Monday, March 18, 2013

March Madness 2013

There's a moving scene in the first season of "The West Wing" in which Toby convinces President Bartlet to cut from his State of the Union Address a line that reads, "The era of big government is over." Toby admits that it's a catchy slogan that will give Bartlet a bump in the polls, but he's sickened at the thought of disparaging the federal machine solely to score political points. "Government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind," he pleads, and as string music swells to support the truth of his words, Bartlet turns to Josh Lyman and asks him what he thinks. Josh considers briefly, then answers, "I make it a point never to disagree with Toby when he's right."

March Madness, too, is a place where (or at least a time when) people come together. Pools are illegally filled out, Internet traffic booms, productivity stalls, and across the nation the conversation turns to whether Gonzaga really deserved a #1 seed, or whether Bucknell can flip the script on Butler. But while the era of big government may not be over, the era of top-tier dominance in college basketball is assuredly extinct. With the game's most talented players fleeing for the NBA after a single season, collegiate teams struggle to build any sort of chemistry, as frustrated coaches ultimately allow scheme and strategy to yield to on-floor talent. (This also might explain why most close games are invariably decided by either (a) free-throw shooting, or (b) a final possession in which the team's best player dribbles for 25 seconds, then heaves up a step-back, off-balance three-pointer.) Setting aside Gonzaga (a team with its own unique set of question marks), every legitimate contender for the 2013 title has lost at least five games. There's just no such thing as an elite team anymore.

But while that's bad news for prognosticators – the increased element of randomness makes handicapping this year's tourney field even more of a fool's errand than normal – it's great news for fans of suspenseful, unpredictable basketball. Plus it functions as a handy protective mechanism for the Manifesto; in such an anything-can-happen field, what chance does a mere mortal have against the cruel gods of chaos? My only recommendation is to ignore the seeds and just pick based on matchups. Otherwise, all I can promise you is this: There will be many, many terrible charge calls.

On to this year's picks. Here's a blank bracket so you can follow along.


MIDWEST ("The Warzone")
Overall thoughts: This region is loaded. The three, four, and five seeds all could arguably have been ranked a line higher. Expect carnage.

The top seed: O.K., so Louisville is hot. The Cardinals have won their last 10 games, eight by double digits, and they're coming off an absolute second-half thrashing of Syracuse in the Big East final in which they went on a 27-3 run that came straight out of the boss level of a videogame. They also play ferocious pressure defense, ranking second in the country in both forced turnovers and steals. But they shoot a horrific 33.1% from three (215th in the nation), and they rely heavily on a pair of guards (Peyton Siva and Russ Smith) who are decidedly unreliable. If you get suckered into playing at their tempo, they're unbeatable, but they're vulnerable against well-coached teams that make open shots and take care of the ball. Such as ...

The mid-major: The Billikens of Saint Louis aren't sexy, but they have ball-handlers in Jordair Jett and Kwamain Mitchell, a steady shooter in Mike McCall, a load inside in Dwayne Evans, and a tantalizing stretch four in Cody Ellis. They showed last year against Michigan State that they don't crumble against pressure, and they have the patience to execute and get good shots late in games. You've been warned.

The one-and-done: Freshman Marcus Smart was the Big 12 Player of the Year and is currently #2 on NBAdraft.net's board, so if Oklahoma State is going to make a "Uconn in 2011" type of run, Smart's going to have to be their Kemba Walker. Unfortunately, Smart shoots 29.5% from three and has a ghastly 1.3 assist/turnover ratio. If the Cowboys can get past Saint Louis, Smart might rise to the occasion in a high-profile matchup against Louisville, but expect the Billikens to out-muscle them in the second round.

The yawners: I suppose it's a credit to Tom Izzo that it's difficult to tell his Michigan State teams apart. This one is like all the rest, steady and well-coached but lacking in any real difference-making talent, with the possible exception of Adreian Payne, a freakish 6'10" athlete who has shown astonishing improvement in his shooting touch during his career (after making 49% of his free throws as a freshman, he's up to 83% as a junior, and he's buried 15 of 33 threes as well). Still, the Spartans will likely live and die with Keith Appling, an overconfident point guard who jacks up nearly four threes per game despite shooting just 31% from distance. Izzo's squad fights hard (of their eight losses, seven are by single digits), but it just doesn't have the horses to make an extended run.

