Yup, it's that time of year again. The best three weeks in sports is finally upon us. And, being the great college basketball mind that I am, I would like to enlighten the masses (anyone?) on some details of the tourney.2005 National Champion: Illinois
Next...not quite as obvious as UConn last year (yes, I picked them--no 20/20 hindsight BS here) but pretty close.Overseeded: UConn, Washington
So let's get this straight. A team goes into the Big East tourney ranked #14 nationally (that's in the 4-seed range for those of you who are bad at math), with no significant injuries or suspensions a la UNC and Wake, gets upset in their only challenging matchup of the tournament and is even dominated by a smaller team in what is supposed to be their forte (boards), and when the dust clears they're a TWO?? WTF!?!? Are you kidding me?? This is seriously the worst overseeding I can remember and I've been paying close attention to the tourney for well over a decade. Even Washington, who closed the regular season at #13 but beat #8 'Zona (for the third time this year--no small feat) to win their conference tournament, didn't get this much help from the committee. I'm not aware of any rule that says the defending national champ must get a huge break in seeding but there must be one. Hmpf, you learn something new every day. Here's the clincher: the Huskies are so overseeded that I am left with no choice but to pick those perrennial chokers from Kansas to go to the Elite Eight. Ouch.
Any other year this gross hand-out of a 1 would top the list. But it's clear to me the committee was looking to fend off accusations of conference or east coast bias by not adding another atlantic-state team to the top tier. And Washington is actually quite respectable I think--not 1-seed respectable but certainly better than their ranking shows, with their dominance in the Pac-10 and a decent non-conference schedule. But UW and Wake should swap seeds and perhaps the committee put those two together to accomplish that.
Honorable Mention: Gonzaga, Oklahoma
Dunno why, I just don't have a lot of confidence in the Zags. Yeah, they've done well in the tourneys of yesteryear, but now they're just an overhyped mid-major that will have lots of trouble playing up to expectations. They played some good teams outside the WCC, but if a tough schedule prepares a team for postseason success the Zags are toast. And the Sooners don't seem to me to be in the upper echelon of tourney teams (read: seeds 1-4) but they did close the regular season strong so maybe they deserve their props. Underseeded: GA Tech, Syracuse
Some of you may recall that GA Tech was a top five team at the beginning of the season. They've since dealt with injuries and just haven't played up to their potential, but the point is that there is a LOT of talent on that team. I mean, a backcourt of Bynum, Jack, and Elder, with Schenscher inside. Even if Schenscher is white, that's one of the best lineups in basketball. And they showed it in the ACC tourney with their win over UNC and a good game against Duke. As I see it, the only team on their level between them and St. Louis is Wake and they'll beat the Deacons to get there.
Syracuse got shafted. If UConn is supposedly so good, and Syracuse spanked them badly in the Big East semi's--forget the score, that game was a rout for almost the entire second half--en route to a conference championship, then shouldn't the Orangemen also be seeded high? Oh well, I guess there wasn't much reason and logical thinking going on in the war room Sunday afternoon. Warrick showed why he is one of the best players in the country, especially in showing up a bigger UConn team on the boards, and the last time that team had McNamara supporting one of the best players in the land they won it all. Don't expect a repeat but that matchup with Duke in the Sweet 16 should be awesome. And it sucks for Vermont to be so good for a small school and then hit a brick wall like the 'Cuse in the first round.
Honorable Mention: Boston College, NC State
Man, BC sure got picked on for their early exit from the Big East tourney. Supposedly the committee never tries to let postseason success or failure cloud their vision, but throw that out the window here. No way BC should be lower than a 3. They and UConn need to swap--obviously there was a simple clerical error in the war room at some point and they were accidentally assigned each other's seeds.
Of all the players I've seen this season, Julius Hodge is perhaps the most impressive. He singlehandedly sent Wake (admittedly missing Chris Paul) packing in the ACC quarters. I didn't see the Duke game so I can't comment on his performance there, but I hear it wasn't that great and so his Wolfpack only gets the honorable mention. But if Hodge is playing at game-dominating level this team could turn some heads. I expect them to lose to the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16.
Some would put Louisville here, but I don't think they're that impressive. They played in a weak conference and should have lost to a much worse Memphis team that didn't even make the tourney despite getting to the C-USA finals (that's an atrocity, by the way). So I see the Cardinals being in the 3 or 4 range, despite having Pitino during tourney time which should be a big plus. And speaking of, that UL-Memphis finish has to be the most gut-wrenching in basketball history. It's been a long time since I was that anxious at the end of a game. As deep as my hatred of Calipari runs, and as much as I would have wished ill will upon his team, I hate to see anyone lose like that. Unfortunately Darius Washington Jr. will now and forever be on the Chris Webber list of superstars who carried their team on their back only to ultimately lose the game in dramatic fashion in the end.Upset Special: UAB, ODU, NC State
That UAB-LSU matchup just jumps out of the bracket as the obvious opening-round upset. Mike Anderson knows the SEC well from his days at Arkansas, so he'll know how to handle LSU. Combine that with the fact that the Blazers will be playing with a chip on their shoulder to silence the "they shouldn't be there" crowd, and we have an upset on our hands. This one is easy to call. Same for Old Dominion, as they've been impressive all season and they caught a huge break in drawing the Spartans. I think MSU has been overrated all season and I probably would have picked them to lose to whoever they were paired with, but seeing ODU there makes it that much easier. As for NC State, see above...Charlotte doesn't have a chance.
Honorable Mention: St. Mary's, George Washington
Southern Illinois hasn't been too impressive lately, especially in losing to SMS in the MVC tourney, and St. Mary's has been on the radar screen all season. Expect St. Mary's to be out to make a statement since they've been in Gonzaga's shadow all season. I suppose beating a down MVC opponent isn't much of a statement but it will have to work because they sure aren't getting past the Cowpokes. George Washington is perhaps the most impressive of the lower seeds, but they really got jacked in drawing the most underseeded team in the tourney. They could actually make that an interesting game, but I can't see any way they'll beat GA Tech.Teams to Watch: GA Tech, Texas Tech, Syracuse
Obviously I expect GA Tech to make some waves and even play in April, but Texas Tech and Syracuse are two more teams that are hot. The Red Raiders quietly did well in the powerful Big 12 (or Big XII, whatever--that conference name sucks) and Bob Knight is a nice guy to have on the bench come tourney time. Syracuse has Warrick and that could take them far if he can get just a little bit of support.Final Four: Illinois, UNC, Duke, GA Tech
Duh for Illinois, but could there be three teams from one conference joining the Illini? I don't know if that's ever happened before. I think it has, in the early 80's with the Big East or maybe A-10, but I can't remember. Either way, this would be the first year in a long time. But these teams are plenty good enough, and were Wake in the Midwest (sorry, Chicago
--such BS) we'd have a comparatively strong possibility of an ACC conference tournament to decide the championship. I see Syracuse and maybe Kansas (yeah, Kansas) standing in the way, but those two should be handled without too much trouble by Duke and UNC respectively.
And there you have it, folks. Armed with that knowledge you can now revise your brackets before the tourney kicks off. Or not. I'm stepping out there a bit and perhaps setting myself up to eat a few crow dinners, but I hate it when those so-called "experts" just parrot the same made-for-TV BS analysis without actually saying anything or taking a strong position. So I'll at least put my predictions and reasoning out there for all to see, and we'll just see how they play out. If you won't do the same then you can't laugh if/when my bracket deflates in the coming weeks.