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1. The No. 1 with the easiest road to the Final Four ... is North Carolina, out of the South Region. The Tar Heels weren't the No. 1 overall seed in the dance -- they were No. 3 -- but they received a gift from the selection committee. Louisville has Wake Forest, Kansas, West Virginia and Michigan State in its way. UConn has Washington and Memphis. Pitt has Florida State, Villanova and Duke. Carolin was paired with the weakest-defending No. 2 seed, Oklahoma, and could feasibly get to Detroit by beating Butler, Gonzaga and Syracuse. That's not exactly a gauntlet.
2. The No. 1 I have the most reservations about ... is UConn, in the West. It's possible that the Huskies are under a postseason curse. They lost in the first round of the Big East tournament in each of the past four years. They missed the NCAAs in 2007, and lost in the first round to San Diego last year when A.J. Price tore his ACL. They'll receive one gimme, in the 1-16 game against Chattanooga, and perhaps that will help them get their footing, but it's hard to imagine a team with so little recent postseason success winning six games -- or even four -- in a row in the dance.
3. The No. 1 with the biggest geographical advantage in the regionals ... is Louisville, in the Midwest. No other top seed will be playing within driving distance of its fan base. The Cards' faithful, who regularly sell out the 19,000-plus-seat Freedom Hall, will be just 114 miles away from Indianapolis. If Wake Forest, Kansas, West Virginia or Michigan State is going to pull off an upset at Lucas Oil Stadium, they'll have to do it in front of a hostile crowd.
4. The No. 1 with the most favorable No. 2 pairing ... is Pitt, in the East. The Panthers were slotted opposite the one two-seed that has absolutely no answer for DeJuan Blair: Duke. The nation's best rebounder should have a field day if he meets the Blue Devils. The secret to Blair's rebounding prowess, he told us, is that "I pretend that every rebound is a million dollars." He could become a very rich man in the Elite Eight.
5. The busiest guys on Selection Sunday night, other than the NCAA selection committee, are the oddsmakers in Vegas. The folks in the war room at Las Vegas Sports Consultants -- once they had finished putting spreads on every game -- said that North Carolina was an overwhelming favorite to win it all. The punditry has wavered on the Tar Heels all season long, worrying about their defense, worrying about Marcus Ginyard being out, worrying about Tyler Hansbrough being less than Wooden-like, but Vegas didn't waver nearly as much. Carolina was their title favorite from start to finish. Keep that mind when you're picking your champ.
6. The actual odds for the top six teams, from Las Vegas Sports Consultants, as of 12:49 a.m. Monday:
North Carolina: 2-1
7. One Vegas-related observation ... is that Duke is a curiously high-valued team in the eyes of the oddsmakers. I'm not expecting the Blue Devils to get past the Sweet 16, and yet LVSC thinks they have an equally strong shot as Memphis does of winning the national title.
8. Only four teams outside the power conferences earned at-large bids: Butler, Xavier, Dayton and BYU. Only the Bulldogs are truly considered a mid-major, so what we have is a bracket with just one mid-major at-large team. This is sad. It makes me wonder if our evaluative method for selecting at-larges is flawed. Under the current criteria that the committee values, there's no way anyone can argue that Creighton (or even St. Mary's, really) had a better resume than any team that got in the Field of 65. What we end up with is a few uninspiring major-conference teams in the 9-12 range -- your Minnesotas, Arizonas and Texas A&Ms of the world -- who aren't likely to do anything memorable in the tournament. Major-conference coaches would cry foul over this, but I wouldn't be averse to reserving three at-large spots in each field for teams outside the BCS conferences, the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West. If the majors aren't willing to schedule many of the quality mids, they need some sort of boost in the selection process. Anything that ups the Cinderella factor is fine with me.
9. The worst geographical draw was handed to ... UCLA. The Bruins will be traveling 2,395 miles to Philly's Wachovia Center to play Colonial Athletic Association champ VCU ... while the Rams and Larry Sanders' posse only have to travel 198 miles. If UCLA manages to win that game, it'll likely play Villanova ... which is playing in its home city, on what's essentially its alternate home court. Ouch.
10. The second-worst geographical draw was handed to ... Marquette. The sixth-seeded Eagles are slumping, having lost their point guard (Dominic James, whose left foot is broken) and five out of their past six games. Adding insult to injury, they're now shipping off to Boise, 1,419 miles away from Milwaukee, while their opponent -- 11th-seeded WAC champ Utah State -- has to travel just 254 miles. Major upset potential there.
11. The biggest Cinderella could be ... No. 14 North Dakota State. The Bison drew No. 3 Kansas, the Big 12 champ, in the first round of the Midwest region. The game happens to be in Minneapolis -- which is driving distance from Fargo, where, if the fans who appeared on CBS' selection show were any indication, there's a horde ready to head to the Metrodome. NDSU has good upset attributes, with experience (four of its top five scorers are seniors) and the ability to knock down threes (the Bison shoot 41.2 percent as team from beyond the arc).
