After receiving a bus trip for the ages last year with a Road to the Final Four that ran through Indianapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis, Illinois faces the prospect of going from coast-to-coast in this season’s NCAA Tournament. The Illini loss to Michigan State on Friday night surely dropped us from a potential #2 seed all the way to a #4 seed by Selection Sunday. I would have preferred a #3 seed, but we can’t really argue against many of the teams that were put ahead of us.
The biggest problem with the drop to a #4 seed is that we get sent out to San Diego, which would be a great trip for spring breakers from Champaign, yet won’t give us the home-court feel that we would have received in Auburn Hills or Dayton. Greg Couch of the Chicago Sun-Times argues that this might actually be a good thing to get away from the Midwest. If we survive the first weekend (Air Force shouldn’t be a problem, but the Sweet Sixteen is not a given with a possible matchup with Washington in the second round), we get shipped across the country to Washington, DC, where the UConn Huskies likely await. Pretty much every expert across the country has Connecticut locked into the Final Four spot out of the Washington Regional, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. UConn is the most talented team in the country and will win the National Championship if they play up to par.
Really, the best hope for the Illini to make the Final Four is that Dee Brown finds his shot again and UConn comes out as sluggish as they did against Syracuse in the Big East Tournament last week. At the beginning of this year, I said that the Sweet Sixteen is a reasonable goal for this Illini team. Considering that we drew UConn in our bracket, that’s still a very reasonable goal. I’d be ecstatic if we get farther than that.
Other NCAA Tournament Bracket Tidbits:
1) Balk at All Chalk – You’ll probably see the majority of brackets filled out across the country have a Duke – UConn matchup penciled in for the final. Notwithstanding last season’s Illinois – North Carolina tilt, however, the two best teams in the tournament pretty much never both make it to the championship game. Chances are that either Duke or UConn is going to stumble somewhere along the line. Duke’s bracket in the Atlanta Regional looks a lot tougher with an extremely talented Texas team looming as a #2 seed along with the Big Ten tourney champ Iowa, the Big East tourney champ Syracuse, and last but not least, potential second round opponent George Washington, who was ranked #6 in the country in the final AP poll yet dropped to a #8 seed because of the health of junior star Pops Mensah-Bonsu. UConn’s road isn’t exactly as easy as a lot of experts seem to believe, but the potholes Duke is going to encounter make the Blue Devils more susceptible to an earlier than expected exit.
2) Teams to Watch – My Big Ten bias is coming through here: look out for Michigan State and Indiana. Plenty of people are aware that the Spartans are extremely dangerous as a #6 seed based on Tom Izzo’s previous successes in the postseason (with the added bonus of getting virtual home games in Dayton for the first two rounds). However, a lot of others also believe that Indiana is primed for a first round upset against San Diego State. I personally can’t stand the Hoosiers, but the national media has forgotten that this is a pretty good team when all of their cylinders are running. I wouldn’t call Indiana a Final Four team, but I firmly believe that potential second round opponent Gonzaga is overrated by the media and the Oakland bracket is the most wide-open of the regions. That spells a possible deep tourney run by Indiana for Mike Davis’ last stand.
Speaking of Gonzaga, the Bulldogs can’t afford to look past their first round opponent in Xavier. I watched Xavier take Illinois down to the wire in front of a hostile United Center crowd back in December and they beat a pretty good Cincinnati team, so the Muskateers are certainly capable of an upset. Also, out in the Atlanta region, be careful of getting too caught up in #5 seed Syracuse’s performance last week in the Big East Tournament – Texas A&M is the best #12 seed out there (the Aggies beat Texas at the end of the regular season), and we all know that a #12 upsets a #5 every year. Georgetown is a scary #7 seed (previous wins against Duke, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse) lurking in the Minneapolis region for top 4 seeds Villanova, Ohio State, Florida, and Boston College.
3) Grouchy Nantz and Packer – My wife and I weren’t the only ones that noticed the pounding Jim Nantz and Billy Packer laid on NCAA Tournament Selection Committee Chairman Craig Littlepage during the Selection Show yesterday. Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune reported that the duo continued their rant during a subsequent conference call on how the smaller conferences grabbed more than their rightful share of bids from the BCS power conferences. Look, I’ve got as much of a bias toward the major conferences as anyone. However, the Selection Committee is supposed to examine and pick the best at-large teams without respect to conference affiliation. While we know that they can’t operate fully in this vaccum and are surely cognizant of how many bids are allocated to each conference, it’s not fair for individual teams with strong profiles from, say, the Missouri Valley Conference to lose out just because there’s a virtual quota of bids that needs to be met for the power conferences.
I’ll have much, much more on the NCAA Tournament all this week. Thursday can’t get here fast enough!