The NCAA tournament starts Tuesday in Dayton and ends on a Monday near Dallas. Among the 68 teams, none from Indiana made it, but one from North Dakota did. The race is on to reach four regional hubs: Anaheim, Indianapolis, Memphis and New York. Will your school make it? Which schools on the bracket lines should be crossed off early on the road to the Final Four? More than a few name-brand programs (check red lines above). Now enough talk, it's almost time to jump center..
UCLA was penciled into the Final Four the second it became official that the Bruins weren't opening against Washington State at Pullman.
This bracket is dripping with renewals of old acquaintances. Florida has a veteran team and a know-how coach in Billy Donovan. But the Southeastern Conference is foundering lately in the revenue sports. The SEC failed to win the last Bowl Championship Series title in football and sent only 2 1/2 teams to the NCAA tournament. (Tennessee is in a play-in game.)
Florida's four-senior lineup, led by forward Patric Young, will cruise to the regional semifinal in Memphis and meet UCLA, a top-10 team if motivated — a big if. If the Bruins don't overlook Stephen F. Austin — another big if — they'll be chomping for revenge on the Gators. This entire bracket was irresponsibly filled out with the idea of pitting Steve Alford against his old New Mexico team, which was treated like plutonium at Los Alamos by the selection committee.
New Mexico as a No. 7 is this year's biggest bracket injustice, and the Lobos will prove it by shocking Kansas and Syracuse. New Mexico is itching to pay Alford back for walking out on his contract, but Alford will have the final word when it comes to his former players and the NCAA tournament. The word: "Harvard."
Three years ago, Arizona was No. 5 in the West, but with a chance to use Anaheim as its portal to the Final Four. The Wildcats took down top-seeded Duke in a regional semifinal before suffering a two-point loss to third-seeded Connecticut. UConn ended up winning it all and now Arizona gets the Disneyland do-over.
The prelude in San Diego features a potential thriller against Gonzaga, which we hope matches the 2003 second-round game the schools played in Salt Lake City. Arizona won that one in double overtime. We're sticking to our 12-over-5 guns here in predicting a North Dakota State upset of Oklahoma. In 2009, the Bison gave Kansas an opening-game scare.
The star then, Ben Woodside, scored 37 that day. The star now, Taylor Braun, was the Summit League player of the year. We have San Diego State getting back to Anaheim too, same as in 2011, to be joined by Doug McDermott-led Creighton and Coach Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers. Expect McDermott, the nation's leading scorer, to heat up the floor covering the Ducks' home ice, but ultimately fall to Wisconsin. Arizona over Wisconsin in the regional final is guaranteed to be the best title game played at Honda Center since Cal Poly (13-19) defeated Cal State Northridge (17-18) for the Big West Conference's automatic bid.
Michigan State is the team no one wants to play, including the Lakers. Coach Tom Izzo's Spartans, who started 18-1 before injuries muddled the middle months, have checked out of Training Room Hotel and appear poised to make another Final Four run.
The upper bracket is seasoned with the obligatory No. 12 triumph, Harvard over Cincinnati, but ultimately is headed for a Virginia-Michigan State showdown at Madison Square Garden. The arena also known for boxing matches is the perfect venue for two tough teams that, during media timeouts, might be asked to go to a neutral corner.
Michigan State prevails by virtue of the Big Ten's being better, this year, than the Atlantic Coast Conference. The shocker in the lower bracket is No. 11 Providence, surprise winner of the Big East Conference, taking down can't-be-trusted North Carolina.
Villanova, which blew a No. 1 seeding by losing late to Seton Hall, makes amends by rising up to spank three schools before the lights go out on Broadway against Michigan State.
So what's the big deal? All we ask of top-seeded Wichita State is to run barefoot over hot coals on its way to the national title. To do that in this bracket, Coach Gregg Marshall's Shockers might have to take down four coaches with a combined eight national titles.
And the other coach is Arizona's Sean Miller. The four legends in Wichita State's path — John Calipari (Kentucky), Rick Pitino (Louisville), Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) and Tom Izzo (Michigan State) — are a combined 198-67 in NCAA tournament play, a .747 winning percentage. But before you warm up the paper shredder, remember that the Shockers last year led Louisville by 12 in the second half of a national semifinal in Atlanta.
An untimely geyser-blow of turnovers cost Wichita State a legitimate chance of winning the national title. In case you haven't noticed, Your Honor, this is the tournament in which we are refusing to take the fifth. To ensure upset bracket balance we have projected No. 12 North Carolina State — the last team in — to make St. Louis one of the first teams out.
The No. 12 is a respectable 41-71 all-time against No. 5. Last year, Oregon, California and Mississippi all won from the No. 12 seeding, with only Virginia Commonwealth (over Akron) claiming victory from the five spot.
Wichita State vs. Michigan State in the final.
There have been seven NCAA basketball champions with perfect records — the last 32-0 Indiana in 1976. Make it eight.