With selection Sunday over and the conference championships complete, the best sporting month of the year is almost underway.
This NCAA tournament has shaped up to be one of the most interesting in recent memory (I feel like they always say that, but its really really true this year). From No. 1 seeds being upset to buzzer beaters and dominant scorers the likes of Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette, the tournament is actually wide open. In order to give it a closer look, lets examine the top 3 conferences (in order of strongest to weakest) that are putting teams into the tournament, and how brackets are going to shape up.
1. The Big East
Without question, the strongest conference in the country this year. The Big East is sending 11 teams (all automatic qualifiers, no play-in games) to the tournament. That's 11 of 16 teams in the conference going to the Big Dance. Out of those 11 teams, Pitt came out the No. 1 seed in the Southeast conference despite going one and done in their only conference tournament game.
Games to look forward to: Out of the 11 teams, I think 2 have serious threats in the first round. One of them is St. Johns, who despite being the 6 seed and playing the 11 seed Gonzaga can only be considered a slight favorite. As most people know, St. Johns made a killing on their home court this year. In fact, their wins over Georgetown, Notre Dame, Duke, Villanova, Connecticut, and Pitt all came at MSG on the Red Storm's home court. I hate to be the one to say it, because I really do like St. John's, but I think they're a first round exit. Outside of their building they have losses to Seton Hall, Fordham, and UCLA. That's enough to convince me that the Gonzaga Bulldogs, whose only really top of the line win was over Baylor on December 18th, are going to get it done. It might not be the best justification, but I just have a feeling.
The other Big East team that needs to stay on their toes is West Virginia. I can say pretty confidently the Mountaineers will be playing Clemson, who looked really strong in their loss to UNC in the ACC tournament. The Tigers bring a very physical and fast paced style, but this is just another gut feeling. WVU has been inconsistent all year, and I have a feeling they're going to come out flat and lose in a close one.
After the first round, I'm expecting to see Pitt roll over Butler and get into a scrap with Kansas State. The Panthers have a nice break in this years tournament, and outside of Ferdette and BYU, I think the only game I'd really bet against the Panthers in before the final four will be their elite 8 matchup with Florida. Yes, I'm a Pitt fan. Yes, that's premature. But hey, its the tourney and I got a nice gut feeling we'll be seeing Pitt vs Florida in a couple weeks. I also think you can expect to see Villanova take down GMU which will set up one of the best 2nd round matchups this year; Ohio State vs Villanova. Nova has been slumping, bad, I know. BUT, they're guard play, when its on, is basically unstoppable. I wouldn't be surprised to see the guards of Nova outplay Sullinger of Ohio State and see the Buckeyes get sent home early. I have a lot of faith in the strength of the Big East and this is an upset I'm hoping the Wildcats can pull off.
Players to watch: Kemba Walker. Kemba Walker. Kemba Walker.
2. The Big Ten
The Big Ten sent 7 teams this year, still 4 behind the Big East but not too shabby.
Games to watch: Penn State and Michigan State are definitely in the most danger in the first round. In fact, I think they're the only 2 Big Ten teams that won't make it to the second round. Temple is just a flat out better basketball team than Penn State, so I have no reason to think they won't get it done. Michigan State is in a more intriguing matchup with a very unpredictable UCLA team, but MSU has been inconsistent and overrated since the first game of this season and I think this game will end a very disappointing year for them.
I know the Ohio State Buckeyes are the number 1 seed in the whole tourney, but as I said in the Big East bit, I see them going down in the 2nd round to Nova. The Buckeyes have some impressive top 25 wins, and they looked sharp in the Big ten tournament, but their best player is a freshman and Nova has a ton of experience. So, who takes their place as the Big Ten team likely to make the final four? I'd keep an eye on Wisconsin. Something tells me they're going to make a big big run in this years tourney.
Player to watch: Even though I just talked him down, when you talk Big Ten players you talk about Jared Sullinger. He'll be a top 5 NBA draft pick if he goes this year.
3. The ACC
I know they only have four teams. I know that the Big 12 has some strong squads, but Duke and UNC simply make the ACC the third strongest conference in the country. Boston College, who was snubbed, got a little attention when it's coach said "I'll put our top two against anybody. I'll put our middle pack against anybody else's middle pack," coach Steve Donahue said. "But, yet, there's 11 from one league and 3½, basically, from another. I don't see the drastic difference. I'm being honest." I'm not sure if anyone told him that the Big East has 9 teams in the top 25, but maybe he doesn't follow that stuff too much.
Games to watch: Duke could get into an interesting game with Tennessee or Michigan, who they will see the winner of in the 2nd round. I think the Blue Devils are definitely the best team in this conference and they proved it by smashing UNC in the tournament championship. In the 3rd round, I think UNC will end up playing Syracuse which will be another fantastic matchup. I think FSU goes down in round 1 and like I said, Clemson could be shaking things up for WVU in the second round.
Players to watch: Enough about Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller, those are the two most exciting players in the conference.
Surprises from selection Sunday: Colorado and Va Tech really got screwed. They both put together good resumes but something happened in that voting room and they were left out, while a team like Georgia got in AND got the 10 seed. That's a head scratcher. Why? Here is the UGA resume.
Regardless, the tournament is looking interesting. What are your thoughts? I'll leave you with some nice story lines outside of the major ones provided by ESPN.
• Louisville and Morehead State are 130 miles apart in Kentucky, but will travel to Denver for their second-round matchup.
• UNLV coach Lon Kruger leads the eighth-seeded Rebels against his old team, Illinois, in an 8 vs. 9 matchup in the Southwest.
• Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State (32-2) is in the same region as Michigan, meaning Aztecs coach Steve Fisher may have to face the school he left in controversy.
• Last year's national runner-up, Butler, closed out an up-and-down season by winning its conference title and was rewarded with a No. 8 seed. Butler (23-9), the team from the 4,500-student campus that came two points short of winning it all last year, will play Old Dominion in its first game, but could face Pittsburgh in the second.