Jared Trexler, Contributing TSN Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
My dog died. I was hit by a bus. I'm sick...with the same disease...for the third time...in three weeks.
Bosses across the country are preparing for the most unproductive Thursday throughout corporate America, as everyone up-and-down the employment ladder tries anything and everything to guarantee a seat in front of the television when the NCAA tournament tips off just after Noon (et).
They need to experience the first thrilling finish. The moment in time when their office pool goes up in flames.
The NCAA tournament is the greatest competition in sports. A bracket of hopes and dreams eventually leaves one team standing just before the clock strikes midnight on Monday, April 3. In-between now and then, sports fans across the country will come to appreciate the foundation of collegiate sports -- a youthful, wide-eyed belief that on any given day history can be made.
Will Connecticut's eerily similar makeup to last season's national champion North Carolina lead to the exact same result? Speaking of the Tar Heels, can a title defender that knows very little about life in the Big Dance repeat? Will Player-of-the-Year candidates and online confidants J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison meet in the Final Four?
Below, I delve into the answers to those questions and many more, as each region is broken down and a champion is crowned.
The Horizon City Awaits: ACC regular-season and tournament-champion Duke sits in a familiar spot as the region's top seed with multiple roadblocks in its way, including SEC regular-season champion LSU, Big Ten tournament-champion Iowa and Big 12 front-runner Texas. Syracuse and senior guard Gerry McNamara vaulted from the tournament bubble to the region's fifth seed thanks to a Big East tournament ride sparked by the Scranton, Pennsylvania hero. West Virginia made plenty of noise in last year's tournament, blowing past Wake Forest and pushing Louisville to the wire in the Elite Eight along the way.
Tourney Toughness: Hardest region. The 16-team bracket is full of title holders, experienced squads and talented players. Redick is the best pure scorer the NCAA has seen in some time. Other prolific shooters in the region include McNamara, the entire West Virginia starting five and Iowa's Jeff Horner. The region has a great mix of teams, from an ACC powerhouse, streaking Big East squad, SEC champion and Big Ten tournament titlist to scary mid- majors UNC-Wilmington and Southern Illinois.
Dear Mr. Selection Committee: I don't feel sorry for George Washington fans, because you were right on target with the Colonials' seeding. Their out of conference schedule included Kennesaw State, Morgan State and The Sports Network State (just kidding, but I'm sure we could get a bunch of ballers together to push the Colonials to the limit). The Atlantic 10 was down this season, and unlike Memphis in Conference USA, GW didn't make up for it with a challenging schedule in November and December. It would have been interesting to see Syracuse's fate if not for McNamara's heroics last week in New York. I'm leaning toward believing Syracuse may have been one of the last teams out of the tournament with a last-second loss to Cincinnati. Instead, the running three-pointer dropped and three more victories later the Orange have vaulted to a five seed. The rest of the region flows well.
G J.J. Redick (Duke) - The best player in college basketball. The most important player on the region's best team.
G Gerry McNamara (Syracuse) - Overrated. Can't create his own shot. The critics can continue to talk because McNamara just wins. Head coach Jim Boeheim shouldn't have cursed in his post-game tirade last Wednesday, but he was spot on with his remarks. This scrappy guard with all of the intangibles that a coach can't teach put a mediocre supporting cast on his back all season long.
F Glen Davis (LSU) - Quick feet and a soft touch for a man his size. Not only takes up space but does an excellent job of understanding how to use his wide body as a constant advantage.
F Leon Powe (California) - Powe is fundamentally sound and plays even bigger than his 6-foot-8 frame. The numbers don't lie, as the dynamic sophomore averaged a double-double for the entire season.
F P.J. Tucker (Texas) - Tucker is a multi-talented scorer who is just as comfortable floating on the perimeter as he is with his back to the basket. He will post smaller guards and invite frontline defenders to follow him out to the three-point line.
FIRST ROUND BREAKDOWN
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 16 Southern (Thursday, March 16th) The Jaguars played two other teams in the Atlanta region this season, both embarrassing losses to Texas and LSU. Expect more of the same as Redick gets a much-needed second-half rest.
J.J. Redick is the most important player on the region's best team.
Pick: Redick rests.
No. 8 George Washington vs. No. 9 UNC-Wilmington (Thursday, March 16th) Pops Mensah-Bonsu is a huge question mark and the Seahawks are playing fantastic basketball, riding an eight-game winning streak heading into Thursday's showdown. T.J. Carter is a fantastic talent and if the Seahawks hang around long enough, look for the crowd in nearby Greensboro to play a factor.
