If you're reading this, I bet you've done pretty well on your bracket picks the last couple of years. How do I know that? Because even the receptionist at my office did well on her bracket the last few years...and she isn't from this country nor does she watch basketball. The point is, since 2006 and George Mason's miraculous run to the Final Four, the tournament has been a chalk fest with a pseudo-Cinderella sprinkled in here and there. Save Davidson, high-seeds have dominated the Elite 8, the Final Four, and the championship game. Sure, there have been some early upsets and some runs into the Sweet 16, but there will be no George Mason this year.
Obviously, it's easy to predict that the improbable will not happen...I realize that. Picking the Final 4 these days is as easy as picking from a pool of about 6-8 teams and feeling invincible about it. I myself missed last year by 1 team...I had L'ville instead of Michigan State. The point is, the chalk continues to remain in the long run, and the real challenge and skill remains in picking the 1st and 2nd round filler games as the 1 and 2 seeds dominate their opponents. Although there seems to be more parity in the greater college basketball landscape as a whole, the top remains in the hands of a select few each year. So let's take a look at the brass, the hopefuls, and the darkhorses...
The Brass (teams who have what it takes to make it to the Final Four and win it all)
Kansas - the best team top-to-bottom in college hoops. They have a top PG who can make the big shot, a front court that is second to none, and a lottery pick coming of the bench. This team is reminiscent of the 2005 UNC championship team...for all the reasons mentioned...plus they have better defense. They should be the last team cutting down the nets.
Kentucky - probably the most talented team top-to-bottom in the country. However we all know that youth and inexperience can be an achilles heel. Honestly, I'm more concerned that Demarcus Cousins will do something stupid to get kicked out of a game and award the other team 2 shots and the ball to lose a game rather than John Wall or the others buckling under pressure. Kentucky should cruise to the Elite 8 before they really have to win a pressure-filled game.
Villanova - guard play is king in the tournament, and Nova's guards could be the best in the country with Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fischer leading the way. With the improvement of their primary big man, Pena, Nova is poised to make another run to the Final Four.
Purdue - I was impressed with this Purdue team when they were Freshman. I really liked them last year as Sophomores. And, even though they bowed out a bit prematurely last year, I love this Purdue team as their key players are now Juniors. They have one of the most athletic big men in the country in Johnson, and are just incredibly balanced at each spot with solid players...although they're not terribly deep. It would be a disappointment for this team not to make it to at least the Elite 8.
Syracuse - a favorite to make it to the Final Four certainly. We all know how tough it can be to figure out this zone, and especially hard if you only have a day to prepare for it (although teams with good outside shooting can follow Louisville's blueprint to beat the Cuse). Aside from the zone defense, this Cuse team has great balance, talent, and experience...and a star in Wes Johnson. (Great game would be: Cuse vs Purdue in Elite 8 or Final Four)
The Hopefuls (teams that could definitely make it to the Final Four, but not sure they have what it takes to win it all)
Duke - nevermind the early exits in recent tournaments, this Duke team will make it past the second round guaranteed. (Disclaimer - I am a card-carrying Duke hater, but I still try to remain objective). People forget that Duke is full of All-Americans...just because they look like a bunch of dorks, doesn't mean they can't play ball, and play it well. They still rely on the 3 ball too much, but they have some good big men who can rebound and get them some second shot opportunities. Take into consideration, though, this Duke team is not nearly as good away from Cameron. A team with great perimeter defending and a good big can take them out...but I think they'll probably make it to the Elite 8...unfortunately.
West Virgina - this is the type of team that could go to the Final Four...or lose second round. But I don't think Desean Butler is going to let the latter happen. He is the type of player that can will a team to a tournament win. Playing in the Big East always prepares you for NCAA tournament atmosphere and I think their toughness will carry them to the land of 8 as well. (Great game would be: WVU vs. Duke in the Elite 8)
Kansas State - I like this team a lot. They're athletic, fast, like to push the ball, play tough D, etc. I really like their PG play. I'm not sure if they have the consistency to make it past the Sweet 16 but I wouldn't be surprised to see them in the Elite 8 - this is clearly a team to watch.
Ohio State - this team has all the pieces to go to the Final Four. Evan Turner is one of the best all-around players in the country hands down...and his supporting cast is very talented as well. They will have a healthy David Lighty this year, in addition to a deadly shooter in Diebler, and improved players in Buford and Lauderdale. I do think not having a pure PG hurts them, but show me the PG who can stop Evan Turner.
Georgetown - talented and well coached, but a bit inconsistent against weaker competition. I feel like Monroe has a beast inside that has yet to be released. I say they go 2-1 in the tournament.
Michigan St. - I don't like MSU, but the bottom line is they're the most consistent program over the past 10 years. They're very well coached and have very good talent, and I think the Big 10 gets less credit than it deserves.
Texas - formerly #1 in the country, Texas will make a run in this tournament. They are FULL of talent, although they do have some question marks at the PG spot with Balbay. Either way, I think they have enough talent at the other spots to get to the Final Four. They're hit a rough patch a few weeks back, but they're playing solid basketball now and no one will want to see them in the tourney.
Vanderbilt - there's something about these guys that I really like. They have a very well-balanced squad. I think they could make a run to the 8.
Baylor/Texas A&M/Wake Forest - very dangerous teams. Slightly inconsistent, but very talented. They will be a tough out for anyone.
New Mexico/BYU - I don't get to see these teams very often, but from what I can tell they're both very talented and well coached. I would not be surprised if either went to the Elite 8...nor would I be surprised if both got knocked out 1st or 2nd round.
The Darkhorses (Teams outside the Top 25 that can make some noise in the tournament)
UTEP, UConn, Georgia Tech, Richmond, Murray St., Mississippi State, and Old Dominion.
We all know that the tournament comes down to matchups, so who knows what the final picture will look like come March/April. What I suggest you look for when filling out your brackets are:
- Strong guard play
- Ability to beat tough teams away from home
- Don't put too much into the "hot" teams. There have been a number of teams that tear through their conference tournament only to be ousted in the first round.
- Talent wins.
I will post Final Four and Champion predictions when the brackets are released.