A quick note about my bracket credentials to get you fully sold on this before we get started.
In 2002, I finished eighth overall in SportingNews.com's national contest. My entry for the competition included a perfect Midwest region, and the legitimate pick of 16 seed Boston upsetting No. 1 Cincinnati. The Bearcats won by 38 but lost in the next round to UCLA, making it possible for a kid who picked the first 16/1 upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament to finish in the top 10 of a contest on a major national website.
My prize was a pair of binoculars. I have no idea where they are.
Western Kentucky def. Mississippi Valley State
Round of 64
1 Kentucky def. 16 Western Kentucky
8 Iowa State def. 9 Connecticut
5 Wichita State def. 12 VCU
4 Indiana def. 13 New Mexico State
6 UNLV def. 11 Colorado
3 Baylor def. 14 South Dakota State
10 Xavier def. 7 Notre Dame
2 Duke def. 15 Lehigh
Round of 32
1 Kentucky def. 8. Iowa State
5 Wichita State def. 4 Indiana
3 Baylor def. 6 UNLV
2 Duke def. 10 Xavier
1 Kentucky def. 5 Wichita State
2 Duke def. 3 Baylor
1 Kentucky def. 2 Duke
Who I Love: Wichita State. Even when they haven't playing their best basketball this season, the Shockers have appeared to be the mid-major most apt to make a run to the second weekend of the tournament. All the key ingredients are there: the talented big man (Garrett Stutz), the speedy and heady floor general (Joe Ragland) and the elite shooter (Toure' Murray). I think Wichita State will have a more difficult time with VCU than they would with Indiana. If the Rams do pull the upset, then I think the Hoosiers ultimately advance to the Sweet 16. It's all about matchups, people.
Who I Hate: Indiana. Overachieving major conference teams that have to make it a point to say, "we're not just happy to be here" are the things second round upsets are made of. That said, the Hoosiers got a pretty favorable draw. The pairing with New Mexico State should allow for Tom Crean's first tournament win at IU.
Player To Watch: Perry Jones III, Baylor. For the first time in his career, Jones enters the tournament finally playing like the eventual lottery pick everyone has expected him to be. He dropped a career-high 31 points in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament and then followed that up with an 18-point game in an upset of Kansas. He went for 16 and 11 in the championship game despite being in foul trouble for much of the night. If Jones continues to play like this, then the Bears are the biggest threat to keep Kentucky from getting to New Orleans.
Under-the-Radar Player to Watch: C.J. McCollum, Lehigh. The junior entered the season as the nation's leading returning scorer, and ended it by snagging his second Patriot League Player of the Year award in three years. He's scored 20 or more points in 11 of Lehigh's last 13 games, and is the biggest reason why the Mountain Hawks can hang with Duke for at least a half.
The Pick: Kentucky. The talk of this region being loaded is accurate, but that's only because the middle is so strong. The result will probably be a tougher-than-expected rounds three and four for the Wildcats, and then a reward with a relatively manageable opponent in the regional finals. Kentucky is the class of both this region and this tournament, and it will take something shocking for them not to reach the Final Four.
RELATED: Printable NCAA Tournament Bracket
Iona def. BYU
Round of 64
1 Michigan State def. 16 LIU Brooklyn
8 Memphis def. 9 Saint Louis
12 Long Beach State def. 5 New Mexico
4 Louisville def. 13 Davidson
6 Murray State def. 11 Colorado State
14 Iona def 3 Marquette
7 Florida def 10 Virginia
2 Missouri def. 15 Norfolk State
Round of 32
8 Memphis def 1 Michigan State
4 Louisville def. 12 Long Beach State
6 Murray State def 14 Iona
2 Missouri def. 7 Florida
8 Memphis def. 4 Louisville
2 Missouri def. 6 Murray State
2 Missouri def. 8 Memphis
Who I Love: Memphis. The fact that the Tigers are an eight seed is absurd. They're a top 15 team in nearly every set of computer rankings and they dominated Conference USA at the end of the season, winning each of their final 10 league games by double digits. All-American candidate Will Barton has the potential to make himself a household name in this tournament.
Who I hate: Marquette. I actually don't really hate them, but I do feel like I need to acknowledge the fact that I have a team (Iona) which isn't even favored to make it through Tuesday night's "First Four" action knocking the Golden Eagles out in the second round. If the Gaels are able to get by BYU on Tuesday then I think they match up very favorably with Marquette. They'll have difficulty defending the combination of talent and size that Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder possess, but they'll have an easier time putting the ball in the bucket. The most hotly debated at-large team in last year's field wound up crashing the Final Four. Iona doesn't have that kind of run in it, but they are fully capable of doing some extreme damage.
Player to Watch: Draymond Green, Michigan State. There's no question that the Spartans are the weakest No. 1 seed in the field, but it's the presence of Tom Izzo and Green -- the Big Ten's Player of the Year -- which still makes them so hard to pick against. Green's leadership ability is on par with his natural talent, and this may be a situation where he simply doesn't allow his team to lose before the Elite Eight.
Under-the-Radar Player to Watch: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State. A lot of people have heard of Canaan by this point, but there are still plenty who have yet to actually see him. The kid can shoot it from the parking lot, and Colorado State's below-average perimeter defense could allow him to make the tournament's biggest early statement come Thursday afternoon.
