Well I'm back which sucks. I mean, I'm back in Minnesota from Florida for a couple of days before I head to Chicago with Snake and Dawger to watch some hoops with Bogart, but man am I going to miss Florida. So awesome. And even though we were on Estero Island, which is across from Fort Myers, we didn't go anywhere near the Twins facility. We didn't plan not to or anything, but we didn't plan to necessarily either and there was just so much to do we never got around to it and really I don't care one bit because hey, it's preseason baseball. What with all the laying on the beach, swimming in the ocean, playing with the kids, drinking, ogling college girls in bikinis on their Spring Break, fishing (although I wish I did more) and incredible food, there just wasn't time.
We even lucked into being there for Shrimp Fest, which meant there was a kick-ass parade the kids loved and the festival offered a massive amount of delicious shrimp, which fit in with all the other incredible seafood we were able to have (including an amazing crab chowder on Sanibel Island and tons of grouper and shrimp prepped in various ways). Not least of which was simply picking it up fresh from the daily market and preparing in the condo. I made grilled chili-lime shrimp, almond-crusted grouper, grilled spicy garlic shrimp, and spice-rubbed sea bass with a brown butter sauce and I know I like to brag about my cooking on here and everything but I absolutely knocked these out of the park. In fact, that grouper recipe is so good I'll share it at the end of this post. Plus they had Yuengling everywhere, including a place that had it on tap for $1.50 during happy hour. Many were consumed.
But enough about the past, time to look to the future and preview the NCAA Tournament. Not just picks for a bracket pool, but also some good lines I'll be wagering on at TopBet NCAA Hoops. I've realized lately that the reason I'm not doing well in bracket pools lately because I get a little too crazy. If I pick three crazy things to happen deep in the tournament, even if one does I'm screwed because it doesn't make up for the two that didn't. So I'm going to dial it back a bit this year, but I'll still throw out my crazier feelings because then if they hit I look smart. Oh, and I may write something Gopher-related tonight if I decide to watch them play LaSalle. I'm not sure yet.
The big story here obviously is Kentucky, which had rolled through this season without much issue until dropping the SEC Championship to Vandy, but still received the #1 overall seed due to their regular season domination. I also think they caught a break with their #2 and #3 seeds in Duke and Baylor because both have a tendency to shrink from big games and it wouldn't be remotely surprising if neither makes the sweet 16. I'm actually picking UNLV to beat both because they have the size and athleticism to neutralize Baylor's advantage and beat up on Duke, and like I said both teams are upsets waiting to happen. The only real danger is if Duke gets hot from 3, and the Rebels have struggled in that area but I think it's a worthy gamble.
Kentucky's biggest competition in the region might be Wichita State, a team I was willing to have go all the way to the Elite 8 or Final Four in my bracket if they avoiding the wrong match-ups, and clearly they didn't. I was initially tempted to stubbornly stick with what I was hoping would happen and have them shock the Wildcats (see what I did there) but reason prevailed and there's just no way I can take them over Kentucky so I have the Shockers out in the round of 16. I think they're the right kind of team who could take them down (experienced, well coached, disciplined, with enough size to deal with UK) and will be hammering them wagering wise assuming they get that far, but gotta go with the Wildcats here, as well as to win the region.
Early upsets I like UCONN over Iowa State and Xavier over Notre Dame. I actually liked either UCONN or Iowa State as a sleeper squad, but again, not against Kentucky, and I'm giving the edge to Connecticut mostly just based on experience but wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Cyclones pull it out. Xavier underachieved most of the year while Notre Dame overachieved, both results that seem to be evening themselves out. Xavier is the more talented squad, so they're the pick.
A pretty straight-forward region to me without a ton of upsets, but one that stands out to me is Memphis over Michigan State in round 2 (or 3, whatever). I know Sparty closed out the year strong, but the Tigers were on fire to finish up. They won 11 of their final 12 games which included wins over Xavier, two wins over a good Marshall team by 20+, two wins over a good UCF team by 19+, and a double-digit win at a decent Tulsa squad. There's more. Memphis also ranks in the top 20 in kenpom.com's offensive and defensive efficiency ratings, one of only seven teams in the country to have that distinction (the others: Syracuse, North Carolina, Wichita, Kansas, Kentucky, Ohio State, and, yes, Michigan State).
In my estimation the two best teams in the top half of this region are Memphis and Michigan State, and whoever wins this one goes on to the Elite 8, knocking off New Mexico in the round of 16. I would probably lean Sparty here just to be safe, but MSU just lost Branden Dawson for the year and that shifts things for me. Dawson isn't just their second best inside scorer and rebounder, he's their best athlete. The other inside players for the Spartans don't have anywhere near the athleticism of Dawson, and that's going to be sorely missed against a team like Memphis, which why I'm taking the Tigers.
The bottom half of the bracket is all about Marquette and Missouri, either of who could be a Final Four team and neither of which will have any issue reaching the Sweet 16 to face each other. I give the edge to Mizzou because this game is going to be all about fire power and Missouri has just a bit more. This might be the best game of the entire tournament. And as far as early upsets in this region the only one I have outside of the Memphis thing is Virginia over Florida. I once considered Florida a sleeper - and still would - but this matchup against UVA is a killer for them. The Gators rely on the outside shot, which is what the Cavs completely excel at shutting down, and they don't play nearly good enough defense to make Virginia's lousy offense pay, and they don't have anybody who can handle Mike Scott. I considered Long Beach but I think New Mexico is too hot and too good, and I was planning on having Murray State lose their first round matchup but then they pulled Colorado State and well, that ain't gonna happen.
