Many people who will watch the NCAA tournament this week are just tuning in to college hoops for the first time this season. Real hoopheads like us, however, have been locked in since the start of practice in October. Nothing we see over the next three weeks is going to surprise us. We've trained ourselves to expect the unexpected.
That has been the theme throughout the 2010-11 season. Parity. Upsets. Mass mediocrity. Even in a bracket where we have two No. 1 seeds who have lost just two games, it's not hard to spy some potentially fatal flaws. What about Ohio State's lack of depth? Can the Buckeyes win a fast game? Does Kansas have the discipline to maximize its talent, or is there someone out there who is poised to be this year's Ali Farokhmanesh?
I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I know I am asking the right questions. It's not whether we'll see any upsets but where those upsets will come from. As you look at my thoughts through each region and fill out your bracket in time for tonight's 6:30 p.m. opening round game, I encourage you to take a few chances. Because if you don't do it this year, you never will.
• Everyone immediately bought into the theme that this is the toughest region, but I think that's a reaction to the names on the front of the jerseys rather than the players who fill them. Regular visitors to this space know that I am a big believer in experience during the NCAA tournament, and three of the "name schools" in this region are also three of the youngest teams in the tournament. According to Kenpom.com, Syracuse is ranked 275th in the country in experience, Kentucky is 314th and North Carolina is 323rd. I have two of those three in my Sweet 16, but if you're looking for highly seeded teams from this region to knock out in the early rounds, you should look at those three.
• North Carolina fans should be concerned about the way their team played in the ACC tournament. Getting blown out wire-to-wire by Duke was bad enough, but the Heels also spotted Miami and Clemson big leads before rallying. That to me is the sign of a team that does not yet know how to play March basketball. Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall have made great strides the last two months, but they have never experienced the pressure of playing a game where a loss can end their season.
• I've been singing Xavier's praises for the last couple of months, and I think it drew a favorable matchups in Marquette and potentially Syracuse. The Musketeers have a fabulous perimeter trio of Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Dante Jackson, which means they will be comfortable running around with Marquette's guards. I also think Xavier will be comfortable playing against that Syracuse zone, and it's not because the Musketeers are a good jump-shooting team (the zone is designed to clamp down on threes). Rather, I like Xavier because it takes good care of the basketball (11.9 turnovers pre game). If the Orange aren't getting steals for transition layups, their offense can be stagnant. I also like teams that have a high-scoring guard who can break down defenses at the end of the shot clock, and Holloway, who averages 20.2 points and 5.5 assists per game, fits that mold to a T. He's not as good as Stephen Curry, but he'll evoke comparisons as he leads the Musketeers on a "surprise" run to the Elite Eight.
• Ohio State was my pick to win the national championship all the way up until Sunday morning. I had my epiphany while watching highlights of Kansas' win over Texas while I was working out on an elliptical machine. The Buckeyes are obviously an excellent team but I just don't believe they can get to that top shelf in the closet the way Kansas can. That said, the biggest reason to pick Ohio State to win the title is that they are the least likely of the main contenders to lose a game they shouldn't. They are talented, disciplined, experienced and smart. That's why they're my choice to win the East.
• What has two thumbs and is crazy enough to pick Oakland over Texas in the first round? This guy! If my assessments of Texas have been all over the place --like many others, I voted the Longhorns No. 1 on my AP ballot just four weeks ago -- it's because the Longhorns themselves have been all over the place. The only thing this team lacks is -- you guessed it -- experience. The four most important players are two freshmen and two sophomores. The Golden Grizzlies, on the other hand, have an NBA-caliber senior center in 6-foot-11 Keith Benson (though he's more of a finesse player than I'd like him to be for this matchup). Their second-leading scorer is redshirt junior guard Reggie Hamilton, and their glue guy is 6-9 senior Will Hudson. All upperclassmen. Plus they played a great schedule, winning at Tennessee and losing by a point to Michigan State on a neutral court. The Grizzlies lost just once in the Summit League, so they're used to winning, and they played in the last two NCAA tournaments so they won't be fazed.
