Are you NOT entertained?
Well, are you?!
This year’s wild, wacky, stupefying and completely breathtaking NCAA tournament has not only lived up to the hype, the thrill ride has exceeded almost every expectation imaginable.
It’s better than the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. It’s better than NHL postseason hockey. It’s better than beer. Ok, that might be a slight exaggeration. Still, heart-stopping moments have left us all drop-jawed and hungry for more.
And we're only halfway there.
This year’s Dance has delivered all the necessary ingredients of a ratings blockbuster – bracket-shredding upsets, buzzer beaters, remarkable comebacks, record-setting individual performances, trophy basketball wives and a one in four-billion prognostication by a twenty-something from my hometown of Champaign, Ill., an unforeseen hoops guru who opened the Dance 36-0. Umm, Brad Binder, you, me, Vegas next year?
What a game. What a year. What a tournament.
My favorite facts from the opening rounds:
• Florida is the only team to appear in four-straight Sweet Sixteens.
• San Diego State, Iowa State, Virginia and Tennessee are the only teams still alive to have never played in the title game.
• For only the second time since the days you thought rat tails were fashionable (1985), North Carolina and Duke are not tasting sweetness.
• After getting trashed by the media for much of the season, the resilient SEC is a perfect 7-0 in the tournament, the finest performance by a conference since the Big East started 8-0 in 2003. The last time the league went undefeated, in 1996, Kentucky brought home a championship trophy.
• At least one double-digit seed has made the Sweet Sixteen in 28 of the past 30 Dances.
• Out of several million Tourney Pick 'Em entries 1041 correctly prognosticated 14 of 16 Sweet Sixteen teams, 28 netted 15 of 16 and zero nailed all 16.
Unfortunately, the unaltered zaniness quickly eliminated millions from their chance of owning Micronesia. Many brackets, including mine, has taken on the appearance of a zombie victim – slashed, bloodied, gutted. Unlike the undead, however, it has no shot of resurrection.
Still, the games must go on. Here's my primer, picks and power ranks included, for the Sweet Sixteen:
BIGGEST SECOND CHANCE FLAME (Underrated team poised to overachieve)
Tennessee Volunteers – First Four to Final Four? The way the Volunteers have played it's no psychedelic carpet ride. It could be argued no team, with possibly Baylor and Michigan St. the lone exceptions, has dominated quite like Tennessee. Iowa proved pesky in its opening round game, but it obliterated UMass and Mercer in consecutive games, blazing a trail of broken hearts and busted dreams. Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes are the beefiest one-two punch in the entire field. They clog the lane, convert numerous tap-ins and seal off the glass. In the tournament the duo has combined for 11.8 boards per game. Toss in Jordan McCrae's incredible length and versatility along with Josh Richardson's hot hand and this is a team executing more like a No. 2 or No. 3 seed, not a No. 11. One of only four schools currently alive that ranks inside the top-20 in offensive and defensive efficiency, the Vols are well-rounded and downright dangerous. Matched against a Michigan team with serious flaws on defense and down low, their Cinderella story should continue. A second ever Elite Eight appearance is well within reach.
BIGGEST SECOND CHANCE LAME (Overrated team poised to underachieve)
Wisconsin Badgers – Aaron Rodgers. Tubed meats. Distinguished mustaches. Sharp cheddar. And on-court defense. That's what Wisconsin is known for. Though the former viewpoints haven't changed, the latter has. Unquestionably, this is Bo Ryan's best offensive team. The Badgers have emerged victorious playing a variety of tempos this year. They are comfortable whether in the 40s or 80s. However, defensively, Wisky has disappointed. Ranked No. 55 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, it has come unhinged at times, particularly in transition. When Frank Kaminsky is tickling the twine, the Badgers are tough to beat. His scoring presence really opens up the perimeter game for Josh Gasser, Ben Brust and Traevon Jackson. Still, in a matchup-based setting, the wacky kids from Waco present a stiff challenge. Baylor, which exploded for 1.426 points per possession against Creighton, has the size to neutralize Kaminsky and the offensive firepower to keep pace with Wisky's sharpshooters. The Bears' 2-3 zone has also tightened, surrendering just 0.89 points per possession against Nebraska and Creighton. Apologies Bucky, but Madtown will soon be Sadtown.
FRANK RANKS (My power ratings for all sixteen teams)
1. Florida Gators – The prohibitive favorite pre-tourney has, for the most part, played like one. Cohesive, well-rounded and able to adjust to different styles, the Gators should chomp their way to a championship.
2. Arizona Wildcats – Probably the No. 1 seed few talked about leading up to the Dance, 'Zona looked every bit like a frontrunner in its horn-to-horn thrashing of Gonzaga. Tops in the country in defensive efficiency, highly athletic and careful with the basketball, the 'Cats have emerged as the strongest candidate to challenge Florida.
3. Michigan St. Spartans – Exhibiting the title contender everyone foresaw preseason, Sparty has scored terrifically from three, generated second-chance opportunities and ratcheted up on D. The trendy Final Four pick looks like it will deliver.
4. Louisville Cardinals – Sluggish performances against Manhattan and St. Louis were more of a matchup function than reflection of offensive performance. The opponents remaining in Midwest should play beautifully into the Cardinals' hands.
