The best sports weekend of the year–hands down–begins in earnest in less than 48 hours. Yes, I am like little-kid-on-Christmas excited. No, I’m not embarrassed by it. Looking over the brackets, there are a bunch of first-round matchups and potential second-round matchups that I am looking forward the most, so I figure this is a good topic for Tuesday’s Top Twelve.
#12). 3-Kansas vs. 14-North Dakota State (first round on Friday at 12:30 in Minneapolis). In sort of a scan for “potential madness,” this one hit me right away. I think the Jayhawks are vulnerable, and the Bison of North Dakota St. might be the perfect team to pull off the big upset of KU (ironically, Kansas was a 3-seed in 2005 and lost to a 14-seed nicknamed the Bison–Bucknell). I contemplated putting Mississippi St vs. Washington here because I like that upset also, but it wouldn’t be nearly as fun/MAD as North Dakota St., in their first year of D-1 eligibility, taking out the defending champs.
#11). 4-Xavier vs. 5-Florida State (potentially second-round on Sunday in Boise). This is just a potential game because they both have to get through their first-round opponents (which I think they both will), but if it happens, it should be very, very good. I love the contrasting styles that this game presents. The athletic, defense-oriented, extremely balanced-scoring Musketeers against the HUGE and athletic Seminoles who rely on one guy for a large portion of their offense.
#10). 1-North Carolina vs. 8-LSU or 9-Butler (potentially second-round on Sunday in Greensboro). This might have been even more interesting had it been anywhere but in the state of North Carolina. Then again, it would have been rather uninteresting if Ty Lawson were 100%. UNC could probably beat Radford without any starters. And, even if it’s close, there are so many things that go into a 1-16 game to glean anything about the top-seed. So, Sunday’s game (against either LSU or Butler, because they’re both pretty tough as a 8/9) will be the real test to see if UNC is healthy and running on all cylinders.
#9). 6-West Virginia vs. 11-Dayton (first round on Friday at 3:00 in Minneapolis). I think that this West Virginia team could really do some damage in this tournament. But, then again, they might not make it out of the first round. That is what makes this tournament so fascinating. Dayton, who can be either overrated or underrated, depending on who you talk to, is indisputably a solid test for the Mountaineers. Plus, if you buy into my belief that Kansas is vulnerable (either in the first round or beyond), there is a good chance that we will see the winner of this game playing next week in Indianapolis.
#8). 7-Boston College vs. 10-USC (first round on Friday at 7:20 in Minneapolis). This is a fantastic first-round game between two relatively under-the-radar teams this year. BC made some noise in the ACC, but was never really talked about nationally. USC’s lack of national presence was warranted because they flat-out played poorly for much of the season and were not going to be included until they won the Pac 10 tournament. There is also a lot of star power in this game with Tyrese Rice, Daniel Hackett, and Taj Gibson are all still in school (even though I seem to remember them all playing in the 90s). Also, DeMar DeRozan is a flat-out stud freshman for the Trojans.
#7). 1-Michigan State vs. 7-Boston College or 10-USC (potentially second-round on Sunday in Minneapolis). The winner of #8 (no matter who it is) will set up an even better matchup on Sunday against 2-seed Michigan St. Either opponent for the Spartans presents a true test for a team that could only surprise me if they lost in the first round. Anything else, from a bad second-round exit to a national championship is in the cards this year for this talented, but inconsistent team with a phenomenal coach.
#6). 3-Syracuse vs. 6-Arizona State or 11-Temple (potentially second-round on Sunday in Miami). The winner of the first-round game between ASU and Temple will get to play in a very interesting game against Syracuse. So much has been made of all the minutes that The Orange logged in their captivating trip to the Big East finals, but does it really matter? Can top-flight athletes really be “tired” from anything (other than a marathon) that they did a week ago? We will see because if Syracuse beats Stephen F. Austin, they are in for a battle, regardless of which team they are playing.
#5). 8-Oklahoma State vs. 9-Tennessee (first round on Friday in Dayton). This is a big-time first round matchup. These two teams should probably be playing in at least the second round, if not later. But, they both struggled more than expected, then turned their seasons around and now find themselves across the battle lines from each other in a brutal first-round matchup. It will be interesting on both ends, as a solid OSU defense tries to stop an awesome Tennessee offense, while a painfully awful Tennessee defense tries to stop a frustratingly inconsistent OSU offense.
#4). 1-Pittsburgh vs. 8-Oklahoma State or 9-Tennessee. Whoever comes out of the great matchup listed at #5 will have another fantastic, must-see game against top-seeded Pitt. The only real question mark surrounding the Panthers is will DeJuan Blair get into foul trouble or not. And, it really all depends on how tight the officiating is because he is certainly not going to change his game. Either way, this second-round matchup has the feel of a Sweet 16 or later game, especially if it’s immensely talented Tennessee.
#3). 2-Oklahoma vs. 7-Clemson (potentially second round on Saturday in Kansas City). If you had told me a month ago that OU would play Clemson in the tournament, I would have said that it must have been at least a Sweet 16 game, if not an Elite 8 game. But, OU slipped out of #1 position, and Clemson slipped all the way to #7 (personally, I think this is a pretty low seed for the Tigers, who have been in the top 15-20 all year long). But, this game (which might not even happen, as Michigan has a real shot in the first round against Clemson) is going to be fantastic! The up-and-down, pressing style of Clemson against The Griffins and a host of underrated perimeter players (led by the super frosh, Willie Warren). I hope it happens.
#2). 6-UCLA vs. 11-VCU (first-round on Thursday at 9:50 in Philadelphia). Just a fantastic first-round clash between two very good teams who I probably would have picked to beat almost anyone else, had they not wound up playing each other. An experienced, defense-oriented UCLA team that has been to three straight Final Fours against a guy named Eric Maynor and the VCU Rams. Anyone remember Maynor? Yes, he was that freshman who single-handedly beat Duke in the tournament three years ago. Now, he’s a senior, and even though he hasn’t been in the forefront of college hoops lately (because VCU hasn’t made the tournament since), he has gotten a lot better. He is, in my opinion, the third best point guard in the country, behind Fields and Lawson, and will probably make a better pro than either of them. The Rams also have a guy named Larry Sanders who has a 91-inch wingspan to complement his incredible athleticism. As soon as this matchup came out, I got excited about it. I don’t want to wait until Thursday night for it–can’t this be the play-in game tonight?
#1). 6-Arizona State vs. 11-Temple (first-round on Friday at 2:55 in Miami). Bias?!? What does bias mean? No, I’m not biased–this is a great game! Okay, maybe I’m a little biased, but even thinking objectively (which I probably cannot do), this would have made the Top 12 list. I love James Harden and have been saying for weeks now that ASU is my sleeper pick for the Final Four. I even gave a professional presentation last week on March Madness and picked ASU to accompany UNC, Louisville, and Michigan State to the promised land. But, now they get to face my beloved Owls in the first round. Ugh! I spent the whole selection show chanting “Give me Illinois,” thinking that Illinois would be a 5 and Temple a 12. Then, when we got to the last bracket and Illinois came up on the 5-line, I went nuts, thinking Temple would be 12. But, alas, they rewarded us with an 11-seed and a dreadful matchup with the Sun Devils. Well, at least it gave me justification to put the Temple game in a Top 12 list.