with Jim Sallans
Few tasks are less promising than filling out a bracket for the NCAA Tournament. The odds are staggering that anyone can get it perfect. Even so, the American Gaming Association estimates that 70 million people are taking part in this exercise in futility.
Many see the champion as a foregone conclusion. The Kentucky Wildcats are 34-0, yet the Vegas sharps give them no better than 55% probability of winning the title. We really can’t be too sure about anything, which is what makes March Madness such a riveting event.
So without trying to be overly ambitious, here are some thoughts on what might unfold:
Tourney Dark Horse
The Iowa State Cyclones. Winners of the Big 12 Tournament and 2nd in the conference this season, the Cyclones are a formidable opponent for any team. A combination of timely passing and accurate outside shooting put them at the top of my list for outside contenders this year.
Plus, playing in the most competitive conference in college basketball gives this team an edge. The Big 12 put 70% of its teams in the Big Dance this season, the highest percentage of any conference in the nation.
No. 3 Iowa State has played tournament-ready ball while winning its past five games, all against teams from the Big 12, college basketball’s strongest conference. The Cyclones were down by 10 to Texas with 3 minutes to go but found a way to come back and win by 2. They went on to beat OU and Kansas to take the Big 12 title. They have the potential to upset both No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 1 Duke.
None stand out, but you can’t have an NCAA tourney without someone at least trying to pass for Cinderella. A true Cinderella is a moderately sized school out of a lesser conference that few people filling out their brackets have ever heard of. We’ve had some of these going far in the recent past: Wichita State, Butler, VCU. Butler has since gone big-time, graduating from Atlantic-10 to Big East.
Georgia State, which plays smothering defense (holding opponents to 38% shooting) hopes to surprise coming out of the Sun Belt. The Panthers are in the tournament for the first time since 2001. Seeded 14th in the West, they face a vulnerable 3-seed in a plodding Baylor (TBS, Thurs., 1:48 ET) in, of all places, Jacksonville.
But the closest we have to Cinderella might be UC-Irvine, making its first dance in 50 years. The Anteaters have a chance as the No. 13 seed facing No. 4 Louisville in the East Regional in, of course, Seattle (TBS, Fri., 4:10 ET).
Louisville, with its notoriously ineffective offense, could be in trouble if the Anteaters get hot from the 3-point arc, where they’re hitting 39%. They’re even more dangerous inside, with 7-6 Mamadou Ndiaye an unsettling presence who’s shooting 63 percent on field goals.
But a team has to win more than one or two games to turn many heads as a Cinderella. I just don’t see G-State or Cal-Irvine lasting that long.
Stephen F. Austin’s high intensity team play suggests a potential Cinderella. The Lumberjacks pass the ball as well as anyone. Their 17.8 assists per game lead the nation. Not only are they more than willing to share the ball, the team shoots 49.1% from the field, which is 5th overall in the nation.
Their ability to score fast and often gives them the ability to upset some low seeds and make a run. They won’t be awed, having upset VCU in the opening round a year ago.
North Carolina Tar Heels. They have not been themselves this year. It’s a recurring trend for this group coached by Roy Williams.
Right out of the gate the Baby Blues face a scrappy Harvard squad, and if that isn’t enough to take them down, a strong Arkansas (2nd in the SEC Tournament) will be up to the task.
Notre Dame enters the tournament as a No. 3 seed in the Midwest region headed by Kentucky, the No. 1 overall. Their problem with the Irish is lack of defense. They rank No. 111 in defensive efficiency and are atrocious on the offensive boards. These two factors have historically proven to be a fatal flaw for any team in the tournament.
Most Competitive Region
The South. With Duke on its heels after falling out of the ACC Tournament early, this region is wide open. Iowa State won the Big 12 Tournament and is playing terrific basketball down the stretch. I have the Cyclones going far this year, as noted above. Utah is also a team to watch. The Utes placed second in the Pac-12 this season and could give Duke — Georgetown at the very least — a run for its money.
The southern region includes No. 1 Duke, No. 2 Gonzaga, No. 3 Iowa State, No. 4 Georgetown, No. 10 Davidson (upset alert over No. 7 Iowa), and the dangerous No. 12 Stephen F. Austin. Whoever comes out of this region will be playing very good ball.
Final 4 Shoe-In
The Kentucky Wildcats are undefeated thus far and don’t have too many tough obstacles in their way to a Final Four berth. The only real competition in the Midwest Region will be the formidable offense of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the ever-talented Kansas Jayhawks.
Benefiting from some kind bracketing, Kentucky will not have to play both Notre Dame and Kansas. The Wildcats no doubt would prefer to face the Jayhawks, whom they beat by 32 points in November.
I see the Wildcats moving through the first two rounds easily and facing Maryland prior to an Elite Eight appearance.
Making the Final Four seems highly probable for the deeply talented Wildcats. But all the Final Four teams are going to be playing at such a high level that Kentucky at that point will be severely tested.
Kentucky had close calls from Mississippi (overtime), Texas A&M (double overtime) and LSU, whom they beat by 2 points. Wildcats coach John Calipari does not consider his team invincible, but says it can be beaten by another team that “plays its best game. You won’t win by changing your game to beat ours.”
Every path to the Final 4 is a difficult one that takes four straight wins. Kentucky looks to continue its undefeated stretch into the tournament. The Wildcats are in the best region to make the Final Four. The No. 2 seed, Kansas, lost to them by 32.