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March 11, 2003 Columns No Comments


Bracketing

by Michael Ermitage

Bracketing

Things haven’t changed much in Chicago since January. The weather is still awful, the Bulls are still terrible and the Cubs are still in first place. It was in January when I revealed my double-secret plan of winning every tournament pool I enter. Basically, watch every game possible and keep a list of potential contenders. An Ermitage “Who’s Hot, Who’s Not,” if you will.

Let’s take a look at how my January “Pick 16” are doing, and formulate a new list entering Selection Sunday:

1. Arizona – In January, I wrote: I love seniors in March, particularly senior ball handlers. In Jason Gardner and Luke Walton, the Wildcats have two of the best seniors in the nation. Let’s not forget savvy senior Rick Anderson. Toss in tournament-tested Lute Olson and I can’t see this team anywhere else other than the Final Four.

The Wildcats seem to turn it on and off at will, cruising past the likes of Oregon and Arizona State, but struggling with Oregon State and Washington. Sometimes the Wildcats lack defensive intensity and that may catch up with them.

2. Indiana – In January, I wrote: Normally, I’m very wary of picking teams to repeat long tournament runs. It seems that they lose the hunger to succeed. But this Hoosiers team is much different than last season’s team. It is more guard-focused and less one-player dependant than last year. I like Tom Coverdale’s guard play and leadership, A.J. Moye’s instant emotion, Jeffrey Newton’s consistency and Bracey Wright’s explosiveness.

I should have stuck with my original instincts. The Hoosiers have lost the hunger. And strangely, Coverdale’s guard play has been awful and his leadership lacking, Newton has been anything but consistent and Wright has lost all of his explosiveness to a back injury. The only Hoosier still performing… the ever-present A.J. Moye. Not enough for a long March run.

3. Alabama – In January, I wrote: This team plays defense every possession and that’ll get you far in March. It has a nice mix of veteran and younger players, allowing Coach Mark Gottfried to substitute freely.

The Crimson Tide still plays some pretty tough defense but has struggled mightily on the offensive end. This is the kind of team that may be renewed by the tournament, and advance. Or it may shoot 29 percent in a first-round loss.

4. Mississippi State – In January, I wrote: This club features one of the most underrated players in the nation in Derrick Zimmerman. With him manning the point and man-child Mario Austin in the middle, this is a solid team.

Despite struggling to a 9-7 conference record in the rugged SEC, I still like this team. They are very similar to Alabama, but Zimmerman does a good job of giving this team a little bit more offensive firepower.

5. Oklahoma – In January, I wrote: Another solid defensive team that I look for to repeat its long tournament run from a year ago. Hollis Price can be the difference in any close game.

While the Sooners came up short in their quest to win the Big 12, I still think they are a legit Final Four contender. There are few better defensive teams. I think that if freshman Kevin Bookout is the key. If he contributes and stays out of foul trouble, he offers both an inside scoring presence and a massive, physical defensive presence.

6. Kentucky – In January, I wrote: I’ve learned to never count out the Wildcats if they have the talent. And I think that Marquis Estill, Keith Bogans and Gerald Fitch make a dangerous trifecta.

What can I say? Kentucky is Kentucky. Tubby Smith has molded this team into a solid National Title contender.

7. Notre Dame – In January, I wrote: The addition of Danny Miller has helped this team tremendously. And when it comes right down to it, I find it very hard to find a better player in the nation than Chris Thomas.

While Danny Miller has been solid, it has been Matt Carroll that has carried the Fighting Irish. The inconsistency of Thomas has plagued Notre Dame and any long tournament run will be dependant on Thomas performing at a high level.

8. Kansas – In January, I wrote: Despite the Jayhawks’ bench woes, I still feel that Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison are a fantastic duo. I think a deep bench is overrated in NCAA tournament games.

It is amazing to me that the Jayhawks are still regarded in some circles as the third-best Big 12 team behind Texas and Oklahoma despite winning the regular season title outright. Losing Wayne Simien for the year is a huge blow, but Roy Williams still may finally get his Championship with this group.

9. Butler – In January, I wrote: The Bulldogs are an intelligent, talented team. They take care of the ball, shoot well, and have a hunger to prove they belonged last year in the NCAA tournament field.

Nothing’s changed here. Butler still remains someone’s first-round nightmare.

10. Oregon – In January, I wrote: I’m not convinced that the Ducks can run and gun on every team, as Cincinnati proved, but they’ll have enough to make the Sweet 16.

