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While the Midwest region is justifiably getting a lot of attention for its Pitino-Coach K-Izzo strength, let's not forget that the South boasts four teams that were projected as No. 1 seeds very recently: Kansas, Georgetown, Florida and Michigan. Michigan especially experienced a stunning fall to a No. 4 seed, and while there's a good chance we'll see chalk move through to the Arlington regional, picking the Final Four representative is as tough as it gets in a top-heavy group.
1 Kansas (29-5) vs. 16 Western Kentucky (20-15)
Friday, Kansas City
If a No. 1 seed is going to lose to a No. 16 seed for the first time ever, it'll probably be Kansas. Let's look at the track record: In the last decade, the Jayhawks have lost to Virginia Commonwealth (11) as a No. 1 seed in 2011; Northern Iowa (9) as a No. 1 seed in 2010; Bradley (13) as a No. 4 in 2006; Bucknell (14) as a No. 3 in 2005. OK, so obviously the VCU loss in the Elite Eight wasn't bad. And Kansas went to the national championship game last year. And Kansas won the national championship in 2008. Still, that reputation for losing to mid-majors and beyond hangs over Kansas' heads every tournament, but especially in a season in which the Jayhawks LOST TO TCU. Still, it seems unfair to disparage Kansas too much. The Jayhawks have won nine straight Big 12 titles, and they have the best defensive big man in America (Jeff Withey) and a possible No. 1 overall pick at two-guard (Ben McLemore). Western Kentucky finished fourth in the Sun Belt's East Division and got lucky in the league tournament when Middle Tennessee lost. So, maybe next year.
8 North Carolina (24-10) vs. 9 Villanova (20-13)
Friday, Kansas City
It's a five-star matchup in your coach's fashion bracket. On one side, we have Villanova's Jay Wright, owner of the finest suits coaching can buy, and on the other we have North Carolina's Roy Williams, who raided Pete Campbell's closet for the ACC tournament. On the court, both teams meandered through perplexing seasons, albeit in different ways. Villanova built a resume full of impressive wins (Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette, Georgetown, Connecticut) and bad losses (Columbia, Seton Hall, double-digits to Alabama and Temple, swept by Providence), while North Carolina went for straight mediocrity, neither beating great teams (N.C. State and UNLV are the only tournament teams the Tar Heels topped) nor losing to terrible teams. Nothing can stand in the way of that Roy Williams Bowl in the third round, though, so Pete Campbell moves on to Sunday.
Pick: North Carolina
5 Virginia Commonwealth (26-7) vs. 12 Akron (26-6)
Thursday, Auburn Hills, Mich.
It's always disappointing for the bracket picker when the 5/12 game is a mid-major against a team usually thought of as a mid-major. Of course, VCU has shed all mid-major labels, going to the Final Four two years ago, jumping to the A-10, and now continuing to annoy every opponent with the incredibly entertaining Havoc system under Shaka Smart. The Rams press full-court as much as possible, and they do it successfully, forcing turnovers on a remarkable 28.7 percent of defensive plays (best in the nation). The Zips didn't lose from Dec. 18 to Feb. 27, a 19-game winning streak, but VCU is a pesky team to prepare for.
4 Michigan (26-7) vs. 13 South Dakota State (25-9)
Thursday, Auburn Hills, Mich.
Set your DVR, skip work, do whatever you have to do. You have to see this guard play in the NCAA tournament. That's right, we are all dying to see another tournament try from potent scorer Nate Wolters of the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. All he's done this year is average 22.7 points per game, including that time he scored 53 and 36 in back-to-back games in February (IPFW and Oakland, respectively). He hasn't been held to single digits all season.
And, right, OK, Michigan has Trey Burke.
6 UCLA (25-9) vs. 11 Minnesota (20-12)
Minnesota's Tubby Smith may be coaching for his job. The Gophers disappointed in a brutally tough Big Ten, going 8-10 in the league after losing only to Duke in nonconference play. This is his third tournament appearance in six years at Minnesota, and he's yet to win a game. But here the Gophers have a chance to pull an upset over an unspectacular UCLA from the unspectacular Pac-12, and for Minnesota to win and Tubby to keep going really wouldn't be much of an upset at all.
3 Florida (26-6) vs. 14 Northwestern State (23-8)
KenPom.com's ratings have loved the Gators all season, and it's not surprising when they spent so much of the season blowing out the rest of the SEC. Incredibly, all 26 of their wins were by double digits, with 12 of their SEC wins coming by at least 20. Of course, they also lost every close game they played: Arizona by one, Kansas State by six, Arkansas by 11, Missouri by three, Tennessee by six, Kentucky by four, Ole Miss by three, with guard Kenny Boynton being incredibly unpredictable in late-game situations. Fortunately, the Gators are playing a team that gave up 93 in a loss to Nicholls State (9-21) at home. Florida may push 100.
7 San Diego State (22-10) vs. 10 Oklahoma (20-11)
You can find many pieces of evidence for how strong the Mountain West is this year, but here we'll go with the fact that San Diego State won only two conference road games. It was a brutal schedule, but the Aztecs do own wins over UCLA, Boise State, New Mexico and Colorado State, and they play great defense with athletic guards. Oklahoma, meanwhile, scored 22 points in a half in a loss to TCU just over a week ago. Recency bias is a foolish thing when filling out a bracket, but then again there's nothing particularly spectacular about Oklahoma anyway.
