Arena: March Madness is the best time of the year

Published 3:03 pm Tuesday, March 17, 2015

It’s my favorite time of the year. March Madness! Let’s jump right into the fray …

Upset watch: For our purposes, I’m calling an upset any win by an 11 seed or higher. Buffalo’s a trendy pick against a pressing West Virginia team and I don’t think the Bobby Hurley coached squad is likely to fold under that pressure; this Bulls team was leading at Wisconsin by 1 and leading at Kentucky by 5 at halftime of their respective games with those powerhouses.

I think they might see another underdog in the next round, and another team led by a young ex-March superstar in Valparaiso and its coach Bryce Drew. This, I think, is a riskier pick, since Maryland has shown an ability to close out and win close games. At the same time, the Terps haven’t won many decisively, which should allow Valpo to stick around.

Finally, if you really want to live dangerously, think about UC-Irvine over Louisville. The Cardinals are elite defensively, but are fairly weak offensively and are now down guard Chris Jones, a key player dismissed from the team recently. Cal-Irvine, like Buffalo, was able to push one of the country’s elite teams for a half, leading at halftime at Arizona, and makes its hay at the defensive end. In a rock fight, where both teams struggle to score, upsets can brew.

Big names, early exits:  Notre Dame’s hot and will be a popular pick to make it deep into the tourney after their ACC tournament wins over Duke and North Carolina. The Fighting Irish is truly an elite offensive team, but its defense isn’t likely capable of supporting a string of tournament victories. If you can figure out Butler/Texas, I think either of those teams is capable of scoring a round two win here. Personally, I like Butler.

In the Midwest Region, Kansas could be in trouble if it draws Wichita State. Gregg Marshall’s a heck of a coach, and the Shockers will play that game as if its their Super Bowl: one shot to knock off their in-state powerhouse.

Toughest call: The South Region is a miserable one to try to pick. Duke is Duke, and has one of the easiest paths in the tournament to the Elite Eight (but what else is new?). Gonzaga has burned people before, but it boasts, probably the best team its ever had and is deep and talented at forward and guard (plus, Arvydas Sabonis’ son plays for the Bulldogs. How can you not like that?) Iowa State enters as the hottest team out of the best conference in the country, and coach Fred Hoiberg’s teams never flame out without a strong fight. Tough, tough call.

Cinderella? Depends on how you define it. I don’t see any 10+ digit seeds dancing into the Elite Eight this time around,  but if we’re talking true mid-majors, Wichita State and Northern Iowa could both go far.

If you want a real shot in the dark, though? Eastern Washington is playing in the Pacific Northwest against a jet-lagged Georgetown and then either Stephen F. Austin or Utah, the latter of which has struggled a bit of late. After that, Duke’s been vulnerable defensively, and Eastern Washington can score. In fact, everyone but Gonzaga has defensive questions in the South among the top seeds, and Gonzaga’s question marks are always present.

The bottom line: Kentucky, Arizona, Iowa State and Oklahoma are my picks to click and make it to Indianapolis, with UK’s incredible length and athleticism overwhelming a 3-point gunning Iowa State team in the final.

But if you must swim against the current … If you want to bank on a Kentucky loss and try to steal your pool, Arizona has the athletes, defensive mettle and resume to challenge UK. The Wildcats lost Brandon Ashley before last year’s tournament and looked very good before losing to Wisconsin in the national semifinal.

This season, they’re healthy and have blown out a slew of teams.

I’m surprised they’re a No. 2 seed, honestly. If anyone beats Kentucky, though, that’s the prime suspect.