Princess Lacey, you will be dearly missed, but forever remembered.
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Mike Marut - Northwestern University
On Wednesday, Ms. Holsworth lost her battle against neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer that invades the nerve tissue. Lacey had two large tumors when she was diagnosed with the cancer in 2011: one wrapped around her spine and another surrounding her kidney. The two met a couple years ago and connected immediately. Payne and Holsworth had one of the tightest relationships ever seen and the dynamic duo created a beautiful image not seen in many other places. The Michigan State star showed true love and care for the blond, 8-year-old princess.
On the Big Ten Network's series "The Journey," the Big Ten profiled the relationship between Payne and Lacey. The show puts the spotlight on the relationship and really shows how powerful the tie between the two of them was.
"There's days where the smiles don't come as easily. When he can walk in the room and you can see her light up like that, it means everything," her mother, Heather Holsworth, said in a segment of the show.
Payne truly loved Lacey in the deepest way possible. He brightened her day and she brightened his. The strength of their friendship was unparallelled in the college universe and everybody watching the NCAA Tournament saw how close the 6'10" Spartan and the young spartan were. Their relationship is an inspiration to all.
Princess Lacey, you will be dearly missed, but forever remembered.
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Brian Ruehlmann - University of Missouri
Most Impressive Performances
1. Kentucky: The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the year at the right time. Freshman Julius Randle is playing like a man possessed, recording 32 points and 25 rebounds in their pair of wins over the weekend. After dispatching Kansas State with relative ease, the Wildcats played their most complete game of the season against previously undefeated Wichita State. They shot 8-18 from the three-point line and only committed 11 turnovers, two areas they have struggled mightily in this year. They will have to keep up this level of play to defeat rival Louisville in what should be a classic showdown.
2. Baylor: It’s hard to believe the Bears were once 2-8 in conference play and on the brink of having their NCAA Tournament hopes dashed. They have reeled off 12 wins in their last 14 games, and they looked the part of a Final Four contender in their 30-point destruction of third-seeded Creighton. Their defensive game plan worked to perfection, frustrating Doug McDermott with double teams and forcing Creighton to take shots they normally do not take. Their offense was clicking on all cylinders, connecting on 11 of 18 three-pointers and distributing 19 assists. If the Bears continue the offensive efficiency, they will be a tough out in this tournament.
3. Tennessee: Every year since the First Four was introduced, one of those teams made it beyond what is now the second round of the NCAA Tournament. VCU went all the way to the Final Four in 2011. The Volunteers are the 2014 version, advancing to the Sweet 16 through solid defensive play and superb rebounding. Jarnell Stokes has been a beast down low, averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds in three tournament games. The Volunteers have also been to the line at least 25 times in every game, shooting greater than 75% each time. With a trio of Jordan McRae, Josh Richardson, and Stokes, this team has what it takes to go to the Final Four.
Most Disappointing Performances
1. Duke: One year after bowing out of the tournament at the hands of 15th-seeded Lehigh, the Blue Devils lost a stunner to little-known Mercer. How exactly does a team that connects on 15 threes, outrebounds its opponent by a decent margin, and miss all of one free throw manage to lose a game? The answer is simple: the Blue Devils played undisciplined defense. Even when Duke was red-hot from the perimeter, Mercer had quick responses with layups and wide-open threes. The youth and inexperience was exposed on the defensive end of the floor. It would be a shame if this were the last the college game sees of freshman phenom Jabari Parker.
2. Syracuse: After a 25-0 start, the Orange were the consensus pick for most complete team in the country. Since then, the offense has sputtered, and the Orange suffered home losses to cellar dwellers Georgia Tech and Boston College during a 2-5 stretch to close the season. However, the Orange had appeared to turn it around in a romp over Western Michigan in their first game. They followed that performance with an offensive dud against Dayton. They went 0-10 from beyond the arc, mustered all of four assists, and were even outrebounded by four. Add it all up, and the Orange just couldn’t salvage the season in a 55-53 loss to the Flyers.
3. Creighton: The Blue Jays had the unfortunate combination of playing their worst game of the season against one of the hottest teams in the country. After outlasting Louisiana-Lafayette in their first game, Creighton shot bricks from beyond the arc and looked clueless on the defensive end against the Bears. It got so bad that analyst Steve Kerr mentioned that it looked like a varsity team was having its way against a junior varsity squad. It was disappointing to see one of the best collegiate players during the best decade in Doug McDermott lose in his final opportunity to make the Sweet 16, but the Blue Jays had no business in the Sweet 16 after this performance.
