by Thomas U. Tuttle
It’s that time of year again for basketball fans, tourney time, those giddy days of intense college hoops known as March Madness – which leads, for a select few teams, to April gladness (or sadness). Yes, the semifinals take place on April Fools Day (the 1st) with the finals on the 3rd, all in Phoenix Arizona.
The usual suspects are at the fore, as expected. Duke looks tough, although inconsistent at times and with a wildcard star (Grayson Allen) who tends to act out crazily on the court (check out the videos of his purposely tripping players during regular season contests). Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina and Gonzaga are the top seeds in each region, with all but Gonzaga (in my opinion) a threat to win the tourney.
Much has been made of the fact that no dominant teams have emerged this year as heavy favorites to make a title run. Defending champion Villanova (who won a title-game thriller last year) comes in at 31-3, but similar to Gonzaga, doesn’t get tested on a week to week basis like several of the other contenders. North Carolina looks good to me, but two of their losses are to Duke and they looked bad in those defeats.
The Big Ten is represented well, with seven teams at the party but most of those unlikely to dance for long – I don’t envision a scenario where a team from the Ten makes it to Phoenix, unless Michigan continues to astound as it did to close the season. Or if Wisconsin’s underrated and eighth-seeded senior squad gets hot right now and uses a perceived lack of respect to get rolling.
Minnesota is a good club this year, but will miss Akeem Springs (injured against Michigan State and out for the duration) and has a tough opener against giant-killer Middle Tennessee State. They knocked out a two-seed last year (MSU) and bring back a number of starters from that squad. A Gopher win probably brings them Butler, always solid and a victor over #1 seed Villanova earlier in the season. The sweet-sixteen is doable, but getting there is going to require strong, consistent play for it to happen.
My alma mater Northwestern has made the tournament for the first time, which you have been made aware of by throngs of NU media alums. Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Brent Musberger, Michael Wilbon, Christine Brennan, Etc…Etc… There has been a lot of attention paid to the Wildcats accomplishment – too much, and I can’t fault anyone for being exhausted by the Cat mania. Hey, I’m an alum and I’m tired of all the blather regarding this squad. Yes, I’m proud they knocked off Maryland and didn’t back into their first NCAA tourney, but the hammering by Wisconsin in the semi’s of the Big Ten tournament was discouraging – and a big reality check. The Cats play Vanderbilt and should be one and done.
Minnesota goes off at 100-1 odds in Las Vegas to win the tourney, while Northwestern lists at 300-1. Hey, are you kidding me? While the Gophers could somehow pull off a surprise or two, and Northwestern could conceivably win a game, I’d make the odds something like 1000 to one for the Goph’s and maybe 10,000 to one for the Cats. It ain’t happening and for anyone who thinks it will, I’ll take your money.
A few years ago, when Minnesota made their run to the semifinals under Clem Haskins and (unfairly) had to forfeit the season, I put $20 on Arizona’s Wildcats to win the whole thing – back in November. When I showed up in Nevada to watch the final four, I put a few more dollars on AZ to win it all. They did, and I was paid well both ways. What fun, and I owe eternal gratitude to my buddy “Hondo” in Tucson who saw that train coming.
This year, Arizona is back, and they are good. I’m going to stick with them to take me back to the promised land. I like UCLA, too, but not quite as much. My thinking is that the number-one seeds are not going to win it this year – not like last year, when they all showed up strong. The exception is North Carolina, who might be ready for this despite the disappointing Duke defeats. Those bad losses could be a motivator for the Tar Heels.
And Duke Blue Devil head-case Grayson Allen can really play – if he stays under control and provides the leadership his team thrives on, Duke could pull off something special.
But count me among the Wildcat backers – just not Northwestern’s breed of basketball Cat. The Arizona Wildcats to win it at home in Phoenix.