The NCAA men's basketball Tournament gets underway Thursday, the first of two straight days of wall-to-wall basketball during working hours. They're the best two days on the sporting calendar.
The Tournament is known for its buzzer beaters and crazy upsets -- who can forget the most recent jaw-dropper, 15-seed Hampton beating No. 2 Iowa State in 2001? -- but with the increasing parity across college basketball in the last few years, it's getting harder to label some of those "upsets" as upsets.
Is it really so shocking when an 11 seed beats a 6, given that if the Selection Committee had read the cat entrails slightly differently, those same teams might have been seeded 7 and 10 and the result would have looked routine?
I think not, which makes it doubly strange for me to look up from filling out my bracket and realize I've gone conservative in my old age, picking precious few early-round upsets. I've got only one 11 seed winning, and no one below that, though I do have three 10s winning.
So if my bracket this year is anything like my brackets from previous years, get ready for upsetmania.
Here's a look at the first two rounds. I usually like to do these things from West to East, but since we all picture the bracket when we think about the Tournament, I'll do the left side first, top to bottom, and then the same on the right.
The games are listed in bracket order, so the winners of each set of two games play each other in the next round. My pick for each first-round game is in bold. The second-round pick follows.
Thursday in Indianapolis:
1) Illinois vs. 16) Fairleigh Dickinson
One of these years a 16 seed is going to beat a 1 seed, something that's never happened. I boldly predicted in 2003 that it would happen that Tournament or the next. Wrong. And it's not going to happen here, even though Fairleigh Dickinson is pretty good for a 16. But it is going to happen, and wouldn't it be something if it did happen to this toppermost of the top seeds?
8) Texas vs. 9) Nevada
Texas has not been the same since losing LaMarcus Aldridge to injury and then P.J. Tucker to academic ineligibility in January. The Longhorns were 15-3 when Tucker, their leading scorer and rebounder, went out, 6-7 after that. They still have freshman point guard Daniel Gibson, who's a wonder, and he can take over a game. He'll have to for Texas to beat Nevada, which wasn't a one-year deal behind Kirk Snyder last year. Snyder is gone, but the Wolf Pack have transformed themselves into an inside team that rides Nick Fazekas, a 6-11 sophomore with a chance to follow Snyder to the NBA.
Round 2 winner: Illinois
Thursday in Cleveland:
5) Alabama vs. 12) Wisconsin-Milwaukee
My big prediction for this year is that for once there won't be a 12 that beats a 5. The more I think about it, the more sorry I am I said that because I want to pick Wisconsin-Milwaukee to win this game. The red-hot Panthers wear down opponents with full-court pressure, and Alabama's main weakness is lack of depth.The Tide will have to use their superior athleticism to break the press and get easy baskets, then defend scorers Ed McCants and Joah Tucker without fouling too much.
And here's as good a place as any to note that there's no evidence that being hot late in the season correlates with Tournament success. I'll stand by my original prediction and say the Crimson Tide are talented enough to escape.
4) Boston College vs. 13) Pennsylvania
Boston College was 20-0 at one point and felt like it couldn't get any respect. The Eagles are 24-4 now, and they're not going to get much respect from me now. They've got some talent but they just don't do enough things well to go deep in the Tournament. Penn won't give them much trouble in the first round, though.
Round 2 winner: Alabama
Thursday in Boise:
6) LSU vs. 11) Alabama-Birmingham
This looks like one of the best matchups of the first round. Both teams finished the regular season strong before losing to powerhouses Kentucky and Louisville in the second rounds of their conference tourneys. Both are physical and play an uptempo style. This is another game featuring a team that presses, UAB, against one with little depth, LSU. The Tigers have the offensive weapons to handle the Blazers' pressure -- all five starters average in double figures, the backcourt is lightning quick and they don't turn the ball over too much -- but they have to be careful not to wilt in the second half. I'm taking the Tigers to pull a second-round upset.
3) Arizona vs. 14) Utah State
Utah State is the kind of solid, mistake-avoiding team that could give the flighty Wildcats fits. I'm tempted to pick them for the huge upset, but I'll play it safe with Arizona for one round. Watch Wildcat Salim Stoudemire, the best shooter in the country. Or the second best. I just wrote "best" to rile up Duke fans, who are hilariously sensitive. They'll send me 100 e-mails explaining how J.J. Redick is better.
