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Some Kind Of Madness Has Started To Evolve …

March 21, 2013

Mere minutes before March Madness begins anew …

Chicken wings marinating?  Check.

Assorted chips, dips, popcorn and desserts at the ready?  Check.

Sodas & beers in fridge?  Check.

Appropriately attired with expandable-waist clothing? Check.

I’m officially ready for the first Thursday of the NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.

Before I get to anything else, this is my actual bracket, which if recent history is any indication, will be in ashes by Saturday evening. True Confession: In filling it out I was only able to pick 9 of the 32 Second Round games with any sort of initial certainty, while the rest required extensive research, game tape review, and in a couple of instances, a turn of Rock-Paper-Scissors with myself (don’t ask). In other words, I feel your pain.  One thing you’ll notice below is many more teams in the Final Four and Championship mix and fewer Mid-Majors that actually fit the Cinderella profile.  Without further ado …

Championship Contenders – Unlike last year, when I had six potential Champions, and thought there really was only three throughout the year until the conference tourneys (Kentucky was 1 of the 3), I think any one of nine (9) teams this season can win it all, and have thought so all season long.  Since the expansion of the NCAA field to 64 teams in 1985, this is the highest amount of legitimate contenders I can recall; However, only three times in that span has the Champion been lower than a No. 3 seed. As such and despite the depth of this year’s field, all 9 teams below are Nos. 1-3 seeds.  In order of more to less likely:

  • Indiana
  • Louisville
  • Duke
  • Miami
  • Florida
  • Kansas
  • Gonzaga
  • Ohio State
  • Michigan St

Darkhorses – Although each of these teams has a fatal flaw (then again this season, who doesn’t?) that I believe will prevent them from winning a National Championship, here are 10 darkhorse candidates to reach the Final Four and possibly the Title Game.  Each team below has abundant senior leadership and contribution, good-to-great guard play, is highly efficient offensively and/or defensively, and performs at least one aspect of the game that causes opponents problems at a very high level, whether it’s sharing and taking care of the ball, causing turnovers, offensive rebounding, blocking shots, defending the 3-pointer or hitting their free throws. Plus, they all have potentially advantageous draws, or winnable match-ups with higher seeded teams in the earlier rounds.  Many of these teams should collide either with the Contenders listed above or with each other (Michigan-VCU, New Mexico-Arizona, Marquette-Butler) in the Round of 32, so by the end of the weekend we should know who has emerged from this pack:

  • Georgetown
  • Marquette
  • New Mexico
  • Michigan
  • St. Louis
  • Wisconsin
  • VCU
  • Butler
  • Arizona
  • Creighton

Potential Sweet 16/Elite 8 Cinderellas –  In today’s college basketball landscape, this is a shrinking demographic.  No longer do teams like Gonzaga, VCU, Butler, Creighton or Saint Louis fit this profile, as they’ve gone from the hunters to the hunted.  Every one of the seven (7) Mid-Major teams listed here are still flying under the radar, and all have a star player you may not have heard of, but professional scouts know exactly who they are. Rest assured, you and their opponents will soon know them as well:

  • Wichita State
  • Belmont
  • Bucknell
  • St. Mary’s
  • La Salle
  • South Dakota State
  • Davidson

Underachieving or Underseeded “Stepsisters” Capable of a Deep Run –  These are the “LSU 1986/1987” teams, in reference to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (No. 10 seed) and 1987 (11) Tigers squads that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight respectively.  Like those Tigers, these teams all a.) come from a High-Major conference (and hence aren’t really “Cinderellas”, but rather like the Stepsisters), b.) lost 8 or more games (7 of the 10 have lost 10+ games), c.) are seeded No. 8 or worse, d.) have already proven capable of beating top teams, while staying with others for 40 minutes, and e.) despite lacking a certain cohesion, are very talented and have difference-makers that can heat up and win games.  Basically, most of the Nos. 8-9 seeds fit this bill and most if not all of these 11 teams have the talent to challenge for a Final Four berth:

  • North Carolina
  • Pittsburgh
  • North Carolina State
  • Missouri
  • Villanova
  • Colorado
  • Iowa State
  • Minnesota
  • Oregon
  • Ole Miss
  • California

Feast or Famine – High ceiling and low floor, their patterns are less discernible. These are typically Nos. 3-7 seeds that rely heavily on underclassmen, have suffered curious losses, and/or have otherwise dangerous match-ups in their first games. Survive those however, gain some confidence and rhythm, have some talent emerge out of slumps or step up into larger roles,  and much more is possible for these five (5) squads:

  • Syracuse
  • UNLV
  • Oklahoma State
  • Memphis
  • San Diego State

Tom Petty Teams (“Freeee … Free Falling!”) – Syracuse would have been included here had they not made the Big East Conference Tourney Final, and yet still might belong here considering the potential distraction from recent reports of ongoing NCAA investigations. I gave their talent and coaching benefit of the doubt. Normally, Tom Petty Teams are trending downward due to inconsistency, key injuries, drastic changes in performance from earlier in the season, player unrest, suspension or benching, or off-court distractions. Only a few this year are heading in the wrong direction without much potential for recourse, and even so, could surprise:

