Western Michigan men’s basketball coach Steve Hawkins was traveling Monday afternoon to do some recruiting.
Driving through a rainstorm, he took some time to talk to The News about the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and how the final two weeks might play out.
Question: What was the most surprising exit during the opening two rounds?
Answer: If I gave it some thought, I think it’d probably be Duke. You know, I think about Villanova for a second, but for Villanova (the defending national champion, which Western played in November, losing 76-65), I felt like the seeding was a little off — to get Wisconsin in the second round, that’s a bit unfair.
The only thing I thought, maybe not Duke, that was almost like a road game in South Carolina (the 88-81 loss to South Carolina was in Greenville; Duke might have played in North Carolina had the NCAA not removed all championships from the state in protest of the bathroom bill).
I think most folks still didn’t expect that to happen.
Q. Among the 16 teams left, who’s the favorite?
A. I thought Kansas looked terrific (in a 90-70 victory over Michigan State). I just didn’t see a lot of weaknesses out there. They run, they defend, there may be better offensive teams still around, but they defend and they run, and they’ve got great guard play.
Q. What do you make of Michigan’s chances?
A. I think they’re pretty good. Oregon (the next opponent) is long and athletic, but Michigan executes really well. They may be able to negate some of Oregon’s athleticism, and the way the big German kid (Moritz Wagner) is playing, my heavens. Between him and (Derrick) Walton, and they’ve got plenty of other pieces. They look unbelievable. (Wagner) plays with a lot of passion.
Q. Time for some Final Four picks. Let’s start with the Gonzaga-West Virginia, Arizona-Xavier pod?
A. I would go Arizona there. I do like (Gonzaga), but I think Arizona’s got a little more athleticism, and they’re battle-tested.
Q. Wisconsin-Florida, Baylor-South Carolina?
A. My assistant coach is sitting here, and he played at Florida. He’d kill me if I didn’t say Florida, so I’ll go ahead and give them the nod there. They looked terrific.
Q. Kansas-Purdue, Oregon-Michigan?
A. The folks in Michigan aren’t gonna be happy with me, but the way Kansas looked, that’s the one there.
Q. North Carolina-Butler, Kentucky-UCLA?
A. I’m gonna go with UCLA on that one. (UCLA beat Western, 82-68, in December.) They made a good Cincinnati team that won 30 games ... they controlled the game the whole second half. They’re just so good offensively.
Q. And, finally, who’s the one darkhorse remaining that could win the whole darn thing?
A. West Virginia. Their defense can just disrupt everything.