| With SportsHole readers flocking to HoleCity's 103rd Annual NCAA Hoops Pickin' Thing like clowns to a Volkswagen (okay, like three clowns to a Volkswagen), we have a certain obligation to spend a column on men's college basketball. But it's so hard. We don't really like anyone. The math never changes, though: 64 to 32, 32 to 16, etc. Eventually someone wins, even when no one reminds us of a national champion.
Before we launch into a series of baseless, half-ignorant predictions, please review our three simple rules for 2003 tournament prognostication:
1) The Big Ten stinks. This conference invented a whole new kind of collective Bad this year. Bad. This rule trumps all other rules. Bad. We warned you.
2) Veteran guards are good. This is an old rule---maybe an Al McGuire rule---of tournament wagering. This rule matters most in the first round, when senior-led backcourts from forgotten piss-puddle schools knock off over-hyped, inexperienced teams from major conferences.
3) Winning a conference tournament means nothing. This rule is difficult to accept. "But I watched Duke, I watched Oklahoma and Illinois...they're so good." No, they're so done. All a conference championship means is that the team is feeling tired and accomplished, and that's bad. Losing just before the NCAA tournament is like a nice defibrillatory jolt, pleasant and life-affirming.
Even with the above rules, we find this year's field challenging to predict. There are no badass locks in the UCLA-Georgetown-Duke tradition, only shaky 1, 2 and 3 seeds with obvious weaknesses. We like a slew of upset winners in round one, including Southern Illinois over Mizzou, Holy Cross over Marquette, Western Kentucky over Illinois, BYU over UConn, Butler over Mississippi State and UNC Wilmington over Maryland. We wanted to take Manhattan as a first round winner, too, but they'll face a team we plan to ride to our much-anticipated Final Four....
Syracuse. If they can just get past the Jaspers, they'll roll. Rounds three and four are in Albany, NY, a weird advantage for a team that doesn't need it. We're violating our own rules here: 'Cuse gives big minutes to a few freshmen. We're counting on a Fab Five, young-pups-against-the-world vibe. This team also has the severe advantage of having the only player in all of college basketball destined to star---star---in the NBA: Carmelo Anthony. It's enough.
Xavier. All right, now do you want to get in our tournament pool? "C'mon, Xavier?!?" Well, yeah. It feels right, and the South stinks (we mean the bracket, of course, not the geographic region...we hear Austin is quite nice). These guys have the best non-Carmelo in the tournament: six-foot-nine forward David West. He went for 20.3 PPG and 12 RPG in an unwatched but scary-good Atlantic 10.
Arizona. When Bill Walton watches his son Luke play he must think, "If only I hadn't hit the pipe so hard in '79, maybe my kid would grab a rebound or play some D." But Bill did, and Luke doesn't. The Luke Walton love-in is about to end, and soon. To find a more overrated college player than this cat, you have to go all the way back to...well, last year, same team. Loren Woods. The Wildcats should still make the Final Four, though. Jason Gardner's horrific showing in the loss to UCLA (2-for-20 shooting, 3 assists in 42 minutes) should wake him up, thus rousing the team. But only briefly. They lose in the Final Four to....
Kentucky. Our National Champion. We're out on a limb now, eh? Love Tubby, love Bogans, love Estill, but mostly we just love that we won't have to write about college basketball again for several months. (Deep satisfied sigh.) Unless Billy Packer sufficiently pisses us off, that is.
Big Foam Finger