NCAA Tournament: 21 Smart-Money Predictions for March Madness

Jim SullivanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2012

NCAA Tournament: 21 Smart-Money Predictions for March Madness

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    We are just a few weeks away from the wonderful month of March, when all of our college basketball premonitions, whether they be dreams or nightmares, come true.

    Possibly the most bet-on conglomeration of games in the course of the entire year, constructing your own unique bracket is one of the most cherished events for any real sports fan.

    As February comes to a close, the entire layout for the Big Dance has begun to come into focus. Some programs are falling neatly into place, while others search desperately for a seat at the table, mimicking an altered version of musical chairs.

    League play is winding down, and the conference tournaments are beginning to gain steam, as teams are preparing for the inevitable upsets that will come over the course of early March.

    In such a money-tight economy, making the right bets is extremely important, and that is why we're here to help.

    We take a look at 21 surefire predictions for March Madness, ranging from who makes the Dance to who goes all the way to the Final Four. In the most volatile of all sports tournaments, we give you a way to make sure you get the most bet for your buck. 

UConn Won't Make the Cut

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    The defending champs are in a horrible downward spiral. Their magical title run led by Kemba Walker and John Calhoun last season is more than in the distant past for this Big East power program; it's almost a forgotten memory.

    After a two-loss non-conference schedule, UConn was looking quite solid and poised for another championship. Then the Big East struck back with seven losses and a ton of disappointment, dropping it down deep into the lower seeds of the Big Dance.

    Things won't be getting any better for the Huskies anytime soon either, as they will face off against Marquette and Syracuse before conference play ends, almost guaranteeing the flailing team two more losses.

    An early exit from the Big East tournament and a Calhoun-less UConn will be setting up for a run at the NIT.  

Murray State Isn't a Cinderella Squad

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    As the last undefeated squad to fall this season, the Racers have truly presented themselves this year in a powerful way. While their schedule is a bit on the lighter side, only owning one loss on an entire season is still impressive.

    Murray State will easily make it into the tourney as somewhere between a No. 5 and a No. 8 seed, hoping to possibly upset some of the larger programs ranked above it. The only problem with this goal is almost every Cinderella squad in the history of the Dance has had one solid advantage...surprise.

    The Racers are void of that due to their success during the year. Due to its high amount of media attention, every other team knows exactly what to expect from it.

    It's a no-win situation for this small basketball program.   

Syracuse Is a Solid No. 1 Seed

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    This one is pretty obvious, as are many of the other No. 1 seeds in this tourney, but obvious is the deal to bet on when it comes to the Big Dance.

    The Orange are dangerous and will show that in the Big East Tournament as they have this entire season.

    A one-loss squad is rare, especially when it's in the Big East. Syracuse owns a ton of depth and a brilliant coach, making it easily poised to go dancing for a little while this March.

    We're talking Final Four here with almost no doubt.

Creighton Relies Too Much on Doug McDermott

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    The Bluejays may seem like a solid basketball team overall, but if you look closely enough, you will find that Doug McDermott is literally at the center of everything.

    The man is a freak on the hardwood. He leads Creighton in both points, with 22 per game, and rebounds, with just around eight per game. Arguably the best player in the country, he has led his tiny program to pretty much every win on its schedule.

    That, my friends, is the problem.

    While many teams do have a focus player they can rely on to take over the game if necessary, the Bluejays have taken the idea to the next level. McDermott can't always be there, and when he doesn't get his numbers, against Wichita State for instance (13 points), the team gets crushed.  

Notre Dame Will Cause Major Headaches

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    When you're the only team in the nation to have upset possibly the best team in the country, you know that you're poised for things much greater than just a mediocre seed in the Dance. The Fighting Irish are, to put it lightly, an undiscovered jewel from the best basketball conference in the country.

    Their 10-3 conference record speaks for itself, yet they have gone mostly unnoticed while teams such as Marquette, Georgetown and Syracuse grab all the camera time. Looking at a No. 7 seed that should be much higher, Notre Dame still has a lot of time to prove itself.

    The Big East Tournament, along with March Madness itself, will be fertile grounds for this Irish squad to make opposing head coaches start sneaking Advil mid-game.  

