NCAA Tournament – Surprises Will Abound, But Where and When?

by Kent Sterling

UnknownI love the beginning of NCAA tournaments because hope lies everywhere.  Each of the 64 teams that begin play tomorrow in the real first round of the Big Dance have hope that they will emerge from the rubble with a win to gain entry into the 32-team event that starts this weekend.

And the 16 who survive this weekend will believe with all their hearts that they can make it to the eight team event that will start next Saturday.  The foundation of this beast is hope, and in one 40-minute game, hope can be validated.

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Which of the 64 teams will see their dreams come to life is an every changing question that is affirmed at different levels of the bracket.  For Florida, anything but a National Championship will be a disappointment, but for Western Michigan, an opening game triumph against three-seed Syracuse would be celebrated in Kalamazoo like Mardi Gras multiplied by Christmas plus New Years Eve squared.

So which of the teams have the best chance to survive and thrive?  The 16-seeds will almost certainly fail in their attempt to advance.  Since the tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985, none has won a single game.  It’s going to happen eventually, but it’s a massive long shot.  Twice in the history of the tournament (both in 1989), a 16-seed came within a single point of pulling the magical upset.

In 29 tournaments with 15-seeds, only seven of 116 have won their opening round game, but three have come in the last two years.  Whether that cluster was caused by a flattening of the talent gap between schools like Eastern Kentucky and Kansas (who play each other in the first round) or an aberration will be seen this year.  Three in two years could be a fluke, but an upset of this magnitude in three consecutive events is a trend.

Florida-Gulf Coast in 2013 is the one team that was able to survive the first weekend as a 15-seed, and only two 14-seeds have qualified for the Sweet 16.

The single 12-seed to move into the Elite Eight was Missouri in 2002, but five 11-seeds have moved past their third opponent to play for a chance to qualify for the Final Four.  A surprising three-of-the-five 11-seeds who’ve made it to the Elite Eight have been able to move on to the National Semifinals.  Each beat a #1 seed.  LSU topped Kentucky in 1986, George Mason beat UConn in overtime in 2006, and VCU hammered Kansas in 2011 to make coach Shaka Smart a star.

History is a lot more certain than the future, but millions will fill out their brackets through Noon tomorrow with 63 prognostications each.  The darling of the media and Barack Obama are the Spartans of Michigan State.  Everyone talks about what a great tournament coach Tom Izzo is, but in 18 previous seasons, he has one only one more title than you have.  If the seeds hold, which is unlikely, Izzo will have to lead Gary Harris and his teammates past Delaware, Cincinnati, Virginia, and Villanova.  Hard to pick against the Spartans in the East, which means they are almost certain to lose tomorrow against the Fightin’ Blue Hens.

People love Louisville too because we tend to believe that whatever has happened in the past is likely to occur again.  Louisville cut down the nets last year in Atlanta, so despite being a four-seed in the toughest region, the verdict is Louisville will come out of the Midwest.  Beating Saint Louis/NC State, Kentucky/Wichita State, and Duke/Michigan is a murderer’s row.  This region is an eight-sided dice roll.

The West is weak, and almost every bracket not filled out by an alum from one of the competing schools has Arizona advancing to Cowboys Stadium for the Final Four.  Wisconsin, San Diego State, and Creighton are the stiffest competition they might face.  While the impossible happens in this event regularly, I can’t see any of them beating Arizona – which means someone likely will.

The South comes down to a very young and banged up Kansas team and the top-seeded Florida Gators.  If Joel Embiid gets healthy, Kansas has a good chance to play with Florida, but if any team appeared just short of invincible since the first of the year, Florida is it.  That means Albany is going to give the Gators all they want tomorrow.

If it seems I am hedging all my picks, it’s because I have been wrong over the years a hell of a lot more often than I haven’t been.  Golfers reach a certain number of missed putts in their lives, and they stand over the ball knowing their is no chance to knock the ball in the hole.  I have a bad case of tournament picking yips.

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With a billion bucks of Warren Buffett’s cash on the line for a perfect grid, this is a bad year to have the yips.  Forget that the odds of running the table are approximately 9,000,000,000,000,000,000-to-1, which is like knocking in a putt from Indianapolis to Loogootee, where there is a chance, there is hope.  And that is why we love this tournament so much.

I love NCAA big money pools, but I have never won one.  That means I’m due.

I’m going with Kansas, Iowa State, Michigan, and Arizona.  Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong, and I can’t argue, but it’s damn likely you’re wrong too.

[ed. note – To participate in the NCAA Pool, click here.  Enter as the bracket name, and kentsterling as the password.  The prize is your choice of an autographed basketball from Bob Knight, Mike Davis, or the 2004-2005 Notre Dame team.  There is no entry fee because I am a hell of a nice guy.]

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