The terror: Doug McDermott isn't fucking around. Creighton's well-built superstar is the country's third-leading scorer at 23.2 per game, and he sports Nashian shooting percentages (56% from the field, 86% from the line, 50% from three). And McDermott isn't a lone weapon; as a team, the Blue Jays lead the nation in both field-goal percentage and three-point percentage, and they're third overall in assists. Match them against a vulnerable defensive team such as Duke, and they could do some serious damage. I'd rather not think about this.





The chance: O.K., this Duke team has its flaws. Their interior defense is weak, they have limited depth, and they're absolutely atrocious on the glass (225th and 234th in defensive and offensive rebounding percentage, respectively). But they can score. The return of Ryan Kelly allows them to space the floor around center Mason Plumlee with four elite shooters (assuming Krzyzewski comes to his sense and leaves Tyler Thornton on the bench); Kelly shoots an eye-popping 49% from three, and Seth Curry and Quinn Cook also exceed 42%. If they go cold from the outside (as they did against Maryland in the ACC tournament), they're in trouble, especially since they rarely force turnovers to generate easy baskets. But they actually defend the three well (29% against, 10th in the nation), and between Plumlee, Kelly, Curry (who has the ability to take over a game), and mercurial freshman Rasheed Sulaimon (who has the same ability, provided he doesn't disappear entirely), they have sufficient firepower both to blow teams out and to come back from deficits. It's not a perfect team – remember, there's no such thing anymore in college basketball – but with a healthy Kelly, it's a team with a chance.


The Picks
Play-in games: North Carolina A&T over Liberty, Saint Mary's over Middle Tennessee State.

Sweet 16: Louisville over Colorado State, Saint Louis over Oklahoma State, Michigan State over Saint Mary's, Duke over Creighton.

Regional final: DUKE over Saint Louis.





SOUTH ("The Broken Seesaw")
Overall thoughts: The top half of this region is stacked, with a #8 seed that could challenge for the Final Four if they didn't have a horrible matchup waiting for them in the second round. The bottom half is pathetic, with a #2 seed that could lose in the second round if they didn't have a cakewalk to the Sweet 16.

The top seed: I'll confess that Kansas has been the Manifesto's top-ranked team in the country for most of the season. Yes, they had that bizarre three-game skid in early February, but they've won 10 of 11 games since, and they looked borderline-invincible during the Big 12 tournament. They play defense, leading the country in field goal percentage defense (36% against) and also ranking third in blocks (thanks largely to Jeff Withey's 3.8 per game). They also play offense, led by future #1 pick in freshman Ben McLemore, a silky-smooth swingman who seems to combine Klay Thompson's shooting touch (he shoots 51% from the field and 44% from three) with Paul George's athleticism (witness this). They are very good, and only an Elijah Johnson meltdown will prevent them from reaching the Final Four. (Wait, Johnson shoots 39% from the field and has an assist/turnover ratio of 1.5? Shh.)

The cursed: Poor North Carolina. Last year, they were set up for an Elite Eight showdown against future runner-up Kansas, only star point guard Kendall Marshall got hurt. This year, they turned a dreadful start to the season around thanks to a smaller lineup and a shockingly adept Marcus Paige, so the basketball gods decided to injure shooter P.J. Hairston's hand; when that wasn't enough, they abandoned subtlety altogether and cruelly stuck them in a second-round matchup against the country's best team. It's just unfair. I mean, I feel terrible. I'm really broken up about this.

The enigma: Is there a more perplexing team than Michigan? They have a frighteningly talented backcourt in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., a lights-out shooter in Nik Stauskas, an intriguing leaper in Glenn Robinson, III, and a pair of bruisers in Jordan Morgan and Mitch "I Should Have Gone to Duke" McGary. They shoot the ball well (48%, 12th in the nation), never turn it over (9.2 per game, 1st), and never put other teams on the line (12.9 opponents' free-throw attempts per game, also 1st). So how come every Michigan fan needs to watch their team with a defibrillator nearby? I have no idea what to make of them. They could make Kansas or sweat, or they could lose to ...

