This year's bracket as always is one of a kind, but as always the same questions remain, so let me try to answer these key questions as we head into the craziest sporting event of the year.
1. How are we supposed to go about picking the winner out of that region of death that is the Midwest?
Let me just start off by saying that the Wichita State basketball program won't be sending the selection committee any Christmas cards this year. Their path to the Final Four is as brutal of any that I've ever seen. Once they get to the Round of 32 (barring the first 1 seed upset in history), they will already most likely be up against the preseason #1 team in Kentucky. How Kentucky wound up as an 8 seed is a mystery to us all along with how SMU missed out and how the #5 overall team going into Selection Sunday wound up as a 4 seed (Louisville). Now if Kentucky is having one of those days where they zone off and play undisciplined basketball for long stretches in a game then the Shockers should move on handily. If the Wildcats show up strong for a full 40 minutes however, the Shockers could be ripe upset meat for the Wildcats who would most likely go on to face defending champ and rival Louisville. Again...how is Louisville a 4 seed? That is so unfair to them and their opponents in their path to the Final Four. This squad will be out to prove it was deserving of that fourth 1 seed I think and upset the Shockers if the Wildcats don't. Whoever does win between the Wichita St./Kentucky/Louisville though will most likely have to face Duke or Michigan who are both offensive juggernauts. The Longhorns and Hawkeyes are dark horses who could sneak into the Elite Eight as well with their offensive rebounding prowess and shooting (Iowa) or defense (Texas). Ultimately I see Louisville as the winner of the Midwest Region here.
2. What 12 seed will win over the 5 seed this year?
Every year there seems to be at least one 5-12 matchup resulting in an upset, sometimes a couple of them. This year my two 12 seed upset picks are Stephen F. Austin over VCU and North Dakota St. over Oklahoma. While Stephen F. Austin may not have faced a defense as good as VCU's, I think that VCU will be shocked at how tenacious the Lumberjacks' offensive rebounding is. Also, VCU tends to live off of their opponents' turnovers and the Lumberjacks take care of the ball very well with only a 14% turnover ratio. If the Lumberjacks can take care of the ball, continue shooting well (52.4 Eff. FG%), and give themselves second chances when they do miss then they will shock the team that is usually used to shocking others. North Dakota State is also a team that shoots and takes care of the ball well. They will just have to really focus on defense against the Sooners as that is usually the weaker side of the ball for NDSU. I really like Cincinnati though and just don't see an upset for Harvard over the Bearcats in the cards. St. Louis will get to face a play-in team (NC St. or Xavier), and frankly NC State is the team who I think was lucky at the expense of SMU's snub on Selection Sunday. I don't see the Billikens getting upset by either of those squads in the Round of 64. The best 5 seed in the bunch is Cincinnati and I wouldn't be surprised to see them surprise Michigan State in the Round of 32 if the Spartans beat Delaware as predicted.
3. Will any 16 seeds finally break the undefeated trend for the 1 seeds?
No. I see Texas Southern possibly making it interesting against Wichita State if they beat Cal Poly, but that is just it...interesting. Nothing more. The 16 seeds will stay o-fer...
4. Will any play in games produce a dark horse?
Yes, I see Iowa beating Tennessee then shocking UMass, Duke, and Michigan. The metrics really like the Hawkeyes who kill the boards, take care of the ball, and know how to handle fouling on offense and defense. They can get to the line while also playing smart defense. They will likely fall to Louisville, but will have made plenty of noise while getting to the Elite Eight.
5. Who are the top low seed small schools in this year's bracket?
If I had to rank them I'd say:
1. Stephen F. Austin (have them getting to Round of 32 and losing to UCLA)
2. NC Central (lose in Round of 64, but in a thriller against Iowa State)
3. Harvard (great but get tough first matchup like NC Central did and lose to Cincinnati)
4. North Dakota St. (have them getting to Round of 32 and losing to San Diego St.)
5. New Mexico St. (lose in Round of 64 to San Diego St.)
6. Who will show that their late season surges or slumps were for real?
I think Syracuse will struggle more than it should against Western Michigan but they will still win. I see Ohio State and Aaron Craft handling Syracuse in the Round of 32 as an under seeded 6 seed. I think Iowa will overcome their late season slump. They were close in all of those games and never got blown out which shows that they can easily recover and get on a run in the tournament. I see Baylor beating Nebraska, Creighton, and Wisconsin to reach the Elite Eight. The Bears have been red hot and their latest loss was barely to Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship and that was most likely due to fatigue after playing their 4th game in 4 days unlike Iowa State who had a bye to start off the Big 12 Tourney. The Bears' zone defense and offensive rebounding will carry them to the Elite Eight. Also, their opponents had better keep an eye on Brady Heslip, or he could bury them quickly in three pointers.
7. Which star freshman will have the biggest impact in this tournament?
I have Arizona winning my bracket and it will be due to a big dose of Aaron Gordon. The Wildcats' young freshman is averaging 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds on the season, but I could see him possibly stepping it up to 16 and 9 per game for the tournament. The Wildcats will need him against Baylor in the Elite Eight if they both make it as the Bears have a strong frontcourt in Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson. He will have to step up his free throw shooting as well for the big moments late in the game. I just dont see any other freshman getting nearly as far (Syracuse/Ennis losing in Round of 32, Kansas/Wiggins losing in Elite Eight, Duke/Parker losing in Round of 32, Kentucky/Randle losing in Sweet 16). I think veterans will show up bigger in this tournament despite the huge preseason hype of this freshman class.
8. What game/matchup will provide the best game and drama of the whole tournament?
My projected Sweet 16 matchup between Louisville and Kentucky will provide plenty of drama. This game doesn't lack storylines with "The Defending Champs against Preseason #1", and "Veteran Laden Squad against the Overhyped Freshmen Class", and just being a couple of them. These teams were also both vastly underseeded which is a huge reason why this great matchup will happen so early on the tournament. Even if these teams weren't in-state rivals this would already be a classic, but that adds even more fuel to the fire. Watch for the fireworks to fly right from the tip-off if this game happens.
9. What team was way overseeded and fall early?
I don't see Oklahoma living up the 5 seed at all. As you saw earlier I see the Sooners falling victim to the typical 5-12 upset, and them being overseeded along with past teams is a huge reason why the 5 seed has typically been one of the weaker big seeds. When NDSU upsets them they're gonna be wishing they had Blake Griffin back in no time.
10. What team was under seeded and will rise up and prove themselves?
I see Ohio State showing up with a chip on their shoulder, which is a dangerous thing equipped to Aaron Craft and company. I see them taking down Dayton and Syracuse to prove they deserved better, but I ultimately see a Kansas squad who will likely recover Embiid before their matchup and feel some extra spunk to take down the Buckeyes and play #1 Florida in the Elite Eight. I also see both #8 seed Kentucky and #4 seed Louisville performing far beyond what their seed indicates. I see Kentucky tking down Kansas State than #1 seed undefeated Wichita State to prove their worth before underseeded Louisville takes them down in the Sweet 16. I then see Louisville advancing to the Final Four where they lose to eventual champion Arizona. I also see the 6 seed UNC Tarheels making noise and making it to the Elite Eight where they will lose to the Virginia Cavaliers. UNC is as good as any team out there when they play at their best and I think they will, but Virginia's defense will be just too nasty for them I think.
Final Question: Who will be in the Final Four and who will be the champion?
South: Florida over Kansas
East: Virginia over North Carolina
West: Arizona over Baylor
Midwest: Louisville over Iowa
Virginia over Florida
Arizona over Louisville
Arizona over Virginia
Now time for the Big Dance!