Peter Bean: Texas can make the Final Four because of Durant and Augustin. Texas A&M can get there via San Antonio and a special senior point guard. And this is the best Kansas team I've seen since the Hinrich-Collison group that lost in the NCAA Final to Syracuse.
In fact, while the Big East in 1985 works, we need only look back to 2003. In that year, the Big 12 sent two one seeds (Texas in the South, Oklahoma in the East) and a two seed (Kansas in the West) to the tournament. Had Hollis Price and Oklahoma not caught Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse in Albany, the Big 12 might have sent three teams to the Final Four.
This year, Texas is a bit of a stretch to make that run, but we've already discussed the Aggies, and Kansas is positively loaded. I always get a little nervous with teams that rely extremely heavily on one guy (warning to Texas bandwagoners), but Kansas is extremely balanced. Julian Wright is a first team All American-caliber player and a lottery pick in the NBA Draft, whenever he decides to declare. Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush are each capable of scoring 20 points in a game. Their freshman point guard - Sherron Collins - is a fearless bulldog who loves the big stage.
Texas built 20 point leads on Kansas twice, and neither time did the Jayhawks so much as blink. They're not a soft group that's going to fold easily - another characteristic that makes me like them for the Final Four this year.
Think about this, too: their path to the Elite Eight is not a terribly difficult one. The Kentucky-Villanova winner will be a challenge, but one they can handle. If they get to the Sweet 16, they'll get the winner of the Virginia Tech, Illinois, Southern Illinois group. None of those three teams can take out Kansas.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the bracket, UCLA's going to have two tough games (Indiana/Gonzaga + Duke/Pitt) just to reach the Elite Eight. I think this -is- Kansas' bracket to lose. On that note, let me ask you what you think about UCLA in particular, and the Pac 10 in general. I thought Oregon (3) and USC (5) were given generous seeds. Stanford should be in the NIT. Washington State's a good grinding team, but I think their style of play lends itself to an upset. Count me in the group that thinks the Pac 10 will perform as poorly this year as the Big 10 did last year. Am I being too harsh on the conference?
Dan Shanoff: Not too harsh at all. I honestly believe that there's an East Coast Bias when it comes to college hoops. Well, not "East Coast Bias" as much as "Everyone Not On the West Disses the West" Coast Bias, because it's not just we East Coasters who bash the West, but everyone from the Big Ten to the Big 12 to the SEC. The Pac-10 suffers from having a terrible TV contract. It's this simple: Get on ESPN. Because without that visibility, most fans have no appreciation of Pac-10 teams.
But should we? I agree: USC seems overrated. Oregon: Really? Washington State was my one team besides UCLA I thought could make a dent, but they're going to get booted by Georgetown (as I said before: tough-luck draw). I have USC beating Arkansas, but that comes more from my complete contempt for Arkansas' team than respect for USC. I have Oregon getting to the Sweet 16, but there, losing to Georgia Tech, of all teams. (Talk about East Coast Bias!)
However: I see UCLA returning to the Final Four. The Bruins are better than last year (which is a good thing, because they won't sneak up on anyone like they did last March). And Ben Howland proved last year that he is a very good (if not great) Tournament coach. And that's not to be dismissed -- you only have to look across the West region to Bill Self to see an example of a very bad (if not horrible) Tournament coach. I simply cannot forget the performance that Self coached KU to last year. And I think that KU's loss at home to Oral Roberts way back in November is a heck of a lot more indicative of Self's Tournament abilities than coaching KU past Texas on Sunday. I've reached, but I have Southern Illinois KO'ing KU in the Sweet 16.
Of course, I have VCU not only beating Duke, but knocking out Pitt en route to the Sweet 16 as this year's closest approximation to George Mason. And as we segue into the Midwest, I will point to my "What-is-he-smoking?" admission above that I have Georgia Tech beating UNLV, Wisconsin and Oregon en route to a trip to the Elite Eight.
And so here is what I'd like to hear from you: Which picks on your bracket are the biggest stretches, longshots and follies -- and how did you convince yourself to swallow hard, wince and seal the judgment... knowing full well that your "radical" pick could implode your bracket and leave you a laughingstock. (At least, that's how I feel about it.) Or, alternatively, did you find yourself playing it safe this year more than others?
I think that comes down to whether you think this season's theme of "Extreme Parity" was mostly a phenomenon among the Top 20 or whether you think that season-long parity extends all the way to teams further down the seeding ladder?
Peter Bean: It's always comforting to see other people's insane selections, as it's discomforting to pick Cinderellas when the top seeds always look so tempting.
