First the good news: Iowa State's four-year NCAA Tournament drought is now over. The scandals, attrition, and road woes of the last few years are now officially exorcised. Cyclone Nation's long, national nightmare is over.
Now the bad news: the Cyclones' stay may not last long given their draw. Minnesota in the first round will be a tougher matchup than we think at first glance, although that is a very winnable game for ISU. Following the Golden Gophers is a date with mega-talented North Carolina, and in Charlotte no less.
ISU could face a team with a grand tradition, a potential Hall of Fame coach, and much better overall talent in a de facto home game.
Still, this shouldn't take away from this season's accomplishments at all. The Cyclones overcame the type of midseason adversity that usually plays homewrecker, and instead made chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. After giving every ounce of sweat and blood he has to the program over the last four years, Jared Homan gets a much-deserved shot at March Madness. The bulk of this team returns next season and could find itself in the preseason top 25.
This has been a satisfying, and maddening, season. No matter what happens from here, it can only be characterized as a certifiable success.
Overall View of the NCAA Tournament Bracket
It pays to have your man leading the Selection Committee!
After three straight years of suffering through the most insufferable so-called "championship" event in all of American team sports – otherwise known as the NIT – the state of Iowa finally got a break. It's not what you know, after all, but who you know.
The state of Iowa placed three teams in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament yesterday when the pairings came out. That's more than states like Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Florida. States with more population and talent than ours, but states lacking the quality of team play we're blessed with. Per capita, could the state of Iowa be the college basketball capital of the country?
Is it coincidental that this happened with Bob Bowlsby, the University of Iowa's athletic director, chairing the Selection Committee? Probably not, but that doesn't mean something unseemly or some sinister plot was at work.
The simple fact of the matter is that none of the teams whose bubble's burst yesterday can make a real strong case for inclusion. You can tell me who deserves to be in, but then you have to tell me who you would take out. The national pundits were all over Northern Iowa, demanding justice for Notre Dame in their place. However, the Irish lost to Rutgers – let me repeat that, Rutgers! – in the first round of the Big East Tournament with a NCAA bid at stake.
Sure, if I lived outside of Iowa would I give UNI a spot over Notre Dame? Probably not, however, the Panthers had a top 40 RPI and since 1990 about 97 percent of the teams that ranked that high and were eligible for at-large bids received one. If Notre Dame wanted a bid so bad it shouldn't have lost to the Scarlet Knights. Nonetheless, there is a part of me that feels bad for Mike Bray, a class coach who two years in a row now has been snubbed despite posting consecutive winning records in the rugged Big East. Maybe Notre Dame should reconsider that move to the Big Ten?
I also feel a sense of empathy for the Mid-American Conference, which finished ahead of the WAC and Mountain West in the conference RPI ratings but received fewer bids than both. I'm perfectly fine with the Missouri Valley Conference receiving three bids since it finished ahead of Conference USA in the RPI and had a terrific season. But Miami University, the regular season MAC champ, had an RPI of 43 and seven wins against the RPI top 100. That, by the way, is one more than UNI. The Redhawks may think they have a legitimate gripe, but they must remember they lost at Marshall – let me repeat that, Marshall! – in their season finale.
If Notre Dame and Miami University wanted in so badly they shouldn't have choked against teams ranked 144th and 235th in the RPI in the final week of the season.
That brings us to Iowa, coached by Rasputin himself. You cannot kill off Steve Alford, you can only hope to contain him. He's been drugged, he's been shot, and he's been written off, but the man knows a thing or two about perserverance. Two weeks ago he may not have been sleeping with the fishes yet, but he was certainly beginning to nod off. The Hawkeyes had lost at Purdue and Minnesota by blowing more late game leads and were doomed to another sub-.500 season in the Big Ten. His boss had refused to give him a public vote of confidence despite ample opportunity to do so. Two newspapers in the state had written editorials saying it was time for a change.