12. The safest first-round upset pick ... is No. 12 Western Kentucky over No. 5 Illinois, in Portland. The Illini's glue, point guard Chester Frazier, is dealing with a right-hand injury that kept him out of the Big Ten tournament, and the Hilltoppers are experienced giant-killers: They beat Louisville on a neutral court earlier this season, and went to the Sweet 16 in 2008.
13. The safest second-round upset pick ... is No. 6 West Virginia over No. 3 Kansas, in Minneapolis. (This, of course, applies only if the Jayhawks take care of business against North Dakota State). The Mountaineers are far better than their 23-11 record suggests -- so much so that they rank eighth overall in kenpom.com's efficiency standings. The size of their wing players (Da'Sean Butler is 6-foot-7 and Devin Ebanks is 6-9) give teams major matchup problems. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, have lost to two non-tourney teams (Texas Tech and Baylor) in the past two weeks and don't seem to be in peak condition.
14. The safest Sweet 16 upset pick ... is No. 3 Villanova over No. 2 Duke, in Boston. Nova is the overlooked power coming out of the Big East, but it happens to have the league's best set of guards. Scottie Reynolds, who powered the Wildcats to the Sweet 16 last season as a No. 12 seed, is an accomplished tourney scorer and he, Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Reggie Redding are too much for the Blue Devils to handle.
15. The trendy upset I'm not buying ... is VCU over UCLA. This Bruins team isn't nearly as good as the ones that appeared in three straight Final Fours, and there's little-to-no chance they reach Detroit. But I also can't see Darren Collison bowing out in the first round during his senior season. He's too clutch of a postseason guard to let that happen. And even though the Rams counter Collison with Eric Maynor, and have another NBA prospect in Sanders, the supporting cast isn't nearly as good as the one on the team that upset Duke in 2006. UCLA is deep and experienced, and VCU isn't.
16. The hottest tourney dance ... Is The Stanky Leg. After Louisville won the Big East tournament on Saturday night, and finally convinced Terrence Williams to put the trophy on the floor for a few minutes, they did the G-Spot Boyz' signature move and sang a few lines from the song. It's nice to see everyone moving on from the Soulja Boy.
17. The best tourney-participant Twitter feed ... is Washington forward John Brockman's, at JBrock40. He last updated it on the way back from the Pac-10 tourney, and last week used it to get revenge on a cell-phone heckler from Washington State. Brockman told us on Sunday that his goal, in joining Twitter, was to have more followers than UW football coach Steve Sarkisian.
18. The best tourney blog (other than this one) ... is Club Trillion, from little-used Ohio State guard (and former team manager) Mark Titus. He's the guy at the end of the Buckeyes bench who intentionally wears a towel around his neck, in order to be easily identifiable on TV. Among the recent nuggets revealed on Club Trillion is the fact that mustachioed freshman center B.J. Mullens is obsessed with watching Lonely Island's I'm On A Boat before games.
19. The best tourney tattoo on a white guy ... belongs to Northern Iowa's Lucas O'Rear, who rocks an extra-large shamrock on his left shoulder in honor of his Irish heritage. O'Rear was named the Missouri Valley Conference's Sixth Man of the Year, and, as you'd expect from a big guy with a buzzcut and a shamrock tattoo, acts as an ultra-aggressive enforcer on the floor.
20. The hottest tourney jersey alteration ... cccurred at Memphis, where Nike outfitted them with the Memphimus Prime look, adding Transformer-like touches to the Tigers' jerseys and shoes. The slogan "RTL" -- for Refuse To Lose -- also appears near the toes of their new kicks.
21. The hottest tourney accessory ... is a Title Belt, owned by Eric Maynor at VCU. Rams coach Anthony Grant, who came up with a team "chain" concept for the 2006 postseason (having all of his players link together golden carabiners prior to games as a sign of solidarity) actually presented Maynor with the belt after VCU won the CAA's regular-season title.
22. The best name in the bracket ... is, by far, Chief Kickingstallionsims, the 7-foot-1 center at Alabama State who, understandably, told his teammates to "just call me Chief." But the guy who's going to prevent the country from getting a double dose of Kickingstallionsims -- by seeing him in Tuesday's play-in game and the first round -- is Morehead State's Kenneth Faried, who has a lesser-quality name but 1) great dreadlocks and 2) better post skills. Faried has double-doubles in 11 of Morehead's past 12 games.
23. The tourney's most-fretted-over toe ... is the right hallux of North Carolina's Ty Lawson, who jammed it against the standard in a practice on March 6. Lawson has said he'll "definitely" be ready for the dance, but will he be all full strength when the Heels really need him, in Memphis?
