Now if people at work (especially the editors) realized I wasn't out "reporting" today, they might be a little peeved, but I just don't think they read my blog so I think I'm in the clear. And frankly, I'll have the same high school puff material that they love and I'm still gonna watch as much college basketball as possible.
But let's be real here, this is a new tournament. It's the first year since sixth grade that I'm not running a big money bracket pool. Obviously some friends asked me to do it again, but in order to clear off a schedule for almost four days, you have to make some sacrifices before hand and that meant pulling some crazy hours the last week and a half. It's also different, quite frankly, because Michigan is in this bad boy for the first time in 11 years.
After covering the team for two seasons — including the worst Michigan basketball season in more than 50 years — I'm proud of these guys. I certainly didn't think they'd be dancing this year and this is coming from an unabashed Beilein believer. Let's look at what I wrote just a few months ago:
I think it's going to take eight and more than likely nine more wins to get into the dance. Now you see why losing that Indiana game the other night would and could have been disastrous. Does this team have eight more conference wins and a Big Ten Tournament win or two left in it? I'm not really sure, especially if it continues to play such porous defense.
But hey, they made it. We can officially say John Beilein is a year ahead of schedule. In football terms, I also think he may have bought Rich Rod an extra year after his debacle of a first year this fall.
So how do I see this game against Clemson going tonight? Well, a lot of people, especially friends here on the East Coast have been quick to point out that Michigan is getting one of those typical Clemson teams. You know start the season blazing hot against cream puffs, then falter somewhat in ACC play (with a few big wins thrown in for fun). The bottom line is this is going to be all about tempo.
Michigan probably couldn't have asked for a better first-round opponent than the Tigers, though. Clemson is small and really only has one player who will potentially give Michigan's lack of defensive efficiency (and height) fits in Trevor Booker. I've got Big Blue winning in my bracket, but if they do, I'm also predicting Blake Griffin will put up a 40-point, 25-rebound performance in round two.
As for the rest of my bracket, well, historically I'm pretty good at picking tournament games. I haven't won a pool since senior year of high school, but I haven't finished outside of the top 5 since then. I don't know if you realize this, but if you check out the MIchigan Daily's preseason picks for college basketball last year, I was the guy who correctly forecast Davidson as the biggest bracket buster all the way back in November.
But I had a lot of trouble making picks this year, I've got to be honest. This has been one of the most parity-ridden seasons in recent memory and yet when it came down to making some upset picks in the sweet 16 and elite 8 I couldn't get the thought of last year, when all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four, out of my mind. Now that we're about an hour from the first tipoff of the tourny I figured I would let you know some unexpected teams I've got on my radar.
Mississippi State: This team got hot at just the right time and they've got Justin Vornado patrolling the paint. No one realizes it but this dude has been averaging more blocks per game than Hasheem Thabeet of late. Throw in a collection of 3-point shooters and I've got the Bulldogs penciled in to the Sweet 16, when they'll finally go down to, of all people, Hasheem Thabeet and UCONN. I've Miss State beating Washington and Purpoo errr Purdue.
Maryland: Call me crazy, but I've got a little bromance thing going for Grievas Vasquez, kind of always have. It all started when I began trying to unfurl the mystery behind the weird pimple-like red stuff that's always on his cheeks (seriously use proactiv or something). But in the process, I fell in love with his game. He's a streaky shooter at best, but he's a big point guard who can take over a game when he puts his mind to it. Throw in the fact that I met him earlier this winter when his old high school, Montrose Chirstian, played T.C. Williams (a game I covered) and you've got a match made in heaven. By the way, not sure how many people realize this but five years ago Montrose had a starting lineup that included Vasquez, Kevin Durant, and Linas Kleiza (Denver Nuggets). SCARY!
But I really think Memphis is vulnerable here. yeah, you can talk about how the Tigers haven't lost since 6-foot-7 freshman Tyreke Evans began playing the point, but they didn't make the move until right before C-USA season, so there weren't really many chances to lose. On my bracket, I've got the Terps in the Sweet 16. Vasquez is the only other point guard in the country with the size to slow down Maybe my vision is just clouded by Grievas love because Memphis is gonna destroy Maryland on the glass.
Wisconsin: Plain and simple, Bo Ryan's style gives coaches fits, especially when they aren't used to playing against him. Add in some long-brewing hatred of Leonard Hamilton (he went 19-63 during his lone season as Wizards head coach) and I'm goin Badger Red all the way to the Sweet 16. Yes, they will also beat Xavier.
Arizona State: This is Herb Sendek's long-awaited return to the Tournament after giving NC State the proverbial middle finger by going west a few years back. Maybe you don't remember, but Sendek was a sweet 16 machine with the Wolfpack, especially when they had Julius Hodge. I've caught a few of their games this season and they look like those teams of the past. They've got a do-everything forward in the mold of Hodge in James Harden plus a couple deadly 3-point shooters. I like them upsetting 'Cuse in the second round and giving Oklahoma (after Blake Griffin's monster game on Michigan) a run for its money as well.
Michigan State: Obviously, a 2 seed can't be a sleeper but for some reason I like Tom Izzo's gang to go all the way to the Finals this year and lose to North Carolina. Maybe I'm crazy, but generally the team with the best guard always does well int the big dance. If you haven't seen Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas play yet, he's the best player to come out of Detroit since Chris Webber and well, catch him soon because he'll be playing the league in the next two years. And a lot of people forget, Michigan State got this 2 seed even with last season's best player, forward Raymar Morgan, saddled with walking pneumonia (I didn't know it could move either). Now he's back healthy and I just don't think there's anything that can stop this squad, especially with one of the best coaches in the land captaining the ship.
Well, nothing that is, except for a relatively healthy Ty Lawson ... the one guard better than Kalin Lucas in this tournament.