Call it an anomaly but it's quickly becoming a trend. With the notable absence of Kentucky in this year's NCAA Tournament field, a new champion will cut down the nets at the Georgia Dome and much is being made of the Wildcats' fall in 2013. It's only the fifth time in NCAA history that the defending champion missed the next year's tournament, but this is the third time in six seasons after Florida in 2008 and North Carolina in 2010.
In short, it's a sign that a super class can come along and take a team all the way. Will the same thing happen this year? Duke certainly hopes to ride Ryan Kelly's coattails to the final game. Indiana is certainly loaded for the stretch run. Yet the magic of March Madness is its unpredictability and this year presents a wide open race.
As you scramble to fill out your office pool, let's all admit that we will likely fail miserably. That still won't keep each of us from giving it the ole college try.
The Louisville Cardinals are fresh off a second straight Big East title victory and they're playing close to home in Indianapolis through the first few rounds. That's good news for a loaded team who should be careful not to overlook anyone. They should easily roll past the first round and even over Missouri in the second, but a surprising Oregon team could prove a bit dangerous in the Sweet Sixteen.
Speaking of Oregon, I have them facing Louisville after taking out No. 5 Oklahoma State and New Mexico State in the follwing round. Dominic Artis and company are fresh off of a Pac-12 title run and they're peaking at the right time. As a West Coast sleeper, they have loads of potential and the match-up with Louisville could prove problematic if Louisville is taking them easy.
As for the bottom half of this bracket, Duke and Michigan State are given a fairly straightforward journey to face one another in one of the better Sweet 16 match-ups. Valpo and Memphis could give the Spartans some problems, but Tom Izzo will have his guys ready. The only problem is that he has no answer on the roster for Ryan Kelly, which means Duke will take that one.
In the end, I have Duke heading to the Final Four. Louisville is incredibly talented and they can play with anyone on any given night, but guards Russ Smith and Peyton Siva simply turn over the ball too much to rely on them to win six straight and not play over the top with such a spotlight on them. Gorgui Dieng is healthy, so this match-up will be a different one than their November meeting, but I like Duke to win once again.
Gonzaga has their naysayers and it's easy to see the arguments against a top seed. Still it's hard to argue with such incredible results and the country is still largely in the dark with just how deep this Gonzaga roster is. When it comes to early match-ups, Mark Few's team simply won't have any problems with the likes of Pittsburgh in the second round.
As for their Sweet Sixteen opponent, Wisconsin is an upset pick here over Kansas State although the match-up between the two will be the most boring involving two solid seeds with great defenses. Rodney McGruder looks great as of late, but Wisconsin's bigs should handle the test. That will be the end of the Badgers, however, as they will prove no match for the Zags, who is simply a much better team on every level.
It wasn't that long ago that Arizona was flying high and this is a hero-or-zero pick for me in the West. It's hard to like a team that's lost three of its last five, but the scoring ability is there for the Wildcats to go on a unique run, and I have them all the way to the Elite 8 over Belmont, Harvard (more on that in a second) and Ohio State. Remember this is a team that won 16 of its first 17 games including a win over then No. 5 Florida. Expect Xavier transfer Mark Lyons to be the difference maker here if 'Zona makes a run.
As for Harvard, the Crimson went to the second round last year under Tommy Amaker and, let's be honest, there's always a random never-saw-that-coming each year. Harvard over New Mexico sounds good to me. At the bottom of the West, Ohio State certainly has the talent to go all the way on the shoulders of Deshaun Thomas. They're peaking at the right time, have the star player and just won the Big Ten tournament championship. If it wasn't for a hunch that Arizona would catch fire, they'd be a fine pick for the Elite 8.
As for that final match-up, however, it's impossible to pick the Wildcats to go any further than the final eight teams of the tournament. Gonzaga is simply too talented with solid production on both sides of the ball at every position to fall for a team on a hot streak.
