My Top 10
Tabbing the best bets to win the NCAA Tournament
By Adam Hoff
In a few days we will enter the world of Selection Sunday and brackets and pools. And any rational thinking will go right out the window. Our vision will be clouded with upsets and matchups, pod systems and road records, the need for a #12 over a #5 and a desire to make sure we pick a sleeper to reach the Final Four. The brackets have their own rules and itís hard not to get swept up in it. Thatís why Iíve become fond of making my list of ď10 teams most likely to win it allĒ right before the tournament. That way, when I enter into a pool or make my picks in a column, I can take the top team on my list in each region and backtrack from there. It worked to the tune of picking UConn over Georgia Tech last year, so Iím trying it again.
Here is my list, in reverse order, of the 10 best bets to win it all. Should the top four teams be seeded in different region, you can chalk those up as my Final Four picks. I wonít be swayed by tough regions or seeding or site locations, because that is the stuff that deceives you from making an authentic pick. Youíll note that projected high seeds like Kansas, Kentucky, Arizona, Boston College, and Oklahoma donít make the cut. The reason? I think there are 10 teams more likely to win it all.
10. Alabama. In my opinion, this is the best team in the SEC. Kentucky will get the top seed and Florida has the momentum, but the Crimson Tide has the best individual player in Kennedy Winston (just edging Floridaís Anthony Roberson, who joins Roderick Rhodes, Chris Thomas, and Brian Cook on the ďAll Grant HillĒ team for guys that seemed to play college basketball for over a decade), a shot blocking anchor in Chuck Davis, a legit third option in Earnest Shelton, and an emerging stud point guard in freshman Ronald Steele. In the tourney, you need strong guard play and a guy who can defend the basket. Check. You also like to have some outside shooting (the Tide shoots 40% from three as a team, and Winston, Shelton, and Steele go 48%, 39%, and 40%, respectively). Check. And, finally, it pays to have big game experience. This team knocked off top seeded Stanford and defending champion Syracuse in last yearís tourney while coming of age and reaching the Elite Eight. So Ö check. I expect the Tide to, well, roll.
9. Wake Forest. People absolutely love Wake Forest and I canít really fault them. They have the best point guard in the game in Chris ďLow BlowĒ Paul and plenty of offensive weapons. However, there are two big problems with the Demon Deacons. 1) They donít play much defense. The gritty season finale against NC State notwithstanding, Wake usually just outscores people. This almost backfired on them last year in the first round when Luis Flores and the Jaspers from Manhattan took Wake down to the wire. There are at least five teams this year that can outgun the Deacons (including my new favorite team, the Louisiana-Lafayette Raginí Caginí). Plus, you donít want to rely on Justin Gray and Toran Downey knocking down threes each and every game. Sometimes the shots donít drop and you need to get it done with defense. 2) Wakeís big men, Eric Williams and Vytas Danelius, are prone to foul trouble in big games. Just something to keep an eye on. Nevertheless, Wake still has a great coach, great guard play, and enough fire power to make a serious run. Unless they get two of the following teams in their bracket, they will likely reach the Elite Eight.
8. Michigan State. The Big 10 is being discounted, but I think they will surprise with two strong entries in this yearís tourney. Illinois is in my top four and the Spartans are one of my surprise picks. All five of Michigan Stateís losses were against bubble or better squads and all were on the road (Duke, George Washington, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana). They are extremely well coached and they have a ton of experience as most of their juniors and seniors were freshmen and sophomores two years ago when they went to the Elite Eight. They have a low post threat in Paul Davis, improved shooting at the guard positions, and mismatches on the perimeter with Mo Ager, Alan Anderson, and Shannon Brown. Plus, they pound the glass and play great defense. This is a team built for the NCAA Tournament.
7. Duke. Iím not a Duke fan, but this feels like a year where they might go further than people expect. They lack depth and size, so they stand to be a popular out somewhere around that Sweet Sixteen game (and I may agree, as Iíve got three potential #3 seeds in my next five picks, so itís likely the Blue Devils would match up with one of them). However, you canít count this squad out. J.J. Redick is the best shooter in the game and can make backbreaking shots. Sheldon Williams has won me over with his relentless play. That gangly lefty walk-on is drilling huge shots. Nelson and Ewing are athletic and explosive. Honestly, this team is dangerous.
6. Gonzaga. I think this might be the year the Zags really bust through and make an extended run. Nobody doubts their validity on the national stage, but the truth is that theyíve been a disappointment in Tournament play over the past few years. They were upended in the first round three years ago by Wyoming, lost a heartbreaker to Arizona in round two the next year, and then laid an egg as a #2 seed last year against Nevada. So this team is looking for redemption. Plus, they have far more weapons this year. Derek Raivio is one of the best pure points in the country and gets them into their offense much more quickly than Blake Stepp did a year ago. (Check out his stats and compare them to Chris Paulís sometime.) Adam Morrison has become the go-to guy on offense and makes almost everything he throws up. He has Most Outstanding Player of the ďFill in the BlankĒ Regional written all over him. (Needs a haircut though.) Ronny Turiaf is wildly overrated and foul-prone, but thatís okay, because junior college transfer J.P. Batista is their best lowpost player. They have more athleticism, some added depth, and play with the same professionalism theyíve always exhibited. Finally, the WCC conference was much better this year and the Zags were tested over and over again, making them far more prepared for the Dance this time around. This is the year to get behind the Bulldogs.
