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Uncertainty all but certain this March

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Reid Forgrave, FOXSports.com
Mon Mar 18, 12:54 PM UTC

Go ahead. Fill out that bracket. I just did, and I couldn’t feel better about it. I’m taking all your money, fools.

I feel utterly confident in my upset picks (like 13th-seeded South Dakota State over No. 4 Michigan, or 11th-seed Bucknell making it all the way to the Sweet 16, or ninth-seeded Wichita State being the first team to dump a No. 1 seed). If my upset picks don’t work out, I’ve hedged my bets. I’m convinced Miami will make the Final Four, so it won’t kill me if my three upset picks in the first round in the East Region end up being way off.

And after watching Louisville tear through the Big East tournament last week on its way to the No. 1 overall seed, I have zero doubt that Rick Pitino, Peyton Siva and a good bit of Russdiculous shooting will make sure Louisville cuts down the nets in Atlanta on April 8 — despite having the most difficult region of any No. 1 seed.

There’s one other thing I’m absolutely sure of: that I’m absolutely wrong.

And so are you.

Because that’s what this season has been about. Much was made of the upsets of the No. 1’s and the epidemic of court-stormings, but the real story of college basketball’s regular season and conference tournaments was this: As soon as something appeared certain, it quickly became uncertain.

So here’s a list of uncertain certainties (plus a few random thoughts) that March Madness is surely going to bring. Be certain that none of this will happen as predicted. Because perhaps the only thing that would make sense out of a season that’s made very little sense is for the Elite Eight to have four No. 1 seeds and four 2 seeds. After all, that’s the last thing we’d expect this year.

Louisville got hosed. How, exactly, can the No. 1 overall seed get hosed, you ask? The selection committee crowned the Cards as king, but then the committee ended up putting Louisville in the miserable, brutal, painful Midwest Region, giving the Cards easily the most difficult road to the Final Four of any No. 1 seed.

But Louisville still will win it all. Why? Because nobody wants to play against that Pitino pressure. If you’ve ever wondered what a coach means when he says his players have “bought into the system,” take a look at Louisville. Pitino’s the puppeteer, and Louisville’s swirling defense takes some of the best-conditioned players in college hoops and turns them into a nightmare for any point guard who dares to bring the ball up the court. This sort of defense means they can be down 16 in the second half to a streaking Syracuse team in the Big East final and then, 6 minutes, 41 seconds later, be up by eight. With its pressing D, Louisville can mount comebacks and overcome poor shooting. Like clockwork, the opponents begin to tire midway through the second half. Louisville is the closest thing there is to a sure thing.

In an easier region than the Midwest, three of these teams could be good bets to make the Final Four. And they still might, if they can overcome Louisville: second-seeded Duke, No. 3 seed Michigan State and fourth-seeded St. Louis. This region might have not just the No. 1 overall seed but also the strongest of the 2 seeds, the strongest of the 3 seeds, and the strongest of the 4 seeds. (Oklahoma State is a dynamite 5 seed, too.) Duke has lost only one game (in the ACC tournament to Maryland) since Ryan Kelly returned from injury; no player in college hoops may be more valuable to his team. Michigan State plays solid, tough March basketball, and it’s never a good idea to bet against Tom Izzo. And Saint Louis is suddenly everyone’s favorite dark-horse Final Four pick. The Billikens are deep, they’re experienced (their top eight players in minutes played are upperclassmen), and Butler coach Brad Stevens said he thinks Saint Louis can win the whole thing.

On paper, Gonzaga has the easiest road to the Final Four of any No. 1 seed. And because of matchups, the Zags are not going to make it. Because Gonzaga will have an incredibly difficult matchup in its second game, no matter whether it’s against tough, physical, defensive-minded Pitt or tough, physical, defensive-minded Wichita State. The Zags' next game could be against tough, physical, defensive-minded, fifth-seeded Wisconsin or tough, physical, defensive-minded, fourth-seeded Kansas State. If the Zags make the Elite Eight, the most likely team they’d face to make the promised land would be tough, physical, defensive-minded, second-seeded Ohio State, which happens to be one of the hottest teams out there. You get the point: If the Zags make Atlanta, a few of their players might have to play on crutches.

Snubs? What snubs? Aside from the patently unfair bracketing of No. 1 overall seed Louisville in a region that could have the Cards playing either Mike Krzyzewski or Izzo to get to the Final Four (after having to get through a possibly brutal Sweet 16 game against either Saint Louis or Oklahoma State), it’s hard to find much fault with the selection committee’s choices. There was much hand-wringing over whether Middle Tennessee State (28-5, 31st in RPI, but bounced out of the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament) would make it. It did. Ditto for La Salle in the Atlantic 10, making its first tournament in more than two decades. There aren’t many snubs that are worth getting anyone’s panties in a bunch. Kentucky? The 'Cats earned their NIT bid. Tennessee? Too little, too late. Maryland? Ditto. Virginia? Meh. The only snub whose case is worth listening to is Southern Miss. It’s a shame the Golden Eagles lost to lowly Marshall.

Kansas’ road to the Final Four is nearly as difficult as Louisville’s. Fun fact if you’re not a Jayhawks fan: Ten of the 16 coaches in the South Region have been to a Final Four. Here’s what Kansas’ road to the Final Four could look like: Assuming the 1-seed-versus-16-seed trend continues (112 wins and counting), Kansas will have to play either a streaking UNC team that’s been reconstituted the past couple months as a small, speedy team, or a Villanova squad that has beaten three teams in the top five in the AP poll. Next up could be a Michigan team that has the best backcourt in the nation, or a VCU team whose havoc defense could further expose Kansas’ lack of a true point guard, or a South Dakota State team with one of the best scorers in America in Nate Wolters Jr. Make it past that game and Florida or Georgetown lies in wait. Yes, this is a talented, experienced Kansas team, with one of the nation’s best defenses, the nation’s premier post defender in Jeff Withey and an elite scorer in Ben McLemore. This is also a team that lost to TCU.

The Round of 64 might have even more upsets than usual. That’s where the flavor of the regular season will come out most in the NCAA tournament. Don’t expect this to be the year a double-digit seed wins it all. But do expect an upset-filled Thursday and Friday. Among the vulnerable: Fourth-seed Michigan (against 13th-seeded South Dakota State); No. 5 seed UNLV (against a 12th-seed Cal unit that essentially will be playing a home game); sixth-seed Butler (because of Mike Muscala and 11th-seed Bucknell); sixth-seed Arizona (against 11th-seed Belmont). Perhaps a clearer crystal ball could see which No. 2 or 3 seeds are going to have trouble on Thursday and Friday. But this crystal ball picked second-seeded Missouri to go all the way last year. We all know how that went.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.

Courtesy of FOXSports.com



The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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