Three predictions, right off the bat: Illinois to win it all, Alabama A&M to win that dumb play-in game Tuesday over Oakland, and this will be a year when a 12th seed doesn't knock off a 5.
Not the boldest of prognostications, I suppose, but I'll share with you that as I type this second paragraph, I've already traded the word "Illinois" for "North Carolina" and back about five times in the first one, and I expect to keep doing that right up until deadline, with "Wake Forest" and "Oklahoma State" and "Oklahoma" taking an occasional turn. And "Duke." And "Kentucky." And maybe "Louisville" and "Syracuse." "Kansas." "Washington."
"Georgia Tech?" When's deadline? This could take a while.
Truth is, it isn't inconceivable for any of the teams seeded in the top four in each bracket to go on a run and win the Tournament, and there are a few teams sprinkled below them that could be dangerous, especially Georgia Tech, a No. 5 that, when healthy, is better than a No. 5, but maybe even a team as far down as Pittsburgh, which is a 9.
But Illinois and North Carolina have separated themselves, so far, as the two teams to beat.
On their best nights, I think the Tar Heels are a little better than the Illini. But Illinois is pretty much always at or near its best, while North Carolina goes up and down, like everybody else except maybe Duke, only more so.
And even though I might end up picking Carolina to go the Final Four -- I'll figure all that out in the next few days -- it has a much tougher path to St. Louis than Illinois does. There are a lot more chances for the Tar Heels to lose in the Syracuse bracket than there are for Illinois to lose in the Illinois bracket. I mean the Chicago bracket.
The Syracuse bracket -- that vast majority of you who didn't get confused at all by the old way of doing things can think of it as "the East" -- is loaded with teams capable of knocking off North Carolina. Connecticut, Kansas, Florida and Villanova could all do it, maybe even Wisconsin on a good night paired with a Carolina off night. And then there's North Carolina State, which would have a good shot in the March Madness sense.
Illinois doesn't face the same level of threat in "the Midwest." I hear people saying Texas, Illinois' possible second-round opponent, matches up well, but I don't see it. I still carry a torch for the Oklahoma State team I became besotted with last year, and the Cowboys are the 2 seed, but I think Illinois can handle them.
Arizona would need to shoot the lights out and get a little lucky. Boston College, the fourth seed, could be a problem because its firepower is in the front court, where Illinois might be vulnerable, but the Eagles aren't playing well lately and will have their hands full with No. 5 Alabama in the second round if the seeds hold out.
And besides: Illinois practically has home-court advantage throughout the Tournament. Assuming it doesn't get upset, Illinois will start in Indianapolis, about a two-hour bus ride from Champaign, then go to the regional final in Chicago, where it plays home games, and then to the Final Four in St. Louis, two and a half hours by bus, where Illinois is considered a semi-local team.
It's nice to finally be able to talk about actual match-ups and games. Our long national bubble-watch is over. The Selection Committee works. We can finally turn on our TVs without having to hear the word "bubble" every 10 seconds.
The national commentariat annually spends the last half of February and the first half of March obsessing about who's in, who's out and who's on the bubble. I seem to be the only person in the world bored by all that speculation. Hey, we'll find out on Selection Sunday and then we'll talk about it, OK? There's always someone, somewhere, who proclaims on this Monday that he's correctly predicted the 65 teams that made it. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but: Whoop-de-freakin'-do, you know?
Who's in is an interesting conversation only if your team is on the bubble. There are, what, 20 teams on the bubble most years? So, for the fans of those 20 teams -- which is perhaps 10 percent of Division I fans -- precisely 1/20th of the bubble talk is interesting. And I say that as an alma mater and fan of a school that's on the bubble a lot, though this year my sturdy Golden Bears couldn't even see the bubble with a telescope.
Look at that: I used the word "bubble" five times in one paragraph. I'm so happy that's over with.
Anyway, Notre Dame fans don't think the Selection Committee works. Neither do boosters of Maryland, Buffalo, Miami of Ohio, Indiana, DePaul and a few others. They're mostly whining about Iowa, Northern Iowa and Alabama-Birmingham getting in.
But borderline teams moaning about being left out of the Tournament has to be one of the more uncompelling stories in sports. Except in the case of smaller-conference teams getting dissed in favor of mediocre big-conference teams, which is an increasingly rare phenomenon, it can all be dismissed with the rejoinder "You should have played better." The Mid-America Conference, home to Miami and Buffalo, seems a tad underappreciated by the committee, but I bet that'll go away soon, as it has for the Big West and Missouri Valley.
Some of those bubble decisions led to a pretty funny exchange on ESPN's "Bracketology" show Sunday night. Dick Vitale suggested that perhaps there's a slight bias on the committee that's hurt Notre Dame the last two years, the same kind of anti-elite resentment that many people feel about Duke or the New York Yankees.
Host Chris Fowler looked at Vitale like he'd just said his favorite sport is underwater ostrich racing. "There's a conspiracy against Notre Dame?" Fowler asked incredulously. Vitale quickly backed off a bit, praising the committee's honesty, hard work, fairness and love of basketball and saying it might just be a subconscious thing.
The idea that any NCAA conspiracy, no matter how deeply subconscious, could favor a Northern Iowa or a UAB over the cash machine that is Notre Dame is beyond absurd. I'd bet the house on Oakland going to the Final Four before I bet a nickel on that.
On Wednesday I'll tell you my picks, and this column will conduct its annual Pool o' Experts, in which I put my bracket up against those of various national typists and chatterers who make theirs public and easily accessible, plus that of my son, Buster, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old in America. Last year's winner was broadcaster Tim Brando, who is still entitled to dinner at my house (home cooking neither guaranteed nor implied), as is 2003 winner Tony Mejia of CBS.SportsLine.com, who was runner-up last year.
I'll go all 21st century on Thursday and Friday, the first two days of the Tournament -- days Salonista Andrew Leonard has still not succeeded in convincing Congress to declare national holidays -- and update the column throughout the afternoon and evening as the games play out.
And mark my words: There was one bold prediction at the top of this column. People who don't know how many points you get for making a 3-point shot, who couldn't pass a midterm in Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball at the University of Georgia, know that every year, a 12 seed beats a 5 seed. It says here that that won't happen this time.
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The women's Tournament [PERMALINK]
I'm not going to try to fool you into thinking I've been following women's basketball with anything like enough attention to speak intelligently about it. It's hard enough trying to fool you into thinking I've got something intelligent to say about the men.
But I've been keeping half an eye on them, and we'll have some fun with that Tournament in the next few weeks also.
The good news from the women's side continues to be the march of parity. The top seeds are still miles ahead of the bottoms, but the gap is closing. I still think we're a few years away from having enough legitimate Tournament teams to fill out a 64-team bracket, but 48 would be a good field. That's how big the men's Tournament was in a similar period, when the game was coming loose from the death grip of UCLA.
Women's basketball seems to be coming loose from the clutches of Tennessee, Connecticut and, to a lesser extent, Stanford, which is an odd thing to say considering UConn is the three-time defending champion, Tennessee is a No. 1 seed and Stanford is a 2 that's whining that it should have been a 1.
But I think it's true. For all I know Tennessee or UConn will win and make it nine of the last 11 championships divided between those two schools. But the competition is tougher all the time. More teams have a chance to win. UConn is only a 3 seed. Duke dropped down to a 2. Michigan State, Baylor, Minnesota and Ohio State are all seeded in the top three without having been dominant Tournament teams in the last decade.
My pick to win it all, coming to you directly from thin air: Baylor.
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