So…Now Who?

Let’s be honest, if you didn’t pick Kansas in your bracket to win it all, it was for some reason aside from a belief that they were not the best team in the country.  There are plenty of respectable reasons (you were in a big pool and wanted to go the non-popular route, you thought that they had a tougher road, you just don’t like Bill Self, etc.), but if you know anything about college hoops and I gave you truth serum and said “who is the best team?” you would answer Kansas.  But, sixteen teams still have a shot at the 2010 national championship and KU is not one of them.  So, who’s the favorite now?

Instead of a Top Twelve, we’re going to do a Top Sixteen because, well, there are 16 teams left.  So, here it is–one man’s opinion of the order of the remaining teams by their chance to cut down the nets in two weeks.

16). Michigan St.  It is never, EVER a good idea to pick against Tom Izzo when talking about anything.  But, I did it in my bracket, and I’m going to do it again here.  The team was just a bit too dysfunctional even with their best player, Kalin Lucas.  But, even with a nice Sweet Sixteen draw (N. Iowa), without Lucas this team is not going to win the title.  Then again, I went against Izzo with New Mexico St., so don’t listen to me.

15). Xavier.  I love the A-10.  I think Xavier is very, very good.  I think they deserve to be here in the Sweet Sixteen.  (By the way, there are only two teams in this year’s Sweet Sixteen that are making their third straight trip to this round–and I ranked them as the two teams with the worst chances to win the title, Xavier and Michigan St.)  But, the Musketeers just aren’t that talented outside of Jordan Crawford–who is a complete stud.  And, they have a brutal road to just get out of their region, with K-State on Thursday night and maybe Syracuse on Saturday.  They really have a very long shot to win it all, but nonetheless, another great season for the X.

14). Washington.  Great job by the Huskies to beat two very solid teams and reach the Sweet Sixteen, giving the Pac-10 a little vindication after a historically poor season for the proud conference.  And, despite their 11-seed, they most certainly have the talent to be here.  However, their road through the East Regional is not going to be pretty, as they start with West Virginia and then maybe Kentucky.  I wouldn’t rule it out because of their talent, but it’ll be a big surprise if UW even makes the trip to Indianapolis, let alone wins two games while they’re there.

13). Northern Iowa.  The team that beat Kansas has a shot to ride that to being more than just a nice story.  No, I don’t think that the Panthers would beat KU in a 7-game series.  But, do I think it was a total shock that they beat the Jayhawks?  No.  They were grossly under-seeded (as I said before the first round started) and Sweet Sixteen good.  Did I think they’d get here when the brackets were announced?  Of course not, but they are this good.  And, they are good enough to win four more games–trust me.  However, the road isn’t going to be easy (despite drawing a beat-up MSU team in the Sweet Sixteen).  They still do rely heavily on the three-ball and do not have a dominant big man (I think Egelseder is a bit overrated), and they probably just won’t have the horses to cut down the nets in Indy.  But, it’s not crazy to think that they could.

12). Butler.  The Butler Bulldogs had a nice win over UTEP and then knocked off a feisty Murray St. team to get here.  Now, the level of competition just took a huge step up.  They have Syracuse on Thursday and the K-State/Xavier winner on Saturday.  I think Butler is a nice team, and probably better than some of the teams above them on this list right now, but the West Region is pretty tough right now, and I don’t think they have what it takes to even get to Indy.  Then again, it wouldn’t surprise me that much–they have won 24 straight games.

11). Purdue.  My first thought was to put them dead-last on this list.  My next thought was “if they still had Hummel, they might be FIRST on this list.”  Then, I thought, “they beat Siena and a tough Texas A&M team to get here without Hummel, so maybe he’s not Michael Jordan.”  This is still a very talented team and now they’re playing with house money.  They are still battle-tested through a tough Big Ten schedule and can still beat just about anyone in the country.  Plus, they have a bit of a soft South Regional to get through.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see them frustrate Duke and then overwhelm Baylor to get to the Final Four.  But, then again, they are missing their best player.

10). St. Mary’s.  I was as impressed by St. Mary’s as I was by any team last weekend.  They manhandled two very good teams and did it their way.  They pounded the ball down low to their legit big man, Omar Samhan, and hit jumpers when teams sagged.  They also get to go through a relatively unimpressive South Regional right now, so anything can happen.  This is the first of the 16 teams mentioned that I really feel have a legit shot at winning this tournament right now.  The first six mentioned would be a bit of a surprise, but now we’re getting to the real contenders.

9). Cornell.  After watching them play Temple and Wisconsin, how do you beat them?  No, really.  Based on the first two rounds of this thing, the Big Red should probably be #1 on this list.  But, they are still an Ivy League team.  They still just do not have the athletes that schools that can offer scholarships have.  They are still a 12-seed whose best win before last week was road win at Harvard.  But, looking at team construction, they have the pieces.  They have a legit 7-footer with size and strength.  They have two wings who will play professionally somewhere after their college careers.  And, they have 8 seniors who have been preparing for this exact moment for almost one-fifth of the time they have been on this planet.  Maybe I’m a jaded Temple fan looking for justification of the Friday debacle, but I think the Big Red can win this thing.  The whole f’ing thing.

