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 UCLA (31-3) vs. #16 Mississippi Valley State (17-15)
Look at Mississippi Valley State's logo. It's not even colored. It's just black-and-white. How is a team supposed to win with a black-and-white logo?
Winner: #1 UCLA
#8 BYU (27-7) vs. #9 Texas A&M (24-10)
I wouldn't really sweat over the winner of this matchup because UCLA can rip both of these squads into shreds. If you're looking for better three-point shooting and defense, I suggest you go with BYU. If you're into more athleticism, take Texas A&M. The one problem I have with the Aggies is how they finished the season. Since Feb. 16, they're 4-5. BYU, on the other hand, has lost only twice since Jan. 19.
Winner: #8 BYU
#5 Drake (28-4) vs. #12 Western Kentucky (27-6)
While I think the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee did a solid job putting together a decent bracket, I really hate that they matched Drake up with Western Kentucky. Both the Bulldogs and the Hilltoppers are the prototypical Cinderella; they've shown the ability to win tough road games all year, their senior-laden squads have strong guards, and they can hit threes from anywhere on the court.
The one thing that separates Drake from Western Kentucky is the fact that the Hilltoppers don't have a strong inside scoring presence. The 6-8, 225-pound Jonathan Cox (11.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg) is that man for the Bulldogs. In fact, he was a major reason why Drake was able to beat another similar squad in Butler about a month ago. Cox had 11 points and 11 boards in Drake's 71-64 victory at Butler.
The one concern I have about picking the Bulldogs is that CBS' Seth Davis stated that he likes them to go to the Sweet 16. Because Davis is usually wrong when it comes to his bold predictions - check the 2008 NCAA Tournament Information for details - I'm not that confident in this selection. But like I always say, throw enough darts at the board and you're bound to get a bulls eye sooner or later.
Winner: #5 Drake
#4 Connecticut (24-8) vs. #13 San Diego (21-13)
Normally, you'd expect a mid-major like San Diego to have a senior-laden roster. That's not the case, as four of the Toreros' top seven scorers are underclassmen. None of those players are seniors.
I don't think San Diego has much of a chance here. The team often struggles to score (65.6 ppg average), doesn't shoot well from beyond the arc and plays mediocre defense. And the kicker is, unlike other mid-majors, they don't even have experience as an advantage. Not exactly a prototypical bracket-buster.
Winner: #4 Connecticut
#6 Purdue (24-8) vs. #11 Baylor (21-10)
Every year it seems like the talking heads on ESPN and CBS question the validity of a team's right to be in the NCAA Tournament. In 2003, Auburn, written off by all of the analysts, advanced to the Sweet 16 and nearly defeated eventual-champion Syracuse. You see stuff like this happen every year.
Baylor is playing for respect. No one seemed to agree that putting them into the field over Arizona State or Virginia Tech was the right move. I think the Bears will come out with guns blazing against a pretty sluggish Purdue squad. The Boilermakers didn't qualify for my 68-points-or-less slop-fest list, but they were pretty close at 68.7 points per game. Purdue has no consistent scorer; freshman E'Twaun Moore leads the team at 12.7 points per contest.
And speaking of the Boilermakers' leading scorer being a freshman, all five of their top point-notchers are all underclassmen. I'm sorry, but I can't trust a team like this. Baylor at least has some juniors on the roster.
Think back two years ago. Remember Syracuse's miraculous run to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament? Gerry McNamara was hitting threes from all over the court, as the Orange Men stormed past Connecticut, Pittsburgh and the like. Well, everyone picked them over Texas A&M in the Big Dance, and everyone walked away when the Aggies slaughtered them.
Georgia's gas tank is on empty. Like Syraucse, I believe the team won't be able to match the intensity it had in its conference tournament.
Arizona is a better team than its record indicates. Freshman Jerryd Bayless and sophomore Nic Wise missed a total of 11 games. In those 11 contests, Arizona was just 3-8, meaning the Wildcats were 16-6 with the two guards in the lineup. That gives us excellent seed value with Arizona. Think about it - the Wildcats would be a No. 5 or 6 seed if it wasn't for those two injuries. Thus, I believe they're the better squad in this matchup.
Fading Bob Huggins doesn't seem like a bad idea either; Huggins is great at recruiting and building solid programs, but he doesn't have the best track record when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
One of the few things I'm mad about in regard to the field the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has given us is the fact that Belmont is a No. 15 seed. I wanted the Vampire Hunters to match up with a slow squad like Wisconsin, Michigan State or Purdue. Instead, they'll likely fall to a Duke team that has similar strengths.
Both Duke and Belmont have experienced players - the latter was in the tournament last year - who excel at knocking down threes. But when you have two squads that run similar styles, you have to take the one with more athleticism if you're not giving up too much experience.
One quick thing... It's obvious that Belmont University is named after famous vampire hunter Simon Belmont. Why not a logo of a vampire, a blue crystal or a villager lying to you (get the silk bag from the graveyard duck to live longer).
At any rate, Duke moves on. What a horrible night to have a curse (if you're Belmont).
Winner: #2 Duke
#1 UCLA (31-3) vs. #8 BYU (27-7)
I alluded to the fact that UCLA can slaughter either BYU or Texas A&M. The Cougars just don't have the athleticism or offensive firepower to keep up with the Bruins. Their three-point shooting may keep them in the game, but UCLA will pull away in the second half en route to a double-digit victory.
