’06-’07 teams. I think this match-up is going to be great.
I had the #3 Iowa State Cyclones making a deep run in the tourney, but as I said, Georges Niang’s season ending injury puts them up against the wall. Shabazz Napier is playing out of his mind, and he should help #7 UConn eliminate the last three seed standing, but it won’t be easy. The #4 Michigan State Spartans versus #1 UVA Cavaliers game I have pegged as the third best game of the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers’ defense is suffocating and their offense is clicking, but Michigan State is playing some good ball. Yes, they struggled with Harvard, but if you have watched tournaments past, everyone struggles with Ivy League schools, just ask Georgetown (I don’t care if the Orange are in the ACC now, screw the Hoyas). Tom Izzo is poised to add a seventh Final Four appearance to his already impressive resume. Adriean Payne is playing awesome ball right now as well and should lift the Spartans to a match-up with the Huskies.
The Midwest: Athough the actual #1 seeded Wichita State Shockers were bounced, this bracket still has two legit one seeds going in the Sweet 16. The #11 Tennessee Volunteers don’t stand a chance against the #2 Michigan Wolverines. I think the loss to the Spartans and the coinciding loss of a one seed in the Big 10 (That’s Actually 12 but Adding Even More) Tournament has this team playing like last year’s runner-up squad. All eyes will be on the best game of the weekend, however, as The King of the Cheaters and his #8 Kentucky Wildcats take on the #4 Louisville Cardinals. Kentucky is the most inconsistent team in the nation as Julius Randle and the Harrison Wonder Twins should be enough to have gotten them a higher seed. But they don’t always come out and play a solid game from start to finish. Louisville, the AAC Conference and Tournament Champs, still have the nation wondering how they are a four seed. The bottom line is that Kentucky could be an awful, 2-win team but they would still bring everything they have to this huge in-state rivalry. It will be the game of the Sweet 16 and the ensuing Michigan versus Louisville Elite Match-up may be the game of the tournament.
The West: This is a boring bracket. The #2 Wisconsin Badgers seem like they have a big advantage over the #6 Baylor Bears and their crossing guard uniforms. Seriously, they could land a plane with those uniforms. Wisconsin, in my opinion, was ranked way too high, so I could see Baylor pulling off the upset, especially after the way they decimated Creighton and the best player in the nation in Doug McDermott. Everyone says I am nuts for not believing in the #1 Arizona Wildcats. They have yet another tricky match-up versus the #4 San Diego State Aztecs. Arizona looked really good against Gonzaga; however, if you remember from my preview, I had Gonzaga losing to Oklahoma State, so that outcome wasn’t much of a surprise. I think Arizona wins both of their games this weekend and rounds out the Final Four before losing to Louisville.
The greatest thing about this March Madness thus far is everything I just typed is most likely wrong. And in all honesty, I hope it is. My two teams are out and my brackets are weak. What will keep me most interested is a Dayton versus Tennessee Championship Game. Well, that and watching One Shining Moment and getting the chills like I do every year (well, except for that one Jennifer Hudson monstrosity).
Until next time folks, don’t forget Opening Day is just a week away!
Hide the women and children. The Madness is quickly approaching. We are just hours away from what could be one of the more bizarre and entertaining Final Four’s in a long time. Thanks to Mark Few who put a small school named Gonzaga on the map, mid-majors are no longer a joke. This tournament is pretty stacked and that spells bad news for the higher seeds.
I don’t see a scenario that a number one seed pulls it off this season. I don’t know if it is because the Selection Committee is slipping or there is simply more parity in hoops these days (I like to believe the latter), but there are deeper seeds that keep rolling, rolling, rolling down the river (get up, ooo ooo, get up ooo ooo) at full speed. In fact, since Kansas lost Joel Embiid, I don’t think even a two seed has a chance. And this, my friends, is what makes The NCAA Tournament the best sporting event in the world.
Now, I’m not saying a #1 seed can’t win it, nor am I completely ruling out Florida or Arizona as the next champions. I’m merely trying to tell you that if you think Florida, Arizona, Virginia, or Wichita State have a clear road to Texas, you are out of your mind. I think that a 4 seed is going to win it and I agree with our Commander-in-Chief (said no one ever) on his final’s match-up prediction. So without further ado:
FOUR TEAMS THAT COULD CAUSE THE #1 SEEDS A LOT OF TROUBLE:
MIDWEST: the #4 seed Louisville Cardinals:
Remember these guys? They are coached by Rick Pitino the Elder and happen to be reigning National Champs. How these guys got a four seed is beyond me. At the onset of Selection Sunday, the “experts” had Louisville grabbing the last #1 seed after Michigan lost. Alas, sports experts are the new weathermen and are seemingly right 10 percent of the time. The Cardinals drew the 4 seed.
