Drive and Dish came into existence one week before the start of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. In 2008, we began publishing our handwritten NCAA brackets (more here, and here) on the eve of the Tournament's opening day. Thanks to the explosion in popularity that March Madness has enjoyed over the last 20-25 years, the opening day of the NCAA Tournament has become one of the traditionally least productive work days in America. And since the Tournament opens on St. Patrick's Day this year, the tradition of blowing off work and/or school is only likely to continue.
On this fine day, Americans from all walks of life -- ranging from those at the top of the totem pole to those at the bottom -- will turn their attention to college basketball and green beer at the expense of workplace productivity. We at Drive and Dish, of course, applaud this. Our attention is turned to basketball (college basketball in particular) all year . It's nice to see the rest of the country catch up with us for two or three weeks every March. Unfortunately, over the last two years, time constraints have prevented our writers/editors from holding up the Drive and Dish tradition of dishing out season-long college basketball commentary. But on the opening day of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, this blog is doing what it can to make up for lost time. Hence, in the spirit of upholding tradition, Drive and Dish hereby reveals our handwritten, St. Patrick's Day green, official 2011 Drive and Dish NCAA Tournament bracket (note: Drive and Dish co-founder and former Atlantic Coast Conference bureau chief Mark Buckets has also kept his post-2008 tradition of declining to submit his bracket):
1.) As we've said over and over, we love Ohio State. The Buckeyes are strong at every position, have good senior leadership, and present potential matchup problems for their potential opponents. But despite the season-long superb play of super freshman Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft, it's never a good thing to have freshmen starting at the key positions of point guard and center (as Craft and Sullinger do for OSU). Sullinger and Craft certainly play with more composure and savvy than typical freshmen. But at some point in the Tournament -- particularly as Ohio State advances into the Tournament's later rounds -- their youth and inexperience is likely to catch up with them at crucial moments (even if it's only for a play or two).
2.) Duke lost Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas from its 2010 National Championship team to graduation (Scheyer was arguably the Blue Devils' most important player). But those losses are more or less offset by the presence of pre season All American seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. Scheyer was the steady senior leader who always made the right decision at the right time, and thus put his teammates in optimal position to succeed on every possession. He has been missed all season. That said, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee rewarded Duke with a fairly easy bracket. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has guided Duke to four National Championships; there's no question that he knows how to win in the Tournament. And while it's fairly apparent that Duke's 2010 team was better than the 2011 team, we think the Blue Devils have all the pieces necessary to survive and advance all the way through the relatively weak 2011 NCAA Tournament field.
3.) West Virginia lost most of the key players who led them through their 2010 Final Four run. But fortunately, Bob Huggins and his Mountaineers still have senior point guard Joe Mazzulla -- the guy who's run the show for the last four years. Mazzulla is hardly a future NBA lottery pick- in-waiting. But he's an experienced, heady, athletic point guard. And paired with with his long and athletic teammates, Mazzulla and West Virginia is better than most people think. They'll be a tough out in the Tournament.
4.) Rick Barnes' Texas teams fall apart at the end of every season (excepting the Longhorns' 2003 Final Four team). This year, the Longhorns have even more talent usual, and that's saying something, since the Longhorn teams of recent years have been loaded with talent. Freshman big man Tristan Thompson is a potential NBA lottery draft pick. The Longhorns have a talented and experienced back court. We usually pick Texas' first or second round opponents in our brackets. This year, we have Texas advancing past Oakland in the first round, despite the fact that we think Oakland is more than capable of catching the Horns off guard and giving them a run for their money. Oakland is a very good team. We wouldn't be shocked if they upset Texas. We picked Texas because we think the Horns' superior size, athleticism and depth will win out in the end. But, as usual, we're skeptical of Texas.
5.) We wouldn't be surprised if Richmond upsets Vanderbilt. As we've said before, we love head coach Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt teams. And after much back and forth, we reluctantly picked them to advance in our bracket. But we expect Richmond to give them big trouble. And we won't be the least bit surprised if Richmond knocks Stallings' Commodores out in round one. After all, a twelve seed beats a five seed every year. We may come to regret not picking coach Chris Mooney's Richmond Spiders; they could very well end up being one of those notoriously dangerous 12 seeds.