1. Kentucky 78, Wichita State 76: There were at least five or six times during the course of the game that either team could have folded in the face of adversity. Each time that happened, the team responded with incredible resiliency. Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early threw down ferocious dunks. Early and Ron Baker traded three-pointers with James Young and Aaron Harrison. In the end, the bigger and more talented team survived a frantic finish. This game goes to show how quickly it all can end. Wichita State had a season many players could only dream of, but the Shockers were clearly disappointed with how it ended.
2. Dayton 60, Ohio State 59: One can’t help but wonder if the selection committee intentionally set up this matchup considering the history between these schools. The outcome of this game could have perhaps revealed why the Buckeyes have avoided scheduling the Flyers in the past. The first game of the second round was a back-and-forth heavyweight bout, with the Flyers scoring the knockout with a Vee Sanford layup in the final seconds. The game saw seven lead changes in the final five minutes of the game alone. Senior point guard Aaron Craft’s floater at the buzzer bounced off the rim, sending the Flyers into a frenzy at midcourt.
3. Iowa State 85, North Carolina 83: This highly anticipated game lived up to the hype, with each team trading buckets and a game-winning shot in the final seconds. Iowa State’s season was on the line facing an eight-point deficit with four minutes remaining, but their stars made championship caliber plays down the stretch to pull out the victory. DeAndre Kane led the way, recording a double double and willing his way to the hoop for his game-winning layup. The game deserved a better ending, as the clock malfunctioned and the officials deemed the game over after the Tar Heels had inbounded the ball and called timeout.
1. Saul Phillips, North Dakota State: The Bison head coach showed what this tournament is all about in his press conference after losing to San Diego State in the third round. He expressed his love for his players and didn’t hide any emotions. It was a truly moving speech from a coach who led the Bison to a spectacular season.
2. Doug McDermott, Creighton: The NCAA’s fifth-highest scorer played the final game of his career in Creighton’s 85-55 loss to Baylor in the third round. McDermott scored 15 points, but the game’s outcome was never in doubt beyond halftime. It was an emotional scene for any college basketball fan, seeing McDermott exit the floor for the final time, hugging his coach (and father) Greg McDermott.
3. Desmond Haymon, Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks had every reason to mail it in against VCU, trailing by as many as ten points with less than four minutes remaining. But the Lumberjacks generated a few turnovers, hit some shots, and found themselves down four with nine seconds left. VCU missed a free throw and Haymon drilled a three-pointer while being fouled, and Haymon coolly completed the four-point play to force overtime. The Lumberjacks rode that momentum to a 77-75 overtime victory to become the third 12-seed to advance.
Honorable Mention: A member of Stanford’s band was pretty pumped up to be playing the cowbell at one point during Stanford’s victory over Kansas in the third round. It’s not really a surprise to learn that the band got in trouble for sneaking alcohol into the game through tubas.
Best Individual Performances (Victorious)
1. Adriean Payne, Michigan State: Payne picked a good time to have a career day in Michigan State’s 93-78 victory over Delaware. He went 10-15 from the floor, 4-5 from three, and 17-17 from the free throw line en route to a career-high 41 points. No player had scored as many points in a tournament game since Gerry McNamara for Syracuse in 2004 (43). The 17 free throws were also the most made without a miss by any player in tournament history.
2. DeAndre Kane, Iowa State: When teammate Georges Niang suffered a season-ending with a foot injury during the second round, Kane put it upon himself to keep Iowa State’s season alive. The Cyclones’ depth was tested by North Carolina, but Kane almost single-handedly propelled Iowa State to the Sweet 16 with 24 points and 10 rebounds. Kane’s layup with less than two seconds remaining proved the difference in Iowa State’s 85-83 victory.
3. Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee: Stokes has put together the best resume of any player thus far in the tournament. He has recorded a double double in all three games he has played. He almost outrebounded the entire Mercer team in their third round matchup (18-19). He has made 25-29 free throws and scored a career-high 26 points against UMass in the second round.
Gone Too Early
1. Bryce Cotton, Providence: The senior guard put on a show for the short time he was on center stage this tournament. Providence’s floor leader was responsible for 69% of their 77 points, scoring a career-high 36 while distributing eight assists. He played every minute and left it all on the floor, but it wasn’t enough in a nail-biting 79-77 loss to the Tar Heels.
2. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Early almost single-handedly beat Kentucky with a sterling offensive performance. He scored 31 points, tying the tournament record for a Wichita State player. He scored with efficiency, making 12 of 17 shots, including four three-pointers. In the second half, Early scored 21 points alone. However, Ron Baker was the only other player to score double digits and the Wildcats ended Wichita State’s perfect season with a 78-76 victory.
3. Craig Bairstow, New Mexico: Bairstow was another individual who nearly willed his team to victory. Outside of Bairstow, the Lobos couldn’t make any shots against a stiff Stanford defense. He was 10 for 18 from the field, scoring 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds. However, the rest of the team combined to shoot 9-34, including 4-21 from beyond the arc. Stanford scored the upset of Bairstow and New Mexico with a 58-53 victory in the second round.
I was fortunate to see all four of my Final Four teams still alive after a hectic first weekend. Even more surprising, all but one of my Elite Eight teams are still standing (thanks New Mexico). The Sweet 16 is loaded with intriguing matchups. Expect another round of close finishes and surprises to fill the storylines this weekend.
The Gators were the top overall seed entering the tournament, and the way they dispatched Pittsburgh to advance to the Sweet 16 validated their position. Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin did everything, scoring 21 points and anchoring a rock-solid defense in Florida’s 61-45 victory over the Panthers. Even though the Gators shot 25% from the three-point line, they only committed six turnovers and were in control throughout. Their defense will be tested against UCLA, but they are the favorite to win it all at this point in the tournament.
Don’t Sleep On: Wisconsin
The Badgers were up and down in their victory over Oregon in the third round, so few are expected the Badgers to make some real noise in the tournament. Although Bo Ryan doesn’t have the best track record in the tournament, this team is loaded with talent and matchup nightmares. Center Frank Kaminsky can make three-pointers, forward Sam Dekker can slash and rebound, and Ben Brust has made more three-pointers than any other player in Wisconsin history. This Badgers team isn’t as defensive-oriented as teams of years past, but they can score with efficiency and stay competitive with just about any team. Don’t sleep on these Badgers.
Double Digit Seed Most Likely in Final Four: Tennessee
The Volunteers sneaked into the tournament, and now find themselves playing their best basketball at both ends of the floor at the right time of the season. Jarnell Stokes has been playing out of his mind in the paint. Josh Richardson found his stroke against Mercer, scoring 26 points. Wing Jordan McRae has NBA talent and can create his own shot at any time. After an overtime victory against Iowa, the Volunteers destroyed UMass and Mercer on the glass and from the free throw line. The Volunteers could pose a problem for a Michigan team that relies on its guards. If Michigan struggles from the perimeter, the Vols have a great chance to move on.
Best Matchup: #4 Louisville vs. #8 Kentucky
These teams played in late December, and the host Wildcats came away with a 73-66 victory over the Cardinals. However, both teams have improved since then and are currently playing their best basketball of the season. Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell only had six points and four rebounds in that game. If he doesn’t have more of an impact this time around, the outcome could very well be the same. Also, the Cardinals committed 13 turnovers to Kentucky’s 11. Creating turnovers is the bread and butter of Louisville’s defense, so that department will be one to keep an eye on. The winner of this game will be the favorite to make the Final Four from the Midwest.
Don’t Miss: Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane vs. UConn’s Shabazz Napier
Two of the best players in the country will face off at Madison Square Garden Friday night. Kane and Napier lifted their respective teams in their third round battles, and expect more of the same in this one. Their versatility is particularly impressive, as both players averaged more than 17 points, nearly six assists, and five rebounds per game during the season. Napier is one of the most clutch players in the game, hitting several game-winning shots during the regular season (including a buzzer beater against Florida, their last loss). Kane hit the winner against North Carolina in the third round. If this game is close late, these two players could very well decide the outcome.
Believe it or not, come Monday morning the Final Four will be set. This weekend is sure to provide surprises, nail-biters, incredible performances, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat. I wish the best of luck to everyone who is still alive in their bracket pools, and enjoy one of the best weekends of the year for college basketball fans.
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Brian Ruehlmann - University of Missouri
The NCAA tournament is the one tournament that causes a massive decrease in worker productivity in countless companies across the United States. Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas estimate that companies will lose $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament. So what exactly is it about March Madness that keeps workers glued to their phones and computers for all the wrong reasons? One word just about sums it up: madness.
