Name a sporting event that brings everyone together. The Super Bowl. Okay, wise ass, that was last month so name another.
March Madness. Duh.
The NCAA Tournament literally has everything that draws people to sports: superstars, underdogs, drama, heartbreak, bewilderment, defeat, accomplishment, destiny, and– of course — a trophy. Condense all that into just a few weeks beginning with the craziest of 52 weekends just ahead and you have the best time of the year.
But while we’re all brimming with anticipation there are 68 coaches (well, now 66) and hundreds of student-athletes stressing over yet another school dance. The BIG dance. And this is your pass to everything that’s about to go down.
As with any dance, this one can be broken down into several songs. Each song carries a different tune. Triumph. Shock. Disappointment. And ultimately Victory. So like the ‘big dance’ itself, this preview is broken down into several “songs”. Enjoy.
Song 1: The Championship Contenders
Despite what the brackets suggest come Thursday, not all 64 teams are created equal. This is the pool of teams this year’s champion is most likely to come from.
Louisville – #1 Seed in Midwest Region
Like everyone in the tournament, the Cardinals have had their ups and downs, and the stigma that star player Russ Smith can become the MVP for his team or the team he’s playing against on any given day remains true. However, no team has more momentum right now than Rick Pitino’s squad. Combine that with the fact they won the tournament from the conference with the most invited teams, and you have a logical place to start.
Duke – #2 Seed in Midwest Region
Duke sat atop the AP Poll for much of the year, but this isn’t NASCAR and you don’t get points for “laps lead”. That being said, the Blue Devils, like they do almost every year, have the level of talent you normally see with championship teams. Their upset to Maryland in the ACC tournament cost them a #1 seed, but sometimes it’s those teams that haven’t lifted a trophy yet this year that are the most hungry.
Kansas – #1 Seed in South Region
Like Duke, the Jayhawks will also find themselves on the list of giants that are on upset alert. However, you can never overlook the second-highest rated team in the tournament, even if that rating is a tad too high. The reason you need to watch out for KU is that head coach Bill Self nearly got the job done last year with an admittedly much less-talented team. Sure, they took their licks in January and February, but they also won their conference tournament, something bigger names this year like Indiana CAN’T say.
Georgetown – #2 Seed in South Region
Of all the teams seeded #1 in the power conference tournaments to lose, Georgetown was the one that least looked like an upset. Syracuse is a very, very good team in their own right and the parity in the Big East this year was much higher than most people realized. The knock against the Hoyas are the embarrassingly lackluster final scores of their games. Georgetown will never run the floor like, say, VCU, but they are one of the best defensive teams in the country and they can easily frustrate the more high-octane offenses in the field.
Michigan – #4 Seed in South Region
A bumpy end to their season knocked them down to a #4 seed, the lowest line to ever win it all since 1989. But make no mistake, these Wolverines ARE good enough to put together a run. The only question is WILL they. Every time Michigan got a little momentum in the regular season, they seemed to a take a loss that did away with it all. But who knows, maybe NOW is the time they finally figure it all out and put it all together.
Indiana – #1 Seed in East Region
Tom Crean’s Hoosiers are SO good that Cody Zeller’s (a favorite at the start of the season) best competition for Naismith Player of the Year may be on his own team. And while every team that sat atop the AP Poll took an upset or two (or seven) this year, the worst loss on Indiana’s resume is Illinois, a #7 seed in the tournament (in the same region, ironically) with an RPI of 40. If you’re looking for an even keel, consistent contender, this is your team.
Ohio State – #2 Seed in West Region
If a team from Columbus, OH didn’t have to advance through Los Angeles to get to Atlanta, the Buckeyes would be getting a lot more championship talk. And while the location is unfortunate for a team often left out of conversations about the mighty Big 10, the path to the Final Four is surprisingly easy. They may have the number 2 next to their name, but make no mistake, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are not a better squad.
New Mexico – #3 Seed in West Region
However, the Lobos might be (If you didn’t read the Ohio State paragraph directly before reading this, you may want to do that so that first sentence makes some sense). Those not amongst the college basketball religious may have scratched their heads a little when New Mexico popped up on such a high line, but if that’s the case there’s a few things you need to know. For one thing, the Mountain West had the best RPI of any conference this year. Also, New Mexico’s own RPI is ranked 2nd nationally, only behind Duke. I guarantee you no coaching staff is overlooking this team Albuquerque and neither should you.
