I've broken down my 2008 NCAA Tournament picks by region and Final Four. Also available are links to my 2008 NCAA Tournament Stats, Facts, Trends and Tips, and NCAA Tournament Credo. I got three out of the four Final Four teams right last year (Florida, Georgetown and UCLA), so hopefully I have similar success this March.
#1 North Carolina (32-2) vs. #16 Mount Saint Mary's (18-14)
I'm going to assume that Mount Saint Mary's beats Coppin State in the play-in game, given that Coppin State has 20 losses. How embarrassing is that for the MEAC? How does a squad with 20 losses win your conference tournament? I vote that all MEAC teams should be banned from March Madness for the next five years.
Winner: #1 North Carolina
#8 Indiana (25-7) vs. #9 Arkansas (22-11)
When the brackets were first released, I liked Arkansas in this matchup. The Hoosiers played hard when Kelvin Sampson was fired in the wake of his sending text messages to his recruits, which were comprised of phrases such as, "Come to my skewl, were #1!!!" "U r the man - i saw ur last game!!!" and "Lolz don't listen 2 that recruiter - hez a lire!" However, the Sampson rally energy has worn off, and Indiana has dropped three of four (one game to crappy Minnesota; another to crappier Penn State).
However, I was looking over some of my Arkansas information, and I've discovered that they're a bit of a fraud. The Razorbacks were 3-7 on the road this year, compared to Indiana's 7-3 mark away from Hoosier Land. Also, Arkansas stumbled in the first round last year because starting point guard Gary Ervin came up very short, hitting just 3-of-13 from the field. I don't trust Ervin and the Razorbacks to beat a very talented (but very young) Indiana squad in Raleigh.
When George Mason beat William & Mary in the CAA Championship about a week ago, ESPN captured a fan holding a sign that said, "George Mason is this year's George Mason!"
While it seems like that guy was simply being a homer, I actually agree with him. Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas, the team's two leading scorers, were both in the starting lineup on the squad that went to the Final Four two years ago. Head coach Jim Larranaga knows what it takes to win in March. The year after the Final Four appearance, he led a very young George Mason team back to the CAA Championship. It should be no surprise that he won it this season despite not being the chalk.
Beating Notre Dame will be tough. The Irish have incredible balance with Luke Harangody (20.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg) dominating the paint and Kyle McAlarney (44.8 percent), Rob Kurz (39.8), Ryan Ayers (46.5) and Luke Zeller (38.8) all dropping bombs from area-code three. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, George Mason has defensive balance to counter its attack; Thomas is a solid presence in the paint, while the defense yields just a 32.8-percent clip from three-point land.
The Fighting Irish have a weakness, and it's at the point guard position. I don't trust Tory Jackson. Sure, he gets a lot of assists (6.1 apg), but he also turns it over a lot. Jackson was one of my Aurora Snow Players, as he was just 3-of-12 from the field in a first-round upset to Winthrop in 2007. Notre Dame was a No. 6 seed last year. I see no reason why it can't lose as a No. 5 seed this March.
#4 Washington State (24-8) vs. #13 Winthrop (22-11)
Speaking of Winthrop pulling an upset, I have a feeling a good amount of people are going to pick the Eagles to once again knock off a power-conference team. While I wouldn't rule it out - guard Michael Jenkins (14.3 ppg, 37.6% from three) is an incredible talent - I think it'll be extremely difficult for Winthrop to repeat what it did in 2007.
First of all, this isn't the same Winthrop squad. Gone are its second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers, Torrell Martin, Craig Bradshaw and Phillip Williams. Forward Taj McCullough improved from last season, but he doesn't make up for three dynamic players.
Washington State is one of the top defensive teams in this tournament. The Cougars have a knack for disrupting opponents with one consistent scorer, and that's exactly what Winthrop is.
#6 Oklahoma (22-11) vs. #11 Saint Joseph's (21-12)
Age and experience are extremely underrated when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. Those are two things Saint Joseph's definitely doesn't lack; its top four scorers are all upperclassmen. The Sooners can't say the same thing. In fact, their only consistent offensive threat, 6-10 forward Blake Griffin (15.0 ppg, 9.4 rpg) is a pimply-faced freshman.
Other than the experience factor, there are a few other reasons why I believe the Hawks will win this battle. Their 3-point shooting trumps Oklahoma's. The Sooners have just one regular (Tony Crocker) who shoots better than 33.8 percent from beyond the arc. Saint Joseph's has four. Two of those guys - Pat Calathes and Rob Ferguson - are big men who will force Oklahoma's paint patrollers to step outside their comfort zone on defense.
