I correctly predicted 10 of the Sweet 16 in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Not bad, not bad at all.
It's not important that I picked only one Final Four team or that the teams I picked to play for the national championship _ Kansas and Texas _ were dispatched early in the tournament.
This year, I'm not only picking all three in-state teams for the Sweet 16, but I'm picking KU and K-State to make it to the Final Four. Then, in the national championship game, I'm taking K-State over the Jayhawks.
I'm all in. And not blinking.
This is the safest bet in the field. The Blue Devils won last year, have key players returning, get some really good freshmen and that guy on the bench, ol' what's his name. Starts with a K. One of those freshmen, Kyrie Irving, might be the best point guard in the country by January.
Two straight national championships made a legend of Gators coach Billy Donovan. But the Gators haven't won a game in the NCAA Tournament since that last championship in 2007. Slowly, Florida has been building back to being a contender and this season the Gators should at least get to the second weekend.
On the heels of Butler, doesn't it make perfect sense that Gonzaga should make a deep run in the tournament? Mark Few stays as the coach, even though he could easily go big-time. Really good players keep finding their way to Spokane. And Gonzaga remains relevant, year after year.
Hang with me here, because this notion is a little crazy. I actually think the Jayhawks will benefit from being without guard Sherron Collins. I hated KU's chemistry last season. All season. And while I don't totally blame Collins, he was the veteran senior whose job it was to pull things together. I like this version of the Jayhawks. New stars will emerge _ Marcus Morris already has.
I think the Wildcats will miss Denis Clemente more than anyone knows. I don't think it'll be easy to replace to little things Dominique Sutton did, either. But Jacob Pullen, Curtis Kelly and Wally Judge are a Big Three to rival any in the country. And they are not alone. I look for a big season from sophomore guard Rodney McGruder, who can really shoot and defend.
Mr. One and Done, coach John Calipari, has another amazing group of freshmen, although one of them, center Enes Kanter, has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA. There are four others, though, and even some nice returning players. The new breed of Kentucky player won't be around long, but will make an impact.
I like young coach Josh Pastner. He took over a program coming off a four-year stretch in which it had a 137-13 record, including a championship-game loss to Kansas in 2008, and has kept the Tigers at a high level when few thought he could. Memphis should rise again thanks to an outstanding freshman class that includes guards Will Barton, Joe Jackson and Jelan Kenruck. The Tigers are more experienced in the frontcourt and should conquer Conference USA.
The Spartans are experienced beyond imagination and talented. Durrell Summers, Draymond Green and Delvin Roe — also sure to confuse with their similar first names — are back from last season's Final Four squad, too. Tom Izzo must have been dizzo to think about that Cleveland Cavaliers job.
Didn't the Tar Heels miss the NCAA Tournament last season? And didn't the tournament go on just fine without them? That said, Carolina should be right back in the mix of things thanks to a great recruiting class, led by sensational freshman Harrison Barnes and, perhaps, freshman point guard Kendall Marshall, whose development will be a key.
Can we get a little love for coach Thad Matta? He might not be on the level of Coach K, Roy or T Izz, as I like to call them, but he's certainly in that second pack. The Buckeyes are coming off a 29-8 season and return most of their key players, including guards William Buford, David Lighty and Jon Diebler along with forward Dallas Lauderdale.
Jamie Dixon has really built something in Pittsburgh, but it's time for the Panthers to break through to a Final Four to earn the coach the respect he deserves. I love forwards Gilbert Brown, Nasir Robinson and Dante Taylor. If Pittsburgh's guard play comes through, the Panthers will be a Big East beast with the potential to get to Houston.
Poor Robbie Hummel, who is out with a second ACL tear. The first cost the Boilermakers a chance to play in a Final Four in their home state. But there's no crying in college basketball, so Purdue goes forward with an excellent stable of guards to go with one of the nation's outstanding post players, JaJuan Johnson. The Boilermakers deserve a break or two, so the basketball gods may be helpful.
San Diego State
Here's the long shot of the group, if a team returning almost everyone and everything from a 25-9 season can be considered a long shot. The Aztecs have their own Fab Five, which is a familiar thing to their coach, Steve Fisher. Five starters are back and San Diego State's returnees had 82.8 percent of the team's points, 80.4 of the rebounds and 86.7 of the assists. Darkhorse? That term doesn't seem to apply, does it?
No Wesley Johnson, the best player for the Orange last season. But four starters are back to go with one of the nation's top freshman classes. It's led by Fab Melo, no relation to Car Melo, who led Syracuse and Jim Boeheim to their only national championship a few years back. Fab Melo can play, too. He's going to be the man in the middle for Syracuse.
The Pac-10 might be down again. But not the Huskies of Coach Lorenzo Romar, who destroyed the conference last season and made it to the Sweet 16. Guard Isaiah Thomas is one of the country's best. Truth be told, I just wanted to put someone from the Pac-10 in the Sweet 16 and until UCLA and Arizona get their acts back together — both are making strides, by the way — Washington is easily the best choice.
Wouldn't it be wonderful for WSU fans if every five years the Shockers made it to the Sweet 16? Well, it was five years ago that a team coached by Mark Turgeon and led by Paul Miller did just that before losing to George Mason in Washington D.C. This team is everybody's pick to win the Missouri Valley Conference and should go into March as one of the mid-major darlings, if anyone still uses such a term.
Rest of the Field
ACC — Maryland, N.C. State, Virginia Tech
America East — Maine
Atlantic Sun — Belmont
Atlantic 10 — Dayton, Richmond, Temple, Xavier
Big East — Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Villanova, West Virginia
Big Sky — Weber State
Big South — Coastal Carolina
Big Ten — Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin
Big 12 — Baylor, Missouri, Texas, Texas A&M
Big West — UC Santa Barbara
Colonial — Old Dominion, VCU
Horizon — Butler
Ivy — Princeton
Metro Atlantic — Fairfield
Mid-American — Central Michigan
Mid-Eastern — Morgan State
Missouri Valley — Northern Iowa
Mountain West — BYU, New Mexico, UNLV
Northeast — Quinnipiac
Ohio Valley — Murray State
Pac-10 — Arizona, UCLA
Patriot — Lafayette
SEC — Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt
Southern — Wofford
Southland — Lamar
Summit — Oakland
Sun Belt — Western Kentucky
SWAC — Jackson State
West Coast — Loyola Marymount
WAC — Utah State
Duke, Kansas, Kansas State, Michigan State, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Washington, Wichita State
Duke, Kansas, Kansas State, Michigan State
Kansas State over Kansas