Choosing NCAA basketball champion will be difficult

Mar 19, 2013 3:01 AM

Special To GamingToday

Since the NCAA basketball tournament first adopted the 64-team format in 1985, there likely haven’t been two more turbulent Big Dances than the past two, which makes forecasting a champion as difficult as picking the trifecta for the Kentucky Derby.

For instance, from 1985-2011, only four No. 15 seeds upset a No. 2. Then last year Lehigh stunned Duke and Norfolk State beat Missouri. There also were two No. 12’s winning. No. 13 Ohio won twice.

A year earlier, 11th-seeded VCU and No. 8 Butler reached the Final Four and met in the semifinals.

Former Arizona coach Lute Olsen knows all about the highs and lows. He took Arizona to the 1997 title but also had one of the most awful first-round ledgers in tournament history. From 1992-99 he coached for the cycle, losing as a No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 seed.

There also have been normal seasons, but they tend to be aberrations. In 2008, all the No. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. And 2000 was the lone year no teams seeded 12th or worse got past the first round.

Now for a quick look at the regionals:

MIDWEST

Most overrated: No. 4 seed Saint Louis has marquee victories over New Mexico and Butler, but after getting past New Mexico State in Round 1, could be run out of the gym by Oklahoma State or spicy Oregon in the second round.

Cinderella: The youthful and unpredictable No. 12 Ducks won the Pac-12 tourney title but deserved a better seed than this. But at least they’re in the tourney. Washington was the top seed in last year’s conference get-together, lost early, and didn’t even get an invite to the NCAAs.

The winner: Second-seeded Duke, which had won nine of the previous ACC titles, lost its first conference tourney game this year – and that’s a good thing. The Blue Devils will enter the Dance well-rested for a change and are bracketed with No. 1 Louisville, which came off a grueling three-game run for the Big East title.

Duke looks to follow the footsteps of the 2007 UCLA Bruins, who lost a first-round league tourney game as a top seed but still was awarded a No. 2 spot in the NCAAs. UCLA reached the Final Four.

WEST

Most overrated: No. 1 Gonzaga is the hardcourt version of football’s Fighting Irish, who were top-ranked by default going into the BCS title game but wound up being routed as a heavy underdog. And since these Bulldogs also aren’t the cute underdog anymore, they’ll face extra-determined efforts from foes throughout. In the second round, in a possible matchup with No. 8 Pitt, the Panthers could dominate the rebounding and KO the Zags.

Cinderella: No. 10 Iowa State got lost among all the Big 12 powerhouses this year and got a rotten seed. But the Cyclones score and score and like the 3-pointer, which can go a long way in this event.

The winner: No. 3 New Mexico. The team not only hasn’t ever reached the Final Four, but hasn’t even been in the regional semifinals since 1974, when only 25 teams were invited to the Dance. These Lobos, who won the regular season MWC title and conference tournament, can block shots, shoot free throws and play defense. And if they get hot from the field, look out.

SOUTH

Most overrated: No. 4 Michigan. The Wolverines started 16-0, but went 10-7 down the stretch in the wide-open Big Ten, even dropping to the fifth seed in the tournament. They might not get past their opening foe, South Dakota State, which gave New Mexico its only home loss of the season.

Cinderella: No. 11 Minnesota. The Gophers also had a snazzy start, going 15-1, before finishing at 20-12. What works for them is that their first foe, sixth-seeded UCLA, will be missing its second-leading scorer, Jordan Adams (broken foot). Up next would be a third-seeded Florida team that went 5-4 down the stretch against relatively mediocre SEC competition.

The winner: The top-seeded Jayhawks came on strong after stumbling in the middle of the Big 12 season and don’t seem to have any daunting tasks ahead. They should coast to the Final Eight before a potential meeting with No. 2 Georgetown and Otto Porter. If KU can shut him down, the Hoyas’ offensive is paralyzed.

EAST

Most overrated: Third-seeded Marquette. The Golden Eagles did earn a share of the Big East title. Kudos to them. But Marquette has two major faults. It can’t handle the running game and can’t shoot 3s. Have a safe trip home.

Cinderella: It’s hard to call Syracuse a Cinderella, but considering the Orange are only a No. 4 seed and coming off four exhausting games in four days in the Big East tourney, they warrant that label. But it’s not like teams haven’t been able to recover from tiring league tourneys. UConn played FIVE straight days in winning the Big East tourney in 2011 and then went on to win the national title.

The winner: Miami , the second seed, trampled ACC competition in the regular season and tournament, and could easily have earned a No. 1 here. But all is well, since its road to the Final Eight is mighty easy and Indiana isn’t likely to be around to meet them for the right to make the Final Four.

Final Four: Semifinals: Miami over Kansas, Duke over New Mexico.

Final: Duke over Miami

“Popular” Bob Christ has been forecasting professional sports games for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in newspapers from coast to coast in Canada and the U.S. Contact him at [email protected].

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