Guide to 2014 NCAA Tournament
Favorite: #1 Florida Gators: The Gators breezed through the SEC portion of their schedule en route to a 26-game winning streak to close the season. They struggled with injuries early on in the season, but chemistry and leadership have fostered a formula for success in Gainesville. Four seniors start, including SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, the point guard and the anchor for the team. Sixth man Dorian Finney-Smith would start for just about any other team. The defense is second to none in the country, as only one SEC opponent scored more than 71 points in any single game against the Gator defense. The only glaring weakness is their ability to shoot, as sophomore Michael Frazier II is the only consistent threat from the three-point line.
Cinderella: #12 Stephen F. Austin: The Lumberjacks have actually won more games in a row than the Gators, having claimed victory for their past 28 games. Granted, their strength of schedule is quite weak compared to that of Florida, but the Lumberjacks have steamrolled their competition over the past three months. They take care of the ball, averaging only 11 turnovers per game. They feature a balanced scoring attack, with four players averaging at least 12 points per game. Their first round matchup, VCU, relies on turnovers and pace to win games. If the Lumberjacks take care of the ball, they very well could spring the upset and make a surprising run in the tournament.
Players to Watch:
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Kyle Anderson, UCLA
Cameron Bairstow, UNM
Briante Weber, VCU
LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State
Poised to Make a Run: #7 New Mexico: The Lobos were bounced by Harvard last year as a three seed, so expect New Mexico to leave everything on the court this year. They have lost just three times since December 17 by a combined seven points. More importantly, they are riding the high of a Mountain West Conference Championship, defeating rival San Diego State in Las Vegas. Cameron Bairstow knows how to score, averaging over 20 points per game. Point guard Kendall Williams is one of the more underrated guards in the country. Above all, the Lobos play stellar defense. Subpar three-point shooting could be their downfall, but expect the Lobos to give Kansas a scare in the Round of 32.
Potential Intriguing Matchup: #4 UCLA vs. #1 Florida: Both teams won their respective conference championships. The Bruins are playing their best basketball of the season. They ended Oregon’s winning streak, outlasted Arizona in the championship, and are blessed to have one of the most versatile players in the country in Kyle Anderson. Anderson averaged 14.9 points per game, 8.8 rebounds per game, and 6.6 assists per game for the season. It’s no wonder the Bruins rank in the top 12 nationally in scoring, field goal percentage, and assists with Anderson running the show. The Bruins lack strong interior defense, but no team wants to face this team at this point in the season.
Don’t Get Your Hopes Up: #6 Ohio State: The Buckeyes are well-coached, well-disciplined, and always seem to be a threat to make a deep run any given year. The defense is the real deal. However, the offense has been too inconsistent to maintain a deep run into this tournament. Outside of LaQuinton Ross, there is no proficient scorer on the roster. Senior Aaron Craft could be the best on-ball defender in the country, but his inconsistent jump shot limits his ability on the offensive end. The bench is shallow and the efficiency is not there. Defense wins championships, but teams need offense too. Ohio State ranks outside the top 200 schools in points per game, rebounding, and assists. That just won’t cut it.
Favorite: #1 Arizona: In what I believe is the most unpredictable region, the Wildcats look to be the consensus pick out of this region. They occupied the top spot in the country for the better part early on in the season, but injuries and struggles on the offensive end have troubled them periodically throughout the second half of the season. It started with the season-ending injury to starting forward Brandon Ashley. He brought versatility and efficiency to the offensive end of the court. Since his injury, the Wildcats have a hard time getting the ball in the hoop. Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson had a tremendous start to the season, but shot under 30% in the team’s four losses. He will be critical to the team’s success moving forward. The Wildcats rebound as well as anybody with the help of freshman forward Aaron Gordon. However, Gordon’s poor free throw shooting has been contagious, as the Wildcats shot under 66% for the year from the strike. If the Wildcats encounter a team that gets hot from three and can’t convert from the free throw line, they will be in trouble. However, they still have the most talent and the best resume in the region.
