At the beginning of The Big Dance, I felt that this year’s tournament field would be dominated by traditional powers like Duke, Kansas and multiple Big East teams. There were 17 teams with more than 12 losses in the tournament and what seemed like a couple of overrated teams from the Power 6 conferences like North Carolina, Florida and Vanderbilt. Oh, how wrong I was. Duke was thoroughly beaten by the Derrick Williams led Arizona Wildcats in the Sweet 16 and Kansas fell to the Cinderella of 2011, the Virginia Commonwealth Rams. This is the first time since 2006, and before that 1980, that no number one seeds have made the Final Four. Considering this tournament is called March Madness, the right side of the bracket is fittingly maddening; pitting the 8th seeded Butler Bulldogs against 11th seeded VCU. The left side is a bit more predictable with 3rd seeded UCONN facing off against 4th seeded Kentucky.
#8 Butler Bulldogs vs. #11 VCU Rams
This match-up pits what one could argue as a now-established contender in Butler against VCU, who most ESPN “experts” said did not even deserve to make it the tournament. Brad Stevens‘ Bulldogs have an extremely experienced core with Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard, Shawn Vanzant and Ronald Nored; all guys who played significant minutes on last year’s runner-up team. Shaka Smart, in just his second year as Head Coach, has willed his team to this point, using a turnover-causing full court press and a never-say-die attitude. Both coaches are great examples of a new generation in coaching. Although Butler and VCU are from mid-major conferences they have both shown they can play with the big boys, beating the #1 seeds in their respective regions (Pittsburgh and Kansas). Now it comes down to who can win when it truly counts. Shelvin Mack has played out of his mind this tournament while Matt Howard has been a beast on the boards, winning their first round game against Old Dominion with a put-back bucket at the buzzer. Shaka’s Rams play an up-tempo game and constantly run out in transition. Joey Rodriguez has handled the point guard position beautifully and Jamie Skeen has become their everything-man, getting 26 points and 10 rebounds including 4 on the offensive end in their 71-61 win over Kansas in the Elite Eight. I think that VCU’s athleticism and relentless press will be a huge advantage in this game while the Bulldogs experience and discipline will keep them cool, calm and collected even when they’re down. In the end VCU’s pressure and scoring ability will be just too much for Butler to get back to the championship.
The Pick: VCU wins 65-59
#3 Connecticut Huskies vs. #4 Kentucky Wildcats
In my conference tournament preview, I said, “For UCONN, it truly is all about New York native Kemba Walker,” and I am sticking to that statement. The All-American has averaged 26.8 PPG in the tournament and is obviously this team’s season MVP. He has always come up huge in the Huskies’ biggest games this year and this one won’t be any different. Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier, the two freshman standouts on the team, have been playing great basketball while Charles Okwandu and Alex Oriakhi have held down the paint all year. As for Kentucky, their freshmen Brandon Knight (17.3 PPG, 4.2 APG) and Terrence Jones (15.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG) have been carrying them all year. Josh Harrellson, a senior, has become a huge part of this team in the latter half of the year much like Brian Zoubek did for Duke last year. John Calipari has this team peaking at just the right time, beating Washington in a close game and pulling out a thriller against #1 overall seed Ohio State. In the end though, Kemba Walker is not going to let these one-and-done freshman steal his spotlight. His team follows his every move and you know the Huskies will come out ready to play. They know what it takes to win in the big spots as shown by their run through the Big East Tournament while although Kentucky won their conference and have gotten this far, do not have as many crunch time wins under their belt. And let us not forget that UCONN beat Kentucky at the beginning of the year 84-67 behind Kemba’s 29 points. These teams know each other well and I expect this to be an amazing game. (If Gus Johnson was announcing, meaning the Law of Gus was in play, I would say there is a 100% chance that this game is coming down to the wire. Since he is not, I’ll say 95 %.)
The Pick: UCONN over Kentucky 78-75
Championship Game: #3 UCONN vs. #11 VCU
I tried to analyze the Final Four using statistics and looking at how the teams would match up. I tried to pick my bracket based on who I thought would win using statistics and rational thinking. What I have realized from this tournament is that lessons learned from liberal economists apply to college basketball players too: Humans are not rational actors (Milton Friedman might think otherwise). If this tournament has taught us anything, it is that March Madness is truly Madness. There would be no point in trying to analyze this game like all the ESPN “experts” will surely do all day Sunday and Monday up to the start of the championship game. Nobody said VCU deserved to even be in the tournament and look where they are now. Dick Vitale got 1 right in the Elite Eight and none after that. This game comes down to true grit and heart. Both teams are clearly very talented with Kemba Walker being the best player left in the tournament and Jamie Skeen dominating Kansas’ big men in the Elite Eight. In the end, VCU’s magical run will end like Butler’s did last year: in heart-breaking defeat.