Michael Brown’s predictions: Kentucky, UConn, Florida, and Kansas in the Final Four, with Kansas taking home the title over UConn in the championship game.
Under Ben Howlen, UCLA has been known for their defense, but this year they have put more of an emphasis on their offense. Malcolm Lee (3) and his teammates are going to have to put some points on the board if they want to make a run in the tournament. (AP Photo/Dean Hare)
UCLA, USC amid the field of 68 invited to the Big Dance. Will they survive the first weekend?By Michael Brown, Sentinel Sports Writer Office pools, printout brackets, Cinderella references and endless college basketball games from sunup ‘til sundown all signify one thing: March Madness is here.Despite the fact that many of the experts who cover the sport consider this year’s NCAA tournament to be one of the weakest in recent memory, the excitement across the nation still remains for probably the same reason.With a weaker field, chances are, a mid-major may make a run. That hope isn’t just a pipedream. Fans can point to Butler’s run to the final game last year before they lost to eventual champion Duke.Locally, USC and UCLA made the field. The L.A. schools were two of four Pac-10 teams that made the Big Dance, and soon we’ll see if they can tango their way into the second weekend.Playing in the NCAA’s new “first four” format, the Trojans will take on Virginia Commonwealth Wednesday, March 16. If the Trojans win, they’ll then face No. 6 seed Georgetown Friday.After USC lost to Arizona in the Pac-10 Tournament, I thought the Trojans were NIT bound. But lo and behold, the selection committee deemed the Trojans tournament worthy due to quality wins.Despite a lack of depth the Trojans will defeat VCU and then beat Georgetown in a closely contested game. The Hoyas have struggled lately after guard Chris Wright went down with an injury.However, Wright is scheduled to return for the tournament to go-along with backcourt mates Austin Freeman and Jason Clark.USC has enough depth at guard to counter the Hoyas, but the difference will be in the frontcourt where the Trojans’ Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stephenson should have their way.Unfortunately, I don’t think the Trojans will have enough during Sunday’s game against Purdue, who I project to be their opponent. The Boilermakers have the depth up front to counter USC’s attack. Attrition may catch up with the Trojans as well.UCLA’s first round game is against the veteran laden Michigan State Spartans, who have competed in back-to-back Final Fours.Michigan State has been a disappointment this year, needing late-season wins just to qualify for the tournament after being ranked pre-season No. 2 in the country in most of the polls.The Bruins embarrassed themselves during their loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 Tournament, but they can make amends by beating the Spartans.Both teams are kind of mirror images of each other. Both are great at times, but wildly erratic during others. UCLA tends to play-up to their competition so I’ll take them against the Spartans.The Bruins have shown that they can beat quality teams. Michigan State shouldn’t be any different. But that’s where the Bruins tournament will end. I project No. 2 seed Florida as UCLA’s Saturday opponent.Coach Billy Donovan’s Gator’s have a dynamic point guard in Erving Walker who will give Lazeric Jones fits. Florida’s big men, Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin, could pose many problems for the Bruins as well.UCLA could pull the upset, but that will depend on the play of freshman Joshua Smith. Smith’s the x-factor who could propel the Bruins to a Sweet Sixteen run if he can stay out of foul trouble.That’s a big “if” though and I don’t think he’s up to it.Nationally, I wasn’t too radical in my bracket picks. It wouldn’t surprise me if Duke repeats as champion especially if freshman guard Kyrie Irving can recuperate from injury and contribute meaningful minutes.I didn’t pick Duke however to make my Final Four. I also didn’t pick any dark horses like Butler.No. 4 seeded Kentucky’s my pick in the east. Led by three freshmen, the Wildcats have a potent mix of upperclassmen as well to complement their youth. Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb are all one-and-done caliber players. They can also lean on a bevy of important juniors and seniors unlike last year’s Kentucky group led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.UConn, No. 3 in the west, is my pick. With most of the great players bolting for the NBA, it’s rare that a junior as good as Kemba Walker sticks around. The Huskies won five games in five days in the Big East Tournament. Walker may be the only player in the Big Dance who can put a team on his back and take them to the Final Four.I have No. 2 seed Florida winning the Southeast bracket because they’re experienced in the backcourt. Erving and Kenny Boynton will be unmatched in most rounds.And the only No. 1 seed I see surviving is Kansas in the Southwest. The Jayhawks have the perfect mix of guards and big bodies and they can play a variety of styles.Look for Markieff and Marcus Morris to have big postseasons. I have the Jayhawks and Huskies playing for it all and Kansas cutting down the nets for another national title.
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