Last season, I correctly predicted 60.2 percent of the 68-team NCAA Tournament field.
That’s about the same winning percentage as Jerry Sloan had as an NBA coach and it’s better than Tony La Russa, Sparky Anderson, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Jim Leyland did as major-league managers.
But I’m not here to brag. I’m here to pick the 2014 field.
One thing you need to know: I’m not picking Kansas State to make the NCAAs. I don’t think the Wildcats have enough. There are too many unknowns.
I am picking Kansas and Wichita State. I’m picking the Jayhawks and the Shockers to go far, in fact. But I’m only picking one of those teams to reach the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
THE SWEET 16
It was just a matter of time before Sean Miller built the Wildcats back to being the top team in the Pac-12. And that time appears to be now, in part due to freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. They look to be the finishing touches for a team that also welcomes back Brandon Ashley, Nick Johnson and Kaleb Tarczewski. Then there is point guard T.J. McConnell, undoubtedly the most hyped Duquesne transfer in basketball history. There’s not a senior in the starting lineup, either. Be afraid, Pac-12. Be very afraid.
Andrew Wiggins of Kansas gets almost all of the freshman hype, but aren’t you a little curious to see what forward Jabari Parker is all about? Not to mention Ottawa freshman Semi Ojeleye. The Blue Devils are loaded with talent and youth and a guy over on the bench who has done a few things in his career, too. Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood is ready to go, as are returning starters Rasheed Sulaimon and point guard Quinn Cook.
Three senior starters? As unusual as that sounds in today’s world of big-time college basketball, it’s true for the Gators, who did lose three key players from last season’s 29-8 team. Center Patric Young, forward Will Yeguete and guard Scottie Wilbekin are the veterans. As for Wilbekin, I love this quote from Florida coach Billy Donovan: “Scottie Wilbekin can create a shot. But it’s never going to be a good one.” Look for prized freshmen Kasey Hill and Chris Walker to contribute; Walker after he sits out the first semester because of academic ineligibility.
One of these years, the Zags are going to break through and reach the Final Four. It looked like it would happen last season, but the No. 1 seed in the West was beaten by Wichita State in the third round. Now the team’s inside tandem, Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris, have moved on. So what makes this team a threat? Guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., are one of the top backcourts in the country. And coach Mark Few has a 7-foot-1 player, sophomore Przemek Karnowski, to throw into the post. Senior Sam Dower steps into the Harris role as a brutish rebounder and defender.
Bill Self has the best recruiting class anyone outside of Kentucky has ever seen. Now it’s a matter of getting them on the same page. Andrew Wiggins, you might have heard of? But don’t forget about Wayne Selden Jr. or Joel Embiid. All three freshmen are big time in the mix. So is sophomore Perry Ellis, from Wichita Heights, who started looking like a different player two-thirds of the way through his freshman season. Or started looking like the player Self expected him to be. One or the other. Kansas is loaded with no apparent holes. I guess it’s fair to wonder how well the Jayhawks will shoot from the perimeter. But that seems a bit nit-picky for a team that has covered its bases.
Three freshman starters? Seems to be a rallying cry at Kentucky, where national championships have been won on the backs of mere babes. It could happen for John Calipari again this season as Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and other frosh provide the Wildcats with their backbone. Sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein project to be the other starters, though Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are pushing for time. It’s difficult to see this team losing in the first round of the NIT again.
The Cardinals have left the Big East and will spend a year in the American Athletic Conference before joining the big boys in the ACC next season. There are legitimate teams in the AAC (Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati) but it’s nothing like the Big East that prepared the Cardinals for their national championship run last season. Louisville, though, is good enough to prepare itself. It returns seven of its top nine scorers. Louisville is replacing departed point guard Peyton Siva with Chris Jones, the junior college player of the year.