Not only has Oregon lost the ability to force tempo on its opponents, its defense has never improved from its already poor state. If the Ducks are granted an NCAA bid, it’ll be a short waltz for them in the Big Dance.

11. Duke – In January, I wrote: I’m hesitant to put the Blue Devils in here since they are so freshmen-dependant. But with Coach K, it is hard to ignore them.

I’m still not sold on Duke. While J.J. Redick has been solid, Chris Duhon has not. And senior Dahantay Jones does not have a complete enough game to carry the Blue Devils very far.

12. Pittsburgh – In January, I wrote: On the strength of senior guard Brandon Knight, the Panthers crack the Sweet 16.

I can’t put my finger on it, but I just am not convinced the Panthers are a Final Four team. They are defensively intimidating and generate enough offense through Knight to advance to the Sweet 16.

13. Wake Forest – In January, I wrote: Led by sensational senior Josh Howard, the Demon Deacons will bring an otherwise young team far into the tournament.

The Demon Deacons have just improved throughout the season. Led by Howard and a tremendous tenacity on the boards, this team is the definition of a “tough out.”

14. Xavier – In January, I wrote: If Lionel Chalmers can return from a broken ankle at 100 percent for the tournament, I like the Musketeers chances. Romain Sato and David West are NBA-caliber players.

Xavier has emerged as one of the elite teams in the nation. When Chalmers was forced to miss some action, freshman Dedrick Finn took over. Now, with Chalmers return, the X’s backcourt is as strong as its frontcourt, manned by All-America candidate David West.

15. Texas Tech – In January, I wrote: Andre Emmett has blossomed under Bob Knight. Combine that with a little inside toughness with the bald-headed Robert Tomaszek and the Red Raiders are formidable.

Too many times this season no one other than Emmett showed up. Tech will not be in the Tournament.

16. Michigan State – In January, I wrote: I think the Big Ten is too strong to have just one team represented here. While Illinois has been impressive, I’m afraid of their young guard play in tournament situations. Minnesota, Purdue and Wisconsin are all capable, but have yet to prove their worthiness. The Spartans have struggled, lacking good guard play and missing their usually good rebounding, but Izzo is a master at getting his teams to improve.

While Izzo has Michigan State playing its best basketball right now, the Spartans may not have enough talent in East Lansing to make a huge splash in the Tournament. Its inside game, particularly offensively, is heavily dependant on freshman Paul Davis. Davis will be a star some day, but it is too early to depend on him now. Combine that with MSU’s inability to consistently hang onto the ball, and the Spartans may win one and then be done.

Just a couple short months later, this short list has gone under some significant changes. Here is my new top 16 to watch in the Tournament, with comments for newcomers.

1. Kentucky

2. Arizona

3. Texas – T.J. Ford is the best player in America. And that gives Texas every chance to win the national title. I was suspect of the Longhorns’ inside game earlier in the season, but watching them battle a physical Oklahoma team convinced me that the Horns are for real.

4. Kansas
I’m getting that feeling from Lawrence that just when everyone starts to overlook the Jayhawks, they put together a title run.

5. Syracuse
I’m really against the ‘Cuse’s annual pre-conference schedule that includes every cupcake short of the local high school, however, this team is solid. Wins at Michigan State (which, by the way, no Big Ten team was able to accomplish), Notre Dame and Georgetown convinced me.

6. Xavier

7. Florida
This team’s freshmen corps of Matt Walsh, Anthony Roberson and Cristian Drejer is as good a freshmen trio in a few years. The team’s fortunes, however, rest in seniors Matt Bonner, Brett Nelson and Justin Hamilton.

8. Marquette
Earlier in the year, I was down on Marquette’s weak schedule and propensity to choke in the big game. But the Golden Eagles have won at Cincinnati, at Louisville and home against Wake Forest to legitimize themselves.

9. Oklahoma

10. Illinois
Rarely do freshmen guards carry a team far in tournament play. But Dee Brown and Deron Williams have a great supporting cast. Brian Cook is one of the best inside-out talents in college basketball. With Cook and the emergence of sophomore Roger Powell, the Illini are an NCAA sleeper.

11. Pittsburgh

12. Notre Dame

13. Mississippi State

14. Butler

15. Stanford
The Cardinal have steadily improved throughout the season. Mike Montgomery is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. This team is dangerous.

16. Wake Forest

As far as first-round surprises, keep your eyes on the following teams: UNC-Wilmington, Manhattan, Weber State, Valparaiso and UW-Milwaukee (should they get the bid they deserve).

One week from today, while still basking in the glow of the first-place Cubs, I will post my full bracket projections.

     

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