The hero: March Madness is made for guys like Nate Wolters. South Dakota State's best player (if you're wondering, it's not close), he's fifth in the country in scoring but also somehow averages 5.8 assists and 1.8 steals. He shoots 39% from three while taking over five per game. He's six-foot-four but gets to the line seven times per night. He's a lot like Creighton's Doug McDermott, only where McDermott has a group of functional teammates at his disposal, Wolters has to do everything himself. Could he drop 35 against a leaky Michigan defense and somehow turn the crowd in Auburn Hills to his side the way Rocky Balboa swung the Russians in Rocky IV? Isn't this why we watch March Madness?





The sequel: Two years ago, VCU beat Kansas in the Elite Eight. This year, it's possible they'll play Kansas in the Sweet 16. I'm not guaranteeing this will happen, but if it does, I promise you this: Kansas will win by 30. At least.

The fraud: I gave the same label to Georgetown last year, and nothing has changed my mind over the past 12 months. This year's Hoya squad has one above-average player (the phenomenal Otto Porter, possibly the most complete player in the Big East since Carmelo Anthony), one decent shooter (Markel Starks), and a bunch of other guys whose job is to rebound, defend, and make layups. They win by playing solid defense (fourth in the nation in opponents' field goal percentage) and by lulling teams to sleep, sometimes literally (or maybe that's just their viewers). One mediocre game from Porter, and they're toast.


The Picks
Sweet 16: Kansas over North Carolina, VCU over South Dakota State, Florida over Minnesota, San Diego State over Georgetown.

Regional final: KANSAS over Florida.





EAST ("The Cakewalk")
Overall thoughts: We should probably just fast-forward to the regional final now and save ourselves time.

The top seed: I've never liked Indiana, but this team is mean. They can score both inside and out (they're second in the country in three-point percentage and third in free-throw attempts per game), they're one of the few teams in the field with two elite talents in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo (both of whom shoot over 57%), they have two lights-out shooters in Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford (46% and 49% from three, respectively, and yes, I'm as surprised by Watford's number as you are), and they have a speedy point guard in Yogi Ferrell who recognizes the talent surrounding him and doesn't try to do too much. You can't just take away one weapon and neutralize the entire team. They're tough.

The obligation: I have to mention Syracuse here, or my Dad might forbid me from invading his house and monopolizing his quad-tuner DVR for 96 hours straight during the tournament's opening weekend. But there isn't much to say. They play the most effective zone in the country, leading to an impressive defense that ranks fifth in opponents' field goal percentage, fifth in blocks, and 17th in steals. But they just can't score; they shoot a dreadful 33% from three (anchored by their starting backcourt of Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams, both of whom shoot below 29%) and an even worse 68% from the free-throw line. Unless they get out in transition, they're forced to rely on sharpshooter James Southerland (even though they should really be running more plays for C.J. Fair). They can win in a dogfight but not against a disciplined team that can make threes.

The bafflement: Technically, if you're a three seed, it means you're one of the 12 best teams in the country. Let's see, Marquette ranks 117th in the nation in points per game, 61st in victory margin, 62nd in opponents' shooting percentage, 234th in defensive rebound percentage, 207th in turnovers, 149th in steals, 169th in blocks, and 318th in three-point percentage. Call me crazy, but they don't quite seem like a top-12 team to me. They do, however, rank first in "hustle plays", as well as number of times announcers have gushed about how they "play hard". When I was 10, I won the "Best Camper" award at a weeklong basketball camp because I played hard. I didn't make the Sweet 16 either.

The test: I like this Miami team, and not just because they're a bunch of 23-year-olds. It's because they have clearly defined roles for all their players. There's the leader (Shane Larkin, a dual-threat point guard), the slasher (Durand Scott, a questionable decision-maker who's nevertheless capable of taking over a game), the shooter (Trey McKinney Jones, who at 37% from three isn't quite as good a shooter as everyone thinks), the space-eater (292-pound Reggie Johnson, who's been weirdly marginalized this year), the brawler (Julian Gamble, whose job is to set screens and not drop any of Larkin's bullet passes), and the wildcard (Kenny Kadji, who is, well, a bit of a wildcard). The problem is that Larkin is really the only elite player in the group, and if Scott or Kadji get into a funk, then the onus is on Larkin to save the Hurricanes. Still, he's probably good enough to lead Miami into the Elite Eight, assuming they can hold off ...

