As a recovering basketball coach (14 seasons of addiction), and 2nd generation coach at that, once per year my thoughts turn to the big dance. The first few years of my "retirement" were tough. Now I'm used to it and no longer pine for the days not sleeping after losses, waking up in the middle of the night and scribbling schemes on a notepad, losing my voice once a week, and forever feeling underprepared. There's an old saying that the difference between a coach and a player is that as a player, you feel like you're never goint to lose. As a coach, you feel like you're never going to win. Those were the days... or not.
Regardless, once a year my coaching sentiments return and I pour over information as if scouting the next oppenent in an attempt to dazzle my friends and co-workers in the March Madness office pool. Here are my thoughts on 2006.
- Was the Big East really as good as advertised?
- Was the Pac 10 really as bad?
- Does getting hot in the overrated ACC truly mean North Carolina can make a run at the final four?
- Are the Big 10 teams too beat up to make a serious run?
- Can Gonzaga win without any sort of defense?
- MVC: tough as nails or just plain boring?
- Does a 9th place team have a legitimate beef for not getting invited to the dance?
- Will there be a 12 - 5 upset?
- Is Oral Roberts the best 16th seed in history?
- Will G-Mac run out of magic?
- Has the tourny ever been this wide open?
In reverse, let's start with the obvious: this in anybody's tourament. I can't recall ever seeing no favorite going in. You'd be hard pressed to find an "expert" last year who didn't pick Illinois or Carolina. This year, a look at the number one seeds leaves only questions.
Duke - eeked out a win in the ACC tourny after losing their last two conference games. Dominant? Hardly.
UConn - the most talented squad in the country but how many NCAA champions began their run by losing in the first round of their conference tourament?
Villanova - great team that's been solid all season--and incredibly fun to watch. But getting throttled by big, strong Pitt shows the reason why most teams don't use a 4-guard set.
Memphis - their weak conference has the doubters squawking but they've done nothing all season to show any sort of weakness. Thye're talented, have already gone toe to toe with Duke, like to bury lesser opposition, but are they rusty for top flight competion?
Perhaps as prep, and therefore not a sandbag, Memphis gets a tough first round matchup in Oral Roberts. OR's losses have mainly come to teams that are still playing, and most were close. They also beat USC (who beat UCLA and North Carolina) by 20. If Memphis isn't sharp, this could be the first 16 - 1 upset in history.
I think this year's 12-5 upset special has moved to the 11-6 game. All four 6 seeds could fall without a huge stir. In my bracket, I may only pick Michigan State to advance. I'm not picking any of the 12's.
I love to watch Gonzaga play. This year, however, you'd better watch them next weekend because I can't see a team playing their brand of matador defense lasting long.
The MVC is tough, no question. But let's hope it's overrated, since watching underdogs slug their way to 50-49 upsets will wear its welcome out pretty quickly. So. Illini is best positioned for a deep run. Here's hoping West Virginia finds its shooting touch again soon.
The Big Ten is a mystery. They've also managed some tough early matches where it would hardly seem like an upset if none were left after the first weekend. I think a few will prevail. Iowa has a horrible first round game against a NW State team that's talented and experienced. Beyond that they could make a deep run. Indiana plays a hot SD State squad but they'll be aided by a lot of emotion for coach Davis. OSU looks headed to a second round barn burner with Georgetown.
Cinci was doing a lot of crying about getting left out. How can a team that finished 9th cry over anything? C'mon. That league is loaded, but still. I think it may not be quite all that. If it were, Syracuse (who lost to De Paul by nearly 40 a couple of weeks back) wouldn't have won its tourny, G-Mac or no G-Mac.
Finally, does the Pac 10 suck or is UCLA the hottest team in the country? They look like a shadow of the team that barely lost to West Virginia and Memphis early in the year. To track improvement, look how a "no hope" loss to Cal early in conference transitioned to a gritty overtime victory into a full scale domolition in the tourny final. I tend to think the Bruins are going to be difficult to beat.
Oops, just forget something. The Big 12--usually one of the top conferences--isn't this year. Texas has talent but not many championship caliber teams get buried by 20 or 30 points ever dozen games or so. Just a matter of how long before they implode. Kansas is hot but, a-la UCLA, North Carolina, and Boston College, how much does this matter if you conference isn't good? Second round matchup with Pitt woudn't seem to favor the 'Hawks.
So that leaves everything clear... as mud.
It's anybody's dance.
My picks tomorrow...