March 26, 2008

The Feast of St. Ovinton J'Anthony, patron saint of busted brackets, falls during the downtime between the first and second weekends of the NCAA tournament -- a designated period of mourning for wages lost, spouses alienated and Cinderellas spurned.

But it's also a time for contemplation and recommitment. And for those of you looking to get back on the wagon with the regionals looming, SIOC has commissioned this evaluation of the 16 clubs still standing and their odds of cutting down the nets in San Antonio. For entertainment purposes only!

Odds: 50-to-1

Overshadowed by sexier mid-major media darlings for practically the entire year, the Hilltoppers have soaked in the spotlight following the opening-round defeats of No. 5 Drake and No. 13 San Diego. Between three senior backcourt starters who get to end their collegiate careers in style and a coach/alumnus who led the WKU to its previous Sweet 16 appearance as a player, there's a lot to like about this story. But while the Sun Belt champs thrive in up-tempo contests, looming opponent UCLA controls game pace as effectively as any team in the country. For the conference elitists among you: WKU is the only remaining team, besides Kansas and Tennessee, which didn't face a team from a power conference on its Sweet 16 run. Their lone victories against BCS schools came against Michigan and Nebraska in December. Happy trails, 'Toppers.

Odds: 40-to-1

All week I've listened to Georgetown fans destroy John Thompson III like the guy couldn't coach a fish to swim. All they had to do is stop one guy and he went for 30. While there's a lot of truth to that, Davidson is hardly a one-dimensional team. Baby-faced assassin Stephen Curry does carry the lion's share of the offensive load, but floor general Jason Richards leads Division I in assists while chipping in 12.9 points nightly. Andrew Lovedale, Boris Meno and Thomas Sander give the Wildcats some stout and capable bodies up front. But here's the rub: Last weekend marked Davidson's first two victories against RPI top 100 opponents after nine straight losses since November 2005. To cut down the nets, they'll need four more in 11 days. I can't imagine anybody -- not even criminally underappreciated Davidson coach Bob McKillop -- expects it to happen.

Odds: 30-to-1

What's a more impressive coaching job: Making No. 1 in the polls and advancing to the Elite Eight during a "payoff" year like 2006 -- or coaching a mercurial assembly of freshmen and sophomores into the Sweet 16 during a rebuilding season? The Wildcats have been up, down and all around during Jay Wright's seventh year on the Main Line, almost missing the NCAA tournament entirely after dropping nine of their last 16 games going into Selection Sunday. But a come-from-behind upset of No. 5 Clemson and a perfunctory dismissal of No. 13 Siena have pushed the 'Cats into the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years. Villanova has struggled the entire season in defending the perimeter, a deficiency which could doom it Friday against top-seeded Kansas. But even if the Kittens engineer the tournament's signature upset against the Jayhawks, I can't imagine this litter surviving a likely Elite Eight showdown with the nation's premier defensive team: Wisconsin.

Odds: 25-to-1

Almost two full years into the Pullman renaissance, the enigmatic Cougars remain a mystery to East Coast college hoops fans. Washington State's soporific approach slows down the tempo to a crawl and suffocates opponents on the defensive end. Look no further than opening-weekend victories against Winthrop (held to 11 second-half points) and Notre Dame (limited to a season-low 48 points). The Cougars might seem overmatched in the Sweet 16 against top-overall seed North Carolina -- but so did the similarly deliberate and methodical Hoyas in last year's Elite Eight.

Odds: 25-to-1

The Mountaineers have looked like a legitimate threat to make a deep tourney run from a statistical standpoint since December, ranking consistently among the nation's top 25 teams in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Until an egregious Jan. 26 home loss to Cincinnati -- former employer of first-year coach Bob Huggins -- I was ready to pencil the Mountaineers into the Elite Eight regardless of the brackets. But I'm thinking the Morgantown school topped out with Saturday's how-do-you-like-me-now victory over Duke -- and a lack of a consistent interior game will ultimately catch up with Huggy Bear's charges.

Odds: 20-to-1

The early decade myth dictating guard play as the keystone to a national championship team has been debunked by a bevy of frontcourt-driven champs in recent years. Brook and Robin Lopez give the Cardinal a pair of mobile seven-footers -- a luxury not enjoyed by any of the 15 other teams still standing. But can Stanford really hope to win the whole thing with virtually zero guards who can create on their own against elite teams? No offense to the serviceable Mitch Johnson. Any opponent who can win the battle of the boards and apply decent pressure to the Stanford backcourt will chop down the Cardinal. South Region rivals Memphis, Texas and Michigan State have the equipment.

Odds: 20-to-1

Between the program's championship pedigree and the roster's considerable depth and athleticism, the Spartans have the best chance of cutting down the nets beyond the not-so-obvious teams. And considering Tom Izzo has taken the Spartans to four Final Fours in the last nine years, would another trip to the national semifinals be such a shocker?

Odds: 20-to-1

Four years after getting categorically jobbed against Duke in the Elite Eight -- their Final Four hopes dashed thanks to a pair of Anthony Myles phantom foul calls -- the Musketeers have returned with a different coach (Sean Miller) but the same lunch-bucket philosophy. An equal-opportunity offensive approach has five guys averaging double figures and their formidable "pack-line" defense ranks among the best in the country. But even if the Jesuits put down West Virginia and play the perfect game to upset top-seeded UCLA, can the Muskies win a pair in San Antonio and shed their despised mid-major label for good? It's a longshot.