The sniper: There's beauty, there's poetry, and then there's Butler's Rotnei Clarke shooting a basketball. The guy's slingshot jumper is simply lethal (he shoots 41% from three on a staggering 8.5 attempts per game). Of course, this Butler team isn't all that good and hasn't been playing particularly well over the past month, losing by 32 to VCU before getting thoroughly outplayed by Saint Louis in the A-10 tournament. Then again, this is still the same team that beat Indiana and Gonzaga earlier this year, and Brad Stevens seems to take pleasure in keeping his Bulldogs under the radar, so don't be surprised if Kellen Dunham buries nine threes against Bucknell.


The Picks
Play-in game: Long Island over James Madison.

Sweet 16: Indiana over Temple, UNLV over Syracuse, Butler over Davidson, Miami over Colorado.

Regional final: INDIANA over Miami.





WEST ("The Wasteland")
Overall thoughts: Please. This region isn't worth my time.

The top seed: I acknowledge the complaints that Gonzaga's schedule was weak, though they did play out-of-conference games against five tournament teams (Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Butler). But I'm disinclined to penalize the Bulldogs simply because they don't have a huge number of quality wins – I'd rather judge them by what they have done than what they haven't. And they can play. Kelly Olynyk is a force inside, Kevin Pangos has game-changing ability, and Elias Harris and Gary Bell don't stand out but invariably make big plays at key moments. Would they have lost a few more games had they played in a power conference? Probably, but they're still a bona fide Final Four contender. It's just that they have a potential matchup looming against ...

The question mark: More than any other team (except maybe Michigan), Wisconsin epitomizes the difficulty handicapping March Madness in the new era of mediocrity. They play fundamentally sound defense, they never turn the ball over, and they feature a number of heady players (most notably versatile forward Jared Berggren and freshman Sam Dekker) who pass and cut well so that they seem to convert at least a half-dozen wide-open layups per game. But they play at a glacial pace, and they don't shoot very well (particularly from the foul line, where they make just 64%, 322nd in the country), making it almost impossible for them to make up a large deficit. They could absolutely make the Final Four, and they could absolutely lose to Mississippi in the first round. You know that scene at the end of Men in Black, where the camera pulls back and reveals that the entire solar system is actually just a marble being toyed with by enormous intergalactic beings? That's how I feel trying to predict the success of a team like Wisconsin. They're just a fucking marble. Let's move on.

The unknown: I'll wager that, compared to most adult men, I watch significantly more college basketball. Unfortunately, my first glimpse of New Mexico came yesterday, so I'm not entirely sure what to think of this supposed Final Four contender. I know that Tony Snell is a damn good shooter, but the numbers suggest his usage rate isn't all that high, so I don't think he can be trusted to carry the load. I know that they hold opponents to just 39% shooting. And I know that the Pit (their home arena) is apparently a very tough place to play, which isn't exactly useful information, given that the tournament is played at neutral sites. So that's not much to go on. Then again, while I don't know much about New Mexico, I know plenty about ...

The phony: I acknowledge that Ohio State just won the Big Ten tournament and that they won a bunch of games this year against a bunch of good teams. Whatever. They have one double-figure scorer (DeShaun Thomas, living the dream of hoisting 16 shots per game). To say they lack balance is a severe understatement. Aaron Craft is a great defensive player, but he can't ball-hawk his way to the Final Four.

The rest: Wait, do I really have to pick a team to come out of the bottom half of this region? Let's see, Arizona can't defend the three (36% against, 274th), so they'll probably lose to Belmont (fourth-best shooting team in the nation), who will probably struggle against New Mexico in Salt Lake City, and meanwhile Notre Dame and Iowa State are apparently in this region, so ... oh the hell with it.


The Picks
Play-in game: LaSalle over Boise State.

Sweet 16: Gonzaga over Wichita State, Wisconsin over Kansas State, New Mexico over Belmont, Iowa State over Ohio State.

Regional final: WISCONSIN over New Mexico.





FINAL FOUR
Semifinal #1 (Duke vs. Wisconsin): Honestly, the team I'm most worried about for Duke in the Midwest is Creighton. If they can get past the Blue Jays, no reason they can't power past a team as lacking in firepower as the Badgers.

Semifinal #2 (Kansas vs. Indiana): And this is why it's good to be on the left side of this year's bracket. In the game of the tournament, I'll take Kansas in overtime over the Hoosiers.

Championship (Duke vs. Kansas): A rematch of the 1991 title game, only this time, Duke doesn't have Christian Laettner. Meet your 2013 national champions, the Kansas Jayhawks.


That's the Manifesto's bracket. What's yours?

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