Bracketology for the 2013 NCAA Tournament was a challenge, undoubtedly the most difficult field to predict and seed since I started this fruitless exercise in 2006. Selection Sunday 2014, on the other hand, seemed a little bit too easy at times. The result was a rather decent performance on my part and a typically intriguing path for the next three weekends.
Much like last season, I missed one at-large team. In 2013, I picked Tennessee over Middle Tennessee, since I figured the Selection Committee would reward the power conference team with a decent, but not great profile over the mid-major that went out of its way to schedule difficult games early in the season. So, this time around, I did the opposite, swapping SMU, who played next to no one outside of American Athletic play, with Green Bay, the Horizon League regular-season champion that beat Virginia (a No. 1 seed) and barely lost to Wisconsin (a No. 2) at nearly the final possible moment.
While I was correct about the Mustangs' omission, the Committee, chaired by Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, picked N.C. State, which lost to Duke in the ACC semifinals on Saturday, for a spot in the First Four over Phoenix or any number of other teams that I and most other bracketologists had ahead of the Wolfpack. Some of these include Minnesota, California, Florida State, Toledo, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss. and Arkansas. Those are your snubs for 2014, though I think the mid-majors, particularly Louisiana Tech and Toledo, had decent cases.
Naturally, you can expect N.C. State to defeat Xavier in Dayton on Tuesday and maybe even win a game or two in Orlando over the weekend, much like it did when I omitted the 'Pack in 2012.
Despite the miss, I bettered my performance on the seeding front as compared to last season. In 2014, I correctly predicted the seedings of 42 teams, including every team seeded 13th or worse. That's an improvement upon the 36 I pegged correctly last season. I missed 19 teams by a single line, while I had 23 such whiffs in 2013. Once again, though, I missed six teams by two lines, but none by more than that. Last time around, I missed one team by three lines and another by a whopping five, the criminally-underseeded 2013 Oregon.
The Top Seeds
While I picked Villanova to be the fourth top seed in my final projection, another "V" school earned the honor, Virginia Cavaliers. I was a little surprised by this, considering the Cavaliers didn't have the sheer number of quality wins possessed by other teams on the top two lines, thanks to a weak ACC schedule (not their fault). However, in hindsight, the total is somewhat comparable to the Wildcats (five top 50 wins for UVa vs. four for 'Nova and 13 against the Top 100 compared to 16). There are no arguments from me on the other three No. 1s, as I had Florida, Arizona and Wichita State on the top line for weeks.
In 2013, I was stunned when I saw Oregon announced as a 12 seed, indicating that they were likely out of the field had they not won the Pac-12 Tournament title the night before. This season, there weren't quite so many seeding surprises from my perspective. N.C. State's selection was virtually the only thing that really surprised me during the Selection Show, though there were some seeds I did (and still) question.
- I was surprised to see BYU safely in the field as a 10 seed. While I had come around to the idea of the Cougars' inclusion, even with Kyle Collinsworth's knee injury, I figured they would barely avoid Dayton at best. Of course, given that the Committee needs to get the Tuesday and Wednesday teams to geographically-convenient sites and BYU's "no Sunday play" rule, it looks like Dave Rose's team may have been bumped up a bit for bracketing purposes.
- There are a lot of complaints about Louisville's, Cincinnati's and Connecticut's seedings and SMU's exclusion, but I suspect the weakness of the bottom half of the American Athletic greatly contributed to these decisions, as did non-conference scheduling, in Louisville's case anyway. Things may get worse after the Cardinals' departure (and the simultaneous arrival of three teams not on U of L's level) next season.
- The Committee obviously heavily valued the performance of the Atlantic 10, as the positioning of VCU, Saint Louis and UMass were among the biggest misses on my list.
- Apparently, Michigan State win over Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament final didn't mean much, as the Spartans were placed on the four line despite the victory and their numerous regular-season injury issues.
- On the other hand, Kansas received a two seed despite its performance without the injured Joel Embiid. While the Jayhawks' profile is certainly worthy of such a nod, the team hadn't played particularly well without him, and there's still no clear timetable for his return. Considering how strongly Wellman was stressing the relationship between injuries and roster composition and seeding during the week, this placement shocked me a bit.
- Kentucky's a team picked as preseason No. 1 by many, falls, surprisingly, to an eight seed in Wichita State's pod. Since I had seeded the Wildcats sixth, and was told all week that this (or a five) was too low, I have to imagine that sports radio in the Bluegrass State is an entertaining listen right now, especially when combined with Louisville's positioning.
Round Of 64 Games To Watch
Region by region, here are some games that immediately jump out at me as worth a watch on Thursday and Friday.
No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 11 Dayton: The Flyers avoid playing on their home floor on either Tuesday or Wednesday night, which could be seen as a negative. However, they get the chance to upend their home state's powerhouse in Buffalo in return.
No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State: The winner of this one will surely give top seed Arizona a fight in San Diego on Sunday. The Cowboys seem to have gotten their mojo back since Marcus Smart's return from suspension.
No 5 Oklahoma vs. No. 12 North Dakota State: This will be a popular upset pick, especially when you consider that the Sooners already lost to a good Louisiana Tech team at home. Plus, this game will be played in Spokane, a place that will surely be friendly to the underdog.
No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 11 Nebraska: This will be a fun one to watch while following along on Twitter when you consider that Bears' coach Scott Drew has his detractors, while Cornhusker mentor Tim Miles has quite a following.
No. 7 Oregon vs. No. 10 BYU: For a time, it looked like the Ducks' Dec. 21 home win over the Cougars might be their only quality win. Now, much like Cal and UNLV in 2013, we get an unexpected Round of 64 rematch.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State: Can you imagine the hype in the Sunflower State if K-State wins this and gets a Round of 32 game against Wichita State?
No. 5 Saint Louis vs. No. 12 N.C. State/Xavier: If the Musketeers win in Dayton on Tuesday night, there will be an Atlantic 10 reunion in Orlando on Thursday.
No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 14 N.C. Central: In 2001, the second-seeded Cyclones played the MEAC's Hampton Pirates and were knocked out in the Round of 64. This season, they get an even more talented team from that conference.
The Toughest Region
While all four regions present the No. 1 seed with some serious obstacles on the road to Texas, the Midwest looks especially brutal for Wichita State, starting with that Round of 32 matchup against either underseeded Kentucky or in-state rival Kansas State. After that, there are two possible rematches in Indianapolis. One is the Final Four reunion with Louisville that everyone is already talking about; however, a game with Saint Louis, whom the Shockers defeated by five on Dec. 1, is just as dangerous to the Shockers' hopes. Add in the presence of Michigan and Duke on the bottom half of the bracket and it's clear Gregg Marshall's team will earn its place at JerryWorld if it qualifies.
I'll have my picks for all 67 games, from the First Four in Dayton to the Final Four in North Texas, on Tuesday morning.