The 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship gets underway tonight in Dayton, OH, when the North Carolina A&T Aggies tip off with the Liberty Flames, surprise winner of the automatic bid from the Big South after going 6-10 in conference and 15-20 overall. Opening tip is set for 6:40 pm EDT.
Liberty won three tournament games to reach this spot; their ascent into the NCAA tourney their second chance in nine years. In 2004, they lost an opening round game to St. Joe's.
The game figures to be close, though NC A&T has a distinct height advantage which could prove fatal to the Flames.
Like Liberty, the Aggies won their conference tourney, winning four straight to advance. The problem with A&T is that they rank 317th in shooting percentage, which is pretty poor, and Liberty plays sound defense.
Look for the Flames to advance, possibly via the foul line, to play Louisville on Saturday.
In the late game (9:10 pm EDT), St. Mary's, which, besides West region top-seed Gonzaga, is the only entrant from the West Coast Conference. The Gaels face a solid, yet unappreciated squad from the Sun Belt, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who posted a 19-1 record in conference and boast a 28-5 record overall.
Despite those gaudy numbers, the Blue Raiders lost to Florida International in their conference tournament, but received a gift vote from the selection committee. They'll have to prove they belong against St. Mary's, and they should advance to a second round game with Memphis. If so, they'll have a big opportunity to post an early upset.
Final Four Prediction
Picking the Final Four usually involves more luck than predictive skill, and this season is no different. In fact, this is one of the most competitive fields ever presented by the NCAA, with at least ten teams with a legitimate shot at capturing the championship.
Fearless Rick's best guess at who emerges from each region goes like this:
East: Miami (2)
West: Ohio State (2)
Midwest: St. Louis (4)
South: VCU (5)
OK, maybe that's a bit optimistic, with no #1 seeds reaching, but, this is tough field and upsets are nothing new at the Big Dance.
In the semi-final, Midwest plays West and East plays South, so look for the Buckeyes of Ohio State to advance over the Billikens, and Miami to to the Commodores.
The final goes to Ohio State, in a close, 67-63 win over the Hurricanes.
Good luck to everybody with their bracket picks.