The NCAA Tournament begins Thursday, one of the great sports days of the year and the start of one of the great sports weekends. By Sunday night 48 games will have been played and your bracket will be covered in big red X's.
Probably. No offense. So will mine.
This column will be conducting its usual Pool o' Experts, tracking the prognostications of various and sundry national typists and chatterers whose brackets are pretty easy to find online.
The winner -- unless, like last year, the "winner" is the entire user base of a Web site -- is entitled to dinner at my house, home cooking not guaranteed or implied. My son Buster, coin-flippinest 3-year-old in the Lower 48, is scheduled to participate.
But never mind all that now. Let's have a look at the games. Obviously gambling is a big part of March Madness, with pretty much everyone who can work a pencil entered in at least one office pool. I have no problem with this and think gambling is a fine endeavor.
However, I must caution, nay, beg you: Never use this column's picks as a basis for betting. Not even the old "bet against all of King's picks" gambit. I don't know how to tell you this, but once in a while, I'm right.
Continuing my conservative ways of last year, I filled out my bracket cautiously. Or at least I started to. But before I knew it I had a 13-seed winning and I had Duke losing in the Sweet 16. I just can't help myself.
The regions, formerly known as "South, West, East and Midwest," which was apparently very confusing, are this year known as Atlanta, Oakland, Washington and Minneapolis. We'll take them left to right and top to bottom as they appear on the printed bracket. My predicted winners are in bold.
(8) George Washington vs. (9) UNC-Wilmington, 7:10 p.m.
The Seahawks are red hot, while G.W. is hot about being seeded eighth despite the best record in the Tournament, 26-2. They looked pretty ordinary without injured Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who might be back for this game, and got whacked in the Atlantic 10 tournament by Temple after an undefeated regular season. Wilmington's one of those solid teams that doesn't beat itself.
Second round: Loss to (1) Duke
(1) Duke vs. (16) Southern, 9:30 p.m.
This year's 16 seeds have the highest average RPI ranking in history, leading to some talk that maybe this will be the year a 16 pulls off a win over a 1, breaking an 84-game losing streak. Nope. Duke is a championship-caliber team that just seems to be lacking something. They don't handle athletic teams as well as they should. I think they'll get knocked off somewhere down the line unless J.J. Redick shoots out the lights every night. He hasn't done that in previous Tournaments.
Second round: Win over (9) UNC-Wilmington
(4) LSU vs. (13) Iona, 7:10 p.m.
I love LSU's frontcourt, Glen "Big Baby" Davis, about the most nimble 6-9, 310-pounder you'll ever see, like "Tractor" Traylor's body inhabited by Jerry Rice, and Tyrus Thomas, who's expected back from a bad ankle. The commentariat always talks about how guard play is what it's all about in the Tournament, but I think dominant big men are the ones who win. But LSU has a good guard too, Darrel Mitchell. Iona is led by its guards, so the Gaels can debunk my theory, but I think LSU will win easily -- and then bounce Duke next week.
Second round: Win over (12) Texas A&M
(5) Syracuse vs. (12) Texas A&M, 9:30 p.m.
You know about the Orange's wild run to the Big East tournament title. You also know Texas A&M was just about the last at-large team in, and is seeded as low as a major-conference team can be seeded. It's too perfect.
Second round: Loss to (4) LSU
Auburn Hills, Mich.
(3) Iowa vs. (14) Northwestern State, 12:25 p.m.
I'm not crazy about Steve Alford's team, even after the Big Ten tournament win. The Hawkeyes are 8-8 away from their home floor. They'll advance here, and go to the Sweet 16 if West Virginia's shots aren't falling.
Second round: Loss to (6) West Virginia
(6) West Virginia vs. (11) Southern Illinois, 2:45 p.m.
The Salukis play a stifling defense. West Virginia lives and dies by the 3-pointer. The Mountaineers can lose on any given night, but last year's Elite 8 team will move on.
Second round: Win over (3) Iowa
(7) California vs. (10) North Carolina State, 7:20 p.m.
I don't think Cal should be a seventh seed and I don't think the Golden Bears are going to win this game, but I'm sticking with the alma mater. Do watch Leon Powe if you get the chance.
Second round: Stunning upset over (2) Texas, but then I woke up and the Longhorns had won. Darn.
(2) Texas vs. (15) Pennsylvania, 9:40 p.m.
Texas looks like a championship team. Dominant power forward, brilliant point guard, complementary players. So why do the Longhorns look so bad so often?
Second round: Win over (7) California
Sweet 16: LSU over Duke, Texas over West Virginia
Elite 8: LSU over Texas
(7) Marquette vs. (10) Alabama, 2:40 p.m.
Marquette's fun. The Whatever They're Called Nows joined the Big East and overachieved by raining threes, especially by Steve Novak. Live by it, die by it. Alabama could outmuscle the Whatevers, but unless the shooting goes cold, I think Marquette will move on.
Second round: Loss to (2) UCLA
(2) UCLA vs. (15) Belmont, 4:55 p.m.