I also trust Saint Joseph's point guard (Tasheed Carr) more than Oklahoma's.
One other reason no one will be looking at is the spread. Oklahoma is the No. 6 seed favored by the least amount; the Hawks are just 1.5-point dogs in this matchup. That should tell you what the oddsmakers believe will transpire in this contest.
Winner: #11 Saint Joseph's
#3 Louisville (24-8) vs. #14 Boise State (25-8)
It's a shame Boise State is matched up with Louisville. I was hoping the Broncos would be matched up against a sloth team like Wisconsin.
Boise State loves to run. Reggie Larry (19.6 ppg), Matt Nelson (15.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and Tyler Tiedeman (14.0 ppg) are all dynamic players. Unfortunately, the squad also plays with reckless abandon, which is why it can't defend the three to save its life. Louisville's not the greatest shooting team in the world, but it should be able to capitalize on open opportunities. I think Rick Pitino is too solid a coach to go down to a potential high-flying upstart like Boise State.
Winner: #3 Louisville
#7 Butler (29-3) vs. #10 Southern Alabama (26-6)
It really bothers me to see Southern Alabama in the NCAA Tournament. I'm glad that a mid-major got in, but did the Jaguars really deserve it? They nearly lost their opening-round battle in the Sun Belt tournament to mediocre New Orleans. The following day, they went down to Middle Tennessee State as 11.5-point favorites. Maybe they'll play better as underdogs, but I don't think I can really trust a team that performed really poorly when it needed to win.
Butler, meanwhile, actually has guts. The Bulldogs got past Old Dominion and Maryland last March before giving Florida all it could handle. Except for Brandon Crone, everyone is back for Butler, including senior guards Mike Green (14.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 5.1 apg) and A.J. Graves (13.3 ppg). If guard play wins in March, the Bulldogs could be poised for a long run.
One more thing - if you're thinking about a No. 10 upset, No. 7 seeds are actually 17-7 versus No. 10 seeds since 2002. That's just as good as No. 6 over No. 11, and even better than No. 5 over No. 12 (15-9).
Winner: #7 Butler
#2 Tennessee (29-4) vs. #15 American (21-11)
Beating American University doesn't sound too patriotic too me. Maybe Bruce Pearl will be a nice guy and let the Eagles win. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that won't happen.
Winner: #2 Tennessee
#1 North Carolina (32-2) vs. #8 Indiana (25-7)
As much as I liked Indiana in the first round, I really dislike its chances here. North Carolina is a talented veteran squad that has advanced deep into the tournament before. While the Hoosiers are also extremely physically gifted, especially with shooting guard Eric Gordon (21.3 ppg) and power forward D.J. White (17.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg), their downfall is their youth. Gordon is a freshman. Point guard Jordan Crawford is a freshman. Guard Armon Bassett is a sophomore. I don't see these 18- and 19-year-olds taking down arguably the top team in the country.
Winner: #1 North Carolina
#4 Washington State (24-8) vs. #12 George Mason (23-10)
In my first-round write-up of the Washington State-Winthrop matchup, I stated that the Cougars are a great defensive team capable of locking down opponents with one legitimate scoring option. Well, unlike Winthrop, George Mason is a mid-major with three talented scoring threats. I already talked about Folarin Campbell (15.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.3 apg) and Will Thomas (15.8 ppg and 10.5 rpg); junior guard John Vaughn (12.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg) can also get in the mix.
The Cougars are a No. 4 seed; not a No. 1 seed, meaning they have a glaring weakness. That happens to be their inconsistency on the offensive end. It was their undoing in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament against Vanderbilt, and I believe it will kill them again versus another upstart. George Mason plays the type of solid defense (62.3 opp ppg) that can bog down a squad that lacks a consistent second option and that often has problems getting into the 70s.
Look, even if I'm wrong about George Mason stunning No. 4 Washington State, it really doesn't matter that much, given that North Carolina will likely clobber the squad coming out of the Washington State-Notre Dame-George Mason-Winthrop bracket. I just think that with its experience, grit and tournament-tested play, George Mason is an underdog that has a great shot at getting to Charlotte.
#3 Louisville (24-8) vs. #11 Saint Joseph's (21-12)
Louisville and Oklahoma are somewhat similar basketball squads, but the glaring difference between the two is the advantage Saint Joseph's loses in this matchup.
