Per usual, the NCAA Tournament has brought happiness, sadness, upsets and glory, and we have only made it through the Round of 32.
Going into the Sweet Sixteen, there are no perfect brackets left and no one will win a $1 billion from the hands of Warren Buffet and Dan Gilbert. But there is still basketball to be played.
Each region but the West had an upset. Duke lost to Mercer, Syracuse has been exiled by Dayton and Harvard topped Cincinnati.
The 2014 NCAA tournament has brought us a lot of down-to-the-wire basketball.
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Florida, UCLA, Stanford and Dayton
I would say that the Southern Region is one of the weaker regions. Florida is the heavy favorite to come out as the Final Four representative. The Gators came out against Pittsburgh and only allowed 45 points after Pitt scored 46 in the first half against Colorado in their second round match-up. Florida has shown defense, dominance on the outside and a heavy force coming into the paint. I think that Florida could outscore and defend against any team left in the Southern Region.
No one thought that Dayton, who upset Ohio State in the very first game of the tournament, would be able to move through into the Sweet Sixteen. Similar to the shocking performance that Florida Gulf Coast put on last year in the tournament, Dayton is replicating their performance. Archie Miller has done a great job with Dayton, recently receiving a contract extension as the head coach, but I do not foresee the team making it any further than they already have.
Stanford is a strong team, but not strong enough. In Vegas they have a 90-1 odds of winning the National Championship and I would have to side with them on this one. Although Stanford is a heavy favorite to beat Dayton, I think that they will take a tournament exit against a dominant Gator team.
UCLA and Norman Powell have had a strong tournament thus far, but they have not played any reputable teams. Steven F. Austin and Tulsa were not much of a competitive start for the UCLA Bruins, but does it really matter? I think that Florida is going to wax UCLA in all facets of the game. UCLA is going to make their tournament exit shortly.
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Michigan State University, Virginia, Iowa State and Connecticut
MSU is the clear favorite to be the representation of the Eastern Region in the Final Four. Harris, Dawson, Payne, Appling, Valentine and their bench weapons are going to be enough to secure this team a Final Four slot. None of the teams in the Eastern Region are at the level of play that MSU is at. Tom Izzo has a reputation of taking every one of his four-year seniors to a Final Four and this one is shaping out to be just the same as the ones in the past.
Virginia is the only team in the remainder of the tournament that is going to pose Michigan State a challenge to take an early, unexpected exit from the tournament. Michigan State might be the favorite in the Sweet Sixteen game, giving a No. 4 seed the nod over the No. 1 seed in the division. Tony Bennett has done a great job of teaching his team both ends of the floor and that will come to fruition. But unfortunately for Virginia, if there is any team that can stop that style of play, it is the Spartans.
Iowa State and Connecticut are going to face off later in the week. Georges Niang is out of the tournament with a broken foot for Iowa State, making them less dangerous coming down the stretch. I think that Connecticut is going to be doing all of the right things to be able to get out of this game with a victory and an Elite Eight berth. Shabazz Napier scored 49 points in his first two tournament games and is playing on a winning level, shaping the way for Connecticut. I think that UConn is going to come out of this game with a victory and finally put the pesky Iowa State Cyclones out of chirping contention.
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Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee
This is by far the toughest division to call when it comes to the end of the tournament. The only team that I would say is clearly going to be axed from NCAA Final Four contention is Tennessee, who has a really challenging opponent in the Michigan Wolverines led by Nik Stauskas. Tennessee is by far the weakest team left in this division. Michigan has some of the most dangerous offensive weapons left in the tournament. Their path has not been very challenging up until now, but Michigan is going to be a challenge. I think that the tournament is going to end for the Vols in the Sweet Sixteen.
