College football is my favorite sport but, by far, my favorite two days of the year are the opening Thursday and Friday of the Tournament. I love the sheer magnitude of it: four four-game shifts each day ensure that you can almost always watch competitive games and minimize the commercial breaks with some skillful operation of the remote. Atop the natural rivalries and regionalism, you have an automatic stake in every game thanks to your bracket. And it's early enough in the tournament that everyone's bracket is a potential winner if the outstanding games go a certain way. What's not to like?
Winner: Doug Gottlieb
I am usually pretty hard on announcers, but have recently found myself with a soft spot for folks who don't toe the company line and buy into the larger-than-life hype that is major college athletics. (As an announcer, Bill Walton has a lot of other qualities that may or may not outweigh his strength here, but one cannot deny that he scores highly on the irreverence scale.) So after complaining about the incessant commercials and eliciting an icy silence from his play-by-play partner Spiro Dedes, Gottlieb was already on my good side.
But then Gottlieb simply provided a level of actual analysis – not blabber, not homerism disconnected from reality, but actual analysis – that I hadn't heard on a college basketball broadcast this year. After a dozen-plus hours of round ball, the moment still stands out for Gottlieb's commentary. Colorado State, if memory serves, got whistled for an off-ball offensive foul, and Gottlieb noted that the Rams had it coming. He had called WAC games throughout the season, he said, and the player in question always stuck out his hip on screens. On other games, I heard announcers struggle to get the names down as they marched through their quadrupleheaders, and the contrast couldn't be wider. Gottlieb knows his stuff.
Loser: Advanced stats
Okay, this is an overreaction given the sample size. Besides, maybe I'm just bitter because I looked at his numbers before I made my picks. Still, when the tournament started, KenPom.com had two teams in his top ten that the committee seeded fifth or lower. The first, eight-seed Pitt, got routed at the hands of Wichita State. The second, five-seed Wisconsin, would have been the biggest name to go down this opening stanza if not for Georgetown, and as is, is the only blemish in an otherwise perfect run for the Big 10. Still, despite the early carnage, there's hope in the form of KenPom's season-long No. 1 and my pick to win it all…
The South Region's No. 1 seed, Kansas had a home-state crowd but struggled mightily before putting away 16-seed Western Kentucky in the final minute. Even if they do get by a stacked North Carolina team to reach the Sweet 16, arrow down on the Jayhawks moving forward, in Bootie parlance. Meanwhile, the South's No. 2 Georgetown fell victim to the Round of 64's biggest upset in the form of Florida Gulf Coast, and with Minnesota knocking off No. 6 seed UCLA, the field has cleared for no school more so than Florida.
Look at the Gators' most likely path to the Final Four: No. 14 seed Northwestern State, No. 11 seed Minnesota, No. 7 seed San Diego State and No. 5 seed VCU. (At a five seed, VCU represents the average of Kansas and North Carolina's seed, and judging by their opening round, have as good a shot of anyone as making that potential Elite Eight matchup.) Anyhow, if UNC, VCU, or Michigan can knock off Kansas -- and even if they can't -- it's looking like Florida may reach the Final Four without having to face a truly elite team. If you need to be good and lucky to win this thing, the stars look to be aligning for the school from Gainseville.
Loser: Selection committee/Winner: Pac-12
The analysts questioned Gonazga's receipt of a No. 1 seed, and sure enough, the Zags nearly made the wrong kind of history, just barely hanging on against No. 16 seed Southern. The analysts said Oregon was about five seeds too low. Then the Ducks won and the Pac-12 started 3-0. Though the league has come back to earth, with Colorado and UCLA falling to Big Ten foes on Friday, here's betting that the Pac-12 gets a bubble team in next year, or at least benefits from kinder treatment on the seed lines.
Winner: Big Ten
Turns out conventional wisdom is right sometimes. Crowned the nation's best conference all season long, the Big Ten has looked like the nation's best conference, hands down. Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois and Minnesota all advanced, with aforementioned Wisconsin the only loser. Not only is that a 6-1 mark with four top-four seeds alive and kicking, but the only Big Ten winner not to put up a double-digit margin was Illinois, a seven seed. Sure, the Pac-12 had a good opening few days, but the Big Ten had a great opening stretch. Hey, at least we have that Rose Bowl trophy.
Thursday's big upset winners included Harvard and California. Aside from the natural Stanford/Cal hate dynamic, that's less than ideal for Cardinal recruiting. Harvard is increasingly targeting power conference-caliber players (whether programmatic revival or relaxed admissions standards drives this push is another conversation). Meanwhile, Cal is a natural recruiting rival in terms of geography, a coach who probably could negatively recruit against Stanford better than most (oh to be a fly on that wall), and a degree that is one of the most prestigious of any BCS program. The better those programs, the stronger their pull away from the Farm. Plus Duke, the opposing program that has landed more Stanford targets than any, looked the part too.
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