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March 17, 2014
MADISON, Wis. - The brackets are out and the madness is about to ensue - as if it hasn't already.
Scrambling to fill out the perfect bracket in hopes of cashing the $1,000,000,000 check that comes with it can be a painful and strenuous task. How many 12 seeds are supposed to upset 5 seeds in the first round again? All four 1 seeds can't make it to the Final Four, correct? And is it bad if I have No. 16 Coastal Carolina pulling off the upset?
Now, I'm not claiming to be the second-coming of Joe Lunardi or anything so let's get that out of the way right off the bat. What I am claiming to have, however, is some knowledge of teams in the field of 68 that - should you choose to use it - may help you win your office pool. Or at the very least help you do better than your little sister; a checkpoint I always use to measure whether or not my bracket was a success.
Let's dive into the brackets
Most Intriguing Round of 64 Game: No. 4 UCLA (26-8, 12-6 Pac-12) vs. No. 13 Tulsa (21-12, 13-3 USA).
The Bruins of UCLA are coming off an impressive Pac-12 championship run that included wins over fellow tournament teams Oregon, Stanford and Arizona. Jordan Adams (17.3 ppg) and Kyle Anderson (14.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 6.6 apg) combine to be one of the more dangerous 1-2 punches in the country for UCLA, but Tulsa's guard-forward combo of James Woodard (15.7 ppg) and Rashad Smith (12.1 ppg) is nothing to scoff at.
Danny Manning - yes THAT Danny Manning - works the sidelines for Tulsa. While the Golden Hurricane is in the tournament for the first time since 2003, it has won at least one game in its last five NCAA appearances. UCLA can't afford to take Tulsa lightly, especially because they haven't made it to the second weekend of the tournament since 2008.
Upset Alert: No. 12 SF Austin (31-2, 18-0 LAND) over No. 5 VCU (26-8, 12-4 A10).
The Lumberjacks of SF Austin have won 27 games in a row since losing to East Tennessee State on November 23. While they only played two teams in the RPI Top 100 all season long - a win over Towson and a 10-point loss to Texas - the Lumberjacks still managed to get themselves an RPI rank of 52.
SF Austin has four players averaging double-figure points, including Southland Player of the Year Jacob Parker who scores 14.2 points per game while collecting 7.1 rebounds.
How effective VCU's "Havoc" defense is will be the key to this game. VCU is the only team in the country to force more than 600 turnovers (621) while SF Austin has the fifth-best turnover ratio in the country (5.2).
Best Potential Matchup: No. 1 Florida (32-2, 18-0 SEC) vs. No. 2 Kansas (24-9, 14-4 Big 12).
Had it not been for a Joel Embiid back injury, the Jayhawks could have very well been a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. With rumors circulating that Embiid will be out until at least the Sweet 16, this matchup hinges on his return to Bill Self's lineup for a battle between two teams with some of the more impressive résumés in all of college basketball.
Florida has won 26 games in a row and both of its losses have come to tournament teams (No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 7 UConn). During the season, Florida was 10-2 against the RPI Top 50, including a victory over Kansas. The Gators have been to the Elite Eight in each of the last three tournaments and won the National Championship the last time they were ranked No. 1 (2007).
Kansas paced the country with 12 wins over the RPI Top 50 this season on their way to winning the Big 12, arguably the strongest conference in college basketball. Since 2007, the Jayhawks are 22-6 in the tournament and have been to 14 Final Fours all-time with three national titles to show for it.
Seeded Too High: The committee did a fairly good job of seeding in this region, but if I had to nit-pick, I'd say that No. 3 Syracuse should be swapped with No. 4 UCLA based on how they both finished out the season.
Seeded Too Low: No. 7 New Mexico (27-6, 15-3 MWC)
The Lobos have an RPI rank of 12 (higher than VCU's), a non-conference schedule strength of 17, and wins over No. 4 seed San Diego State (twice) and No. 5 seed Cincinnati.
Perhaps the fact that the Lobos have made 11 NCAA appearances since 1991 without reaching the Sweet 16 once played a factor in the committee's decision.
Sleeper Team: Those guys above. Yup, the Lobos. If they're able to get by a tough Stanford team in the first, err I mean second round, they could have a chance to spoil any reunion plans the Jayhawks had lined up down the road with Embiid. Watch out for the Lobos of New Mexico, who finished 15-2 down the stretch.
The Last One Standing: Florida. With Billy Donovan and a talented, senior-heavy group such as this one I don't see them stumbling on their way to Dallas.
Most Intriguing Round of 64 Game: No. 5 Oklahoma (23-9, 12-6 Big 12) vs. No. 12 North Dakota State (25-6, 14-2 SUMM).
Oklahoma went 7-5 against the RPI Top 50 this season, with season sweeps of Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State (all tournament teams).
