The 22nd annual Final Four Fiasco begins with a declaration: Even though I myself am a Kentucky alum, I grew up a Louisville fan because my dad was a graduate of U of L’s dental school. Since there were a grand total of four Louisville backers in Maysville, Ky. — Dad and Mom and my brother and me — we learned to keep a low profile. But we rooted in our own stealthy way.
There were times early in my professional life, such as it is, that adhering to the rule of no cheering in the press box came harder, but in this past decade I can honestly say I’ve gotten so old and jaded I really don’t pull for anything except fast games. So please believe me when I say this is coming from the head and not the heart:
Louisville’s going to win it all.
When this season began I never thought I’d be picking anyone but North Carolina. I figured these Heels would be the greatest team since (another Bluegrass reference) the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats if not the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. But they haven’t been. They’ve lost four games, which is four more than I figured they’d lose, and even if there was no shame in falling to Florida State in the ACC tournament — and, without Ty Lawson, there wasn’t — the feeling persists that there’s something a hair off.
They don’t defend the way I’d like a team to defend. They can score in bunches, but at some point over these next six games the champion-to-be will have to be able to stop shots as well as make them. And I believe Louisville is better suited to doing both.
I don’t think Pittsburgh or Connecticut, the other No. 1 seeds, will win it for the opposite reason: They can defend but there will come a time, as there has come a time for so many Big East teams in the Big Dance, that they won’t be able to find a basket. The exceptions — Syracuse in 2003, UConn in 1999 and 2004 — have had a Carmelo Anthony or a Ben Gordon or a Rip Hamilton. I don’t see that guy on Pitt or UConn now.
I see him on Louisville. His name is Earl Clark. And if his name isn’t Earl Clark, it’s Terrence Williams.
Louisville will take the Midwest without stress. Don’t fret about the Cards having to face Ohio State in Dayton — Siena will handle the Buckeyes. Boston College, which plays everybody tough, will subdue Michigan State in Round 2 and advance to the Elite Eight. Cleveland State will upset Wake Forest, which has vast talent but little direction, in Round 1. Dayton will knock off West Virginia and then Kansas. And Arizona, which doesn’t belong, will lose to Utah, which does.
I thought Memphis deserved a No. 1 seed over UConn, but I’ve never seen these Tigers as a Final Four team. I see them losing to Maryland in Round 2. Look for the Terps to reach the regional final before falling to UConn, which has no competition on its side. And Northern Iowa will clear the track even further by picking off Purdue.
The East will see upheaval all around. Florida State and Toney Douglas will beat Xavier and then Pitt. (Nobody has more big bodies to throw at DeJuan Blair than the ‘Noles.) VCU will whip UCLA, which is a shadow of itself, before losing to Villanova, which will beat Duke – even with an ACC title, I don’t see these Dookies as vintage — and then FSU to reach the Final Four.
Even with my doubts about Carolina, I can’t see anyone beating the Heels before the NCAA championship game. Western Kentucky, always a tough out, will topple Illinois and then Gonzaga. Temple will beat Syracuse, which has had its run, in Round 2 and then Michigan, which will have frustrated Clemson and Oklahoma, in the regional semis. Yes, this is the softest region by far.
So there’s your (or at least my) Final Four: Three Big Easterners and the Heels. (My complete bracket is here.) To me, the Carolina-Louisville East regional final was the finest game of the 2008 Big Dance, and it took all the Heels had to prevail in Charlotte. This time they’ll meet for the NCAA title in Detroit. And Louisville is better than it was then, and Carolina isn’t as good.
And that’s not a fan speaking. That’s a completely objective professional opinion. I swear.
Our little contest is unlike most: The aim is to pick the Final Four, not necessarily the national champ. Entrants can fill out a bracket here on AJC.com or snail-mail a completed bracket (necessary to break the inevitable ties) to: AJC Final Four Fiasco, P.O. Box 4689, Atlanta, Ga., 30302. The winner, as ever, gets a handsome Final Four sweatshirt.
My younger daughter, now 11, has outpicked her somewhat older dad two years running. In 2007 she tabbed three of the Final Four to my two, and last March she got all four to my three. Her picks can be viewed here, and you’ll note that, for the third consecutive NCAA tournament, Elizabeth has gone with four No. 1 seeds. Her favorite word is “chalk,” and I can’t argue with her results.