The NCAA Tournament has arrived, and with it comes the endless possibilities that can only happen in a single-elimination playoff. The defending champion Connecticut Huskies weren't invited to the party, but the lessons that Kevin Ollie and Shabazz Napier taught us as a No. 7 seed last year hover over the tournament. Mainly: in a win-or-go-home scenario, no favorite is safe.
The 2015 tournament begins with a question that's been debated all season: can anyone beat Kentucky? It hasn't happened yet. The Wildcats finished the regular season undefeated and skated through the SEC Tournament without much trouble. Bob Knight's 1975-76 Indiana team was the last squad to finish the year as an unblemished national champion. It's incredible that the Wildcats have even gotten this far.
While Kentucky is the heaviest favorite in recent memory, UK is far from a safe-bet to win it all. Arizona is peaking at the right time, complete with a dynamic freshman talent in Stanley Johnson and that type of skilled size that matters in March. Wisconsin reached the Final Four last year and might be even better this season. Virginia has Justin Anderson back and plays some of the toughest defense in the country.
There are land mines waiting at every corner, but Kentucky is the easy pick to win the championship. We're also going with Arizona, Iowa State and Oklahoma in the Final Four. Let's break down the regions.
Round of 32:
Kentucky vs. Cincinnati
Buffalo vs. Maryland
Kansas vs. Wichita State
Notre Dame vs. Texas
The most intriguing second-round matchup here might be Maryland vs. Valparaiso. Valpo has a terrific defense helmed by Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year Vashil Fernandez. Valpo has the look of a sleeper, but several guards are battling injuries, and Maryland is no slouch. If the Terrapins can get past the second round, they should get a shot at Kentucky.
Kentucky vs. Maryland
Wichita State vs. Notre Dame
Wichita State vs. Kansas could be an incredible matchup. The Shockers entered last season's tournament undefeated but were unlucky enough to draw the best No. 8 seed in tournament history, Julius Randle's Kentucky Wildcats, in the round of 32. Cleanthony Early is gone, but Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet still make Wichita formidable. We know who Jayhawks transfer Connor Frankamp would be rooting for.
Elite Eight: Kentucky vs. Wichita State
Kentucky and Wichita State played one of the best sporting events of last year. How about a rematch?
Final Four: Kentucky
It would be a huge, huge upset if Kentucky failed to get this far, but you didn't need us to tell you that.
SB Nation presents: How Kentucky will win the NCAA Tournament
Round of 32:
Villanova vs. N.C. State
Wyoming vs. Louisville
Virginia vs. Michigan State
Oklahoma vs. Providence
N.C. State vs. LSU is going to be a great game, because both of those teams are good enough to give Villanova some problems in the round of 32. I could have gone either way on that game ... and yet the way the matchups worked out, the winner is going to the Elite Eight in this bracket. That's the luck of the draw.
N.C. State vs. Wyoming
Virginia vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma vs. Providence could be an incredible game. Kris Dunn vs. Buddy Hield. LaDontae Henton vs. TaShawn Thomas. This is another game I could go either way on .... and yet Oklahoma reaches the Final Four in this bracket.
Elite Eight: N.C. State vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma has the size and shooting to give Virginia some trouble. The Hoos have been incredible this year and will be a popular pick to reach the Final Four. We'll go the other way here.
Final Four: Oklahoma
I don't know. I almost immediately regret not picking Virginia here. This is the trouble with instant brackets.
Realtime Bracket Game
Realtime Bracket Game
Duke vs. San Diego State
Utah vs. Georgetown
Gonzaga vs. Davidson
Iowa State vs. SMU
Stephen F. Austin could be trouble for Utah. Everyone remembers the Lumberjacks' incredible win over VCU in the round of 64 last year. As someone who has Utah upsetting Duke eventually, this second-round matchup scares me.
Duke vs. Utah
Gonzaga vs. Iowa State
I've been high on Gonzaga all year, but I don't like its draw here. I feel like Davidson could give the 'Zags some trouble with the way they spread the floor. Same thing goes for Iowa State should the 'Zags and Cyclones meet in the Sweet 16. Gonzaga was in my preseason Final Four, but it has some tough matchups along the way. Matchups are everything in the NCAA Tournament.
Elite Eight: Utah vs. Iowa State
Utah over Duke would be a huge upset, but Duke feels vulnerable. Jahlil Okafor's defense has been a question mark all season and Utes star Delon Wright will be a handful on the perimeter for the Blue Devils' guards.
Final Four: Iowa State
Why Iowa State? It feels like Fred Hoiberg is building some major positive momentum in Ames. If Georges Niang didn't suffer a season-ending injury last year, the Cyclones seemed primed for a deep run behind Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane. Both players are gone this year, but Iowa State does have a shot blocker in Jameel McKay, something that Hoiberg's previous teams have lacked.
This is more of a gut pick than anything else.
SB Nation presents: ISU's Fred Hoiberg explains his team's tourney gameplan
Round of 32:
Wisconsin vs. Oregon
Arkansas vs. North Carolina
Arizona vs. Ohio State
Baylor vs. BYU
BYU was a bubble team the entire season, but the Cougars have the makeup of a team that could be trouble in the tournament. In general, the West might be have the strongest collection of teams. There will be some great games in this region as the bracket advances.
Wisconsin vs. North Carolina
Arizona vs. Baylor
Baylor-BYU could be a great game. The Bears weren't supposed to be a No. 3 seed this year, but Scott Drew has done a terrific coaching job. As always seems to be the case, there's a lot of talent on the Baylor roster. If they make it to the Sweet 16, a game with Arizona could be one of the more entertaining battles in that round.
Elite Eight: Wisconsin vs. Arizona
This is the game everyone wants to see. Wisconsin and Arizona also faced off in the Elite Eight last year, with the Badgers winning an overtime classic. Gimme the Wildcats this year.
Final Four: Arizona
Arizona and Kentucky started the year off as the two top-ranked teams. What a game this would be.
Kentucky over Arizona
If anyone can beat Kentucky, it's Arizona. Sean Miller's team has the size and defensive acumen to lock UK down in the halfcourt and make this game tense in the final moments. I wish this could be a national title game instead of a Final Four game, but that's not the way it worked out. I'll take John Calipari's team here, but it won't be easy.
Iowa State over Oklahoma
Oh right, I picked this as a Final Four game. I do not feel particularly confident about it, but I suppose that's what makes the NCAA Tournament the best event in sports.
Title game: Kentucky over Iowa State
Kentucky has been the story of the season since it embarrassed Kansas at the Champion's Classic. Could you imagine a scenario where Calipari's team reached 39-0 and loses?
If Kentucky gets this far, the drama around these games is going to be incredible. You might not like the Wildcats, but a scenario where Kentucky is facing the best teams in the country at 37-0, 38-0 and 39-0 would be great for the sport.
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