Kansas Will Be Kansas

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    So, I know that this is possibly the most vague I could be about this Jayhawk squad, but it is for good reason. Kansas has been playing basketball against the likes of Kentucky, UCLA, Indiana and Syracuse for the better part of forever, making it one of the most storied programs nationwide.

    The Jayhawks know how to win and can be extremely brutal when attempting to reach that goal. On the other hand, I've seen them break down like no other team has. The immense pressure these players must feel is excruciating, I'm sure, but some losses are inexcusable.

    That is why Kansas will just be Kansas.

    That may be winning the whole enchilada or losing in the second round. They will be unpredictable as usual, and screw up many a bracket. Basically, expect the unexpected when it comes to the Jayhawks.

Duke's Problems Will Continue in the Dance

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    While the Blue Devils have hidden this entire season behind big wins, they've slowly been worn down by the pressure of their massively impressive program, huge success of their coach and uninspiring losses.

    The victory over UNC at Chapel Hill was one of the greatest comebacks I've seen in a long time, but watching them play so sluggishly off the bat and then relying on a freshman to pull them back in late is not the way a solid squad runs.

    No offense to freshmen, but without experience in the Dance or a sense of how to handle the intense pressure of a fanbase such as Duke's, the Blue Devils will fall apart when it comes down to it.

    Duke will be one of the better seeds in the tourney, but it won't be getting very far, as its early exit will stun the nation.

St. Mary's Has Cinderella Potential

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    Say what you will about Cinderella squads, but they are extremely fun to watch, and you can't help but root for them against the big boys. St. Mary's has all the qualities to be that team this postseason and is in the running to steal one of the Final Four bids.

    While the Gaels have been getting a little attention as of late, they have been somewhat ignored overall. Only owning four losses, three of them coming to teams they shouldn't have lost to, everything is falling into place for this California-based program.

    The Gaels' lack of a superstar along with their beast rebounding has them atop the West Coast Conference with ease. Matthew Dellavedova and Rob Jones are equally contributing just around 15 points per game each, while Jones also grabs a stunning 10 rebounds per game to boot.

    This is one of the teams everyone needs to keep their eyes out for.  

Michigan State Will Snare a Top Seed

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    The Spartans have been fantastic almost all season, only owning three conference losses and defeating big-shots such as Ohio State, Wisconsin and Indiana.

    Their ability to bounce back has been crucial, as MSU started out the season with two straight losses to powerhouses UNC and Duke, but has now moved into first in the Big Ten.

    Snaring one of the open top seeds will be extremely difficult, especially considering the schedule they have ahead of them. However, when the Spartans get Draymond Green and Keith Appling out on the floor together, this is a force to be reckoned with.

    Closing out the regular season and winning the conference will be the first challenge as the Spartans travel to Indiana and then host Ohio State. After that, the conference tournament will present more problems as, once again, Michigan State will most likely end up facing off against Wisconsin, Michigan or maybe even the Buckeyes one last time.

    As unlikely as that may seem, Tom Izzo and MSU have been doing this kind of thing for years. Watch for his experience to pull his squad all the way through to a big No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tourney. 

UNC Has Championship-Caliber Talent

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    North Carolina is loaded to the brim with potential to make a deep tournament run. While the ACC has been running off its fumes—along with Duke's and Florida State's—for the past season, Roy Williams has really put together one of the better basketball teams in the nation.

    While Harrison Barnes has been leading the charge, the Tar Heels have received giant contributions from Tyler Zeller (no pun intended) as well as John Henson. This squad is as solid as they come, making it an especially dangerous threat come the Dance.

    As long as Barnes stays healthy, Williams keeps everyone in check and UNC performs well in the ACC Tournament, I can more than see this No. 2 seed heading to New Orleans.

Baylor Isn't for Real

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    The Scott Drew era will someday be made into a movie; there is no doubt about that. Taking a program that was not only beaten and bruised, but on the verge of collapsing in on itself and taking it to new heights is worthy of every commendation that could be given.

    The 2003 scandal down in Waco shook the very foundation of the university, forcing the NCAA to take drastic action. After years of consistent improvement, Baylor is now one of the most prominent squads in the nation and is ranked No. 10 in the polls.