24. The tourney's most fretted-over legs ... are Syracuse's. The Orange were superhuman in the Big East tournament, managing to win an overtime game over West Virginia on the same day they finished that six-OT thriller against UConn. Jonny Flynn drank gallons of Gatorade, refueled on McDonald's and played well enough in the title game against Louisville to win tourney MVP. But do they have anything left in the tank after that marathon? The fact that likely second-round opponent Arizona State plays at a molasses pace may play into the Orange's favor.
25. Aside from the lack of mid-majors, my biggest bracket gripe ... is that Kansas should have been a two-seed instead of Oklahoma. The Jayhawks won their league, beat the Pac-10 champ (Washington) in the non-conference season and won in Norman. Blake Griffin wasn't playing in that game, I know, but it still should have given KU an edge over the Sooners.
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26. Sleeper Pick No. 1 is ... West Virginia, the No. 6 seed in the Midwest. As I said above, the Mountaineers are way underrated, and I don't just think they'll beat Dayton and Kansas I think they'll beat Michigan State in the Sweet 16, too.
27. Sleeper Pick No. 2 is ... Michigan, the No. 10 Seed in the South. The Wolverines stumbled through the Big Ten, but they always seem to give good teams problems. Ask UCLA, Duke, and UConn. John Beilein's 1-3-1 zone gave them all fits. I wouldn't be stunned if Michigan pulls off two straight upsets, over Clemson and Oklahoma, and reaches the Sweet 16.
28. The most intriguing potential Sweet 16 matchup ... is Louisville-Wake Forest, in the Midwest Regional. The Cards might be unbeatable in Indy, but this would be a game with at least six future NBA players on the floor, in Louisville's T-Will, Earl Clark and Samardo Samuels, and Wake's Jeff Teague, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu. The frontcourt athleticism on display here would be unreal.
29. The most intriguing potential Elite Eight matchup ... is UConn-Memphis, in the West. This would be a completely neutral setting in Glendale, Ariz., pitting one of the tourney's biggest backcourts (the Tigers') against the tourney's biggest defensive game-changer (7-3 Hasheem Thabeet). I'm curious to see how the presence of a giant in the paint will affect Memphis' guards, who seemed to penetrate and score at will against teams in Conference USA.
30. The hardest team in the bracket to judge ... is Wake Forest, which has at times looked amazing (beating North Carolina and Duke at home, and BYU and Clemson on the road) and at times looked awful (losing at Georgia Tech and N.C. State, in particular). None of the Deacs' principal scorers has any NCAA tournament experience, and they didn't put up much of a fight against Maryland in the ACC tournament -- but they also have the talent to make it to the Final Four. I picked Wake to get to Detroit in my first draft of the bracket, then scratched it out and put Louisville in its place. Will I be regretting that move?
31. I'm in love with the nine-seeds. Siena was slotted one rung higher than I expected, and even though they're playing in Dayton -- essentially Ohio State's backyard -- they play at a pace that should bother the Buckeyes. Butler is a better defensive team than LSU and has more recent tournament experience, even if the Bulldogs are much less athletic than the Tigers. Tennessee has far more tourney experience than Oklahoma State and won't have trouble playing at the Cowboys' speed, either.
32. All the No. 9s other than Texas A&M, that is. If BYU, which features the ultra-efficient Lee Cummard, had played in the Big 12 rather than the semi-obscure Mountain West, I'm confident it would have finished ahead of Texas A&M in the standings. The Aggies bowed out of the Big 12 tournament in the opening round against a bad Texas Tech team, are headed for a first-round exit from the NCAA tournament as well.
33. Mid-major name you need to know, part I: Larry Sanders, VCU. The 6-10 sophomore broke David Robinson's single-game record for rebounds in the CAA tournament, and as one scout told us, "he has the longest arms I've seen." Sanders' wingspan is an unreal 7-7.
34. Mid-major name you need to know, part II: Ben Woodside, North Dakota State. Four years ago, the 5-11 guard redshirted, just so he'd still be eligible when the Bison finally reached full D-I status. He scored 60 points in a loss to Stephen F. Austin earlier this season, is the nation's 10th-leading scorer, and hit the game-winner against Oakland in the Summit League final to clinch a bid to the dance.
35. Mid-major name you need to know, part III: Cedric Jackson, Cleveland State. He's the 6-3 senior guard who hit the 70-footer to stun Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in December, and eventually cause Jim Boeheim to attack a microphone. And he's also the guy who scored 19 against Butler in the Horizon League final to make the Vikings a bubble-busting automatic qualifier.
36. Mid-major name you need to know, part IV: Orlando Mendez-Valdez, Western Kentucky. The 6-1 senior point guard may not be the best player on the Hilltoppers -- that's two-guard A.J. Slaughter -- but I'm partial to hyphens. OM-V, as we'll call him here, had eight assists against just three turnovers in the Sun Belt tourney title game.
