This year's tournament field looks like an unbalanced dumbbell. Nothing but heavy weights on the left side of the bar, and nothing but light weights on the right. Pick that thing up at your own peril. That's got a ripped bicep written all over it.
The heavy weights are clearly in the Midwest and West Regions. You get the feeling that the true championship game will be played between the two teams who fight their way out of Cleveland and Los Angeles, all bruised and bloodied.
Since Sunday I've been going back and forth on which of the two brackets on the other side was the softest overall, the South or the East. Upon first glance, I felt like it might be the East. That one I blame on the ESPN, Duke, and the ACC love affair that seems to have invaded my mind like an effective ad campaign. I looked at Villanova as a 1 seed, from their new Big East with its conference satellite office in Vatican City, and scoffed. However, Jay Wright has a an old Big East Final Four appearance on his belt, and with N.C. State, LSU, a 30 win Northern Iowa team, Lon Kruger's Sooners, Izzo's Spartans, and Virginia, who very easily could have been a 1 seed themselves, and this bracket looks far more competitive than the South.
In the South Region, Duke seems to have been given a gift by the Selection Committee. Of the four 1 seeds they look to have the path of least resistance to the Elite 8. Worse than that, the bottom half of this bracket seems to be made up of scraps that the Selection Committee had no idea what to do with as the clock showed 5 minutes to 5 p.m. on Sunday evening. "UCLA? Uh? People remember them from the Wooden days, right? They will just assume they fit." The bottom half of the South Region resembles the last paragraph of an essay question on a test taken by a C- student. It's passable, but it's clear that mentally they'd checked out long before they finished their work.
One good thing here though, is that these mild brackets are usually the ones that actually turn out to be the most wild as they collapse in on themselves with higher seeds falling left and right. Who will survive the South Region carnage?
Yeah, probably, Duke fan. But only if your beloved coach K can remember how to get out of the first weekend with a little more consistency.
Winmore's South Region Round of 64 Predictions
1 Duke - v - 16 North Flo or 16 Robert Mo: Fri., March 20, @ 6:10 p.m. (CST) on CBS
No 16 seed has ever beaten a 1. I don't think we'll see the first 16 seed victory here, but Coach K and his Duke Blue Devils of the last few years are prime suspects to be the first 1 to go down. Four times over the last eight seasons Coach K and his Devils have gone home after the first weekend. Three of those four times the Devils were bounced in their first game. It's happened twice in the last three years alone. Last season as a 3 seed Duke lost to the 14 Mercer, and in 2012 the Devils joined an exclusive class as one of only seven 2 seeds to lose to a 15 when they went down to Lehigh. Duke's opponent will be decided Wednesday night. If it's North Florida, Duke will be up against a Florida school coming out of the Atlantic Sun Conference. If you remember, it was another Florida school from the Atlantic Sun who went on a magical run back in 2013. Florida Gulf Coast became the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. Duke's other potential opponent is Robert Morris. Robert Morris also made headlines in 2013 when they bounced Kentucky from the first round of the NIT. Remember that? Tucky was in the NIT just two seasons ago. That's all ancient history now. This year's Robert Morris team is not as strong as their 2013 NIT unit. The Colonials were sitting on a gross 13-14 record before going on a tear to win six straight to even be in the tournament. Winner: The Dukies
8 San Diego State - v - 9 St. Johns: Friday, March 20, @ 8:40 p.m. (CST) on CBS
Steve Fisher will forever be remembered for his time at Michigan University. First, for winning the 1989 National Title after being named head coach the week the 1989 NCAA Tournament started. And then for coaching the Fab Five of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson and Jimmy King. You know, the brash freshman class who went to back to back Final Fours in '92 and '93, and did all of college basketball a favor by finally killing the wearing of shorty shorts. However, few people realize that Fisher has posted three times as many wins as San Diego State's head coach. This year marks SDSU's sixth straight tournament appearance. This Aztecs team is a very low scoring, plodding, defensive unit. Watching them play is about as entertaining as watching a minute hand tick its way around a clock. Steve Lavin brings St. Johns back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since his first year with the program five seasons ago. That's a long time to wait to make such a short stop in this year's tournament. St. Johns is a mess. They're coming off back to back beat downs to end the season against Villanova and Providence, the last on their own home court at Madison Square Garden. To compound their issues, one of their best defenders, Chris Obekpa, has just been suspended for failing a drug test. One thing the Johnies having going for them though, is D'Angelo Harrison. Harrison is a senior guard who averages about 18 a game. There's no one who can match him on San Diego State's side. San Diego State's style is one of make it ugly, slow it down, just don't lose. A guy like Harrison can just let it fly, because hey, St. Johns has nothing to lose here. Winner: The Joanies.
