Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Here's a Shocker: 40-and-oh!

My NCAA tournament bracket is already garbage.

What? I can't possibly be the only one who had Mount St. Mary's going all the way!

Yeah, I know. With me, the hilarity never ends. So who really is going to win?

I'm going with the one team that just about nobody is picking, the one team that also happens to have not lost a single game this season.

Yep, Wichita State.

How 'Bout Some Love?

It's weird that a 34-0 team -- a team that has had only a few close calls all season long -- could be such an underdog. Most Vegas casinos have the Shockers' odds of winning it all at 12-1 or higher, behind No. 4 seeds Louisville and Michigan State.

All five of ESPN's main "experts" -- Dickie, Digger, Seth Greenberg and Jays Bilas and Williams -- picked Michigan State to win the title. And none of the five even has Wichita State reaching the Final Four. Wow.

Two Sports Illustrated basketball gurus (Seth Davis, Luke Winn) have the Shockers getting to the Final Four but neither they nor SI's other pundits (Brian Hamilton, Pete Thamel) have Wichita State winning the title.

The only two prognosticators I could find who agree with me that Wichita State will go on to be the first unbeaten champs since Bobby Knight's '76 Hoosiers are both from Gary Parrish and Wally Szczerbiak.

It reminds me of the lack of respect folks had for Larry Bird's 1979 Indiana State team. Of course, that team -- unlike this year's Wichita State squad -- didn't bring just about everybody back from a squad that went to the previous year's Final Four.

Gregg Marshall is still coaching the Shockers and will be the hottest name for every job opening this offseason. Fred VanVleet is still running the show, Cleanthony Early is still scoring from everywhere and Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton are still leading a deep, versatile supporting cast.

I mean, I know Wichita State is from the weak Missouri Valley Conference (as were Bird's Sycamores), but come on! Dismissing an unbeaten team is one thing. But dismissing one that has proven it knows how to win NCAA tournament games -- something few others in this field can claim -- seems outright dopey.

Shockers-Cardinals, Take 2

There is nothing easy about Wichita State's road to the Final Four. Just to make the Sweet 16, the Shockers will have to beat either Kentucky or Kansas State. Win that one and the next opponent figures to be Louisville, a favorite of many to repeat as champions.

Consider this, though: While Wichita State returns so many proven performers, Louisville no longer has three of its best players from last year's title run: Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanen.

Wichita State led Louisville by 12 points with less than 14 minutes to play in last year's national semifinals before 'Ville rallied to win by 4. The Shockers were down 3 and had the ball with 6 seconds left when Luke Hancock tied up Baker for a controversial held-ball call. Louisville had the possession arrow and clinched the win on the free-throw line.

In other words, the teams were all but dead-even a year ago, when Louisville was better than it is today ... so it's not exactly far-fetched to give Wichita State a puncher's chance against the Cardinals this time.

After beating 'Ville, Wichita State will dispatch Duke for the Midwest Regional title and Final Four berth. Maybe then, at 38-0, the Shockers will be taken more seriously.

The Rest of the Final Four Field

Also making it to Dallas on the first weekend of April: Florida, Iowa State and Creighton.

Florida is the easy pick. The Gators are well-coached, supremely talented and playing well going into the tournament. Kansas certainly is talented enough to beat them in the South Regional final, but Florida is more likely to make the big play with the game on the line. Florida also is less likely to get upset in an earlier round.

Virginia is a No. 1 seed that won both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, yet the Cavs are getting only a little more love than the Shockers are. I guess if it's not Duke or Carolina, it's not really a representative ACC team.

Practically everybody is saying Michigan State, not Virginia, will emerge from the top half of the East bracket ... which pretty much means I have to pick the Cavs to take down Sparty. In the regional final, though, I've got Fred Hoiberg's entertaining and talented Iowa State Cyclones beating Virginia.

Creighton has the best offensive player in the country, Doug McDermott, who can score from 30 feet, 3 feet and everywhere in between. He is surrounded by great shooters -- the Bluejays led the nation in 3-point percentage (.421) and also were No. 5 nationally in 2-point percentage and No. 16 in free-throw shooting. If the Bluejays enjoy a period of sustained excellence from behind the arc, they can beat anybody anywhere.

They will meet Wisconsin to get to the Elite Eight. The teams are similar but Creighton is better -- and has McDermott. In the regional final, Arizona would be an extremely difficult opponent, but I'm thinking that either Oklahoma State or San Diego State will keep the Wildcats from getting that far.

40-0? Why Not?

So that's two No. 3 seeds (Creighton and Iowa State) and two No. 1s (Florida and Wichita State) in the Final Four.

Florida is too good for Iowa State and Wichita State is too well-rounded for Creighton, which finally runs out of 3-point bullets.

And in the title game ...

Well, Wichita State has beaten everybody -- including 99.5% of the experts -- to get this far.

So why not beat Florida, too?

Forty-and-oh. It has a hell of a nice ring to it.

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