No more "Bubble Watch." No more "Bracket Projection." The real thing is here. That's right, folks, the NCAA Tournament is finally upon us. For most of us, it's a very exciting, yet nervous, time of the year as we are all going to be filling out brackets over the next few days. In other words, Happy Holidays.
I'm not going to comment on the mistakes and wrong choices that the Selection Committee made; another staff member has already taken care of that. Instead of RPIs, Top 50 wins, and non-conference SOS - which frankly, I am tired of discussing - it is now time to focus on the matchups, the potential upsets and sleeper teams, and of course, the Final Four.
Here is an overview of the entire bracket, going region-by-region:
Final Four Pick: Duke. For a #1 overall seed, the Blue Devils sure have a difficult road to the Final Four. George Washington is vastly underrated as a #8 seed, and if Pops Mensah-Bonsu plays, the Colonials could give Duke some problems with their athleticism. #4 seed LSU has more NBA talent in the frontcourt than some pro teams, while Duke lacks post depth. Moreover, Texas could be waiting on the other side of the bracket. Yes, Duke destroyed them in December, but that was, well, in December. Texas has gotten better since then, while Duke has become somewhat worse. With that said, though, Duke should win this region. No one in the region has a duo that could slow down J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams at the same time, other than a Texas team that has lost six games by an average of 16 points per contest. That's not a Final Four team. Duke is.
Sleeper to Make a Run: LSU. As mentioned above, the Tigers have a ridiculous amount of talent, talent that isn't rivaled in their half of the region. If LSU can avoid an upset at the hands of Iona and figure out a way to beat the Syracuse zone, they have a legit shot at upsetting the Blue Devils. Glen Davis is strong enough to slow down Shelden Williams, while Tyrus Thomas can block shots and rebound over anyone. Additionally, J.J. Redick is going to have a difficult time defending Tasmin Mitchell. In the backcourt, Darrell Mitchell is the best guard in the SEC and could single-handedly carry the Tigers on the perimeter. If they are matched up with Texas in the Elite Eight, the Tigers are one of the only teams that can equal the Longhorns' frontcourt talent and depth. Watch out for Louisiana State.
First-Round Upset: Southern Illinois over West Virginia, Texas A&M over Syracuse. The #11-seeded Salukis have exactly the type of team that the Mountaineers are going to struggle with. West Virginia has not shot the ball well over the past few weeks and is not riding any sort of momentum. Southern Illinois is physical, scrappy, and plays outstanding defense. In the other upset special, this could be the best shot for the requisite #12 over a #5. Syracuse is coming off of a Big East Tournament championship, but that has led people to overrate the Orange. Texas A&M has an excellent inside-outside combo in Acie Law IV and Joseph Jones. They also play excellent defense and force teams to play at their pace.
Final Four Pick: Pittsburgh. This region has the least amount of potential Final Four teams among the top 4 seeds. Memphis has no experience; UCLA has no big man; Gonzaga is simply not that good; and Kansas is too young. That leaves the Panthers of Pitt. The inside-outside duo of Carl Krauser and Aaron Gray is the best perimeter-post combination in the region. Additionally, they have solid role players up and down the roster that are going to play major roles in the Tournament. Moreover, they impose their style of play on teams better than any other team in the region. If you don't want to play physical and just want to run-and-gun against the Panthers, you are going home. By the time April rolls around, that will include every team in this region.
Sleeper to Make a Run: Indiana. If a #5 isn't "sleeper" enough for you, look out for the #6-seeded Hoosiers. They are playing some of their best basketball of the season and are hot coming into the Tournament. Marco Killingsworth is a beast on the inside, and the Hoosiers have a host of perimeter players that can shoot the ball and provide balance from the outside, led by Robert Vaden and Marshall Strickland. If they can avoid an upset against San Diego State, Indiana stands a chance against Gonzaga because of the way they play defense. After that, who on UCLA is going to defend Killingsworth down low?
First-Round Upset: Alabama over Marquette. This isn't really much of an upset, but it is a #10 over a #7 so we have to consider it one. Marquette has a great duo in point guard Dominic James and forward Steve Novak, but they lack a consistent post player. Unfortunately for them, that is exactly where the Crimson Tide excels. Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix are both monster rebounders on the interior, and Marquette has no one that can guard them. Ronald Steele is on the same level as James, while the Tide also has long, athletic wings to guard Novak's shooting. Also watch out for #11 San Diego State over #6 Indiana.
