The official Bradley bracket in the 28th iteration of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco has Georgia — yes, Georgia — reaching the East Regional final. This was both a (slight) flight of fancy and a considered choice.
Everybody else will pick Michigan State to beat the Bulldogs on Friday, and if that doesn’t happen then Virginia will be hugely favored in the Round of 32. I have Georgia beating both. As ever, I have my reasons.
1. Georgia has good guards. This presumes that Kenny Gaines, who has missed two of the Bulldogs’ past three games with a sprained ankle, will return to health. But he’ll have almost a week to rest and recuperate– Georgia doesn’t play until Friday — and sprained ankles aren’t quite as serious as tweaked hamstrings (such as the one that limited Georgia State’s Ryan Harrow to six minutes in the Sun Belt tournament) or broken fingers/appendectomies. (See below.) Guards are kind of a big deal in college basketball, especially in March.
2. This isn’t a great Michigan State team. The Spartans lost at home to Texas Southern (which made the NCAA tournament) in December. They were 13-7 in late January. They were 1-4 against Wisconsin and Maryland, the Big Ten’s two best teams. They enter the Big Dance with 11 losses, and only one Tom Izzo team that carried double-figure losses into the NCAA has played beyond the first weekend.
3. Georgia won’t be shocked by Michigan State’s talent — or Virginia’s, either. When you’ve played Kentucky twice, you’ve seen the best collection of players outside the NBA. The Bulldogs weren’t routed by the Wildcats either time; indeed, their 82-74 loss in Athens on March 3 could turn out to be Kentucky’s final close call. Georgia has also played Arkansas (lost twice) and Gonzaga (lost once) and LSU (lost in overtime). The knock — and it’s legitimate — is that the Bulldogs haven’t really beaten anybody except Ole Miss, which barely made the field of 68. That said …
4. They don’t call it Madness because form holds. Five teams seeded No. 9 or lower have reached the Elite Eight over the past nine NCAA tournaments. Georgia is a No. 10. It doesn’t happen every year, but it can and does happen.
5. I have great respect for Virginia, but I’m leery of Virginia. The Cavaliers are the hardest team in the country to play — that Pack-Line defense appears to deploy a sixth man — but they move at such a deliberate pace that they don’t score much, either. That leaves a lesser margin of error. And Justin Anderson, Virginia’s leading scorer, just returned from the double whammy of a broken finger and appendicitis. He played 26 minutes in ACC tournament two games and didn’t score.
6. Mark Fox hasn’t won an NCAA game coaching Georgia, but he has won some NCAA games. Two, in fact, both when coaching Nevada. The first was over Texas in 2005, the second over Creighton in 2007. That’s a while ago, yes, but Fox is a good enough coach to have a March run in him. As a disinterested observer, I enjoy watching him work because he surprises me. (I recall the point-guard-as-low-post-distributor offense he conjured up against Ole Miss in the SEC tournament last year, and he threw a bunch of weird stuff at Kentucky two weeks back.) Izzo and Tony Bennett are two of the very best in the business, but the guy Georgia’s bench isn’t an empty chair.