Updated: May 5, 2020
Its March 11th, I am screaming at my TV after Syracuse pile-drived through North Carolina and just busted my 5 team sweetheart teaser. Cole Anthony is a huge bitch. Great talent, but you're telling me your last college basketball game you're going to get blown out by 28 points because you couldn't beat Boeheim's weak 2-3 zone? SMH 🤦♂️ However, little did I know that this second round ACC Tournament game would also be my last college basketball game that I would get to enjoy due to COVID-19 deleting sports from the world. The coronavirus has affected many things that I love but March Madness being cancelled was a swift kick to the nuts on top of everything else. I definitely miss the fervor associated with March Madness like the Cinderella teams (more on that below) making deep runs, under-looked players making a name for themselves, but I mostly miss all the fucking money I was about to make in March. We're talking rent paid for the next year caliber bets, but... I digress (sigh). In the meantime, here is my Final Four predictions had the beloved tournament happened.
Midwest Region: #12 Liberty University
Depending on who you talk to, Liberty was looking to pull anywhere from a 12- to 14-seed on Selection Sunday. Liberty was red hot this year with a 30-4 record overall (and a 13-3 record in conference). Liberty relies on a steady, and most of the time an extremely slow pace; they actually rank dead last in the NCAA in total possessions per game. If that sounds like a bad thing, it isn’t. Virginia ranks 2nd to last in this “pace of play” metric, and the slow and careful basketball Tony Bennett orchestrates led them to a national championship last year. In fact, the Liberty coach Ritchie McKay worked under Tony Bennett for 6 seasons before becoming the Liberty head coach in 2015. I believe many dismissed this team due to their 254th ranked strength of schedule*, which was highlighted by some bad losses to teams such as Stetson and Lipscomb. My argument to those people is to again highlight the ACC. Many teams in the ACC such as Virginia and Syracuse play niche styles of basketball. When players and coaches get the opportunity to compete against teams with peculiar styles, they gain experience and knowledge about how to beat the particular team the next time around. That’s why those conference losses don’t concern me, and why I think Liberty could have caught a couple teams off-guard and made a nice run to the Elite Eight where their momentum would push them into the Final Four against a doubting team.
Southern Region- #3 Michigan State
Depending on the outcome of the Big 10 tournament, Michigan State was likely looking at a 3-seed. In Cassius Winston’s first three years at MSU, they only made it out of the second round of the tournament once (last year when they lost to Texas Tech in the Final Four). It’s no coincidence that their tournament run coincided with Xavier Tillman Sr. figuring out just how dominant he can be. I’m a huge fan of both of these future first-round picks and have a hard time seeing any teams keep Cassius from scoring/Tillman off the boards. When thinking about who could legitimately give these guys trouble, the first few names that pop into my head are Obi Toppin, Isaac Okoro, and Ayo Dosunmu. I still see Michigan State squeezing out games against Illinois and Auburn, while Dayton would likely be their biggest test of the tournament. Obi Toppin has never actually played in a NCAA tournament game, as he red-shirted his first season at Dayton (which was the last time they made the tournament, getting eliminated in the first round). Michigan State’s poise and experience would have gotten them out of their region and into the Final Four.
Eastern Region- #5 Ohio State
OSU was looking at a 5-seed in this tournament, which is too low if you ask me. A 21-10 record doesn’t sound amazing by any means, but they did have the 4th hardest schedule in college basketball this year. One reason I love this Ohio State squad is the way they force their opponents to play offense. The mid-range jumper has been a staple of many great NBA and college players for some time, but nowadays it’s widely considered the worst, or least efficient, shot in basketball. And that’s where OSU will try to force you to shoot from. Go inside and get swallowed by the Wesson brothers or try your luck taking a step back and throwing up a 3 amidst their stellar perimeter defense. One of the trends that has marked this season for the Buckeyes is their road performances. As a whole, they have been pretty terrible. Only 2 of their 10 losses on the year came at home, and they lost by a margin of 4 or less in both games. Ohio state fans travel well and I expect the neutral site games to be closer to home than away games for this Ohio State team. I believe we would have seen a slow-paced OSU team who loves getting to the charity stripe make a run to at least the Elite Eight if not the Final Four.
