Louisville will emerge from chaos as champion
Form went out the window early in the 2012-13 college basketball season as one powerhouse program after another rose to the No. 1 ranking only to lose its grip as upsets made it impossible to call king of the mountain. Even now that the 68-team NCAA Tournament bracket has been filled out, there is no consensus favorite.
The polls voted by both the media and the coaches have Gonzaga as the No. 1 team in the land. But the NCAA selection committee says Louisville is the No. 1 overall seed, followed by Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga. The next four in seeding order are Miami, Duke, Georgetown and Ohio State.
What lies ahead figures to be one of the most wide-open NCAA Tournaments ever. Here's a look at each region:
Midwest -- Louisville's first serious test should come in the Sweet 16 against Atlantic 10 champion Saint Louis, which has played inspired basketball all season since the Dec. 1 death of coach Rick Majerus, who would have loved the defensive commitment and balanced offense led by Dwayne Evans. Now that Duke's Ryan Kelly has returned from injury, the Blue Devils should be able to get past Michigan State to the regional final in Indianapolis.
But Rick Pitino's Cardinals reached the Final Four last season, and guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith showed in the Big East Tournament how lethal the Louisville press can be. Figure them to make a return trip to the Final Four, but in this Year of the Upset, Saint Louis could be the sleeper in the field that crashes the party in Atlanta.
West -- No. 1 seed Gonzaga and third-seeded New Mexico will never have a better chance as mid-majors to reach the Final Four. After years of being shipped across the country, the Zags get to play in Salt Lake City and possibly Los Angeles. But Big Ten Tournament finalists Ohio State and Wisconsin were sent west to test the region's powers.
Look for high-scoring Gonzaga and low-post star Kelly Olynyk to survive the physical gauntlet against the Badgers in the Sweet 16 and the second-seeded Buckeyes in the Elite Eight to earn a national semifinals date with Louisville.
South -- Kansas is the second overall seed in the field, but the Jayhawks drew a brutal path to the Final Four. They could face North Carolina and former KU coach Roy Williams in the third round, and either Virginia Commonwealth's "Havoc" defense or Michigan point guard Trey Burke in the Sweet 16.
Second-seeded Georgetown's only difficult test before the regional final in Dallas-Fort Worth should come against a veteran Florida team in the Sweet 16. But player of the year candidate Otto Porter ought to carry the Hoyas and give the Big East two Final Four teams.
East -- Many wondered how Miami could drop to a No. 2 seed after winning the ACC regular-season and conference tournament in such decisive fashion, while top seed Indiana repeatedly fell short of the preseason No. 1 hype. Truth is the Hoosiers are an offensive team now that Bob Knight is a memory, and they could be outscored by North Carolina State or Syracuse before the regional final in Washington.
Coach Jim Larranaga's Hurricanes have a team with sophomore point guard Shane Larkin and five seniors that has risen to the challenge all season. They merely have to navigate past either Marquette or Butler, and if Indiana is waiting, Miami won't buy the hype either.
Final Four -- Miami’s balance and experience should enable it to pull out a semifinal win over the Hoyas. Gonzaga will be no match for Louisville’s press and rugged frontcourt led by Gorgui Dieng. Pitino’s Cardinals are rightly favored to hoist the trophy -- unless the Year of the Upset ends with the biggest one of all by Saint Louis.