5. Baylor Bears – Knocking at the door of his third Elite Eight appearance since 2010, Scott Drew has his Bears on the hunt. Shoot like they did against Creighton and no team stands a chance. Silence Drew haters. I warned you.
6. Iowa St. Cyclones – The Cyclones absorbed several punches sans Georges Niang and didn't fall down. Now confident they can win without him, they will be no easy out. Naz Long and Monte Morris will need to be instrumental, but additional bad Fred Hoiberg dancing is likely.
7. Tennessee Volunteers – Remember when Cuonzo Martin was on the hot seat? As stated above, the Vols are a dangerous squad that present many individual matchup problems.
8. Stanford Cardinal – Johnny Dawkins, who many anticipated would receive a pink slip without a NCAA tournament trip, has not only silenced his critics, he's buried them six feet deep. His club is knocking at door of its first Elite Eight since 2001.
9. Virginia Cavaliers – Defense is the Cavs' calling card, but they're also highly efficient on the offensive end, scoring 1.147 points per possession. If they exude a team-wide effort on offense against Sparty, the scale could tilt to their side. However, UVA fans better hope this one doesn't come down to free-throws. The Cavs have shot just 67.1 percent from the charity stripe this year.
10. UCLA Bruins – The Bruins' team-wide speed, athleticism and offensive precision are deadly characteristics. If not faced with a daunting matchup against Florida, they would be a strong Final Four candidate.
11. Michigan Wolverines – Peach basket, Nerf hoop, standard bucket – it doesn't matter the cylinder or venue, Michigan fills it up. Still, defensive inadequacies, absent post muscle and occasional problems against active zones are eyesores.
12. Wisconsin Badgers – Without a doubt, this is Bo's best offensive team. However, on the opposite end, it might be one of his worst. The Badgers rank No. 55 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Unless Kaminsky goes nuts, staving off elimination will be near to impossible.
13. Kentucky Wildcats – Maybe the one-and-done isn't dead. If the Fighting Ashley Judds can string together a pair of high-effort halves against Louisville as they did in their dispatching of Wichita St., Bluegrass bragging rights will be theirs. Julius Randle is nearly unstoppable, but their fate resides in the number of turnovers the Harrisons tally.
14. Connecticut Huskies – Arguably the third-best defensive team remaining, the Huskies pressure the ball, vigorously patrol the paint and coax numerous turnovers. Shabazz Napier's Herculean offensive efforts are also quite impressive. Still, Iowa St. is a tough draw, even without Niang.
15. San Diego St. Aztecs – Professor X, Xavier Thames, has played marvelously acting as scorer, facilitator and defensive stalwart. The Aztecs' length and relentless on-ball pressure causes headaches for most opponents. However, Arizona isn't part of the majority.
16. Dayton Flyers – Dan Patrick. Easy-on-the-eyes basketball wife. And a crowd-surfing university president. There's a lot to love about the Flyers. Their surprising athleticism and energy around the basket catapulted them into the Sweet Sixteen, but Stanford's versatility and size should overpower them.
BRAD'S BEST BETS (My Round of 16 picks against the spread)
UCLA (+4) vs. Florida – Florida should prevail by slowing tempo in attempt to squash the Bruins' transition game. UCLA's strong guard play and ability to break the press, however, will keep this one close.
Stanford (-3) vs. Dayton – Both shoot the ball extremely well from distance, but the Cardinal's interior size and versatility of big men Josh Huestis, Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic will be the difference maker against Dayton's smaller frontline.
Baylor (+3) vs. Wisconsin – Baylor's beef down low, surgical precision on offense and arc assassin Brady Heslip (46.4 3PT%) presents a daunting task for an uncharacteristically average Wisconsin defense. If the Bears execute at even have the rate they did against Creighton ... blowout.
Arizona (-6.5) vs. San Diego St. – In a battle of elite defenses, the multidimensional play of Nick Johnson, 'Zona's strong ball-handling skills and minimal complementary options to Xavier Thames will lead to the Aztecs' undoing.
Iowa St. (-1) vs. Connecticut – The Huskies are tenacious on defense, particularly inside. However, the Cyclones' efficient midrange game and prolific outside shooting are matchup problems, particularly Melvin Ejim. Expect a hard-fought battle, but the Mayor marches on.
Michigan St. (-1) vs. Virginia – Branden Dawson's glass-pounding combined with Adreian Payne's galactic contributions on offense has Sparty rolling. The Cavs smother defensively and rebound well, but State's share-the-sugar mentality and near impeccable execution of late has it Elite Eight bound.
Tennessee (+2) vs. Michigan – Throw out the seed differential, this is an unattractive test for the Wolverines. The Vols' length, improved offensive execution and dynamite rebounding skills play into Michigan's defensive weaknesses.
Louisville (-5) vs. Kentucky – In a Bluegrass battle with a detailed backstory, the Cardinals should exact revenge. Recall, UK toppled UL 73-66 in Lexington back in December. Slowed a bit by previous tourney foes' style of play, Louisville should relish the faster pace and consume Andrew Harrison whole.
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