Tuesday, March 17, 2015

March Madness - If not Kentucky Wildcats, then Arizona Wildcats


The following is a fun story by Ricky O'Donnell, in which you are given a choice if you don't want Kentucky winning your pool. Since I played basketball at Arizona, I support the choice.  Go Cats, as in Arizona. 

Pick Arizona, not Kentucky, to win your NCAA bracket

By Ricky O'Donnell @SBN_Ricky on Mar 16, 2015

Everyone is going to tab Kentucky to win the NCAA Tournament. That's no way to win a big office pool.

There's no wrong way to fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket. You could pick the more ferocious mascot or choose teams by which color you like better. You could flip a coin or ask your dog. You could go straight chalk or randomly pick a bunch of upsets. At this point, any of these methods is time-tested and Internet-approved.

Or you could be like everyone else and just choose Kentucky to win it all.

I did it, too. The Wildcats enter the tournament as the heaviest favorite in recent memory. Listen to the way people talk about John Calipari's team this year and you'd think the NCAA Tournament might be better served with a Royal Rumble-style format, with Kentucky entering the ring first and needing to crush all 67 of the other challengers to be crowned champions. Most people still probably wouldn't pick against them.

You're going to hear one bit of analysis repeated ad nauseam over the next few days: Kentucky has absolutely been dominant, but it's not unbeatable. Ole Miss barely made the field of 68, and the Rebels took Kentucky to overtime. Texas A&M missed the field and it pushed the Wildcats to two overtimes. Buffalo and Columbia are just two of the teams that led Kentucky at halftime. The Wildcats haven't been beaten, but that doesn't mean they're perfect.

You know this. I know this. Everyone knows this. Chances are, you're still picking Kentucky. It's the best pick if you're trying to choose the team that's going to win the NCAA Tournament. It might not be the best pick if you're trying to win your office bracket pool.
If everyone picks Kentucky and Kentucky wins the championship, that means the person with the bracket that's most accurate in the early rounds is going to take home the pool. The more people in your pool, the harder this becomes.

But what if you don't take Kentucky? By choosing a different champion, it's conceivable that the rest of your bracket could overcome a lot of inaccurate picks to still win the pool as long as you hit on an overall winner that no one else has.

When everyone zigs, you zag. It just makes sense. That's why it might be smart to pick Arizona to win the national championship this year.

Sean Miller's program was becoming West Coast Kentucky even before this season. Calipari is the only coach recruiting better than Miller is right now. Arizona isn't as talented as Kentucky, but you can make the argument this is the second most complete roster in the country. Miller also has them peaking at the right time.

When the year started, Arizona was only behind Kentucky in the polls. They haven't done much to discredit that preseason opinion. Yes, Arizona lost to two teams with triple-digit KenPom rankings next to their name in UNLV and Oregon State. The fanbase was even more upset over a loss to Arizona State in February. As the season has progressed, though, those bad losses are looking more like outliers.

Realtime Bracket Game

Arizona has run off 11 straight wins since losing to ASU. It tore through the Pac-12 Tournament, beating a quality Oregon team by 28 points in the title game. In terms of size, athleticism, NBA-level talent and an ability to play both ends of the floor, Arizona is about as well-rounded as a major conference contender gets.

Arizona finished with the No. 1 defense in the country last year as a team powered by No. 4 overall draft pick Aaron Gordon and conference player of the year Nick Johnson. Freshman Stanley Johnson and sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson replaced Johnson and Gordon in the starting lineup this year, and the defense hasn't dropped off at all -- it actually got better. Arizona finished No. 3 in defensive efficiency this season behind Virginia and Kentucky, but it allowed two fewer points per 100 possessions than it last season.

Miller uses the same packline defensive scheme that Tony Bennett does at Virginia with devastating effectiveness. The difference is at the other end of the floor, where Arizona has proven this roster to better equipped to score in bunches than the team Miller had last season.

It starts with Johnson, a presumed top 10 draft pick in June and an 18-year-old most often described as a "man-child." He's a 240-pound perimeter player who isn't just strong for a college kid -- he's strong for an adult. It took Johnson some time to find his footing within Arizona's offense, but he's been great lately, ascending all the way up to No. 2 in KenPom's player of the year rankings.

Johnson leads the team in scoring at 14 points per game, but Arizona never really needs him in takeover mode. All five starters are capable of putting the ball in the basket, and reserves Gabe York and Elliott Pitts come off the bench to add shooting. When Arizona goes small with Johnson at the four and York sliding next to starting point guard T.J. McConnell, the added driving lanes and shooting makes the offense even harder to defend.

Arizona didn't get an easy draw. A potential Elite Eight rematch with Wisconsin might be the best game of the tournament after the Badgers won by one in overtime a year ago. Baylor has the athletes to matchup with Arizona in a potential Sweet 16 game, too. And if Miller's team gets all the way to the Final Four, Kentucky should be waiting.

This season has felt like "Kentucky vs. the field" from the start, and Kentucky has justified it by handily winning every big game they've been in. It's not really up for debate that Kentucky is easy pick to win the NCAA Tournament. It just isn't an easy pick to help you win your pool.


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