Cinderella: #11 Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have had a remarkable season up to this point, finishing ahead of Ohio State and Iowa in the Big Ten. The turnaround coach Tim Miles has achieved has been nothing less than admirable. Nebraska could have mailed it in after a 9-9 start, including losses to Purdue and UAB. However, the Cornhuskers started sizzling at the right time, knocking off Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin en route to a 10-3 finish. The Cornhuskers aren’t exactly eye pleasing on the offensive end, but sophomore guard Terran Petteway is worth the price of admission (18 ppg). One of the main reasons I like the Cornhuskers’ chances of making a deep run is their draw. Baylor and likely Round of 32 opponent Creighton are both inconsistent teams. If Nebraska doesn’t get caught up in the moment, they could be the darlings of this tournament.
Players to Watch:
Doug McDermott, Creighton
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Xavier Thames, San Diego State
Tyler Haws, BYU
Nick Johnson, Arizona
Poised to Make a Run: #9 Oklahoma State: The ninth-seeded Cowboys are a team nobody wants to see at this point in the season. The Pokes were ranked in the top five earlier this season, and the talent is still there. Point guard Marcus Smart has returned with a vengeance from his suspension, averaging 18.7 points, 4.29 steals, 6 assists, and 5.7 rebounds in seven games. He is one of the most complete players in the country and will likely be a lottery pick in the upcoming draft. Fellow guard Markel Brown has emerged during his senior season, and forward Le’Bryan Nash is one of the most efficient scorers in the country. The Cowboys don’t have much depth, but their starting lineup has the star power to give teams nightmares.
Potential Intriguing Matchup: #2 Wisconsin vs. #7 Oregon: The Badgers have employed a new style of basketball unforeseen in the Bo Ryan era prior to this season. This year’s Badgers are the most dangerous offensive team Ryan has ever had, while also being one of his weakest defensive teams. The team features four scorers in double digits. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker present mismatches for most opponents. The team shoots well from both three-point land (37%) and the free throw line (74%). However, the defensive chemistry has not always been there, especially during a mid-season swoon in which the Badgers lost five of six. One thing never changes: the Badgers only committed eight turnovers per game, second fewest in the country. The Ducks play a similar style with more reckless abandon. They like to pressure ball handlers, quicken the pace of games, and get out in transition. Coach Dana Altman likes to rotate players often to keep the energy high. The shooting isn’t always efficient, but when players like Joseph Young and Mike Moser catch fire, this team can beat anyone. This will be an entertaining, offensive clinic if we are blessed with such a matchup in the Round of 32.
Don’t Get Your Hopes Up: #3 Creighton: Some experts have Creighton in the Final Four. Seeing as they have consensus National Player of the Year Doug McDermott on their team, it would be foolish to count them out. However, this team has proven to be untrustworthy throughout the season. The offense is like clockwork when it is running smoothly and everyone is hitting their shots. Just ask Villanova, who served up 197 points in two games to the Blue Jays. At the same time, blemishes on their record include losses to St. John’s, Georgetown, Xavier, and Providence twice. The problem is, this team struggles on the defensive end. The Blue Jays move the ball extremely well on the offensive end, averaging the second most assists in the country. However, if Dougie McBuckets struggles, this one-man pony will have a short-lived tenure in the tourney.
Favorite: #4 Louisville: The fact that the Cardinals didn’t get a higher seed was the biggest surprise to many when the brackets were announced. It’s not often that the four seed is the favorite for a region, but the Cardinals are hitting their stride at the right time. They have won 12 of 13, including a 61-point victory over Rutgers and a 33-point rout of Connecticut, another tournament team. Point guard Russ Smith is the unquestioned leader of this team, leading the squad in points and assists. The emergence of Montrezl Harrell down low has propelled this team to championship-caliber basketball. Factor in marksman Luke Hancock, and this is one tough offense to stop. The defense has been wreaking havoc up and down the court with traps and quick hands slapping at the ball constantly. No team gets more deflections than the Cardinals. They recorded more than 10 steals per game during the regular season, second only to VCU. Their constant pressure hurries opponents into uncomfortable situations, and the effect can snowball. The defending national champions are peaking at the right time, and they have a pretty decent coach to help guide them in Rick Pitino.
Cinderella: #11 Tennessee: Just because they were one of the last four teams to make the tournament field, doesn’t mean the Volunteers should be taken lightly. This is a team that has locked down defensively down the stretch. The Volunteers have several eye-popping victories this season, including a 35-point drubbing of Virginia during the non-conference portion of the schedule. The Volunteers boast one of the best duos in the game in Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes. McRae has an NBA-ready game with a polished jumper, a knack for finishing around the paint, and the ability to create his own shot with accuracy. Stokes is the definition of a big bruiser. He bangs in the paint all game long and it shows in the box score: Stokes was one of three players in the country to average a double-double (14.7 points, 10.3 rebounds). The Volunteers crash the boards on both ends of the court, oftentimes creating second and third scoring chances. Teams that rebound and defend should not be taken lightly in March.