Song 2: The Cinderellas
VCU’s 2011 run reinvigorated the search for the next little school to make a big r
un. There’s no guarantees, but here are the schools you should know just in case.
Belmont – #11 Seed in West Region
I put the Bruins up here with some hesitation. It seems they are perennially picked to be that little team that could only to fail to live up to the anticipation. However, 2012 might finally be the year. Even though the best team they beat in the regular season was Middle Tennessee State, their powder puff schedule didn’t provide many opportunities and a bracket that will pit them first against Arizona and likely New Mexico next will change all that. Once again, Belmont is flying below many people’s radars and, once again, that is a mistake. Just look at their RPI, which is ranked 19th, just ahead of Kansas State and Michigan among others.
St. Mary’s – #10 Seed in Midwest Region
There might not be anything scarier than a tournament-seasoned, low-seeded team and the Gaels are just that. In a surprisingly weak year for St. Mary’s, they still managed to upset Creighton, a win that often gets overlooked by their THREE losses to Gonzaga. Well, sometimes a team just has your number and the earliest the Gaels would see the Bulldogs is in the Final Four, leaving PLENTY of room for a little run. One, by the way, that may have began last night with their win over MTSU.
Boise State – #13 Seed in West Region
If you’re truly looking for the next VCU, a good place to start is the First Round with one of the last teams on the bubble to get in. Enter Boise State, an under-the-radar Mountain West team who fell out of the limelight of Championship Week with an early loss to San Diego State. Well, the Broncos also BEAT S.D. State this year along with Creighton, Colorado State, and UNLV and were very competitive against New Mexico and Michigan State. No high seed likes a giant killer with some pretty nice sling shot take downs already on their resume and the Broncos are just that.
Oregon – #12 Seed in Midwest Region
Can the Pac-12 Champion really be a Cinderella? The Committee certainly treated them like one on Selection Sunday. Despite beating UCLA (twice), UNLV and Arizona and being ranked 25th in the AP Poll, the Ducks drew the same seed as the Akron Zips. I’m usually worried about teams who won their conference tournament not being hungry enough come the big dance, but the insult the selection committee handed Oregon this weekend left a plenty big chip on their shoulder.
Bucknell – #11 Seed in East Region
The Bison’s super-soft schedule didn’t allow them to display what a giant killer this team can be. Bucknell DID beat fellow tournament team La Salle and nearly beat Missouri. Not only that, but they’re coming from the Patriot League, the same conference Lehigh came out of last year when they knocked off #2 Duke in the Round of 64.
South Dakota State – #13 Seed in South Region
I have a question for you. Name one of the five teams to beat New Mexico this year. Did you say South Dakota State. No? Well now you know. The Jackrabbits were liked as a potential Cinderella last year before they lost to Baylor, but now South Dakota State is back and their first game will be against Michigan which suffered one of the more notable upsets of the regular season (against Penn State). If the Jackrabbits can knock them off, whose next? Probably Cinderella-turned-Top 25 contender VCU. Yes, THAT VCU.
Song 3: Upset Alerts
Here’s something I CAN guarantee: a big name will not make it to the Sweet Sixteen and may not even make it to the Round of 32. But finding that high-seeded team prone to fall can be hard. No matter, we have some great places to start.
Gonzaga – #1 Seed in West Region
People will drool over the Bulldogs’ 31-win season, but it was comprised largely of west coast roadkill that was begging to be run over by a team as talented as Gonzaga. Now they’re a #1 seed in NCAA Tournament where the only gift they’ll get is Southern U. The Jaguars will NOT become the first #16 team to be a #1 team, but the upset watch will begin this weekend when the Bulldogs play the winner of Pittburgh-Wichita State.
Kansas – #1 Seed in East Region
So the Jayhawks have been playing pretty good basketball as of late. Fine. Great. But anyone who watched that TCU game knows that this squad is very capable of excreting a turd of a game. I think Kansas is SORELY overrated as a #1 seed let alone the second OVERALL #1 seed, and the most games they’ll win from here on out is just two.
