LITTLE ROCK — Rooting for a horse and a basketball team, one was never in contention and the other opened a sizable lead.
The animal that broke slowly and failed to improve his position cost me $4; the Syracuse that led 45-29 with less than 16 minutes to play before faltering worse than a 100-meter sprinter trying to run a mile altered my pick to win the NCAA Tournament. In late January, a column referenced the Las Vegas odds on several teams to win the NCAA and noted that only Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, and UCLA were less than 15-1.
Fresh from a 70-68 loss to Syracuse that included too many turnovers and poor free throw shooting, Louisville coach Rick Pitino was quoted as saying he had yet to see a great team in college basketball, but some would evolve. ” … I hope we’re one of them,” he said.
The next line in the column said, “Forced to take a stand, his Cardinals would be the pick to win April 8 in Atlanta.” The Cardinals lost the next two, but a three-game losing streak in a basketball-minded conference doesn’t bother me and I was still picking Louisville as late as last week. No more.
A winning streak that must be extended to 16 and the bull’s-eye in a game where talented teams abound will catch up with the Cardinals. Questions to be answered at the bottom:
• If not Louisville, who?
• Who takes out the overall No. 1?
• The surprise of the Final Four?
Missouri, arguably the most talented team in the Southeastern Conference with a nice mix of guards and inside players, could beat Louisville in the second round even though the game is in Lexington — something that must gall Kentucky fans. Six losses by three points or less, including one to Arkansas, plus a loss in overtime, is a red flag about the Tigers’ ability to close out a game. Often, highly skilled point guard Phil Pressey is to blame.
Pitino vs. Tom Izzo and Michigan State should be a classic in the quarterfinals, but the pick is the more talented Cardinals.
In my bracket, Louisville will face Ohio State in one semifinal. To get there, the Buckeyes will have to defeat the Notre Dame team that beat Louisville in five overtimes, plus defensive minded New Mexico, and No. 1 seed Gonzaga. A tall order, but doable.
On the other side of the bracket, a Bill Self remark is too rich to dump early in the tournament. In Fort Worth in early February, Kansas scored 13 in the first half and lost to TCU by seven, prompting Self to call the Jayhawks the worst team Kansas had put on the floor going back to the late 1890s under James Naismith. “I think he had some bad teams and lost to the YMCA the first couple of years,” Self said.
TCU was in the middle of Kansas’ three-game losing streak. Since then, the Jayhawks are 10-1.
Kansas’ road to Atlanta includes some of the biggest names in basketball — North Carolina, Michigan, and Georgetown.
In my bracket, the Jayhawks square off Indiana. To get to the Final Four, the Hoosiers are likely to face North Carolina State, Syracuse, and Miami.
For somebody who loves longshots at Oaklawn Park, the favorite-filled Final Four is against the grain. Upsets are as much a part of the NCAA Tournament as hot wings in a sports bar. Identifying them beforehand is the trick. In hindsight, most will be predicated on shooting percentages and turnovers.
If your bracket czar awards extra points for upsets as he should, taking all the 9s, 10s, 11s, 12s, and 13s is worthwhile.
As for questions raised 10 paragraphs ago, Indiana is the double-up answer to who takes out Louisville and who wins the tournament. The surprise of the Final Four? Nobody.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.