aNewDomain — As always, there are a ton of storylines entering the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky’s unbeaten season, a stacked West Region field, mid-majors galore with upset hopes along for the ride and the usual array of surprises in the first weekend.
With the play-in games getting out of the way and the real action starting early Thursday, time is running short to fill out brackets.
While it’s always tempting to just roll with “the chalk” and pick all No. 1 seeds to reach the Final Four, the last time that occurred was 2008 (Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina and UCLA). It’s not going to happen this year, either.
Let’s get on with the picks and possible surprises.
Was Villanova the least-heralded 32-2 team in recent memory? The Wildcats clearly were overshadowed by another group of Cats, an undefeated Kentucky team. Villanova enters the tournament on a 15-game winning streak. Who knew?
Second-seed Virginia played like a No. 1 most of the season and wound up 29-3 after losing in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. Virginia and Arizona are the second seeds with the most legitimate reasons to believe they should have wound up on the top lines.
The most intriguing team in this region has to be Northern Iowa, which was given a fifth seed despite finishing 30-3. Another mid-major gets the shaft, right? We’ll see what the Panthers have in a second-round game with Louisville.
Possible surprise: Providence
Region winner: Virginia
OK, this is getting old. Duke is the No. 1 seed here and won’t have to leave its home state in the first two rounds. Never mind the fact the Blue Devils tumbled out of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in the semifinals. Playing close to home assures Duke of getting to the Sweet 16 and a showdown with Gonzaga.
Speaking of the Bulldogs, they have a significantly tougher road to the regional finals with a possible game against Iowa State in the fourth round. The Cyclones, as you will recall, won the Big 12 Tournament. Gonzaga is seeking its first Final Four under Coach Mark Few. The Bulldogs always seem to be on the verge of big things.
This region’s Cinderella story could be Stephen F. Austin, which won’t get past the Sweet 16 but will make a little noise along the way.
Possible surprise: Iowa State
Region winner: Gonzaga
The most tired storyline entering the tournament is whether anyone can knock off Kentucky, which rolled to a 34-0 record. Think the other teams in this grouping of 16 are feeling desperate? Hampton Coach Edward Joyner Jr. said his team would need “Jesus on speed dial” when it plays the Wildcats on Thursday. Hampton won one of the tournament play-in games Tuesday, knocking off Manhattan 74-64.
In fact, the most intriguing game in the region would be a second-round matchup between Kansas and Wichita State. The Jayhawks see no need in scheduling regular season games against the in-state Shockers, so the tournament is the only place that meeting could happen. Both teams have to get through their first-round games, of course.
All that being said, Butler should reach the regional final before being outmatched by the Wildcats.
Possible surprise: Wichita State
Region winner: Kentucky
What did Wisconsin do to tick off the tournament selection committee? There are no fewer than three teams on this side of the bracket that could put significant roadblocks in front of the Badgers on their way to Indianapolis.
No. 2 seed Arizona gave Wisconsin all it could handle last year in the Elite Eight and these teams could meet in the region final. This is, of course, assuming the Wildcats can get past Virginia Commonwealth and Baylor on their way to a rematch with the Badgers.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, seems set for a battle with No. 4 seed North Carolina in the regional semifinal. The Tar Heels lost to Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship but appear to have what it takes to reach the Sweet 16 before bowing to Wisconsin.
Possible surprise: Baylor
Region winner: Arizona
Kentucky takes down Arizona in a close one and Virginia does likewise against Gonzaga.
In the title game, Kentucky wins its ninth national title, beating Virginia by 10 points to complete an undefeated season. The Wildcats become the first unbeaten team in men’s basketball since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers.
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