Here we go again -- my annual list of 10 bold predictions for the NCAA tournament.
Without further ado ….
Iowa State in the Final Four -- The Cyclones have been one of the hottest teams in the country, winning eight of their past 10 games. They’re the Big 12 tournament champions and clearly a legit national title contender. It won’t be easy to reach Dallas with Michigan State, Connecticut, Villanova and North Carolina potentially standing in their way. But DeAndre Kane & Co. have been playing some of the best basketball in America throughout this fruitful stretch. Fred Hoiberg in Dallas? Count on it.
No Big Ten team in Dallas -- In recent seasons, the Big Ten has been anointed as the premier conference in college basketball. And it’s hard to argue against that, if we’re talking about the regular season. But the league still hasn’t collected a national championship since Michigan State won the crown in 2000. That drought will continue, even though Tom Izzo has taken every four-year player he’s coached at MSU (see Keith Appling and Adreian Payne) to the Final Four. Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin all have a shot, but it won’t happen this year.
Kansas won’t reach the Sweet 16 -- The Joel Embiid injury is a major problem for Kansas. Yes, the Jayhawks can still make a run without him. But that third-round matchup against a big New Mexico squad should be a concern. The Jayhawks routed the Lobos 80-63 in December. That day, Embiid had 18 points, six rebounds, four blocks and three steals. The Jayhawks will miss that. A lot. Andrew Wiggins has proved that he can carry Kansas in the postseason. But that potential third-round matchup against New Mexico without Embiid -- this pick is based on the assumption that he won’t play, although you never know -- will be a great challenge for Bill Self’s program. I see the Lobos, not the Jayhawks, advancing to the Sweet 16.
Baylor-Arizona in the Elite Eight -- Baylor didn’t even resemble an NIT squad after a 2-8 start in Big 12 play. The Bears weren’t playing good defense, and they were struggling to score. But they’re a different team now. Entering Saturday’s Big 12 tourney title game, they’d won 10 of their previous 11 games. Scott Drew’s program will be a difficult matchup for any team it faces. The Bears are the most dangerous 6-seed in the field. They’ll top Nebraska, Creighton and Wisconsin on their way to an Elite Eight matchup against top-seeded Arizona in the West Region.
Cincy home early -- Mick Cronin’s Bearcats are one of the toughest defensive teams in the country. But the Bearcats have gone through these offensive funks that have positioned them for failure in multiple contests this season. Harvard, which upset New Mexico last season in the opening round, will take advantage of that as it advances to the third round with a stunning victory over Cincinnati. Siyani Chambers is one of the most underrated point guards in the country. But that will change this weekend. Everyone will know about him after this win.
Connecticut, too -- Could Shabazz Napier pull a Kemba Walker and take UConn on a memorable run? Maybe. But the Huskies have a problem that Saint Joseph’s will exploit in their second-round matchup. DeAndre Daniels has been inconsistent in recent months, and the Huskies clearly need him to shine in their first opening game to secure a win. The Hawks (16th in block percentage per Ken Pomeroy) have a rugged frontcourt anchored by Ronald Roberts Jr. and Halil Kanacevic. Plus, Phil Martelli’s program is confident after winning the Atlantic 10 tourney crown. It’s one-and-done for the Huskies.
Undefeated Wichita State will be first 1-seed to go -- Virginia is playing as well as any team in the country right now. The Cavaliers have the goods to make a run to the Final Four. Arizona is in a tough West Region, but the Wildcats are a step above every team they might encounter. And Florida won’t have to worry about significant competition until it advances to Memphis for the South Region championship. But Wichita State is trapped in the Midwest Region, the toughest region of them all. The Shockers are strong enough to beat Kentucky or Kansas State in the third round. But their NCAA tourney experience will end against Louisville in the Sweet 16.
North Dakota State advances -- Taylor Braun is the best player that many haven’t heard of … yet. Check out the North Dakota State star’s numbers: 18.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.6 SPG and a 44 percent clip from the 3-point line. Last season, the college basketball world was smitten by former Summit League star and current NBA guard Nate Wolters. Well, it will happen again. Meet Mr. Braun, who will lead the Bison to an upset of Oklahoma in the second round of the Big Dance.
Saint Joseph’s in the Sweet 16 -- A win over Connecticut in the opening round will be an impressive moment for Martelli’s squad. But the fun won’t stop there. Saint Joseph’s will pull off the upset against Villanova in the third round, too. The Hawks are a dangerous 10-seed and have found their mojo at the right time. They were crushed by Villanova earlier this season. But they’re a better defensive squad now. And they won’t let that lopsided result happen again. They’ll use it as fuel as they seek vengeance against their crosstown rival.
Florida will win the national championship … easily -- Florida has been the best team in America for months. Billy Donovan has a program that is led by veterans who always maintain their composure in difficult situations. It’s not that bold to pick Florida to win the national championship. It hasn’t lost since early December. But the Gators will be dominant on their way to Donovan’s third crown. Florida will win every game in the NCAA tournament by eight points or more.