Surprises under the Bracket Tree

My version, as well as many other sports fanatics, Christmas in March gifts were open early this evening with the unveiling of the NCAA Tournament brackets.

Each year the selection committee, which convenes in a conference room in a hotel about 20 minutes north of my house in downtown Indianapolis, is a lot like your parents were when they gave you presents growing up. They give you gifts you had on your list. They bestow ones you didn’t think of being on your list but appreciate them. Sometimes they leave you shaking your head and saying “really?” and you know they mean well so you smile and say “thank you.”

This year’s version of the Field of 68 did that and then some.

We got what we wanted include:

Kentucky: The Wildcats were going to get what they wanted regardless. They got two virtual home games in what used to be Kentucky’s second home in Louisville then to Cleveland for the regional. A quick trip home for a couple of days and then a three-and-half hour trip to Indianapolis and the Final Four where 40-0 will be in sight.

Wisconsin: According to Scott Barnes, chairman of the selection committee, it didn’t matter what the Badgers did in the Big 10 Championship game this afternoon. Once both Duke and Virginia lost Friday, Bo Ryan’s club was locked into the No. 1 seed in the West. Now a possibly Elite 8 rematch looms against Arizona. If it can live up to last season’s regional final, it will be an instant classic.

Villanova: Perhaps I am a bit biased here since Butler is now in the Big East, but this version of Wildcats has been playing some of the nation’s best basketball. Jay Wright’s team hasn’t lost since a 20-point thumping by Georgetown on Jan. 19. The Wildcats could be one of those teams you see which is playing well and still waiting to peak. I hope the potential regional final between Villanova and Virginia is the late Sunday game. You want a game like that to have both teams with as much as rest as possible after what will surely be grueling regional semifinal contest less than 48 hours prior.

Duke: The Blue Devils got the No. 1 seed in the south because of two impressive road wins – at Virginia Super Bowl weekend and against fellow No. 1 seed Wisconsin in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. Then again, Duke is Duke and most think if Wisconsin can’t knock off Kentucky in the national semifinal then Duke has the best chance in the national championship game on Championship Monday.

Wasn’t what we expected but will take it include:

Xavier: The Musketeers went from thinking they were on the bubble and had to do what they did by getting to the Big East Championship game Saturday night to firmly being in with a six seed. Xavier gets to test my theory Thursday afternoon that getting a “bye” is a detriment and not a reward when they play the winner of Brigham Young and Mississippi. The Cougars and Rebels face off in a play-in game Tuesday in Dayton.

Wichita State: This is a wildcard in this section because the Shockers have to wonder which Indiana team will show up. The one that played like it did against Butler on Dec. 20 and second round of the Big 10 Tournament against Northwestern – shooting lights out and playing stifling defense. Or the one that can’t hit anything and forces point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell to do it all including playing defense on all five opposing players. If it’s the latter then the Shockers get a chance to face in-state rival Kansas in the Round of 32. With an upset win over the Jayhawks, the Shockers could position themselves with a chance to redeem last tournament’s loss and return the favor to Kentucky and end the Wildcats unbeaten season. Don’t hold your breath though on the last part.

Indiana: I know I am contradicting myself here because of what I typed above, but the Hoosiers are thankful to take a 10 seed. It means IU was clearly in the tournament regardless of what happened in the Connecticut/SMU game this afternoon. It wasn’t Wyoming, which would have stolen the Hoosiers bid, after all. Now the question remains if IU loses Friday afternoon is Crean still safe in Bloomington for at least one more season?

UCLA: The Bruins went from a team the bracket pontificators had in a play-in game or even not making the field to in the field of 64. UCLA has some really bad losses including a five-game-losing streak where it lost by 13 to Gonzaga, 39 to Kentucky, and 32 to Utah in three of those five. Now the Bruins come east to Louisville where clearly there will be some diehard IU fans making the trek cheer own Hoosier son Steve Alford and his team against Larry Brown’s SMU team.

We know you meant well but…

Butler: The Bulldogs got a game against a team which has the attributes of everything Butler doesn’t do well against – long, athletic and physical. That’s Texas, in a nutshell. You look at the RPI and this is an eight seed versus nine seed game masquerading as a six versus 11. KenPom and Sagarin have Bulldogs and Longhorns rated that close together. Getting Dunham and Barlow hitting 3s and an occasional timely one by Chrabascz could prove as the big keys offensively for the Bulldogs. Not to mention an under control Roosevelt Jones with his drives in the lane.

VCU: The Rams are without their leader Briante Webber but caught lightning in a bottle again winning the A-10 Tournament Sunday over Dayton. The challenge in Ohio State. The Buckeyes have one of the nation’s best freshmen in D’Angelo Russell. If the Rams can force their “Havoc” on Russell and really speed up the game the Rams will see it has a great gift in disguise with a chance to knock off No. 2 seed Arizona in the Round of 32.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes are the higher seeded team according to the committee and Sagarin but not the RPI against Davidson. Davidson moves the ball well and can hit the outside jumper and plays solid defense. When it comes to upsets in March that’s a sure-fire recipe. Much like if Texas beats Butler or Ohio State beats VCU, Davidson beating Iowa can’t be considered too much of an upset.

We got coal in the stocking from the committee:

Boise State: Dayton in a play-in game at UD Arena? Solidifies my argument the years the Final Four is Indy the First Four games should also be played in Indy thus the “Road to the Final Four” truly begins and ends in Indianapolis.

Murray State: The Racers were just a fun team to watch when I got to see them play this season. Unfortunately, the resume didn’t have the “WOW” factor it needed. Even though they ran roughshod through the regular season in the Ohio Valley, they still had to win the conference tournament. Obviously Murray State flunked the committee’s “eye test.”

Temple and Colorado State: The RPI tells me to have sympathy for the Owls and Rams. Sagarin says otherwise. Obviously with all the other various guidelines and matrix the committee uses to evaluate teams they were swayed more toward Sagarin’s computer ratings than they were the RPI. It will be up to UCLA, Texas and Georgia to prove the committee knew what it was doing slotting them in the field and shipping Temple and Colorado State to the NIT.

Finally the rip and open presents feel all of basketball fans of the Indiana schools: There was no wait to see where automatic qualifiers Notre Dame and Valparaiso or at-large-lock Butler would be sent. We didn’t even have a chance for suspense to be built on whether Purdue and Indiana would make the tournament. All five teams were announced in a five-minute span. All in the Midwest Region. Still researching to see if that’s the first time five teams from the same state were placed in the same bracket since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

The committee talked about being geographically consistent. Obviously, they obtained it with the Midwest Region and the quintet of Indiana schools.

Plenty more to ponder this week including my bracket and my Final Four picks.

The biggest question to be answered – is there a team which can keep Kentucky from breaking the hearts of the Hoosier faithful by finishing undefeated in Lucas Oil Stadium on April 6?

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