In tournament, any safe pick is hardly a lock

March 16, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

I'm not picking Duke or Connecticut to win the national championship. I'm not even picking them to get to the Final Four.

Big whoop, right? There are probably millions of brackets out there that don't have the two favorites in the Final Four. Millions of other pickers are playing it safe.

This just doesn't seem to be the year to play it safe, though. Getting the Blue Devils and Huskies to Indianapolis was very likely a chore, whether one drew up his or her brackets outside-in or inside-out. Picking a Final Four from this field is more maddening this March than in a long time.

It's an extension of Sunday's tournament selection being one of the most controversial and argument-inducing in years. The theme this year: Who's really good, and are any of them head-and-shoulders above the rest?

Illinois and North Carolina seemed that way last year. This year, Duke and Connecticut didn't sell it. In fact, if ever there was a year to keep all four top seeds out of the Final Four for the first time since the field first grew to 64 in 1985, this might be it.

In fact, trusting the four No. 2s might not be a good idea, either. Bruce Pearl himself might not be writing Tennessee into the Final Four. The Gonzaga players and coaches sulked on cue when a "3" appeared next to their name Sunday, and a "2" next to UCLA -- and the rest of the country gasped.

They're vulnerable. So are the two other No. 1s most are having trouble trusting, Memphis and Villanova. All four top seeds have a soft underbelly, a team it needs to watch out for, and one it probably won't have to worry about.

Why not Duke: The same reason the Devils didn't get there last year. They ran out of gas in the Sweet 16, and they're no deeper now. They might be one 5-for-20 day by J.J. Redick or one foul-filled or free-throw-deficient game by Shelden Williams from going down.

Look behind you, here comes: LSU. I'd hate to think I'm falling for a player just because of his nickname(s), but Glen Davis (aka Baby Shaq, aka Big Baby) is a load inside, especially lately.

Catch 'em early: Syracuse. The Gerry McNamara magic can't last this long. This team wouldn't have had to ride him so hard to get in had it not lost such ugly games late in the regular season.

Why not Memphis: Rodney Carney and Darius Washington Jr. can be dangerous, but neither has had to be under these circumstances yet. It's their bad luck that they haven't had to be tested in a weak conference.

Look behind you, here comes: Xavier. Because the Atlantic 10, derided as weak when George Washington was romping through it, isn't demonstrably worse than Memphis' Conference USA -- and Xavier has played deep into March before when coming out of big conference tournament showings.

Catch 'em early: Gonzaga. Adam Morrison isn't Larry Bird, and Gonzaga has an annoying habit of losing in March when it's expected to win, and vice versa.

Why not Villanova: Until we see how Allan Ray's eye is, no need to bank on them at all. The sad thing is, this team would really be something if Curtis Sumpter hadn't injured his knee.

Look behind you, here comes: Georgetown. Smart team, has quickness and size, and has a good draw up until the regional final. All John Thompson III needs is a towel draped on his shoulder.

Catch 'em early: Arizona. What are they doing here, anyway? This could be a West Coast flameout reminiscent of the one in 2004 (no team west of Reno made it to the second weekend).

Why not Connecticut: They should be this year's North Carolina, too talented to stop regardless of how inconsistent it has been. Then you think of Rudy Gay disappearing in the Big East tournament against Syracuse. It happens too often.

Look behind you, here comes: North Carolina. Can a school go all the way in consecutive years with two completely different teams? It's as if the Heels had a salary cap purge.

Catch 'em early: Washington. At No. 5, might be more of an artificially high seed in this regional than Tennessee.

Final Four: Texas, Kansas, North Carolina, Boston College. Yes, it was kind of freaky, having the two conferences considered "down" this season splitting the four berths. Just as the selection committee "claims," I don't look at conference affiliation, either.

National champ: Boston College. That ACC tournament run wasn't just impressive, it was downright scary, even though the Eagles lost the final. Besides, if you can't make an off-the-wall pick in this tournament, why play?

And if you're going to do that, what better year to do it than this one?

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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