It's here, Day 1 of the NCAA Tournament. Thursday and Friday of this week are the best two days on the American sporting calendar, unless you have to work, in which case they're the worst.
Grab your supplies and get comfortable and I'll make you a deal: If you pretend that you've read a brilliant essay in this space about What It All Means and how we can enjoy the Tournament so much in light of the rampant corruption and foul hypocrisy at the heart of college sports, I won't bore you with that essay right now. We'll talk about that on an off day. Let's get to the games!
They're listed in bracket order, so the winners of each set of two games play each other in the next round. Under protest, I'm referring to the brackets by their official names, rather than the more logical West, East, Midwest and South. My pick for each first-round game is in bold. As always, you'd be wise to fill out your bracket very differently from mine. And as the Tournament progresses, I'll be keeping you updated on the standings of the Salon Pool o' Experts, featuring typists and talkers from all over, plus me and my coin-flipping son.
1) Stanford vs. 16) Texas-San Antonio
A 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1, as you know. Last year, I predicted that it would happen by this year, so I have four out of the original eight chances left to get that call right. I'm not going to pick a 16 to win because that would just be throwing away a whole region, but I'm standing by the prediction that a 16 will get a win this year. You also know, if you've paid attention to where I went to school, that if I won the lottery on the same day the wife said, "I have this new friend named Angelina Jolie and, um, have you ever thought about, you know ..." while smiling and wiggling three fingers at me, I would consider that almost as good a day as one spent watching UTSA beat Stanford.
8) Alabama vs. 9) Southern Illinois
Southern Illinois was cruising along in its third year as the non-Gonzaga darling of the mid-major set before its season bumped to a close with losses to Northern Iowa and Southwest Missouri State. So long 4 or 5 seed, hello 9. That means you get to play a so-so big-conference team, and hello, Alabama. Only Alabama's hot.
Round 2 winner: Stanford
5) Syracuse vs. 12) BYU
Everybody knows that a 12 beats a 5 every year, so we all scour the regions looking for that 12-5 upset, and BYU's a fairly hip pick, but I don't see it. Rafael Araujo's a horse, but Syracuse has more, better weapons. Unless the Orangemen just collapse, they'll move on. And if they do they'll most likely have Maryland, Stanford and Connecticut between them and a return to the Final Four.
4) Maryland vs. 13) UTEP
A nice turnaround season for the Miners, who went from worst to first in the WAC, but Maryland's too tall an order. The Terps have a point guard, John Gilchrist, who can take over a game, as he did against Duke in the ACC tournament. That's usually enough to avoid the first-round shocker to a team like UTEP. Keep in mind, though, that this game tips off at 10:40 in the morning in Denver, which is weird enough to throw either team off-kilter. Should the favorites in this pair of games both win, it would set up a second-round matchup between the last two national champs.
Round 2 winner: Maryland
6) Vanderbilt vs. 11) Western Michigan
Here's a good place to talk about my theory that middle seeds are all about the same. In any bracket, you have a few real title contenders at the top, a few no-hope, glad-to-be-here cases at the bottom, and in between, I like to say from about 5 to 12, you have a big pot of teams that can be arranged in pretty much any order you want, depending on your prejudices. The Selection Committee has its prejudices -- big conferences over small, East over West -- that result in, oh, let's say Vandy being a 6 seed and Western Michigan an 11. But your own perfectly valid prejudices might turn that order upside down. That's why those 12-over-5 and 11-over-6 upsets aren't the earth-shakers they're often made out to be. I say the Broncos over the Commodores wouldn't be much of an upset at all.
3) North Carolina State vs. 14) Louisiana-Lafayette
This, on the other hand, would be an upset. But the Ragin' Cajuns can playjun, I'll sayjun, and the Wolfpack are wacky. Sometimes they look unbeatable and sometimes they look like they can't get out of their own way. And I'm just talking about the Maryland game in the ACC tournament. But they've been like that all year. They're also banged up. Louisiana-Lafayette isn't some Sun Belt team that hasn't played anybody. The Cajuns played five Tournament teams in their non-conference schedule, and though they went 1-4, they hung tough with Dayton, Xavier and Arizona, and they beat Valparaiso by 24, all on the road. Their top seven guys are all seniors and juniors, which can be helpful at this time of year, and they can all score. I almost, almost, almost picked Louisiana-Lafayette. It'd be a big upset, but watch out, State.
Round 2 winner: North Carolina State
7) DePaul vs. 10) Dayton
Again: The seeds don't mean much. DePaul won the regular-season Conference USA based on a five-way tiebreaker that involved cat entrails and a written quiz about Chicago pizza parlors, which seemed a little unfair to me. This should be a pretty even game, and for no particular reason I'll take a flyer on the Flyers.
