It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Yes, I’m very much aware the calendar no longer reads December — though you wouldn’t know it from the Christmas tree still perched in my living room.
I welcome alternatives, but I dare you to come up with a week more fun than this, which contains the first four (actually six) days of the NCAA Tournament. I used to ditch school at lunch on this particular Thursday and Friday to watch first-round action. I’m not necessarily advocating that, but I don’t think it stunted my long-term development.
Others may disagree.
The best sporting event in America commenced Tuesday, though it really gets underway Thursday. Hopefully your beautifully unscathed bracket remains pristine through the weekend, though it’s unlikely. Let’s dive in and take a look at some teams to identify as you try to take down your office pool.
Best Cinderella Possibilities: Wichita State (10), Middle Tennessee State (12), Xavier (11), Rhode Island (11)
Double-digit seeds don’t typically make too much noise, but this year a few have a great chance to advance beyond round one. Once they get into the second round, anything can happen as upstarts gain confidence. Wichita State is drastically underseeded on the 10-line. They’re better than first-round opponent Dayton (7) and are eyeing a 2014 rematch with Kentucky (2) in round two.
Kentucky coach John Calipari always harps on the fact that when a team is seeded incorrectly, it actually hurts the other teams in its region. I’d say this one hurts both Wichita State and Kentucky equally. Each would normally have a great opportunity to reach the Sweet 16, but at least one is going home early.
Ken Pomeroy’s rankings have Wichita State as the country’s ninth best team, with the same system slotting Kentucky fourth overall. So if the pair meets in round two, we’re in for a fun one.
Middle Tennessee State won as a 15-seed last year and moves up to the 12-line this time around. They face a flawed Minnesota (5) squad in round one with classic 5-12 upset potential. Xavier has a favorable matchup against Maryland (6) and might then take on a Florida State (3) team that doesn’t always bring its A-game. The Musketeers are used to overachieving and I think they’re a candidate to do so again.
Not Quite Cinderellas: SMU (6), West Virginia (4), Michigan (7)
A good draw has SMU looking like a great candidate to make it beyond the first week. They’ll get the winner of today’s Providence-USC matchup and they have Baylor as the three seed in their pod. That’s certainly no cake walk, but it’s not a stretch to think the Mustangs are the best team of the bunch.
The opposite is true for West Virginia, which is a really good team but eyes a very tough draw. If they survive Bucknell (13), the Mountaineers likely face a hot Notre Dame (5) squad. A win there probably sets up a matchup with top seed Gonzaga. But West Virginia is the best of the four-seeds and has the weakest one-seed in its region, so they’re as good a bet as any to run to the Elite Eight.
Best Of The Best: Kansas (1), North Carolina (1), Arizona (2)
It’s never a bad idea to go with chalk when eyeing a champion because top seeds typically cut down the nets. The Kansas backcourt of Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson are so good that it seems unwise not to favor them in any matchup. They’re certainly not unbeatable, but they should coast into the Elite Eight. From there, nobody else has a similar duo.
The Tar Heels came one buzzer-beater short of winning last year’s championship. It’s largely a different group, but that unfulfilled dream is still very much alive. Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks create matchup nightmares and the Heels also see little resistance until the regional final.
Arizona was very impressive in the Pac-12 Championship Tournament. The Wildcats seem to be peaking at the right time and I’ll be surprised if they don’t make it all the way to the Final Four — which is being held in their backyard of Glendale, Ariz.
I’m going with Villanova, Arizona, Kansas and UNC to reach the Final Four, with Kansas topping Arizona for the championship.
In such an unpredictable season to this point, nothing would really surprise me. I’m just hoping my brackets aren’t shredded by Thursday night. Good luck to us all.