When Florida Gulf Coast went up 19-9 midway through the first half, there was a genuine sense of excitement throughout the college basketball world. We see “mid-major” schools go on deep tournament runs, especially in the last seven years, but Florida Gulf Coast is no mid-major—they’re a bonafide small school. They shouldn’t have been anywhere near the Sweet 16, let alone 12 points away from the Elite Eight.
So when the final buzzer sounded and Florida advanced, it was more a sense of order being restored. Yes, we’ll miss the happy-go-lucky demeanor and highlight reel dunks, but this is the time of the tournament where the high seeds reign. Even in a year where we don’t have a great team (one that you see right away and think “I’d be shocked if they don’t go all the way”), the faces of the Elite Eight are familiar ones.
I touched on the NCAA’s dream tournament dream scenario a few days ago: they want upsets early, but when we get to this part of the show, they want teams like Duke and Syracuse in it for TV ratings. We’ve been spoiled recently with George Mason and VCU making he Final Four runs and Butler making the national title game in both 2010 and 2011 (by far, the most overlooked Cinderella I’ve ever seen). We make a huge deal about these teams (and for good reason), but they’re outliers. The Elite Eight has always been about big games between big teams.
That’s what we have this year. Today we have a final Big East matchup between Syracuse and Marquette before both leave the conference. Then we get the Buckeyes against the lone mid-major left in the tournament (aptly nicknamed the “Shockers”). Tomorrow we get Florida vs. Michigan SEC-Big Ten clash, and a future ACC showdown in Duke vs. Louisville. Let’s pick.
(4) Syracuse over (3) Marquette
Just as Marquette was able to handle Reggie Johnson-less Miami in the paint, I’m expecting Syracuse to do similar things to Marquette today. It’s not that the Orange are bigger than the Golden Eagles, but their defense and athleticism are much better than Marquette’s.
A lot of that starts with Syracuse guard Michael Carter-Williams. He had a big game against Victor Oladipo and Indiana on Thursday and a respectable encore today wouldn’t surprise me. At 6’6″, he can impact the game on both ends and he’ll be vital to slowing down Vander Blue on offense.
(2) Ohio State over (9) Wichita State
It’s pretty strange for a team seeded as low as Wichita State to have played only one team from a major conference. But that just speaks to the lack of buzz surrounding the West Region. Even with all of the uncertainty surrounding the tournament, there was almost a universal belief that the national champion wasn’t coming from the West. I still feel the same way, but one of them has to make the Final Four.
And though they’ve beat better teams by larger margins, I still believe that DeShaun Thomas, Aaron Craft, and Ohio State are the better team. They’ve won their last two by last-second threes, but I can’t see them losing to Shockers.
(3) Florida over (4) Michigan
The Wolverines have been playing some of the best basketball in March and they have center Mitch McGary to thank for it. Burke, Robinson, and Hardaway are vital, but McGary’s presence inside has given them an added dimension. He’s averaged higher numbers than the regular season in all major categories, including twice as many boards and nearly triple the points. This should be a phenomenal matchup.
So why am I picking Florida? Well, even with Michigan playing lights out, they should’ve lost last night’s game (I hopped in the shower when they were down 10 with the belief that they had). But they came roaring back to force overtime and eventually beat #1 Kansas. I believe that the Gators are a better team than Kansas and if Patric Young can limit McGary’s impact in the paint, it should be enough to pull out the win.
(1) Louisville over (2) Duke
Duke’s meeting with Louisville in the beginning of the season had the feel of a tournament matchup. But picking Duke here simply because they already won once is just lazy. Many will say that the absence of center Gorgui Dieng is the reason Louisville lost the first matchup, but they’re completely ignoring the fact that Louisville has been on a tear since mid-February, crushing everyone in their wake.
The great thing about Louisville is that they seem to play their game and somewhat disregard the other team’s strengths. That could lead to trouble against Duke (as they well know), but for it’s going to take a monumental effort for the Blue Devils to pull this one off. That means taking good care of the ball, frustrating Peyton Siva on offense, and winning the rebound battle. I don’t think they have it in them.