One freshman's failure overshadowed another's triumph Saturday.
Memphis and Ohio University were in identical situations. Win your conference final and move on to the NCAA tournament. Lose and go to the National Invitation Tournament. With no time left in the Conference USA final against Louisville, the Tigers' Darius Washington missed what would have been the tying and winning free throws. In the final second of overtime at the Mid-American Conference final against Buffalo, Leon Williams' tip-in advanced the Bobcats.
A year ago, Williams was playing for Cardinal Gibbons. Tomorrow in Nashville, Tenn., he'll see if the magic of his rookie season carries over to Ohio's first-round game against Florida. In the early 1990s, Arizona and Syracuse were notorious for ineffectual early-round play. Now, that scarlet letter C - for choke - is stamped on Billy Donovan's Gators, and Ohio is from a conference renowned for springing upsets.
There are no surprises in 8-9 and 7-10 games, which are pick-'em pairings to begin with. Since the field expanded to a 64-team bracket 20 years ago, no top seed has lost to a No. 16. The No. 2s are 76-4.
It's the other half of the draw that is the most fun, and the one The Sun studied. In each regional, we graded the Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 6 seeds and their potential to be upset. Four basketballs is the strongest probability, one basketball the weakest. We're skeptical of the Southeastern Conference. The Albuquerque Regional appears most likely to hold form, but good luck in Chicago.
No. 4 Florida vs. No. 13 Ohio (Syracuse)
The Gators went to the 2000 final as a fifth seed, and have been no lower than that since, but they lost in the opening round in 2002 and again last season. They had a fine run to the Southeastern Conference title and share the ball well, but study the computer ratings.
The average RPI in the SEC's East Division rounded up to 85. The average in the MAC's East, where Ohio did battle, is 84. Six times in the past decade, the MAC champion won its opening-round game, and each time it was the lower seed. The NCAA did Florida no favors by sending it to Nashville. Williams counters David Lee's size and production.
No. 5 Alabama vs. No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee (Chicago)
The Crimson Tide lost only once to a team that isn't in the tournament, but it has a freshman, Ronald Steele, running the point, and there's no predicting what rookies will do this time of year. Wisconsin-Milwaukee is the cream of the Horizon League, which is on par with the Colonial. After road games at Wisconsin and Kansas, it will be cozier in Cleveland today.
No. 5 Georgia Tech vs. No. 12 George Washington (Albuquerque)
This isn't so much a knock at the Yellow Jackets as it is a nod to the Colonials, who swept Michigan State and Maryland in a 27-hour span in December, but paid for the weakness of the Atlantic 10 with their seed. At one point in January, there was little to distinguish these two in the RPI.
No. 6 Utah vs. No. 11 UTEP (Austin)
These Miners don't remember when Utah and others split off from the Western Athletic Conference and formed the Mountain West. UTEP might not have an antidote to Andrew Bogut, but it has two savvy seniors in forward Omar Thomas and guard Filiberto Rivera. It won't lose at the free-throw line, where it's the nation's best (79.1).
No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Old Dominion (Austin)
The Spartans have been solid since Drew Neitzel was made the starter at the point, but he's a slight freshman, and these guys may never be tough enough to please Tom Izzo. The Monarchs are 9-3 against teams rated 51-100 in the RPI. Michigan State is 1-2 against that tier.
No. 3 Kansas vs. No. 14 Bucknell (Syracuse)
The Patriot League is 0-13 in NCAA play. More bad news: The Bison lost by 38 at Villanova. Well, the Jayhawks lost there by 21, and it wasn't that close. Kansas comes stumbling in with five losses in its past eight games, although guard Keith Langford should return after sitting out the Big 12 tournament with a sprained ankle.
No. 6 Texas Tech vs. No. 11 UCLA (Albuquerque)
Bob Knight's last teams at Indiana played like zombies. These Red Raiders don't, but the Bruins have a seize-the-day senior in swingman Dijon Thompson and freshmen who are buoyed by a one-possession loss to Arizona in their lone visit to Tucson.
No. 6 LSU vs. No. 11 UAB (Chicago)
The Tigers are thin and sometimes neglect the cerebral aspect of the game. The gray matter for Alabama-Birmingham includes the memory of last year's surprise run to the Sweet 16.
No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Vermont (Austin)
Once upon a time, like 1991, when the second-seeded Orangemen lost to a 15, Tom Brennan's Cinderella run might have had a happier ending, but Jim Boeheim's regime has undergone a course adjustment. His veterans have NCAA championship rings and a zone that knows where to defend both Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine.
No. 5 Villanova vs. No. 12 New Mexico (Syracuse)