I had no idea how good center Mitch McGary was until I saw him play a few times late last season. Wow. He’s nice. So is sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III, who will be asked to fill much of the void created by the departures of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Freshman Zak Irvin is the new Hardaway; at least he’s being asked to fill that role. And another freshman, Derrick Walton Jr., will compete with Spike Albrecht (remember his first half against Louisville in the national championship game) at the point. The Wolverines are a college basketball force.
Reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Gary Harris is back at the point instead of in the NBA, and that’s good news for Tom Izzo and the Spartans. One of the steadiest programs in the country — and steady excellent — looks like a legit national championship contender. Forward Adreian Payne should be an all-conference player and his cohort, junior Branden Dawson, is now almost two years removed from knee surgery and should play more like he did as a freshman. Interesting tidbit: Every four-year player under Izzo has played in a Final Four. Impressive.
Steve Alford left to coach UCLA. He’s been replaced by his Lobos assistant, Craig Neal. And Alford did not leave a bare cupboard. Neal would love to have leading scorer Tony Snell back. But Snell has graduated. New Mexico still has guard Kendall Williams, forward Cameron Bairstow and center Alex Kirk to build around. And shooting guard Hugh Greenwood can get as hot as anyone. Keep an eye on Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay, who is pushing for playing time. And Cullen Neal backed out of his letter of intent with Saint Mary’s so he could play for his dad.
Marcus Smart’s decision to return to OSU for his sophomore caused a chain reaction of “huhs?” and “say whats?” all over Big 12 country. But with Smart back in the fold, the Cowboys are a threat to unseat Kansas as Big 12 champs. Pardon me, though, if I take a wait-and-see approach. Not because I don’t like Oklahoma State’s talent. It’s off the chart. I’m just not sure Travis Ford instills a lot of faith, for me or the Oklahoma State fan base. Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash, Kamari Murphy and Michael Cobbins make up a formidable starting five.
Dana Altman is proving again what a terrific coach he is. He got the Ducks to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament last season. He has relied heavily on transfers to turn the Oregon program around and will rely on a few this season, including senior forward Mike Moser, who started his career at UCLA. But Altman recruits are also key to the Ducks, none more so than sophomore guard Dominic Artis and sophomore forward Damyean Dotson. Oregon was 28-9 last season and gave Louisville a game in the NCAAs before losing 77-69. Even better things seem to be on the way.
The Cavaliers figured it out at home last season, going unbeaten in ACC games in Charlottesville. But that 2-7 road ACC record kind of got in the way. Now, though, Virginia is the fashionable pick to click, even though the Cavs missed out on the NCAA Tournament last season. The star is Joe Harris, a senior guard who has made 41 percent of his three-point attempts during his career. Harris is one of those players who doesn’t scare you until you look at the final box score.
Shaka Smart is at it again with a defense-first coaching style that makes the Rams unique and successful. Some say this season’s Rams might be Smart’s best. Forwards Juvonte Reddic and Treveon Graham are the Rams’ most talented players, having averaged a combined 29.7 points and 13.9 rebounds last season. The thing about VCU is that all of its players look the same. They’re athletic, quick, tough and guard like few guard.
The Shockers are a mirror image of VCU in some ways, especially defensively. Most teams would suffer after losing players like guard Malcolm Armstead and center Carl Hall. And the Shockers might feel their loss for a while. Eventually, though, this could be an even better team that made it to the Final Four, WSU’s first since 1965. Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker are potentially great players. And there’s a lot to surround them with. Junior college transfer Darius Carter could be a difference maker inside, which looks to be where the Shockers need help the most. Another Final Four? I wouldn’t book it, but I’d be flexible with my early April schedule.
I’m probably going to pick the Badgers to make the Sweet 16 as long as Bo Ryan is their coach. I love Ryan, whose methodical teams are always fun to watch. Yes, methodical and fun can be used in the same sentence. The return of guard Josh Gasser is a key; he missed last season with a torn ACL. He’s a three-point wizard and will pair in the backcourt with senior Ben Brust, another good shooter.
Rest of the field
Arizona, Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State
Kansas, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan State
Michigan State over Kentucky