Happy freakin' holidays everyone!
'Tis the season to be completely and utterly inebriated while experiencing the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It's the time when everyone comes together for three weeks to indulge in the pageantry, the ambiance that is college basketball.
As Dickie V would say.... IT'S MARCH MADNESS BABY!!!
May your brackets be filled and the odds be ever in your favor.
But before we tip off what should be a tournament for the ages, we caught up with the voice of college sports (and a fellow Chicagoan, born not raised), ESPN's Rece Davis to talk about the tournament and his role with the Capital One Cup, an award given to the nation's best men's and women's athletic programs.
You're an advisory board member for the Capital One Cup. Tell us more about your role and how college basketball contributes to the award?
"My role has been very gratifying. I really believe in the work Capital One has done for college athletics. The number one thing we do with the Capital One Cup is provide scholarship money for the winning school; $40,000 in scholarships for student-athletes on both the men's and women's side for the winning programs. The cool thing about it is it really provides an avenue for fans to get involved. Fans love nothing more really than to talk trash, so they get an opportunity to do so by bragging that they have the best overall athletic program in college sports, and that's really what the Capital One Cup is designed to honor.
"Every sport that awards a championship at the Division I level factors in. Obviously, college basketball is huge. There are 60 points up for grabs for the champion on both the men's and women's side, and second puts you in great shape, big picture long term, to win. Right now, Virginia is in great shape. They won the soccer championship, they have an excellent basketball program and a good seed in the tournament to make a nice run, then they have baseball coming their way, so this is a very big tournament for Virginia in terms of the Capital One Cup. Ohio State, if it can make a late run, they could benefit from the tournament. They're a team that I like as a potential dark horse if they can play to their capabilities as opposed to the way they've been playing recently."
The Big East sends six teams to the NCAA Tournament this year. There's been this ANTI-Big East bias, a perception it is no longer the power it once was. Is that true or is the Big East ascending back to the top of the power conferences?
"It is true, it's not what it used to be. I don't think it's any question that it's not the same level of league that it once was. When you lose Notre Dame, UConn, Syracuse and Pitt, you're not the same league, and you're not as good. That's just the way it is. It doesn't mean it's bad or that there aren't teams in the Big East that aren't contenders for the National Championship. Obviously, Villanova's a one seed, number two overall seed in the tournament, and I think they can make a run to the Final Four. People really shouldn't be surprised if they do. Have they beaten the type of gauntlet that they did when they were in the old Big East? No they haven't, but it doesn't mean they don't have a great team."
Providence's Kris Dunn is starting to get some draft buzz. Could you see him as a lottery pick in June?
"I think he's a guy that can certainly be a very impactful player. I named him as a player that people will know by the end of the tournament. It's possible he could be a lottery pick. He was highly thought of when he came to school. He's had some injuries, but man he can really pass the ball, he's a good defender, he's got a little bit of size to him. He shot it OK from three-point range. Not great, but solid. There's certainly some things from a shooting standpoint he can work on in his game. But I think he's a really good college player, and in terms of a lottery pick, he's probably on the edge of that. It remains to be seen. I hope he comes back next year and work on his game and stay healthy, but I understand if, given those injuries, he decided to give it a shot in the NBA."
Eastern Washington head coach Jim Hayford is guaranteeing a win over Georgetown. Is he mad or can the Eagles pull off the upset?
"I have Eastern Washington picked to win the game. Georgetown's probably a better team, but I think it's another difficult matchup for them. If the game is close, I would imagine Georgetown would not be human if they didn't start feeling a little bit of that pressure from recent tournament struggles. The Hoyas are weighed down by its recent history, and by the fact that they're playing a team that can score, that shoots the 3 well, and one of the things they don't do well is defend the 3. They've been in five straight tournaments where they've been eliminated by double-digit seeds. My buddy (Jay) Bilas keeps saying he's sick of hearing about it and they're going to play to their capabilities. But they have proven over the course of the season that they have one glaring weakness, which just happens to coincide in the greatest strength of Eastern Washington.