Maybe the biggest question of the whole tournament is what to make of Syracuse now that Fab Melo is suspended for the tournament. There is going to be a tendency to overreact, such as the line on their opening game against Asheville falling from -17 to -15.5 (note: hit that -15.5 hard), but don't forget Syracuse is a very balanced, very good team, and even though their defense takes a pretty big hit with Melo out their offense is still going to be top notch. They can easily make it to the Final Four, depending on match-ups. So let's look.
One of the worst match-ups for the Orange could come in the second round against Kansas State. The Wildcats are big and physical (which is why they swept Missouri) and absolutely crush on the offensive boards (6th in the country), which just happens to be Syracuse's biggest weakness (341st) and that was with Melo. If K-State could shoot a little bit I'd feel a lot better, but between that and the fact and that I'm not even sure they can beat Southern Miss (although I think they probably can) means I'm pushing the Cuse through to the Elite 8 after beating Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 (I hate them, but I think they're peaking at the right time and Vandy is always ripe to throw up on themselves in the tournament).
In the bottom of the bracket I also see the seeds holding up and Ohio State and Florida State meeting in the Sweet 16 (only upset I have here is WVU over Gonzaga), which means I have seeds 1-4 in the round of 16 in this region which is lame but it's what I see. Both these teams are very flawed offensively, but both play tremendous defense, so I expect this one to stay in the 50s and be close the whole way, but with FSU clicking on all cylinders right now I'll give them the nod. And this is also where I see Syracuse's run ending, with FSU making the Final Four. The Seminoles are one of the biggest teams in the country with a defense that can contain the Orange, and with their shooting starting to come around they can get their shots against that zone. The Seminoles in the Final Four could only happen if they were the least flawed of a bunch of flawed high seeds, and that's exactly what we got here once Melo got suspended (Syracuse was my championship pick prior to the news). It's going to be the winner of that FSU/Ohio State game, bank on it.
This one is pretty clear cut, and I can't see any reason this shouldn't come down to Kansas vs. UNC in the Elite 8. The winner of Creighton/Alabama is probably the biggest threat to beat UNC before then (I have Creighton, but neither one is going to beat the Heels) because the bottom half of that bracket is just brutal. Both Temple and Michigan are ripe to be upset in the first round, but with their opponents being Ohio and the winner of Cal/USF it just ain't going to happen. I put Michigan in the Sweet 16 by default, but that's just a terrible grouping of teams. Those who whine about UNC getting favorable treatment, well, you kind of got a point.
The bottom is where I see some really wacky shit happening, with all three first round games outside of Kansas being upsets (NC State over SDSU, Belmont over G-Town, and Purdue over St. Mary's). I think the Boilers are better than the Gaels and NC State is peaking while SDSU is fading after doing it with smoke and mirrors most of the way, but the Belmont one probably needs more of an explanation than that. For me it's not so much a matter of matchups or statistical analysis, but this one is more of a "feel" game for me. Belmont is loaded with upper classmen and has building towards this for years, while Georgetown pretty much had to reset itself after last year and losing three top players to graduation. They've had a good year despite that, but as stupid as it sounds this one feels like destiny. Should be epic, and if Belmont can take care of G-Town I think they take down NC State as well before falling in the Sweet 16 to Kansas.
As far as that Elite 8 game goes between the Jayhawks and Tar Heels, it's weird because although I'm usually a Jayhawk hater dating back to Jacque Vaughn and Jeff Boschee and Eric Chenoweth and all those other nerds I'm on the bandwagon this year. I absolutely love Thomas Robinson in a Blake Griffin (in college) kind of way, although he takes Griffin's size and athleticism and adds in an actual post game which is why he reminds me so much of Hakeem Olajuwon and I don't care who knows it. Because of that and because I've seen North Carolina lose focus way too many times this year, I'm taking the Jayhawks. Of course it also wouldn't surprise me to see UNC run the table the whole way, but I'm betting on Kansas (plus Self is a better game coach than Williams). I just see Thomas Robinson doing a Danny Manning here, even if trusting Kansas in an NCAA Tournament is usually a foolish decision.
From there I have Kentucky over Kansas in the Final, which makes me sick because I hate thinking about watching Calipari win one. Hopefully somebody can take them down, although if it's Wichita I'm going to hate myself for chickening out.
Finally, since I promised, here is that almond crusted fish recipe. I made Grouper, but if you're in Minnesota it would probably work on tilapia or whatever else you can get. Try it. It'll change your life.
1/2 c. almonds chopped fine
1/4 c. olive oil
1/2 t. allspice
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
1 t. sea salt
1 t. black pepper
1 t. paprika
Mix all that together and then roll the fish around in it so it's got a nice count of the almonds. Heat a pan to high and heat your oven to 400 degrees. Throw the fish on the pan for 1 minute on each side to get a nice sear, then throw in the oven for 10 minutes or so depending on thickness. Serve.
So good you'll go burn down your local Red Lobster.