• Count me as one of those silly folks who think that UConn is going to have a hard time regenerating after its epic five-games-in-five-days march to the Big East championship. The issue isn't physical as much as it is intellectual and emotional. And this is yet another young team. (They're 332nd in Pomeroy's experience ranking.) Why, then, did I pick UConn to go to the Elite Eight? Because I like the matchups. Bucknell is not a formidable first-round opponent, and in the second round the Huskies would face either a Missouri team that has had trouble winning away from home or a Cincinnati team they have already beaten on the road. And I am also not a huge believer in San Diego State, even with its potential advantage in Anaheim. If BYU did not lose Brandon Davies, it probably would have beaten SDSU in the Mountain West tournament, and the Aztecs would not be a two seed in the West.
• I've been critical of Duke over the last few weeks. The Blue Devils had fallen into the habit of hoisting too many three-pointers, and it was costing them in tough road games where rebounding, defense and foul shooting is paramount. This was especially true with Kyle Singler, who has been spending too much time this season acting like a two guard instead of what he really is -- a power forward. Last year, Singler also struggled with his shooting in the regular season, but he stepped up his game and played man's basketball in March. I could see the same happening during the ACC tournament, where Singler attempted 12 three-pointers to 14 free throws in the three games. Best of all, the Plumlee brothers seemed to be doing their best Brian Zoubek-Lance Thomas imitations. They did a good job crashing the offensive glass, but once they got a carom their first look was to pass to the perimeter rather than look to score. The one team in this region that Duke wants to avoid is Texas, but even if the Blue Devils faced the Longhorns, I think their maturity would prevail.
• This is the only region where I have the top four seeds advancing to the Sweet 16, but there are a few potential "surprise" teams here as well. The main one is Richmond. The Spiders finished the season on a high note by winning the Atlantic 10 tournament, but what I really like about them is that they play that funky Princeton offense. Other teams in the conference understand how to play against that system, but once you take it outside the conference it becomes unfamiliar. I picked Richmond to beat Vanderbilt but I don't have a ton of confidence in that pick because the Commodores have excellent perimeter talent of their own as well as a lights-out shooter in John Jenkins.
• People (including myself) have been doubting Louisville all season, but the Cardinals keep answering every test, including when they reached the finals of the Big East tournament. I love Kenneth Faried as much as the next guy (unless that guy is Luke Winn), but Morehead State's guards are going to be overwhelmed by Louisville's pressing D. I was also tempted to move USC into the second round via a win over slumping Georgetown, and the more I revisit my bracket, the more I wish I had. I guess I'm banking that Georgetown is going to get the lift it so badly needs with senior guard Chris Wright returning from an injury to his left (non-shooting) hand.
• It seems like the entire state of Indiana has been clamoring for a game between Purdue and Notre Dame, and they could well get it in the Sweet 16. I'd even be up for moving this game out of San Antonio so it could be played in Hinkle Fieldhouse. This was a tough call, but I went with Purdue for two reasons. First, with all due respect to Ben Hansbrough, Purdue would have the best two players on the court in JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore. Second, Notre Dame's primary advantage is its all-senior starting lineup, but Purdue is equally dependent on upperclassmen. Plus, Purdue actually gets better defensively when Matt Painter goes to his bench, which is unusual.
• The main reason I picked Kansas to win the national championship last year was that it had an unquestioned leader in senior point guard Sherron Collins. That, however, turned out to be a problem against Northern Iowa. Collins was horrible, but coach Bill Self had nowhere else to turn. That won't be the case this time around. If Tyshawn Taylor starts playing out of control -- and he will at some point -- Self can simply yank the kid and bring in Elijah Johnson. In Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, Self can turn to two seniors who can both run the offense, create plays for teammates, defend and make shots. Self has the same luxury of mixing and matching in the frontcourt, and the Morris twins are as gifted as any players in this tournament. The bottom line is that Kansas has more talented top to bottom than any other team in America. The only question is whether the Jayhawks will play up to their potential. I think they will, which is why they're my pick to win the whole shebang.