Duke – #2 Seed in Midwest Region
One of two #2 seeds to fall in the Round of 64 last year, Duke is back and just as susceptible. They lost to Virginia and they lost to Maryland twice. That’s what everyone will talk about but what they SHOULD talk about is how they NEARLY lost to Boston College and Wake Forest away from Cameron. All, ALL of Duke’s losses came on while they were on the road and neither Philadelphia nor Indianapolis are particularly close to North Carolina.
Miami – #2 Seed in East Region
The Hurricanes were one of the greatest stories of the college basketball season, but their rapid ascension has changed them from pursuer to those being pursued. We got a peak late in the season as to how Miami can falter when the target is on their own backs and they managed to cruise through the ACC tournament without having to play Duke for their rubber match game.
Florida – #3 Seed in South Region
Maybe the SEC should just stick to football. The Gators were EASILY the most consistent team in the conference and, when you see their losses to Arkansas and Tennessee, that’s saying something. Now they’re a #3 seed where, if they survive Northwestern State, they’ll either play a team that beat Arizona three times in a row or a team with two wins in the RPI Top 10 (and three in the RPI Top 15). To the TRAINED eye, it would appear Florida is being set up for disappointment some time later this week.
Marquette – #3 Seed in East Region
Apparently the Golden Eagles got a pass when they lost to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament. Otherwise, there’s no way this Marquette team could be the third-best in any region. Now they have to play Davidson, one of the classic big dance Cinderella teams, and if you don’t think the Wildcats can beat them you need to look up what happened between Marquette and Green Bay on December 19th of last year. After that, Marquette would get either Butler (one of three fearsome A-10 squads) or Bucknell, a real hot Cinderella pick this year. In conclusion, no, I don’t like Marquette at all this year.
Song 4: Other Teams to Keep an Eye On
Not everyone is a big guy or a little guy. Some teams are a little big guy or a big little guy. Here are the other schools you should be watching in the tournament.
St. Louis – #4 Seed in Midwest Region
In a year of fantastic college basketball stories, St. Louis might be the best not getting enough attention. After losing a well-liked if not flat-out loved coach in Rick Majerus to heart failure on December 1st, the Billikens have gone from being unranked and on nobody’s radar to the champions of a very underrated Atlantic 10 conference. There’s nothing more dangerous than a team with a cause in March and following St. Louis in this tournament could prove to be a tearjerker.
Memphis – #6 Seed in Midwest Region
A sixth seed was actually high for the Tigers in terms of what they could’ve reasonably expected but perhaps not high enough. A lot of so-called pundits are picking Memphis to lose to the play-in winner of Middle Tennessee and St. Mary’s, but I think just the opposite. Michigan State got a nice draw to play their first couple games in Auburn Hills, but I think the Tigers are good enough to overcome that. If they do, watch out. They could be the team to play Louisville in the Elite Eight.
Wichita State – #9 Seed in West Region
After losing four starters, this Shockers squad wasn’t expected to do anything. Well, someone forgot to tell Wichita State. At one point they were nationally-ranked before ultimately slipping down the stretch and losing to Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. But if they can get past Pittsburgh, they’ll have a chance to jump back into the limelight against a relatively unproven Gonzaga team.
Ole Miss – #12 Seed in West Region
Here’s a name you’re going to want to learn: Marshall Henderson. He’s an outspoken, brash, polarizing guard that has already been in four different colleges, served a jail term, bragged publicly about dominating in beer pong, and, oh yeah, led the SEC in scoring. You can think a million things about Henderson but “fake” is not one of them. He wears his often misguided heart on his sleeve and it’s the kind of personality the cameras will soak up if Mississippi can stay alive for any length of time.
Song 5: Enough Choices, Pick One…
One sure-fire upset?
Belmont over Arizona
#16 Seed with the best chance to finally take down a #1 seed?
Two #15 Seeds with the best chance to repeat last year’s second round antics?
Florida Gulf Coast and Pacific
#9-#16 Seed with the best chance to win it all?
#5-#8 Seed with the best chance to win it all?
Set of Final Four teams?
Louisville, Georgetown, Indiana, Ohio State
And Final Champion?
Make sure to follow Bryan on Twitter @bclienesch for ALL your March Madness analysis!