The brackets were announced Sunday, and there were a few surprises and many interesting matchups, beginning with tonight's play-in games between 16-seeds Manhattan and Hampton and 11-seeds BYU and Ole Miss. Last year was the first year since seeding began that there were no 1, 2, or 3 seeds in the national title, as 7-seed UConn beat 8-seed Kentucky for the crown. I would be highly shocked if something like that happened again, but I have come to learn that March Madness is a cruel mistress who cares not for your feelings or your brackets.
I have already filled out nearly 20 brackets. Here are a couple initial random thoughts:
-All 12 teams with at least 6 Final Four appearances –- UNC, UCLA, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State, Arkansas, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma State –- are playing in this year's NCAA Tournament. This is only the fourth time all 12 of these schools have been in the NCAA Tournament at the same time and first time since 2000 (1992 and 1999 are the other two times it happened).
-I think Duke has the easiest path to the Final Four of any 1-seed.
-Dayton got a huge present from the Selection Committee, as the Flyers will be playing in tomorrow night's play-in game against Boise State on their home court. I have no idea why the Selection Committee would do that, but it happened.
-I don't think there are more than a handful of teams (Wisconsin, Arizona, Duke) that can beat Kentucky, and I think the best bracket pickers will be the ones who can figure out the winners of the 57 games other than those Kentucky is playing in.
Anyway, as I do every year (for the last few anyway), here are a couple lists of five teams each in a few categories that you should consider when filling out your brackets. Expect there to be some contradictions, since that's the nature of predicting the NCAA Tournament. Teams are in alphabetical order. So you don't think I'm entirely full of shit, I'll put in parentheses what I correctly predicted last year.
Teams with the best shot at winning it all (last year, I did not have UConn on this list, as I expect no one would have):
1. Arizona (2-seed West). The West Region is relatively weak, in my opinion, and Arizona has a pretty easy path to the Elite Eight. Also, bear in mind that LA (where the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight will be played) is a hell of a lot closer to Tucson than Madison, which may give the Cats a relative home-court advantage. Once they are in the Final Four, I think they could give Kentucky a run for its (and Vegas's) money.
2. Duke (1-seed South). Duke also has a good chance to beat Kentucky, and probably is the closest to the Wildcats talent-wise.
3. Gonzaga (2-seed South). Everyone seems to think this is Gonzaga's best team. It might be. I put them here because I don't feel strongly enough about any teams in the East Region.
4. Kentucky (1-seed Midwest). The Wildcats -- who are, in fact, paid professionals -- are the first major conference team to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated since Indiana in 1976 (the last team to finish the season undefeated). They are essentially at even-money odds to win the title.
5. Wisconsin (1-seed West). Of all the teams in the field, I think Wisconsin has the best chance of beating Kentucky. The Badgers can match UK's bigs, and they play virtually error-free basketball to the point of annoyance.
Final Four sleepers (teams seeded 4 or higher) (last year, I correctly put UConn on this list):
1. Michigan State (7-seed East). Last year, the 7-seed from the East was UConn, and we all know how that worked out. If the Spartans can get past Virginia in the Round of 32, look out.
2. North Carolina (4-seed West). Depending on which UNC team shows up, this could be a deep run or a quick exit for the Tar Heels. They certainly have the talent for the latter and could catch Wisconsin, Arizona, or Baylor on an off night.
3. Northern Iowa (5-seed East). Northern Iowa is better than a 5-seed. Seth Tuttle could be this year's Stephen Curry -- or, more appropriately, Ali Farokhmanesh -- as the Panthers look to replicate (or better) their Sweet 16 run in 2010 as a 9-seed.
4. Utah (5-seed South). No one is talking about Utah because they play in the dreaded 5-12 game against proven 12-seed Stephen F. Austin and would have to get through Duke to make it to the Elite Eight. If they can do that, I think any team on the bottom half of the South bracket is beatable.
5. VCU (7-seed West). VCU and its "havoc" defense usually play pretty well this time of year, as evidenced by their Atlantic-10 conference tournament championship run last week. They tend to play better as the underdog, most memorably in 2011, when they went to the Final Four as an 11-seed. As a 7-seed, they aren't expected to go very far, but if they can get past Ohio State in the Round of 64 and upset 2-seed Arizona in the Round of 32, watch out.