Odds: 12-to-1

With the Volunteers having struggled against teams with strong interior presences, a victory Thursday against third-seeded Louisville is hardly a foregone conclusion. And the committee sure didn't do Tennessee any favors placing the Knoxville school in the same bracket as top-overall seed North Carolina. Sure, the Volunteers may be one of the few teams in the nation equipped for the frenetic pace preferred by the Tar Heels. But a date with the nation's premier post player -- Si's national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough -- would present a second straight unfavorable matchup. Bruce Pearl's team has earned a place on the short list of national-title contenders ... but sometimes it just comes down to the luck of the draw.

Odds: 12-to-1

The late-breaking Cardinals always seem to enter the tournament with a terrifying head of steam and this year has been no different. A front line consisting of 6-6 Terrence Williams, 6-10 David Padgett and 6-8 Earl Clark provides the foundation for one of the nation's most formidable inside-out attacks. Assuming they survive Thursday's virtual coin toss against Tennessee, it won't get any easier for a team who's fallen susceptible to lack of discipline -- from a shot selection standpoint in particular. The coach is a proven commodity and the talent is undoubtedly there -- but we probably won't even realize what's missing from Louisville's championship recipe until it's too late.

Odds: 10-to-1

Offensively, the Longhorns can trade blows with the nation's best. Texas has a surprisingly navigable draw with Stanford on Friday and a potential Elite Eight showdown Sunday with Memphis or Michigan State, vulnerable teams both. But I just don't trust the Longhorns when it comes to getting defensive stops in crunch time. Even the staunchest Texas fan would concede this team has underperformed defensively by Rick Barnes' lofty standards.

Odds: 6-to-1

The super-duper sleeper of the field might not inspire lyric poetry with its unglamorous style, but it wins and wins consistently. If this year's Badgers were an ice cream flavor, that flavor would be cardboard. But whatever shots you want to take about Wisconsin's ho-hum style must include mention of the results. This groups surrenders just 81.1 points per 100 possessions -- tops in the nation by a wide margin -- an efficiency which could throw a wrench into the best-oiled offensive machine. The one thing about Bo Ryan teams is they rarely lose to opponents they're supposed to beat. After making quick work of Davidson, we'll see if the Badgers can succeed against teams better capable of taking them out of their comfort zone.

Odds: 5-to-1

The Tigers aren't exactly the feel-good pick of this tournament. No national champ has shot fouls worse since CCNY in 1950. The dribble-drive offense is still considered an unreliable novelty. As far as a "closer" during gut-check time, Chris Douglas-Roberts doesn't strike fear among opponents the same way Tyler Hansbrough, Kevin Love or even Stephen Curry might. And did I mention the foul shooting? But, Memphis has won 35 games in 36 tries. John Calipari's teams seldom underperform in the tournament. And while the talking heads cannot stop chattering about the free-throw shooting -- 59.2 percent on the season, for the record -- stat guru Ken Pomeroyinsists the issue is overblown. If you're like me and you picked the Tigers to win it all, you tend to agree ... with fingers crossed.

Odds: 4-to-1

The top-overall seed is the first team since Loyola Marymount in 1990 to crack triple-digits in its first two tourney games. The Tar Heels have run teams ragged throughout the year, dominating a down ACC and losing just twice entering Thursday's clash of styles against Washington State: the nation's fastest-paced team against the slowest. The lone chink in North Carolina's armor last season was the team's dubious mental fortitude late in games -- a flaw which became painfully evident in their come-from-ahead meltdown against Georgetown in the Elite Eight. It's been more of the same this year: The Heels misfired late in a loss to Duke and surrendered scores on the final five possession is a loss to Maryland.

Odds: 3-to-1

Pain and experience drives these Jayhawks, who returned four of five starters from last year's Elite Eight team. This group's five senior contributors know more about NCAA tournament heartbreak than most after finishing on the wrong end of first-round upsets as freshmen and sophomores. Three true combo guards -- Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush -- run the show from the backcourt. But frontcourt beasts Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson and Cole Aldrich can bang with any interior in the nation. If not for people doubting Bill Self's aptitude in the coaching box, these guys would've been a runaway favorite to cut down the nets. Until Self gets the 'Hawks over the hump to the final weekend, casual fans will continue to hesitate picking Kansas.

Odds: 3-to-1

What's not to Love -- besides Kevin's chin strap -- about a team which returned its entire roster from last year's built-tough Final Four squad and added the nation's top-ranked incoming freshman. First-year wunderkind Kevin Love has drawn comparisons to everybody from Elton Brand to Wes Unseld thanks to his voracious rebounding and outlet passing aptitude. Meanwhile, sophomore combo guard Russell Westbrook enters the Sweet 16 as the runaway frontrunner for national breakthrough player of the year -- emerging as a projected lottery pick after averaging just 3.4 points last season as a deep reserve. This core group of players has knocked on the door during the past two Final Fours, falling short twice against the Florida dynasty. Could this be the year the Bruins bust through for the school's record 12th title.

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