North Dakota State has its highest NCAA ranking of all-time (No. 14 seed in 2009) and for good reason. Led by Taylor Braun (18.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.9 apg), the Bison have an RPI rank of 35 and went to South Bend, Ind. and beat Notre Dame, 73-69. The Bison lost 79-62 in a trip to Ohio State, but were +4 in turnovers during that game. The Bison have an impressive 3.5 opponent turnover-to-turnover ratio (14th in the country).
The fact that this is a 12 vs. 5 matchup and Lon Kruger has not won a tournament game with Oklahoma since Blake Griffin left town in 2009 makes this one of the matchups to watch.
Upset Alert: See above.
Best Potential Matchup: No. 1 Arizona (30-4, 15-3 Pac-12) vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State (21-12, 8-10 Big 12).
Marcus Smart shoving a Texas Tech fan may have been the best thing to happen to Oklahoma State all season long. Upon Smart's return to the team after a three-game suspension, the Cowboys went on a 5-2 tear to end the season after suffering a seven-game losing streak.
Arizona has really flown under the radar heading into this year's tournament. The Wildcats have an RPI rank of 2 and played the fourth toughest schedule in the country. Yes, they are without forward Brandon Ashley who was ruled out for the season after injuring his foot last month, but the Wildcats will win games in the tournament on the backs of their top-5 defense that is allowing just 58.1 points per game.
The Wildcats have not been to a Final Four since 2001, while the Cowboys haven't been since 1995. The winner of this game with have the inside-track to Dallas.
Seeded Too High: No. 10 BYU (23-11, 13-5 WCC).
BYU lost to Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Pacific. (Bonus points for anyone who can name a single player on either of those teams)
Seeded Too Low: No. 9 Oklahoma State.
At the beginning of the season, many had pegged Oklahoma State to be a potential No. 1 seed in the tournament. Le'Bryan Nash is the x-factor for them.
Sleeper Team: No. 6 Baylor (24-11, 9-9 Big 12).
Half of the Baylor Bears' 22 regular season victories, and nine of their 11 losses, came against teams currently in the field of 68.
Baylor finished the season strong, going 10-2. They lost in the Big 12 championship game to Iowa State, a No. 3 seed in the East Region.
The Bears have gone to the Elite 8 in each of their previous two trips to the NCAA Tournament, falling both times to the eventual champion (Duke - 2010, Kentucky - 2012). Look out, Wisconsin (Hint: I have Baylor beating Wisconsin).
The Last One Standing: Arizona. In the past three seasons, the team with the highest BPI has gone on to win the NCAA Tournament. This season, Arizona finished with a nation-best Basketball Power Index rating of 91.2 - 0.6 points higher than Florida.
Most Intriguing Round of 64 Game: No. 5 Cincinnati (27-6, 15-3 AAC) vs. No. 12 Harvard (26-4, 13-1 IVY).
The Bearcats have wins over tournament teams UConn, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Memphis (twice). With that being said, Cincinnati went a modest 5-4 down the stretch - part of the reason why they find themselves in a Round of 64 battle with the Ivy League champions, No. 12 Harvard. For a majority of the season, the Bearcats were ranked No. 15 or higher in the AP Top 25 each week since January 20, getting up to as high as No. 7 (Feb. 3).
As for Harvard, the Crimson is back in the tournament for the third consecutive season. Last year, then-No. 14 Harvard defeated then-No. 3 New Mexico, 68-62, in the Round of 64 before losing out to No. 5 Arizona, 74-51 in the Round of 32.
This year's Harvard squad was impressive in Ivy League play but that's like saying Wichita State deserves a No. 1 seed for dismantling the Missouri Valley. Wait, what? Wichita State got a 1 seed? Wow, I'm shocked. (See what I did there?).
Anyway, Harvard has been impressive but they lost both matchups against RPI Top 50 opponents (five point loss to UConn and an eight point loss to Colorado). The best wins on Harvard's résumé have come against UW-Green Bay and Boston University (neither of which are in the tournament).
Harvard will be looking to repeat as Round of 64 Cinderella's while Cincinnati will be doing everything in its power to avoid another first round, err second round, upset. This should be one of the best matchups Thursday will have to offer.
Upset Alert: No. 15 UW-Milwaukee (21-13, 7-9 HORIZ) over No. 2 Villanova (28-4, 16-2 Big East).
If you're still reading after seeing that prediction, stick with me just a little bit longer.
I recognize that No. 15 seeds are 7-116 all-time against No. 2 seeds but I also recognize that a No. 15 seed has ousted a No. 2 seed three times over the past two tournaments.
What does UW-Milwaukee have in common with the 2012 Norfolk State Spartans (beat Missouri), the 2012 Lehigh Mountain Hawks (beat Duke), and the 2013 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (beat Georgetown)? Each No. 15 seed lost its first game of the season and won its last five.
