It's that time of year again. March, home to the greatest spectacle in American sport - the NCAA men's basketball tournament. What else can be said? There truly is nothing like it.
The Big Dance is must-see TV every year, regardless of whether or not your rooting interest will be making an appearance. For the Houston sports fan, there are no hometown teams to root on - Houston and Rice made early exits in the Conference USA tournament after lousy regular seasons; Texas Southern was the top regular season team in the SWAC, but was upset in the conference tournament semifinals, and Houston Baptist...quite literally doesn't play in a real conference. And sure, no Houston team has been much of a threat to make a run in the NCAA tournament since Phi Slamma Jamma, and that was long enough ago that the college players on that team are now retired from the pro level. But Houstonians do have a vested interest in the NCAA tournament this year, as our fair city will be playing host to the Final Four.
Are you, as a Houston sports fan, prepared to have your city overrun by the boisterous followers of God-only-knows-what-school? Have you managed to snag some Final Four tickets, and don't want to wait for all those pesky early-round games to play out to find out who you're going to get to watch? Do neither of these questions apply to you, but are you willing to read the rest of my article anyway? Great! Let's break it down.
Perhaps the most magical element of the NCAA tournament (and conversely, what people hate about the NCAA Division 1-A football post-season) is that quite literally anybody can be crowned national champion. The champion of every conference (sans the previously alluded-to Great West "not an actual" Conference) gets a ticket to the dance.
But let's be realistic. Out of the last 40 teams to reach the Final Four, only one entered the tournament as lower than a No. 5 seed. (The exception that proved the rule: George Mason, who shocked the sporting world by reaching the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2006.) So if you're interested in prognosticating who will reach the Final Four (like, say, if you wrote for a sports website based on the goings on of the city where the Final Four was set to take place), all you really need to do is determine which of the top five seeds in each region will outlast the other four.
So, on a region-by-region basis, let's take a look at who we'll end up hosting come April, by looking at those top five seeds. And for those of you who feel it's callous and not in the spirit of the tournament to disregard the bottom 11 seeds, we'll throw out a sleeper pick or two.
The East Region
1 - Ohio State Buckeyes. With most of the college basketball star talk centered around Jimmer Fredette (BYU) and Kemba Walker (UConn), and with Harrison Barnes (UNC) grabbing headlines by being named a pre-season all-American as a freshman, it's easy to forget that tOSU's Jared Sullinger was among the top players, and almost certainly was the top freshman in the country this year, averaging better than 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. There's a strong core around him, too, with five other players averaging better than seven points per contest.
Chance of reaching Houston: 45%. The Buckeyes have the best resume in the nation, but somehow have also drawn the toughest bracket, 2 through 5. The good news is that they basically get a free pass into the Sweet 16. Their second-round (assuming Texas-San Antonio doesn't get to them in the first round) match-up will be either George Mason (a good team, but one that has no business as an 8-seed) or Villanova, losers of five straight games.
2 - North Carolina Tar Heels. So which UNC team will we see once the tournament starts? The one that lazily fell behind big to Miami and Clemson, and barely belonged on the same court as Duke in the ACC tournament, or the one that ended the regular season on a seven-game winning streak, including a 14-point win over the same Blue Devil squad, and stormed back for victories over the Hurricanes and Tigers? The talent is there, as it always is for North Carolina, but the 11-7 record away from Chapel Hill raises some question marks.
Chance of reaching Houston: 15%. Which, incidentally, is also the chance that Harrison Barnes does a spot-on Carmelo Anthony impersonation for four games. Watch out for No. 7 seed Washington in the second round. Guarding point guards hasn't exactly been UNC's specialty this year, and Isaiah Thomas might go off against them for the Huskies.
3 - Syracuse Orange. Six of the 'Cuse's seven losses came in an eight-game span. Once they got that kink worked out, their only other loss of the year came in the Big East tournament, in overtime, against an absolute "team of destiny" Connecticut squad. They run a deep bench, have a long list of players who can put the ball in the basket, and they are always well-coached. There is an Achilles' Heel in free-throw shooting, but I think this is Ohio State's biggest threat in the region.
Chance of reaching Houston: 25%. I don't see Indiana State, Xavier or Marquette giving them trouble early, and UNC may very well get knocked out by Washington before Syracuse has to face them. For drawing such a tough region, Syracuse might not break a sweat this side of the Elite Eight.
4 - Kentucky Wildcats. Undeniably talented, but UK experienced some of the ups and downs that are to be expected when your top three scorers are freshmen. They made the SEC tournament look easy, but the 4-7 road record is an eyesore. Will the youngsters be able to handle this many games away from home?
