This is the upset bracket, no question about it. It’s like the tournament made a junk drawer for underprivileged tournament teams. Everybody has a chance here.
Pittsburgh over UNCA.
Old Dominion over Butler
This game is my favorite of the first round! What a slugfest!? You have Butler who many projected to be a top team this year, but they struggled. Then you have the swarming interior zone of Old Dominion coupled with tenacity that would make a pit-bull cower in fear. These two teams both crash the glass and get after their opponents with reckless abandon. This is a cage match and one of these teams is going to die on the court before it’s over. It’s going to be UNBELIEVABLE!!?
Butler struggles when star center Matt Howard gets in foul trouble, which happens early and often. The move of getting two fouls in the first minute of a game and sitting the rest of the half is now called the Matt Howard. His all around game has improved drastically this year. He added a three point stroke, now knocking down three’s at a rate of 44 percent, and he took 99 of them, so it’s a weapon he’s not afraid to use. Old Dominion’s zone will ensure that this is one of the only ways he’ll able to score.
I really believe Butler is capable of a run, as they come into the tournament streaking. But, I also believe Old Dominion is a little tougher on the inside, and with Butler’s lack of outside shooting threats they will struggle to beat the zone. This will be a game of many tough shots and I project it will come down to the last possession. A tournament classic is in the works here folks—get next to a television set!
Kansas State over Utah State
Kansas State is one of the more inconsistent teams in the tournament. They came into this year with high expectations after a great tournament run last year, but found a way to lose to Colorado three times and drop a couple other games to teams like Duke, Florida and Kansas. This is a big game team, with a big game point guard in senior Jacob Pullen, who is a straight up play-maker. It’s true they struggle when he struggles, but over the last six games he is averaging almost 28 points a game. After a midseason slump he’s poised and ready for a big run. It’s almost like he planned it that way.
Pullen is every bit as good as anyone in the nation and he just knows how to win. He’s been with K-State seemingly forever. He reminds me of Mateen Cleaves, only his game is more skilled as he has every shot one could imagine in his arsenal.
Utah State is an incredibly tough draw for K-State. They play a version of the 3-2 zone that makes me wonder why more people don’t play it, as it will cause nightmares for the Kansas State shooters taking away their outside-in high post game. But, in the NCAA tournament, you cannot discount the will of winners, and Jacob Pullen is just that. He will carry K-State past this thorn.
Wisconsin over Belmont
Wisconsin was given all they could handle by a woeful Wofford last year, and this game against Belmont should be no different. Bo Ryan gets more with less than any coach in the nation. That statement is so true—I don’t know who would argue against it. Even if you hate him, you have to respect what he’s been able to get done with seemingly talentless corn-fed boys in Wisconsin. He has a terrific inside-out pick and roll game with guard Jordan Taylor, and lanky big man with a sweet stroke in Jon Leuer, who is pretty much impossible to defend. Belmont will struggle with this.
Look for a close game, but the expert maneuvering of Bo Ryan will be the difference. I just hope he makes a big enough name for himself, so Al Pacino can finally play him in a movie. Does anyone else see that resemblance?
Gonzaga over St. John’s
The best thing about Steve Lavin coaching St. John’s is he’s no longer announcing basketball games. He seemed to like Michigan State more than I do, which came off to me like a parent cheering on special needs children out loud for moral support. Very weird, indeed.
Anyway, St. John’s lost their season when D.J. Kennedy walked out of the Big East Tournament injured. He was their third-leading scorer and lead the team in rebounding from the small foward position. Teams can actually take a mental victory from injuries, because everyone buys in and the togetherness brings out a stronger team performance. Steve Lavin will have his boys ready, as it’s already been a special season, but in this particular scenario the order is simply too tall, quite literally.
The problem is going to be rebounding. St. John’s doesn’t start anyone over 6'7". They still managed to crash the glass with an all-for-one and one-for-all approach to loose balls, but Gonzaga has two seven-footers. This should be like the old cartoons when the tall guy holds the short guy's head to the ground.
With every missed shot turning into a second chance bucket, the Johnnies are going to struggle to keep the pace, without the ability to score from the perimeter. Don’t let that take away from what Lavin is building here—NYC is a much better place when St. John’s is good.
BYU over Wofford
What can you say about BYU’s situation that hasn’t been said before? I think Chris Farely said it best in Tommy Boy after one of his classic crashes to the head, “could have done without that!”