Washington, D.C. Region
Final Four Pick: Connecticut. Is there even another team in this region that can reach the national semifinals? Tennessee? They can't play in the halfcourt and don't have a big man. North Carolina? No consistent backcourt players and absolutely no experience. Illinois? Lack of a third scorer will hurt them somewhere along the line. Washington? They don't play much defense and have a freshman point guard. The only other team that could potentially match UConn would be Michigan State. However, they are a #6 seed and are inconsistent. A team that went 8-8 in the Big Ten isn't going to beat UConn with a Final Four bid on the line. The lack of focus that the Huskies demonstrated throughout the season won't be a problem on the big stage.
Sleeper to Make a Run: Michigan State. The Spartans, as previously mentioned, can match most teams in terms of talent. They have one of the best trios in the country in wings Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager, as well as a legit big man in Paul Davis. Additionally, they have Tom Izzo, one of the best coaches around. If they can get consistent play from point guard Drew Neitzel and solid play on the interior to take some of the pressure off of Davis inside, the Spartans have the ability to make a run to the Elite Eight. When looking at matchups, one thing to keep in mind is that Michigan State will be playing their first two games in Dayton, only a few hours from East Lansing. Wes Miller and Danny Green aren't going to be able to keep up with Shannon Brown, and whoever comes out of the Tennessee pod is just not that good.
First-Round Upset: #15 Winthrop over #2 Tennessee. No, I'm not saying this will definitely happen. However, I am saying to watch out for this. The Eagles are one of the best 15 seeds I have seen in years, and quite frankly, I have no idea how they dropped all the way to that seed line. That doesn't matter, though. What does matter is that Winthrop is an excellent defensive team, and they have size. Wings Torrell Martin and James Shuler are 6-6 and 6-5, respectively, and bigger than the Volunteers. Down low, Craig Bradshaw is a solid inside player. If the Eagles don't turn the ball over against Tennessee's press and if they hold their own down low, they have a chance to pull off the biggest upset of the Tournament.
Final Four Pick: Florida. I simply couldn't find a Final Four squad among the teams in this region. As opposed to the Atlanta region, for example, which has a couple teams capable of making a run, this region has several teams that have a chance, but none that you would be confident in picking. Therefore, I'm going with the Gators. Villanova's success depends on Allan Ray's eye, and I also don't think they have the post play to win. Meanwhile, Ohio State depends too much on the three-point shot and they don't have any post depth. On the other hand, Florida has excellent balance and does not rely too much on one particular aspect. They have a very good point guard in Taurean Green; an excellent shooter in Lee Humphrey; a versatile, all-around performer in Corey Brewer; and two athletic, long post players in Joakim Noah and Al Horford.
Sleeper to Make a Run: Boston College. I was "this close" to picking the Eagles as my Final Four team, and I still might. However, as of right now, they are just going to have to settle for being an Elite Eight team. Craig Smith is a beast down low, while Jared Dudley's versatile game is very difficult to defend. Additionally, the Eagles have been getting solid perimeter play lately from Sean Marshall, Tyrese Rice, and Louis Hinnant. If Sean Williams gives them solid defense and rebounding in the post, BC could find themselves in Indianapolis. The Eagles are confident and believe they are better than any team that they go up against. In this region, they just might be.
First-Round Upset: Wisconsin-Milwaukee over Oklahoma. Some people think that the Panthers' luck may have run out last season when they reached the Sweet Sixteen, but I think UW-Milwaukee could have a win left in them. They pressure the ball and force turnovers the entire game and also return seven seniors from last year's team. Joah Tucker is tough to contain when he gets the ball down low, while Boo Davis is an explosive scorer. Against Oklahoma, their full-court defense is going to create problems against Terrell Everett, who is not a natural point guard and tends to turn the ball over. Moreover, Jason McCoy is athletic and versatile enough to keep Taj Gray from having a career day. If the Panthers create havoc with their press and get Tucker to dominate like he did against Illinois last season, they will pull off the upset victory.