Lucas Oil Stadium (Indianapolis, IN)
(1) Louisville (30-5) (-9, 139 1/2) (12) Arizona (21-13) 7:07 pm EDT- On paper, this looks like the easiest game to pick, with the #1 seed in the tournament facing a rank #12 in the Wildcats of Arizona. However, Arizona, a bubble team which wasn't expected to make the tourney by some expert analysts, has turned in a pleasantly surprising performance over its first two games, winning with relative ease over Utah (84-71) in the first round and then knocking off a Cinderella squad from Cleveland State, 71-57. In fact, the Wildcats combined margin of victory (27 points), is exactly the same as Louisville's.
Making the comparison even more interesting is the seeds beaten. Louisville only had to top a 16 and a 9 (Siena), while Arizona battled a 5 (Utah) and a 13. Add the seeds up, compare, and Arizona becomes even more likable.
Arizona has been led by the trio of Nic Wise, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill, who provide the bulk of the scoring. Wise led the Wildcats in scoring in both games, and can create his own space and scoring opportunities, while Budinger is evolving into an excellent mid-to-long range player and Hill takes up space in the post, where he will have to contend with Louisville's enormously-talented Earl Clark. Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels will also fill the lane with points and boards.
Louisville was tested by tiny Siena, and one has to question just how far the Cardinals are capable of going. They may be playing possum, but the Saints also had no quit in them, thus the close, 79-72 final score. Arizona is capable of staying in this one until the end and maybe scoring the biggest upset of the tournament.
PREDICTION: Arizona 77 Louisville 73
(2) Michigan St. (28-6) (-1 1/2, 139) (3) Kansas (27-7) 9:37 pm EDT - Kansas has a speedy, experienced point guard in Sherron Collins, but he will have to match up with the Spartan's Kalin Lucas, possessive of blow-by quickness and expert ball-handling. Collins, for the first time in the tournament, may not have the upper hand at the point. In the post, another matchup, of the Jayhawks Cole Aldrich and Michigan State's Goran Suton figures to be a wash, so it comes down to the rest of the cast, and that's where Kansas may actually have an edge with freshmen Marcus and Markieff Morris and Tyshawn Taylor, plus sophomore Tyrel Reed, who can provide instant offense with bombs from anywhere on the court.
Michigan State's game is predicated on defense first, but the Spartans will have their hands full with Kansas, which can go 8 or 9 deep. Michigan State isn't very deep at all, with a big drop-off after their 6th man in terms of playing time. The Spartans will be gassed by Kansas' relentless running and will once more prove to the world that the Big Ten isn't that great a conference.
PREDICTION: Kansas 73 Michigan St. 65
FedExForum (Memphis, TN)
(2) Oklahoma (29-5) (-1, 153) (3) Syracuse (28-9) 7:27 pm EDT - An intriguing matchup, especially considering that Syracuse will try to stop Blake Griffin with their patented 2-3 zone. The Orangemen certainly have the bodies to keep him in check, but the question is for how long? Syracuse point guard Jonny Flynn is a future NBA player, but he's still only a sophomore, so the experience will not be easy for him. Another question the "Cuse has to answer is whether Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins can continue to produce from beyond the arc. If they cannot, this one will be all Oklahoma.
While Syracuse has an impressive resume against out-of-conference teams with wins over Florida, Kansas and Memphis, those were all in November and December. Meanwhile, the Sooners lost two games in which Griffin was unavailable, and may have come into the tournament with a better record (and seeding) had it not been for his late-season injury. Oklahoma is as good as any team remaining, while the Orangemen (my alma mater, BTW) seem to be still developing and maybe will win it all in a year or two.
PREDICTION: Oklahoma 82 Syracuse 70
(1) North Carolina (30-4) (-8 1/2, 162 1/2) (4) Gonzaga (28-5) - 9:57 pm EDT - The Zags are a solid team, but the Tar Heels are poised to go to the Final Four. A win by Gonzaga would be a shock to the entire college hoops world, as many have the Tar Heels penned in their bracket projections to win it all. Gonzaga performed grandly to advance this far, but this is where it ends.
PREDICTION: North Carolina 91 Gonzaga 75