NCAA Tourney baby!

The unveiling of the NCAA Tournaments is like the sports version of Christmas in my opinion. I wait anxiously for weeks to see what Santa (a.k.a. the Tournament committee) would bring. Sometimes it sucks, like socks or an 18-14 Arizona team being in the tournament, and sometimes its outstanding (the absolutely loaded for bear East Region).

Anyway, ever since I’ve been in the professional journalism world, I’ve handicapped the NCAA Tournament with a region-by-region breakdown. In these breakdowns, I’ll come up with a general theme for the region, a dark-horse team to watch, a team to stay away from (usually relatively high seed), an upset special and a lead-pipe lock. I’ll do one of these per region.

Now, I must stress that there isn’t a 100 percent guarantee. However, I did win pools in 2002 and 2003 (where I picked a Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse team to defeat Kansas in the final) based on what I wrote in these breakdowns, plus picked Georgia Tech to reach the final in 2004. It’s generally given me luck and hopefully, it will do the same for you.

As an appetizer, I’ll throw out some sample categories of teams from my first glance at the bracket.

1) The “bubble” team done good.
Every year, there are a few at-large teams who people think shouldn’t have been in the tournament. Typically, its a bigger school with a record barely above .500 who gets the benefit of the doubt or a smaller school that didn’t win its conference tournament that snuck in. While most of these schools shrivel up and die an early death, there’s usually one who makes a run to the Sweet 16. The best example of this phenomenon is George Mason in 2006, who went from being a questionable at-large selection from the unheralded Colonial Athletic Association to a Final Four team that knocked off big-conference powers Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn.
While George Mason is an extreme example, its not an isolated phenomenon. In my opinion, the teams that best fit this category are St. Joseph’s (No. 11 seed East), Arizona (No. 10 West), Baylor (No. 11 West), Villanova (No. 12 Midwest), Kansas State (No. 11 Midwest), Kentucky (No. 11 South) and South Alabama (No. 10 East).
My preliminary pick in this category would be Baylor. They have an experience backcourt, have a favorable matchup with a young Purdue team in the first round and a winnable game against No. 3-seed Xavier in round two. My second pick would be South Alabama, who will have a homecourt advantage of sorts in Birmingham.
I would stay the heck away from Villanova and Arizona at all costs. Villanova has a horrible first-round matchup against an athletic Clemson team while underacheiving Arizona has to travel east to Washington D.C.

2) The conference tournament champion that shot its wad
The best example of this was also in 2006, as Syracuse went from a bubble team to an inflated No. 5 seed with a ridiculous run through the Big East Tournament. Not only did the Orange use all its energy to just make the tournament, but it got a seed that was a couple of rungs too high. Therefore, their upset loss to No. 12 Texas A&M that year was easy pickings. Kansas also had a similar thing happen that year – unexpectedly winning the Big 12 tournament to earn a No. 4 seed, only to crash and burn against Bradley.
This one has an obvious choice – Georgia. The Bulldogs, a 4-12 team in the SEC regular-season, somehow won four in a row at the conference tournament – including two on the same day – to sneak into the field. As a No. 14 seed, Georgia’s stay will be brief.
As far as other less obvious examples, I’m skeptical about Pittsburgh. The Panthers won four straight to take the Big East tourney after struggling for the majority of the conference season. While the Panthers were a tourney team regardless, this weekend run have them seeded fourth in the south. Pitt faces a tournament-tested Oral Roberts team in round one and either Michigan State or Temple in round two. I’m picking the Panthers to be toast by then.

3) The conference tourney sandbagger
This team basically treats its conference tourney with disdain, losing earlier than it should, but comes up with a huge run once the big-boy tourney starts a week later. The best recent example of this is UCLA last year. The Bruins were cruising toward a No. 1 seed in 2007 prior to the Pac-10 tournament, but were shocked by Cal in the first round of that tournament.
That loss dropped the Bruins from a sure No. 1 seed to a No. 2 seed, but didn’t affect UCLA’s on-court play in the slightest. UCLA cruised to its second straight Final Four before losing to eventual national champion Florida – showing no ill-effects from its early conference tourney gaffe.
I’d say the best candidate for this is Tennessee, who’s upset loss in the SEC Tournament dropped it from a probable No. 1 seed to a No. 2 seed in the loaded East regional.

There will be more to come, so buckle up.

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