On Tuesday, 68 teams (yes, what used to be known as "play-in" games are now round 1) will begin the ultimate quest to be named the bast collage hoops team in the land while millions of fans will be checking off winners and losers in the annual bracket madness that is March in America.
The opening game of the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship tips off at Tuesday at 6:40 pm, when a pair of #16 seeds, Albany and Mount St. Mary's, meet for the right to be slaughtered in the South bracket by #1 Florida in the second round.
This game is about as consequential - unless you really believe you're going to take a billion bucks off of Warren Buffett - as a tail feather in a chicken coop. Never has a #1 seed fallen to a 16-seed. If you must make a choice between the 16-16 Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers (winners of the Northeastern Conference tournament) and the 18-14 Albany Great Danes - winners of the America East tournament with a Scooby-Do look-alike as their mascot - flip a coin and cross the winner off in the next round.
Both Albany and Mt. St. Mary's finished fourth in their respective conferences.
The second Tuesday night game has a little more intrigue to it, as the teams are set down as 12-seeds, the winner moving on to face St. Louis in the Midwest region. North Carolina State meets up with Xavier at roughly 9:10 pm.
One could confidently give the Wolfpack the edge over the Musketeers in this meeting, but, as any veteran of bracket busting understands, almost nothing is certain come March. NC State was 21-13 with a 9-9 mark in the ACC, and they knocked off Syracuse in the second round of the conference tourney. They also feature ACC player of the year, T.J. Warren, who is a match-up nightmare.
The 21-12 Musketeers ended up tied for third in the watered-down Big East, not exactly a vote of confidence. NC State is a 2 1/2-point favorite.
On Wednesday, another pair of first round games feature Cal Poly vs. Texas Southern in a meeting of 16-seeds, and Tennessee vs. Iowa in the late game.
The winner of the first game goes on to face #1 seed in the Midwest, Wichita State, the only team in the tournament with an undefeated record, at 34-0. The Shockers were the only team to make the grade out of the Missouri Valley conference, but still look like a #1 that will not lose to a #16. Rinse and repeat the structure from Tuesday night and cross out the team on the line below Wichita State.
The Volunteers played well enough in the SEC tournament to make Florida a little nervous, though eventually falling in the semi-final. Iowa was eliminated early in the Big Ten tourney, but somehow gets into the mix because they're from a power conference. Despite a 9-9 mark against Big Ten teams, the Hawkeyes passed the eye test of the tournament selection committee. Either that, or the school needed the extra dough. Tennessee is a 1 1/2=-point favorite. The winner heads on to meet UMass in Raleigh on Sunday.
With three "play-in" teams all advancing into the Midwest conference, the obvious question is whether that makes that bracket stronger or weaker. Since two of the teams will be 11-and-12 seeds, it would suggest that the bracket is stronger, though many will claim that Wichita State is the weakest #1 in some time. The bracket also includes #2 Duke, #3 Michigan and #4 Louisville, only one of which captured their conference championship - Louisville. If there's anything glaring and obviously wrong in this year's brackets, it is Louisville on the four-line. They won the American Athletic conference tournament with ease and, if successful in their first two games, will have Wichita State in a regional semi-final, unless #8 Kentucky or #9 Kansas State rises up and smites the Shockers first.
Toughest among the regions is probably the East, where the 1-6 seeds are Virginia, Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State, Cincinnati and North Carolina, and it doesn't get much easier after that, with teams like St. Joe's, Harvard and Providence in the mix.
If you're looking for a natural Final Four, try this on for size: Midwest - Louisville, West - Wisconsin, East - Iowa State, South - Florida. Other than Wisconsin, each of those teams won their conference tournament, though in the case of the West region (another in the running for weakest region), the only reliable conference champion was Gonzaga, winners of the WCC, seeded at #8. The Zags may get #1 seed Arizona in their second game, and recall that the Wildcats were knocked off by UCLA in the PAC-12 title game.
In the Final Four, this scenario has Louisville beating Wisconsin and Florida whipping Iowa State, though either of those games could easily go the other way. Picking an ultimate winner between those four teams is a tough task, though most would side with Florida. However, the SEC was not very deep, Louisville comes out of another weak conference, the American Athletic, making the case for the Cyclones or Badgers, each from power conferences.
For the record, CBD will take Iowa State to win it all.
ESPN offers a nice bracket look, adorned by Hooter's Girls, here, plus a link to their tournament challenge, one of the more popular online bracket contests.