Before the Madness begins, I think we should pause to allow a brief requiem for the Little Guy.
Being somewhat height-challenged myself, I have special empathy for the Little Guy. As a college basketball fan, I am going to miss him. He is a victim of circumstance, a sign of the times, an unfortunate piece of collateral damage from the seismic shifts in realignment over the last several years. I fear we may never see him again, not like we used to anyway, and that is a shame, because he always made the month of March a little more maddening.
The most surprising exclusion from the field of 68 was, of course, SMU, but who got the last coveted at-large in its stead? North Carolina State. Sure, the Wolfpack beat Syracuse in the ACC tournament to seal the deal, but that's only because they had the opportunity to play Syracuse on a neutral court three days before Selection Sunday. The Little Guy doesn't get those chances. You know the saying: Can't make it unless you take it.
Mark Gottfried can play just about anyone he wants outside the ACC. He knows this, which is why he went about scheduling so smartly. N.C. State's nonconference strength of schedule was ranked 108th in the country -- not great, but not awful, either. The Wolfpack played road games at Tennessee (which it won) and Cincinnati (lost), and it also lost to Missouri at home. The reason those games are smart is because if the Pack wins, they look good, but if they lose, there's not a whole lot of damage. Gottfried also scheduled a home game against North Carolina Central, which the Wolfpack lost. I'm guessing he won't make that mistake again.
This is not to blame Gottfried. It's his job to get his team to the NCAA tournament, which he did, barely. But it does give us a window into the challenges the Green Bays of the world face in the superconference era. The Phoenix are one of those programs where playing them becomes a lose-lose. If you beat 'em, you're supposed to. If you lose to 'em, you must be bad. Green Bay was lucky this year because Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who is an alum, was crazy enough to take his team to the Resch Center on Dec. 7. The Phoenix won the game, and Virginia went on win the title in the same conference where N.C. State plays. Yet, despite winning the Horizon League regular season title by two games and amassing 24 wins, Green Bay was left out, and N.C. State scooped up the last at-large. Little Guy luck.
The other three last at-larges also went to power conference teams: Iowa, Tennessee and Xavier. I guess the new Big East is a power conference now, along with the American. So that's even more ways for the Big Guys to enhance their resumes by playing each other. Why would they take the risk of looking small?
On the one hand, it's hard to criticize the committee for leaving the Little Guys out. As much as we might want them to be in the tournament, at the end of the day the committee can only assess a team based on whom it played, whom it beat and where it played. But the reality bites. It is near impossible for the Little Guys to improve their schedules. Thus, they have no margin for error. They need to run the table in their leagues in spectacular fashion and at least play their way to the tournament final to have the slimmest hope of getting at-large consideration. In the end, they will still likely lose out to a Big Guy who happened to catch a highly-ranked team on a bad day in March.
So that's where we stand as the 2014 NCAA tournament gets underway. The rich got richer. The Big Guys get bigger. And there are fewer Cinderellas on hand to crash the ball, which makes this tournament feel a little bit too small.
• I'll say it one more time: If it's possible to be the No. 1-ranked team and still be underrated, the Florida Gators have pulled it off. They don't have any surefire pros, and they lost two games early so that knocked them out of the undefeated conversation. Thus the limited buzz. And the SEC had a lousy season, so that took some of the bloom off their perfect conference record. But I like a team that knows how to win, and the Gators have shown they can do just that, time and time and time again. That's why they're my pick to win it all.
• Speaking of winning, if you've been following me this season, you know that I've been extolling Stephen F. Austin for a while now. I even voted for them on my AP top 25 ballot the last three weeks. The Lumberjacks have not lost since Nov. 23. That's 28 consecutive games and counting.
I love watching these guys play. They don't have much size, but they run a precise, efficient offense, and they really lock teams up on the defensive end. The one weakness they have is a lack of size, but VCU does not have the personnel to take advantage. SFA, on the other hand, has plenty of experienced ballhandlers who should be able to handle Havoc.
Should the Lumberjacks advance, they will likely have quite a challenge in UCLA, which is coming in red-hot after beating Arizona to win the Pac-12 tournament, but once again, the Bruins do not run much of their offense through the post. If you're looking to take a chance, you could do a lot worse than to pick Stephen F. Austin to make the Sweet 16. That's what I did.
