We'll tackle the 2008 NCAA Tournament bracket in two parts, left side Tuesday, right side Wednesday.
As usual, this column will run its Panel o' Experts contest, with the brackets of various national typists and chatterers competing to see who is not as big an idiot as this column. The expert with the best bracket wins the grand prize, dinner at my house. You, the great teeming masses, are the defending champion, winner of two of the last three.
I'm sorry but you're not eligible to claim the prize, great teeming masses.
I feel that this is a good time to remind you never, ever to use my picks as a basis for wagering, even in the negative. That is, don't bet on something just because it's the opposite of what I said. I'm not even reliably wrong.
I always like to tackle this sort of thing west to east because that's the edgy, against the grain kind of guy I am, but I will submit to the geography of this year's bracket and start with the East.
Note: All times p.m., EDT
(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Coppin State-Mount St. Mary's winner, 7:10
The Tar Heels get to play their first two games in Raleigh, then have to travel all the way to Charlotte for the regional. The NCAA has made an effort to have high seeds play close to home to accommodate fans, which is a good business decision, but I think there should be a limit to how close to home you can be, especially in the opening rounds, where there are a lot of alternatives. UNC couldn't have played in Birmingham or Tampa? The Tournament's supposed to be played on neutral courts.
OK, enough whining about that. North Carolina's the favorite to win the whole thing, and with good cause, but I'm just really liking Tennessee and its defensive pressure thing, for no real reason. I think the Tar Heels will lose to the Volunteers in the regional final. I also think orange sports coats look cool. There's no justifying some of the things I think.
Oh, and by the way, I think Coppin State is going to win the stupid play-in game Tuesday night, which I think is stupid, and with some justification, I think. I made this determination by flipping a coin.
Second round: Win over Arkansas
(8) Indiana vs. (9) Arkansas, 9:40
A once-promising turned ugly season comes to a dreary end for the Hoosiers. This column is on record as disliking 8-vs.-9 games matching two big-conference also-rans. Indiana probably deserved a little better than an eighth seed, but the formula holds. Of course, now Indiana will go on one of those let's-show-'em runs all the way to the Final Four, just to make me look bad. Their fans will all be waving cellphones in the stands.
Second round: Loss to North Carolina
(5) Notre Dame vs. (12) George Mason, 9:50
Just as surely as no No. 16 seed ever beats a No. 1, so can you take it to the bank that a No. 12 will beat a No. 5, and some years it happens more than once. Every two-bit bracket filler outer has to mention the 12-over-5 upset thing as though they've just discovered the secret to the universe. I've been saying for years that a No. 16 will beat a No. 1 sometime soon, but here's my big seed-based prediction for 2008: All four No. 5 seeds will win.
Second round: Loss to Washington State
(4) Washington State vs. (13) Winthrop, 7:20
The athletic Eagles are a semi-chic upset pick, partly because of Winthrop's first-round upset over Notre Dame last year and partly because some people think Washington State got over-seeded. I don't put a lot of stock in who gets seeded where -- I think a 4-seed is very much like a 5, which is a lot like a 6, and so on -- but I'm just happy to see not just a West Coast team, but a remote West Coast team, one that plays its home games dangerously close to Idaho, get over-seeded. This column's Cockamamie Theory No. 437 -- right behind the one about parallel parking ability being a sign of good character -- is that teams with a lot of upperclassmen and a good true center can go far in the Tournament.
Second round: Win over Notre Dame
(6) Oklahoma vs. (11) St. Joseph's, 7:10
St. Joe's is seeded 11th, one line below Temple, which beat the Hawks in the Atlantic 10 tournament final and is No. 12 in the South. That seeding shows that the selection committee doesn't take conference tournaments into account, which is smart. Except when it does, which is dumb. The Hawks have a shooter's chance against a Sooners team that has health issues and keeps getting blown out.
Second round: Loss to Louisville
(3) Louisville vs. (14) Boise State, 9:40
This is a tough bracket, man. Louisville is a very good team, and despite a stumble at the end a hot one. But the Cardinals should make the most of Birmingham. At the regional in Charlotte, they'd likely have to beat Tennessee and North Carolina to get to the Final Four. Boise State: Boy, they really play their home games close to Idaho.
Second round: Win over St. Joseph's
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(7) Butler vs. (10) South Alabama, 2:45
Butler plays good defense, doesn't make mistakes and hoists up threes by the boatload. Well, not the boatload in Indy. The carload. South Alabama plays good defense and runs with a three-guard offense. And sometimes doesn't play defense. Butler can lose to anybody if the shots don't fall, though they usually fall. South Alabama can take advantage of Butler's weak interior by attacking the basket relentlessly. Actually, most college teams can win most games by doing that, which is why it's amazing that the trendy dribble-drive offense is such a revelation. But I digress. Jaguars in a mild upset of the old Cinderellas, and did you notice that this region is packed with former Cinderellas? What's going on there?
Second round: Loss to Tennessee
(2) Tennessee vs. (15) American, 12:15
First-ever Tournament appearance for Kermit Washington's alma mater doesn't figure to be a pleasant one against a team that would have been a No. 1 seed if it hadn't lost in the semifinals of the SEC tournament. That seeding shows that the selection committee takes conference tournaments into account, which is dumb. Except when it doesn't, which is smart. Tennessee got worked in the seedings. The Volunteers might be the second best team in the country, and they got stuck in the same bracket with North Carolina. Was it Bruce Pearl's orange sports coat?
