By Mike Ivcic, UltimateCapper.com Contributing Writer
Ending at the Beginning
I’m not a so-called “expert” in the game of college basketball â I’m just a fan. My credentials as a fan, though, are fairly good thanks to two labels that I’ve repeated to many people – I “watch a lot of games on TV every week” and I “went to the school where every NCAA tournament starts.” You may do the first just as I do, but it’s the second that gives me a nice advantage when I pick some of these NCAA tournament games.
Remember George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006? I was there for the first two wins. Remember when VCU started in the play-in game â wait, I’m sorry, the “First Round” â in 2011 and also played in the national semifinals? Saw their first game too. I watched the undefeated St. Joe’s Hawks of 2004 drop their first game of the entire season in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 conference tournament to Xavier, then had to suffer as both teams reached the Elite 8. I’ve seen teams that have made some big NCAA runs start their hot streak right before my eyes, and once again there’s a great possibility that March Madness will once again see a Final Four team start their run in Dayton at the UD Arena. So, with that in mind, here’s a preview you won’t find anywhere else â one that spends a great deal of time focusing on the “little guys” that will ultimately help you win your respective bracket pools.
Play-in Team Most Likely To Reach The Final Four: After a great deal of deliberation, I’m going with Middle Tennessee State here. I think the best of the play-in teams is actually Boise State, but if the Blue Raiders are able to knock off Boise, I think they will give Memphis fits in the second round. The Tigers are not a “power conference” team and lost to Xavier in their only non-conference game since New Year’s. Thus their strength of schedule is not the equivalent of an Arizona or UCLA, two of the other 6-seeds in this year’s bracket, making them a team ripe for a picking by a play-in team. Beyond that, it becomes a difficult task to prepare for a relatively unknown team like the Blue Raiders with only one day in between games, the exact position in which a team like Michigan State would find themselves in the third round. I’m not sure there’s a real chance for any of the four play-in teams to actually make it to Atlanta, but Middle Tennessee State is the team with the best shot.
11-Seed Or Lower Most Likely To Reach The Final Four: There’s a reason Oregon won the Pac-12 championship. Taking the four play-in teams out of the equation, the Ducks are the team that has the best shot considering they’ve already proven they’re quite capable of beating good teams with a short turnaround time. Oklahoma State is a very tough first round matchup, but the problem with this tournament is that there’s such parity at the top of the bracket that beating more than one of those teams is going to make it extremely difficult for a Butler or Davidson-style run where beating one elite team is enough to get three rounds deep. Thus, a team with a proven track record against the big-time teams is the best chance in this year’s bracket of seeing a double-digit seed of advancing to the second weekend and beyond.
13-Seed Or Lower Most Likely To Win First Round Game: Again, given the parity at the top, there are handful of 4-seeds and 5-seeds (read: Michigan, Syracuse, Wisconsin) that are legitimate threats to cut down the nets on April 8. As such, teams seeded 13- 16 are going to have a very difficult time even getting one victory, let alone multiple wins. In fact, I have the top four seeds in each region advancing to the round of 32. But, if I had to pick one team, it would be the fighting Crimson of Harvard. Yes, Tom Izzo and the Spartans are one of the best in the land come tournament time, but let’s not forget that Harvard is coached by Tommy Amaker, former coach at Michigan. He has a tremendous understanding of Izzo’s system and the style of game the Spartans will try to play, and I’m guessing it won’t be very difficult for Amaker’s players to comprehend the game plan. Executing it in such a way that results in Harvard scoring more points than Michigan State after 40 minutes of basketball will be a different story, but that’s why they play the game.
Non-BCS Conference Team Most Likely To Reach Final Four: The most logical choice here would be Gonzaga, and in all honesty that’s probably the best answer here. That said, picking a 1-seed to make the Final Four is like picking the person with the best voice to win American Idol â just because they’re the favorite doesn’t mean they’re going to win. So, with that in mind, I’m going to stay in the West region and take New Mexico. Ohio State is a very good defensive team but can often struggle to score for long stretches at a time, which is not a recipe for beating a very good Lobos team â especially in Los Angeles where New Mexico fans will significantly outnumber Buckeyes fans. The West might be the weakest region, so it just may be the Lobos chance to crash the party in Atlanta.
And finally, the only question you all really want to knowâ¦
Who Will Make The Final Four: When it’s all said and done, that’s all the really matters. After the 68 teams beat each other up for two weeks, only four will get an invite to Atlanta, and those four teams will beâ¦
MIDWEST â There is a ton of championship experience in top part of this quadrant of the bracket. Pitino, Coach K, and Izzo are three of the best coaches in the game, so it’s not like one of these teams has an edge in that department. Duke has been considered a title frontrunner for most of the season, but right now Louisville is playing the best basketball of any team in the country, and when that happens, go with the hot team.
WEST â I don’t think Gonzaga is one of the four best teams in the country, though I do think their resume indicates they are one of the four teams deserving of a 1-seed.Â That leaves the door open for New Mexico (see above), Kansas State, or either of the two teams that played in the Big Ten championship game. It’s been a long time since a Big Ten team captured a national championship â Michigan State in 2000 â but if there’s ever a year for the conference to make a splash in March and April, this is the year. With that in mind, I’m going against my rooting interest and taking the Buckeyes.
Pick: Ohio State
SOUTH â Like the Midwest, there are plenty of good teams here capable of making a Final Four run. The top three seeds are all regular season conference champions â Kansas, Georgetown, and Florida â but I’m staying away from all three of them. Georgetown struggles to score, Florida really hasn’t played a legitimate title contender in three months, and Kansasâ¦ well, let’s just chalk up my selection in this region to believing in a top-3 “Player of the Year” candidate in Trey Burke.
EAST â And to finish off the trifecta, I’m taking a third Big Ten team to make the Final Four. Syracuse and Marquette out of the Big East are both excellent teams, and Miami proved this past weekend at the ACC tournament that they have truly arrived as an elite team this season. That said, this entire season has really been all about Indiana. They have two of the best players in the country and have believed all season that they are destined to own the next three weeks. I believe they well.
Louisville over Ohio State
Indiana over Michigan
Indiana over Louisville
Both teams who will play their first game of the tournament journey inâ¦ that’s right, Dayton, Ohio. Sometimes, it’s not about the end of the road.
Sometimes, it’s about the beginning.