Pick: Home-crowd advantage.
No. 5 Syracuse vs. No. 12 Texas A&M (Thursday, March 16th) The names Eric Devendorf, Demetris Nichols and Terrence Roberts won't scare the Aggies. McNamara's groin injury should concern Orange fans. Texas A&M defeated Texas, blew out Colorado and Texas Tech and pushed the Longhorns to the wire since March 1. Syracuse also won the Big East tournament last year before being bounced in the first round by Vermont. That Syracuse team was more complete than this year's version. This Aggies' squad would run circles around the Catamounts. All of Scranton will send hate mail, but Texas A&M is a quality club with livelier legs at this stage in the season.
Pick: Fresh legs.
No. 4 LSU vs. No. 13 Iona (Thursday, March 16th) The Tigers will need freshman guard Tyrus Thomas, who missed the SEC tournament with a sprained ankle, once they get to Atlanta, but their athleticism and size will prove far too much for the undermanned Gales to handle.
Pick: Size and athleticism.
No. 6 West Virginia vs. No. 11 Southern Illinois (Friday, March 17th) The Mountaineers can beat anyone in this tournament. They can also bow out on Friday at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Such is the life of a perimeter-oriented team in the NCAA. This West Virginia team experienced success in the tournament last year, and while Southern Illinois has had some success in past seasons, this Saluki squad will be in awe just long enough for Mike Gansey to drain several early threes. Those first few minutes will be the deciding factor in a narrow West Virginia victory.
No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 14 Northwestern State (Friday, March 17th) Horner and Greg Brunner form an inside-outside combination few outside of Iowa City know about. Both were extremely successful, especially Horner, during the Hawkeyes' run to the Big Ten tournament title. Iowa isn't flashy, but constantly displays a workmanlike efficiency that wears teams down mentally and physically. Unfortunately for Hawkeye fans, Iowa wasn't placed in the right bracket to create a lot of noise past the opening round.
Pick: Deadly duo.
No. 7 California vs. No. 10 North Carolina State (Friday, March 17th) Powe will be the best player on the floor. That, coupled with the fact that the Wolfpack peaked around New Year's Day, tips the scale strongly in the Bears' favor. Cal is more athletic and will have a much easier time establishing tempo. North Carolina State hasn't won a game since February 18th. The Bears have won four since then. This game is a classic case of two teams going in very different directions.
Pick: The team heading north.
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 15 Pennsylvania (Friday, March 17th) If the game was played in the dead of night on Market Street in Philadelphia, Texas would win 99 out of 100 times. However, this game is in Dallas, the Longhorns are angry from a Big 12 tournament title game loss to rival Kansas and have the extra motivation of payback for Duke in the regional final. Under these circumstances, Penn doesn't win the one game.
Pick: 100 out of 100.
Sweet 16: Duke, LSU, West Virginia, Texas Elite Eight: Duke and Texas
Regional Champion: Duke -- Redick and Sheldon Williams will refuse to let Duke lose. If Williams gets into foul trouble, look for freshman forward Josh McRoberts to step up just like he did in the ACC tournament. The Blue Devils toughest test will come from LSU, who can take it to Duke on the interior and attempt to clamp down on Redick beyond the arc. However, in the end the Blue Devils sneak past the Tigers and soundly defeat Texas for the second time this season to advance to Indianapolis.
Poor Oakland: I am officially dubbing this bracket the NIT region. Memphis is athletic, but goes through extended lapses in offensive judgment and defensive tenacity. Pittsburgh can't score. Kansas is too young. Indiana's coach is leaving. Gonzaga played its basketball in the West Coast Conference. And can you name more than one player on UCLA? Any of the four teams that advance to Oakland can get out of the region, which will provide for an exciting brand of mediocrity.
Tourney Toughness: Easiest region. The bracket is full of squads without tournament experience. Bucknell, one could argue, may have the most recent tournament success, knocking off Kansas in the first round last season. The top seed is from Conference USA. The second seed resides in the Pac-10 and the third seed slipped past Loyola Marymount in the conference's tournament title game.
