Tim’s Thursday Picks

I don’t mean to brag or anything, but I’m 36-12 in this NCAA Tournament; last time I checked that’s 75 percent. That means you can take three of these four picks to the bank. Which one doesn’t come through? Well, that’s the beauty of the Tournament, isn’t it?

1. Syracuse vs. 5. Butler

Original: Syracuse over Butler

What I’ve Learned: The Orange are just fine without Arinze Onuaku, and the Bulldogs continue to survive with Matt Howard in foul trouble. Howard has been in foul trouble in just about every big-time game Butler has played all season, and the Bulldogs responded on Saturday by going small and matching Murray State’s athleticism. The problem is, they can’t afford to go small against Syracuse, even if the Orange don’t have Onuaku. Howard needs to stay on the floor and be a presence inside; it wasn’t too long ago he was Horizon Player of the Year and the standard for old-fashioned, interior fundamentals—a mantle usurped last weekend by Omar Samhan. In order for Butler to win, Howard needs to demand attention on the block, Gordon Hayward needs to announce his presence on a national stage with a 20-10 kind of game, and Shelvin Mack and Co. have to shoot lights-out from the perimeter. I can see two of those things happening, but not all three.

The Pick: Syracuse

2. Kansas State vs. 6. Xavier

Original: BYU over Xavier

What I’ve Learned: BYU doesn’t play much defense, and Kansas State exploited that over and over Saturday night in OKC. Xavier, meanwhile, won an ugly game against Minnesota and a prettier-than-expected tilt with Pittsburgh in surprisingly easy fashion (I know X only won by three, but it led throughout). It’s a fairly even matchup except for one thing: K-State has two guys that can carry it while Xavier only has one. If the Wildcats can slow Jordan Crawford—and they did just do that to Jimmer Fredette—and either Denis Clemente or Jacob Pullen plays a strong offensive game, they’ll be moving on to the Elite Eight. I foresee Crawford getting increasingly frustrated by K-State’s physical play on the perimeter, and Clemente and/or Pullen hitting enough big shots to keep the Musketeers at bay.

The Pick: Kansas State

1. Kentucky vs. 12. Cornell

Original: Kentucky over Cornell

What I’ve Learned: Although I had these two teams in the Sweet 16 (why, thank you), I didn’t have them winning their four games by a combined 90 points. Kentucky pounced on Wake Forest’s decision to try to run with the Wildcats, and DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t pestered by Chas McFarland’s tricks. The Big Red, meanwhile, were off-the-charts good offensively during the first weekend. Cornell should continue to get the kind of looks it’s gotten so far this Tournament against a Kentucky team that isn’t as good defensively as Temple or Wisconsin; it comes down to the Big Red making those shots at the same clip. If, however, they shoot 50 percent instead of 60, and those misses happen to be jump shots with long rebounds, and John Wall grabs them and starts heading the other way…well, that’s probably how this will play out. Cornell will be within shouting distance for much of the night, but with Jeff Foote neutralized inside by the ‘Cats’ long and deep interior, that’s as close as it’ll be.

The Pick: Kentucky

2. West Virginia vs. 11. Washington

Original: West Virginia over Marquette

What I’ve Learned: This game got a lot more interesting with the injury to Truck Bryant pushing Joe Mazzulla into the Mountaineers’ starting lineup. I’ve joked about WVU’s lack of a point guard, but Bryant at least gave them an offensive threat on the perimeter; with Mazzulla on the court, they’ll be going four-on-five most of the night. Furthermore, based off talent and preseason expectations alone, this isn’t a mismatch. The Huskies were ranked 14th at the start of the year and simply underachieved for four months (for the same reason UW always seems to underachieve: couldn’t win on the road). Isaiah Thomas and Quincy Pondexter are an excellent 1-2 punch on the offensive end, and Washington has already played one very memorable Sweet 16 game as an 11-seed. All this, however, just means that I expect the game to be closer than most people think, and not that I’m changing my pick. Thomas has a better chance of having a big game than Pondexter, who will be stifled by WVU’s equally athletic frontcourt.

The Pick: West Virginia

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