The NCAA tournament selection committee may have decided it likes CBS and Turner’s money more than ESPN’s, but it clearly buys into ESPN’s Big East hype. So if you take 11 teams from one conference, you better do everything you can to ensure at least one of them makes the Final Four.
The anointed Big East team is clearly Pittsburgh. The Panthers have what amounts to a dream draw. Jamie Dixon has been close to the Final Four, but has never quite gotten there. He will never have a better chance than right now.
Consider the next three seeds in his region: Florida, which won a remarkably weak SEC; BYU, which deserves the No. 3 seed but is without leading rebounder Brandon Davies; and Wisconsin, which is as well-coached as any team in the tournament but scored 33 points against Penn State on Friday. Pitt’s most dangerous game may be its second, against Old Dominion or Butler.
Putting ODU and Butler up against each other on the 8-9 line is pretty close to criminal. ODU is the best rebounding team in the country and won the most underrated conference in the country. Forget that Butler was two inches from being the defending champion in this event; the Bulldogs have won nine straight, and their conference was the toughest it has ever been.
Both teams deserved higher seeds, and they certainly didn’t deserve to have to play one another in the first round.
The Butler-ODU winner will be a tough out for Pittsburgh, especially ODU because they are one of the few teams in the country that can mix it up inside with the Panthers.
The other dangerous team in this bracket is Kansas State, which righted its ship after spending two months looking like an NIT team, at best. Jacob Pullen said he wouldn’t play in the NIT; now, though, the Wildcats look capable of playing in the Final Four. Or, they could lose in the first round to a Utah State team that is also underseeded. It should not be a No. 12.
The really dangerous opening game is Wisconsin-Belmont. The Bruins should have beaten Duke three years ago and are 30-4. Bo Ryan’s style, which apparently didn’t affect his team’s seeding, creates close games. This could be Belmont’s time. It could also be Gonzaga’s time — again. St. John’s received a lot of the aforementioned Big East hype. Because it is unlikely that Jim Burr, Tim Higgins and Earl Walton will referee St. John’s-Gonzaga, the ’Zags, who also started slow, have a real chance for an upset and could also knock off BYU, which should handle Wofford. Note to Cougars: Wofford came thisclose to beating Wisconsin last year. Watch out.
If the Big East is half as good as advertised, Pitt should get to a round of 16 matchup with Kansas State. St. John’s should figure a way to beat Gonzaga and BYU and meet Florida or Michigan State in the round of 16. Michigan State has been up-and-down all year but could be up one more time in a second round game against Florida. Or not.
In the end, it should work like this: Pitt will either lose in the second round or play in Houston. If it gets to the region final, none of its possible opponents is especially scary whether it is Florida (experienced and well-coached but just not that good); Michigan State (same thing) or even BYU — although the Jimmer factor could come into play in the second weekend.
Even so, none of those teams is likely to be any tougher than Old Dominion or Butler. So, if you can make it to Verizon Center on Saturday, you might see a regional champion crowned.