Players to Watch:
Jabari Parker, Duke
TJ Warren, NC State
Russ Smith, Louisville
Jordan McRae, Tennessee
Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Poised to Make a Run: #8 Kentucky: I am not a Kentucky fan nor do I believe the Wildcats have played very well at all this season. However, they have been playing significantly improved basketball over the past few weeks of the season. This was never more evident than in the SEC Championship versus Florida, where the Wildcats came back from a huge deficit against the Gators to come within a bucket of beating the top team in the country. The Wildcats are very inexperienced and turn the ball over with frequency. If James Young and Aaron Harrison aren’t hitting their threes, they become one-dimensional on offense. However, no team attacks the boards more ruthlessly than the Wildcats. They rebound 41.8 percent of their offensive misses, ranking first in the country. Freshman Julius Randle is a force inside, averaging 15 points and 10.5 rebounds per game on the season. As a number eight seed, the Wildcats have the talent and ability to beat anyone in the country on a given day.
Potential Intriguing Matchup: #1 Wichita State vs. #4 Louisville: If both teams survive their first two matchups, this will be a rematch of the Final Four showdown a year ago between these two teams. Louisville outlasted the Shockers in that one, but Wichita State gave them everything they had and then some. This year, the Shockers have yet to taste the bitterness of defeat. They have their supporters and their critics, but there is no arguing this is a team with chemistry and a high basketball IQ. Point guard Fred VanVleet had an exceptional season, scoring the ball with efficiency and distributing the rock to open players. Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early, and Tekele Cotton complement each other well. This team has been there before, and their leadership and depth should not be underestimated. This would be a matchup between the hottest team versus the lone perfect team remaining. That would make for must-see TV.
Don’t Get Your Hopes Up: #5 Saint Louis: The Billikens put together a solid season behind the strength of a suffocating defense and timely offense. Saint Louis reeled off 19 wins in a row at one point after losing a close game to Wichita State. However, eight of those victories were by six points or fewer. They were riding a fine line, and eventually their luck ran out. The Billikens limped to the finish line by losing four of their final five games, including their only A-10 conference tournament game against St. Bonaventure. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett are two very good players, but they received little to no help during the disappointing final stretch of the season. Behind a philosophy that stresses lockdown defense and deliberate offense, this is a tough team to blow out. However, they lack the firepower and depth to make an impactful run in this tournament.
Favorite: #4 Michigan State: I doubt there has ever been a season where two of the favorites to win the NCAA Tournament were four seeds, but that seems to be the case this year with Louisville and Michigan State. The Spartans, like the Cardinals, are playing their best basketball of the season. Coming off a convincing victory over Michigan to win the Big Ten Championship, the Spartans are finally healthy and playing like it. There is no better starting five in the country. Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, Branden Dawson, and Adreian Payne are talented, gritty, and mentally tough. The Spartans jumped out to an 18-1 start before the injuries started piling up, and they showed what they could do with everyone healthy during the Big Ten Tournament. What’s more, the injuries could serve as a blessing in disguise for Michigan State. Reserves Travis Trice, Matt Costello, and Kenny Kaminski received valuable minutes while various players were limited with injuries. The Spartans shoot the ball well from three (39.8%), distribute the ball well (17.1 assists per game, sixth in the country), and play good team defense. It hasn’t been the smoothest of seasons for Tom Izzo, but Sparty is once again a force to reckon with in March.
Cinderella: #10 St. Joseph’s: The Hawks had an up and down season, but they heated up down the stretch and drew a favorable portion of the bracket. Considered a bubble team before the Atlantic 10 Tournament, the Hawks left it out of the committee’s hands by winning three straight games en route to the conference championship. This team plays five guys who average more than 30 minutes per game, so health and foul trouble will be factors for this team moving forward. There is not much production coming off the bench, but there won’t be need for production if the starters play like they did during the conference tournament. Senior guard Langston Galloway is one of the most prolific three-point shooters in the country. Senior forward Halil Kanacevic averaged more than 15 points and 14 rebounds per game during the tournament. Although the Hawks could not keep up with Villanova earlier this season, they are a much different team with senior leadership capable of springing the upset.
