NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 18, 2014

Breaking down the brackets

On Basketball
Mac Cerullo

---- — The brackets are out, and man, if March Madness didn’t come early this year. Some of the seeding choices were puzzling, to put it mildly, but at the end of the day, the field is the field, and someone’s going to have to win six games to claim the championship regardless.

So before you fill out your brackets and make your final picks, here’s some food for thought on who to watch and who could be ripe for an upset.

Buy: The American Athletic Conference

Yesterday I spent about 700 words laying out all the reasons why Louisville is the hottest team in the tournament and should be one of the safest bets to go all the way. I wrote that around noon on Sunday, and then at 6:30 p.m. the Selection Committee unveiled the brackets and had the Cardinals pegged as a No. 4 seed.

Seriously, a No. 4 seed? If Louisville is a No. 4 seed, then I’m Mickey Mouse. The Cardinals have rolled through every team they’ve played over the past month, and in yesterday’s final AP Poll they were ranked No. 5 in the country. Yet that translates into a No. 4 seed in the tournament? Well, crazy as it sounds, there’s an explanation, and that is the committee’s collective dismissal of the American Athletic Conference.

Cincinnati, a top 10 team almost all season long, is a No. 5 seed. UConn, who has been in the top 25 most of the year, is a No. 7 seed. Memphis is a No. 8 seed, and Larry Brown’s Southern Methodist team was left out entirely, which was an absolute crime for which someone on the Selection Committee ought to go to jail.

The seed is just a number, though, and if you want a leg up in your office pool, don’t let these numbers fool you. Louisville, Cincinnati and UConn feature three of the best guards in the country and have beaten some of the nation’s best. Speaking of UConn …

Sell: Villanova

UConn and Villanova could be headed toward an old school Big East grudge match in the Round of 32, and I for one couldn’t be more excited. I suppose this is the part where I should disclose that I am a biased UConn alum and you should take this next thought with a grain of salt, but Villanova is about as overrated a No. 2 seed I’ve ever seen, and the Huskies could easily upset them if they make it past St. Joe’s in the first round.

Why is that? Well, Villanova has had an impressive season, going 28-4 and 16-2 in the new Big East, but those four losses were really bad losses and speak to some major issues.

First, Villanova lost to Syracuse 78-62, which was a pretty sound defeat but not the end of the world given that Syracuse was undefeated at the time. More troubling was when Villanova was annihilated by Doug McDermott’s Creighton team 96-68 and then got blown out again 101-80 in their next meeting.

Finally, Villanova went into the Big East Tournament as the top seed, and promptly went and lost to lowly Seton Hall. I’m sorry, but contending teams don’t lose to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden. You don’t have to pick Villanova to lose to UConn, but save yourself the trouble and don’t pick them to go to the Final Four out of the East Regional.

Buy: Michigan State

Instead, consider another team in the East Regional who was also criminally underseeded by the Selection Committee and who happens to be one of the most reliable tournament performers year-in and year-out.

I’m not sure how Michigan State wound up a No. 4 seed, but they’re playing great basketball of late, especially after beating Michigan to steal the Big Ten championship away from the Wolverines. I suppose you could probably say the same about top seed Virginia after their run through the ACC, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is never to bet against Tom Izzo in the NCAA Tournament.

Sell: The Midwest Region

I’ve already touched on Louisville, but it needs to be said again, what was the Selection Committee thinking? The Midwest Region is about as stacked a bracket as I’ve ever seen, and whoever makes it to the Final Four from this region will have seriously earned it.

Top seed Wichita State is undefeated at 34-0, but the main knock against them is that they haven’t beaten anybody. Well, for beating everyone on their schedule, they’ve been rewarded with this possible tournament gauntlet: Kentucky in the second round, Louisville or Saint Louis in the Sweet 16, and if they can make it that far, some combination of Michigan, Duke or UMass (seriously, what a tough break for UMass) in the Elite Eight. Ouch.

I guess there’s this silver lining at least. If Wichita State does reach the Final Four again this year, at least nobody will be able to say they didn’t play anyone to get there.