I didn't have national-champion Connecticut in my NCAA Tournament field this time last year, and none of my Final Four picks panned out.
But this year promises to be better.
The only one of my Sweet 16 teams not to reach the NCAA Tournament last season was Wichita State. Shockers, you owe me.
I'm going out on some limbs with my picks this year. Here is my Sweet 16:
OK, Bears, time to produce. We've been building you up for a couple of years now and so far — nothing. All of those fancy recruits you've brought to Waco, Scott Drew, need to start paying off. You're in your ninth season as coach. Your team goes 6-foot-11, 6-10, 6-9, 6-7 across the front. Perry Jones has to be a monster. Pierre Jackson, the national junior college player of the year last season, has to be legit. Freshmen Quincy Miller and Deuce Bello must be the real deal. I'm taking a chance here. Make me proud.
Didn't even pick the Huskies for the field last season. This time around, I'm one of the few that has UConn in the Sweet 16. But I learned my lesson. You never discount Jim Calhoun, even with Kemba Walker gone to the NBA. The Huskies are loaded with guards Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and freshman Ryan Boatright. But it's what's up front that will determine how far this team goes.
I'm buying what the Missouri Valley Conference is selling so far. I like the Bluejays and I especially like sophomore forward Doug McDermott, the coach's son, who is off to a fantastic start, averaging 23.7 points and 8.5 rebounds. Creighton doesn't appear to be a deep team, but I like what Greg McDermott has put around his kid. There's size and quickness and I think this is the best team in the Valley.
Yes, of course, Duke. Coach K. The whole package. Duke is a constant, which is why it was so shocking to see them get blown out by Ohio State last week. That won't happen often, especially after freshman guard Austin Rivers gets more acclimated to the big time. Duke isn't real athletic on its front line, though, and that might be an issue down the road.
The Gators came within a win of the Final Four last season. Can you believe Billy Donovan is in his 16th season at Florida? He has proven he can win national championships there and the Gators, though guard heavy, could be a threat to win a third under Donovan. Keep an eye on freshman Bradley Beal and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario, guards who could push returning starters Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton.
This is all about Mark Few. And about Gonzaga having a down season a year ago. And thinking that Gonzaga doesn't have two down seasons in a row. After a 5-0 start, we'll learn a lot about the Zags in the next couple of weeks as they have upcoming games against Illinois, Michigan State, Oral Roberts, Arizona and Butler.
Because of the way John Calipari recruits, the Kentucky players can still get happy meals at McDonald's. But there are so many McDonald's All-Americans on the Wildcats' roster that it doesn't matter how young they are. Calipari just turns them and by March they'll be hard to beat. The year-to-year roster turnover is difficult to keep up with, and I don't understand how the great fans of Kentucky can get to know all of these one-and-done players, but winning makes that less important, doesn't it?
Morehead State got the Cardinals in the first round last year in one of the kind of upsets the NCAA Tournament is known for. Difficult to imagine Louisville won't use that loss as incentive for big things this season, especially with a veteran-laden team led by junior point guard Peyton Silva, the emotional leader of an emotional team that prides itself on a fast, aggressive style.
The Wolverines' football team has had a resurgence in 2011 and I'm expecting the same from a basketball team that has suffered early-season losses to Duke and Virginia, but should be one of the challengers to Ohio State in the Big Ten. John Beilein, in his fifth season as coach after coming to Ann Arbor from West Virginia, is a proven winner. I thought he was a great hire for Michigan and I think this will be the season he proves that to be true.
Got to see some of this team early and loved what I saw. Big, athletic, powerful. And maybe the team to give Kentucky a real run in the SEC. Dee Bost, Arnett Moultrie and Rodney Hood are a good 1-2-3 punch and Rick Stansbury is a proven coach. Renardo Sidney is another big guy, like UTEP transfer Moultrie, who makes things happen.
You're probably wondering if I'm dipping into the eggnog after seeing this pick. But the Tigers have been so impressive early under new coach Frank Haith that they have made me a believer. Even without senior forward Laurence Bowers, a 6-8 rebounder who is out for the season with a knee injury. Haith is playing a six- or seven-man rotation and will have to expand the team's depth.
The Tar Heels have had their early-season wakeup call, losing to UNLV. Roy Williams has had a little flap with the home fans, too. But Carolina simply has too much talent and depth not to reach the Sweet 16. At least four players in the Heels' starting lineup could be NBA lottery picks. Nothing could be finer.
Did you see the Buckeyes dismantle Duke last week? Wow. That didn't look like a team trying to knock off the rust in late November. That looked like a team ready to go all the way. All the talk is about 6-9 sophomore Jared Sullinger, but the Buckeyes are L-O-A-D-E-D. Sullinger looks like a new man, thanks to an off-season conditioning program that should help him improve on already impressive numbers (17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds).
Even with the distraction of an investigation into former Orange assistant and Jim Boeheim right-hand man Bernie Fine, Syracuse has been impressive early. There are no superstars on this team, but there are a bunch of guys who understand the way Boeheim wants them to play. Seniors Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph are the leaders, but Boeheim is looking for someone to shore up the middle.
John Jenkins was one of the most enjoyable players to watch last season, when he led the SEC in scoring (19.5) and bombed away steadily from the three-point line. He's joined by a bunch of seniors, including three — center Festus Ezeli, point guard Brad Tinsley and small forward Jeffery Taylor — who averaged in double figures last season. Vandy is loaded.
After watching Wisconsin handle Kansas State in the second round of NCAA Tournament last season, I came away thinking the Badgers had a chance to go all the way. That didn't happen — Wisconsin was beaten by Butler in the Sweet 16. But this is a tough team, led by a tough guard in Jordan Taylor. The Badgers don't have many other proven players, but their coach, Bo Ryan, will have a contender.
Rest of the field
America East —Albany
Atlantic 10 —Saint Louis, Temple, Xavier
Atlantic Sun —Belmont
ACC —Florida State, Virginia, Virginia Tech
Big 12 —Kansas, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M
Big East —Cincinnati, Georgetown, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Villanova, West Virginia
Big Sky —Weber State
Big South —Coastal Carolina
Big Ten —Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue
Big West —UC Santa Barbara
Colonial —George Mason
Conference USA —Central Florida
Horizon —Butler, Cleveland State
Metro Atlantic —Iona
Mid-American —Kent State
Mid-Eastern —Norfolk State
Missouri Valley —Wichita State
Mountain West —San Diego State, UNLV
Northeast —Central Connecticut State
Ohio Valley —Murray State
Pac-12 —Arizona, California, Oregon
SEC —Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi
SWAC —Alabama A&M
Southern —Appalachian State
Summit —Oral Roberts
Sun Belt —Denver
West Coast —BYU
Baylor, Florida, Kentucky, Louisville, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio State, Syracuse.
Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, Ohio State