With the Bracket being released last night, here are my initial thoughts on each of the regions. I'll lock into my selections and Final Four later this week, so if you're looking for who not to pick, you'll have to wait until then.
Quick hit: Louisville gets to play in their backyard - that's the good news. The bad news? The Cardinals reward for winning 13 of 14 to secure this year's #1 overall seed is the toughest of the four NCAA Tournament regions. The Midwest's top five seeds won 39 games against RPI Top 50 opponents, and the top seven each finished the season ranked in the final AP/Coaches polls.
Sleeper: Saint Louis. At his point, the Billikens shouldn't even count. Everyone's favorite Final Four darkhorse won the outright Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament titles, finishing the season with fifteen wins in their final sixteen games. Experience is generally a success factor in the tournament, and SLU has it, as their eight top scorers are all upperclassmen.
Upset alert: Duke. It's hard to find a more challenging pod than the bottom half of the Midwest bracket. Just to get to the Regional Final, Duke will likely have to climb past Missouri Valley champ Creighton, and either 30-win Memphis or a loaded Michigan State squad in the Sweet 16. Their reward for that is right to play Louisville or Saint Louis in the Regional final. Brutal.
Quick hit: Indiana lost out on Indianapolis, but did get a better draw in the East, at least in the top-half of their bracket. The bottom looks far more challenging, led by Miami, the ACC's regular season and tournament champion, who was placed as the top #2 seed by the Selection Committee. Butler, who has never lost to a lower seed, could face Marquette in a Maui Rematch in the Round of 32. That game ended on Rotnei Clarke's ridiculous 28-foot buzzer-beater. The Golden Eagles may have their best team since the Dwyane Wade-led 2003 Final Four squad, and could be dangerous.
Indiana won't play virtual home games, but could have an easier path to the Elite 8
Sleeper: Illinois. I can't imagine there are many seven seeds in NCAA Tournament history who boasted regular season wins over two #1s. The Illini are the ultimate boom-or-bust team, and could easily lose to plucky Colorado. However, given their top-end wins this season, don't count Illinois out. They live and die by the three-point shot.
Upset alert: Syracuse. Outside of reaching the Big East Tournament final, Syracuse floundered down the stretch, going 8-7 in February and March. The Orange are known for underachieving in March lately, losing to a lower seed in each of the last three NCAA Tournaments.
Quick hit: Not only does Gonzaga earn a spot in geographically-friendly Salt Lake (and, potentially, Los Angeles), they also get the Tournament’s easiest draw. A hot, albeit flawed, Ohio State team and paper tiger New Mexico (#3 in the RPI) seem to be the only hurdles standing in the way of the Zags and a run to Atlanta. Underwhelming Kansas State, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Notre Dame teams make up the gooey middle of this soft region.
Sleeper: Pittsburgh. While the Panthers have failed repeatedly as high seeds in the past, they could make a run in the underdog role. Under-seeded as an eight, the Panthers had five true road court wins against RPI Top 100 teams, including a 28-point rout of Georgetown in early January. Pitt is well-liked by the advanced stats gurus, placing 7th in KenPom and 10th in the Sagarin ratings.
Upset alert: New Mexico. The Lobos were the regular season and tournament champs of the Mountain West, but March hasn’t been too kind to their league or their coach. The MWC is just 15-33 in the NCAA Tournament in its history, and Steve Alford has only made one Sweet 16 appearance (with SW Missouri State in 1999) as a head coach, losing to #14 (Northwestern State, 2006) and a #11 (Washington, 2010) when his teams have been seeded third.
Quick hit: They had some hiccups along the way (cough TCU cough), but Kansas is in a familiar position, earning a #1 seed for the third time in the last five years. They have what looks like the second-toughest draw, potentially facing talented North Carolina in their second game, and the most challenging 4-5 pod (VCU and Michigan). In the bottom of the bracket, Georgetown and Florida are hard to figure out, but each has Final Four potential if they play to their capability.
Sleeper: VCU. Much like their A-10 counterpart Saint Louis, the Rams have emerged as a darkhorse favorite. VCU is the nation’s leader in turnover margin, and their frantic pace (their fans call it “havoc”) is challenging to prepare for. Tournament success often comes down to coaching, and it's hard to find many better than Shaka Smart. He gets it.
Upset alert: Florida. The Gators seem to be a sexy Final Four pick, this despite the fact that they have two wins of note – Missouri and Mississippi at home – since November. Florida was great in Gainesville, where they went 15-0, but they were just 3-7 against the RPI Top 100 outside of their own state. Sure, they have experience, and a head coach that has won 18 of his last 21 NCAA Tournament games, but they’re just too Jekyll and Hyde for me.