Players to Watch:
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Bryce Cotton, Providence
Gary Harris, Michigan State
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
Poised to Make a Run: #3 Iowa State: The Cyclones are one of the best teams in the country when they are clicking on offense. They happened to be clicking on offense with the exception of one half against Baylor. The result? Their second Big 12 Tournament Championship in program history. Coach Fred Hoiberg has something special going in Ames, and he has the Cyclones playing one of the more exciting brands of basketball in the game. Point guard DeAndre Kane averaged 17 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists this year. Forward Melvin Ejim scored 48 points in one game. Georges Niang added 16.5 points per game. This team is deep, but what makes them most effective is their tendency to share the ball. They led the country in assists per game (19), and as a result, they shoot a high percentage from the floor (47.1%). If they stay hot, the Cyclones might just make a run to the Final Four.
Potential Intriguing Matchup: #6 North Carolina vs. #3 Iowa State: This is far from a sure thing, considering the Tar Heels have to get past a sizzling Providence squad. However, if we do see this matchup, strap yourselves in and buckle your seatbelts, because this game could be a roller coaster ride. Both teams play at a fast pace. Neither team plays particularly good defense. Iowa State holds the three-point shooting advantage, but North Carolina has the edge on the glass. Marcus Paige versus DeAndre Kane and James Michael McAdoo versus Melvin Ejim would be must-see individual matchups. I believe Iowa State plays better team basketball, but if North Carolina dominates inside, this could be a game for the ages.
Don’t Get Your Hopes Up: #2 Villanova: The Wildcats put together an impressive campaign, especially considering their expectations entering the season. They only had four losses all season, and I’d bet most people couldn’t name a single player on the team. Give credit to Jay Wright, who has brought the best out of his players. Their offense features James Bell, Darrun Hilliard II, and JayVaughn Pinkston, all averaging north of 14 points per game. The bench runs deep, with nine players averaging double-digit minutes. However, Creighton blasted the Wildcats twice this year, exploiting a subpar three-point defending Wildcat team. If someone gets hot from three-point land, it could be a short tournament run for the Wildcats.
So, Who Lands in Arlington?
My formula: Experience + Depth + Coaching + Health = Success
South: #1 Florida: The Gators boast four seniors starting, a stout defense, a great sixth man, are coached by Billy Donovan (2 titles), and have won 26 games in a row.
West: #4 San Diego State: The Aztecs are laden with juniors and seniors, have 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes, haven’t given up 70 points in any of last 18 games, and are coached by Steve Fisher (1 title).
Midwest: #4 Lousville: The Cardinals return many from last year’s championship squad, have won 12 of 13, led by senior Russ Smith, force second most turnovers per game in country, coached by Rick Pitino (2 titles).
East: #4 Michigan State: Seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne lead the Spartans, won the Big Ten Tournament Championship when team was finally healthy, coached by Tom Izzo (1 title).
National Champion: #4 Michigan State over #4 Louisville. The two hottest teams face off in a legendary national championship, where the Spartans exert their will late to put away a second championship for coach Tom Izzo.
This is my favorite time of the year for a reason. The excitement is unrivaled and the tournament is anything but predictable. This entire column could very well be way off. But that’s the greatest part: no one likes already knowing the outcome of something. Here’s to a month of madness.
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Morgan Birck - Georgetown University
Yeah, Calvin Johnson is unreal. He's unparalleled. He's...well, Megatron. But you can't rely on one receiver every time you want to pass the ball. Reggie Bush, as a running back, probably shouldn't be the player with the second-highest receiving yards on the season...and if your third-highest receiver is also an RB (Joique Bell), it's definitely time to pick up some new wideouts. While drafting rookies is-and likely will-be a priority for the Lions, it might be good to have a veteran receiver (who is still very, very good, and has at least 3-4 solid years on him, yet) who knows Lombardi's style and the ins-and-outs of the NFL-- enter Moore.
The Lions definitely need to pick up 3-4 receivers in the off season, and between the draft and the free agency, they shouldn't have any problems doing so. Lance Moore would be a great fit for the Lions. It would allow Detroit to spread the ball out, use their RBs as well, RBs, and Moore will likely get more snaps than he would if he stayed in New Orleans at the No. 3 receiver. And I could totally see him in Lions' Blue.
Do I smell a match made in heaven?
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