2) Connecticut vs. 15) Vermont
Last year Vermont was a 16 seed. This year the Catamounts are a 15. At this rate, they'll be a No. 1 in 2018, coincidentally the very year I'm due to win an office pool, assuming I can find a small enough office by then. Meanwhile, enjoy high-scoring Taylor Coppenrath's last game, a lopsided loss.
Round 2 winner: Connecticut
1) St. Joseph's vs. 16) Liberty
Finally I get my chance to talk about this outrageous seeding: Liberty deserves to be a 15. Speaking of 15 -- see how I did that, kids? -- that's how many minutes it took Sunday for St. Joe's to go from slightly overrated to slightly underrated. Damndest thing, that was.
8) Texas Tech vs. 9) UNC-Charlotte
I can't tell you how many times in the last few days I've heard TV chatterers pick Texas Tech in this game because "Bob Knight knows how to coach in the Tournament," or something along those lines. Maybe once upon a time. Since his last trip to the Sweet 16 with Indiana in 1994, Knight has taken an Indiana or Texas Tech team to the Tournament seven times. Those teams, all seeded between 6 and 9, went 2-5 in the first round, 2-7 overall. Gee, coach, what's your secret? I'm not saying Knight can't coach, but it's not like he's some Wizard of Lubbock come March. And Charlotte's good, by which I don't mean to remind you of Good Charlotte, who are not.
Round 2 winner: St. Joseph's
5) Florida vs. 12) Manhattan
Here's that 12-over-5 upset. You may not have seen Manhattan because they play so far from the spotlight in the bizarro world of college basketball where New York City is the sticks and places like Lexington, Ky., and Lawrence, Kan., are the big-time. But Luis Flores, a point guard who pours in 24 points a game, can play, and Bobby Gonzalez, a Rick Pitino protégé who's thought to be ready for bigger and better things, can coach. And Florida? How'd the Gators get to be a fifth seed?
4) Wake Forest vs. 13) Virginia Commonwealth
I haven't been able to get a handle on Wake all year, but the Demon Deacons should have a fairly trouble-free ride to the Sweet 16.
Round 2 winner: Wake Forest
6) Wisconsin vs. (11) Richmond
If you think this is a typical power-conference vs. smaller-conference mismatch, think again. Wisconsin played eight games against Tournament teams this year. Richmond, out of the Atlantic 10, played 13. We all noticed when the Spiders beat Kansas in Lawrence, but alas they went 3-10 overall against Tournament teams. Wisconsin went 5-3. The Badgers are also went undefeated at home, and that's almost where they'll be for this game, in Milwaukee. Some Wisconsinites wrote in to say I must have forgotten about their team when I wrote that nobody got badly mis-seeded because the Badgers deserved much higher than a 6. I didn't forget. I just disagree. Even with the home-area advantage, I don't see them beating Pittsburgh in the second round.
3) Pittsburgh vs. 14) UCF
I never seem to like Pittsburgh, for some reason. I don't know why, I just never believe they're as good as advertised. A lot of the commentariat thought the Panthers should have been a top seed, and speculated that a win over Connecticut in the Big East championship game would have made them one. Meaning the difference between a 1 seed and a 3 is a single 3-pointer? I don't think so. Pittsburgh's star, 6-2, 200-pound Carl Krauser, was an amateur boxer for a while but gave it up to play basketball. Thirty years ago, he probably wouldn't have done that. Can you imagine an athlete like that, once he fills out a bit more to 215 or so, in today's heavyweight division? That's a big part of boxing's decline toward the end of the 20th century: The great athletes play other sports now. In today's world, would Cassius Clay have kept boxing rather than play point guard for Louisville? Just thought I'd change the subject for a second.
Round 2 winner: Pittsburgh
7) Memphis vs. 10) South Carolina
For a while there, Memphis looked really good. There was an 11-game conference winning streak at one point. Then the Tigers lost to St. Louis, got smoked, in the conference tournament. OK, maybe they were coasting, but still. You can go a ways in the Tournament with two good players, though, and Memphis has two real good ones in Sean Banks and Antonio Burks. You can also go a ways if you can shoot and play defense, which the Tigers can do. Sometimes. Putting aside South Carolina's cupcake non-conference schedule (Campbell? Gardner-Webb? Charleston Middle School couldn't free up a date, apparently), the Gamecocks had a nice run in January, but January was a long time ago. Eight losses in 13 games ago.