Dear Mr. Selection Committee: I understand Memphis being put on the top line because there were no other striking options. Bradley's out of conference schedule included Bowling Green, Loyola-Chicago and Delaware State. The Braves did defeat Big East foe DePaul and Sun Belt bubble squad Western Kentucky, but had just one major conference opponent on their schedule. I completely agree with what Maryland head coach Gary Williams said in a newspaper article last week. Last time I checked, the phone works both ways, and if a scheduling agreement means Bradley traveling to College Park, Maryland in back-to-back seasons, so be it. Mid-major teams gripe about how the Maryland's of the world won't play them, but the problem is more about Maryland wanting to sell out the Comcast Center than it is about the Terrapins fear of the Bradley Braves. So, instead of including Cincinnati or Florida State, you selected a slightly above average team from the Missouri Valley Conference. That makes a lot of sense.
G Carl Krauser (Pittsburgh) - The Bronx native wisely came back to school for his senior campaign and has had a productive season. Krauser is a prototype point guard with solid ball skills, great court vision and tremendous leadership qualities. The only question mark is his perimeter shooting, but if the guard suddenly starts stroking jumpers the Panthers will be tough to beat.
G Jordan Farmar (UCLA) - Farmar is the Bruins' rock. He dished out 5.3 assists a contest this season and also scored 13.6 points per game.
F Rodney Carney (Memphis) - A raw athlete with plenty of basketball savvy. The Conference USA Player of the Year can post a smaller defender, step back and drain a three and loves to get out in transition. Carney is one of the five most versatile players in the entire tournament.
F Adam Morrison (Gonzaga) - The moustache will be on billboards everywhere if Morrison can lead his 'Zags to Indianapolis. The forward with guard-like skills has a bright NBA future with a soft touch around the basket and the height to step out and shoot over practically anybody. Morrison also does a great job of absorbing contact and finds ways to create his own shot.
F Marco Killingsworth (Indiana) - The Auburn transfer is a beast in the paint. Killingsworth uses his athletic frame to establish excellent post position and has a wide array of very quick post moves. He is a superb finisher around the basket, shooting 54.3 percent for the season.
FIRST ROUND BREAKDOWN
No. 1 Memphis vs. No. 16 Oral Roberts (Friday, March 17th) Could it finally happen. Oral Roberts lost by three to NCAA tournament team Marquette and by eight to fellow Dance partner Oklahoma while defeating Tulsa and blasting USC by 20 in Alaska. Memphis is one of the weaker top seeds in recent memory, relying more on athletic ability than crisp team-oriented play throughout much of the season. It could happen. It could happen. Someone, somewhere will pick it to happen.
Pick: It probably won't happen.
No. 8 Arkansas vs. No. 9 Bucknell (Friday, March 17th) Former President Bill Clinton will be pulling hard for Arkansas. The Razorbacks are the national name. They play a brand of fast-paced basketball fans easily fall in love with and the game will take place in nearby Dallas. However, when one looks past former leaders of the free world, press defenses and a collection of athletes led by Ronnie Brewer, Bucknell is the better basketball team.
Pick: Better team.
No. 5 Pittsburgh vs. No. 12 Kent State (Friday, March 17th) The last time Kent State ventured into the Big Dance, it had a star named Antonio Gates. Since then, Gates has become the NFL's best tight end while the Golden Flashes are finally back in the NCAA tournament. Kent State just doesn't have the characteristics of Cinderella. The Golden Flashes have no marquee regular-season victories and don't have a superstar. The Panthers are too fundamentally sound defensively to give the game away.
Pick: Sound defense.
No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 13 Bradley (Friday, March 17th) Kansas is the hottest team in the country. Bradley doesn't belong in the field. The Jayhawks have won 15 of 16 games and have Big 12 Freshman of the Year Brandon Rush. Why are the Braves in the tournament? Head coach Bill Self has a young team peaking at the right time, and the club already experienced success in a one-and-down environment during the Big 12 tournament. Bradley didn't score a second-half field goal in the Missouri Valley tournament championship game until about the 13-minute mark.
Pick: Leaning slightly toward Kansas.
No. 6 Indiana vs. No. 11 San Diego State (Thursday, March 16th) "This is a great day for Indiana basketball. Trust me. It is." Those were Indiana head coach Mike Davis' words when he resigned on February 16. I agreed with Davis' words in my column several weeks ago and I still do to this day. However, funny things happen when a team has extra emotional motivation. Not to mention, the Hoosiers have plenty of talent. San Diego State barely got past Wyoming in the Mountain West championship game and beat exactly one tournament team in its out of conference schedule, 16th-seed Albany. The competition rises for the Aztecs on Thursday.
