The first weekend of the NCAA tournament is about upsets, buzzer-beaters and TV cameras finding players' moms in the stands. The second weekend is about finding the true championship contenders and TV cameras finding coaches' wives in the stands. So now that we have applauded the Lehigh Engineers for performing a Krzyzewskectomy on the tournament, let's get to the top order of business: Making sure the best team doesn't win.
The best team, quite clearly, is Kentucky, and as I wrote last week: Unless you are a Kentucky fan, you are probably rooting for Anybody Else. (And again: I'm not saying that is right or wrong. It is just how so many people feel.) ESPN analyst Bob Knight apparently loathes Kentucky coach John Calipari so much that Knight won't even say "Kentucky," though I'm sure if we tap Knight on the shoulder and ask him politely, he will reconsider. You go first.
The problem is that Kentucky looks so good, Anybody Else appears hopeless. If you saw Kentucky's win over Iowa State, you know what I mean. The game was tied in the second half, and then it was like a marathon that is down to two men, and the first guy tries to pick up the pace, and then the second guy pulls out a gun and shoots the first guy. Kentucky went on a 20-2 run, and the conversation on the Iowa State bench must have been straight out of Bull Durham.
How'd we ever score two?
It's a miracle!
Every possible basketball and karmic indicator points to Kentucky winning the national title. Everybody else seems to be hurt, ineligible or not remotely good enough. But hey, there is a reason they play the games, and that reason, of course, is education. So let's assess what we have learned.
Let's separate the true contenders from the guys who are not just saying they are happy to be here, but truly are. And let's do it quickly, before this week's games confirm what last week's games seemed to prove to any reasonable observer: I am horrible at predicting college basketball.
We will go in order, from least likely to win the title to most likely.
16. Ohio: The Bobcats beat Michigan and South Florida, but now they have to play North Carolina, for the right to play Kansas, for the right to play Syracuse, for the right to play Kentucky. Even if Bill Gates decides that Ohio University basketball is "bringing innovations in health, development, and learning to the global community" and redirects all Gates Foundation money to bribing referees, Ohio has no shot.
But I will say this: Based on watching his team play exactly two games, I think we'll see a lot more of Ohio coach John Groce in the next decade. That looks like one really well-coached team.
15. Xavier: The Musketeers beat No. 7 seed Notre Dame and the 15th-seeded Lehigh Mountain Hawks in the second round. The Mountain Hawks used to be Engineers until they changed their name. Sure, we get rid of Engineers but the Washington Redskins go on their merry way. This name change robbed us of a Musketeers-Engineers game, which could have inspired the nerdiest rap song of all time. Anyway, the point is that Xavier had a really easy path to get here, and the Musketeers were a bubble team just two weeks ago. Rarely has a Sweet 16 team proven so little.
14. North Carolina State. I'm predicting 62 replays of Jimmy Valvano looking for somebody to hug and a double-digit loss to Kansas. So is everybody else.
13. Wisconsin: The Badgers lost to Iowa twice, and they struggled so much earlier this year that stat-head Ken Pomeroy had to write a whole post on kenpom.com explaining that yes, he knew his system ranked the Badgers way too high, but there was nothing he could do about it. It was a quirk of the formula. (To his credit, Pomeroy did not change his formula to make his rankings look more like conventional wisdom, which the Bowl Championship Series has done many times.) Someday, Bo Ryan may make it to the Final Four. I doubt that day is this weekend.
12. Indiana: The Hoosiers are the next team to get a crack at Kentucky. They beat the Wildcats in December on a last-second shot by Christian Watford, which was the greatest shot in the history of college basketball among games played that day. My question: Does that victory make you more or less confident that Indiana can win this time?
You can reasonably argue that the Hoosiers know how to beat the Wildcats, that they match up well, that they won't be intimidated, and maybe even that they are in Kentucky's heads. I don't see it that way. The Wildcats' only real flaw is inexperience. That could mean they overlook an opponent, or that they are vulnerable against a team they haven't seen. Obviously, neither of those applies here. I don't see how Indiana wins this game, unless Anthony Davis gets hurt running headfirst into Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's knee.
11. Baylor: I keep waiting for Perry Jones III to go from overrated to so heavily criticized that he is actually underrated. I may have to wait a long, long time. Jones, who is supposedly a lottery pick -- maybe even a high-lottery pick -- has scored nine points on 14 shots in two tournament games. He has scored 10 or fewer points in eight of his last 13 games. Hey, he's a college player. He is not obligated to be great. But if Baylor beats Xavier and plays Kentucky, who likes Jones' chances of willing the Bears to a stunning upset? That's what I thought.
10. Cincinnati. I am pulling for Cincinnati, just as I am pulling for Xavier, because I am madly in love with the possibility of CBS turning their December brawl into a feel-good story about peace, friendship and the endless reservoir of human kindness.
9. Louisville. These Cardinals do what Rick Pitino teams always do. They press. They run. They are extremely well-coached. But their ceiling is not all that high, and I am still amazed, after all these years, that Pitino has not lured more talent to Louisville. When he got there, I would have thought he'd have lottery picks every year.
8. Marquette. I'd have the Golden Eagles ranked higher but I am picking them to lose to ...
7. Florida. The Gators absolutely drilled their first two opponents, but those opponents were Virginia and Norfolk State, so we can't be too impressed. Still, even though this team is a 7 seed, there is something about Florida I like. I can't quite explain what that something is, but what do I look like? A sportswriter? Oh, right.
The Gators went 10-6 in the SEC, just like Billy Donovan's first title team in 2005-06. They shoot 38 percent from three-point range. They don't commit many turnovers. And, since the big question here is "Who can beat Kentucky?" ... well, the Gators have played Kentucky three times. The first time they lost by 20. The next time they lost by 15. The third time they lost by three. Do you sense a trend here? I know this seems to contradict what I wrote about Indiana playing Kentucky again, but I think Florida would have a shot against the Wildcats. It's hard to beat a good team four times in one season.
6. Ohio State. Jared Sullinger is a great college player and the Buckeyes are loaded with talent. But as good as they can be, they have long stretches when they can't seem to score. This is my way of saying I still don't know what to make of their chances.
5. Syracuse. Other than an alleged drug scandal, an alleged academic scandal, an alleged molestation scandal, and 33 wins in 35 games, this has been a boring year for Syracuse. I have a vision of ineligible center Fab Melo sneaking back as a 7-foot walk-on named Drab Fellow, but this seems like the kind of thing the NCAA might notice. I still give Syracuse a good shot of getting out of its regional, though. The talent level is still incredibly high.
4. Kansas. The Jayhawks almost lost to Purdue. They probably should have lost. Bill Self's teams have a habit of looking like they should definitely win and will definitely lose in every tournament game they play. Self has had more talented groups, but he has never had a player quite like Thomas Robinson, partly because there has never been a human quite like Thomas Robinson. This guy has biceps lodged in his neck.
3. Michigan State. The Spartans may have the best college player in the tournament (Draymond Green) and the best coach (Tom Izzo). That has to count for something. Or two somethings.
2. North Carolina. Point guard Kendall Marshall, arguably the Tar Heels' most important player, is injured. So why is UNC No. 2 on this list? Well, as of this writing, nobody has ruled out Marshall for this week, and more importantly, I don't know if the Tar Heels need Marshall this week. They can beat Ohio without him. They may be able to beat Kansas without him, and if N.C. State upsets Kansas, the Tar Heels can beat their archrivals without Marshall. That gives them another week to get him back. And that would mean they can overcome their December loss to ...
1. Kentucky. If you don't understand this, how did you get to the end of the article?