Michigan is going to have an easy game against the Vols, but when they take on Louisville, I believe that it is going to be a hard time for the arrogant Michigan fans. Michigan is known for their fight song “Hail! Hail! to Michigan the leaders and best,” but I do not believe they are the best nor are they the leaders. The team outside of Robinson and Stauskas is relatively small in all facets of the game. Although they went to the National Championship game in the 2013 tournament, I do not expect the team to do the same this year. A loss to Louisville in the Elite Eight is in Michigan’s future.
Kentucky is going to eventually play Louisville and run into a team that is very competitive and 100 percent Final Four caliber. Kentucky is just coming off of a big victory, handing Wichita State their first loss of the season. James Young has been knocking down shots that will leave you with a dropped jaw, and Julius Randle went beast mode throughout the first two rounds of the tournament.
Louisville is the strongest team left in the Midwest. The team’s offense is a massive part of their team. Russ Smith has done a great job of putting up shots the entire season. The team also has a great set of defensive plays that make them bigger against their opponents, averaging 58.3 points against them.
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Arizona, San Diego State, Wisconsin and Baylor
Arizona is the No. 1 team in this region and they are going to show San Diego State the way to win a basketball game come time of the Sweet Sixteen. Although Arizona is great, SDSU is a great team when they are in transition on the floor and in rhythm with each other throughout the game. SDSU Coach Steve Fisher is great when it comes to setting up the team’s defensive scheme, and as everyone knows, defense wins championships. Xavier Thames has 53 points in two games during the tournament and the numbers do not lie.
Arizona is the best team in this region hands down. They have 5-1 odds of winning the National Championship and when they are clicking on offense they prove the odds to be in their favor. Brandon Ashley had a massive injury which has hurt the team greatly, but I still do not believe that SDSU is going to have what it takes to stop Arizona from getting to the Elite Eight and eventually, to a Final Four. Arizona will be the team that advances to this year’s Final Four, don’t argue, it is true.
Baylor is going to face a Big Ten team that is built of warriors in Wisconsin. The Bears have a phenomenal front with great play from guard Kenny Chery. The team dominated Creighton, who was a No. 3 seed. Baylor plays a zone defense that is going to give them an advantage against the offensive based Wisconsin team. Baylor is one of the hottest teams left in the tournament, but Wisconsin’s offense is strong with many floor shooters and great passing. Baylor does an incredibly good job of getting the ball into the paint and quite frankly, Frank Kaminsky is going to have a very difficult time defending the inside against the Bears.
I would say that the Elite Eight game from this region would be Baylor vs. Arizona, with Arizona coming out on top from a high-scoring game.
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Austin’s Remaining Picks:
Florida vs. UCLA
Dayton vs. Stanford
Michigan State vs. Virginia
Winner: Michigan State
Connecticut vs. Iowa State
Louisville vs. Kentucky
Michigan vs. Tennessee
Arizona vs. San Diego State
Wisconsin vs. Baylor
Florida vs. Dayton
Michigan State vs. Connecticut
Winner: Michigan State
Louisville vs. Michigan
Arizona vs. Baylor
Austin’s National Championship Pick:
The Spartans have two veteran NCAA powerhouses that are at the top of their game, bringing to a close a strong legacy at Michigan State University. Branden Dawson, who has struggled with injury issues throughout his career, is finally healthy and Adreian Payne came out against Delaware and set a tournament record for MSU with 41 points. The team looks as though they are ready to match what every other senior class under head coach Tom Izzo has done; take a trip to the Final Four.
Although Payne and Dawson have been the two main contributors throughout the tournament thus far, I believe that Keith Appling and Gary Harris are ready to be in the spotlight as well down the stretch.
With the common term in Michigan of “feeding the mule” coined by Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings, the Spartans are creating the same game plan. Whether it be Harris, Appling, Payne, Dawson, Valentine or even deep threats from Trice and Kaminski, the Spartans have what it takes to win it all.
I just want to say this in the best way possible…Victory for MSU! Go Green, Go White! It is time for the Spartan Dawgs to bring the tournament championship to East Lansing, folks!
Austin Goodman is a panelist on The Pact for Impact Sports.