Monday March 15th, 2010

Sherron Collins

Sherron Collins and the Jayhawks are the No. 1 seed in a stacked Midwest Region. (Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

A deluge of thoughts from my first few hours poring over the NCAA tournament bracket ...

• The first thing I did after printing out the bracket was put Kansas in the national champion's box. It wasn't as easy of a title pick as North Carolina was last season, but it was close. The NBA talent is there, the depth is there, the experience is there, and most importantly, Sherron Collins is there. I'll be stunned if I'm not writing a KU column in Lucas Oil Stadium late on the night of April 5.

• Second thing I did was put Kentucky in the title game alongside Kansas. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are almost an unstoppable freshman force. I can't see any of the teams in their path to the final Monday Night -- Temple, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Duke, Villanova -- pulling off an upset.

• The Selection Sunday moment that left the biggest impression on me had nothing to do with brackets. It was how Wall celebrated Cousins' game-tying put-back that sent the SEC tournament final to overtime. Wall tackled Cousins as if he'd won the game ... because Wall actually thought UK had won the game. He'd lost track of the score. It was a metaphor for Kentucky as a whole: Supremely talented, unbelievably entertaining, but you worry that at some key moment in the NCAA tournament, they might make a crippling mental mistake.

• That's a big reason why I prefer Kansas to Kentucky: I never worry that Collins will make a mistake like that. (I'm aware he nearly fumbled the ball away at the end of regulation in the 2008 title game, but everyone knows what happened next.)

• The bracket has me feeling very 2008. Self vs. Calipari. Collins vs. Superfrosh. Ball-screen offense vs. Dribble Drive Motion. I'll be overjoyed if we get a national title game nearly as good as Kansas-Memphis. I was depressed while walking back to my Detroit hotel after last year's finale -- not because the season was over, but just because the ending was so anticlimactic.

• My issue with the Group of Death Midwest Region isn't so much that Kansas got screwed despite being the No. 1 overall seed. It's not the hugest deal, for the Jayhawks, that they were paired with one of the two best two-seeds (Ohio State), the best three-seed (Georgetown) and the strongest four-five combination (Maryland-Michigan State). They can beat those teams. They will beat those teams. The problem is that by overloading Kansas' region, the NCAA Selection Committee severely diluted the West and South, making for one of the most unbalanced brackets ever.

• No one wants to be the guy who puts four No. 1s in his Final Four. So I went hunting for a non-No. 1 that I liked out of the West or South ... and started wishing West Virginia, Ohio State, Georgetown or Michigan State were in the West or South.

• Other than Syracuse, there's only one team in the West with a Final Four-level efficiency profile: Kansas State, which ranks 16th in offensive efficiency and 19th on D. The Wildcats fell out of national favor a bit after losing their regular-season finale to Iowa State, and they failed to beat Kansas in three tries, the last one coming in the Big 12 tournament title game. But this is still a team with a dangerous veteran backcourt, and it's proven it can win outside of Manhattan. Aside from those KU losses, the 'Cats only fell once on the road (to Missouri) and once at a neutral site (to Ole Miss).

• I'm going to go out on a limb and pick Frank Martin's club to beat Syracuse and reach the Final Four. I don't think anyone -- especially CBS -- is clamoring for a fourth meeting between the powers of the Sunflower State, but I have a feeling it could happen.

• The West Region has one of the toughest 8-9 matchups in recent memory, pitting Florida State, the No. 1 overall team in defensive efficiency, against Gonzaga, which didn't deserve to be anything lower than a 7 seed. The game will come down to whether Zags guards Matt Bouldin and Steven Gray (and to a lesser degree, forward Elias Harris) can hit threes, because the Seminoles' 7-foot-1 center, Solomon Alabi, doesn't allow anything to happen inside the paint.


Matt Bouldin's shoes.

• That 8-9 game also features the only player in the tournament (or at least he "guarantees" us he's the only one) with an Allman Brothers song referenced on his shoes. Matt Bouldin's Nike Kobe IVs have "SOULSHINE" printed on the side, in honor of Warren Haynes' power ballad from 1994.

Bouldin gives his sister, Brittany, the credit for turning him on to the Allmans when he was younger. "The words -- 'Let your soul shine, it's better than moonshine, it's better than sunshine' -- might be be cheesy, but me and my sister have been using that ever since I've been in high school," he said. "I've written it on all my shoes since then, but this was the first time I had them custom-made."

(Here's some YouTube audio of Soulshine, for the uninitiated:

It's a good thing that the Bouldins' favorite Allman tune isn't In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. Matt would need Shaq-sized kicks to make that fit.)

• It's not a travesty that Duke got a No. 1 seed. It won the ACC. It won the ACC tournament. It was the No. 1 overall team in the efficiency rankings (which I care about, but the committee doesn't). The Blue Devils are a good team with a great statistical profile. What didn't make sense was giving them the third overall seed and the least-competitive region. The South is like the NIT compared to the Midwest: Villanova is lucky to be a No. 2, Purdue is hardly playing like a No. 4 seed, and Notre Dame is overseeded (by two or three spots) at a No. 6.

• Baylor, the South's No. 3 seed, got a lot of hype as a sleeper Final Four pick on the Selection Sunday reaction shows. The Bears aren't a top-50 team in defensive efficiency, though, and no one on their roster has ever won an NCAA tournament game. Is that really a Final Four formula?

• Because of the way-too-weak field in the South, I'm tentatively putting Duke in Indianapolis. This is the most statistically robust Blue Devils team since the 2004 club that went to the Final Four in San Antonio and lost to eventual champ Connecticut. They rank No. 1 overall in efficiency, and it's going to take a legitimately elite team to knock them off this time around. (Such as Kentucky, in the Final Four. That could be a slaughter.)