I've certainly made a few stretches, and let's start in the West, where I have Indiana knocking out UCLA in the second round. Am I crazy? Probably, but as noted above, my lack of respect for the Pac 10 this season is profound. My real problem with these Pac 10 teams is that none of them can score, or score efficiently. UCLA's Afflalo is a money player, but he's the only legitimate scorer in the entire league; it's disgraceful. I grew up hearing my father complain endlessly about teams that defended exceedingly well but couldn't score. That's UCLA, in a nutshell, and if Indiana can get past Gonzaga, the Bruins will be matched up with a coach who was Ben Howland before it was cool - Kelvin Sampson. Trust me, watching Texas-Oklahoma games during the early 2000s was painful: Sampson loves a low-scoring race to 55, and I'm convinced he's going to have Indiana ready to slug it out. The Bruins are going down.
I didn't stop there, of course. I -really- reached by putting Notre Dame in the Elite Eight. They've got a tough little matchup with Winthrop to start, but their path to the Elite Eight is eminently manageable. A second round matchup with Oregon (the poor man's version of Notre Dame) and then a Sweet 16 tussle with Wisconsin/Georgia Tech/UNLV. Georgia Tech's the scariest of that trio, but they're young and undisciplined; it's hard for me to imagine them winning three in a row. So why not Notre Dame? The Big East (for the first time in forever) managed to be underrated by most people this year. The Irish have legitimate shooters. They've got lightning in a bottle with their point guard. And they have a couple bruisers to keep you honest. Unless they go cold from the outside, they're going to be a tough, tough out this year.
Finally, a word on parity. I actually think this year's tournament is top-heavy. There's a ton of wiggle room among the middle of the pack, but the giants this year are bigger and stronger than in recent years. I'm not seeing -any- brackets with much diversity in the Final Four. Florida's the choice in 90% of the brackets. Kansas or UCLA in 95%. UNC or Georgetown in 90%. And Ohio State or A&M in 90%. More importantly, most people don't think anyone -outside- that group has much of a shot, if any. Texas is one darkhorse team, but they've got to beat two #1 seeds to get to Atlanta. Bloody unlikely.
So as we get ready to wrap this up, let's go with one final thought experiment: since no one's talking about anyone besides the above teams as Final Four contenders, and since the NCAA Tournament never, ever, as a rule, is neat and tidy - who are we overlooking? Which team (highly seeded or not) is most likely to prove all the skeptics wrong?
Dan Shanoff: See, Peter, now if I knew THAT, I would be a very rich man from all my office-pool winnings. By "skeptics," I presume you mean "everyone who thinks they won't get out of the first weekend," so I'll stick with the teams that the majority of fans are writing off before we hit next Monday morning.
I feel very strongly that the UNLV-Georgia Tech winner can (and will) beat Wisconsin. Even with the Badgers playing close to home in Chicago and even with that great defense and successful grind-it-out Tournament style, they are impotent on offense. Both the Rebels and Y-Jackets can put pressure on Wisco to score, which they simply have a hard time doing.
I also think that Villanova could surprise some people. I've already said that everyone should view Kansas with suspicion until they prove they can get out of the first weekend. Well, standing in their way is a Nova team that has enough motivated guys left over from last year's Elite Eight team that have proven they know how to win in ways this Kansas team hasn't yet. Oh, and Nova's freshman sensation Scottie Reynolds is who I've been calling Kevin Durant's Mini-Me. Reynolds can be unstoppable.
Here's a "trend" to watch that I'll leave you with, and it's not entirely unlamentable: Even if a mid-major or small school like Winthrop or VCU or Southern Illinois or Creighton makes a run to the Final Four (or even the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight), the BEST they can do is be "this year's George Mason." The Patriots' run ruined it for everyone else, when it comes to fitting Cinderella slippers. And that's sort of sad.
But since this year seems to be an over-correction from last year's Cinderella story (GMU), unpredictable "big-conference" Final Four team (LSU), longshot title pairing (Florida-UCLA) and virtually unexpected champ (Florida), we're expecting to see all 1- and 2-seeds in the Final Four, right? Right?! Wrong: And that's what makes this year -- with such an "obvious" pool of 6-8 legit Final Four contenders -- so intriguing. Because chances are, it simply won't work out that way. But who falls short? And who takes their place?
Peter Bean: I wish I knew; I have Kansas, Florida, Georgetown, and Texas A&M in my Final Four, which means that at least three of the four will crash and burn spectacularly. I can't wait to find out who's going to get hot and who's going to disappoint. We're 24 hours from the Madness.