"I will say this: if you're Jim Hayford, WHY??? Why would you do that? Why would you not just say 'we're gonna play the best we can'? I know we all love that stuff in the media, that bravado. But there's also the small pressing matter that while Georgetown doesn't defend the 3 well, or at least they haven't over the course of the regular season, Eastern Washington couldn't guard a bank with a machine gun. They don't guard anybody. You wonder if Georgetown will get to the basket easily. I've got Eastern Washington as an upset pick, that's probably based on Georgetown's history, but I have no idea why EWU's coach would go out and say something like that, unless he felt that his players needed a little boost of confidence. A coach knows what his team needs to hear, I hope, and if he felt like his team would respond favorably to that, then I would hope that's why he did it."
Everybody's looking for those big upset games that usually make someone's bracket or rips it to shreds? Which teams could find their glass slipper falling off this weekend?
"I think Kansas and Virginia are vulnerable. If Virginia was healthy, I probably wouldn't think that. But after watching Justin Anderson this past weekend, and he's a terrific player, it's really unfortunate he's been hurt, he appeared to have trouble catching and handling the ball and shooting. His hand injury certainly appeared to impact him in the ACC Tournament. Kansas has the look of a team that has squeezed every ounce out of themselves this year to win another regular season championship. They got very close to winning the Big 12 Conference Championship in addition to that. I think if they get past their first round game, a matchup with Wichita State would be very difficult for them. It would be emotional for both sides for sure, but I think Kansas and Virginia certainly look vulnerable among the really high seeds. I think Utah, who finished the season on a down tick, has a 12-5 vulnerability, and I think West Virginia is questionable, with the health of Juwan Staten, against a Buffalo team that played Kentucky tough earlier in the season, that doesn't mind handling pressure, that likes to play fast."
Villanova is a No. 1 seed. They haven't had a ton of success in the postseason in recent years. It's the 30th anniversary of that legendary Wildcat team that went all the way. Does this Nova squad have what it takes to win the NCAA tournament?
"I can't pick anyone other than Kentucky to win the tournament, but I really believe this Villanova team is legit. Not that the other ones weren't. Anything can happen in tournament play. Villanova was the beneficiary of that thirty years ago. This team has five guys shooting 37% or better from 3. Ochefu has improved so much in the last two years. He gives them size. JayVaughn Pinkston is just a terrific, versatile guy. He can do a little bit of everything inside the arc and will do anything you ask him to do. Jay Wright is a terrific coach. I really believe this team can make the Final Four and play in the National Championship game if things go right for them. If they shot it really well, I'm sure they can upset Kentucky and win it. It's not beyond the realm of possibility. I'm not picking them to win the National Championship, but I think they've got a great shot. I'd be surprised if they're not in the Elite Eight. I think if Michigan State or Oklahoma came out of the bottom half of that bracket, or if Justin Anderson is healthy and Virginia comes out, then that would be a problematic matchup for them. In the top half of their bracket, North Carolina State and LSU are very talented. They're mercurial, to say the least. You don't know exactly what you're getting from either of those teams. But I really think Villanova is the class of the upper half of that bracket."
So Kentucky is your pick to win it all? You can't renege. I don't want to turn on the TV and you're changing your pick to Duke or Arizona.
"I'm not changing it! It's Kentucky. Kentucky is the best team, and if they lose, they'll still be the best team. It's like the Patriots a few years ago when they were undefeated and lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl. They were still the 'best team.' They just happened to lose a game. That's how Kentucky will be. So I'm not backing off on that for a second. Kentucky's going to win it, that's what I think."
Okay Kentucky is in. Give me a Final Four prediction. Who are the other three teams joining the Wildcats in Indianapolis?
"Arizona out of the West beating Wisconsin in what I think will be a coin-flip game. I'm gonna say this is the year Gonzaga gets over the hump and beats Duke in a 1-2 matchup in the South. I have Kentucky beating Notre Dame out in the Midwest. In the East, I have Michigan State beating Villanova to go to the Final Four. Then Gonzaga beating Michigan State, and Kentucky beating Gonzaga for the National Championship."