With the cancellation of the NCAA tournament, we can only speculate about who would have won it all.
In an effort to bolster the spirits of college basketball fans and egg on a friendly debate, I present week one of a five-week column series in which I make picks based on ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s hypothetical bracket until a national champion is crowned.
The Midwest Region
With the top three seeds in Lunardi’s Midwest Region having blue blood reputations, this is the most difficult region to pick. Let’s take a closer look at the favorites, an upset pick, a potential Cinderella, the tossups and my regional champion.
The virtual locks: No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Kentucky.
Kansas is Lunardi’s No. 1 overall seed for good reason. The Jayhawks had won 16 straight and were 28-3 overall. Udoka Azubuike was one of the best big men in the country and a major x-factor. For these reasons, I think Kansas would have advanced to the regional final to face No. 2 Kentucky.
An upset pick and a potential Cinderella: No. 11 East Tennessee State over No. 6 Iowa.
East Tennessee State would have been a tough draw for anyone. The Bucs hit the 30-win mark for the first time in program history and went 16-2 in the Southern Conference. ETSU was riding as high as any team in the nation after claiming both a regular season and a conference tournament title. Though I didn’t pick ETSU to beat Duke in the second round, the Bucs potentially could have been a major bracket buster.
The tossups: No. 8 Houston vs. No. 9 Marquette and No. 7 Providence vs. No. 10 Arizona State.
The games between these seeds are always hard to pick, but I like Providence and Houston. The Friars finished fourth in a strong Big East and were on a conference best six-game winning streak. Houston was a regular season co-champion of the American Conference and had more momentum than Marquette, who finished below .500 in the Big East despite having Markus Howard, the nation’s top scorer at 27.8 points per game.
The Regional Final: No. 1 Kansas over No. 2 Kentucky, 83-78.
Duke had a good year, but they also had their pitfalls. Auburn and Wisconsin had Final Four potential, too, but I wouldn’t put my money on any team that didn’t have a winning record in road games.
Kentucky was strong, but I don’t think they were national championship caliber, either. I also don’t think the Wildcats could counter the inside presence of Azubuike, who averaged 13.7 points and 10.5 rebounds a game while leading the nation in field goal percentage at just under 75 percent.
Even if Azubuike had a below average game, Devon Dotson and company could pick up the slack. I believe the Jayhawks would have advanced to the national semifinals, edging Kentucky by a pair of field goals in what would have been an epic matchup.
Editor’s Note: The preceding are the opinions of the writer and do not reflect the views of the U.S. Marine Corps or Department of Defense.