By Michael Wilbon
Monday, March 15, 2010; E02
Thursday and Friday can't get here fast enough because the NCAA tournament is wide, wide open. If we've learned anything over these first two weeks of March, it's that not all that much separates the best from the rest.
Hardly anything separated Mississippi State, which didn't even make the tournament field, from No. 1 seed Kentucky in the SEC championship game Sunday. Hardly anything separated Illinois, which didn't make it either, from No. 2 seed Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals Saturday.
And hardly anything is going to separate a No. 4 seed such as Purdue from a No. 13 seed such as Siena. In fact, the four No. 4 seeds in this tournament, which are in the top 16 teams if we rank all 65 in the field, are hard to distinguish from the No. 13 seeds they're supposed to defeat handily.
You think Gary Williams and Maryland aren't sweating the University of Houston and Aubrey Coleman? They are and should be.
And it's like that in all four regions, which is why this could be the most exciting tournament in years. All four No. 1 seeds advancing to the Final Four two years ago was a snoozer to me; it spoke to a certain top-heaviness in college basketball. Hey, that's what professional basketball is supposed to be, not the NCAA tournament.
The selection of Kansas, Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse as the No. 1 seeds is easy to defend.
Had Duke lost to Georgia Tech, West Virginia would have replaced the Blue Devils as a top seed. So there should be no real quibbling there.
The argument that Syracuse shouldn't be shipped out West and was treated worse than Duke doesn't hold water for one reason: Syracuse lost its first postseason game, in the Big East quarterfinals. Duke won the ACC tournament. Case closed. It doesn't much matter. You think Duke can't lose to Louisville or Cal in the second round? You think Syracuse can't lose to Gonzaga or Florida State in the second round?
We're not going to spend much time here on who got left out of the tournament, either. Illinois lost 14 games and had an RPI of 75, and these are damning numbers. Virginia Tech won 23 games but its nonconference schedule ranked 339th out of 347 schools. Sorry, Hokies.
I felt a little bad for one team Sunday when it was left out of the tournament field: Mississippi State. The Bulldogs had the SEC championship game against top-seeded Kentucky won. MSU had outplayed Kentucky for the second time in a month. A couple of free throws, a secured rebound, the Bulldogs would have been dancing. But they literally let Kentucky take the game with 0.1 of a second left Sunday, and if that wasn't crushing enough, they then get left out of the tournament field. I'm not real sure that Florida, 1-8 against top 25 teams, had to be included over Mississippi State.
As for those who got in, the fun is going to be in figuring out which high seeds are going out of the tournament first, because they're not all going to make a run, not this year. Northern Iowa, which won 28 games, will be a threat to Kansas in the second round. Maryland, with seniors Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes, would be a serious threat to Kansas . . . if the Terrapins can get past Houston and Michigan State, which would be a serious threat to Kansas. Georgetown would be a serious threat to Kansas, and certainly Ohio State would be, seeing as Evan Turner of the Buckeyes is the most versatile, most highly skilled player in college basketball this season. I can't see Kansas, which I think is the best team in the field, going through all four of those teams in the Midwest Region. This, without question, is the Group of Death.
Duke, of all the No. 1 seeds, has the toughest assignment simply because Louisville is a potential second-round opponent. Kentucky, which I was starting to doubt, has the easiest path to the Final Four. But if you're looking for a No. 15 seed to score one of those "upset of the tournament" victories, I'll give you one, in that same region: Todd Bozeman's Morgan State team is going to concede nothing to West Virginia, which the selection committee was thinking of seeding No. 1 as late as Sunday afternoon.
You want some real upsets? How about Washington to beat Marquette? How about Missouri to beat Clemson? How about Saint Mary's or Richmond -- take your pick -- to beat Villanova in the second round, or Oklahoma State to beat Ohio State in the second round?
Trying to thoughtfully pick the winners in this 2010 NCAA tournament bracket is more difficult than I can remember . . . ever. The only No. 1 seed I'm going with is Kentucky, young as the Wildcats are, because I don't have any real faith in Texas, in Wisconsin, in New Mexico and in West Virginia, the schools who figure to get in Kentucky's way. In the South, give me Baylor. In the Midwest, give me Ohio State (after beating Georgetown). In the West, give me Kansas State (over Syracuse).
But before getting to the region finals, we're going to see at least one No. 14 seed win, at least one No. 13 seed, at least one top seed pushed. If this is the last 65-team field before the NCAA ruins the tournament and goes to 96 teams, perhaps it will be one to truly remember. Perhaps it will be so good, so entertaining and full of upsets and memorable performances that the powers-that-be in the college basketball will stop and say to themselves, "What in the world could possibly be wrong with what we already have?"
The answer would be, of course, nothing. The tournament, at least what they gave us on Selection Sunday, looks like something we're about to fall in love with.