Unlike Oklahoma, the Cardinals have experience. Their top scorers aren't months removed from being concerned with finding a date to prom. David Padgett (11.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) is a senior. Terrence Williams (11.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 4.5 apg) is a junior. Last year, they came within three points of knocking off Texas A&M, whom many people believed was the top team in the country aside from Florida and UCLA. They have all three of their top scorers back, so they should be able to make another semi-deep run this March.
Winner: #3 Louisville
#2 Tennessee (29-4) vs. #7 Butler (29-3)
This is a really tough one, though if you asked me about a month ago, I would have told you Butler without much thought. I wasn't a big fan of Tennessee guard Chris Lofton's; he was often guilty of running down the court and firing three-pointers with three or four guys in his grill. He consequently shot about 32 or 33 percent from long distance. His tactics actually reminded me of this guy at my gym who calls himself He Man. He's pretty athletic, but he's the worst to play basketball with because he'll jack bombs from halfcourt with two or three defenders on him. He never passes the ball, no matter what. And the fact that he writes "He Man" on the back of his shirts pisses me off. He Man? More like She Ra. Get it? He Man, She Ra? Ugh, it's late. I'm sorry.
Back to Lofton - I was surprised the other day when I looked up Tennessee's statistics and saw that he was nailing 39.8 percent of his threes. I guess he's been more selective with his shots, which is great news for the Vols. Since the Memphis game in which he was 0-of-4, Lofton is 24-of-54 (44.4 percent) from beyond the arc. Not too shabby.
If Lofton isn't forcing any He Man shots, Tennessee has a great chance to move on to Charlotte. When two teams with similar styles battle each other, I'll almost always take the more athletic club, just as long as I'm not giving up experience. With Lofton and JaJuan Smith (14.5 ppg) both being seniors, we're not really doing that, although the rest of the squad is comprised of sophomores.
It's no secret the Vols have major issues on the defensive end, but one thing they do well defensively is defend the three (30.9 opp pct). That's bad news for Butler, as the Bulldogs live in area-code three.
Despite everything I just said, this game could go either way. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Butler came away with the victory. This is probably the toughest second-round battle to predict in the entire tournament.
Winner: #2 Tennessee
#1 North Carolina (32-2) vs. #12 George Mason (23-10)
As I alluded to in my second-round write-up, North Carolina will crush anyone coming out of the Denver bracket in the East. The Tar Heels simply just have way too much fire power for George Mason, Washington State or Notre Dame.
One of the reasons I think the Tar Heels are one of the fiew teams that has a great shot at winning the tournament is the determination of Tyler Hansbrough. Aptly nicknamed Psycho-T, the 6-9 power forward dominates inside (23.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg) and hits big shots when the game is on the line. When Ty Lawson (12.4 ppg, 5.2 apg), one of the top point guards in the country, went out of the lineup with an injury, Psycho-T stepped up his game, averaging a double-double. With Lawson back healthy, the sky's the limit for North Carolina. That doesn't mean the Heels won't be tested in the earlier rounds, but I believe that if they fall in the tournament, it won't be until the final weekend.
Winner: #1 North Carolina
#2 Tennessee (29-4) vs. #3 Louisville (24-8)
Once again, I'm going to pray that Chris Lofton doesn't take any He Man shots. He'll be more tested in that regard against Louisville, who, like the Vols, limit opponents to less than 31 percent shooting from long distance.
One thing I'd worry about if I chose Louisville to win this contest is its lack of a consistent scorer. David Padgett, who led the team at an 11.7 per-game clip, can go 25 some nights and six on others. Same goes for Terrence Williams. It's no secret the Vols are going to put up tons of points. I'm not sure if the Cardinals will have someone who can keep up them.
Winner: #2 Tennessee
#1 North Carolina (32-2) vs. #2 Tennessee (29-4)
I took Tennessee over American University because Bruce Pearl hates this country (just kidding). I took Tennessee over Butler because the Vols are great at defending the one thing Butler does well. I took Tennessee over Louisville because the Cardinals lack the scoring to keep up with the athletic orange and white.
With all of those things in mind, North Carolina seems to have everything that can give the Vols tons of problems. In addition to being able to nail long jumpers, Ty Lawson can kick the rock inside to Psycho-T, who can expose Tennessee's soft interior. And the Tar Heels actually score more (88.8 ppg) than the Vols (83.0), which is hard to believe, given that the latter is college basketball's version of the Phoenix Suns.
Another reason I love North Carolina in this entire tournament, besides Lawson and Psycho-T, is the versatility Danny Green brings to the table. Green's numbers aren't eye-popping (11.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg), but he's such an underrated player coming off the bench. He nails threes (37.5 percent), rebounds well and even blocks shots on defense.