2) Oklahoma State vs. 15) Eastern Washington
I tend to think the Big 12 is a little overrated, top to bottom, and yet every year I fall madly in love with some No. 2 seed out of the Big 12. Last year it was Kansas. This year it's Oklahoma State. I know they lack an inside presence, Momma, but it's love, I tell you. Love!
Round 2 winner: Oklahoma State
1) Duke vs. 16) Alabama State
Remember what I said: A top seed is going down in the first round this year. Am I saying Duke's going to lose to Alabama State? I'm not saying that. Yet if it happens, I'm going to point to this paragraph and say, see, I told you. You don't get a column with a flattering caricature at the top of it without learning a dirty trick or two.
8) Seton Hall vs. 9) Arizona
Here's a little test of that whole East Coast bias theory, because even though I don't think Arizona's underrated as a 9, I do think Seton Hall's a little overrated as an 8. Arizona's more like a 3, talentwise, but the Wildcats have underachieved. By this point in the year, though, it's not so much a matter of underachieving. That's just how good you are, or aren't. This team has lost to Washington three times. Washington's on a nice run, but come on.
Round 2 winner: Duke
5) Illinois vs. 12) Murray State
If you were thinking upset for Murray State, which is a pretty tough team, forget it. Kelvin Brown and Adam Chiles, who average 12.7 and 10.2 points a game, got arrested Saturday night on drug charges. Chiles will play, but Brown's suspended indefinitely. Illinois is beatable, but it's hard to picture a Racers win.
4) Cincinnati vs. 13) East Tennessee State
Wild hunch. Cincinnati lacks a big-time scorer, a guy who can just take over a game. Jason Maxiell seems like he ought to be that guy. He just isn't. So as good as the Bearcats are, they're vulnerable, and East Tennessee State might just be the double seed that can exploit them. Even in Columbus. Wild hunch. Usually the lack of a true center dooms small-conference types against big-conference schools like Cincinnati, but Cincy doesn't have one either. Even if I'm wrong, which I almost certainly am, try to catch this game to watch ETSU point guard Tim Smith, who's a lightning bolt.
Round 2 winner: Illinois
6) North Carolina vs. 11) Air Force
Mercurial, talented, sophomore-dominated North Carolina is just the team to frazzle out in the first round against the grim, determined Falcons and their Princeton offense. It doesn't help that Air Force is playing two and a half seconds from campus. In an F-15, I mean. You've heard of "making the extra pass"? Air Force makes the extra pass, then makes 12 more. The Falcons purposely burn the first 20 seconds of the shot clock on every possession. Tickets to their games ought to be half price. I can see the Tar Heels' eyes spinning around in frustration, body parts falling off, smoke coming out of their ears, cartoon style. But they're talented enough to win anyway.
3) Texas vs. 14) Princeton
Hey, speaking of the Princeton offense, Princeton runs it too. Texas is the best of the 3s, I think, and shouldn't have too big a problem here.
Round 2 winner: Texas
7) Xavier vs. 10) Louisville
Louisville's better than its middling 20-9 record would lead you to believe because a bunch of those losses came when Francisco Garcia and Taquan Dean were both injured. They're back, but the Cardinals still aren't the team that started 16-1 and beat Kentucky. Dean seems not to be fully recovered from his groin injury, and the whole team has dropped a notch. Xavier, fresh off its poleaxing of St. Joe's in the A-10 tournament, is red hot. Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers are a dynamite backcourt, and Anthony Myles can bang inside. And yet, somehow, I think Louisville can take 'em.
2) Mississippi State vs. 15) Monmouth
I wish Mississippi State, Oklahoma State and Texas, all getting significant minutes from players who were at Baylor last year, could all go to the Final Four, just to reiterate the point that aside from being a complete scumbag of a human being, former Baylor coach Dave Bliss is a lousy basketball coach. Because it's only the latter that will keep him from coaching in Division I again. Too bad Texas and Mississippi State would meet in the Sweet 16 round if they both win their first two games. This is just my own little thing here. Move along.