In the spirit of every third athlete in America being named Jason Williams, the Aggies have a player named Jason Williams.
Round 2 winner: LSU
Friday in Oklahoma City:
7) Southern Illinois vs. 10) St. Mary's
It's a sign of the growing respect being paid the smaller conferences that Southern Illinois has never been seeded this high. The first team in the Salukis' current run, in 2002 under current Illinois coach Bruce Weber, was a little better than this one, I think, and was seeded 11th.
Part of my theory about seeds -- repeated so often it's almost coherent -- is that you can more or less throw everyone from 5 to 12 in a jar and pull them out in any order you want. Maybe a 5 and a 12 aren't exactly interchangeable, but the difference between a 7 and a 10 is nothing more than the Selection Committee liking the way one team wears its hat. Beware the non-major team that's flown under the radar with four seniors in the starting lineup. Gaels in a mild upset.
2) Oklahoma State vs. 15) Southeast Louisiana
Oklahoma State is a 2 seed, same as last year, but somehow the Cowboys don't look as formidable as they did in '04. They have a bunch of seniors, though, and all that experience comes in handy at Tournament time. If they're hitting their shots, especially if John Lucas is hitting his shots, the Cowboys could go all the way. Southeast Louisiana plays good defense, but doesn't score enough to bother the Cowboys.
Round 2 winner: Oklahoma State
Thursday in Boise:
1) Washington vs. 16) Montana
So I'm the biggest whiner around about East Coast media bias, and even I went, "Washington???" But not because I don't think the Huskies are deserving. I'm just surprised they got the nod. They're as deserving as any of the 1 or 2 seeds. This goes back to my theory that seeding is mostly a bunch of voodoo. The difference between a 1 and 2 seed, or between a 3 and 4, is a coin flip.
If you think Washington should be a 2 instead of a 1, it has more to do with your biases than with Washington, just as it has more to do with my biases than with Louisville that I think the Cardinals should be a 3, not a 4. The same is true at the bottom of the bracket, which is why I think it's not far-fetched to think a 16 will beat a 1 at some point. The fact that four 15 seeds have beaten 2 seeds but no 16 has ever won a game is happenstance. Any 15 could just as easily be a 16, and any 2 could be a 1.
If you followed that paragraph, you weren't a liberal arts major.
Anyway, those of you not in the West might not have seen much of Washington because the Huskies are usually playing after you've gone to bed, and even then their games aren't likely to be on a TV near you because of the Pac-10's disastrous TV deal, which is with Fox Sports, not ESPN, thus making the Pac-10 more obscure on the national stage than the smaller West Coast Conference is. Tune in. The Huskies are an exciting, high-scoring team led by 5-9 lightning bolt Nate Robinson.
8) Pacific vs. 9) Pittsburgh
If you haven't seen much of Washington I know you haven't seen Pacific, a school so far under the radar it was able to pass off Michael Olowokandi on an unsuspecting world as a top draft pick a few years ago. Here's what you need to know about the Tigers: They can pound it in from inside and shoot from outside. The Panthers are struggling, and they're not as rough and tough as they've been in recent years, but they can neutralize Pacific up front. That means if Pacific's outside shots are falling, it's a win, and if not, not.
Round 2 winner: Washington
Friday in Nashville:
5) Georgia Tech vs. 12) George Washington
Starting with a 102-101 overtime win over Wake Forest on Jan. 27, here's how Georgia Tech finished out the regular season: win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win. Detect a pattern? Me neither. The Yellow Jackets played well in the ACC tournament, beating Virginia Tech and North Carolina and almost staging a big comeback to beat Duke in the final.
Every time I looked up in that game, center Luke Schenscher was making a great, aggressive play, which hasn't always been the case with him. If he does that, and the Jackets stay healthy, and this that and the other thing, Georgia Tech, last year's runner-up, could go far. But I don't share the commentariat's view that Tech is primed to put it together for a run.
George Washington's a nice enough team, winner of the Atlantic 10 tournament, but without a dominant player or much experience, I don't expect much from them either.
4) Louisville vs. 13) Louisiana-Lafayette
I still haven't recovered emotionally from watching Darius Washington Jr. of Memphis miss those two free throws with Louisville leading by one in the Conference USA final and no time on the clock. If I had missed those shots, which could have tied and won the game, when I was 18, I would still, at 41, be getting cold sweats about it. What was doubly cruel was that Memphis' Tournament hopes were riding on that game, but Louisville was already in. The wife, caring not a whit about the outcome, happened to see it, and cried.