• Aside from Louisville, New Mexico is the most under-seeded team in the bracket. The Lobos beat San Diego State two out of three times this season, including in the Mountain West tournament final, yet the Aztecs got a 4 seed and the Lobos a 7. Go figure. That could be bad news for No. 2 Kansas, which as we all know will be without 7-foot freshman Joel Embiid for at least the first week. Meanwhile, New Mexico's biggest strength is its frontcourt tandem of 6-9 Cameron Bairstow and 7-foot Alex Kirk. Those dudes are legitimately big, and they can play. Even if the Jayhawks had Embiid, they would have had their hands full. Without him, they're ripe to be plucked. I know I should be gun shy about the Loboso after picking them to go to the Final Four last year, only to see them lose to Harvard in its first game, but I'm gonna take another flyer and send them all the way to the Elite Eight.
• As for Ohio State vs. Dayton, I know it seems like a matchup that was manufactured by the selection committee. (Ditto for Louisville-Manhattan in the Midwest, the Teacher vs. Pupil game in which Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino will face former assistant Steve Masiello.) But having gone through several mock selection exercisees, I can tell you that it would be nearly impossible to do that. The committee doesn't start placing teams into the bracket until Sunday, and things are so set by then that to move things around for the sake of storylines would generate chaos in an already stressful situation. Plus, I'd like to believe that if any one of the committee members made an argument to create a matchup because one coach played for the other, he or she would get smacked down in a heartbeat. Conspiracy theories are fun, but that's just not the way it works.
• Back in November, I voted Michigan State as my preseason number one team. So I started off believing the Spartans had the best blend of experience and talent in the country. After a long and winding road that saw them beset by a multitude of maladies, Michigan State has finally hit its stride. The return of junior forward Branden Dawson, who broke his hand because he lost his fight with a piece of furniture, is a game-changer on the defensive end. Keith Appling's right wrist is still not fully healed, and probably won't be until the season is over. But at least he has figured a way to impact the game without taking a lot of shots, and he will only get better as the tourney rolls on.
The Spartans better be ready for their opening game, because Delaware is a good team which, unlike a lot of automatic qualifiers, won its conference regular season title. Still, now that Michigan State is fully healthy, it is one of a small handful of teams in the tournament that truly excels at both ends of the floor. I like the Spartans to make the Final Four.
• Harvard has been on my short list of Cinderella sleepers, and Cincinnati has been on my short list of upset candidates, so it should come as no surprise that I went with the Crimson in the classic 12-5 upset. Now playing in its third consecutive NCAA tournament, Harvard will not be intimidated by the competition. The Crimson played road games at Colorado (before the Buffaloes lost their best player, Spencer Dinwiddie) and UConn, and lost by single digits both times. They are better than the team that upset New Mexico in the tourney last year because Harvard added two seniors, guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey, who had to sit out last season due to an academic scandal. Unlike Cincinnati, which relies heavily on Sean Kilpatrick to generate offense, Harvard has a speedy three-guard lineup in which every player is a threat. That means the Crimson should be able to handle Cincy's length and perimeter pressure. Unless the Bearcats suddenly find offense from players who haven't produced all season, I think they're going home early.
• It hasn't gotten much conversation, but one of my favorite second-round matchups is occuring in this region: North Carolina vs. Providence. This game will feature two of the most dynamic scoring guards in the country in UNC's Marcus Paige and PC's Bryce Cotton. These guys are practically mirror images of each other. The difference is that I think Providence has better overall team speed and toughness. The tougher quesiton is how the Friars will respond to having won the Big East tournament. Will they be emotionally spent, or have they discovered a new confidence that will propel them? I'm guessing it's the latter. Besides, this is a good place to pick an upset, because I don't think either of these teams can beat Iowa State.
• The one team that jumps out at me from this region is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are the most intriguing and dangerous team in the West. Like Michigan State, this team was seeded lower than its ability because of its overall resume, which was impacted not only by Marcus Smart's three-game suspension (the Cowboys lost all three) but by the losing skid that preceded it. But Oklahoma State won five of its final seven games, including a seven-point win over Kansas, a 16-point drubbing at home of Kansas State and two overtime losses to Iowa State (road) and Kansas (Big 12 tourney). Does that sound like a 9 seed to you? Their speed and toughness makes the Cowboys a bad matchup for Gonzaga, because those are the two things the Zags lack. I didn't pick the Pokes to upset top-seed Arizona, because the Wildcats are so big inside while Oklahoma State plays small, but believe me, I was tempted. Take note.