Pick: The swan song continues.
No. 3 Gonzaga vs. No. 14 Xavier (Thursday, March 16th) Gonzaga's deficiencies will not be exposed by the Musketeers, who bypassed George Washington on their way to the Atlantic 10 tournament title in Cincinnati. Xavier was only 5-3 in its last eight games, but ran through the gauntlet of Massachusetts, Charlotte, Fordham and St. Joseph's to win the automatic bid. The Bulldogs have defensive problems, however the Musketeers have scored 58, 56, 75, 59, 70 and 62 points in their last six games. I don't think Morrison is afraid.
Pick: Don't be afraid.
No. 7 Marquette vs. No. 10 Alabama (Thursday, March 16th) I applaud Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried for the job he's done without star forward Chuck Davis in the lineup. Sophomore guard Ronald Steele has blossomed into both a leader and a pure scorer. However, other than Redick, Marquette's Steve Novak is the best shooter in this tournament. When a team can put wins against Connecticut, South Carolina, Georgetown and Pittsburgh on its resume, it will usually receive a call for a second round of interviews.
Pick: You are hired.
No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 15 Belmont (Thursday, March 16th) A pair of Bruins will embark on sunny San Diego. The similarities end there. One has 11 NCAA titles and 28 conference championships. The other squad is making its NCAA debut. One is known for its babes and beaches. The other is a Christian university in the heart of Nashville, Tennessee. If you don't catch the game, Atlantic Sun tournament MVP Justin Hare is a great player.
Pick: Babes and beaches.
Sweet 16: Memphis, Kansas, Indiana, Marquette Elite Eight: Kansas and Marquette
Regional Champion: Kansas -- The NIT region busts wide open when the red-hot Jayhawks sneak past Pittsburgh then steamroll Memphis in the Sweet 16. Indiana knocks off Gonzaga and Morrison walks into the sunset. Marquette defeats UCLA and the Hoosiers but falls just short of Kansas in the regional final. Last year, the veteran-laden Jayhawks fell to Bucknell in round one. This year, an inexperienced Kansas' team will benefit from a weak region to reach Indianapolis where it will meet Duke in a rematch of the 1991 championship game.
WASHINGTON, D.C. REGION
National names in Nation's Capitol: Three-fourths of last season's Final Four along with top-seeded UConn gives the Washington, D.C. region plenty of star power. North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan State and Kentucky bring a laundry list of national honors and championships to the table while Pac-10 representative Washington and SEC stalwart Tennessee bring added style. Possible second-round contests between UConn/Kentucky and Michigan State/North Carolina would have a Final Four feel.
Tourney Toughness: Second toughest. The depth of the region is remarkable. Missouri Valley regular-season champion Wichita State and Colonial Athletic Association regular-season champion George Mason didn't win automatic bids but were rewarded for superior regular seasons. UAB plays a unique style -- 40 minutes of running, pressing and total chaos -- that is difficult to prepare for.
Dear Mr. Selection Committee: No problems with George Mason and Wichita State. Both teams won regular-season conference titles. I have plenty of issues with Utah State and Air Force. The Aggies started their season with victories over Oral Roberts and Lewis & Clark. No, not the Explorers. They didn't win their conference and their only substantial victory was against Nevada all the way back on January 23rd. Yet, you watched their LOSS to Nevada in the WAC's tournament title game and immediately put them on the board. You also explained that after Cincinnati lost in heartbreaking fashion to Syracuse, the Bearcats fell out of the tournament. What about Utah State's seven-point loss was more impressive than the Bearcats' defeat on McNamara's prayer? Air Force added wins against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Texas-Pan American, Lamar and IUPU- Fort Wayne early in the season. It was bounced from its conference tournament by seventh-seed Wyoming. Please convince me that Florida State, Michigan or my new favorite team, Cincinnati, would have lost to the Cowboys.
G Marcus Williams (Connecticut) - The southpaw is the best point guard in the tournament. He can score when its necessary, but more importantly he does an excellent job of getting the ball to Rudy Gay and feeding UConn's post people at the proper angle.
G Maurice Ager (Michigan State) - Ager and fellow swingman Shannon Brown are very similar players. Both are streaky shooters though Ager has a better release. Both are key to take pressure off of forward Paul Davis, who is better suited as a complementary piece to the Spartans' puzzle. Ager can handle the ball well in space and is strong enough to finish a play around contact.
