We are right in the middle of my favorite week of the year, the time between Selection Sunday and the end of the second round of the NCAA tournament. Well, I guess it's the third round now, since they're calling the opening four games the first round now. Whatever.
Since I'm fairly confident that this blog is not reaching the number or type of people that I would consider potentially damaging to my bracket championship hopes (other than my mom, of course, but she would hear my opinion about it anyway), I'm going to ramble a little bit about what I see in this year's 64-team field and what I think will go down. Note that, yet again, I'm disregarding the other 4 teams. Take a hint, NCAA officials.
I'll look at the four regions one at a time, noting the teams that, after hours of looking at different sources of info on the matchups and seeding issues and all that, are most likely to perform particularly well or poorly as compared to their seed expectations.
On to the Beasts of the East...
1 Ohio State vs. 16 Texas-San Antonio
8 George Mason vs. 9 Villanova
5 West Virginia vs. 12 Clemson
4 Kentucky vs. 13 Princeton
6 Xavier vs. 11 Marquette
3 Syracuse vs. 14 Indiana State
7 Washington vs. 10 Georgia
2 North Carolina vs. 15 UC Santa Barbara
Sleeper: I think that a combo of Kentucky and Syracuse should suffice here, with Kentucky being the less likely of the two in my opinion to come out of the East due to their core players being so inexperienced. Both have experienced coaches, but 'Cuse has a tough defense, more "veterans," and that whole Big East thing.
Wild Card: People keep mentioning Washington as the team that's going to spring the 7/10 vs. 2 upset that has happened all but one of the last ten years, and I'm drinking the Kool-Aid as much as I can be expected to. They won their conference tournament, have a solid, experienced point guard in Isaiah Thomas, and won two games last tournament. Not to mention that top teams that missed the tournament last year (of which Carolina is one) tend to underachieve. However, UNC's talent level and the fact that Washington could just as easily lose in the first round make picking the Huskies a risky proposition.
Double-Digit Seed That Could Make A Run : It's gotta be Marquette. They won a couple of games in the Big East tournament to get to this position, and they have an experienced coach and a decent matchup just in terms of the fact that 11-seeds do win a fair amount of first round games. Then, if they face Syracuse in the next round, the massive parity that exists in Big East competition from game to game could show its face and allow the Golden Eagles to squeak to the Sweet 16.
Elite Eight and Final Four Representatives
1 Ohio State vs. 3 Syracuse, with Ohio State moving on. Just too good of a combo of outside shooting and inside presence.
1 Duke vs. 16 Hampton
8 Michigan vs. 9 Tennessee
5 Arizona vs. 12 Memphis
4 Texas vs. 13 Oakland
6 Cincinnati vs. 11 Missouri
3 Connecticut vs. 14 Bucknell
7 Temple vs. 10 Penn State
2 San Diego State vs. 10 Northern Colorado
Sleeper: When a team that is ranked number 5 in the country in terms of total offensive and defensive efficiency and was once a cinch number 1 seed is now a 4, it's clear that Texas is the not-so-darkhorse in this bracket. They have top young talent in Jordan Hamilton and J'Covan Brown and a coach with tournament experience (if shaky results) in Rick Barnes. Not to mention that Duke was a tenuous choice as a 1 seed to begin with.
Wild Card: Another team that could pull off some big wins or lose in the first round is Arizona, who has played inconsistently and didn't really play a tough schedule, but has a top pro prospect in Derrick Williams that could carry his team. Texas ended the season on a much weaker note, so a weak performance or loss to Oakland in the first round could pave the road for the Wildcats to make the Sweet 16.
Double-Digit Seed That Could Make A Run: The fast-paced, pressing style of Missouri could make a Cincinnati team that has not experienced the Big Dance lately uncomfortable, not to mention that there is no way that the Big East is as good top-to-bottom as it seems. On the same vein, there's probably a reason why no one was expecting UConn to do this well this year, and I don't know if Kemba Walker can help the Huskies to 5 wins in 5 days and then try to keep up the intensity and quality of play for two more games.
Elite Eight and Final Four Representatives
1 Duke vs. 2 San Diego State, with Duke taking it down thanks to the re-addition of Kyrie Irving to their lineup and having had a couple of games earlier in the tourney to acclimate him.
