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Monday, March 14, 2011,9:34 a.m.Updated: Monday, 12:55 p.m.By Benjamin Standig
CSNwashington.comIt's better than the NFL's first weekend, superior to baseballs opening day and at least on par with your dentist saying "no new cavities." Yes, we are talking the NCAA tournaments Selection Sunday and, more specifically, the time immediately after the bracket is revealed. Thats when everyone, whether he watched every minute of the season from Maui to Madison Square Garden or could not tell you what a Jimmer or a Kemba is, goes all expert and fills out that perfect bracket. Or so we all dream.No matter whatany "expert"or bracketologist (seriously, enough with that title) says about the field, the 2011 NCAA tournament is incredibly wide open. Outside of a couple of teams -- and, literally, I mean like two -- you could take the next 30 to 40 teams and match them up time after time and get different results. In other words, there are some true upsets, but few if any among those teams seeded two through eight, at least.I watched tons of ball, covering Georgetown and George Mason, among others, and by my count saw 17 of the 68 teams live andmore on television. So you know I'll lose to my friend who makes his picks based on whether he's visited a school, knows someone who wentto the universityor simply based on the ferociousness of the team mascot. Sigh. But that's OK, bring it on. That goes double for all you Dukies.Because the first games begin on Tuesday, no time to waste EAST REGION
Key to the region: Whether Ohio State picks the one-and-done tournament to have its first bad game of the season. Not that the Buckeyes have been perfect, but Jared Sullinger and crew have been close, losing only on the road at ranked conference foes Wisconsin and Purdue (and the Boilermakers needed a career-high scoring day from E'Twaun Moore to take control). North Carolina has been coming on over the second half of the season, Syracuse has that 2-3 zone, Kentucky won the SEC tournament and George Mason was sporting the nations longest winning streak at 16 straight just a couple of weeks back. Point being, the Buckeyes clearly have the tools to reach the Final Four, but they are not above losing to any of those teams if they have a single off day.Second-round upset: UAB (12) over West Virginia (5). Based on the uproar out of college hoops' chattering class, apparently I was the only one outside of Birmingham who had the Blazers into the field of 68. They won10games against the RPI top 100 (more than Virginia Tech or Alabama) and won the regular season in the decent Conference USA.The pick, however, first over Clemson and then WVU, is not about their previous accomplishments. Its all about the emotion after the public lashing the Blazers endured Sunday night by a cavalcade of grumpy analysts who pushed their chips all in on other bubble teams. Also, while the Mountaineers are always a tough out, their seed exceeds their talent this season.(Oh, yes, it says second and not first round. Thats because the NCAA has deemed the play-in games as the opening round. Sure, why not? Two of the four "first-round" games are in this regional, and UT-San Antonio wins the other one.)Others: Marquette (11) over Xavier (6)Player to watch: Marquette coach Buzz Williams sends players in and out of the lineup with the frenetic pace of hockey line changes, which should work well against the undermanned Musketeers. However, one player he leaves on the hardwood more often than not is forward Jimmy Butler. The Golden Eagles' leading scorer is a tough-nosed, 6-foot-7 wing forward with a solid mid-range and slashing game, but its when he does not produce major points that Marquette is at its best. When the 16-point-per-game scorer finishes with 20 or more points, the Golden Eagles are 2-6. When Butler scores 13 or fewer, they are 7-2, with two triumphs over West Virginia. Less is more, at least when it comes to the Butler doing it.Others: Luke Hancock (George Mason), Tu Holloway (Xavier), Jamal Olasewere (Long IslandSpringbrook High School)Sweet 16 matchups: Ohio State over Kentucky, UNC over Marquette. Expect the Buckeyes to have a tougher contest against the veteran Patriots of George Mason than the kids of Kentucky. When conference foes meet in tournament action, give me the underdog. Thats why I have the Golden Eagles taking down the Orange in the third round, for the second time this season. However, their run ends against the playmaking skills of Tar Heels freshman point guard Kendall Marshall and interior game of Tyler Zeller.And going to the Final Four: UNCs other freshman, Harrison Barnes, has shown why he was selected a preseason All-American with his barrage of points down the stretch. The Tar Heels' depth up front will give Sullinger fits, and Barnes star will shine bright, but experience wins in March. The Buckeyes have that and statistics on their side, ranking top five nationally in scoring margin, field-goal and 3-point percentage, turnover margin and fouls against. Ohio State, 78-72. Sullinger named Most Outstanding Player.George Mason aside: The 89 game is a bummer draw for the Patriots. Pitted against any No. 2 seeds named Notre Dame or North Carolina, Id have Cam Long and company moving on. If they do shock the Buckeyes, look for an Elite Eight run ending against the Tar Heels.WEST REGION
Key to the region: If Duke makes shots, it can fend off the pack of high-energy teams in this region, including San Diego State, Texas, Arizona, Tennesseeand Cincinnati. Kyle Singler, the 2010 Final Four MOP, has made 58 three-pointers on the season, but only three over his past nine games. The Blue Devilshave survived for the most part without that key component, but if Nolan Smith and the other perimeter players have an off night ... Second-round upset: Bucknell (14) over Connecticut (3). Picking against Connecticut's Kemba Walker seems like the definition of insanity after Walker slashed, dashed, shot and scored his way past five opponents in five days at the Big East Tournament en route to the title. If the Huskies can recover emotionally from such an epic run, they win, but I say their rotation of largely underclassman cannot rebound by Thursday. The Bisons Mike Muscala, the Patriot League Player of the Year, will still need to generate points inside.Others: Missouri (11) over Cincinnati (6), Tennessee (9) over Michigan (8)
Others: Kent Bazemore (Old Dominion), Tai Wesley (Utah State), David Stockton (Gonzaga)Sweet 16 matchups: Pittsburgh over Belmont, Gonzaga over Michigan State. Say what now? The (Vince) Gills, the (Tom) Izzos and the (John) Stocktons all make the Sweet 16? Apparently so. The Bruins' 3-point shooting ways will eventually be stymied by the Panthers, while the Zags' improbable run all the way to the Elite Eight continues behind guards Steven Gray's scoring and young Mr. Stockton's point guarding. Pretty sure they have those old Cinderella slippers tucked in a gym bag somewhere.-Initial post had Michigan State over Gonzaga, but that was from a draft I changed.And going to the Final Four: The hard-working, but not overly skilled Panthers have fooled me in the past with their plausible Final Four game, always leaving my bracket high and dry. So, why I am going back to that well one more time? Partly because of the implosion in the rest of the bracket, but also because the Panthers' grit has impressed me time and time again. Ashton Gibbs is their one true scoring threat and a legitimate cold-blooded shooter in the clutch. If his teammates can step up during those rare times he draws more iron than net, the Panthers will be heading to Houston. Pittsburgh, 68-61, Ashton Gibbs named Most Outstanding Player.
And cutting down the nets will be: In a season that was bloated with a large and mediocre middle, Ohio State was one of the few teams that consistently performed. Not flashy, just steady and, for the most part, wise. The Buckeyes' heady play takes down the Aztecs' athletes in the semis and then they square off against the Cardinals. Louisville beat Pittsburgh in overtime this season. History repeats. Whether long bomber Jon Diebler can break free for his patented 3-pointers against the Cardinals will be of major importance. Coach Thad Matta may lose another young player to the NBA after just one season, but Sullinger makes his count in the biggest and baddest of ways, despite 20 or more points from Cardinals guard Preston Knowles. Ohio State 78, Louisville 74. Jared Sullinger named the tournaments Most Outstanding Player.