Ben Howland has turned the Bruins -- UCLA, that is; Belmont's also the Bruins -- into a fairly deliberate, defensive team. Not the bruising Pitt Panthers, but rougher than Pauley Pavilion has been used to. And the backcourt of Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo has this team flying, with seven straight wins, including three in the Pac-10 tournament, and 12 out of 14 to end the season. This is a team that could go to the Final Four if it doesn't stumble.
Second round: Win over (7) Marquette
Salt Lake City
(3) Gonzaga vs. (14) Xavier, 7:20 p.m.
Adam Morrison is the best player with the worst mustache since Gail Goodrich's Fu Manchu days. With Morrison and center J.P. Batista, the Zags should be abusing teams, but they aren't. They've won 18 in a row, not having lost since late December at Memphis. But they've been squeaking by against their WCC foes. Xavier lost leading scorer Brian Thornton to an injury and point guard Dedrick Finn to dismissal last month, lost three of its last four, then got hot in the Atlantic 10 tournament. As shaky as Gonzaga seems, the Musketeers don't look like the team to pull a 14-over-3 upset.
Second round: Win over (11) San Diego State
(6) Indiana vs. (11) San Diego State, 9:40 p.m.
Mike Davis took the Indiana job when Bob Knight was fired and led the Hoosiers out of the turmoil and into the Championship Game. Now, he's on his way out, and wouldn't it be a story if Indiana went on another run? San Diego State doesn't think so. Led by Brandon Heath and Marcus Slaughter, the Aztecs, coached by Steve Fisher, who won a title at Michigan, are deep and battle-tested, and maybe should be a higher seed than this.
Second round: Loss to (3) Gonzaga
(8) Arkansas vs. (9) Bucknell, 12:30 p.m.
The Bucknell Bison are the guys who knocked off Kansas last year in a 14-over-3 upset. They play at a snail's pace and want to beat you by scoring 55 points. The Razorbacks lack Tournament experience but they have three seniors in their rotation, and they have size, depth and balance. It wouldn't be a shock to see them upset No. 1 Memphis, a recruiting rival, in the second round.
Second round: Loss to (1) Memphis
(1) Memphis vs. (16) Oral Roberts, 2:50 p.m.
Oral Roberts played Marquette and Oklahoma pretty tough this year, so it's no patsy of a 16 seed. Memphis played a tough nonconference schedule -- beating Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Alabama, UCLA and Gonzaga and losing to Duke and Texas -- then waltzed through the weakened Conference USA. The question is whether the athletic Tigers can dial the intensity back up. They'll need it by the second round. They won't need it against Oral Roberts, but they can't look past the Golden Eagles either.
Second round: Win over (8) Arkansas
Auburn Hills, Mich.
(5) Pittsburgh vs. (12) Kent State, 7:10 p.m.
Doesn't it seem like Carl Krauser has been at Pitt since Tony Dorsett was there? The Panthers started the year 15-0, but went 9-7 after that. They play in the Big East, but still. Kent State is a fun team to watch with its why-not-chuck-it-up-there-now style, but Pittsburgh's too physical. The Panthers are going to have trouble with Kansas' athleticism in the next round, though.
Second round: Loss to (4) Kansas
(4) Kansas vs. (13) Bradley, 9:30 p.m.
Kansas got bounced in the first round last year by Bucknell. Bradley won't sneak up on the Jayhawks, who are very young but have rounded into a good, aggressive, athletic team led by freshman Brandon Rush. Watch Bradley 7-footer Patrick O'Bryant, who is either an NBA prospect or a stiff, depending on which minute you're looking at him. Kansas could meet Bucknell again in the Sweet 16 round, though that's unlikely
Second round: Win over (5) Pittsburgh
Sweet 16: Memphis over Kansas, UCLA over Gonzaga
Elite 8: UCLA over Memphis
(7) Wichita State vs. (10) Seton Hall, 12:20 p.m.
Wichita State is a pretty solid team. They don't do anything that well, but they have a lot of ways to beat you. What they don't have is that one go-to guy, and that's the kiss of death at this time of year. But not against a mediocre, inconsistent team like the Pirates.
Second round: Loss to (2) Tennessee
(2) Tennessee vs. (15) Winthrop, 2:40 p.m.
The Vols are sputtering and wheezing and leaking oil coming into the Tournament, and nobody can figure out how they got a No. 2 seed. But they get a fairly easy draw to the Sweet 16, and should be able to make it even on their tired legs.
Second round: Win over (7) Wichita State
(4) Illinois vs. (13) Air Force, 7:25 p.m.
It'd be pretty sweet if much-maligned Air Force could pull off the upset, but Illinois, led by Championship Game veteran Dee Brown, should handle the Falcons' hurry up and slow it down, uh, attack.
Second round: Win over (5) Washington
(5) Washington vs. (12) Utah State, 9:45 p.m.
It'd be pretty sweet if much-maligned Utah State could be the winner of the annual 12th-seed lottery by grinding out a win over the Huskies. More likely is that the Huskies will run the Aggies out of the gym.
