I can’t believe I’ve gone this far in my silver anniversary NCAA Tournament predictions and haven’t whined about the mid-majors. Either I’m getting old, or I can’t keep track of which teams are in which conferences anymore.
But my God, can Wichita State get a little respect? The Shockers made the Final Four last year. They came within a few minutes of beating Louisville and getting to the final. They’re 34-0, a top seed in the Midwest. And almost no one (including me) expects them to go back.
It’s not that I don’t respect Wichita. But the committee threw some serious land mines in their path. I’m sure it’s all a coincidence – like Rick Pitino and Steve Masiello getting matched up in the first game, or two Ohio teams playing a game in Buffalo.
Wichita State’s reward for being unbeaten and a top seed? A possible meeting with Kentucky, the preseason No. 1, in its second game. And if they get to the Sweet 16? How about a date with Louisville, the defending NCAA champ, which somehow got a mere No. 4 seed?
Why don’t they slash the tires on the team bus and put tacks on the chairs in the Shocker locker room while they’re at it?
Anyway, the Midwest is absolutely loaded. The top three seeds (Wichita State, Michigan, Louisville) were in last year’s Final Four. I’ll bet the fellows smiled at each other in the committee room and considered tossing in Syracuse as the third seed, too.
Then there’s Kentucky, the 2012 national champ, and Duke, the 2010 winner. Kentucky (eight) and Duke (4) have 12 national titles between them. I love this region. Even the presence of an ordinary Pac-12 team, Arizona State, can’t ruin it.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who has used the respect card with his team all year, will not be lacking for motivational material this week.
Game to Watch: Louisville-Manhattan. Pitino goes against Masiello, who played for him at Kentucky and was his assistant at Louisville. One of those happy coincidences of the selection process! Masiello can’t be happy with it. Louisville is the defending champion and third choice by the oddsmakers to win it all — and a No. 4 seed in the region. But the Jaspers peaked in the MAAC tourney and play the sort of defense that could give Louisville trouble.
Upset City: Mercer over Duke. Mercer won the Atlantic Sun tourney. Sound familiar? Florida Gulf Coast, the darling of last year’s Dance, came from the Atlantic Sun. Mercer is legit, a deep, experienced squad that ranks 23th in the country in scoring, 25th in rebound margin and 10th in assists. Duke has Jabari Parker, a fabulous freshman who could take the game over. But this is the kind of matchup (cough, Lehigh) that keeps Mike Krzyzewski up late at night.
Sleeper: It turns my face red to even type this, but … Kentucky. Hey, John Calipari’s latest bunch of fab freshmen worked for this eighth seed. They might even have attended a class now and then. They’re young and erratic. They struggled to go 12-6 in a soft SEC. But they’re enormously talented and might find themselves at just the right time. Good luck, Wichita State. Hello, NBA.