If you believe the hype, the biggest story of the NBA’s 2012-2013 season – outside of the Milwaukee Bucks still being over .500 in late March – is the Miami Heat’s colossal win streak.
While undoubtedly impressive, the win streak – which stands at 24 as of this writing, second only to the Lakers’ 33-game streak back in 1971-1972 – to me completely strips away whatever little drama there was to be had in this NBA season.
Barring a series of unfortunate injuries, who is going to beat the Heat in the playoffs?
I’ll tell you who: Nobody. We’ll be lucky if either the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals aren’t four-game sweeps.
Even after downing a couple Mountain Dew Kickstarts, I’m getting drowsy just thinking about the rest of the NBA season.
But I don’t need a delicious combination of Mountain Dew, real fruit juice, and the just right amount of kick to be engrossed in the 2013 men’s NCAA basketball tournament.
The way I see it, you could make a not-entirely-ridiculous argument for about 20 teams’ chances to cut down the nets on Monday, April 8, in Atlanta.
And that includes a handful of Big Ten teams.
In fact, the most interesting topic to be explored during this year’s tournament – particularly in the rounds of 64 and 32 – is how dominant the invited Big Ten teams will be.
All season long, college basketball fans have been inundated with the opinion that the Big Ten is far and away the country’s best basketball conference.
Analysts have indicated that Bo Ryan, Thad Matta, Tom Izzo, et al – not to mention their players – will be ecstatic to play teams from other, less talented, less athletic – less good – conferences.
It’s as if playing the likes of South Dakota State and Mississippi is akin to hooping it up with the Flint Tropics or Washington Generals.
I expect the Big Ten teams to rise to the challenge of these heightened expectations.
Let’s look at each of the tourney’s seven Big Ten teams and how far they are each likely to take their dreams of a national championship.
Minnesota (No. 11 seed, South Region). No Big Ten team has been as unpredictable as the Golden Rodents. After starting the season at 15-1 with an who-can-blame-them loss to Duke being its only setback, Goldy went into a vicious tailspin, losing eleven of its final sixteen games. But two of the late-season wins came against then-No. 1 Indiana and the nasty Wisconsin Badgers, showing that Minnesota is capable of beating just about anyone. Well, anyone at home. The Gophers haven’t won away from the friendly confines since January 9. Since they won’t be playing any tournament games at Williams Arena, their championship prospects look bleak at best. But their initial opponent, Pac-12 regular season champ UCLA, is young and injury-riddled. The Gophers will upset the Bruins before being sent back to the still-frigid Twin Cities by the Florida Gators.
Illinois (No. 7 seed, East Region). Unlike the Gophers, the Fighting Illini have largely righted their season since a putrid 1-6 stretch early in conference play. But John Groce’s team did finish the season in a 2-4 slump, and only one of their players, guard Brandon Paul, has been a consistently reliable offensive threat throughout the year. If any Big Ten team is going to go down in the first – sorry, second; can’t forget about those thrilling “first four” games – it looks to be Illinois going up against the deeper Buffaloes of Colorado.
Wisconsin (No. 5 seed, West Region). Of all the Big Ten teams invited to the tournament, the Badgers have the most to complain about. They go to the championship game of supposedly the nation’s toughest conference and end up with a lower seed than either of the teams they vanquished along the way? And they’re rewarded with playing a real tough No. 12 seed – the Rebels of Mississippi – who just won the SEC tournament? Look, we all know that the Badgers can go colder than the ratings for NBC’s Smash, and when that happens, they can lose to anybody. But the play of Ryan Evans in the Big Ten tournament was revelatory, Jared Berggren and Ben Brust continue to hit timely shots, and their defense is as tenacious as my daughter refusing to settle for anything less than the entire bag of neon sour gummy worms. I like Bo Ryan’s team to reach their third-straight Sweet Sixteen before succumbing – barely – to the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs.
Michigan (No. 4 seed, South Region). The Wolverines have been nothing short of awesome most of the year, but their shocking loss to Penn State on February 27 is a cold reminder of the anyone-can-beat-anyone-at-any-time one-and-done finality of the NCAA tournament. Still, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., are one of the best guard combos in the country, and the rest of their starting rotation is young but solid. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re starting tournament play at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. The Wolverines will join Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Kansas.
Michigan State (No. 3 seed, Midwest Region). Like the Wolverines, the Michigan State Spartans get to start tournament play close to home in Auburn Hills. But unlike the favorable seeding given to the Wolverines, the selection committee placed Tom Izzo’s team in the tournament’s toughest bracket. But if any team is up to the challenge, it’s Sparty, who seem to play their best basketball in March as routinely as the post-Weekend Update sketches on Saturday Night Live stink. Look for Michigan State to be one of the Elite Eight teams, a prediction I’d feel better about if not for that surprising three-game dive the Spartans took about a month ago.
Ohio State (No. 2 seed, West Region). There’s not a team in college basketball I’ve been more impressed with lately than the Buckeyes. They’re able to play any style of ball their opponents try to throw at them – I was particularly struck by how they beat the Badgers in the Big Ten conference tourney final by being more physical, more suffocating on defense, and more deliberate on offense than Bucky. But they’ll have to be just the opposite against Iona, a team that puts up the second-most points in the nation. If they get past the running Gaels of Iona – and are you willing to bet they won’t? – I love Ohio State’s chances of landing in their second straight Final Four.
Indiana (No. 1 seed, East Region). What is it about Indiana that leaves me not as impressed as everybody else? Their fans include President Obama, who has picked the Hoosiers to win this year’s championship. I guess it’s because I look at them through Badger red-colored glasses, which – given that Bucky has beaten them 12 straight times – means they are extremely fallible. But no one can deny that Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are awesome ballers or that Tom Crean has done a tremendous job rebuilding this historic program in a breathtakingly short time. I just don’t see this Hoosier story ending on the same upbeat note as the classic Gene Hackman film. Besides, “Bracket” Obama hasn’t picked the correct national champion since 2009. I say Indiana falls to Miami (FL) in the Elite Eight.
My Final Four: Duke, Ohio State, Kansas, Miami (FL)
My Championship Game: Duke vs. Kansas.
My Champion: Kansas. It surprises me too.