Second round: Win over South Alabama
East Sweet 16: North Carolina over Washington State, Tennessee over Louisville (in a classic)
East Elite 8: Tennessee over North Carolina (in another one)
(1) Kansas vs. (16) Portland State, 12:25
Google Maps says it's 207 miles from Lawrence to Omaha, and I think 200 miles is a fair cutoff for considering a site a de facto home court. So no whining about Kansas getting the geographical advantage here, though the Jayhawks have a huge geographical advantage.
Kansas is on a roll. It's a deep, balanced, veteran team. It's just the kind of team that wins the NCAA Tournament. There's only one problem with this team: It's Kansas. Every year, it seems, I fall in love with Kansas, and the Jayhawks go splat in the Tournament. For a while there, they were doing it in the first round. Last year they made it to the Elite 8. I'm taking that to mean they're battle-tested, moving in the right direction and whatever whatever you know homina homina.
It doesn't matter. I know I'm wrong. I know Kansas is going down in ignominious fashion. I don't care. I'm picking them anyway. I don't know why. I'm not even this goofy about my own alma mater. Of course, it would help if my alma mater made the Tournament now and again, but that's another story.
Second round: Win over Kent State
(8) UNLV vs. (9) Kent State, 2:55
Here's that thing about a 4-seed being the same as a 5 and so on, or in this case an 8 being the same as a 9. Of all the ways there might be to parse UNLV and Kent State to try to figure out which one is better, how many of them would put UNLV on top other than the one about name recognition? Eh, probably a few, now that I think of it. Both teams are undersized and not really built for Tournament success, but Kent State has more talent and athleticism.
Second round: Loss to Kansas
(5) Clemson vs. (12) Villanova, 7:20
How about a new rule: If a team from a major conference isn't good enough to get seeded 10th or higher, it doesn't get in. I'd be willing to let 11 be the threshold, but 12 is just too low for a big-conference school. What's the point? Give that spot to a bubble team from a smaller conference, even if the big-conference school is demonstrably better.
The selection process is already biased toward big-conference schools, and the RPI, which the selection committee leans on when it's convenient, favors bigger schools with its strength-of-schedule component. So this would be a drag on that, and it would be fan-friendly.
Because who outside of Philadelphia is going to get excited if Villanova, a Big East team, beats Clemson in this first-round game. It might actually be a good upset because Clemson's pretty good and Villanova isn't. But it won't feel like one. We're used to seeing Villanova win big games on the national stage from time to time. But the whole country could get behind Illinois State pulling that upset. Just that kind of thing is exactly what the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament are all about, real underdogs, in every sense of the word, rising up and pulling off the improbable, once-in-a-lifetime feat. It's why we watch, and it's what makes the NCAA Tournament this country's greatest sporting event.
I hope you heard the strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the background as you read that last paragraph. Anyway it gave me the chance to once again link to Andrew Leonard's "National Underdog Days" piece from 2001, in my opinion the second greatest piece of writing about college basketball in American letters. And maybe the best, when you consider that "Moby-Dick" probably wasn't really about college basketball.
Second round: Win over Siena
(4) Vanderbilt vs. (13) Siena, 9:50
Siena got on the map by beating Stanford. Vanderbilt, of course, beat Tennessee right after the Volunteers beat Memphis in the game of the year. Both teams love to shoot the three, which means either can beat anybody or lose to anybody, depending on whether the shots are falling. As long as I hired the orchestra to play the Battle Hymn, I'll take Siena.
Second round: Loss to Clemson
(6) USC vs. (11) Kansas State, 7:10
You may have heard about the two fabulous freshmen who'll meet in this game: Davon Jefferson and Jacob Pullen. No, wait. It's O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley. Should be fun to watch. Unless they both get two fouls in the first half, in which case they'll sit for most of the game. Don't get me started. Kansas State doesn't have much other than Beasley, but Beasley's a lot. I'll take 'em.
Second round: Loss to Wisconsin
(3) Wisconsin vs. (14) Cal State Fullerton, 9:40
A classic boxer-puncher matchup, so to speak. The Titans are a high-scoring, up-tempo team. The Badgers are a shut-down defensive team. Something's gotta give. And let's face it. It's probably going to be Fullerton.
Second round: Win over Kansas State
(7) Gonzaga vs. (10) Davidson, 12:25
Davidson's another hipster pick, because the Wildcats played a tough schedule this year, losing to North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke and UCLA, but hanging with all of them. Davidson's 22-game winning streak is the longest in the country, and guard Stephen Curry is one of the best players in the Tournament. How far we've come that Gonzaga is a Tournament regular ripe for the picking by a small-conference upstart, but with Davidson playing so close to home, I'll bite.
Second round: Loss to Georgetown
(2) Georgetown vs. (15) UMBC, 9:40
What's going on in Maryland? Coppin State and Mount St. Mary's in the play-in game, plus UMBC, which like Coppin State is in Baltimore, down here at the bottom of the Midwest bracket. And no sign of Maryland! That's outrageous, right, Billy Packer?
Georgetown had the look of a potential champion right up until that loss to Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament, but put stock in conference tournament games at your peril. The Hoyas are balanced and experienced and they have a good true center. There's no reason not to pick them to go all the way unless you're doing something stupid like picking Kansas. Which I am.
Second round: Win over Kansas State
Midwest Sweet 16: Kansas over Clemson, Georgetown over Wisconsin
Midwest Elite 8: Kansas over Georgetown (I know, I know. Shut up.)
Wednesday: The right side of the bracket, and Final Four picks.
Previous column: Billy Packer's mad again!
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