Every year it gets bigger: the spectator sport of picking the NCAA men's basketball team through all the rounds is deep and getting deeper.
ESPN has tried to hijack the NCAA tournament as its own (CBS has the network telecasts for the key games). Its website, which usually is full of features limited to paying customers, is open for all to participate in its Tournament Challenge for a $10,000 prize. One thing I really love is that ESPN allows us to make ten different sets of complete bracket picks, which allows us to experiment a bit with various scenarios.
It also seems to be clogging up their website. I made seven sets of picks Sunday night, before the dust had settled. I tried to do one tonight and the computer kept hanging up.
I didn't see a whole lot of games this year during the regular season beyond my faves (Kentucky, Louisville, Syracuse, New Mexico), my hates (any televised game I thought Duke, Texas or North Carolina could lose), and my parents' alma mater (Indiana, and its arch rival, Purdue). I did watch the conference tournaments last week pretty devotedly, and their impact on my opinions has been considerable.
To The Whiteboard, Already
There have been two teams that have shown the kind of dominance and consistency one looks for in a potential national champion: Kansas and Kentucky. There is a pretty large gap between their success and that of any other team. As a Kentucky fan, I would be disappointed if the Wildcats lose in any game other than the final, to any team other than Kansas. I expect the Jayhawks' fans feel the same, if not more so (i.e., they may not give Kentucky as much respect).
I have no real issue with the other two #1 seeds, Duke and Syracuse. Duke came on strong and dominated the ACC, even if it was relatively weak this year. Syracuse had a great regular season in the toughest conference, even if the Orange were clearly outplayed in their first game in the Big East tournament by Georgetown. What makes no sense whatsoever to me was that the #2 seeds in Kansas and Kentucky's regions are the best ones, the ones that should clearly have been #5 and #6 in the seedings, the winners of the Big 10 and Big East tournaments (Ohio St. and West Virginia).
Just as there is a big separation between the top two and the next level, there is also a pretty sizable gap between the upper seeded teams (let's say the top three in each region) and the rest, especially to the lower-rated at-large selections. The difference is one of consistency of performance, because these teams have had big wins, but they have many more losses (often ten or more) and usually some losses to mediocre teams.
This means that there are plenty of opportunities to pick upsets against vulnerable big conference teams by "mid-majors" or even low-rated conferences--in fact, they're hardly upsets. The real trick, the difference maker in bracket picking, is finding those momentous games where the 1, 2, or 3 seeds in regions might lose. There won't be many of them, but it is critical to identify them.
Some Critical Games Each Round
First Round The classic upset pick in the first round is the #12 vs. #5; the records show it happens a lot more than any other true upset game (#8 vs. #9 and #7 vs. #10 are essentially even matchups; feel free to flip a coin or just go with your gut on those. It mostly doesn't matter, because the winners usually get eliminated in the next round by the #1 and #2 seeds). I like this year's #5 models, though, and I see more opportunity for big upsets in the #4 vs. #13 games: Purdue (weakened by injury) vs. Siena, Vanderbilt vs. Murray State, Maryland vs. Houston, and Wisconsin vs. Wofford. I recommend at least one, maybe two upsets for your bracket from among those. Among the 5-12's, three of the underdogs--Cornell, UTEP, and New Mexico St.--are at least interesting picks, but I'm not going with any of them in my standard, "canonical" picks.
I don't see any likely first-round upsets of the 1,2, or 3 regional seeds--though one will probably happen, I don't see where. Two #11's I like in their first round games against sixth-seeded teams are San Diego St. (winner of the Mountain West tourney) over Tennessee (which was seriously humbled by Kentucky in the SEC tournament) and Minnesota over Xavier. This latter is a weird one: a lower-level team from a top conference as underdog beating a perennial upset threat team from a mid-major. I just don't think this Xavier team is as good as their best, while Minnesota showed a lot in the tournament of the eleven-team Big 10 conference.
Second Round The South region (Duke's) has the weakest top seeds, but some very good mid-level seeds. This should show up in the second round, with three really good matchups with upset potential projected: #6 Notre Dame (a rising team) vs. #3 Baylor, #7 Richmond vs. #2 Villanova, and #9 Louisville vs. #1 Duke.
One other big obstacle to a seeded team making the Sweet Sixteen is the projected matchup in the East (Kentucky's) region between #6 Marquette and #3 New Mexico. The Lobos have done great things for the morale of all of us here in NM this year, but this game is a deadly serious early-round threat they will have to be fortunate to survive.
Third Round If you've got Villanova surviving the second round, then they're likely to face another severe (even terminal) challenge from the Notre Dame-Baylor winner. This is the round when all the top Big East teams will face critical challenges: Georgetown-Ohio St. looks likely in the Midwest (Kansas') region, there's a possible intraleague matchup of Marquette and West Virginia in the South (West Va. won by one point in their only matchup during the season), and Syracuse could face a serious threat from either Maryland or NCAA overachiever Michigan State.
Fourth Round Teams that have gotten this far have proven their class, so there aren't any weak links. An upset here is defined as a #1 team losing. Kentucky's biggest challenge (prior to the final) could come here against #2 West Virginia, if they make it this far, and, similarly, Kansas' could be here against Georgetown (or even Ohio St.)
The big ones, though, are my clear expectations (in my "standard" brackets) that Duke would lose here (most likely, to Baylor), and that Syracuse will fall here to Kansas State (who looks to have a pretty easy ride to the regional final). My standard Final Four are Kansas, Kansas State (great Big 12, intrastate matchup projected for the semis, the fourth time they would meet, with Kansas winning all three so far), Kentucky and Baylor. This is a huge shout of respect for the Big 12, with three teams in the last four (that certainly has never happened, with the move from Eight to XII being a fairly recent development; I believe it happened once with the Big East and never with any other conference). I've got occasional brackets including one, but not both, of Syracuse and Duke in the Final Four (though losing in the semifinals), with longshot candidates Butler, Georgetown, and Richmond winning a regional final somewhere in my set of ten ESPN brackets.
Most of my brackets will have the standard matchup of KU and UK in the final. It won't differentiate me from the pack, but it will give me the best chance of having the final two, which in most systems and most pools is a requirement to be seriously in the running to win.
If you're competing against me and have read this, you can try to game me. Emphasis on "try". Shame on you, though; otherwise, good luck!