On the eve of the opening Thursday of the NCAA tournament, I chatted with NBCSports.com's Rob Dauster about some intriguing potential matchups, why Louisville doesn't want to see Saint Louis in the Sweet 16 and who we think should be on upset alert the next two days:
RD: The most interesting part about this year's tournament, to me, is that after spending five months talking about how wide-open the field is, 90% of the people filling out brackets are picking Louisville to win the national title. I get it. They've got a dominant defense. They've lost just once since late January. They embarrassed Syracuse in the Big East title game. I'll admit, I think the Cardinals are probably the best team in the country right now
And I also have them losing in the Sweet 16 to St. Louis. I went into detail about it already so I won't elaborate too much here, but talk me off the ledge, Jeff. Why am I wrong about the Billikens?
JE: Here's the thing: You're not wrong. Saint Louis is a terrible matchup for Louisville. The Cardinals thrive in an up-tempo game in which they can force turnovers and turn those into transition points. The Billikens play at a slow pace and feature eight seniors who rarely get frazzled or turn the ball over. The Cardinals are vulnerable in a half-court game against a team who can force them to rely on their erratic outside shooting. The Billikens are a well-schooled, defense-oriented team capable of executing that game plan.
So why am I still riding with Louisville? In spite of those advantages, Saint Louis isn't going to have an easy time scoring either. Plus, I'm willing to bet on Rick Pitino with superior talent and five days to prepare a game plan to offset some of those issues. I believe Saint Louis will be the toughest game Louisville sees in the midwest regional – yes, more challenging than Duke or Michigan State in a regional final – but I think the Cardinals will find a way.
So, Rob, I see you have Gonzaga in the title game? What has you sold on the Zags?
RD: They have the best front line in the country, in my opinion. The combination of size and versatility for both Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris makes them a matchup nightmare. To get an idea of just how those two have been, think about this: heading into the season, no one was talking about how good Mark Few's big guys were. They were talking about Kevin Pangos, who averaged 13.6 points as a freshman, and how much better Gary Bell could end up being alongside him. Those two have been good this year, but they've been completely overshadowed.
The irony of my Gonzaga pick is that I think they may be the No. 1 seed most susceptible to getting upset in the round of 32. Whether they get matched up with Pitt or Wichita State, they are going to be playing a team with a big, physical front line that can get to the offensive glass. For everything that the Zags do well, blocking out and defending on the interior is not one of those things.
Personally, I think that Wisconsin may be the best matchup for the Zags in that West Regional. Why do you have them losing to the Fighting Bo Ryans?
JE: Fair point on Wisconsin not being the prototypical gives-Gonzaga-fits matchup. The Badgers don't have elite perimeter athleticism, nor are they unstoppable on the offensive glass (though they are very good on the defensive boards).
Nonetheless, I do think Jared Berggren is a formidable enough defender to eat into Kelly Olynyk's usual efficiency and I think Wisconsin's defensive matchups are pretty good everywhere else. Plus, is it just me or is Wisconsin far better than its seed? The Badgers weren't great early in the season as they were trying to recover from the loss of starting point guard Josh Gasser, but they finished the season 6-3, made the Big Ten title game and beat Indiana twice, Illinois twice and Ohio State and Minnesota along the way. I think Gonzaga is very capable of winning this game -- especially if their fans make Staples Center into Spokane South the way they did Las Vegas last week -- but it's certainly not an easy draw.
So I see you have Florida in the Final Four, yet last I remember you've been railing on the Gators' inability to win a close game for weeks. What gives? You think they're just going to blow out Georgetown and Kansas?
RD: That was literally the most difficult decision I had when filling out my bracket (and I still might end up changing my mind before I turn in brackets where I have, ahem, my pride on the line). And at the end of the day, I just think Florida is a better basketball team than Georgetown and Kansas.
For starters, I think Will Yeguete is the ideal matchup defensively for Otto Porter. He's just as mobile and athletic and he doesn't care at all about anything beyond being a defender and a rebounder. And while I have my doubts about the shot selection of guys like Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin, there's no arguing that they can lock up defensively. Markel Starks and D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera have played great, but they're mostly spot-up shooters at this point. Yeguete makes life difficult for Porter, which means that Starks and DSR don't get open looks which means that Georgetown can't score.
Against Kansas, I think that the Gators are good enough defensively to win that game even though I do recognize the stupidity in picking a team that can't win close games against Bill Self. Here's my question for you: Does Kansas even make it to the Elite 8? Do they get picked off by UNC or VCU (or Michigan)?
JE: I don't see Kansas losing before the Elite Eight. With its new four-guard look, North Carolina can spread the floor the same way Iowa State has to give the Jayhawks fits, but the Tar Heels don't have an outside-shooting big man to draw Jeff Withey to the perimeter, nor are they good enough defensively to topple Kansas in Kansas City. I don't like how Michigan finished the season, so that's a no. And while I think VCU could turn Elijah Johnson over with its swarming defense, I also fear the Jayhawks would score very, very easily on the Rams on possessions where they successfully beat the press.
That brings us to the Elite Eight, where I'm in agreement with you that Kansas sees Florida for many of the same reasons you mentioned. The Gators would have to be awfully careless offensively against Georgetown to blow a game where they match up so well defensively. I worry about Florida's shot selection and decision making down the stretch in close games, but something tells me the Gators are going to improve in the NCAA tournament in those areas in the same way they did defensively last March. Plus, a team can't lose in the Elite Eight three straight years ... uh, right?
So let's talk potential first-round upsets. I think the 6-11 games will produce the most surprises this year. You agree?
RD: I do. I like St. Mary's over Memphis (and I like Middle Tennessee State over Memphis as well) for the same reason that I like Belmont over Arizona: guard play. Both the Gaels and the Bruins run ball-screen heavy offenses with veteran playmakers that have won big games. I'll ride with the Ian Clarks and Matthew Dellavedovas of the world anyday.
The two 11 seeds I don't like are Minnesota and Bucknell. I don't care how good the matchup is, I'm not picking a team that has lost 11 of their last 16 games to win in March. I'm not doing it.
And while I like Bucknell, I have faith in Brad Stevens. I think Andrew Smith is big and tough enough to give Mike Muscala problems, and I trust that Stevens will figure out how to game-plan to win a game in March. Picking against him is heresy.
Am I crazy to think Davidson can beat Marquette?
JE: I'm with you on Belmont. I like the Bruins' backcourt and I don't think Arizona will exploit its size advantage inside enough to compensate. Where we differ is in our other 6-11 upset. Give me Minnesota over UCLA for a couple of reasons in spite of the Gophers' poor finish. 1. Minnesota is an elite offensive rebounding team; Rebounding has been undersized UCLA's greatest weakness all season. 2. UCLA's ability to score so many different ways made it tough to beat the past couple months, but the loss of second-leading scorer Jordan Adams makes it easier for teams to focus on blanketing Shabazz Muhammad and keeping Larry Drew out of the lane.
I do worry about the Gophers' feeding into UCLA's transition attack with turnovers, but UCLA isn't a team that will pressure the ball effectively.
I don't think you're crazy to like Davidson, especially not with five starters back from last year and one of the best under-the-radar coaches in the nation. If I were going to pick a team seeded 13th or higher to win a game this year, Davidson would get my nod. I expect big things from the Nate Wolters show against Michigan, but I'm not sure he has enough of a supporting cast for South Dakota state to pull that off.