State Colleges

March 18, 2013

With no dominant team in NCAA Tournament field, expect the unexpected

Forget about a crystal ball. Don’t bother asking an astrologist. Leave the Ouija Board in the attic.

Forget about a crystal ball. Don’t bother asking an astrologist. Leave the Ouija Board in the attic.

When it comes to predicting the outcome of this year’s NCAA Tournament, blind luck might be as good a system as any.

A Rubik’s Cube might be easier to solve than this year’s bracket sheet.

Not only doesn’t the field of 68 contain any Kentuckys, like last year’s Wildcats squad that blew through the regular season and the tournament — a true, blue No. 1 that played like one from start to finish — it doesn’t even have Kentucky.

The defending national champion didn’t make the cut.

But three teams from Florida are in: No. 2 seed Miami (East Region), No. 3 seed Florida (South Region) and No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast (South Region).

Even though college basketball royalty is represented in the elite stratosphere of the higher seeds, the traditional powers come with all kinds of warts and question marks. Each is vulnerable, in other words.

Take Gonzaga, a “mid-major” that has become more “major” than “mid” in recent years. The Zags are the No. 1 ranked team in the polls — not that that status has stood the test over the course of the regular season — and received one of the four top seeds. Kansas, Indiana and Louisville claimed the others.

Gonzaga is 31-2 and riding a 14-game winning streak entering the tournament. But the West Coast Conference is hardly the most challenging of obstacle courses, and when the Zags stepped outside their league this season, they found the going a bit trickier.

They played just three ranked teams and lost to two of them.

But if Gonzaga survives and extends its winning streak to 20 with six tournament victories, they’ll bring the school its first national championship. Not so the other top seeds, which have title feathers already sticking out of their caps.

Indiana brings five titles, Kansas boasts three and Louisville claims two.

Still …

The Hoosiers enter the tournament on shaky footing. They’ve lost three of their previous six games.

Kansas somehow lost three in a row in early February, including a dumbfounding loss to TCU, which brought up the rear in the Big 12 Conference with a 2-16 record.

Louisville lost three in a row in January but caught fire late.

As Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told USA Today last week: “This is the most balance among the top 30 to 40 teams in the country. There are a lot of teams out there as potential deep-run teams in the tournament, much more — MUCH MORE — than any other season I can remember.”

Predictability in the NCAA Tournament is losing steam. While six No. 15 seeds have knocked off a No. 2 in the first round, it happened twice last year when Lehigh dusted Duke and Norfolk State put away Missouri.

Though a No. 16 has never defeated a No.1, some believe this could be the year.

For that matter, Cinderellas could clutter up the floor at the Big Dance.

Might Florida Gulf Coast be one of them? The Eagles punched their tournament ticket in only the school’s second year of eligibility by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference. Florida Gulf Coast defeated UM earlier in the season and also played St. John’s, Iowa State and Duke.

Other lower seeds that could bust brackets:

• Belmont — Beware the Bruins. The winner of the Ohio Valley Conference has won its first-round NCAA game in each of the previous four seasons. Belmont will rely on its sharp-shooting skills (the Bruins rank second nationally with a 57 percent success rate on two-point shots) in trying to extend the OVC streak.
• Creighton — The NCAA’s top three-point shooting team is led by junior forward Doug McDermott, the nation’s second-leading scorer at 23.1 points per game and a nearly 50 percent shooter from beyond the arc.
• Akron — The Zips managed to win the Mid-American Conference despite losing their point guard to a suspension stemming from a drug arrest.

Others to watch: New Mexico State and Wichita State.

The lowest seed ever to win the NCAA Tournament: eighth-seeded Villanova in 1985.

And the lowest seed to reach the Final Four: 11th-seeded George Mason, coached by UM’s Jim Larranaga, in 2006. Larranaga won’t be surprising anyone this year if he can get the Hurricanes to the Final Four. They’ve surged to the top of the polls.

Likewise, the Sunshine State’s other heavyweight — UF — will be looking to win the program’s third national title under Billy Donovan.

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