Pick: San Diego State
2 Georgetown (25-6) vs. 15 Florida Gulf Coast (24-10)
Florida Gulf Coast already has one win over a No. 2 seed to its credit, upending Miami 63-51 in its second game of the season. But Miami was shorthanded in that game, and the chances of the Eagles doing it again are next to nothing. Georgetown will put them to sleep with its suffocating defense, and Otto Porter will do Otto Porter things.
Click on image to view full Sports on Earth bracket.
1 Kansas vs. 8 North Carolina
Sunday, Kansas City
Roy Williams used to coach at Kansas. Roy Williams used to coach at Kansas. Roy Williams used to coach at Kansas. Roy Williams used to coa…
Sometimes, the selection committee just has to be thinking about these things, right? Roy goes back into Jayhawks territory with his underwhelming Tar Heels against top-seeded Kansas? Too perfect. But while the Harbaugh brothers storyline had two weeks at the Super Bowl, this will have only a couple days before coming to an abrupt end with Bill Self ending Williams' season.
5 Virginia Commonwealth vs. 4 Michigan
Saturday, Auburn Hills, Mich.
Few teams have more intriguing potential matchups then Michigan. First there was Nate Wolters vs. Trey Burke. Now there's VCU's relentless, undersized defense against Michigan's brilliant offensive guard play led by Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas. The problem for VCU is that Michigan isn't a good matchup. The Wolverines handle the ball well and turn the ball over less than any team in the country. Yes, VCU forces more turnovers than any team in the country, but something's got to give, and we'll side with the Big Ten player of the year.
11 Minnesota vs. 3 Florida
Sunday, March 24, 2013 will be a momentous occasion in Gainesville, Fla. It will be The Day the Narrative Died. For a quite specific prediction: Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy will both make shots in the final minute to give Florida a win by less than five, and everything we once believed in will be gone.
7 San Diego State vs. 2 Georgetown
Here we have something for everyone in Philly. Like defense? Both teams happily coast along scoring in the 60s while holding opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the field. Like highlight-reel-capable stars? Say hello to San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin and Georgetown's Otto Porter.
1 Kansas vs. 4 Michigan
As if Trey Burke didn't draw enough interesting matchups, now he gets to duel with likely top-five NBA draft pick Ben McLemore, Kansas' talented but somewhat inconsistent freshman -- a description that also describes Kansas' entire team. The Wolverines' weakness is interior defense, which could spell a lot of trouble against Jeff Withey, but the bet here is that Michigan finally starts playing cohesive basketball again in the tournament. When clicking, nobody is better offensively.
3 Florida vs. 2 Georgetown
Thankfully, this game is being played in a spaceship instead of on the surface of a boat in chilly weather, so they should actually be able to play basketball time instead of watching people use mops. The game that didn't happen in November should finally become a reality in March, with two of the best defensive teams in America squaring off in the Sweet 16. But then again, Jerry Jones once failed to provide enough seats for Super Bowl ticket holders, so who knows what could happen, especially with Florida on the floor. I'm kind of hoping that Florida turns the "can't win a close game" thing into a "look how great they are in close games" tournament narrative. Remember, the Gators were talented enough to beat most of the SEC by 30. That's impressive no matter how terrible the SEC is.
4 Michigan vs. 3 Florida
Two supremely talented but unpredictable teams meet for a shot at the Final Four. This game is guaranteed to be interesting, with two three-pointer-happy teams, Boynton attempting to out-gun Burke, Michigan attempting to defend Patric Young and Erik Murphy, the whole SEC-Big Ten thing hanging over the game. Both teams could lose the first weekend or win the national championship, but picking a bracket isn't fun without a little risk involved. And based on talent alone, Michigan's as good of a bet as any.
Around the South Bracket
Best Player You Never Heard Of: We already covered South Dakota State's Nate Wolters, who is certainly the best player casual college basketball fans have likely never heard of. So let's switch to the best defensive player you may have never heard of. That's most certainly VCU's Briante Weber, who scores only 5.3 points per game but never stops hassling ball handlers, has amazing quickness and energy, records 2.8 steals per game and is the perfect player for Shaka Smart's Havoc. He also enjoys dunking when he gets the chance off VCU's many forced turnovers.
Fun Factoid: This is Florida Gulf Coast's first NCAA tournament appearance -- in only its second season of Division I postseason eligibility. Only a few years removed from Division II ball, the Eagles already have more lifetime NCAA tournament appearances than Northwestern, which has been playing basketball since 1904 (the first tournament was played in 1939).
The Bracket's Best Mascots: Inevitably, someone will win somebody's bracket pool by picking favorite mascots. With no scientific research, I have determined that the toughest region is the South, which features the Akron Zips, the South Dakota State Jackrabbits and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. The Jackrabbits are self-explanatory, but Akron features the Zippy the Kangaroo, while Western Kentucky features Big Red, the, um… big red dancing blob.
Pick: Western Kentucky
Cowboys Stadium Chaos: The idea has been shelved, but late last year it was reported that Cowboys Stadium would attempt to host four basketball games at the same time. I still have no idea if this was the best or worst idea ever. It worked for my summer youth league on the playground in suburban Pennsylvania. It probably would not have worked well in major college basketball, and it is off. The basketball setup is quite amazing, though, with a big screen larger than the court, and the stadium will host next year's Final Four.
Best Pep Band: I cannot pretend to have heard every pep band in America. And I've read some good things about Kansas, which is in this region. But after attending the Atlantic-10 tournament, it is hard to imagine a band having more fun than VCU.