Tis the season of Cinderellas and bracket busters, success stories and crying men. Oh, and the Big Ten choking.
The NCAA Tournament provides the best three weekends in sports, bar none. Anyone that says otherwise is a football fan. And we don't need those types around here.
Of course, there's nothing more fun than pretending to be way smarter than you actually are. Pick that big upset or get three Final Four teams right, and you'll feel like a genius bragging to your friends. Win the office pool and it's easier to forget how awful the economy is doing right now.
So I present to you the bracketalysis (post-Selection Sunday bracketology) of a man who loves pretending to be smarter than he is. Region by region, starting with the...
The Top Contenders: No. 1 Connecticut, No. 2 Memphis, No. 5 Purdue
The Pretenders: No. 3 Missouri, No. 6 Marquette
I'm impressed with what Missouri has done. Don't get me wrong, the Big 12 Championship was both shocking and applause-worthy. But last time I checked, guard play is essential in the NCAA Tournament. And the Tigers fall short on that, though they are fun to watch. For proof of guard play's importance, just ask Marquette, a team that might have been a Final Four contender had point guard Dominic James not broke his foot. It's a shame their great batch of senior guards can't go out healthy and on top.
The Regional Sleeper: No. 11 Utah State
In the same bracket as the Texas A&M Aggies, the Utah State Aggies are in a very favorable position. They are the kings of efficiency, shooting a remarkable 49.8 percent, best in the field. In addition, the Aggies join Memphis as one of two teams with 30 wins already. Factor in that they are playing closer to home than any team they are likely to be matched up against, and you've got a sleeper Final Four pick. It's a stretch, but not a horrendous one.
The First-Weekend Sleeper: No. 13 Mississippi State
Center Jarvis Varnado is a freak of nature, averaging 4.7 blocks per game. And he and the Bulldogs are coming off an SEC Championship and playing the best basketball of their season. They crashed the Big Dance, but don't be surprised if they topple an inexperienced Washington squad in the first round and maybe make things difficult for Purdue in the second.
The Best Player: Hasheem Thabeet, Connecticut
Why is Hasheem Thabeet the hands-down best player in this region? Because he can block your shot with HIS hands down. The 7-foot-3, 265-pound giant was named Big East Player of the Year and is a strong candidate for the national awards. He's an incredible rebounder and defender who can get hot on offense as well. You don't want to run into him, metaphorically or literally.
The Best Under-the-Radar Player: Jerome Randle, No. 7 California
East Coast bias getting you down? You should know who Randle is, but many fans outside of the left coast don't seem to. The scrappy Chicago native provides the Golden Bears with a deadly shooter who can create off the dribble for himself and others. His efficiency is unbelievable, as well, shooting 50.0 percent from the field and 46.8 percent from behind the arc.
The Best Coach: Gary Williams, No. 10 Maryland
The Terrapins coach has been railed on all season by media for his poor recruting. But all the while, he has a team of scrappy underachievers making a surprising run into the Big Dance. He's one of two coaches in the region, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun being the other, with an NCAA Championship ring.
The Final Pick: Connecticut
Since shooting guard Jerome Dyson went down with a knee injury, the Huskies are just 4-3. Well, they've got enough talent and a good enough coach in Jim Calhoun to put the pieces back together. And A.J. Price is the type of player who leads his team to a Final Four.
The Top Contenders: No. 1 Louisville, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 4 Wake Forest
The Pretenders: No. 3 Kansas, No. 7 Boston College
"Rock Chalk, Jayhawk" can take a break this year. It's not that Kansas is bad, it's just that the talent level isn't there to really compete for another national championship. Don't be surprised if West Virginia knocks them off in the second round. As far as Boston College, the Eagles did a nice job overacheiving this season. But Al Skinner is a rather iffy in-game coach and a potential second-round matchup with Michigan State looks like it would be too much, should they even get that far.
The Regional Sleeper: No. 10 Southern California
The Pac-10 Champion Trojans have enough talent and are playing well enough lately that they could reasonably win the region and head to the Final Four. You heard me. It's not likely, but freshman DeMar DeRozan has been the best first-year player in the country through the last month of the season, and Taj Gibson, Dwight Lewis and Daniel Hackett all look so much more comfortable playing without O.J. Mayo.
The First-Weekend Sleeper: No. 14 North Dakota State
Not only do I not like Kansas much this year, but they'll have to play the Bison in Minneapolis. Needless to say, Minneapolis is a lot closer to North Dakota than Kansas. And point guard Ben Woodside and forward Brett Winkelman lead a team that can really shoot the 3-pointer, which has always been the equalizer in early round powerhouse vs. mid-major battles. No. 13 Cleveland State deserves a mention here, as well, especially with Wake Forest's up-and-down tendencies.
The Best Player: Jordan Hill, No. 12 Arizona
The best NBA prospect in the region, as well, Hill has scored more than 20 points in each of his last four games, averaging 11.25 rebounds per game in the same span. He's athletic, rebounds as well as anyone in the country and is really coming on hard. Still, you may only get to see him for one round, as the Wildcats as a team have sturggled mightily of late, just barely squeaking into perhaps the last spot in the bracket.
The Best Under-the-Radar Player: Jeremy Chappell, No. 15 Robert Morris
Chappell is one of two players in the NCAA Tournament field, Maryland's Greivis Vasquez being the other, to lead his team in points, rebounds and assists. Chappell shoots 40.7 percent from 3-point range and has essentially carried his team to a 24-10 record and NEC title.
The Best Coach: Tock Pitizzo, Louisville State
You can't pick between two of the best in the business. Pitino and Izzo seem on a collision course in this bracket, which brings us to...