5 Utah - v - 12 Stephen F. Austin: Thursday, March 19, @ 6:27 p.m. (CST) on truTV
Up until about mid-January, Utah was playing as good as anybody in the country. Even though they tripped up down the stretch, Utah's 24 wins matched the best the school has posted since 2009, and consequently that was the last time the Utes found themselves in the NCAA Tournament. The Utes' 2nd place conference finish is the best they've fared since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. At times this year Utah's offense has faltered. The Utes shoot .404 % from three point range, good for 7th best in the country. They ride or die with the three ball, and senior guard Delon Wright is very capable of going off for a big game. The Utes will be up against Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks hail from one of my favorite east Texas towns, Nacogdoches. It's a little place, which is probably why so few people know about Lumberjacks head coach, the great state of Kansas' own, Brad Underwood. The man has Stephen F. Austin a game away from another 30 win season, and in the NCAA Tournament again in only his second season at the school. Last year Underwood's Lumberjacks didn't just show up to the NCAA Tournament for a cup of coffee either. As a 12 seed they took down 5 seed VCU in thrilling overtime fashion. The Lumberjacks are a brutal draw for the Utes here. Led by a pair of salty seniors in guard Thomas Walkup and swingman Jacob Parker, the Lumberjacks are the team with more big game experience. Winner: The Jax.
4 Georgetown - v - 13 Eastern Wash: Thurs., March 19, @ 8:57 p.m. (CST) on truTV
Since taking Georgetown to the 2007 Final Four, John Thompson III's teams have made an obscene art of flaming out in post season tournaments. Since '07 the Hoyas have bowed out in the Round of 32 ('08), NIT First Round ('09), Round of 64 ('10), Round of 64 ('11), Round of 32 ('12), Round of 64 ('13), and the NIT Second Round ('14). Most of those losses didn't come with the Hoyas as middling seeds either. In '08 and '13 they were a 2. In '10 and '12 they were a 3. As Charles Barkley would say:
It appears that at Georgetown, JT3 may not be big enough to fit in his dad's old britches. Just like in 2008 when the Hoyas had the misfortune of running into Steph Curry, they are now faced with another guard who can become absolutely possessed in any given game. Eastern Washington's sophomore guard, Tyler Harvey is an unreal scoring demon. Averaging 23 points a game, Harvey shoots a sick 43% from behind the arc. If this kid goes off, the Hoyas are doomed to add to their already heinous pile of recent tournament fails. Winner: The Harvey Dangerfields
6 SMU - v - 11 UCLA: Thursday, March 19, @ 2:10 p.m. (CST) on truTV
Well, well, well, look who is back. His one-time protégé John Calipari may be riding a 34 game unbeaten streak, but Larry Brown is the only coach in this year's field riding a 6 game NCAA Tournament unbeaten streak. That's right. The last time Larry Brown was in the tournament, way back in 1988, his Kansas Jayhawks won it all. In the twenty plus years between then and now, Brown was one of the few successful college coaches to make a significant impact in the NBA. In 2013 he took the SMU job. He's won at all three of his stops in the college game. One of which was at the very school his Mustangs will be facing this Thursday. In 1980, his first season as Bruins coach, he led a freshman heavy UCLA squad all the way to the National Championship game. This year marks just his tenth season in college ball. In those ten years he's taken his teams to 8 NCAA Tournaments, 3 Final Fours, 2 Title Games, and brought home the trophy once. Many felt his Mustangs should have been in the field last year, but his SMU squad didn't pout about the snub. The Mustangs went all the way to the NIT Title Game before losing a nail biter. Brown and his Mustangs now have their sights on greater success. They'll be going up against a team that many pundits feel doesn't even deserve to be here. Steve Alford's Bruins come in with 13 losses, at one point in the season gathering 5 of those 13 losses in a row. Before finally breaking through to the Sweet 16 last year, Alford has been a John Thompson III level tournament flame out at every stop in his career. Now Alford has to go up against the former Godfather of Kansas basketball. Look out Iowa State, Larry's coming for you. Winner: The Godfather.