The Cardinals finished the season 29-5 but it was how they rampaged and ransacked the AAC in their last 5 games of the season that gives me reason to believe that these guys are ready to defend their championship. They started by disheveling SMU who was in the Top 25 at the time (incidentally, SMU is the biggest snub I can remember in a long time but like a nerd in an 80s movie, they aren’t going to the Dance). They then dismantled a Top 25 UConn Huskies team by nearly 40 points. In the AAC tournament they continued their domination with 61-point first round massacre over Rutgers. 61 POINTS!!! IN A TOURNAMENT GAME!!! I don’t care what conference you play in or what team you are playing: to win a game by 61 points against a conference rival in a tournament game makes you a powerhouse and a serious threat to cut down the nets in Texas. Next up was a 29 point win over Houston, and a ten-point victory over UConn once again to win the AAC Championship. This team has veteran leadership who have been through a Championship run before. They have a very tough bracket and a possible match-up with Calipari and in-state rival Kentucky, but they have just as good a chance as anyone to be back in the Final Four.
WEST: the #9 seed Oklahoma State Cowboys:
Don’t let the 21-12 record fool you. Oklahoma State is the best #9 seed in the tourney and may be better than most of the 7 and 8 seeds as well. They have a tough bout with Gonzaga in the Round of 64, but with all their cogs moving they should get past them for a showdown with the #1 seed Arizona Wildcats. I love Arizona as they are a perennial Sweet 16 pick in every losing bracket I have ever done (I believe my lifetime record is 0-72). They are beatable, however. Yes they are 30-4 and to win 30 games in that legit PAC-12 Conference says a lot about their skills. Three of those losses, however, came to NCAA Tournament teams. They were all close games but they still lost to Oregon, in-state rival ASU, and UCLA for the PAC-12 Championship. The inability to put away big-time regular season games leaves the door open for Oklahoma State to pull the upset.
We all know they have Ron Artest, Jr. (aka Marcus Smart), but let’s face reality, he’s also a stud. He and senior Markel Brown bring some serious game with the ability to score and the leadership to guide this team. They will give Arizona a run for their money.
EAST: the #4 seed Michigan State Spartans:
It pains me to say this. You must know how I feel if you read my piece on March 11 entitled “Let’s Party Like It’s 1999!” My Delaware Fighting Blue Hens would have been better off being a lower seed because they have a better shot against the 3 seeds than they do against the 4s. Alas, Blue Hen Nation will give the Spartys a run, but probably fall short. Trust me, folks, I hope I am wrong on this one.
The sad truth is that no one is playing better ball than the Big Ten Tournament Champion Spartans. They took down Michigan in the Championship Game with ease inevitably costing the Wolverines a number one seed. The 26-8 Spartans are on a 5 game roll and are really past the injury woes that hurt them midseason. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling are two well-rounded seniors set to lead the charge. Tom Izzo hates not being in the Final Four more than any other coach and Michigan State has the tools to not just make the finals, but win it all.
SOUTH: the #3 seed Syracuse Orange:
Come on, what did you expect? This isn’t a pure homer pick though as I have valid reasons. The unfortunate dilemma for Cuse is that Billy Donovan has this Florida team cruising like a 75-year old on 95 South in Boynton Beach: taking out everything in their way. The Gators are the # 1 seed that I think has the best chance to win this tournament, but they are in a tough bracket. They will need to go through Pittsburgh and UCLA to make it to the Elite 8 and then Cuse to get to the Final Four.
Ok, enough about those jort-wearing, Budweiser guzzlers. Losing to N.C. State was the best thing to happen to my guys in Orange. This team had no legs left, I said it TWO WEEKS ago. Jim Boeheim ran with a seven man rotation all year and aside from CJ Fair, none of the others had played a full season. They simply ran out of gas. This was evident in the final 20 seconds of their first ACC Tourney game against the Wolf Pack. They were chucking shots that were hitting nothing but back board if anything at all. It was excruciating to watch, but what I saw was a team desperate to win and end the game because they had nothing left. Now, they have had a week to rest. People forget that this team was 25-0 and beat Duke. They have all-world freshman Tyler Ennis running the ship and looking to prove that he should be in the same sentence as Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. Any Cuse fan knows that Cooney is the x-factor. If he is hitting his shots, Syracuse becomes more deadly because that opens up Jerami Grant to run and slash through the paint. When Ennis, Fair, and Grant get rolling it energizes that 2-3 zone and then it’s all over for whoever Cuse is playing.
Now take it easy. This is not my Final Four prediction. You got to be nuts if you think I’m going for a billion smackers with Oklahoma State in my Final Four. But these four teams can present a huge obstacle for all of the teams they will face. I do think Louisville finds a way to repeat though… hopefully in a victory against the Ass Kickin’ Chickens of Delaware.
Enjoy your next two days of hookie from work, America and let the Madness begin!!!