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
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.
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
Teams Warranting Special Attention
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
Why I'm Hesitant About Five Teams You Might Like
Now For Some Bracket Superlatives ...
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.