5. Oklahoma State. Iím surprised people havenít been getting maimed jumping off the Cowboyís bandwagon. After starting the year 20-3 and being hailed as a Final Four lock, Okie State has dropped three of four and you couldnít pay someone to pick them to win it all. What exactly has changed? They still have John Lucas at the point, back from a tournament full of huge shots and gut checks. They have Joey Graham, one of the most dominant players in the game. They can play any style of basketball, whether it is run and gun, grind it out, or half court execution. They have roll players, shooters, ball handlers. The Cowboys shoot 50% from the floor, 43% from three, and 77% from the line. They hit the glass and take care of the ball. Whatís not to like? The sticking point is that 1-3 record down the stretch, but if you look closely, youíll see that they lost on the road to Nebraska, who was playing spoiler a lot down the stretch, they lost a heartbreaker to a frenzied Texas team, and one of the best games of the millennium at Kansas. Thatís enough to derail a Final Four run? Two classic battles and a road loss? Iím not buying it.
One other thing: Two years ago, Syracuse started the year 13-1, brought a talented team to the tourney as a number three seed, was overlooked in pools everywhere Ö and went on to win it all. Last year, Georgia Tech did the exact same thing and reached the title game. Now that it appears that Oklahoma State will be a three seed (they started the year 13-1, coincidentally) and I donít see why they canít continue the trend.
4. Illinois. Two words: Deron. Williams. Dee Brown is flashy and exciting, Luther Head is a stud, and Roger Powell is all heart in the middle, but Deron Williams is the guy that separates this team. He has such an incredible feel for the game and a propensity to hit big shots. Honestly, he and Bruce Weber are good enough for me. Iíve got the Illini bouncing back from the wild loss in Columbus and rolling to the Final Four.
3. Louisville. You know how there are breakout players that you can just sense coming? Well, Louisville feels like a breakout team. I keep waiting for Rick Pitino to get his operation into full gear down in the Bluegrass State, and this might be the year when they burst to the forefront. They are 26-4 with some big wins and theyíve shown the versatility to win pretty much any type of game, ranging from a 94-82 shootout in the big showdown with Charlotte to a 53-44 slugfest in avenging their only bad loss, to Memphis. Plus, they simply have outstanding players. Three players, Francisco Garcia, Larry OíBannon, and Taquan Dean, average more than 14 points per game and each is capable of throwing up 30 on any given night. They can all shoot the three, all are over 83% from the line (huge at the end of close games), and they all play terrific defense. This is the team most likely to rip through the first two rounds with blowout wins, so they become a good bet to then upend a vaunted number two seed in the round of 16 and make a sprint for the Final Four.
2. UConn. Six weeks ago I called my dad and told him that UConn was going to be my sleeper pick in this yearís tournament. Then they had to ruin it by winning nine straight games and repeating as the champs of the Big East. They arenít a sleeper pick anymore, but they still donít show up on most Final Four short lists. The reason? Well, there are two actually, and they are both in the NBA and battling for the Rookie of the Year award: Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon. People are so focused on what they lost that they donít see what they still have. Which is: one of the best big men in the game in Josh Boone, an incredibly athletic interior player just now coming into his own in Charlie Villanueva, a swingman whoís been through everything in Denom Brown, and my new favorite point guard in the world, Marcus Williams. This might be a sucker pick, but everything Iíve seen from this team lately, Iíve loved. They can block shots, pressure the ball, and pound the glass. In other words, they are the opposite of Wake Forest, because even if they donít shoot the ball well, they will still win 85% of the time. Plus, Jim Calhoun might be the best coach in college basketball.
1. North Carolina. With 50 seconds to go against Duke on Sunday, I knew I was a few plays away from making up my mind about the Tar Heels. Every time Iíve seen them this year theyíve been incredible, and I honestly canít imagine anyone in the college game toppling them. But then I think back to all the Roy Williams gags, the beatdown Texas game them last year, and the constant choking against Duke and I start to have second thoughts. So Sunday was the big one. Scrap back and win, and Iím in your corner. Let Duke take yet another big game and I have to part ways. Sure enough, they battled back. And the guy that makes the biggest difference from last year to this year Ė freshman Marvin Williams Ė was the one making the huge play in the end. So Iíve decided to cast my lot with the Heels. It may wind up being the ďeasyĒ pick or the popular pick, but I donít care. With Sean May on the glass, Jackie Manuel locking up the other teamís best player, Raymond Felton running the point, and Marvin Williams coming up big down the stretch, this team has all the pieces in place. No doubt there will be stories about Rashad McCants coming back into the mix. Some will talk about added firepower and some will say that heíll ruin their chemistry. It wonít matter. Heís merely an addition scorer in a lineup tailor-made to win six straight tournament games. Roy ďLadies GlassesĒ Williams will be sobbing at the podium when this is all said and done.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by sitemail at adamo112.