THE ONE-SEED: KANSAS
Kansas has the reputation of being tourney chokers. Considering the Jayhawks have lost their last three tourney games, the last two in the first round to double-digit seeds, it's not an unfair rep. But they also are perhaps the deepest, most talented team in the country. They return five starters from last year, and have two freshmen who each average about 10 PPG. Picking out the best player is difficult, I lean towards Brandon Rush, but can easily make a case for Julian Wright or Mario Chalmers. Kansas is loaded.
They remind me a lot of previous champs who had been underachievers before winning a title. Florida lost to a lower-seeded team in the five tourneys before their run, three in the first round and all before the Sweet Sixteen. UNC lost in the round of 32 before their title run, which was better than the two straight tourneys they had missed previously. OK, UConn didn't have that rep. But Syracuse? They were like the poster children for tourney flameouts. Same with Arizona before their run.
The point is, last year is last year. And it can even serve as a good motivator. There is nothing Kansas can't do. They have great players everywhere, and they can beat you inside or outside. Usually, both. They won 14 of their last 15 games, and nine of those were by 18 or more points. Kansas isn't just winning, they are killing teams.
THE BOTTOM HALF
The name of the game is defense. UCLA does not lose if it keeps you to under 70 points. The thing is, the same is true of Pittsburgh. I wonder why that is true. Maybe its because Ben Howland built both programs. Of course, UCLA has more talent than the Panthers, which is probably going to be problem if the two match up to face their mirror image. There is no stylistic difference between these two teams, which simply want to batter you into submission.
Duke lurks at the bottom of the bracket. And while this isn't Duke, this team is still pretty good. Only two teams have really blown out the Devils (Maryland and UNC... and boy, that was fun to type), and they have also had success playing defense. No one will confuse them with Pitt or UCLA, but Duke is a pretty good defensive squad, and if they could ever find a reliable offensive go-to guy, they could be one of the tougher outs in the tourney. Then again, Paulus is not the best ballhandler in the world, and VCU loves to press. They are vulnerable to the upset.
THE 5-12 UPSET
Virginia Tech is one of the most infuriating teams in the bracket. They start two senior guards, and Deron Washington is a third year starter as junior who has blossomed into perhaps the best player in the ACC. They play great defense, and like to apply pressure and score points in transition. The knock? This is the most erratic team in the bracket. They followed up their wins over UNC by losing to Florida St by nine and NC State by 25. They lost to Marshall. And Western Michigan. They followed up a three-game ACC win streak by dropping two games by a combined 32 points. You get the idea. The Hokies are not to be trusted.
Illinois doesn't exactly inspire fear either. Their best win is Michigan St, and they only have four wins over tourney teams (two against Indiana and Miami of Ohio). Also, they can't score. Illinois relies on, you guessed it, defense. Since February 1, they have allowed a team to crack 60 points just once (a loss to Indiana on 2/10). Frazier and Pruitt form a solid inside-outside threat, but the team lacks depth. They'll win if they keep it a halfcourt game and prevent the Hokie guards from penetrating and drawing fouls. Then again, the Hokies suck at free throws.
Gonzaga is overseeded, but they are going back to their roots. They are a double digit seed that everyone has written off. Ravio is one of the best guards in the whole tournament, and can simply will his team to victory. And they still have goofy post players who hit three pointers. And in a region full of defensive studs, VCU's full court press will stand out.
And while not seeded as an upset team, no one is really talking up the Salukis. So let me do so. Southern Illinois is another extremely tough defensive team, but they are about the only team in the top half of the bracket who can stop the Jayhawks. There isn't much depth, but Tatum and Falker make a terrific inside-out combo (it's like talking about the other Illinois, eh?). And if they can avoid foul trouble, SIU can shut down anyone. What killed them against Creighton was the quick whistle and their inability to score points in bunches once down big. They are the kind of team that could punch Kansas right in the mouth. There just aren't those kind of defenses in the Big 12.
THE PICK: KANSAS
While I worked to find a reason to pick against the Gators, I can't even find one to pick against the Jayhawks other than history. The bottom half of the bracket should be an outright war, with teams physically punishing one another night in and night out, while Kansas only has to worry about a potential matchup with Southern Illinois, who Kansas has more talent than. Kansas has to beat the play-in winner, then Kentucky or Villanova, before they have to play one of the bruising defensive squads. UCLA has the homecourt advantage the whole way through, which counts for a lot, but will they still be standing? Pitt's not an east out. Gonzaga is a threat because they can gun. And Duke is still Duke, you want to write them off? If UCLA does manage to step through the brutal bottom half of the bracket, there will be a fairly fresh Kansas team there ready to blow them out of the gym. Life isn't fair.