I went into the selection show with a list of 11 potential Final Four teams. Four of them ended up in the Midwest Region. Despite that depth of competition, I'm still sticking with Louisville as my champion, No. 1 overall seed or not.
They tick all the boxes: excellent defensively (No. 1 in the Pomeroy ratings); very good offensively (No. 15 in KenPom); experienced (in the Final Four a year ago); backcourt strength and depth in Russ Smith and Peyton Siva; coaching (Rick Pitino); and a secret weapon off the bench, one-time Virginia Tech recruit Montrezl Harrell of Tarboro.
They'll probably have to beat Missouri, St. Louis and either Michigan State or Duke just to get to the Final Four -- a tougher three-game run than any pair Indiana or Gonzaga is likely to face, just for the record -- but the Cardinals are capable.
In that Midwest Region, though, give me Middle Tennessee State over Memphis and Cincinnati over Creighton.
The rest of my Final Four:
SOUTH: Florida over Kansas. Virginia Commonwealth beats Michigan in Auburn Hills. Florida Gulf Coast upsets Georgetown, then loses to San Diego State. UPDATE: Adding Minnesota over UCLA (see below).
EAST: Indiana over Miami. Davidson upsets Marquette. UPDATE: Taking Bucknell over Butler (and Davidson) based on the Harvard Survival Analysis results.
WEST: Ohio State over Gonzaga. Wisconsin beats Kansas State in Kansas City. Belmont beats Arizona (this is the year!) and Iowa State beats Notre Dame. UPDATE: Based on the Harvard analysis and the more I learn about the way the Mountain West gamed the RPI by scheduling lots of Division II teams, I'm moving Belmont into the Sweet 16 ahead of New Mexico.
As for the locals, I think both North Carolina and N.C. State will win their opening-round games but lose to the respective No. 1 seeds, Kansas and Indiana -- although I wouldn't want to face either ACC team if I were those No. 1 seeds. Both teams draw good first-round matchups. It's the second round where things get dicey.
North Carolina would have no chance against Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson with this lineup, which means their chances to beat Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse East boil down to James Michael McAdoo's ability to handle Withey inside without double-teaming help better than he handled Mason Plumlee at the Smith Center. Withey doesn't have anywhere near the offensive game of Plumlee, but he's underrated in that area. Perhaps a bigger problem for the Tar Heels: Kansas is one of few teams in the country with length on the perimeter to match North Carolina in Ben McLemore (6-5), Elijah Johnson (6-4) and Travis Releford (6-6). Anywhere but Kansas City, I'd feel better about the Tar Heels chances. Alas, the committee hath sacrificed the Heels upon the altar of ticket sales and TV ratings, which all those teams forced to start the tournament in Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh or Winston-Salem against North Carolina and Duke just absolutely love.
An NC State-Indiana shootout would probably come down to who can score more, and while the Hoosiers have the firepower edge on paper, the Wolfpack always has it in reserve. IF C.J. Leslie plays like he did last year, with controlled aggression and passion, and IF T.J. Warren and Rodney Purvis get hot, and IF Lorenzo Brown contributes in as many areas as he did at the ACC tournament, and IF Scott Wood shoots like he did in Greensboro. But with Leslie, Warren and Wood, N.C. State has areas where it can create matchups that Indiana will have a tough time defending, so there are some (relative) weaknesses to exploit. It's a better matchup for N.C. State than, say, Miami.
I would expect Duke to get past Albany (that won't happen again) and either Creighton or Cincinnati. At that point, it'll all be on the line for the Blue Devils. If they're good enough to beat Michigan State and Louisville in back-to-back games -- and they were in November and December, if they haven't looked it lately -- they may end up winning the whole dang thing. My guess is Izzo gets the best of Krzyzewski for the first time since 2005.
NC A&T should be able to beat Liberty in Dayton and I like Davidson's odds to beat Marquette (if not the 1,000-1 to win the tournament, and there are people putting money on that -- LVH sportsbook director Jay Kornegay told me yesterday Davidson is the most popular of the longshot bets, thanks to lingering memories of Stephon Curry) but not to beat Butler (or Bucknell).
Further explanation on the upsets:
Florida Gulf Coast beat Miami (at home, without Durand Scott, but still) but that's not entirely why I'm picking the Eagles to beat Georgetown. One, I'd take St. Leo's (which also beat Miami) over Georgetown at this point. The Hoyas choke like no one's business this time of year (although Otto Porter is good enough to change that single-handedly, admittedly). Two, I don't think the Hoyas have a prayer of getting past San Diego State (or Oklahoma), so I'll pick against them here regardless.
I had UCLA over Minnesota, basically because the Gophers have disappointed me tremendously this season and because UCLA has disappointed everyone else, which would make the Gophers a default pick for a lot of people and if it was that easy everyone would get it right. But the excellent work of John Ezekowitz has convinced me otherwise.
I've been waiting for years for Belmont to get a favorable first-round matchup, because the Bruins' relentlessly efficient style of play should lead to tourney success. It just hasn't yet. Georgetown's history made it ripe to fall last year, but not the Hoyas' personnel. Two years ago, I had Belmont in the Elite Eight, if they could just get past Wisconsin, which unfortunately is the only team more relentlessly efficient. (As noted earlier, I've updated this to move them past New Mexico into the Sweet 16.)
Love Middle Tennessee State's experience and balance. Will take them to beat Memphis despite having to play in the First Four, if in part because I'll bet against Josh Pastner's coaching ability (if not his recruiting ability) any chance I get.
I went over and over South Dakota State vs. Michigan. Picked the Jackrabbits to beat Baylor last year. Would do it again in a heartbeat. If the game weren't in Auburn Hills, I'd be taking the Jackrabbits again. Either way, I'll take #havoc in the next game over what was once the Maize and Blue and is now the Safety Yellow and Blue, thanks to Adidas.
And a final note on Gonzaga: This bracket kills me -- Gonzaga is like UCLA those years in the aughts when the Bruins made the Final Four every year like clockwork (2006, 2007, 2008) because they never left the Pacific time zone in the first four rounds. But I just don't think the Zags are good enough to beat Pittsburgh, Wisconsin or Kansas State AND Ohio State or New Mexico. That's just too tough of a three-game run for Gonzaga.
So make a note of this huge geographic advantage:
UCLA 2006: San Diego, Oakland
UCLA 2007: Sacramento, San Jose
UCLA 2008: Anaheim, Phoenix
Gonzaga (or New Mexico 2013): Salt Lake City, Los Angeles