The Pick: Missouri. At this point, there's no question that the second-seeded Tigers are actually the favorites in this region. Everyone has Mizzou headed to New Orleans, which has to be rubbing Michigan State the wrong way. If the Spartans are able to a void an early upset, they play the same physical brand of basketball that resulted in two convincing Missouri losses to Kansas State. I do think Memphis pulls the third round "shocker," however, and Frank Haith takes the Tigers to New Orleans in his first season.
Round of 64
1 Syracuse def. 16 UNC Asheville
8 Kansas State def. 9 Southern Miss
5 Vanderbilt def. 12 Harvard
4 Wisconsin def. 13 Montana
6 Cincinnati def. 11 Texas
3 Florida State def. 14 St. Bonaventure
7 Gonzaga def. 10 West Virginia
2 Ohio State def. 15 Loyola (Maryland)
Round of 32
1 Syracuse def 8 Kansas State
5 Vanderbilt def 4 Wisconsin
3 Florida State def. 6 Cincinnati
2 Ohio State def. 7 Gonzaga
1 Syracuse def 5 Vanderbilt
2 Ohio State def 3 Florida State
2 Ohio State def 1 Syracuse
Who I Love: No one. I trust absolutely no one in this region ... and yet I've got chalk in the first round and nearly in the next three. Syracuse and Ohio State win a lot, but they generally win by a little. Florida State can get up for the showdowns with the nation's top teams, but they're also prone to extreme letdowns. Wisconsin, per usual, scores so little that it's always vulnerable. Vanderbilt comes in red hot after beating Kentucky and wining the SEC, but has also (unofficially) lost its first NCAA Tournament in each of the past 75 seasons.
I was absolutely no help to you just then, and I feel bad about that.
Who I Hate: Texas. I hate Texas for making me pick Cincinnati, because I hate the Bearcats too. It feels wrong sending either team into the round of 32, but alas, 'tis a demand inherent in filling out a bracket. J'Covan Brown is one of the region's more exciting players, and provides the only real intrigue for outsiders tuning in to that 6/11 matchup.
Player to Watch: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State. It feels wrong referring to what Sullinger has done this season as "disappointing," but you not really have any other choice when considering that he was the runaway favorite to win national Player of the Year heading into the season and wound up not even earning the distinction in his own conference. The sophomore has a chance to make folks forget all about that and significantly improve his draft stock at the same time by leading the Buckeyes on a big run in the big dance. This region appears to set up well for him to make that happen.
Under-the-Radar Player to Watch: Will Cherry, Montana. The junior guard is the Grizzlies' leading scorer at 16.0 ppg, but he's also a tenacious on-ball defender. He got the best of Weber State's Damian Lillard, the nation's second-leading scorer, in both the regular season-finale and Big Sky championship game. That experience should serve him well as he prepares to square off against Wisconsin All-American Jordan Taylor.
The Pick: Ohio State. I love Syracuse more than it seems the rest of he college basketball world does, but I do think they'll struggle to put points on the board against Ohio State and won't have much of an answer for Jared Sullinger. Again, it's all about matchups in the dance.
Lamar def. Vermont
South Florida def. California
Round of 64
1 North Carolina def. 16 Lamar
8 Creighton def. 9 Alabama
5 Temple def 12 South Florida
13 Ohio def 4 Michigan
6 San Diego State def 11 NC State
3 Georgetown def. 14 Belmont
7 St. Mary's def 10 Purdue
2 Kansas def. 15 Detroit
Round of 32
1 North Carolina def. 8 Creighton
5 Temple def 13 Ohio
3 Georgetown def. 6 San Diego State
2 Kansas def. 7 St. Mary's
1 North Carolina def 5 Temple
2 Kansas def. 3 Georgetown
1 North Carolina def 2 Kansas
Who I Love: Kansas. More accurately, I should say I love the Jayhawks' draw. Detroit is a pesky 15 seed, but the road to the Elite Eight after that shapes out pretty nicely for Kansas.
Who I Hate: Michigan. Ohio is sort of like the mid-major North Carolina, in that they have all this offensive firepower but seem to almost get bored for stretches during conference play. In 2010, they won the Mid-American Tournament as a nine-seed and then blew out Georgetown in a 3/14 NCAA Tournament game. This year the Bobcats played extremely well during the non-conference portion of their season, lost interest a little bit in Jan. and Feb., and then won the MAC tourney from the three hole. Michigan will utilize the patented John Beilein 1-3-1 against Ohio and try to force it away from its pick-and-roll offense, but I still think the Bobcats find a way to put enough points on the board to pull the upset.
Player to Watch: Thomas Robinson, Kansas. The national Player of the Year candidate is an absolute monster in the paint and will be a matchup nightmare for just about any team in the tournament. He is the biggest reason KU might have a shot against a team like UNC in the regional finals, especially if John Henson's wrist injury is still an issue.
Under-the-Radar Player to Watch: Ray McCallum, Detroit. They're not going to beat Kansas, but they're going to make it fun, I would almost guarantee it.
The Pick: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have gone through the motions at times this season, but it's hard to imagine that being an issue for a Roy Williams-coached team with a shot at a national title. And even if they do lose focus, they can still sleep walk to the Elite Eight.
1 Kentucky def. 2 Missouri
2 Ohio State def 1 North Carolina
1 Kentucky def. 2 Ohio State
UNC stays focused enough to get to the Final Four, and then appropriately loses it with a showdown against Kentucky looming. The world doesn't get the national title game it wanted, but Sullinger/Davis is still more than sexy enough to garner significant interest.
I pegged the Wildcats to win it all way back in November, and nothing has happened over the succeeding four months to move me away from that prediction.