• Like Cincinnati, San Diego State was on my upset-watch list because of its offensive deficiencies. That's why I'm going with Oklahoma in the third-round upset. I'll also be interested to see if Baylor and Creighton match up in the third round because Baylor plays a ton of zone, which is about the worst thing you can do against Dougie McBuckets. If Creighton meets Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen as I've projected, that will mean McBuckets and Frank Kaminsky will be on the same court at the same time. If ever there were a matchup made in hoops heaven, that is the one.
• I know Badger Nation is still picking itself off the floor after I picked Wisconsin to go to the Final Four on the CBS Selection Show. Don't worry, I still hate Wisconsin, just in a good way. There are two reasons I've come to believe in the Badgers. The first is the evolution of Kaminsky as an inside scorer. He was so red-hot as a long-range shooter early in the season that he came to rely too much on that aspect of his game. The dude is 7 foot, 234 pounds. That's why they call him Frank the Tank, not Frank the Tricycle. When he goes blue collar under the rim, he takes this team to new heights. The second factor has been the emergence of freshman forward Nigel Hayes during the second half of the season. He also gives the Badgers a toughness and energy they lacked early on. An Arizona-Wisconsin regional final would be a delight if only because Sean Miller and Bo Ryan are arguably the two best coaches in college basketball who have never been to a Final Four. But if they play, only one of them can go, and I say it's Bo.
• Again, let's dispense with the conspiracy theories. The committee did not try to create anything with this region. Setting aside just how "tough" the Midwest is, it certainly is the most glamorous region I've ever seen. Among the top four seeds, three of them made the Final Four last year -- and the fourth is Duke. The Midwest also includes two other coaches, Kentucky's John Calipari and Rick Barnes of Texas, who have coached in the Final Four. Needless to say, if you were looking for a place to visit during the third week of March, you could do a lot worse than Indianapolis.
• The hardest game for me to pick on my entire bracket was a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup between Louisville and Wichita State. The Shockers had the Cardinals on the ropes in last year's Final Four, owning a double-digit lead midway through the second half, before losing to the eventual champs. In the end, I went with Wichita State because I think they're a little bit better than they were last year (because of the upgrade at point from Malcolm Armstead to Fred Van Fleet) and Louisville is a little bit worse (because of the downgrade at center from Gorgui Dieng to Stephen Van Tresse). But that was basically a coin flip, and I believe whoever wins will end up in North Texas.
• As for Kentucky, I realize the Wildcats are a trendy pick to upset Wichita State and make the Sweet Sixteen, but I'm not feeling that one. The Shockers play old-man basketball, and their primary asset is toughness. In fact, I think it's more likely that Kentucky would lose to Kansas State than beat Wichita State.
• I came real close to picking Mercer to upset Duke in the first round, but I backed off because it's hard to go against Mike Krzyzewski with a week of prep time. But the Blue Devils better be ready. Everyone remembers what Florida Gulf Coast did in the NCAA tournament last year, but most people forget that Mercer was the regular season champ in the Atlantic Sun. This year, the Bears returned the favor by beating FGCU on its home court to get the Atlantic Sun's auto bid.
Mercer has a terrific backcourt in Langston Hall and Anthony White, Jr., but what separates the Bears from most teams at their level is their size up front. They start 6-10, 220-pound senior Daniel Coursey and bring 6-11, 250-pound senior Monty Brown off the bench. They also have a savvy (if undersized) 6-6 baseline scorer in Jakob Gollon. Like I said, I still like Duke to win the game, but if the Blue Devils don't play well, they're home early. I'm quite certain they know that.
• I take a lot of chances with my bracket picks, which is why I often say my best advice in filling out yours is not to use my picks. I try to pick with my head and not my heart, but I have to say, one of the reasons I picked Wichita State to go to the championship game is because I really, really , really want it to happen. Not because I love Wichita State, but because I love a great story. This is the first time since UNLV in 1991 that a team is entering the NCAA tournament undefeated. It has also been that long since an undefeated team made the Final Four. The last undefeated team to reach the title game was Indiana State in 1979, and the last undefeated team to win a title was Indiana in 1976. Just imagine, for a moment, if Wichita State (Wichita State!) took the floor on April 8 with a chance to make that kind of history. I can't think of a better way for this wacky and wonderful college basketball season to come to a close.