If they drew a tough opponent, this would be a sexy pick for an upset, but instead they drew Wofford. Does Wofford even have 1,000 students? They really don’t have the defensive presence to stop Jimmer Fredette from scoring 50 or so.
On the other hand, BYU really doesn’t have the size to make Wofford pay for not starting anyone over 6'6". Seriously, are they a high school team?
Michigan State over UCLA
Yes, I was the guy that thought Tom Izzo should DECLINE a tournament invitation.
But, that was prior to the Big 10 Tournament, where Michigan State barely squeaked by Iowa and put the whooping stick on Purdue—which not only saved the season, but proved the Spartans do have swagger. Does anyone remember that Mike Kebler put an exclamation on that game with a fierce "take this" White Men Can't Jump dunk?
It’s tough to pick Michigan State in the tournament this year as they haven’t played two good games in a row throughout the entire season.
With that said, I believe this to be a fairly favorable draw for the Spartans. Once you get past the fact that the 2011 Spartans are capable of losing to anyone (20 point loss to Iowa?) and have put together their most inconsistent season since Izzo’s arrival, you look at the calendar and see that it IS March. This is what Michigan State does. I can’t help but think this year is different and the destiny is a first round exit, no matter who they play, but again, this is what the Spartans do.
UCLA coach Ben Howland and Spartan coach Tom Izzo know each other well. They play similar gritty cut your teeth under my command styles of basketball, mixed in with the athleticism to run the floor and fly with the best of them.
Like Michigan State, this UCLA team struggles with taking bad shots and turning the ball over. They will also try to hit the glass hard and limit your possessions, but they don’t have the talent they’re used to having, leaving themselves exposed to prolonged slumping.
In an even game, the tie-breaker goes to the big men. That’s right Spartan fans, you think Nix is a load and needs to mix in a salad? Just wait until you see UCLA freshmen sensation Joshua Smith! He’s bigger, badder and even more fleet of foot than Nix.
Spartan fans will need to hope Nix plays the game of his life, because Izzo is going to need 15-20 good minutes from him. I’m excited for it, because I believe Nix to the x-factor for the Spartans. So, the lucky draw means Izzo has no choice but to play him, whose lack of minutes has been a problem all year.
Florida over UC Santa Barbara
Florida returns five people from their tournament team last year. They are too experienced to melt down against the Gauchos in Tampa.
Old Dominion over Pittsburgh
I love the toughness of Pittsburgh’s program. Coach Jamie Dixon has even admitted to modeling the program after Tom Izzo’s at Michigan State. Nothing wrong with that.
One thing he hasn’t been able to emulate is success in March. What he draws here is a mini-me version of Pittsburgh in Old Dominion. I’m not going to tell you O.D. is a better version, but I will tell you they are winning this game. They are going to do all the same things Pittsburgh does, but with the mentality of an underdog. That’s what the tournament is about, and if a No. 1 seed is going to lose early, this is the matchup that garners that kind of attention.
To get the Monarch’s off your back, you’re going to need to hit three’s. Pittsburgh will get frustrated going inside and find themselves relying on long jumpers. Throughout the season they have been very efficient, but they’ve never had to use it as a focal point. This game-time annoyance, compounded with their overall tournament frustration mounting, is a pressure cooker simmering in the sweet marinade of upset city. It’s a bbq bandwagon I didn’t concoct, but I’m glad to taste.
Kansas State over Wisconsin
The Kansas State high post game faces off against Wisconsin’s pick-and-pop combo of Leuer and Taylor. Backdoor cuts and big men taking open jump shots at the top of the key will be found in abundance throughout this chess match. Kansas State has too much talent for Wisconsin to handle. Another defensive minded team will find themselves on their heels from the transitional zip of Frank Martin’s “go!” philosophy. The first fundamental of defense is stay between your man and the basket…whoops.
Gonzaga over BYU
Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. Without Davies, BYU cannot rebound. What a draw for Gonzaga, who again will leach off second chance points, put-backs and free throws.
If that’s not enough, David Stockton (yes) is too good to keep off the court for Gonzaga—really injecting his legacy into his teammate’s veins. Let the journey begin ‘Zags!?
No matter how good or bad they are, Gonzaga seems to always be involved in epic heart monitor tournament games. This one will be no different as Jimmer Fredette will throw everything he has at the Stockton legacy. In the end, you’ve got to appreciate Gonzaga being an “underdog” again. It’s the best of both worlds.