8). Tennessee.  Talent-wise this team might be the worst team left in the field.  But, somehow, some way, their coach has got them do all the right things (as usual), and with Kansas out of this region, they have a legitimate shot to get to Indy, where anything can happen.  One win over Ohio St. in the Sweet Sixteen will almost definitely make them a favorite in the Elite Eight (against Michigan St. or N. Iowa), so who knows?  Do I think they will beat the Buckeyes?  No.  But, after the job he’s done this year, I’m starting to think that Bruce Pearl can do anything.

7). Baylor.  If you had told me that this would be the Sweet Sixteen, I would tell you that Baylor might be the favorite to win it all.  But, I watching both Baylor games, and they were not impressive.  I also saw both St. Mary’s games and the Duke-Cal game and those two teams flat-out played better than the Bears.  Yes, they are in Houston, but they will need to bring a better version of themselves to Reliant Stadium if they want to go to Indy.  Then again, they had the talent to win it all when the tournament started and they survived the first weekend, so you have to think they are still a favorite.

6). West Virginia.   And, now we get to the elite contenders for this title.  Despite the clear fraudalence of the Big East, I still think West Virginia is a championship-caliber team.  They may not like their matchup with Kentucky in the Elite Eight, but their matchup with Washington is pretty good in the Sweet Sixteen, and it’s not crazy to think that they might get Cornell in the Elite Eight.  Oh, and they do have the best clutch-scorer in the country this year in Da’Sean Butler.

5). Kansas State.  K-State hammered N. Texas and then beat a really good BYU team that was Sweet Sixteen good with a legit seed.  This Wildcat team is for real.  As much as I love the A-10 and the “little guy,” I am kind of rooting against Xavier and Butler because I cannot wait to put my feet up on Saturday and watch Syracuse – K State.  There might not be a possible matchup to which I am more looking forward.  This team is a legit title contender.

4). Kentucky.  Yes, they won by 29 and 30.  They are supremely talented.  But, it’s not the blowout games against a completely inferior team (E. Tennessee St.) or a completely dysfunctional team (Wake Forest) that is going to remind us that these guys are all freshmen.  It’s the close games.  It’s the games that are tied with 6 minutes left.  It’s the games where the opposition slows the ball down and takes them out of what they know.  It’s the games against a team like…well…Cornell.  Or West Virginia.  It wasn’t the matchups in New Orleans that should worry UK fans.  And, honestly, it might not even be the matchups in Indy.  It’s probably these matchups in Syracuse that should worry Ashley Judd and company.  Cornell can frustrate them and annoy them and make them feel the pressure.  West Virginia could also.  That is why, despite their immense talent, I think that there are three teams with a better chance of taking home the hardware this year than Kentucky.  Well, that and the fact that I’m sure these wins will be vacated eventually anyway.  And, then Calipari will somehow be hired to succeed Coach K.

3). Syracuse.  I love this Syracuse team’s chances at the title.  I have from the beginning.  But, their road is still tough.  Kansas being cleared from their half is nice, but Butler is no picnic in the Sweet Sixteen and K-State is a HUGE potential roadblock in the Elite Eight.  Nevertheless, they have the talent to beat anyone at any time.  I was very, VERY close to having them as #1, but in the end, I was just too scared of them getting out of Salt Lake City.

2). Duke.  Now, let me set the record straight here.  I do not think that Duke is one of the two best teams left in the tournament.  I also do not think that they have a great team or are playing exceptionally well right now or anything.  Nor do I want to type this at all.  But…for sake of this list and my (unfortunate) opinion, I think that Duke is probably the second most likely team to win this title.  As someone I was with said this weekend, “this just feels like the kind of year that Duke would win it.”  I have to agree, unfortunately.  Look at their draw now.  Nova–the team that beat them last year–is gone.  Baylor has been shaky.  And, their Sweet Sixteen draw is Purdue without Hummel, who is probably just happy to be here.  They have three legit rebounders, three other legit scorers, a great coach, and, as always, a very solid defense.  Unfortunately, we might be looking at another Duke championship.  God, I hope I’m wrong.

1). Ohio St.  The one thing that is probably the most important factor overlooked with all these upsets in the first two rounds is that it took the best Region and turned it completely upside-down.  Everyone was talking about how crazy tough the Midwest was when the brackets came out, but look at the four remaining teams.  Missouri Valley team and 9-seed, N. Iowa.  And, two middling big-conference teams without their best players (Lucas due to injury, Tyler Smith due to suspension).  All of a sudden, the seas parted and they’re just inviting Ohio St. to walk to Indy.  And, once they get there, they will be as big of a favorite as anyone because they will always have the best player on the floor.  All told, the team that many people had going out in the Sweet Sixteen or, at the very latest, the Elite Eight, is now the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing, mostly thanks to Ohio University and the University of Northern Iowa.

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