The bracket was unveiled, the play-in games or “First Four” round is complete and now all that’s left is for the final 64-team field in the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball tournament to get under way later today.
On that note, here’s a preview/prediction of what you may see over the next three weeks…
First Round Upsets
I already went over 5-10 potential first round upsets earlier this week, but with the deadline to hand in my bracket looming, I had to make some tough decisions as to which of those potential shockers I was actually going to commit to. Here they are:
No. 12 Oregon over No. 5 Oklahoma State
No. 11 St. Mary’s over No. 6 Memphis
No. 11 Minnesota over No. 6 UCLA
No. 11 Bucknell over No. 6 Butler
No. 14 Davidson over No. 3 Marquette
No. 10 Colorado over No. 7 Illinois
No. 12 Ole Miss over No. 5 Wisconsin
No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Arizona
Nothing captures the imagination of fans quite like a good Cinderella team, so here are a handful of underdogs I think might make some noise.
St. Mary’s – The Gaels boast the fourth-best offence in the country (offensive efficiency) and are coming off of a rout over Middle Tennessee in a play-in game that most expected to be close, since the Blue Raiders themselves were a top-five defence. I have St. Mary’s upsetting Memphis on Thursday before marching through to the Sweet 16.
Ole Miss – You can make the argument that no team gained more in the final week of the season than Mississippi, who enters the tournament on a five-game winning streak and as the surprise champions of the SEC after taking down Florida in the final. The Rebels’ fast pace game (Ole Miss uses the seventh-most possessions in college basketball) should cause problems for opponent Wisconsin, who drag along with one of the slowest paces in NCAA ball.
Bucknell and Davidson – Near the bottom of the East Region bracket, I’ve selected No. 11 Bucknell and No. 14 Davidson to shock No. 6. Butler and No. 3 Marquette, respectively. If I’m right – I make no guarantees – that would set up a Bison vs. Wildcats matchup in the next round, assuring us that one of these two teams would have a place in the Sweet 16. Davidson is more of a wild pick, but I’m increasingly confident in Bucknell’s chances.
Florida Gulf Coast – This is by far my craziest hunch of the tournament and I’ll admit that I didn’t actually pick the Eagles to win a game in my own bracket, but just hear me out on this one. While there are no true powerhouse teams this year, I still don’t think we’ll see a No. 16 finally get the best of a No. 1, but a No. 15 over a No. 2, which happened twice last year, is certainly plausible. When looking at the four No. 2 seeds – Duke, Georgetown, Miami and Ohio State – the Hoyas are the weakest of the bunch to me, and that alone leads me to believe that FGCU may be this year’s true Cinderella. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but if you’re looking to take some major high-risk, high-reward chances in your bracket, Florida Gulf Coast in a monumental upset over Georgetown might be worth your time.
A first round upset or a Cinderella team dancing into the Sweet 16 is one thing, but nailing a “sleeper” pick that’s too good to be a Cinderella is also a pretty great feeling when going through your bracket. Here are four solid teams with legitimate Final Four chances that seem to be flying under the radar:
Saint Louis (Midwest Region No. 4 seed) – The Billikens may not have played against a very tough schedule in the Atlantic-10 Conference, but winning 15 of their final 16 games, including the A-10 championship game over a solid VCU team, is nothing to scoff at. Saint Louis finished the season as the 13th-ranked team in the AP Poll and the 16th-ranked team in the RPI rankings, so a No. 4 seed and a Sweet 16 berth shouldn’t surprise anyone. But with a top-10 defence, perhaps the Billikens can do even more. Don’t let the friendly, winking elephant logo fool you, and don’t be caught sleeping on Saint Louis.
VCU (South Region No. 5 seed) – Given that ESPN has been giving them ink all season as a potential tournament “Giant Killer” and the fact that plenty of people actually seem to believe in VCU as a potential Final Four team, perhaps I shouldn’t have included them on a list of teams bracket fillers have been overlooking. But hey, a No. 5 seed isn’t usually capable of really winning it all, and in this unprecedented season of parity, the Rams just might be.
Syracuse (East Region No. 4 seed) – The Orange finished 14th in the RPI rankings and boast a more than capable offence to compliment a top-15 defence. They were seriously battle-tested all season in the Big East, going 6-5 against ranked teams with impressive wins over Louisville, Georgetown and Pittsburgh to their name in addition to a Big East tournament final appearance. Everyone’s looking at Indiana and Miami to come out of the East Region, as they should be, but if another team is going to crash the party in the bottom right of your bracket, bet on that team being Syracuse.
Pittsburgh (West Region No. 8 seed) – I’ve already mentioned how battle-tested Big East teams are, and Pitt knows all about that, as the Panthers went 12-6 within the conference but 12-2 outside of it. A top-10 offence, a top-20 defence, a top-10 rebound rate and a spot in the weakest of the four regions. Add it all up, and Pittsburgh seems more than capable of emerging out of the West. I ended up going with Gonzaga to get to the Final Four, but I was seriously considering taking the Panthers to upset the Zags in the Round of 32 and wouldn’t be surprised at all to see it happen.
Bonus Sleeper: New Mexico (West Region No. 3 seed) – The Lobos finished with the second highest RPI rating and atop the regular season standings in the conference with the highest RPI ranking, then went out and won the Mountain West tournament title. New Mexico also went a perfect 4-0 against ranked teams this season. They’ll likely have a tough Sweet 16 matchup with Ohio State and would then have to get through Gonzaga or Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight, but I have found myself with a few bracket scenarios that place the Lobos in the Final Four.
It can’t all be about upsets, Cinderellas and feel good stories. Here are a few higher rated teams that look vulnerable to collapse.
Memphis (Midwest Region No. 6 seed) – The Tigers turn the ball over nearly 15 times per game, and a team that coughs it up is always vulnerable to an upset in a single game elimination format. I have them falling to St. Mary’s in their first game of the tournament.
UCLA (South Region No. 6 seed) – The Bruins are without the services of their second leading scorer after freshman Jordan Adams suffered a broken foot in the Pac-12 semifinals and they’re one of the worst rebounding teams in the tournament. The team they’re set to face in their first game – Minnesota – has the eighth best rebound rate in the nation. Need I say more?
Butler (East Region No. 6 seed) – The Bulldogs have gone from lovable underdogs to potential busts in the span of a few years. An opening matchup against a Bucknell side that’s better on both ends of the floor should scare everyone away from this former Cinderella.
Gonzaga (West Region No. 1 seed) – After plenty of internal deliberation, I went with No. 1 ranked Gonzaga as one of my Final Four picks, but that doesn’t mean I’m unaware of how vulnerable they might be as the weakest top seed. The Bulldogs beat up on a weak schedule and as mentioned already, a potential Round of 32 matchup against underrated Pittsburgh really scares me. A potential Elite Eight matchup with the winner of Ohio State/New Mexico is also concerning.
Bonus Potential Bust: UNLV (East Region No. 5 seed) – The Runnin’ Rebels have to open their tournament against California in California (San Jose), where they beat the Golden Bears by just one point in December.
Final Four Picks
Midwest Region: No. 1 Louisville
South Region: No. 3 Florida
East Region: No. 2 Miami
West Region: No. 1 Gonzaga
Florida defeats Louisville – The Gators may not have a true star or future NBA standout (Patric Young is their best bet), but they’re a balanced team that is always well coached under two-time NCAA champion Billy Donovan. Florida boasts the seventh-most efficient offence and the third-most efficient defence, the only team in the country to be ranked in the top-10 on both ends of the floor.