As No. 1 team after No. 1 team fell this season, and court-stormings became a weekly rite of passage, the sentiment that "this year's NCAA tournament will be wide-open" was repeated ad nauseam. In the sense that there's no runaway favorite -- like the Kentucky Death Star was last March -- then yes, this tournament is more open than 2012's. But with the bracket finally in hand, I didn't see eight or 10 or 12 viable national title picks. I saw three. This is how I sorted out a championship hierarchy from all the regular-season noise:
The Tier 1 Contenders: Louisville and Indiana
The selection committee kindly arranged the bracket to make a Cardinals-Hoosiers title game possible after they emerge from their respective Midwest and East regions. This is my dream matchup not just because they're the two best teams in the field, but because they excel in such different ways. They are the opposite powerhouses.
Each of the past 10 national champions has ranked in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on kenpom.com, and both Tier 1 teams make the cut. But Louisville has the No. 1 defense and the No. 15 offense, while Indiana has the No. 1 offense and the No. 19 defense.
Louisville has a senior point guard (Peyton Siva) and its offense runs though an often-reckless, transition-layup-hunting two-guard (Russ Smith). Indiana has a freshman point guard (Yogi Ferrell) and a three-point specialist/role-player at the two (Jordan Hulls).
Louisville has a defensive-minded center who was an unheralded recruit out of Senegal (Gorgui Dieng). Indiana has an offensive-minded center who was one of the school's most prominent home-grown recruits of all time (Cody Zeller).
Louisville and its Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino, walked off the court after winning the final Big East Tournament without bothering to cut down the nets. Indiana and its brash coach-slash-revivalist-preacher, Tom Crean, cut down the nets after losing to Ohio State at home on March 5, because they had clinched a share of the Big Ten regular-season title.
More contrasts exist, but you get the idea. The only thing these teams do have in common is a strong argument for why you should put them on the final lines of your bracket.
Why Louisville? Because elite defense is the most important characteristic of a champ, and the Cardinals have improbably found ways to get stingier on D after ranking No. 1 overall in efficiency last season. They're forcing turnovers at a much higher rate than last time around (on 27.5 percent of possessions, as opposed to 23.1), and their full-court pressure is problematic in a tournament setting. Plus they have the experience of a Final Four trip last season, so they'll be unfazed when they arrive in Atlanta. New Orleans was just Louisville's test run.
Why Indiana? Don't dwell on the version of IU you saw against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament; Badgers coach Bo Ryan holds Indiana's kryptonite. The Hoosiers thrived in plenty of hostile/neutral situations this season, winning road games at Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, and beating Georgetown in Brooklyn in November. Indiana offers the best combination of sharpshooting (ranking No. 2 nationally in three-point percentage) and offensive rebounding (No. 5 overall), and most of its rotation has Sweet 16 experience from last season.
One more thing: Do you remember who the preseason AP poll, which has proven to have more predictive power than the final in-season edition, had ranked Nos. 1 and 2 on Oct. 26? It was Indiana and Louisville. Gonzaga, the current No. 1, was all the way down at 21.
The Tier 1(a) Contender: Duke
Neither Duke nor Louisville has to be happy with where the Blue Devils were slotted, as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest. Duke had a solid case to be a No. 1 over Gonzaga, and its efficiency numbers -- which have it ranked just one spot after the Louisville-Indiana-Gonzaga-Ohio State quartet -- deserve to be labeled with a positive asterisk. Duke's defensive ranking (25th) was deflated by losing senior power forward Ryan Kelly to a foot injury for 13 ACC games. With the White Raven in the starting lineup for the first two months, the Blue Devils went 15-0 and defended at an elite level, and at full strength there's very little separating them from my Tier 1 teams.
I put Duke on a lower tier for three reasons:
* Unfortunate seeding/placement in a region that geographically favors Louisville.
* Uncertainty over whether Kelly's return, which has given it an offensive boost in the short term, will actually get the defense back to title-worthy form. He was Duke's best defender prior to his injury, but does he have the lateral quickness and leaping ability now to make the same kind of impact?
* Winning the NCAAs requires playing three quick turnaround games -- and senior Seth Curry, the Blue Devils' most important perimeter scorer, has been battling a season-long right-leg injury so serious that he barely even practices. A study by Duke Hoop Blog showed that Curry's scoring and three-point percentage suffer a noticeable drop when he plays on less than four days' rest -- and Curry would be facing Louisville in the Elite Eight on less than 48 hours' rest. That could be a problem.
Teams Warranting Special Attention
The Statistical Wild Card That is Florida: The Gators, who landed a No. 3 seed in the South, are a baffling case. As in, the hardest team to read in the entire bracket. They come with obvious warning signs of tourney fraudulence, such as their 0-6 record in games decided by single digits. ... Or that they've only beaten one NCAA tournament team outside of Gainesville -- and that was Middle Tennessee State, on a neutral court in Tampa. ... Or that they take 40.4 percent of their attempts from long-range, which means they rely on the three-pointer more than just two teams in the entire field, Iowa State and Illinois. It's hard to stay hot for 3-4 straight games against elite defenses.
So why is Florida still in the conversation for the Final Four, or even the national title? Because it happens to rank No. 1 overall in efficiency, and is the only team to rank in the top five in both offense and defense. The Gators blew out the SEC by 0.286 points per possession -- by far the biggest margin of any major conference champ. They have the statistical profile of a national champ. But can they figure out how to actually look like one on the court in March and April?