• Was there really not anyone in the committee room who looked at the South Region and thought it was absurd? Because that's what I think every time I look at it.

• If you insist on picking someone to upset the Blue Devils, the team with the best chance might be Texas A&M. The fifth-seeded Aggies are a true major-conference sleeper, having stayed off the radar because they never had a marquee victory. But they have tournament experience (this is Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis' fourth dance), they defend well (ranking 23rd in efficiency), and they've put two good scares into Kansas this season. A&M would have the crowd in its favor in a Sweet 16 matchup with the Blue Devils in Houston, too.

• All signs point to putting Villanova in the Final Four being a bad idea. The Wildcats really shouldn't be a No. 2 seed, given that they only have one non-league win over a tourney team (Maryland), and 2-5 record in their final seven games. That slump, which included an 18-point loss at Syracuse, is troubling, and when I saw 'Nova at the Garden on Thursday, it didn't look like the same team that I watched win a thriller against Georgetown in mid-January. The Wildcats' defense is well behind where it was last year -- their defensive efficiency ranking then was 15, and now it's 62 -- and they don't have much frontcourt depth.

• And yet, I seriously considered putting Villanova in the Final Four. The combination of Scottie Reynolds and Jay Wright has been pretty damn good in March for the past two seasons, going to the Sweet 16 as a 12-seed in '08, and going to the Final Four as a three-seed in '09. It's hard to imagine Reynolds not going deep in the dance as a senior, but from a more logical standpoint, it's also hard to imagine the 'Cats defending Baylor's interior players and making it past the Sweet 16.

• I feel for Georgetown, which should have been in the Wildcats' No. 2 spot in the South. You wonder if the Hoyas just weren't considered a good fit there because of the presence of Old Dominion and Duke -- two teams they'd already played in the non-conference season. I would've put GU in the Final Four without hesitation had it been paired in a region with the Blue Devils, and without Ohio State and Kansas.

Monroe Doctrine

A sign from Madison Square Garden.

• The St. Louis regional could be amazing, with Kansas-Michigan State and Ohio State-Georgetown games back-to-back. I hope the Hoyas' sign-making students come along to the dance; they make the smartest posterboards in the country. My favorite effort of theirs, at Madison Square Garden this weekend, was one that read, "Obey the Monroe Doctrine." Hoyas star Greg Monroe is the NCAA's best all-around center, and the intention of the Monroe Doctrine (in 1823) was to keep Europe out of the affairs of the Western Hemisphere ... so one interpretation of the sign is that it's a warning to European big men who are considering entering the draft and pushing Monroe out of the lottery. Jan Vesely and Donatas Motiejunas, the Georgetown students would like you to stay at home.

(Georgetown's roster is Euro-free, because Belarussian forward Nikita Mescheriakov transferred to Wake Forest at mid-season. Maybe he was irked by the sign.)

• One guy in the dance who hasn't obeyed the doctrine is Old Dominion's Gerald Lee, a 6-foot-10 forward from Finland who has two career victories over the Hoyas, the most recent coming on Dec. 19. Lee's Monarchs are no threat to Georgetown in this bracket -- they're all the way over in the South -- but they could pull off an upset of Notre Dame in New Orleans.

Blaine Taylor

The head of ODU coach Blaine Taylor.

• Speaking of Old Dominion, I’m still haunted by the giant Blaine Taylor head that joined the court-storming at the CAA tournament final I covered in Richmond, Va. Fear the mustache, indeed.

• The upset pick I like most isn't ODU over the Irish, or Siena over Purdue: it's UTEP over Butler in San Jose. I was impressed by the Bulldogs when I saw them against Wright State last week, and they're on a tear, winning 20 straight heading into the dance. But the Miners are exactly the kind of team that could give Butler fits. Their front-line combo of Derrick Caracter (6-9) and Arnett Moultrie (6-11) will be a lot for the foul-prone Matt Howard to handle, and if he's neutralized, the Bulldogs don't have much in the way of frontcourt depth. Any of the other 12-seeds -- New Mexico State, Cornell or Utah State -- would've been a much better matchup for the denizens of Hinkle Fieldhouse.

• If you’re looking for a few sleeper picks to reach the Sweet 16, start with UTEP. The Miners defend better than either of their potential second-round foes, Vanderbilt or Murray State -- especially inside the arc, where they hold opponents to just 43.3 percent shooting, the 20th-lowest percentage in the country. I like a couple of 6 seeds to make the second weekend, too: Xavier, by beating Minnesota and Pitt; and Marquette, by beating Washington and New Mexico.

Marquette Shoes

Marquette's new Jordans.

• If Marquette makes it that far, will it be due to its Buddhist philosophy, or its new shoes? The Golden Eagles played their past two NCAA tournaments wearing Converse, and didn't make it past the second round. They switched to Jordan Brand this season, and were hooked up with custom Air Jordan Icons (seen at right) last week. While rocking them at the Garden, Marquette knocked off St. John's and Villanova before getting blown out by Georgetown in the semifinals.

(SneakerNews has exclusive images of the custom Jordans that were given to Cal and Georgetown too -- but I care more about Marquette, because the Bears and Hoyas have been wearing His Airness' kicks for years.)

• If Marquette were to reach the Sweet 16, it would likely run into the coldest-blooded man in March, West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler. I had the pleasure of watching Mr. Butler at the Garden last weekend, and know that if he gets the ball in his hands late in a tie game against Kentucky, my Wildcats-in-the-title-game pick will be ruined. I also know -- from the photo I'll leave you with below -- that once the game is over, Butler turns back into a regular, warm-blooded American male.

Da'Sean Butler

West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler, captivated by ... something. (Luke Winn/SI)

(Need something else to do now that you're done reading? Join my Tourney Blog Pool on Facebook.)

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