F Brandon Roy (Washington) - Maybe the best player no one knows about. With his size, Roy is a constant match-up problem and is an effective inside- outside scorer. He played second fiddle to Nate Robinson last season but shined in the spotlight during this campaign.
F Rudy Gay (Connecticut) - He reminds me of former North Carolina swingman Rashad McCants, a player with abundant talent who disappears for stretches at a time. When he is in the flow of the game, Gay has incredible vertical skills, a solid perimeter game and the keen ability to find even the slightest sliver in an opponent's defense.
F Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina) - Imagine if Sean May had stayed in Chapel Hill. Pairing last season's Final Four MVP with the National Freshman of the Year would have been a scary proposition for any opponent. However, in the long run it may have been better that Hansbrough developed on his own. His quick release reminds me of Antawn Jamison, but he is much stronger and concentrates on finishing despite constant contact. Hansbrough takes a beating, sometimes triple-teamed during games, but always seems to establish good post position and gets off the shot before a defender can leap for the block.
FIRST ROUND BREAKDOWN
No. 1 Connecticut vs. No. 16 Albany (Friday, March 17th) Next.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 9 UAB (Friday, March 17th) Even though the Wildcats turned the corner after their season seemed to be slipping away, it always felt like this Kentucky team was missing something. After watching the Blazers play, I realized the Wildcats' missing piece. Athleticism. UAB runs, jumps and creates havoc all over the floor. While those skills alone don't win championships, they can be the difference in a first- round game between two equal opponents.
Pick: The athletes.
No. 5 Washington vs. No. 12 Utah St. (Thursday, March 16th) More people should know about Roy. Utah State shouldn't be in the field. Huskies and Pac-10 will go 4-0 in first round.
No. 4 Illinois vs. No. 13 Air Force (Thursday, March 16th) Illinois has plenty to be excited about. Senior guard Dee Brown and veteran forward James Augustine provide offensive balance and sharpshooter Rich McBride, who shot 40.3 percent from three-point range this season, can stretch a zone. The Illini play very good defense as well and rarely take a play off. For information on Air Force please read the tirade above.
No. 6 Michigan State vs. No. 11 George Mason (Friday, March 17th) The Spartans are the most difficult team to predict in the entire tournament. Michigan State lost 11 games and at times seemed completely lost offensively (look at its 53-48 loss in the Big Ten tournament championship game to Iowa). However, Tom Izzo coached teams always play a physical, aggressive brand of defense that ultimately leads to success in March. George Mason's Tony Skinn averaged 12.8 points and 2.8 assists per game this season, but will spend the first round on the bench after punching a player below the waist in the CAA tournament. Skinn's absence wipes out any chance of an upset, as the Spartans' physicality on the perimeter will wear down the short-handed Colonials.
Pick: Izzo's brand of basketball.
No. 3 North Carolina vs. No. 14 Murray State (Friday, March 17th) The Tar Heels have overachieved this season with a true freshman and former walk-on in the starting backcourt. David Noel has stepped up his game, but possibly the most important player in this entire region is Reyshawn Terry. The silky-smooth forward averaged 14.7 points and six rebounds per game this season, and UNC won when he added a legitimate second scoring option to take pressure off of Hansbrough.
Pick: Terry plays well.
No. 7 Wichita State vs. No. 10 Seton Hall (Thursday, March 16th) The Pirates lost to Duke by 53. Defeated North Carolina State by 18 in Raleigh. Lost by 42 to Connecticut. No one is certain what Seton Hall team will show up in Greensboro on Thursday, but a quality Shockers' squad will be waiting. Wichita State is led by Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Paul Miller, who averaged 13 points per game and shot 51.8 percent from the floor this season. Miller vs. Kelly Whitney will be the game's most important matchup.
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 15 Winthrop (Thursday, March 16th) Tennessee was handed a gift by the selection committee on the surface. The Volunteers didn't deserve a second seed, but drew a very good Winthrop squad in the opening round. The Eagles defeated Marquette and lost by a combined 11 points to three SEC squads. Chris Gaynor is a three-point specialist and leading scorer Torrell Martin tallied 24 points earlier in the year versus Alabama. The game will be closer than the seeds indicate, but Chris Lofton and Dane Bradshaw will propel the Vols to a hard-earned victory.
Pick: The second seed.