Western Region- #4 Oregon
Oregon was projected to pull a 4-seed on selection Sunday, but I think they should be a 3 seed. Payton Pritchard, winner of the Bob Cousy award, might have been my favorite college basketball player this year. Sitting at a 24-7 record, Oregon hasn’t suffered a home loss since they lost to UNC on November 29th. It’s also worth noting five of Oregon’s seven losses came during Pac-12 conference play, a conference notorious for beating themselves up. Another interesting thing to note is that Oregon had 6 games go into OT this year, and they were 5-1 in these games. March Madness games tend to carry a higher level of intensity, similar to the high-strung scenario five minutes of OT at the end of a game encompasses. Oregon has proved they have what it takes to win close, competitive games; something that can never be overlooked in March. Oregon not only wins close games, they’re able to rise to their level of competition. They were 5-1 versus top 25 teams and 2-1 versus teams ranked 26-50. Oregon is extremely efficient on offense boasting a fantastic 39.6% from 3PT (top % nationally), and shoot inside the top 30 in the country from the field. While Pritchard runs the backcourt, grad transfer Shakur Juiston, Francis Okoro and the rest of the front-court have shown insane interior defense this year so in order to beat Oregon, opponents must be ready to shoot at a high clip from the outside. I think this Oregon team would have the best chance at the chip out of the aforementioned four.
Alright so obviously I skipped over a few of the hottest and most talented teams in college ball in my selections above. Realistically it’s just not as fun or interesting to pick every team in the Final Four as a 3-seed or higher. I think it’s fair to say two of the best teams in the NCAA this year, Kansas and Baylor, were primed to make a lot of noise in the tournament this year with a healthy mix of experience and talent. Kansas boasted the hardest schedule in the country yet managed to only drop 3 games, all of which came at the hands of Duke (#4 at the time), Villanova (#18), and Baylor (#4). Azubuike has had a monster season and has shown he likely has the stuff to play at the next level, and I’m sure Dotson was determined to avenge the second round loss from the previous year where Auburn shot the lights out against them. As for Baylor, they have a couple more blemishes on their record dropping 4 of their 30 games this year (3 to unranked teams). While Baylor has some studs like Butler and Gillespie, it’s their talent across the board that really impresses me. They have 4 guys on their roster averaging over 9.5 points. Beyond their offense they are one of the most efficient defensive teams in college ball. They love forcing opponents to shoot mid-range shots, and they’re good at defending them too.
Finally, I think Duke would have grabbed a 3-seed and likely would’ve made a run as well. The 3-seed can be tough as there's a chance they play a 2-seed followed by a 1-seed, but that’s not exactly new territory for Duke. They have some questionable losses (Memba when Stephen F Austin won their game outright as a 28 point dog? I memba). However, they do have some great resume material in terms of their wins. They went on the road to beat #3 Kansas by 12, they beat #14 West Virginia by 11, and #17 Villanova by 9 at a neutral site. Vernon Carey has been doing his best impressions of Zion this year and while he’s clearly not the same talent, I think there’s a lot to be said for this kid. In the backcourt Duke has the dangerous combo Tre Jones and Cassius Stanley. Tre has gotten some great minutes in big games and is a clear leader on the roster, so the fact that 3 of their top 4 scorers are freshman doesn’t concern me all that much.
All in all, the deletion of sports fucked me up but realistically saved my bank account. Guess I'll have to use that stimulus check on some other extracurricular activities.
P.S. Horses can't catch coronavirus, hammer #14 in Race 4 at Oaklawn Park tomorrow *Statistics taken from teamrankings.com