1 Kansas vs. 16 Boston U.
8 UNLV vs. 9 Illinois
5 Vanderbilt vs. 12 Richmond
4 Louisville vs. 13 Morehead State
6 Georgetown vs. 11 USC
3 Purdue vs. 14 St. Peter's
7 Texas A&M vs. 10 Florida State vs.
2 Notre Dame vs. 15 Akron
Sleeper: Again, both the 3 and 4 seeds (Purdue and Louisville) could qualify here. The Boilermakers struggled a little down the stretch, but JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore have stepped up their game this year and could co-carry this team in a similar way to what Kansas State did last year with Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente. Louisville has pretty much the same qualifications as Syracuse for a nice run, but they seem to have an easier run to the Sweet 16 thanks to not having to play a Big East team that knows their defensive strategy well.
Wild Card: Georgetown is (allegedly) getting back their star player Chris Wright, without whom they went 0-4 down the stretch. If he’s back to full strength, they could win two or more games against a potentially reeling Purdue team and a familiar foe in Notre Dame. If not, they could be eliminated in the first round, which they know the pain of well (cough, cough, Ohio University).
Double-Digit Seed That Could Make A Run: The most common 11, 12, or 13 seed first-round upset pick I’ve seen this year is Richmond over Vanderbilt. They won the Atlantic 10 tournament and have a star player in forward Justin Harper, and past experience has shown me that despite the Big East’s reputation, they tend to bow out earlier than expected in recent tournaments, and Louisville could pull a repeat of two years ago, when they were a 1 seed and lost in the Sweet 16.
Elite Eight and Final Four Representatives
1 Kansas vs. 2 Notre Dame, with Kansas winning. Kansas has too much talent depth, and I’m not really that confident in the Fighting Irish getting that far anyway.
1 Pittsburgh vs. 16 UNC-Asheville
8 Butler vs. 9 Old Dominion
5 Kansas State vs. 12 Utah State
4 Wisconsin vs. 13 Belmont
6 St. John's vs. 11 Gonzaga
3 BYU vs. 14 Wofford
7 UCLA vs. 10 Michigan State
2 Florida vs. 15 UC Santa Barbara
Sleeper: I could see any of the 3-6 seeds, and even the 10 seed (with the Tom Izzo Factor) taking down this bracket. However, all have their issues: Kansas State has been up and down all year, Wisconsin bowed out embarrassingly in the Big Ten Tournament (33 points in a game, really?) and faces a tough Belmont team, St. Johns has the tournament experience issues similar to Cincinnati and just lost one of their starters to a knee injury, BYU hasn't been the same since Big Brandon Davies (at least that's what the ladies call him, knowmsayn?) was dismissed, and Michigan State really isn't their usual self. If I had to pick one to be the most likely to represent the region, it would have to be Wisconsin, who has a solid defensive team with an efficient offense.
Wild Card: Frankly, this could be any of the above teams, and I think I will go with Kansas State because they could lose in the first round to a feisty Utah State team or win a couple games and possibly upset Pitt if Jacob Pullen takes over like he has towards the end of this year.
Double-Digit Seed That Could Make A Run:
This could also be one of a couple teams, but I think that Michigan State is my bet because they have a coach that has made 6 of the last 12 Final Fours and has a couple key players returning from last year's Final Four squad. Additionally, the 2 seed they would play, Florida, is probably the weakest 2 seed in the field.
Elite Eight and Final Four Representatives:
1 Pittsburgh vs. 2 Florida, with Pitt taking it down and finally living up to their seeding under Jamie Dixon. I know, there's a lot of upset possibilities in this bracket, but I just see too much downside for most of those teams and not enough of a reason to take down the top two seeds.
FINAL FOUR AND CHAMPIONSHIP
1 Ohio State vs. 1 Duke
1 Kansas vs. 1 Pitt
Yes. Chalk. I know. It's just really hard to pinpoint a team to replace these guys.
I see Duke playing Kansas and Kansas winning the National Championship for the second time in four years.
And just for arguments' sake, I could see any of the following teams getting to the championship game instead of these guys:
2 Notre Dame