It also doesn't hurt that Villanova lost its four games by an average of 16.5 points and lost both games against the only competition in the Big East, Creighton, by a combined 49 points.
I'm not saying it's something, but it certainly isn't nothing.
And if by chance you don't at least consider Milwaukee the next time you look at your bracket, give No. 11 Providence over No. 6 North Carolina a shot.
Best Potential Matchup: No. 3 Iowa State (26-7, 11-7 Big 12) vs. No. 4 Michigan State (26-8, 12-6 Big Ten).
This has the potential to be the most entertaining, physical, talent-filled Elite 8 matchup in years. Iowa State is 11-3 over its last 14 games, with wins in the Big 12 Tournament against Kansas State, Kansas and Baylor - all fellow NCAA Tournament teams. The Cyclones get the 62 percent of their 82.9 points per game from DeAndre Kane (17.0 ppg), Melvin Ejim (18.1 ppg) and Georges Niang (16.5 ppg).
In their 94-83 victory over Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament, the Cyclones scored 1.25 points per possession and outscored the Jayhawks 41-18 outside the paint. Defensively, the Cyclones held the Andrew Wiggins to 7-for-21 shooting from the field and the Jayhawks to 4-for-15 from beyond the arc.
Kane, Ejim and Niang combined for 64 of the 94 Iowa State points.
The other team in this potential matchup would be arguably the most talented team in the country: Michigan State.
The Spartans beat two No. 2 seeds in Wisconsin and Michigan handily en route to a Big Ten Tournament title. In the 12 games leading up to the Big Ten Tournament, the Spartans were 5-7, but saw their healthy lineup gel for the entirety of the tournament. Tom Izzo has only had his preseason projected starting lineup for seven games this season yet he led his team to a No. 4 seed.
Added to this matchup would be the fact that Izzo would be trying to take seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling to their first Final Four. Every four-year senior under Tom Izzo has made it to at least one Final Four.
A battle between the country's two best basketball conferences could well decide who moves on and who heads home from the East Region.
Seeded Too High: No. 14 N.C. Central (28-5, 16-1 MEAC).
No reason UW-Green Bay shouldn't be in the tournament. This seems like a perfect fit for the Phoenix.
Other than that, there doesn't appear to be a team seeded too high in the East Region.
Seeded Too Low: No. 7 UConn (26-8, 12-6 AAC).
The Huskies were one of two teams in the country to beat Florida; they beat No. 5 seed Cincinnati twice and No. 8 seed Memphis three times. Connecticut has lost five games since the start of January, with three of those losses coming to Louisville.
As for star power, it doesn't get much better than Shabazz Napier who beat out Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati) and Russ Smith (Louisville) for AAC Player of the Year.
UConn should be a No. 5 or No. 6 seed.
Sleeper Team: Other than Milwaukee? Okay, No. 11 Providence (23-11, 10-8 Big East).
The Friars beat St. John's, Seton Hall (the one who beat Villanova) and Creighton (the one who beat Villanova by a combined 49 points in two meetings this season) on their way to a Big East Tournament title.
Providence has three wins against the RPI Top 50, just two fewer than North Carolina.
The Last One Standing: Michigan State + Tom Izzo = Final Four.
Most Intriguing Round of 64 Game: No. 3 Duke (26-8, 13-5 ACC) vs. No. 14 Mercer (26-8, 14-4 ASUN).
Putting aside the 2010 National Championship run, Duke has been relatively average in the NCAA Tournament, posting an 8-6 record over its last 14 games.
The Duke Blue Devils have won four National Championships and been to 15 Final Fours in 37 NCAA Tournament appearances. The Mercer Bears have never won an NCAA Tournament game before (0-2) and have not been in the tournament since 1985. Seems pretty one-sided.
However, when putting aside the 2010 National Championship run, Duke has been relatively average in the NCAA Tournament, posting an 8-6 record over its last 14 games. Add to that the matchup, and Duke could be in a little bit of danger.
Duke lives by the three; most teams die by the three against Mercer.
Duke is shooting 39.1 percent from beyond the three-point arc; Mercer is holding opponents to 29.9 percent from distance (13th-best in the nation). In five ACC losses this season, the Blue Devils are shooting 32.3 percent from beyond the arc.
This should provide for an interesting Round of 64 matchup on Friday.
Upset Alert: No. 12 N.C. State (21-13, 9-9 ACC) over. No. 5 Saint Louis (26-6, 13-3 A10).
The selection of N.C. State to the tournament was of hot debate and its inclusion was in fact the one blemish on Joe Lunardi's Bracketology projections. Now that the Wolfpack are in, I like their chances to advance.