Michigan State over Florida
I’m reminded of a struggling Spartan team in 2003 when I was a student in East Lansing. Like my “decline the invitation” article, I was frustrated by an underachieving Spartan team that suffered through a similar gauntlet non-conference schedule, as well as losing many winnable conference games. I decided to give away my student section ticket for what turned out to be a legendary home game against Carmelo Anthony and the later to be crowned champion Syracuse. To this day I can’t believe I did that. I never do things like that!
That particular year, Michigan State eked into the tournament as a No. 7 seed. They beat a very good Colorado team, advancing for the right to take on No. 2 seed Florida. They beat the Gators by 22! Add Izzo’s other victory against Florida coach Billy Donovan in tournament—the 2000 National Title game—and you compile a 2-0 record against the slickster. I really don’t think Florida fans want to see Michigan State.
However, this is a very experienced Florida team, having the luxury of returning five starters from last year’s tournament team. They feature two guards that turn the ball over and shoot horrendous three’s profusely, in Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. The bad news is sometimes they go in and there’s not much one can do, because when on a roll, they are indomitable.
The real problem for Michigan State is the versatility of Chandler Parsons. He’s a lot like Gordon Hayward (from Butler last year), in that he’s 6'10", wiry, and a matchup nightmare for a team that struggles to defend small forwards—mostly because Summer’s noggin is made of East Lansing bricks (quite parallel to his shooting touch these days). This could spell foul trouble for Draymond Green, or at the very least keep Green off the blocks, which is trouble for the Spartans rebounding potential.
With everything to consider, if Michigan State avoids that first round upset, I like Izzo’s odds. He never losses the second game of opening weekend and I can’t see that changing against a coach he knows so well and a squad that plays as reckless as Florida.
I am counting on Appling becoming a prime-time player creating turnovers into transitional buckets and hoping for the return of “Summertime.”
Kansas State over Old Dominion
Kansas State does what the other two previous victims couldn’t against Old Dominion—they shoot threes. The key here will be a vested, mullet wearing, duct tape bearing hoister of threes. Yes folks, I’m talking about Rodney McGruder!!!
Okay, so McGruder actually physically looks exactly the opposite of Will Forte’s insanely stupid farce of MacGuyver. He does, however, pose as Kansas State’s second leading scorer and knocks down threes in bunches, like bananas (MacGruber’s favorite weapon), at a 41 percent clip. He’s absolutely crucial to breaking down Old Dominion’s zone.
Michigan State over Gonzaga
I’ll never forgive Goran Suton for blowing a layup that ruined Maurice Ager’s perfect game against Gonzaga a few years ago. Unlike previous Gonzaga opponents, the Spartans will clean up the glass and outrun the ‘Zags tournament dreams. This is not the most athletic Spartan team ever, but I fully expect the return of Summertime to be a problem for a team like Gonzaga that don’t have an answer to back door alley-oops and open threes off dribble penetration.
Goran Suton made up for his tragic mistake by having a tremendous senior year, willing the Spartans into the Championship game against North Carolina. I’m hoping for similar redemption to the Spartans discombobulated season with another epic run. It’s certainly another favorable matchup in what would certainly be an epic No. 10 vs. No. 11 battle for the Elite Eight.
The Dancing Bear hits a buzzer beater in OT to keep the Spartans dancing.
Road to the Final Four
Kansas State over Michigan State
Izzo’s tournament history is pretty well documented. If he avoids the early upset (NC State, Nevada, George Mason) he pretty much wins every game, unless he’s drastically outmanned. Period.
This situation is neither. The offense Kansas State runs is a nightmare for Izzo. It’s his kryptonite. Back door screens and high post picks tend to give clueless Spartan defenders like Summers, Payne, Sherman, and Nix fits, leading to open layups and uncontested dunks. Mike Brey thinks the Spartans are giving up too many easy buckets and should do something. It’s a lot like Bo Ryan’s offense at Wisconsin, which is ironic as those two will have played each other earlier in the bracket.
K-State also has enough talent to withstand a Spartan run if they somehow show up with their best effort. Both of these teams are very similar. They are led by very intrinsically driven senior point guards. Both were slated to be a top team and disappointed their fan base with double digit losses and porous non-conference performances, gathering chinks in the armor throughout the long, awkward season.
In the end, Michigan State will have pulled off another miracle to even get to this point, and the unsteady footing will correct itself eventually in favor of the opponent. Kansas State will have its feet planted for the charging Spartans.
The entire 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket breakdown can be found on my blog appropriately titled Ryan C. Zerfas. Report here for more top-notch bracket analysis: http://ryanczerfas.blogspot.com/2011/03/2011-ncaa-bracket-projections.html