Chance of reaching Houston: 10%. There are just too many teams in their region with equal talent and vastly superior experience. But would you bet heavily against a John Calipari-coached team on a roll?
5 - West Virginia Mountaineers. You have to respect an 11-7 record in the Big East, and wins over Purdue and Notre Dame. But the truth is that WVU just wasn't very good away from Morgantown. They barely escaped with wins at Duquesne and DePaul, they lost to Marshall at a neutral location, and head into the tournament losers of four of their last five games on road or neutral courts.
Chance of reaching Houston: 4%.They're not a bad team, but nothing about this team inspires me in their ability to make a run in a brutal region.
The Sleeper(s): The 7-seed Washington Huskies. They can pour it in from long range, they can rebound, they have a crunch-time scorer in Thomas, and they are playing their best basketball at the right time.
The West Region
1 - Duke Blue Devils. The early season injury to Kyrie Irving looked like it might turn Duke into a two-man team, but a number of players have stepped up behind point guard Nolan Smith and forward Kyle Singler. Singler and the Plumlees give them a good rotation inside, they have a number of players who can light it up from the outside, they play stifling defense, and you know that nobody is going to out-coach them.
Chance of reaching Houston: 50%. Their only four losses of the year came in front of raucous road crowds. In front of home or neutral crowds (i.e. where they will be playing from now on), they were untouchable. And their region looks like one of the easier ones. In my mind, there are only two teams in their bracket capable of beating Duke on a neutral court.
2 - San Diego State Aztecs. And this isn't one of them. Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of the smaller schools, and I'm hugely impressed with what Steve Fisher has done here. Kawhi Leonard is a beast. And SDSU has some good wins, like at Gonzaga, vs Saint Mary's, and at Cal. But they were no match for a full-strength BYU squad. Literally, no match. They lost twice, handily both times, even at home. So asking me to believe they can go toe-to-toe with the likes of a full-strength Duke or Connecticut squad is a little bit much.
Chance of reaching Houston: 5%. I will be happy as heck if they prove me wrong.
3 - Connecticut Huskies. If Kemba Walker wasn't enough to keep you glued to your television before, their miracle run through the Big East tournament has made UConn must-see TV. And they are no one-man team, either. Everyone on the team has figured out their roles, and learned how to assert themselves around Walker. They were good enough to spank Kentucky, and beat the 'Horns in Austin early in the year, and they're better now.
Chance of reaching Houston: 20%. If you have watched any television in the past week, you aren't betting against this team.
4 - Texas-Austin Longhorns. On Feb. 16, the 'Horns stomped Oklahoma State for their 17th win in 18 games. (The sole loss was the previously-mentioned one-point OT defeat at the hands of UConn.) They had beaten Texas A&M and Kansas on the road, the latter win ending the Jayhawks' 69-game home winning streak. Everybody knew that Austin was a lock for a No. 1 seed. Whoops, then the Longhorns lost three of four games to unranked teams, and even a trip to the Big XII championship game wasn't enough to bring their seeding back up past No. 4. They aren't the deepest team in the tournament, but they have a starting five nobody will look forward to facing.
Chance of reaching Houston: 10%. They're still a very talented team, but they've lost the mojo that they had from mid-December to mid-February that made them look like a Final Four-caliber team. We will see if they can find it in time.
5 - Arizona Wildcats. UA hadn't finished better than a three-way tie for third place in the Pac-10 since the 2004-05 season, but second-year head coach Sean Miller got them back to the top with a regular season conference title. The Wildcats play defense, rebound, and shoot well from the free throw line. They aren't the most talented team in the world, and they can be somewhat one-dimensional on offense (sophomore forward Derrick Williams is the only player averaging double-figure scoring), but they definitely won't beat themselves.
Chance of reaching Houston: 10%. I'd actually like their odds better if they had fallen to a 6-seed, where they could wait as long as possible for somebody else to knock off Duke. I like Arizona, but I just don't think the Wildcats match up well with the Blue Devils, who do everything Arizona does, just a little bit better.
The Sleeper(s): No. 9 seed Tennessee Volunteers, No. 12 seed Memphis Tigers. In UT's case, I will point out that the Vols put together a solid season despite the huge distraction of coach Pearl's suspension. I'm not sure there's much of a talent gap between them and anybody else in the region. And far be it from me to pick against hair this good. Memphis is Kentucky-lite. Josh Pastner isn't as good an in-game coach as Calipari, and the Tigers' freshman class isn't quite as good as the Wildcats, but they like playing together, and they never give up.
That's all for now, we'll be back with our Southwest and Southeast regional outlooks, and our gut-check final four predictions on Monday evening.