Winner: #1 UCLA
#4 Connecticut (24-8) vs. #5 Drake (28-4)
I have Connecticut advancing to the second round more because of San Diego's ineptness. I'm not particularly a big fan of the Huskies either. I'm giving Drake the nod because of a few flaws Connecticut has.
The Huskies used to be great at rebounding the ball, which is to be expected because they have considerable size in 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet, 6-9 Stanley Robinson and 6-7 Jeff Adrien. I don't know what happened to them, but they stopped rebounding well. The shots Drake misses will come long off the rim, and I'm not sure if Connecticut is conditioned enough to run down all the loose balls.
And speaking of Drake's shooting, the Huskies have major problems defending the three, allowing opponents to hit about 35 percent from long distance. With the Bulldogs' Adam Emmenecker pushing the tempo, Drake could take Thabeet and Robinson out of the game.
Minus the whole Seth Davis prediction thing, I'm confident that Drake can advance to the Sweet 16. The only way the Bulldogs lose is if Michael Vick shows up.
Winner: #5 Drake
#3 Xavier (27-6) vs. #11 Baylor (21-10)
The advantages Baylor enjoyed in its first-round matchup against Purdue won't be present here. Compared to Purdue, Xavier has a more efficient offense, better shooters and a much more experienced squad. It's going to take a tough team to knock off the Musketeers, and even though I believe they'll still be playing for respect, I don't think Baylor's right for the job.
Winner: #3 Xavier
#2 Duke (27-5) vs. #10 Arizona (19-14)
It's never wise to bet against a No. 2 seed in the second round unless you're really confident in the No. 7 or 10 that advanced. The reason being that it's a lock that the No. 2 seed will be there, while the No. 7 or 10 has about a 50-percent survival rate. Of the 24 No. 2 seeds since 2002, 14 have advanced to the Sweet 16. That's more than 50 percent. Conversely, only six No. 7 seeds and four No. 10 seeds have gone that far.
The thing is, I don't think Duke is that good. If the Wildcats had a bit more experience, I'd call the upset. But I just can't do it. Jerryd Bayless (20.0 ppg, 4.1 apg) is a freshman. Chase Budinger (17.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg) is a sophomore. Jordan Hill (13.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg) is a sophomore. Nic Wise (9.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) is a sophomore. The list goes on and on. I don't see a group of 18- or 19-year-olds beating Coach K.
Winner: #2 Duke
#1 UCLA (31-3) vs. #5 Drake (28-4)
Last year, Butler met Florida in the Sweet 16 and almost took down the eventual champ. So, it should be appropriate that Butler's successor, Drake, meets the squad that would have won two championships if it hadn't met the Gators in consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
Can Drake take down UCLA? Considering I've been so enamored with the Bruins all year, you may be surprised by my answer: most definitely. The Bulldogs are fully capable of pulling a huge Sweet 16 upset. They have the outstanding point guard in Adam Emmenecker (8.5 ppg, 6.2 apg). They have dynamic sharp shooters in Josh Young (44.6 percent), Jonathan Cox (42.6), Leonard Houston (35.3) and Klayton Korver, brother of NBA star Kyle Korver. They also maintain strong inside scoring in Cox. Drake is a very scary team. If it gets by UCLA, it'll make a Final Four appearance.
I believe the Bulldogs will have the lead at some point in the second half. But when it comes down to crunch time, I have to side with the clutch Bruins. They've been in two consecutive Final Fours. They know what it takes to beat anyone not named Florida. They've hit last-second game-winners when they've needed to. UCLA has the talent and experience to go the distance.
Winner: #1 UCLA
#2 Duke (27-5) vs. #3 Xavier (27-6)
I alluded to not being a fan of Duke's. There's no question that the Blue Devils are talented; DeMarcus Nelson (40.8 percent), Jon Scheyer (40.0), Greg Paulus (43.3), Nolan Smith (37.0) and Taylor King (38.7) are all lethal from area-code three. At 6-8, forward Kyle Singler is a matchup nightmare for teams because he's quick and can shoot over any defender who tries to match up with his size.
Duke has its flaws though - the team relies on the three-pointer way too much. If it doesn't fall for them, they will lose. There's a good chance that will happen in one of these three games. And speaking of long-distance shooting, Xavier actually shoots better as a team (39.2) than Duke does (38.4) from the outside.
The Blue Devils also lack interior scoring; I think it's going to be tough for them to contain Xavier's Derrick Brown (10.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Jason Love (6.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg) inside.
I also don't trust Paulus. He's a tremendous athlete and an accurate shooter, but as a point guard he often makes bone-headed decisions in big games.
And finally, other than Paulus and Nelson, Duke doesn't have much in the area of experience. Xavier, on the other hand, came within a last-second desperation three of knocking off runner-up Ohio State last year. The Musketeers will be out for redemption.
Winner: #3 Xavier
#1 UCLA (31-3) vs. #3 Xavier (27-6)
UCLA may have an easier time with the Xavier-Duke winner than with Drake. I believe the Bruins and Bulldogs are the top two teams in this bracket. It's a shame they're not on opposite sides.
There are certain things I look for in a team if I'm willing to make them my national champion. UCLA has all of those attributes. I'll discuss them all on my Final Four page.
For now, I don't see Xavier's offense working too efficiently with UCLA's exceptional defense bogging down on them. As Xavier took advantage of Duke's small interior, the Bruins should be able to do the same against the Musketeers with Kevin Love (17. 1 ppg, 10.6 rpg), Lorenzo Mata-Real, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (if he plays; ankle injury) and James Keefe.