3 Iowa State - v - 14 UAB: Thursday, March 19, @ 11:40 a.m. (CST) on truTV
Fred Hoiberg's squad has a seriously dangerous problem. Like a racehorse that doesn't gun it until they see another horse pull up beside them, the Cyclones have gotten themselves buried by double digits in each of their last five games. You gotta hand it to them for fighting back, but that luck has got to be about tapped out, right? Maybe not. Luck is sometimes all you need in March. The most interesting anecdote concerning this game is the fact that Fred Hoiberg will be going up against former Kansas player Jerod Haase, the current coach of the UAB Blazers. Hoiberg and Haase used to have some epic battles against each other in the mid-1990s in the old Big 8 Conference. I wonder if Jerod's competitive spirit will get the better of him and he'll start diving all over the floor where he spent about 40% of his time as a Jayhawk. If there was a ball on the floor, Haase was usually the first one to it, floor burns and concussion risk be damned. As far as the actual game is concerned, I don't think Iowa State gets down in this one. Shouldn't be much of a contest. With 15 losses, UAB wouldn't even be here had it not been for a surprisingly good weekend at the Conference USA Tournament. Winner: Cardinals in a Blender.
7 Iowa - v - 10 Davidson: Friday, March 20, @ 6:20 p.m. (CST) on TNT
Iowa is one of those schools that I can't figure. They've got a great, passionate fan base in both football and basketball. For whatever reason though, they can't seem to get it together on a significant level in either sport as of late. Yet they are always around, always being talked about with a respect and weight that doesn't feel deserved. Head coach Fran McCaffery has the Hawkeyes back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in almost a decade after a competitive run through the conference that refuses to count past the fingers on both hands, the Big 10 (now with 14 teams!). McCaffery has a kid that can throw it down. Senior forward Aaron White, earned himself a spot on the First Team All-Big 10 . Iowa's opponent, Davidson, returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Every Kansas fan remembers Davidson from 2008 when Steph Curry emerged as the last player any higher seed wanted to see. Curry's performance for the ages carried Davidson to the Elite 8 before their run finally ended against the Jayhawks. Since that season though, Davidson has been in and out of the NCAA Tournament, and the few times they've been in they went down in their first games. Like all of Bob McKillop's Davidson squads, this team can light it up from the outside. They've got four starters averaging double figures, led by senior guard Tyler Kalinoski from Overland Park, Kansas! This kid just went off for 32 points not two games ago. He's no Steph Curry, but he's enough to make Iowa sweat. Winner: The Fightin' Stephs.
2 Gonzaga - v - 15 North Dakota State: Friday, March 20, @ 8:50 p.m. on TNT
The Gonzaga Bulldogs have been the darlings of the mid-major realm of college basketball ever since their old coach Dan Monson led them on a surprise run to the 1999 Elite 8 as a 10 seed and then almost downed eventual champion UCONN in that game. Monson's successor, Mark Few, has since built Gonzaga into one of the most consistent programs in the nation stretching Gonzaga's NCAA Tournament appearance streak to 17 counting this year. However, in all those appearances Few's Bulldogs never made it further than the Sweet 16. Then Gonzaga, the school everyone thought would be the mid-major to finally crash the Final Four since UNLV, had to watch as George Mason, VCU and Butler beat them to the punch. This season though, Few's Gonzaga team has already matched a school record for wins and has the feel of a legit contender. That's thanks in part to Kyle Wiltjer, a former 5 star recruit who couldn't even sniff the court in Lexington, Kentucky before transferring to Gonzaga and becoming a literal BMOC Big Man on Campus in Spokane, Washington. If Gonzaga can't make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament this year, then it's never going to happen. Their tournament starts against North Dakota State. The Bison are making their second consecutive appearance in the big dance. They are led by senior guard Lawrence Alexander, who has 20 points a game scoring ability. However, he'll be up against the one two punch of Gonzaga's senior guard tandem of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. He'll find the two winningest players in Gonzaga basketball history juuuuust a bit more difficult than all the guards in the Summit League combined. Winner: Zigga Zags