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Happy Saint Patrick's Day weekend to all. This is the month the college basketball fanatics come out of the woodwork like the crazies on Friday the 13th and the casual fan can quickly become the expert analysis. If you're like some people who simply fill out a bracket based on whose team colors are the prettiest or have the coolest mascot, best of luck to you...you'll probably win anyway.
That's how up in the air the brackets feel this year.
There is a balance of talent this season that has only made things more confusing to guess thanks to the rise of mid-major conferences. Teams like Butler and VCU from last season have opened up the door for teams with smaller programs. The result is a scary crop of under-the-radar squads who will give struggling big name teams a run for their money.
The most glaring story in the tournament thus far is the fall of Syracuse's center Fab Melo. Syracuse is nearly last in division I basketball on the defensive glass. That alone keeps any team with a big man in the game against the Orangemen, a team that many people have winning it all. Now, not only are some analysts saying that the team won't make it to the Final Four, but that they may become the first team in history to lose their opening round game to a #16 seed.
It's not out of the question, but it is unlikely that Jim Boheim's squad will fall that far without their center. Defensively and on the boards they will struggle, but they still have some of the best ball-moving guards in the college game and know how to score when it matters.
How will the Indiana schools fare this season? Butler has shouldered the load for the Hoosier state in the last two years with back-to-back championship appearances, but this year the Bulldogs have come back down to Earth and will not be seen in the tournament.
Indiana University has the best chance of making noise in the brackets, but they are in, arguably, the best region with Kentucky, Duke, Baylor, and even their potential second round match-up against Wichita State is a potential nightmare. First things first, however, as the Hoosiers have to get past a fiesty VCU team that still has some pieces on their team with playoff experience and should not be overlooked.
Purdue has, in my humble opinion, the hardest first-round match-up of any Indiana team against #7 St. Mary's, who I think deserved a higher seed, but no doubt got overshadowed by teams like Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Michigan, and other teams who seem to be on the same level talent-wise, have a worse record, but have a bigger name and a stronger schedule on their side.
Notre Dame is an odd team. They got a #7 seed because of their strong regular season play, but really did not shoot the ball well in the Big East Tournament and when the Irish can't score, they have to rely on their defense, which did not bode so well for them against their opponents who know how to score on the inside...like their opponent #10 Xavier can. Needless to say the Irish will be living by the three tomorrow.
Tonight the second round of the tournament kicks off. Can you really call it a second round, though? I did think that call the first round games the "First Four" was catchy and it was obvious from the commentary that the networks were pushing that phrase because the announcers kept saying it over and over again like their job depended on it. It probably did.
The play-in game was, for a long time at least, the tradition that started the madness. Now it seems like having four games to kick off the tournament only makes it harder for me to win in any bracket pools. The NCAA certainly makes more money with more games, as do the colleges, but if you're going to add more teams just to make it more interesting, why not up the field an entire round? It just seems like an unfair advantage to the team the play-in winners will be playing because they get a team who not only has a lower seed, but has just played for their lives one or two nights before and fatigue at this part of the season is obviously a factor.
The NIT suffers the most. While the competitive main tournament gets a talent lift with teams that would not have made it get the extra play-in invite, those teams take away from the National Invitational Tournament. A few of the teams in the "First Four" are surely #1 seeds in the NIT.
This could be a record year for upsets, Syracuse aside. The tournament is sporting teams like Murray State who had a 30-win season but was given a 6-seed because of their size and schedule. Gonzaga, San Diego State, and Xavier have become perennial fixtures in the tournament from smaller leagues and this year is no different. Any one of these mid-majors could make a run at the Final Four and it would not surprise me a bit.
Kentucky and Syracuse are the only two number one seeds who deserved their placement. Michigan State played their way to a number one by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten final. The Buckeyes would be playing the #1 card had they won the game, no doubt. North Carolina is in the same boat. They were beat twice by Florida State, including an exciting ACC final. Duke took one from the Heels but that loss doesn't sound so surprising considering the rivalry.
Florida State has been the "sexy pick" among all the brackets received for the DDD contest. Some have them going into the Final Four. Should the Tar Heels make it that far as well, they will have their shot at vengeance. Kansas got a #2 seed but some think they deserved the one over Sparty, but in such a tight field you simply can't lose in the semi-finals of your conference tournament. Ohio State and Duke know how it feels to be a #2 falling short in their conference tourneys. Missouri won the Big 12 and has the most legitimate gripe for being snubbed at the #1.
Kentucky is the favored team in most brackets, but I refuse to jump on their band wagon yet. They have another talented team this year, but the youth and inexperience will always haunt Callipari's groups because he gets phenom freshman that leave after their first year in the program, then the Wildcats start the process over again. I don't have Kentucky making it past the Buckeyes in the finals. That will be the first team that can truly "outplay" them matching up talent for talent and with talent to boot.