Sports
Column

March Madness: It'll be a big blue heaven for Kentucky at the end

Can the Anteaters win a game in the NCAA Division I basketball tournament?

It took UC Irvine 38 years to qualify for the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament, but now that the Anteaters are in, can they win a game? It's a tall order, but Irvine just might be in the zone. So predicts national college basketball writer Chris Dufresne, who shares his Irvine-Louisville pick -- and 33 others. Warning: use these in Las Vegas at your own risk.

The overview

Don't get rattled by the goofy, small stuff. Think big bluegrass picture. It was screwy, yes, when the NCAA tournament started a mid-week "play-in" game in Dayton, Ohio. And now one of the "First Four" schools playing in Dayton is … Dayton. Kentucky is playing its first-round game in Louisville, while Louisville opens in … Seattle. UCLA made the 68-team field and then got shipped to Louisville to be paired against Southern Methodist and Coach Larry Brown, who guided UCLA to the 1980 title-game loss to … Louisville. That championship game was played in Indianapolis and this year's Final Four will be played in … Indianapolis. And you wonder why they call this March Madness? The NCAA field keeps getting bigger but this may be the year where only one team matters. This is undefeated Kentucky's tournament to lose.

Midwest regional

Who can forget Kentucky's "rebuilding" year in 2014, when the Wildcats finished the regular season with a record of 24-10, entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed and struggled all the way to a national title-game loss to Connecticut. This year's Kentucky team enters with 10 fewer losses.

Kentucky will chew like a play toy on the play-in winner, devour Purdue like a Calipari appetizer and won't stop until it sees the raceway lights of Indianapolis.

Going through the rest of the regional motions: Always pick a No. 12 to upset a No. 5 because the lower seed has a respectable 44-76 record in this match up. For this reason I like Buffalo, coached by Bobby Hurley, to defeat West Virginia. But the fun stops there with a next-round loss to Maryland.

In the bottom of the bracket, Notre Dame took over Tobacco O'Road by knocking off Duke and North Carolina on consecutive nights to win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Notre Dame plays at an exciting, breakneck pace. Jerian Grant is a superstar guard and the Fighting Irish are one of the few teams that shoot first and ask defensive questions later.

Second-seeded Kansas gets an early exit at the hands of Wichita State, my choice to win last year's NCAA title.

It kills me that Wichita, not as good this year (but still good), got stuck again in a difficult bracket where it swims upstream against the likes of Indiana, Kansas, Notre Dame and Kentucky. It was unfair last year that undefeated Wichita had to meet Kentucky, the best No. 8 in the history of the tournament, on the first weekend and ended up losing a 78-76 heart-breaker.

This season, the Shockers go out against Notre Dame in a regional semifinal.

Notre Dame's tempo and offense won't be enough to overcome Kentucky's size and defense.

Kentucky may, or may not, decide to cut down the nets. More work to do, you know.

West regional

Rule 1: Never bet against Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan in a first-round game. Not that you'd consider it this year after the Badgers earned top seeding by winning the Big Ten Conference title. We get a Wisconsin-Oregon Rose Bowl matchup, with AD Barry Alvarez coaching part of the game and the Badgers winning by a field goal. Wisconsin then finds its way to North Carolina, which survives Harvard and Wofford. Wisconsin wins again and waits for a rematch against the team it played in last year's regional final at Anaheim.

No. 2 Arizona probably salivated when it saw this bracket. The Wildcats have had their hearts crushed in regional finals played in Southern California. Arizona lost a two-point final against Connecticut in 2011 at Honda Center and last year lost by a point to Wisconsin in the same building.

This is the best Arizona team of the bunch, especially with the emergence of Brandon Ashley, who missed last year's tournament with an injury.

This year, Arizona gets over the hump, despite a tricky first game in Portland against No. 15 Texas Southern, which has won at Michigan State and Kansas State this season.

The surprise team in the bracket bottom will be No. 11 Brigham Young, which will defeat Mississippi in a play-in game, then Xavier and Baylor. I'm not sure why BYU, led by Tyler Haws, narrowly made the field after winning eight of its last nine and putting a loss on Gonzaga in Spokane.

The regional final at Staples Center, Wisconsin vs. Arizona, will be another one- or two-point battle. This year, the Cats scratch the fever.

East regional

Top-seed Villanova got a favorable draw but the big news on the top of the bracket is No. 13 UC Irvine over No. 4 Louisville in Seattle. This isn't because of any soft spot for Irvine, which is making its first NCAA appearance and was once coached by the late, great, cantankerous Bill Mulligan. It isn't because I covered Irvine in the early 1980s and once, on a road trip in Utah, may have incited a bar fight in which Mulligan's son received a black eye.

Never mind history and lore, Irvine matches up well against Louisville. Irvine is tall, led by a 7-foot-6 center, and plays an effective zone defense. Louisville is one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the nation, at 30.4%.

Irvine won't get past Northern Iowa, an ornery team that snatched the Missouri Valley tournament title away from Wichita State. Northern Iowa plays lockdown defense and has lost only twice in 2015.

No. 2 Virginia commands the lower bracket even though that means getting past Michigan State, which won last year's East regional semifinal in New York.

Virginia isn't playing well of late as it adjusts to the return of Justin Anderson from an injury. Pace of play tends to slow in the NCAA tournament, though, as possessions become even more precious. Virginia has few peers when it comes to playing defense.

From there, it's Virginia over Villanova in the regional final, with Tony Bennett's Cavaliers earning a trip to Indianapolis. Call it a distant replay of 2000, when Tony's dad, Dick, led Wisconsin on a magical, Final Four run in the city of…Indianapolis.

South regional

The haters will say Duke wins even when it loses. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's team earned the No. 1 seeding despite not winning either the ACC regular season or tournament. Still, Duke has been a top-flight team all year and boasts quality victories at Wisconsin and Virginia. The Blue Devils have three elite freshmen, led by NBA-bound Jahill Okafor.

Duke should cruise through the upper bracket, dispatching the play-in winner, then San Diego State and Georgetown.

Two upsets here: No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 Utah, and No. 11 UCLA over No. 6 Southern Methodist.

By tip time in Louisville on Thursday, UCLA players will have heard for four days how they don't belong in the tournament. The improved Bruins should be highly motivated to beat SMU.

Beyond that, well, let's not get crazy. UCLA heads home Saturday after a loss to Iowa State, a veteran, exciting team from a very strong Big 12 Conference. The worst thing you can do against Iowa State is take a commanding lead. The Cyclones have rallied from double-digit deficits in each of their last five victories.

Iowa State's run ends in a region semifinal against Gonzaga, a tournament tease going on two decades. The Bulldogs long ago transitioned from Cinderella to cinder block. The one thing Gonzaga has not done is make a Final Four.

Until this year. Gonzaga is loaded in all the right places and led by a senior guard in Kevin Pangos. The Bulldogs lost a No.1 seeding because of a home loss to BYU that they quickly avenged in the West Coast Conference tournament.

The time has come for Gonzaga to knock down that Final Four door.

Championship pick

Kentucky over Gonzaga. The final score will be 70-59. Sometimes you just have stand back and admire greatness. Kentucky becomes the first 40-0 team ever and wins its ninth NCAA title, leaving it two behind UCLA.

Follow Chris Dufresne on Twitter @DufresneLATimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
85°