Two weeks later he's got the Hawkeyes back in the NCAAs for the first time in four years. Two weeks later he's earned a reprieve for year seven. Two weeks later the bumblebees are back on the bandwagon.
Looks like meat is back on the menu boys.
Should Iowa leapfrog a team like Indiana, which finished three games ahead of the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten standings? It's unprecedented but justified. The Hoosiers needed one win to make it in, and then promptly mailed it in against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. Meanwhile, Iowa showed the Committee it really wanted in, and the Committee obliged with an invite.
Which gets us back to Bowlsby. Bitter out-of-staters will look for a second shooter on the grassy knoll, but it doesn't take a nefarious scheme to cut a respected colleague some slack when nobody else seems to have made a real strong case for a spot in the field. That's not a conspiracy that's real life. Anytime human beings are involved the process is flawed, but it certainly wasn't an ethical stretch for the Committee to throw a bone his way as opposed to Buffalo and St. Joseph's.
Overall, I thought the Selection Committee did a very good job in a very trying year. And Bowlsby killed two birds with one stone. His team got in and he avoided a messy divorce, at least until next year. Any chief executive reading this, no matter how anti-Hawkeye, has to admire a slick move like that. I just wish he could've given the Cyclones some slack by placing them in bracket that didn't involve a second round matchup with North Carolina.
The Chicago Region
Best first weekend matchup—An LSU-Arizona second round game would feature athletic teams with vastly different styles that each finished the season hot until late losses in their respective conference tournaments.
Most overrated team—It's easily Arizona. Sure, they have three great players and plenty of offensive firepower. But where is the defense? They're just as capable of a 100-point outburst as they are of not getting out of the opening weekend.
Most underrated team—It's LSU, which was playing the best basketball in the SEC down the stretch until Florida's run in the conference tournament. Brandon Bass and Big Baby are tough matchups for anybody in this region.
First round upset that will happen—We're not really comfortable with forecasting any shockers in the opening round in this region.
First round upset that won't happen—Utah State won't beat Arizona, but the Aggies will certainly give Lute Olson a scare.
Dark horse Final Four contender—Again, it's LSU. They matchup well with every team in this region except the top two seeds, Illinois and Oklahoma State. Those two would present perimeter problems for the Tigers if they get that far.
Sweet 16—Illinois vs. Alabama and LSU vs. Oklahoma State.
Elite Eight—Illinois vs. Oklahoma State.
Regional champion—Illinois, although I'd probably like the Cowboys if the game wasn't in Chicago.
The Austin Region
Best first weekend matchup—Two schools that are in close proximity, but don't play each other for some reason, are Kentucky and Cincinnati; and they could be looking at a second round matchup. Two discipline-minded coaches that love the physical, defensive brand of basketball.
Most overrated team—They're talented, have six starters that average double figures scoring, and led the Big Ten in rebounding. Yet, for whatever reason, Michigan State has been soft for two years now and that has to be killing Tom Izzo. Blown leads late and a lack of steady point guard play continues to plague the Spartans, whose only quality road win this season came at Iowa in the first game the Hawkeyes played without Pierre Pierce. And they nearly blew a 20-point cushion in that one.
Most underrated team—Hard to call the Sooners underrated with a three seed, but the Big 12 co-champions are getting paltry play from the various Bracketologists doing the Selection Sunday postmortems. That's an iffy proposition for a team that's deep, shoots the three well, and is coached by Kelvin Sampson.
First round upset that will happen—For the second straight season, and third time in four years, Michigan State's stay in the NCAA Tournament will be a short one. If you're looking for that traditional 5-12 upset, this is the one to take. The Monarchs have 27 wins, nine of which came against the RPI Top 100. Michigan State only has seven and invents ways to blow big games. The Spartans will come up with another one here.
First round upset that won't happen—You want to give a nod to your instate brethren during this March Madness love fest, but the simple fact of the matter is that Iowa doesn't match up well with the Bearcats physically. They'll play hard, but come up short; barring a three-point barrage from Jeff Horner.