Teams seeded 4 or lower who may not make it to the second weekend (last year, I correctly put Duke, Syracuse, and Villanova on this list):
1. Georgetown (4-seed South). In their last five NCAA Tournaments, the Hoyas haven't reached the Sweet 16, including Round of 32 losses as a 2-seed in 2008, 3-seed in 2012, and Round of 64 losses as a 3-seed in 2010, 6-seed in 2011, and 2-seed in 2013. Until they prove that they can get over that hump, I can't trust them. On top of that, they play Eastern Washington in the first round, and the Eagles are a tough 13-seed that can score a lot of points (3rd in the NCAA in points per game and top 10 in 3-point percentage and 3-pointers made), led by a legit baller in Tyler Harvey, who led the NCAA in points per game this season. Even if the Hoyas get past EWU, they would face either Utah or Stephen F. Austin, both of whom are capable of beating Georgetown.
2. Gonzaga (2-seed South). Gonzaga is a 2-seed, and they seem to play better as an underdog. The Zags haven't made it to the Sweet 16 since 2009, and check out this stat: when seeded 4 or better (i.e., expected to make it to the Sweet 16 or further), which has happened five times, the Zags are 7-5 and have made it to the second weekend only twice (2006 and 2009). On the other hand, when seeded 6 or lower (they have never been a 5-seed), Gonzaga's record is 12-12 and they have made it to three Sweet 16s (including one Elite Eight). Their Round of 64 opponent, North Dakota State, upset Oklahoma last year in a 5-12 game, and if Gonzaga gets past the Bison, they would take on either Iowa or Davidson, both of which are capable of taking down Gonzaga.
3. Kansas (2-seed Midwest). Because it's Kansas. During Bill Self's 12-year tenure as head coach, the Jayhawks have never been seeded worse than a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and yet they have failed to make it to the second weekend four times, including last year, when they lost to 10-seed Stanford in the Round of 32. Plus, this year, the Cliff-Alexander-less Jayhawks have a relatively tough 2-15 matchup against New Mexico State in the Round of 64, and then, in the Round of 32, they will either face a sharp-shooting Indiana team or a Wichita State team that would like nothing more than to beat its big brother from Lawrence.
4. North Carolina (4-seed West). Like I alluded to in the section above, UNC has been inconsistent over the past two months. Their first-round matchup with Harvard is no wahk in the pahk, and they could potentially face Arkansas and its "40 minutes of hell" defense in the Round of 32.
5. Notre Dame (3-seed Midwest). Mike Brey has been the head coach at Notre Dame since 2000. Since then, in nine NCAA Tournament appearances, the Fighting Irish have made it to the Sweet 16 exactly once (2003) and have lost to higher-seeded teams five times, including their previous four appearances. They are another one of those teams that I can't trust until they prove me wrong.
Teams seeded 12 or higher with the best chance of pulling an upset in the first round (last year, I correctly put Harvard and Stephen F. Austin, on this list):
1. Buffalo (12-seed Midwest). The Bulls are the sexy 5-12 upset pick, playing Huggy Bear's West Virginia Mountaineers on Friday in the Round of 64, and there is a reason for that. Coached by former Duke standout Bobby Hurley, Buffalo scores and rebounds very well. The 1-2 punch of Justin Moss and Shannon Evans is a pretty good one, and the Bulls will undoubtedly be hungry in their first ever NCAA Tournament.
2. Eastern Washington (13-seed South). They play Georgetown in the Round of 64, and can score a ton of points against the Hoyas' mediocre defense. If Tyler Harvey gets hot, Georgetown could be in trouble.
3. Harvard (13-seed West). In 2012, the Crimson went to their first NCAA Tournament since Harry Truman was President, and they played tough in a 9-point loss to Vanderbilt in a 5-12 matchup. In 2013, as a 14-seed, they beat 3-seed New Mexico in the Round of 64, and last year, as a 12-seed, they beat 5-seed Cincinnati in the Round of 64. They play solid defense and a plodding style of offense, and as I mentioned above, North Carolina is up and down over the last month and a half. If Harvard can control the tempo and if UNC is having an off night, it could be another Round of 64 win for Tommy Amaker.
4. Stephen F. Austin (12-seed South). I know I put Utah –- SFA's Round of 64 opponent -- on my list of Final Four sleepers, but the Lumberjacks are more than capable of ruining the Utes' season Thursday night. Last year, SFA beat VCU as a 12-seed in one of the more memorable tournament games, and they are just as good this year.5. UC Irvine (13-seed East). The Anteaters have a dude (Mamadou Ndiaye) who is 7'6", and Louisville is banged up this year.