Anyway, Louisville is another example of seeding randomness. I have a feeling if this were next year and Louisville had transferred to the Big East already, the exact same team would be a 2 or 3. The Cardinals are good, and they're hot, having won nine in a row and 18 out of 19, though of course we know that doesn't mean anything. They can run, shoot the three, play defense when so inclined. Except for their lack of a post player, I can't figure out why they haven't looked even better than they have. They are really dangerous.
But guess who else is dangerous: Louisiana-Lafayette! The Ragin' Cajuns can playjun, he wrote in what's becoming an annual joke. They hung with a good North Carolina State team in the first round last year and this year they've beaten Southern Illinois and played -- and lost to -- Tournament teams LSU, Charlotte, Kansas and N.C. State. They're aggressive and athletic and don't figure to fold. They'll take advantage if Louisville stumbles.
Round 2 winner: Louisville
Thursday in Tucson:
6) Texas Tech vs. 11) UCLA
UCLA is a year away, but I find recently that underestimating Bob Knight teams in the Tournament pays off handsomely.
3) Gonzaga vs. 14) Winthrop
Winthrop has won 18 straight with stifling defense and just enough offense, but the Eagles won't bring enough of either to beat the Zags. Gonzaga was a 2 seed last year and got dumped in the second round by No. 10 Nevada. I'm not sure Gonzaga isn't a better team now. It finished the season with 12 straight wins and won both the season and the tournament in a tougher WCC.
Round 2 winner: Gonzaga
Thursday in Cleveland:
7) West Virginia vs. 10) Creighton
Both teams started and finished the season well and were pretty crummy for a long stretch in the middle. Creighton's kind of a funny little team. They're not big, not quick and don't have a fancy offense. They just back up behind the arc and let fly. When the shots are falling, they win. West Virginia's a little more varied, but the Mountaineers like to shoot the three also. I think their four games in four days run in the Big East tournament will be too much to recover from in four days.
2) Wake Forest vs. 15) Chattanooga
The Mocs -- why did they shorten it from Moccasins? -- got a win at Tennessee in December and a break in the Southern Conference tournament when someone else knocked off Davidson. That'll have to do for '04-'05. Don't be fooled by that ACC tournament loss to North Carolina State for Wake, which was without point guard Chris Paul, serving a suspension for punching State's Julius Hodge in the nuts in the previous game. Paul might be the best point guard in the country, and thanks to him, Justin Gray and Eric Williams, Wake has the guard play and the big horse inside to make a title run.
Round 2 winner: Wake Forest
Friday in Charlotte:
1) North Carolina vs. 16) Oakland
I'm already 0-1 in this Tournament, having picked Alabama A&M over Oakland in Tuesday's play-in game, which the Golden Grizzlies won easily. I don't think I'm in danger of being wrong in this one, though.
The Tar Heels are the pick to go all the way for most of the people who aren't picking Illinois. It's just a question of whether you like spectacular but inconsistent, Carolina, or steady and brilliant, Illinois. I prefer spectacular but inconsistent, but I'm picking Illinois. Carolina won't have to sweat until the Sweet 16 round, which doesn't mean it's incapable of being upset before then.
And perhaps you've heard about the possibility of Carolina coach Roy Williams facing his old team, Kansas, in the regional final.
8) Minnesota vs. 9) Iowa State
Eight vs. 9 games are often dogs between major conference also-rans, the kind of game it's a shame someone has to win. This one does fit the bill, but let's be kind. Minnesota, still rebounding from a huge academic scandal in the late '90s, came out of nowhere to win 21 games, nine more than last year. And Iowa State has bounced back nicely from some down seasons and the Larry Eustachy mess, though that process started late last season.
Round 2 winner: North Carolina
Friday in Nashville:
5) Villanova vs. 12) New Mexico
With superb forward Danny Granger and a bunch of long-range gunners, the Lobos are dangerous. Why, oh why did I say that thing about No. 12 beating a 5 this year? Villanova is on fire, with eight straight wins before a loss to West Virginia on a disputed foul call in the Big East tourney. But their best "road" win all year was against St. Joe's, which would only have been an OK road win even if it hadn't been played at the Palestra, a second home for all involved. Other than that, 'Nova's only road wins were over 10-19 La Salle and the five teams at the bottom of the Big East standings.