The Freight Train That is Ohio State: I figured the Buckeyes would be a great sleeper pick as a No. 3 or 4 seed ... until they surged all the way up to a No. 2 by winning eight straight to close the season. Indiana and Michigan controlled most of the Big Ten spotlight, but be aware that Ohio State has a better defense than either of those teams, ranking No. 6 in efficiency. These Buckeyes are playing D as stingily as last year's Final Four team did, and although their offense isn't at the same level, go-to-guy Deshaun Thomas is getting just enough help from Aaron Craft in the scoring department for them to get by. Ohio State is like Louisville Lite, and its great D paired with its top-20 offense makes it the most attractive team in a weak West Region.
Why I'm Hesitant About Five Teams You Might Like
Miami (East No. 2): It's hard to doubt the motivational powers of Jim Larranaga, who took George Mason to the Final Four in 2006 at the same regional site (Washington). But big man Reggie Johnson has been struggling mightily of late, and not a single player on the 'Canes' roster has ever appeared in an NCAA tournament game. Running the table your first time through is next to impossible.
Michigan (South No. 4): It has the best scoring point guard in the tourney in Trey Burke ... but ranks 58th in defensive efficiency. As I wrote earlier this season: In the past 10 Final Fours, there have only been five teams ranked worse than 25th in defensive efficiency who made the Final Four -- and only two of those teams were outside the top 50. Yes, the Wolverines' powerful offense could get hot enough to win the whole thing, but the odds are heavily against it.
Gonzaga (West No. 1): These Zags are no joke, as their offense is even more lethal than the 2006 version that featured Adam Morrison and J.P. Batista. I'm just not sure if they're in the same defensive league as potential West Region opponents Wisconsin and Ohio State. While Gonzaga now ranks 14th in defensive efficiency, it was 75th before it entered West Coast Conference play. Even though kenpom's numbers are adjusted for strength of schedule, I can't help but wonder how much inferior WCC competition skewed the data.
Kansas (South No. 1): The Jayhawks' defense is, once again, stout -- it is No. 1 in effective field goal percentage allowed -- but can Kansas get consistent enough offense out of its starting backcourt? Senior point guard Elijah Johnson has been glaringly inefficient, and freshman star Ben McLemore isn't assertive enough to put a team on his back during the NCAAs. Michigan or VCU could give KU serious trouble in Dallas.
Georgetown (South No. 2): The Hoyas' defense, which alternates between man and a matchup 2-3, has been highly impressive. Otto Porter is the best all-around player in the nation, a hyper-efficient go-to-guy and an elite defender. But opponents' Porter-specific defensive game plans, like the one Syracuse unveiled during the Big East Tournament, are only going to intensify, and Florida might just have the long athletes necessary to neutralize him in the Sweet 16.
Now For Some Bracket Superlatives ...
Toughest Path for a No. 1: Midwest, and it's not even close.Louisville landed the No. 1 overall seed in the bracket, and the pleasure of potentially being joined in Indianapolis by the most dangerous No. 2 (Duke), one of the most feared tourney coaches (Tom Izzo and No. 3 Michigan State) and the best mid-major candidate to make the Final Four other than Gonzaga (No. 4 Saint Louis). Thanks, committee!
Under-ratedly Tough Path for a No. 1: The West has widely been hailed as the weakest region, but consider the grinders that await Gonzaga. The Zags' potential third round (Pitt), Sweet 16 (Wisconsin) and Elite Eight (Ohio State) opponents all rank in the top 20 in defensive efficiency and are very physical -- like better versions of the Butler team that upset Gonzaga in January.
Easiest Path for a No. 1: East, and it's not even close. Indiana's loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament semis turned out to be the difference between the Hoosiers being shipped to Indy or Washington. They lost their home-court advantage but were handed a much easier route to Atlanta, with No. 2 Miami, No. 3 Marquette and No. 4 Syracuse in their path.
Best Round-of-64 Game: I love No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 Ole Miss in Kansas City, and not just because the cockiest player in the country (Rebels guard Marshall Henderson) and the guy with the most ridiculous haircut (Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz) will be on the floor at the same time. The bigger deal is that it pits Henderson, who leads the nation in three-point attempts, against the Badgers' defense, whose No. 1 focus is taking away three-point attempts.
Upset I Like: No. 14 Valparaiso over No. 3 Michigan State. I know, it's in Auburn Hills, and I know, Tom Izzo is not the best coach to pick against in the tournament ... but the Spartans have been inconsistent offensively, and Valparaiso is the No. 1 most experienced team in the field of 68. The Crusaders start five seniors, their entire rotation consists of upperclassmen, and they're coached by miracle-worker Bryce Drew. That's a great Cinderella formula.
Upset I Don't Like: No. 13 South Dakota State over No. 4 Michigan. Nate Wolters is a cult hero -- I wrote an ode to his brilliance in November -- and Wolters vs. Trey Burke should be quite the show. But Burke was shut down last year by a defensive-minded mid-major star (Ohio's D.J. Cooper), and Wolters is far from a lockdown guy. Nor is his team. The Jackrabbits have the fourth-worst defense in the entire bracket, which doesn't bode well for their ability to hold the Wolverines' high-powered offense in check. A fun game to watch, no doubt, but it won't be an upset.
My full expert bracket will drop on Monday, but here is a preview ...
Louisville over Duke in the Midwest.
Ohio State over Wisconsin in the West.
Indiana over Miami in the East.
Florida over Michigan in the South.
Louisville over Ohio State.
Indiana over Florida.
Louisville over Indiana.