• Everywhere I've turned the last 24 hours, I've heard or read some expert describe the Southeast as the easiest of the four regions and an obvious cakewalk for Pittsburgh. Yet I made my case on the CBS Selection Show that I saw a number of teams in this region that were well-positioned to pull upsets. It pained me to see Butler paired against Old Dominion in the second round because they were both schools I planned to jump on to predict a few upsets. I picked ODU to win the game because I think the Monarchs can match Butler's physicality but are better able to score some easy points. And I went with ODU to pull off the upset over Pitt because this is one of the few teams in the tournament, mid-major or not, that can bang with the Panthers on the boards. Old Dominion and Pitt are ranked 1-2 in the nation in rebound margin -- in that order. The Monarchs played in the last two NCAA tournaments, and last year they beat Notre Dame. If they played 10 times I'm guessing Pitt would win seven of them, but in the NCAA tournament it only takes one time. It says here this will be that one for Old Dominion.
• You won't see a bigger contrast in styles than the game between Belmont and Wisconsin. Bruins coach Rick Byrd has an 11-man rotation that he shuffles in and out in an effort apply defensive pressure and wear the other team out. On offense, the Bruins like to spread you and bury three-pointers, but unlike a lot of teams at their level they have a couple of serviceable big men in 6-10 junior Scott Saunders and 6-9 junior Mick Hedgepeth. Wisconsin has a stellar point guard in Jordan Taylor who should presumably be able to handle that pressure, but the Badgers are going to be without Mike Bruesewitz, a.k.a. Carrot Top, who is a valuable scorer and rebounder off the bench. Finally, we all know the Badgers are a vastly more beatable team outside of Madison. I think Belmont could be this year's Cornell, so I'm taking the chance.
• Like you, I would love to see The Jimmer shoot his way to Houston, but it's evident that this is a very different team without suspended big man Brandon Davies. I was willing to give the Cougars a mulligan after they got blown out at home by New Mexico, but they looked unimpressive in the Mountain West tournament, where they had to struggle to get by TCU and then got blown out by San Diego State. It's not that Davies was such a great player, it's that he was the only player on this team who did the things he did -- namely scoring, defending and rebounding in the post. That means less inside-out action to get Fredette and Jackson Emery their open looks, and fewer offensive rebounds when they miss. Whether BYU plays St. John's or Gonzaga in the second round, I think it will be Fredette's final game as a collegian. If that happens, it will be hard to bid him goodbye.
(Let me add one caveat to my BYU analysis: The biggest thing they have in their favor is the fact that this game is being played in Denver. Players and coaches who have competed at high altitude will tell you they were very much affected by it. Since BYU is in a high altitude in Provo its players will be much more acclimated. If The Jimmer is the Cougars' lethal weapon, the altitude is their secret weapon.)
• I was surprised that Florida did not compete better with Kentucky in the SEC final. It's no crime to lose that game but to get manhandled like that has to make a team question its confidence. Fortunately for the Gators, there are no racehorse teams like Kentucky in this region, and if my upset premonitions come to pass then their path will have been cleared of Pitt. (For the record, if Pitt does meet Florida in the regional final, I'm almost certain I'd pick the Panthers. That would be a bad matchup for the Gators.) You always have to be suspicious of Florida's guard play, but the Gators hit their stride once they realized their point guard was 6-10 senior forward Chandler Parsons. That's not to say Parsons literally plays the point and I wouldn't even describe him as a point forward, but this team is at its best when the offense runs through him. (He leads Florida in rebounds and steals.) The Gators' talent sometimes leave me underwhelmed, but there's a reason they won the SEC East by three games. It says here they've got more winning to do, and their season will end in Houston.