    With four losses, all in the Big 12 and to the same two teams, Baylor is in a precarious position. It has shown that it has a ton of trouble winning against big-time teams, and that will be the death of it in the tourney.

    After taking down a strong Mississippi State team by just two points and then following that up with a two-point OT victory against West Virginia, the Bears' schedule was weak and unfortunately, shouldn't be given a second thought.

    The Bears will make it to maybe the Sweet Sixteen and possibly the Elite Eight, but don't expect this young squad to be heading to New Orleans.  

Florida State Is Poised for Some Upsets

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    Watching this Seminoles team emerge from the ACC in what turned out to be one of their greatest seasons ever on the hardwood has been truly inspiring. Taking down Duke away and then crushing UNC by over 30 points was just an amazing feat for a squad that wasn't supposed to be that potent.

    A tough non-conference schedule had the entire college basketball community counting it out, but FSU surged back with a vengeance. The Seminoles have all the talent in the world to steal the ACC title and surprise the nation in the conference tourney.

    As for the Big Dance, Florida State should be looking somewhere between a No. 4 and No. 7 seed, depending on how it finishes out the year.

    Just as they upset both Duke and UNC, however, keep an eye out for this Seminoles squad no matter where they sit come March. 

Indiana Peaked Too Early

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    At the beginning of the year, this Indiana team was seemingly on the brink of coming back from the dead. Still the only squad in the country to defeat the big shots from Lexington, the Hoosiers did way too well, way too early. 

    While the Kentucky win will be inspiring for the program for years to come, Indiana was looking super solid even through the first couple games of conference play. Losing to Michigan State to start things off, IU bounced back to take down Ohio State and Michigan in some stunning performances.

    The whole college basketball world thought the program was back for good, but an unfortunate fate fell upon it. The Hoosiers simply began to slide down the mountain that was their success, losing five of their next seven games in what has killed their record.

    Their early peak will make a quick exit for this storied squad from Bloomington.

Wichita State Is Dangerous

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    Certainly one of the best mid-majors in the nation, WSU has come out of seemingly nowhere. Its starting five from this year all played together in its NIT Championship squad from last season, making it not only one of the most cohesive, but also one of most experienced teams in the country.

    The Shockers have taken both UNLV and Creighton, silently poised to emerge as this year's Cinderella squad.

    Coming in somewhere between a No. 4 and a No. 7 seed, Wichita State has to be a team that you ignore come time to Dance because this squad will more than just step on your toes. 

Mizzou Is a Surefire Top Seed

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    In their last season with the Big 12, the Tigers seem to be taking their leave with some major style points included. The SEC awaits them next year, but a conference title just to piss off their rivals across the border in Lawrence is the perfect way to walk out the door.

    Under new head coach Frank Haith, Mizzou has emerged as possibly the best team in the country. Led by senior guard Marcus Denmon, the Tigers' depth and skill at almost every position on the court makes them extremely dangerous to anyone unlucky enough to face them.

    The Tigers victory over the Jayhawks has many thinking NCAA Championship and, while they may be somewhat in the ballpark, I'm still not sure about where this squad stands come April.

    What I can say I'm sure of is where they will be come March, as Missouri is more than powerful enough to win both the regular season and conference tournament titles and slide easily into one of the four top seeds in the Dance.

Georgetown Will Be Wrongly Overlooked

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    The Hoyas are one of the top teams in the Big East this season, a feat that should never be overlooked. Their most notable wins have come over a strong Marquette squad, a battle-worthy Louisville team and a hardened Alabama squad.

    Unfortunately, G-Town hasn't received as much attention as it probably deserves. Jason Clark has dazzled opponents all year as the head of the team, helping Coach John Thompson III almost steal a win at the Carrier Dome in the Hoyas' OT loss to 'Cuse.

    The point is, they will be undervalued when it comes to the seeding and will be overlooked by opponents, especially in later rounds. I predict this Georgetown squad to possibly head all the way to the Final based on the kind of talent and depth it's packing. 