Sweet 16: Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina, Tennessee Elite Eight: UConn and UNC
Regional Champion: Connecticut -- The nation's most talented team will punch its ticket to Indianapolis. Michigan State and North Carolina will be the greatest early round game in the tournament. The winner of that game will ultimately battle UConn for the regional championship. The Tar Heels are a year away from greatness and the veteran Huskies will slowly pull away in the second half of a storied regional final.
Ray's health will be the story of the region: Villanova guard Allan Ray's eye injury looked much worse. The soft tissue injury will be talked about as long as the Wildcats are still in the tournament, and their fate depends solely on how the injury effects the sharpshoter. A talented Arizona squad or a methodical Wisconsin team waits in the second round with a possible Sweet 16 matchup with Boston College also on the horizon.
Tourney Toughness: Second easiest. Ray's eye injury knocks 'Nova down a peg and I'm just not very high on Ohio State. The Buckeyes were supposed to be dynamic next season, but credit head coach Thad Matta for getting a bunch of veterans, juco players and transfers to mesh as a team. Boston College is the best fourth seed in the field. Georgetown is a physical, athletic squad that can cause damage in this bracket if it makes shots. Florida and the NCAA tournament mix like oil and water.
Dear Mr. Selection Committee: I didn't find much wrong with this region. I applaud you for keeping Ohio State on the second line while Florida and Oklahoma are properly seeded as well. However, Boston College was given a raw deal. The Eagles played in the Atlantic Coast Conference final, finished seventh in the final national poll and beat North Carolina twice. Yet, they must travel to Salt Lake City, Utah for the first two rounds to possibly play both Pacific and Nevada. I'm interested in knowing where the Eagles were slated before they disposed of Maryland and North Carolina and pushed overall top seed Duke to the wire in the tournament title game. If the reward for a solid run is a four seed in Salt Lake City then an early exit may have meant a six or seven seed on the surface of the moon.
G Randy Foye (Villanova) - Foye will cause havoc for opposing defenses. The guard is fearless and plays much bigger than his size. The Big East Player of the Year is also a great rebounding guard, essential for the smaller Wildcats.
G Louis Hinnant (Boston College) - With all of the other choices, I'm going with the Eagles' guard that showed me a lot during the final two games of the ACC tournament. Hinnant dished out a season-high 11 assists against North Carolina while taking a back seat to Craig Smith and company. However, in the championship game Hinnant scored a season-high 20 points to keep the Eagles in the contest until the buzzer and even then Hinnant just missed a game- winning miracle heave. A talented guard coming off two fantastic games playing on the region's most dangerous team are great credentials for a spot on this squad.
F Terence Dials (Ohio State) - Reminds me a lot of former Tar Heel Sean May. Dials uses his strength and low center of gravity to back defenders under the basket. The big man shot 56.8 percent from the floor and averaged eight rebounds a game.
F Nick Fazekas (Nevada) - Averaged 21.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per contest. Scored 35 points at Allen Fieldhouse versus Kansas and had just one game in single digits all season.
F Craig Smith (Boston College) - A man amongst boys. Smith is a physical specimen who uses superior strength to dominate in the paint. He can also step out and drain an occasional 10-foot jumper. Smith grabbed 95 offensive rebounds and averaged nine total boards per contest.
FIRST ROUND BREAKDOWN
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 16 Monmouth (Friday, March 17th) Villanova should have no problem playing in its backyard at the Wachovia Center. The key to a deep tournament run will be forward Will Sheridan, so watch his play closely in round one.
Pick: Home cooking.
No. 8 Arizona vs. No. 9 Wisconsin (Friday, March 17th) Tortoise vs. Hare. The Wildcats want to push the ball, scoring in transition or off the secondary break. Wisconsin wants to play in the half court, using its beef in the paint to dominate on the boards and open the perimeter for swingman Alando Tucker. Arizona's defense should be able to dictate the game's tempo.
No. 5 Nevada vs. No. 12 Montana (Thursday, March 16th) No. 12 always beats No. 5. It has happened at least once in 16 of the last 17 years. The Wolf Pack are better than people think. They won at Kansas and Pacific and defeated Georgia. Montana did defeat Stanford and lost by just four points to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but the Big Sky representative doesn't have one player averaging seven rebounds per game nor a player that can stop Fazekas.
Pick: No. 5.