37. Statistics that matter, part I: Defensive efficiency is a better predictor of tourney success than offensive efficiency, and Memphis has, by far, the nation's most efficient D. The Tigers allow just 0.794 points per possession. By contrast, Oklahoma, the other two-seed playing in Kansas City, allows 0.935.
38. Statistics that matter, part II: All of the national title winners since 2005 have finished in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. There are only six teams who fit that profile this year, and only one of them happens to be a No. 1 seed. They are: UConn, Gonzaga, Duke, West Virginia, Missouri and Kansas.
39. Statistics that matter, part III: Experience matters in the NCAA tournament, and the five most experienced teams are American (average of 2.62 years), Marquette (2.46), Cal-State Northridge (2.46), Utah (2.38) and North Dakota State (2.30). That's more fuel for the Bisons-as-Cinderella fire.
40. Statistics that matter, part IV: The five worst free-throw shooting teams in the NCAA tournament are Alabama State (63.3 percent), Syracuse (64.0), Louisville (64.3) and Dayton (64.6). Poor free-throw percentages didn't keep Memphis from reaching the title game ... but we all know what went down once they got there. Could the same thing happen to Louisville?
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41. Potentially Dominant Freshman (PDF), Part I: Tyreke Evans, Memphis. The 6-5 point guard is only collegian (that we're aware of) who had his own caricature tee before he even finished high school. But he's also been the most important rookie in the country this season, leading the second-seeded Tigers in scoring at 16.6 points per game. I'm eagerly awaiting a showdown between Evans and Maryland's Greivis Vasquez in Kansas City.
42. PDF, Part II: Willie Warren, Oklahoma. The 6-4 shooting guard is Blake Griffin's sidekick and the Sooners' second-leading scorer at 14.7 points per game. Very few defenders can contain him off the dribble, and hardly anyone can match his gift of gab: He wants to become the next Charles Barkley (emulating him as a studio analyst, not a motorist).
43. PDF, Part III: Devin Ebanks, West Virginia. The 6-9 forward was the Mountaineers' third-leading scorer on the season, but he looked like their best player in the Big East tournament, scoring 20 in a win over Pittsburgh and 22 in a loss to Syracuse. He could have a Joe Alexander-like explosion in the dance.
44. PDF, Part IV: Isaiah Thomas, Washington. The 5-8 kid whose first name was the result of his dad losing a Lakers-Pistons bet has been brilliant for the Huskies, leading them with 15.4 points in just 28.2 minutes per game. A duel between him and UConn freshman Kemba Walker -- who could easily be PDF No. 5 -- in the Sweet 16 would be must-see TV.
45. The first half of my Final Four is ... Louisville and Memphis. The committee was right to put Memphis on the No. 2 line, because UConn had the better body of work on the season. But I also think that without Jerome Dyson, the Huskies could have a hard time defending the Tigers' oversized backcourt in Glendale -- and get bounced from the bracket in the Elite Eight as a result.
46. The second half is ... North Carolina and Pitt. I desperately wanted these two teams to appear on opposite sides of the bracket, setting up an Ultimate Title Game. But it's their own fault for screwing it up, by losing prior to the finals of their respective conference tournaments. Louisville was the rightful No. 1 overall seed.
47. Why Carolina will beat Pitt in the Final Four: The Heels only seem to lose when they get gashed by a great scoring guard, and Pitt doesn't have one. Lawson will be able to stay in front of Levance Fields, Danny Green matches up well with Sam Young on the perimeter, and Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson can at least not get dominated by Blair, which is more that what most big men can say.
48. Why Louisville will beat Memphis in the Final Four: The Tigers haven't run into a team all season that plays pressure defense like Louisville does. Evans has been the key to Memphis' surge, but the Cards are a team that could truly fluster him. Also, 6-foot-6 Terrence Williams is one of the rare floor generals who can see over the Tigers' gigantic backcourt, negating the defensive advantage they usually have on the perimeter.
49. Why North Carolina will beat Louisville in the title game: The nation's best point guard, Lawson, shouldn't have too many problems with the Cards' press, and the Heels will fly up the court at a pace they love. Plenty of guards make poor decisions after breaking through the first level of Louisville's pressure, and turn the ball over just after crossing halfcourt, but Lawson should thrive, finishing with double-digit assists as well as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player Award. The season will end just like it started ... with Carolina on top.
50. If you happen to disagree with any of this -- and with 49 thoughts, I'm sure you can find something to disagree with -- then I urge you to join the Tourney Blog Pool on Facebook and prove me wrong. Last year's pool had more than 5,000 readers in the mix, all chasing the chance to receive worldwide exposure as the subject of a post on the morning after the title game. There is no better prize than Tourney Blog fame.