I think road games say something about how a team will play in the Tournament. I'll take Villanova to survive here, but I'm not as big on the Wildcats as a lot of people seem to be.
4) Florida vs. 13) Ohio
Florida has spent most of this century being good enough to make the Tournament but too soft to do much. Remember last year when they were a No. 5 and everybody picked them to lose in the first round to Manhattan, which they did? No more. This could be a Final Four team with some breaks. Ohio is a heart-warmer, winning the MAC tournament on an overtime buzzer beater, and with an assistant coach, Kevin Kuwik, who is on leave from duty as an Army captain in Mosul, Iraq. Stay tuned for CBS's coverage of his inspiring pregame remarks, but they're not going to get the Bobcats a win.
Round 2 winner: Florida
Friday in Oklahoma City:
6) Wisconsin vs. 11) Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa, led by Ben Jacobson, has a 3-point shooting team's chance, but the Panthers aren't terribly scary, especially away from home. Wisconsin, without a point guard, a center or a player who can take over a game, seems uniquely suited for postseason failure, but the Badgers will make it to Sunday.
3) Kansas vs. 14) Bucknell
Bucknell has beaten Pittsburgh and St. Joseph's and regular-season Patriot League champ Holy Cross on the road, and they're a semi-chic upset pick. They can play defense and shoot some, so it wouldn't be a shock to see them hang with the Jayhawks, but beat them? I don't think so. This is a potential Final Four team -- that would make three in four years -- if Keith Langford's ankle is OK. Wayne Simien is a beast inside and Aaron Miles hands out seven assists a game.
Round 2 winner: Kansas
Friday in Worcester:
7) Charlotte vs. 10) North Carolina State
How about North Carolina State beating Charlotte in the Tournament and having it count as an upset. It will be an upset too. The Wolfpack just barely made the Tournament and probably wouldn't have without their ACC pedigree. Charlotte might have been a 5 seed but for a three-game skid at the end of the season and the first round of the Conference USA tournament. The 49ers don't defend and don't rebound, and while they'll be motivated to beat their big-shot cousins, the cousins won't want to lose either. With Julius Hodge leading the way, the Wolfpack should win a dandy.
2) Connecticut vs. 15) Central Florida
UConn is the defending champ and a No. 2, and nobody's talking about the Huskies as a threat to win this thing. A lot depends on junior swingman Rashad Anderson, their second leading scorer just behind Charlie Villanueva.
Anderson missed four weeks with a staph infection, returning to play sparingly in the last regular-season game. He played 20 minutes and scored six points in the Big East tournament one-and-done loss to Syracuse. If Anderson has his game together, UConn could go a long way, though without Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon to carry them, I think not all the way. Central Florida is one of those teams for which, if the 3-pointers are falling, nothing's impossible. Only highly improbable.
Round 2 winner: Connecticut
Friday in Charlotte:
1) Duke vs. 16) Delaware State
So this is a down year for Duke. Playing with essentially a six-man rotation since point guard Sean Dockery hurt his knee a month ago, the Blue Devils are paper thin, but as long as they avoid injuries, foul trouble or overtime, they're as good as anybody. Still, just getting out of this packed region will be an achievement.
Dockery practiced Tuesday and is expected to play Friday, but who knows how sharp he'll be. Even if he just eats minutes, though, he'll help. Delaware State would need to hit every three it hoists up there, and still probably wouldn't win, but this is the Hornets' first NCAA Tournament appearance -- in any sport -- so let's hear it for 'em.
8) Stanford vs. 9) Mississippi State
These teams better enjoy themselves in the first round because the second round won't be fun. Stanford was hurt badly by injuries, especially to leading scorer Dan Grunfeld, and has only eight scholarship players active. Mississippi State just underachieved. A toss-up game, and when that's the case, I feel duty-bound to pick against Stanford. Just my own thing.