  • UCLA
  • Illinois
  • Cincinnati

“I Have No Idea What to Make of This Team” Teams – I really don’t. Not for a lack of trying either, although I have all but one of them (Kansas State, playing in Kansas City) losing their first game, so we’ll see if I’ve pegged them right or not:

  • Kansas State
  • Notre Dame
  • Colorado State
  • Temple
  • Oklahoma

Upset Picks That Probably Won’t Happen – Everyone likes to suss out a potential Cinderella, seeing that picking the right upsets will be the key to winning their tourney pool; Remember that just because many of these teams could beat their higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean that they actually will.  Unlike the potential Cinderellas above, most of these double-digit seeds have bad matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose, although it says something that I’ve included three No. 15 seeds). Stats Guru Nate Silver tends to agree; he calculates that all the teams below except Akron have less than a 25% probability of winning their first game, so don’t approach them to don the glass slipper:

  • Akron
  • New Mexico State
  • Montana
  • Valparaiso
  • Harvard
  • Northwestern State
  • Iona
  • Florida Gulf Coast
  • Pacific

And Now … Five Fearless Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” … St Mary’s.  Of the four teams that survived the “First Four” in Dayton, St. Mary’s is the only team that has the talent (Matthew Dellavedova, get to know him) to fend off four more teams before Atlanta.  LaSalle has a number of shooters and quality coaching, and a potential path in the West Region that could open up if teams like Ole Miss (Wisconsin) and Pittsburgh (Gonzaga) get frisky, but they don’t have the frontcourt nor the overall height to match up with eventual high seeded opponents like St. Mary’s does. It is unlikely though, with Michigan State potentially looming in the Round of 32, a game that would be played in a suburb of Detroit.  What VCU did in 2011 is just so remarkable, it’s not only difficult to see it happening this year with either St. Mary’s or LaSalle, but anytime soon for that matter.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Duke.  Seriously, it’s true.  Almost every talking head I’ve seen in the last four days has Duke losing before they even get to the Elite Eight (which they are slated for as a #2 seed), and only one talking head I remember – CBS’s Steve Lappas – has them going to the Final Four.  Not even Dukie Vitale has them in the Final Four. More than curious for a team that a.) is coached by a Hall-of-Famer, and 4-time NCAA Champion, b.) spent six (6) weeks ranked #1 this season, c.) was hands down the best team in the country in Nov & Dec, d.) is ranked #1 in the NCAA’s RPI, e.) has Ryan Kelly back from a foot injury and f.) is as deep and talented as any team not named Indiana.  I came THISCLOSE to putting them in the Title game, I just think Louisville with a healthy Gorgui Dieng would win a potential rematch in the Elite Eight in Indianapolis.  You know, if it comes to that.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … No One.  It would have been Kentucky had they made the tournament.  UCLA is only a Tom Petty Team because their second-leading scorer Jordan Adams broke his foot.  Could become Syracuse if they lose to Montana, but I don’t see anyone who was spiraling downward entering the NCAAs like that 2010 Longhorn team did.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Second Round Upset Departure Team” is … Georgetown, who has had a tendency to lose early since making the 2007 Final Four, will get as much as it can handle from a plucky No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast, and will probably get the ziggy against the San Diego State-Oklahoma survivor, despite Otto Porter.  I’d hear arguments for Ohio State, who I just don’t trust aside from Point Guard Extraordinaire Aaron Craft and who will have their hands full with the Notre Dame-Iowa State winner, and for Florida as well, who haven’t won a game decided by single digits all year, but I think both of them play to or beyond their seeding.

Is There a Potential “Butler” or “George Mason” This Year? …  Maybe. For a Mid-Major team that could come from seemingly out of nowhere and find itself in the Final Four or Title Game, I submit for your approval, the Billikens of Saint Louis.  Hard to justify that idea when they are the Atlantic-10 Champions and a No. 4 seed, but they certainly have the requisite patina, earned from last year’s painfully close Round of 32 loss to Michigan State, the departure (and subsequent death) of former coach Rick Majurus, and a deep, senior-laden squad that plays with a boulder on their shoulder. Current Interim Head Coach Jim Crews has surely done enough of a job in his time at the helm to remove that interim tag.  Wichita State could fit this bill if they can get past Pittsburgh (I doubt it), and St. Mary’s certainly fits as discussed above.  All three teams have the prerequisite potential pathways to the Elite Eight that are ripe with upset possibility by both themselves and other teams to clear their way; Sometimes better to be lucky than good.  At some point though, they will have to manufacture an upset against a heavily favored high seed, which aside from Saint Louis, I can’t foresee materializing.

As to my Final Four and Champion …

At some point, talent has its say. I might be a little blinded by their dazzle, but the most talented team I saw all season was Indiana, and I believe they will capture their sixth NCAA Title over what some are saying is the best defensive team in over a decade, the Louisville Cardinals.  Rounding out the party is a dangerous Florida squad that will push the Hoosiers to the limit in their Final Four match, and the party crasher in Atlanta (can’t have a party without one) will be Everyone’s Eternal Cinderella No More, Gonzaga.  Yes, the ‘Zags are a No. 1 seed, but so few think they will get this far, so in a sense it will be an upset when they do.

Bart Scott just called, he can’t wait either.

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