Second round: Loss to (4) Illinois
(6) Michigan State vs. (11) George Mason, 7:10 p.m.
Not only do a lot of people think George Mason shouldn't be here, but the Patriots will be without point guard Tony Skinn, suspended after punching an opponent in the nads in the conference tournament. Easy start for Tom Izzo's team, especially because of the lessened danger of getting punched in the nads. But this isn't their year.
Second round: Loss to (3) North Carolina
(3) North Carolina vs. (14) Murray State, 9:30 p.m.
The Tar Heels are way better than anybody thought they'd be after losing the whole championship team from last year to the NBA.
Second round: Win over (6) Michigan State
(1) Connecticut vs. (16) Albany, 7:25 p.m.
The Great Danes are the best of the 16s, who are the best 16s ever. Given UConn's tendency to play down to its opponents, this could be the magical 16-over-1 upset the world's been waiting for. I just don't think so. But while the Huskies are plenty good enough to go all the way, the most talented team in the nation, they play with fire by turning the intensity on and off. UConn made the same quality work two years ago when it won the championship, but it's not a recommended way to go. And remember, in a close game, Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun can be outcoached.
Second round: Win over (9) Alabama-Birmingham
(8) Kentucky vs. (9) Alabama-Birmingham, 9:45 p.m.
The Wildcats should be better than they are, an Elite 8 kind of team. As it is, they probably don't deserve this seeding. UAB's balls-out full-court pressure did Kentucky in when it was a No. 1 seed two years ago, and it'll happen again this year. Nobody wants to play the Blazers. I'm not picking them to beat UConn Sunday, but the sometimes laconic Huskies are well capable of losing that game.
Second round: Loss to (1) UConn
Sweet 16: UConn over Illinois, North Carolina over Tennessee
Elite 8: UConn over North Carolina
(6) Oklahoma vs. (11) Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 12:25 p.m.
Oklahoma's a solid team. They defend well, they're well balanced. They're not going to make a run at the title, but they can hold off would-be Cinderellas like the Panthers, a 2005 darling, and they can get to the Sweet 16 at least.
Second round: Win over (3) Florida
(3) Florida vs. (14) South Alabama, 2:45 p.m.
I don't know what it is about Florida. Every year, I'm somehow unimpressed by them and think they're not going far. It could be the Gators' frequent early exits since their surprising run in 2000.
Second round: Loss to (6) Oklahoma
Salt Lake City
(4) Boston College vs. (13) Pacific, 12:40 p.m.
There's no reason Pacific should win this game, but I think it will. The Tigers lack size and depth, but they're Tournament veterans and they defend well, hit their free throws and keep giving the ball to Big West Player of the Year Christian Maraker, which is a good idea. Boston College is coming off a grueling run to the finale of the ACC tournament, plus a cross-country trip. The Eagles are ripe.
Second round: Loss to (5) Nevada
(5) Nevada vs. (12) Montana, 3 p.m.
Led by Nick Fazekas, the Wolfpack might be seeded a little generously, but a Western team from a smaller conference seeded too high? Who's arguing? Montana's a great shooting team, so it has a puncher's chance.
Second round: Win over (13) Pacific
(2) Ohio State vs. (15) Davidson, 12:15 p.m.
Davidson is a veteran team that knows how to score, but probably doesn't have the firepower to beat Ohio State unless the Buckeyes collapse. Ohio State, also a veteran team, likes to get the ball inside to Terence Dials, and the Buckeyes can launch threes to keep defenses from collapsing on him.
Second round: Win over (7) Georgetown
(7) Georgetown vs. (10) Northern Iowa, 2:35 p.m.
A Bradley upset of Kansas would be nice, but this is the game the Missouri Valley Conference really wants to win, an upset over that old East Coast favorite to shut up those nattering nabobs in the media. Georgetown is moving in the right direction under coach John Thompson III, but the Hoyas are not quite elite.
Second round: Loss to (2) Ohio State
(8) Arizona vs. (9) Wisconsin, 12:30 p.m.
The Badgers are 5-9 away from home and 5-9 in their last 14 games. Arizona has had the kind of season Arizona just doesn't have, with off-court distractions and lackluster play, but Lute Olson will have them ready for a win before they're fed to 'Nova.
Second round: Loss to (1) Villanova
(1) Villanova vs. (16) Monmouth, 2:50 p.m.
Monmouth is the only team so far with a Tournament win, if you count that dumb play-in game Tuesday night. Probably won't get another one here against the team I'm picking to win it all because I just don't think UConn can keep the switch on for six straight games. Villanova star Allen Ray practiced Wednesday and pronounced himself fit after a scary eye injury incurred in the Big East tournament. The Wildcats employ a wild, four-guard attack and rely way too much on outside shooting for my comfort, but somehow it all works.
Second round: Win over (8) Arizona
Sweet 16: Villanova over Nevada, Ohio State over Oklahoma
Elite 8: Villanova over Ohio State
Semifinals: LSU over UCLA, Villanova over UConn
Championship Game: Villanova over LSU
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