One of life's guilty pleasures, for me, us studying the NCAA tournament bracket and marveling at the complex thought and, sometimes, the politics that go into producing it. Year after year, I come to the conclusion that the selection committee really knows its stuff.
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You can quibble here and there and a George Mason comes along now and then to blow things up and you have to understand some matchups invite "upsets," but in the end, the cream always rises. So, let's take a little tour of this year's bracket to see what we can divine from it:
The Big Flaw: I have one major quibble with what the committee did, and I imagine politics had something to do with it. If you accept the top four seeds in order were Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse and that West Virginia was considered fifth-best, then, the Mountaineers were hurt by being placed in the East Region with second-best Kentucky. Tournament chairman Dan Guerrero said teams aren't necessarily seeded 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5, which would have put West Virginia in the West with Syracuse. Logistics and certain principles governing the process play a role.
You wouldn't want the top two teams from one conference, Syracuse and West Virginia in this case, in the same regional. So, West Virginia should have been placed in the South with Duke, and Villanova, which went into that slot, should have been in the East with Kentucky.
Since the pods those two Big East schools are in are located in Buffalo and Providence, there would have been virtually no difference the first two rounds. The regions also would have made more sense geographically, and most important, Duke as the third overall seed, would have faced a tougher second seed in its bracket than Kentucky will get, which is as it should be.
The 5-12 Upset Specials: I love the potential of these pairings for first-round entertainment, especially in the East, where Ivy champion Cornell (12) faces Atlantic 10 champion Temple (5), and in the West, where Conference USA regular-season champ UTEP (12) faces mid-major darling Butler (5), which went 18-0 in the Horizon and has won 20 straight since a loss to Alabama-Birmingham, the third-place team in C-USA. Cornell beat St. John's at Madison Square Garden and went toe-to-toe with No. 1 Kansas at Lawrence before losing by five, and Temple lost at the Palestra to St. John's by seven and at home to Kansas by 32.
In the South, Texas A&M (5) likely is too strong for Utah State (12), but both are nicknamed Aggies. In the Midwest, the New Mexico State Aggies (12), who upset regular-season Western Athletic Conference champion Utah State in the conference tournament, face Michigan State (5), which probably should be nicknamed Aggies but actually is the Spartans.
The Slightly Less Likely 4-13 Upset Specials: Everyone and his brother is picking Siena (13) to upset Purdue (4) in the South because the Boilermakers are without Robbie Hummel. Careful. Siena's not as good as last year, and Purdue has enough to reach the second round before being knocked off by Texas A&M. In the East, Wisconsin (4) faces Southern Conference champ Wofford (13) in what is billed as a defensive struggle. Personally, I would call it an "offensive struggle," but the Badgers have more weapons.
The live underdogs are in the West, where Murray State (13) meets Vanderbilt (4), and in the Midwest, where Houston (13) faces Maryland (4). Murray State has five players averaging 10 points a game but hasn't played much of anybody. The common thread is that Vandy and Murray each lost to Western Kentucky. Houston finished seventh in C-USA before upsetting UTEP in the conference tourney, but it has the nation's leading scorer in Aubrey Coleman, who might provide enough to offset the impact of Maryland's Grievis Vasquez and beat the overrated Terrapins from the overrated ACC.
Second-Round Drama: Technically, the 4-5 matchups should be the best, and that still might be true if you've got a Cinderella trying to reach the Sweet 16. But if chalk holds, the best matchups will be the 3-6 grouping. In the Midwest, I know Tennessee got bombed in the SEC tourney, but the Vols have had some huge wins this year, including over No. 1 Kansas, and should be a tough out for third-seed Georgetown. In the West, Xavier (6) and Pitt (3) are both blue-collar teams from neighboring states and will go down to the wire.
In the South, it's too bad Notre Dame's Luke Harangody isn't up to speed because third-seed Baylor has a great front line and LaceDarius Dunn to fill it up from the backcourt. I'm from New Mexico and love to see the third-seeded Lobos do so well this year, but I seriously doubt they can beat Marquette (6) of the Big East in the East. The Golden Eagles are battle-tested in tight games but could use a little more production from Jimmy Butler to complement Lazar Hayward and Maurice Acker.
Random Brain Droppings: I disagree with the notion Kansas somehow got the toughest region as No. 1 in the Midwest. Maryland (4) and Michigan State (5) are overrated in the Jayhawks' half of the bracket. It's the bottom half of that bracket that's brutal. KU's only tough game is in the regional final against the survivor among Ohio State (2), Georgetown (3), Tennessee (6) and Big 12 rival Oklahoma State (7), which beat the Jayhawks in Stillwater.
Had Texas (8) and Wake Forest (9) not been paired against each other in the East, I would have picked both to lose in the first round because they have played so poorly of late. I dropped Wake from my list of first-round losers because I thought they might not make the field.
Some are picking Pac-10 tourney champ Washington (11) to upset Marquette in the first round. First, the Pac-10 is as bad as its ever been. Second, the committee put the Huskies on the 11 line, which is bubble territory. I'll go with the committee's judgment.
Glad I get to see my alma mater, Missouri, against Clemson in the first round of the East at Buffalo, but the Tigers are nowhere near as good as last season and I wouldn't have blamed the NCAA for omitting them after a terrible loss to Nebraska in the Big 12 tourney.
On Sunday, I named Cal and Louisville as "one and done" teams, but since they're playing each other in the South, I'll say Rick Pitino's Cardinals will go up against Duke in the second round.
I don't believe Duke will win the South regional, but I don't think Villanova (2) will be the one to knock them off. Baylor (3) and Texas A&M (5) of the Big 12 both are tough, but I think the Bears have the combination of size and scoring to handle Duke in a regional final in Houston, where they will have plenty of fans.
Of all the top mid-majors, Missouri Valley Conference champ Northern Iowa might be the most highly regarded. So, why give them a ninth seed and a potential matchup against Kansas in the second round? Is Butler, fifth-seeded in the West, that much better? I don't think so.
There's lots of buzz around Ohio State (2) in the Midwest, but a second-round game against Oklahoma State (7) is by far the toughest of all possible 2-7 matchups.
Syracuse put out the word that center Arinze Okuanu might practice this week despite suffering what appeared to be a serious right knee sprain against Georgetown on Thursday. It was an effort to preserve a No. 1 seed, which it did, but the Orange dropped below Duke. Now, coach Jim Boeheim says Onuaku might not play this weekend, which is what I would expect. Hope he's ready for the regional because Boeheim's seven-man rotation means backups DaShonte Riley and James Southerland, though talented, have been used sparingly. If the Orange can't overcome injury problems, then Kansas State will emerge from what I regard as the weakest regional.
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