Mississippi State Is Upset-Prone

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    While the Bulldogs have played relatively solid throughout the course of the season, including two big tournament wins over Texas A&M and Arizona followed later by an OT victory over Vanderbilt, their ability to crush smaller, more insignificant opponents has been lacking, particularly in conference play.

    Mississippi State owns a ton of talent with Dee Bost, Ricardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie, yet OT losses to both Georgia and LSU as well as getting taken down by Ole Miss and Arkansas earlier on has me doubting its overall skill at finishing out games.

    While MSU will probably come into the Dance somewhere around a No. 6 or No. 7 seed, possibly higher depending on how far it goes in the SEC tourney, whoever gets to face off against the Bulldogs early will be one lucky customer.

    Upset-prone is a dangerous thing to be, and the Bulldogs have it written all over them.

UNLV Is Extremely Underrated

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    The Rebels should enter the Big Dance under the guise of their MWC Championship. Many teams underrate small-conference teams to begin with, but UNLV is a special case.

    They have one of the best post players in the country, hands down, with the sophomore forward Mike Moser. The beast of a man is averaging over 11 rebounds per game and adding 15 points to boot.

    While I have always agreed that the backcourt is a crucial part of the game, owning the frontcourt of any matchup can almost always guarantee that it will come down to the wire, if it's not a blowout.

    Handing UNC a tough loss early on in the year as well as taking down a tough San Diego State squad, UNLV is completely underrated, especially when it comes to post play.

    Watch out for the Rebels at any stage of the Dance, as they will continually be a thorn in the sides of all the big boys. 

Ohio State Will Fall Early

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    Predicting a Top Ten team to take an early exit is somewhat harsh, but it's a tough reality of the game. The Buckeyes should easily secure a No. 2 or 3 seed in the Dance, putting them in ideal position to win an entire quarter of the bracket.

    The problem with OSU, however, is its reliance on star power. At the beginning of the season, all anyone could hear about Ohio State was how amazing Jared Sullinger was going to be this year, and they were, for the most part, completely correct.

    On the flip side of things, though, Sullinger was nothing compared to last season. This squad seemingly based its entire outlook for the season around one talented but young player. That is a recipe for disaster.

    The Buckeyes have trouble picking up slack if they fall behind early or if Sullinger has an off day. The Indiana, Illinois and Michigan State losses all come back to the fact that their opponents started really fast or Sullinger just didn't show up as they planned.  

Marquette Will Go Deep in the Dance

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    The Golden Eagles are one of my all-time favorite squads this season, silently picking apart the Big East in what has turned out to be a premiere season for the small, Wisconsin-based university. 

    Competing against the toughest conference in the history of college basketball and emerging so far with a 10-3 record, Marquette is sitting pretty going into the Big East tourney. Its three losses came at the hands of Georgetown by three, 'Cuse by seven and then Notre Dame by 17, with the latter coming mostly as a fluke.

    Hosting the Hoyas in the final game of the regular season should provide a strong revenge factor, giving the Golden Eagles a push into the conference tournament that will be unmatched by any other squad. Snagging a very nice No. 3 seed in the Dance will give Marquette the ability to claim its own quarter of the bracket, allowing it a well-deserved return to the Final Four.

    Led by a superstar senior guard in Darius Johnson-Odom, this is a team to count on come the NCAA Tournament.  

Kentucky Will Own the Overall No. 1 Seed

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    If it hadn't been for one fateful shot up in Bloomington earlier in the season, Kentucky could be sitting very solidly with an undefeated record right now. It has evolved under head coach John Calipari into a force that will continue to own the SEC for decades on end.

    Top-notch wins over Kansas, Louisville, UNC, Vanderbilt and Florida have all confirmed what everyone in the college basketball world feared would come true last season...the Wildcats are back.

    The singular loss due to a buzzer-beater has kept them ranked up at No. 1 since 'Cuse fell to the Irish, a feat that usually just lasts a week or two under normal college basketball conditions.

    At this point, Kentucky expects nothing less than an NCAA Championship, and rightfully so. Snaring the overall top seed will provide the perfect start to Kentucky's Big Dance run as the Wildcats look to continue pummeling anyone who gets in their way.