Tourney talk: "bracket busters"

Unfortunately, the Jeffs bowed to the Ephs for the third time this season and I was forced to root against Williams rather than for Amherst in the finals. I got some, but not nearly enough joy from watching the Ephs lose on a last-second fadeaway in the finals, but it just wasn’t the same.

So instead of writing about the Div. III tournament, I guess I’ll have to settle for the Div. I tournament, which has less personal value, but many more stories and drama. Every year people talk about one game that was a real “bracket buster:” an upset of a team that everyone thought would make it deep into the tournament. Right now, after two rounds of play, there have been at least six bracket busters. Dicky V is going crazy (“this is awesome, baby!”), Jay Bilas has thrown his hands up in the air and his microphone to the ground and Billy Packer is talking to other people, rather than to himself, for a change.

I, like everyone else with a pulse, am totally screwed in the brackets I filled out. Despite filling out multiple (read: five) ESPN Tournament Challenge entries, I find myself with very few teams left. In one entry, I am in the 98.9 percentile, but have only one Final Four team remaining. In another bracket, I am in the 26.2 percentile, but with all four Final Four teams remaining. That one has some potential, but not much. To make a long story short, my brackets are in rough shape, but so are everyone else’s. Shows how little even the basketball “experts” on ESPN really know about the NCAA Tournament.

This year’s tournament has been all about overrated high seeds and underrated low seeds. Stanford and Gonzaga were seen as overrated teams coming into the tournament, and just as expected, both fell in the second round. I was never sold on the Stanford Cardinal, even with only one loss on the season, and had a feeling they’d be upset early on in the tournament. The second ranked ‘Zags, despite having only two losses and a ratings percentage index (RPI) of 11, were hardly expected to contend for the national championship. In my mind, Gonzaga and St. Joseph’s are the TCU of the NCAA Tournament-teams with great records from a mid-major conference trying to prove themselves worthy of top rankings. Look for St. Joseph’s to get blown out of the water by Wake Forest on Thursday.

At the top, Duke and UConn look very strong. The Blue Devils have dismantled their first two opponents by 35 and 28 points and seem to be handling their injuries well. With arguably the most talented lineup and the most experienced point guard in the country, Chris Duhon, Duke has all the ingredients this season. UConn also looks like a team on a mission. No team can match up with the talent of Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon and Taliek Brown. If Emeka Okafor can avoid more back problems, the Huskies should be playing at the Alamodome on April 3.

The team that no one was talking about last week and everyone was talking about this weekend, defending champion Syracuse, is back at it again in the Sweet Sixteen. With everyone but Carmelo Anthony back this season, the ‘Cuse is battle-tested and hungry for another shot at the title. If you saw its first round win over BYU, you know what I’m talking about. Gerry McNamara carried the Orangemen on his back, scoring 43 points on 9-13 shooting from three-point range. I can’t remember ever seeing an individual performance quite like McNamara’s in all my years of watching the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Orangemen, red-hot UConn looms in Elite Eight.

With the field down to 16, it’s time to make some predictions. I’ve already mentioned my inclination toward UConn in the Phoenix Region, even though I wouldn’t be shocked to see Syracuse in the Final Four again. I think Duke will emerge from the Atlanta Region after a tough fight with upset-minded Xavier, which has looked very impressive thus far. In the East Rutherford Region, I think Pittsburgh, after defeating Wisconsin in the second round, has the momentum needed to pull off an upset over Oklahoma State and then defeat either St. Joe’s or Wake Forest in the regional finals.

In the St. Louis Region, anything can happen. With top-seeded Kentucky out of the tournament at the hands of University of Alabama-Birmingham, all hell has broken loose. Kansas, a team that no one has really been talking about, has a great shot at reaching the Final Four. The Jayhawks, after losing coach Roy Williams to North Carolina, were not expected to contend during this “transition” season, but seem to have put themselves right back into the national championship mix. Kansas’ best player, Wayne Simien is on a mission this season after missing last year’s tournament because of injury and has been dominant thus far in the team’s two victories.

It’s a little premature to make championship predictions, so I’ll leave it at this and you’ll just have to wait and see what happens. If the next three rounds are anything like the first two, this year’s tournament will be one to remember.