Led by ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren (24.8 ppg), the Wolfpack has played some of its best basketball against the best competition. Duke was able to escape with a 75-67 victory (Duke free throws at the end of the game don't do the game justice), N.C. State beat Syracuse on March 14 after losing to the Orange 56-55 back on February 15. The Wolfpack also lost by one point in overtime to North Carolina.
The Wolfpack is 34-23 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and will have a chip on their shoulder after losing in the first round, 76-72, to Temple last season.
Saint Louis is colder than the Wisconsin air at the moment. The Billikens dropped four of their last five games, including losses to a 13-17 Duquesne team AT HOME and to a ninth-seeded St. Bonaventure team in the A-10 tournament.
Saint Louis has not reached the Sweet 16 since 1957 and I don't see the Billikens putting an end to that streak any time soon.
Best Potential Matchup: No. 2 Michigan (25-8, 15-3 Big Ten) vs. No. 4 Louisville (29-5, 15-3 AAC).
A rematch of last year's National Championship Game is clearly what the selection committee had in mind here when they drew up one of the toughest regions in recent memory.
Barring the Cardinals can get by the Shockers of Wichita State, and Michigan can get past a dangerous Duke squad, basketball fans should be in for a real treat with this one.
The Wolverines rank 11th in RPI and fifth in strength of schedule while Louisville ranks 19th and 80th respectively.
Both Michigan and Louisville won their respective conferences with a 15-3 record and both enter the tournament hot.
Michigan finished the season 7-1, falling in the Big Ten Tournament title game to Michigan State, 69-55.
Louisville won 12 of its last 13 games, including the AAC tournament where Russ Smith scored 77 points in three (blowout) games. (Hint: We'll get to that later).
The matchups presented would almost be too good to be true: Nik Stauskas and Russ Smith going shot for shot? Montrezl Harrell and Jordan Morgan getting physical down lown? And what about Luke Hancock and Caris LeVert?
Get your popcorn ready.
Seeded Too High: No. 6 UMass (24-8, 10-6 A10).
How UMass got a No. 6 seed is beyond me and it should not come as a surprise if the Minutemen head back to Massachusetts without their first tournament victory since John Calipari and Marcus Camby took them to the 1996 Final Four.
The non-conference wins are impressive with wins over fellow tournament teams Nebraska, New Mexico and BYU, but after starting the season 16-1, UMass limped to the finish line, ending the season with an 8-7 mark over its last 15 games.
What concerns me is the Minutemen have struggled lately against tournament teams. George Washington, Saint Louis, Dayton and Saint Joseph's have all beaten UMass since the beginning of February.
I haven't even brought up the fact that the Minutemen finished fifth in the A-10
Swapping No. 6 UMass with No. 7 Texas or No. 8 Kentucky would have made more sense to me in this case.
Seeded Too Low: No. 4 Louisville
Louisville has absolutely destroyed its competition and they aren't playing in some conference called the Missouri Valley either. Among division 1 men's basketball teams, Louisville ranks first in scoring margin at 21.2 points per game. Wichita State? A distant second at 15.9 points per game.
In fact, during the AAC tournament, the Cardinals defeated Rutgers, Houston and UConn by an average of 33.3 points.
Okay so yes, the Cardinals only have the 80th-toughest schedule in the country, are just 5-5 against the RPI Top 50, and are 1-5 against North Carolina, Kentucky, Cincinnati and Memphis this season. But after winning 12 of their last 13 games as they head into the most important time of the season ask yourself this: would you bet one billion dollars on Louisville not coming out of the Midwest Region?
I thought so.
Sending Louisville to the South Region as a No. 3 seed and bringing Syracuse out to the Midwest Region as a No. 4 seed makes much more sense in my opinion.
Sleeper Team: No. 11 Tennessee (21-12, 11-7 SEC)
The Volunteers are one of 29 teams in the country to have an average scoring margin of +10.0 or higher. Allowing 61.1 points per game, Tennessee boasts the 16th-best scoring defense in the nation.
Tennessee won five of its last six games to close out the season, falling in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament, 56-49, to Florida. They have twice been in the game at the end against Florida, losing twice by single digits to the Gators this season, something only Alabama and Auburn have "accomplished" among teams who have played the Gators twice this season.
If the Volunteers are able to get by Iowa in the play-in game, it is likely they will advance past No. 6 UMass as the Volunteers have exited the tournament after winning one game just twice in their last twelve appearances.
The Last One Standing: Louisville. As is the case with Tom Izzo and Michigan State, Rick Pitino and Louisville are basically surefire candidates to go to the Final Four every season.
As for my Final Four predictions, I'm going to keep those close to the vest and try not to put anything in writing except that Florida will beat Michigan State on a buzzer beater and Russ Smith will go Russ-diculous to send the Cards to the National Championship over Arizona.
Oops, there goes that. Well at least I haven't told you who wins it all. Right, Joakim Noah? Right.
For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow Zack on Twitter.