Round 2 winner: Mississippi State
1) Kentucky vs. 16) Florida A&M
How about those Rattlers winning the play-in game over Lehigh behind the 3-point shooting of Terrence Woods. He hit more 3-pointers than anyone this year, and he'd probably have to hit more 3-pointers than anyone ever has for FAMU to have a chance against the Wildcats, but you never know! This could be the year for a 16 seed! The Rattlers are the only team in the Tournament with a losing record, but since starting 1-10 they've gone 14-6, so they're kind of a mini-Washington. Kentucky is the No. 1 seed in the whole shootin' match, and I just can't seem to get my mind around that. Maybe it's the Wildcats' lack of NBA-star firepower, or the fact that they really don't have any signature wins. They nipped Mississippi State on the road and beat North Carolina, but they also got drilled at home by Louisville back when the Cardinals were smoking. And they lost to Georgia twice and Vanderbilt. But the Wildcats start three seniors and a junior, and all five of their starters score, rebound and defend. They're also playing well lately, with nine straight wins. So while Kentucky doesn't inspire awe, it's hard to look at any particular game and pick the 'Cats to lose. Maybe Gonzaga can beat them, but only if Ronny Turiaf goes off.
8) Washington vs. 9) Alabama-Birmingham
An 8-9 game that's actually intriguing and interesting, between the pressing, uptempo Huskies and the pressing, uptempo Blazers, both of whom are hot. Washington is molten, but I'll take UAB on a hunch. Watch Washington's Nate Robinson, though. He's a treat.
Round 2 winner: Kentucky
5) Providence vs. 12) Pacific
Pacific, the Big West champion, hasn't done much to impress me this year. Utah State, the 25-win regular-season co-champ that's getting the most boo-hooing for being left out of the Tournament, never did much to impress me either, by the way. Providence isn't quite a one-man team, but the Friars rely awful heavily on leading scorer and rebounder Ryan Gomes. That can be a problem in the Tournament if the go-to guy has an off night or gets into foul trouble. Providence is also kind of wheezing into the Tournament, having lost three in a row. The Friars will win this one, but I don't think they're going far.
4) Kansas vs. 13) Illinois-Chicago
Kansas gets a home game against a team that I suppose we'll have to say is scrappy. That's what you always have to say about the Horizon League champs. The Flames aren't as good as the Butler teams we'd gotten used to seeing from that conference in recent years, but they've won 12 in a row, and they had cool new black uniforms with their last names off-center for the conference championship game against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Kansas isn't as good as in recent years, but it's a dangerous team that won't have to go more than 300 miles from home until the Final Four.
Round 2 winner: Kansas
6) Boston College vs. 11) Utah
Utah got a really cool buzzer-beater win in the Mountain West championship game over UNLV. It was such a great moment I didn't even mind the endless TV shots of shooter Nick Jacobson's wife jumping around in the stands. But that'll probably have to do for Utah in the let's win for coach Majerus department. Boston College is too strong inside for the Utes.
3) Georgia Tech vs. 14) Northern Iowa
The Panthers are a trendy pick because they can shoot, and teams that can shoot are dangerous. But teams that live by the jump shot are prone to off nights too, especially when it's their first night on the big stage. Georgia Tech has one of the best backcourts in the country in Jarrett Jack and B.J. Elder. They won't go down easy.
Round 2 winner: Georgia Tech
7) Michigan State vs. 10) Nevada
I keep trying to think of a reason to pick Michigan State over a pretty tough Nevada team with a bona fide star in Kirk Snyder. All I can come up with is that the Spartans are in the Big Ten and won a lot of games there. But the Big Ten had a down year. Michigan State went 1-8 against Tournament teams, including a loss to Kansas. Nevada went 5-3 against Tournament teams, including a win over Kansas. This is a stat that means nothing -- the average seeding of Michigan State's Tourney-bound opponents was 4.5, Nevada's 10.9 -- but I like to bring it up whenever it supports my pick. The Wolfpack's reliance on the one big dude scares me a little, but I'll take 'em.
2) Gonzaga vs. 15) Valparaiso
Everybody's been talking about St. Joe's because of the freakish event of the Hawks' undefeated regular season, which the Zags haven't had to worry about since the very first game, which they lost to ... St. Joe's. But if you're looking for a "mid-major" team to go all the way, the Zags might be a better bet. They're a little deeper and have more ways to win, and they're Tournament-hardened. You'll recall that classic double-overtime loss to Arizona last year. And while the cliché is that guard play wins in the Tournament, it really helps to have a monster in the paint, which Gonzaga has in Turiaf. I should say something about Valparaiso, so here it is: Valpo is not going to win this game.
Round 2 winner: Gonzaga
So there you have it. I've gone conservative, sending only 1-4 seats to the Sweet 16 round except No. 5 Illinois. My Elite Eight are Duke and Mississippi State, Maryland and Connecticut, Kentucky and Gonzaga, St. Joe's and Oklahoma State, all 1s and 2s except No. 4 Maryland. My Final Four is Duke, Connecticut, Kentucky and Oklahoma State, and I have Kentucky beating Duke in the Championship Game.
I know I said it was love with Oklahoma State, but this is business.
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