The Final Pick: Michigan State
Louisville is the better team. But Michigan State is the more consistent team. It's easier for me to imagine Louisville tripping up because of an off night from Terrence Williams or Earl Clark. Michigan State relies on its depth and balance even more than the balanced Cardinals. And I just love Tom Izzo. It's my bias.
The Top Contenders: No. 1 Pittsburgh, No. 2 Duke, No. 6 UCLA
The Pretenders: No. 3 Villanova
I'm not buying it. This team has lost to Georgetown, been blown out by Louisville and squeaked by Marquette and DePaul in their last six games. Scottie Reynolds has spent his three years in college so far being one of the nation's streakiest players, and after a 1-of-6 shooting performance against Louisville, I'm going to say he's on the wrong side of peaking, to say the least.
The Regional Sleeper: No. 9 Tennessee
The Tournament Committee should be ashamed of itself for its treatment of the SEC. Tennessee deserves better than a No. 9 seed. I'll tell you right now, if they can get past Pittsburgh in the second round, they might end up heading to the Final Four as the first No. 9 seed ever to reach it.
The First-Weekend Sleeper: No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth
This flies in the face of my stance with UCLA as a Final Four contender, but I truly believe VCU to be the best sleeper-team in the country. They could definitely end up in the Sweet Sixteen, although I'm not going to be picking them.
The Best Player: Gerald Henderson, Duke
I was going to lose sleep over this, choosing between Henderson, Pitt's DeJuan Blair, Florida State's Toney Douglas and VCU's Eric Maynor. I decided, though, to go with the most talented of the four. Henderson is an absolute monster. He's smooth yet explosive, with a killer midrange jumper. He plays defense and leads by example. He's not the guy you'll remember from Duke; he's the guy that will beat you silently.
The Best Under-the-Radar Player: James Anderson, No. 8 Oklahoma State
In my efforts to hold down mid-majors as much as the Tournament Committee has this year, I decided against picking Kevin Tiggs from East Tennessee State in favor of Anderson. No player from a top-8 seed gets less credit than the Cowboy swingman, who has every desirable tool for a solid NBA shooting guard. He's had four 30-point games this year and shone brightest against some of the Big 12's best teams. Inconsistent, yes. But often brilliant.
The Best Coach: Ben Howland, UCLA
Howland installs a system that wins. He teaches defense on a level untouched by most. Granted, it seems faulty to not list Mike Krzyzewski here, but Howland's made three straight Final Fours. Coach K hasn't made one since 2004.
The Final Pick: Pittsburgh
I had the Panthers No. 2 preseason, and they haven't disappointed. Point guard Levance Fields should be back to full strength, and the Panthers have the look of a balanced Championship-type team.
The Top Contenders: No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 Syracuse, No. 4 Gonzaga
The Pretenders: No. 5 Illinois
Look, if you lose a game in which you score 33 points against an NIT team, you're not a five-seed. I'm not buying it. Illinois has overacheived all year, but they are not a No. 5 seed or a threat to win anything more than their first-round game.
The Regional Sleeper: None
Between the top four seeds and No. 6 Arizona State, I just don't see anyone coming up by surprise and taking this region. Maybe Michigan can do it with a mastermind like John Beilein pulling the strings, but I doubt it.
The First-Weekend Sleeper: No. 8 LSU
The Tigers got no respect, along with the entire SEC. But they finished 26-7 and have enough weapons and play enough defense to challenge North Carolina, should Ty Lawson not be fully recovered from his afforementioned toe injury. I don't see them getting past a healthy UNC or an of the other top teams in this bracket, but it's worth looking into. Also, No. 12 Western Kentucky, No. 11 Temple and No. 10 Michigan could all turn some heads.
The Best Player: Blake Griffin, Oklahoma
The easiest pick in any category in any region. If you don't know about him, I'm surprised you're on a site like NBADraft.net.
The Best Under-the-Radar Player: Artsiom Parakhouski, Radford
Did you watch the Big South Championship? If you did, you remember the bigman from Belarus. Parakhouski had 26 points and 18 rebounds in the high-paced final. He's a strong post player who transferred from a junior college in Idaho and now will get the challenge of facing Tyler Hansbrough in Round 1.
The Best Coach: Jim Boeheim, Syracuse
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Boeheim. I consider him one of the top five coaches in the country. And in terms of in-game adjustment, he's as good as they get. It's a tough group here, led by Boeheim, Gonzaga's Mark Few and Michigan's John Beilein.
The Final Pick: North Carolina
Even if Lawson has to stay out of the first round of games, the Tar Heels are talented enough to get through to the second weekend. And by then, the junior point guard should be ready to go. And if that happens, the Tar Heels will be ready to go. North Carolina should win the entire thing, based on talent alone.
Note: I will be back after the regionals are concluded to offer more analysis, you can see my final four picks in the full bracket piece and staff picks article (soon to come).
Good analysis, I just don't really believe that 3 number 1 seeds are going to be in the final four the way this season has gone. Pittsburgh, North Carolina, and Connecticut had someone early exits from their respective conference tournaments, and I expect to see many upsets compared to last year's tournament.
****Bracket spoiler note-Watch out for Michigan!! Even though they have 13 losses, they have beaten UCLA, Duke, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota (2x) and came very close to a win over Connecticut. When their system works and they get Manny Harris and Deshawn Sims rolling, they can beat anyone in the country.
*****Also, Memphis is a force to be reckoned with. Not getting the #1 seed, they have a chip on their shoulders and are a tournament-team.
Villanova is a pretender; priceless!
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