This is the region that has everyone excited about early round match-ups. After Kansas and North Carolina take care of their first opponents, a Roy Williams vs. Bill Self contest will be the must-watch game of the round. However, Kansas simply has too much firepower with Ben McLemore and company to step aside. In fact, it will stay that way for some time as Kansas has impact players at the right positions despite losing Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson from last year's roster that made the final game against Kentucky.
Trey Burke will be enough to carry Michigan all the way to the Sweet 16, past South Dakota State and Akron, who is an upset pick here over VCU, and the NBA-ready point guard could give Kansas fits. However, Michigan has no answer for Jeff Withey in the middle, so the Wolverines will bounce at that point.
On the lower half of the South region, NCAA Tourney time is a great time to showcase for pro scouts. Expect UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad to compensate for the injury to Jordan Adams and they'll make it past Minnesota. However, Florida has the experience and talent to overcome Muhammad's solo impact and they'll make the Sweet Sixteen.
Before this week's loss to Syracuse, Georgetown was on an incredible roll with wins over Louisville, Marquette and even two against Syracuse. Otto Porter and the rest can play with anyone and the Hoyas ranked No. 10 in the nation in opponents points scored. They'll take out Billy Donovan's team before running into Kansas in the Elite 8.
As for the final game of the South region, McLemore and Withey as anchors will prove too much for Georgetown to handle and Bill Self will find another Final Four on his resume.
Indiana was the top team for most of this season and for good reason: Tom Crean has the most talent in the country. With Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo, Indiana has an impact tandem that no other team can lay claim to. Too much is being made of playing away from Indianapolis, since the Hoosiers have won all season wherever they're at. Expect them to roll past N.C. State in the second round and even Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen.
As for the Cuse, they'll make it that far after a nice run in the Big East tournament to reach the final game, but they've been beaten up too much in conference play to expect much of anything significant here. Montana and California simply won't give up too much of a fight to matter.
The bottom half features some strong upset potential, but not in the way you might think. Butler is often picked as a Cinderella, but they face an interesting Bucknell team in the first round. Bucknell set a school record with 28 wins and it's the highest Patriot League seed in 7 years, a testament to just how dangerous Mike Muscala can be for the Bison. Expect Butler to be knocked off in a shock for most office pools, and that only gives Marquette that much easier of a path to the Sweet Sixteen after they dispose of Davidson.
After an incredible season and ACC Tourney victory, Miami (Fl.) is expected to make it far in this year's tournament. They have some strong signature wins against Duke and Michigan State, but Illinois provides one of this year's top sleeper picks for me. If the Illini are hitting from outside, they can take out anyone and Miami's perimeter defense will be tested. After all, they beat Gonzaga, Indiana and Ohio State so they have signature wins of their own.
I predict a Sweet 16 appearance for Illinois before Marquette takes them out on their way to the Elite 8. The Golden Eagles play tough and very smart and play the sort of basketball that minimizes chances. High percentage shots and solid defense should carry them beyond expectations before falling to Indiana in the Elite 8.
Gonzaga versus Duke will make for an incredible game, but the Final Four is when impact players truly step up and Gonzaga is the one team without those special players like Duke, Indiana and Kansas all enjoy. Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly provide Duke with too much talent to fall to Gonzaga, even though it should be a tough match-up.
The same can be said of Indiana versus Kansas, but point guard issues for the Jayhawks will likely lead to their undoing against Crean's team. Watching Indiana work around Jeff Withey will be interesting, but expect the Hoosiers to come out on top
It's a real toss up between two of the most storied programs in NCAA basketball history. Duke and Indiana are two of the top five winningest programs of all time, so this will be a major boom for viewers and ratings if these two meet in the final. As for the actual game, it's a mix of great coaches and future NBA stars, but Indiana was the top rated team for the most of the season for a reason. Indiana's post play will prove to be too much in the final game and the Hoosiers will win the title after all.