6.) We don't necessarily think that highly of Georgetown, but we think they'll survive Virginia Commonwealth and upset Purdue in the second round. If that happens, Georgetown will likely face Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen. Notre Dame has probably been our favorite team in college basketball over the last two years (since the Drive and Dish retirement of Duke superfan Mark Buckets, the Duke-partisan sensibilities of this blog have decreased exponentially, the past two years' brackets notwithstanding). But we think the Irish are more vulnerable than most people realize. That's why we picked Florida State to upset the Irish in the Tournament's second round . Our pick is a long shot, though. Notre Dame should win that game (and probably will if the two teams do, in fact, meet). And if Big East rivals Georgetown and Notre Dame face off in the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame will probably win. But due to how the two teams match up, a Notre Dame vs. Georgetown could be a lot closer than most people will be inclined to think.
7.) Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough and Pittsburgh's Brad Wanamaker have probably been our favorite players to watch in 2011 (Ohio State's equally tough Aaron Craft deserves mention too, despite being a mere freshman). Hansbrough and Wanamaker are highly skilled, tough-as-nails, high basketball IQ seniors who seem to play with ice water in their veins. They're both great college basketball players. College basketball doesn't have enough stars who stick around for their senior years. But both of these guys did. And both are exactly the kind of star who's capable of carrying his team deep into the Tournament. We're big fans of both Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. Although we didn't pick either team to advance to the Final Four, we actually hope both manage to do so.
8.) We debated for days, but we ended up selecting Butler over Old Dominion in the first round game between those two outstanding mid major teams. Both clubs are talented and superbly coached. What's more, Drive and Dish editors have seen both play in person several times over the last two or three years. It's too bad that they have to play each other in the first round, because we think both teams are more than capable of holding their own in a potential second bout with Pittsburgh.
To be sure, Butler isn't the same team as the 2010 Butler team that made the most improbable run to the National Title game in recent NCAA Tournament history. Last year's early entry of superstar point forward Gordon Hayward in the NBA draft left the Bulldogs without the player who was most responsible for getting them to the Final Four. We waited until the last minute to fill our bracket out because we couldn't decide whether to pick Old Dominion or Butler. We came ever so close to picking Old Dominion. In the end, we decided that Butler's size and NCAA Tournament savvy will probably be enough to get them past what we think promises to be a major scare from Blaine Taylor's tough Old Dominion Monarchs.
9.) We think Kansas is over-hyped this year (again). We think they're more vulnerable than most of the experts realize. But the Tournament Selection Committee rewarded KU with a favorable bracket. In theory, Notre Dame would appear to be a tough possible opponent for Bill Self's Jayhawks. But if Notre Dame survives long enough to face Kansas (which we're, regrettably, not predicting), we think Mike Brey's Fighting Irish will have trouble matching up at key positions (particularly under the basket).
10.) While still on the subject of match ups, we turn our attention to the first round game between UCLA and Michigan State. Our bracket shows Michigan State (a ten seed) making an out-of-nowhere run to the Final Four. We don't really think that's likely to happen. But we couldn't help but notice that the Spartans' bracket shapes up nicely for them if they can get past a very tough UCLA ballclub in the first round.
We went against our better judgment and kept filling Tom Izzo's Spartans in the winners' spaces because Michigan State has Final Four level talent and experience, and because they appear to match up well with most potential opponents in their bracket. There is, however, one big problem with that scenario: one team they don't appear to match up particularly well with is UCLA -- their first round opponent. Ben Howland's Bruins are a rarity for a Pac-10 team: not only are they long, athletic and highly-skilled, they're actually rugged and physical. So although Michigan State's big, tough front line should be able to give most teams in the Spartans' bracket trouble, UCLA's front line is, at the very least, equally big and tough.
UCLA vs. Michigan State could be one of the most interesting first round games to watch. Despite many experts' pre-season projections that had Michigan State playing for a Championship in 2011, the Spartans have played inexplicably poorly all season long. If they can finally pull themselves together in time for tonight's NCAA Tournament opening game (admittedly, a very big "if"), MSU has the talent, size and experience to play with anybody.