Round 2 winner: Duke
Friday in Worcester:
5) Michigan State vs. 12) Old Dominion
Michigan State should be better than it is with the talent on the Spartans roster. State cruised to second place in the Big Ten, but a 13-3 record in that weak league is hardly inspiring, and the Spartans lack quality road wins, which bodes poorly. Maybe they'll put it together and make a little run the way they did out of the 7 seed two years ago when they went to the Elite 8. Or maybe they'll get dumped in the first round like they did out of the 7 spot last year, when Nevada beat them. Old Dominion plays defense and doesn't make mistakes, but shouldn't be able to keep pace with the deep Spartans.
4) Syracuse vs. 13) Vermont
Vermont was a 16 seed two years ago and a 15 last year. This time, they've skipped a year and jumped to 13. Now they're on pace to be a top seed by 2013. But only if they can keep Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine, the top scoring duo in the country and the players who have put Vermont on the map. It's next to New Hampshire. Coach Tom Brennan, one of the game's great characters, is retiring at the end of this year, which means at the end of this game.
Don't look now, but Syracuse can win the title again if everything breaks the Orange's way. They have a couple of great ones in forward Hakim Warrick and point guard/bomber Gerry McNamara, and they know how to win a championship. If the shots are falling and the 2-3 zone is working, watch out.
Round 2 winner: Syracuse
Thursday in Tucson:
6) Utah vs. 11) UTEP
Andrew Bogut, Utah's 7-foot Australian, is being touted as a possible top pick in the NBA draft. I'm trying to keep an open mind because I haven't seen that much of him, but every time I see him, I think, "Michael Olowokandi." Not that he's a similar player. He's more of a Vlade Divac. But he looks slow and mechanical, the kind of guy who at best spends a decade or so bouncing around the league as a backup center.
But even if I'm wrong about Bogut's pro prospects -- and let's be clear: I'm probably wrong -- he's a terrific college player. He can shoot, he can pass out of a double team and he's a battler. As he goes, so go the Utes, who went 27-4 before stumbling in the Mountain West tournament final to New Mexico. The same is true for Omar Thomas and UTEP. The senior swingman averages 20 points and seven rebounds a game. The Miners shoot well and make their free throws. They can win. They also have the best Jason Williams in the Tournament, a 6-6 junior swingman who averages 11.8 points and 5.8 rebounds a game.
3) Oklahoma vs. 14) Niagara
Oklahoma looks like yet another Final Four candidate with two big-time frontliners, Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout, plus a pair of effective point guards, Terrell Everett and 5-7 Drew Lavender, and a bunch of role players in between. That's not to mention seven-point scorer and creative speller Jaison Williams. Niagara is getting a little upset love because of forward Juan Mendez, who averages 23.6 points and 10.8 rebounds a game. He'll get his one chance to shine for the NBA execs.
Round 2 winner: Oklahoma
Thursday in Indianapolis:
7) Cincinnati vs. 10) Iowa
Cincinnati plays stifling defense and spreads the scoring around, but somehow, the Bearcats aren't as tough as you'd think they ought to be. They went 2-5 against Tournament teams, 3-4 against the other four Conference USA teams that won 10 league games. They'll beat Iowa, who rallied at the end to squeeze into the Tournament despite having dismissed star Pierre Pierce following an assault charge. But that'll be it.
2) Kentucky vs. 15) Eastern Kentucky
The story of this game is that Eastern Kentucky coach Travis Ford was a star player at Kentucky in the '80s. Given the circumstances, this would be one for the ages if the Colonels can pull it off. Kentucky's been losing out of the No. 1 spot for the last couple of years, so maybe it'll do better as a 2.
With the exception of that upset at South Carolina, all of Kentucky's losses this year have been to Tournament teams seeded 1-4. The Wildcats lost twice to Florida and once each to North Carolina and Kansas. So why doesn't Kentucky look like a championship team? Maybe it's the lack of a star player, maybe the reliance on inconsistent 3-point shooter Patrick Sparks. But I don't see Kentucky going deep.
Round 2 winner: Kentucky
My Elite 8: Illinois vs. Oklahoma State in Chicago, Louisville vs. Wake Forest in Albuquerque, Florida vs. Connecticut in Syracuse and Duke vs. Oklahoma in Austin. So although I'm being conservative in the early rounds, I have some mild upsets in the Sweet 16, according to seeding. I'm picking 4 seeds Louisville and Florida to knock off top-seeded Washington and North Carolina, and I have No. 3 Oklahoma beating No. 2 Kentucky.
My Final Four: Illinois, Wake, UConn and Duke, with Illinois beating Duke in the Championship Game.
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