No. 4 Boston College vs. No. 13 Pacific (Thursday, March 16th) The Eagles are playing extremely well and will use the Salt Lake City pod as motivation. Smith will dominate in the paint and the collection of BC guards will continue to grow as the tournament rolls on.
Pick: Take this selection committee.
No. 6 Oklahoma vs. No. 11 Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Thursday, March 16th) The Panthers are on the prowl. Senior forward Joah Tucker is a big-time player who experienced last season's magical run to the Sweet 16. Oklahoma has a solid frontcourt with Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray, but Terrell Everett and Michael Neal are inconsistent on the perimeter. Neal scored just 12 total points in two Big 12 tournament games.
Pick: Inconsistency kills.
No. 3 Florida vs. No. 14 South Alabama (Thursday, March 16th) It's not a matter of if but when. The Gators will fall, probably on the first weekend (A hint at a second-round upset). Joakim Noah has developed into a solid player and the Gators did roll through the SEC tournament last week. I watched South Alabama destroy Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt championship and was mildly impressed. Looking for a common opponent, I found Tennessee on both teams' schedules. The Jaguars lost to the Vols, 87-69. Florida lost to Tennessee twice, but by four points each time and played the Vols much tougher.
Pick: Tennessee knows.
No. 7 Georgetown vs. No. 10 Northern Iowa (Friday, March 17th) Jeff Green, Brandon Bowman and Roy Hibbert complete a talented frontcourt that will manhandle an undersized Panthers' squad.
Pick: Talented and tall.
No. 2 Ohio State vs. No. 15 Davidson (Friday, March 17th) Beware of Davidson. My inside sources (yes I do have inside sources) that saw Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament last week confirmed my suspicions that the Buckeyes' perimeter shooters are struggling. However, Ohio State has enough playmakers to sneak past the Wildcats in round one.
Pick: Just enough shots go in.
Sweet 16: Villanova, Boston College, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Georgetown Elite 8: Boston College and Georgetown
Regional champion: Boston College -- Smith gets the better of Fazekas in round two while the Wildcats couldn't have imagined a worse matchup in the Sweet 16. Boston College has a large frontline, but is also athletic enough on the perimeter to contain Villanova's four-guard attack. Florida's typical first- weekend exit takes place on Saturday as Wisconsin-Milwaukee advances to the Sweet 16 for the second straight season. The Buckeyes don't make enough perimeter shots to give Dials wiggle room. The inside force is bottled up by the revolving door of quality Georgetown big guys. The Hoyas then roll past the Panthers, but BC will not be denied in reaching Indianapolis.
THE FINAL FOUR
Atlanta: Duke Oakland: Kansas Washington, D.C.: Connecticut Minneapolis: Boston College Final two: Duke and Connecticut National champion: Connecticut
THE GREAT EIGHT OF THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
1. Redick -- J.J. has improved immensely over the course of four years, evolving from a three-point specialist to a fantastic all-around scorer. Redick's development is a testament to hard work and staying in school.
2. Iowa head coach Steve Alford -- Murmurs about the Indiana head coaching position will become roars once the Hawkeyes are eliminated from the NCAA tournament. Often overlooked is that Alford has done perhaps his best coaching job this season.
3. The Dixon family -- Big brother Jamie leads Pittsburgh starting Friday against Kent State while sister Maggie takes Army into the women's tournament against second-seeded Tennessee on Sunday. In her first season, Dixon led Army to its first NCAA tournament appearance.
4. CBS announcers Tim Brando and Kevin Harlan -- Brando's famous phrase, "The rim unkind," has become a tournament staple. Harlan's on-air exuberance fits perfectly with the ebb and flow of an NCAA tournament full of defining moments.
5. The mid-majors -- Did the Colonial Athletic Association deserve two bids? Was the Missouri Valley Conference a four-bid league? Those questions will be answered on Thursday and Friday. Bradley especially needs to state its case.
6. See you in Salt Lake -- It would take the Eagles over 35 hours to drive to Salt Lake City. The distance between the two cities is approximately 2365 miles. BC will either come out angry or tired.
7. The defending champions -- North Carolina's title defense could stretch to the regional final or end on Sunday. Whatever the outcome, Roy Williams is the National Coach of the Year.
8. Cinderella -- What makes the first two days of the NCAA tournament great are the upsets. Office pool experts should look at Texas A&M and Wisconsin- Milwaukee while thinking about Winthrop, South Alabama and (gasp) Oral Roberts.