Dark horse Final Four contender—I don't really see one in this region.
Sweet 16—Duke vs. Syracuse and Oklahoma vs. Kentucky.
Elite Eight—Syracuse vs. Oklahoma.
Regional champion—Oklahoma, two years ago the Sooners lost to the Orange in a regional final that was essentially a Syracuse home game. This time in Austin the universe gets even.
Best first weekend matchup—This one is a tie. Pittsburgh-Washington and West Virginia-Wake Forest in the second round feature two games with teams facing off with contrasting styles. Two of these teams play defense superbly, and the other two don't.
Most overrated team—I'm really not trying to beat up on the Pac-10, but the only reason the Huskies are a No. 1 seed is because six other teams lost in the last week to open the door. Where are the quality road wins outside of the Great Alaska Shootout? Where is the defense? Where is the size?
Most underrated team—Pittsburgh could be as scary a No. 9 seed as I can ever remember. The Panthers are rugged and will defensively get in your shorts for 40 minutes. They finished the regular season with road wins at Notre Dame and Boston College, too. If the jumpshot is falling look out.
First round upset that will happen—Rick Pitino was lobbying hard to get his Louisville squad a No. 1 seed, and the Selection Committee responded by making them a No. 4. Louisiana-Lafayette comes from the Sun Belt, a league that's been good for some upsets in the past. The Cardinals are not an overly talented team, and have just one star player, so they're vulnerable if Francisco Garcia isn't hot.
First round upset that won't happen—The 5-12 upset that won't happen is Georgia Tech-George Washington. The Colonials have some nice non-conference wins, but the Yellow Jackets are finally rounding into form at the right time of the season.
Dark horse Final Four contender—It's Pittsburgh because of the way the Panthers play defense.
Sweet 16—Pittsburgh vs. Georgia Tech and Gonzaga vs. Wake Forest.
Elite Eight—Georgia Tech vs. Wake Forest.
Regional champion—Georgia Tech, and the curse of Billy Packer lives on.
Best first weekend matchup—Florida-Villanova sounds more like a Regional Final given the way these two teams were playing at the end of the season. In this, the toughest of the four regions, it's a second round matchup.
Most overrated team—It's Kansas, which finished the season on a down note, lacks athleticism (especially with Keith Langford not totally healthy), and struggles with the jump shot. Don't be surprised if the Jayhawks don't make it out of the first weekend.
Most underrated team—N.C. State is experienced, battle-tested by three months of ACC play, loose after playing with its backs against the wall for three weeks now just to get in the tournament, and has a superstar that can carry them in Julius Hodge.
First round upset that will happen—Last year Northern Iowa was close, this year the Panthers get the job done against Wisconsin. Eric Coleman has the athleticism in the post to frustrate Mike Wilkinson, and if Erik Crawford and Ben Jacobson are hitting from the perimeter UNI will win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 15 years.
First round upset that won't happen—There really aren't any other games on the upset radar in this region.
Dark horse Final Four contender—Again it is N.C. State for the various reasons mentioned above.
First round winners—North Carolina, Iowa State, Villanova, Florida, Northern Iowa, Kansas, N.C. State, and Connecticut.
Sweet 16—North Carolina vs. Villanova and Kansas vs. N.C. State.
Elite Eight—North Carolina vs. N.C. State.
Regional champion—North Carolina, easily the most talented team in the country.
The Final Four
Georgia Tech over Illinois. The Yellow Jackets have the three guards to matchup with the Illini on the perimeter, although St. Louis will be a home game for Illinois and it would be a great story to see Bruce Weber win it following the death of his mother.
North Carolina over Oklahoma, and this won't be easy as you might think. Kelvin Sampson knows what it takes to beat Roy Williams, but I think his Sooners are one slasher away from really matching up with the Tar Heels.
North Carolina over Georgia Tech. Just another weeknight in the ACC. Roy Williams finally gets the national title that has eluded him for so long.
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network.)