With three Big East schools garnering No. 1 seeds, the first thing the 2009 NCAA Tournament reminds me of is the 1985 Big Dance. Back in ’85, three Big East schools (Villanova, Georgetown, and St. John’s) advanced to the Final Four at Rupp Arena in Lexington, where the Wildcats cut the nets down after stunning the Hoyas in the finals.
Twenty-four years later, Pitt, Louisville, and UConn from out of the Big East are top seeds along with North Carolina. The Cardinals are the overall top seed after beating Syracuse in the Big East Tournament finals and also capturing the league’s regular season crown.
UNC, Pitt, and UConn failed to make the finals of their respective conference tournaments. Therefore, all three teams are in bounce-back mode and are well rested if you value either of those characteristics.
Oklahoma’s late-season slump caused it to slip to a No. 2 seed in the same region as North Carolina. Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the Sooners as 18-point favorites for their first-round matchup against Morgan St., which is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
The MEAC champs are coached by Todd Bozeman, who had success in the Big Dance at California in the early 1990s. Bozeman recruited Jason Kidd to Berkeley before he was fired and subsequently banned from coaching by the NCAA for nearly a decade. He has resurfaced at Morgan St. and led it to a win over Maryland earlier this season.
The other second seeds are Duke, Michigan St., and Memphis. The Blue Devils haven’t made it out of the tournament’s first weekend the last two years. They’ll face Binghamton in the first round before a potential showdown against the Texas-Minnesota winner.
Memphis is in the same region as UConn if you’re thinking about potential Elite Eight matchups. The Huskies haven’t won a postseason game of any sort since 2006. That’ll most likely end against Chattanooga, which won the So-Con Tournament by beating Bobby Cremins’ College of Charleston squad.
Although Rick Pitino’s bunch garnered the tourney’s top overall seed, the oddsmakers don’t see it that way. LVSC has installed North Carolina as the 2/1 "chalk."
The Tar Heels could get all they want in their second round game against the Butler-LSU winner. We’ve seen UNC struggle to defend high-scoring guards like Wake Forest’s Jeff Teague, Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez, FSU’s Toney Douglas, and Boston College’s Tyrese Rice.
LSU has a scorer like that in Marcus Thornton. In addition, Trent Johnson has a pair of big-time defenders in Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple, both of whom combined to shut down J.J. Redick in a Sweet 16 win over Duke in the 2006 tourney when both players were freshmen.
If you’re into geography for the Big Dance, let’s point out a few factors of note. Florida St. has to travel to Boise, ID., while Utah, Arizona, and Arizona St. will play in Miami. Not only does UCLA have to fly to Philadelphia, but it might also have to play Villanova in a second-round game. (That won’t happen, though, as I have VCU taking out the Bruins.)
The Selection Committee certainly didn’t do Mississippi St. any favors. The Bulldogs, who had to play four straight days in winning the SEC Tournament, got a No. 13 seed despite winning 23 games. Plus, they have to go to Portland and play on Thursday.
As for advantages in staying close to home, we have several examples beyond the one we just mentioned (‘Nova in Philly). Ohio St. will play in Dayton, while Duke and UNC get to play in Greensboro. Gonzaga and Washington get to play in Portland, while the other six teams playing at the Rose Garden are either from the Eastern or Central time zones.
In my mind, there are two forms of sleepers for the NCAA Tournament. When I talk about a true sleeper, I’m talking about a team that doesn’t have a four seed or better but can really win the whole thing.
The first team that comes to mind for me is West Virginia. I see Bob Huggins getting the Mountaineers back to the Sweet 16 again, and there’s no ceiling for this squad that just beat Pitt in the Big East tourney.
Other true sleepers that are capable of getting to Detroit include Clemson, Texas, LSU, and Arizona St. The Sun Devils have a star in James Harden who is capable of pulling a John Wallace circa ’96 or a Danny Manning circa ’88.
Clemson has slipped a bit recently, but Oliver Purnell’s team can play with anybody, as evidenced by the woodshed treatment it gave Duke earlier this year. Texas was inconsistent all year, and a one-and-done showing wouldn’t shock me, but the Longhorns are talented enough to catch fire.
Another type of sleeper is a double-digit seed with a good shot at getting to the Sweet 16. These teams don’t truly have a chance to win it all. The only double-digit seeds to make the Final Four are George Mason in 2006 and the 1986 LSU squad led by Ricky Blanton and Anthony Wilson. Both were No. 11 seeds who lost in the national semifinals.
I see a half-dozen double-digit seeds that can be dangerous. Western Kentucky crashed the Sweet 16 last season, and the Hilltoppers will have no fear of Illinois and/or the Gonzaga-Akron winner. Temple has a chance against anyone on a night when Dionte Christmas is hot. The Owls will face Arizona St. in the first round.
Check out this year’s Men’s NCAA Betting Lines for the tourney.
Wisconsin has a lot more NCAA Tournament experience than FSU, which is a three-point favorite at most books. The Badgers get after it defensively, and Tallahassee Democrat Sports Editor Jim Lamar sent word via e-mail Sunday night that, “FSU has struggled against grinder teams. I would like the ‘under’ blind. This is a 60-something, 50-something game.”
I personally thought the total should be 127. LVSC sent out 124 as the opening tally.
I think the ‘Noles will get past Wisconsin, but they do go through stretches where they struggle to score. Toney Douglas is the only player who averages in double figures for FSU.
Michigan is a No. 10 seed to watch. The Wolverines will take on a slumping Clemson squad, and if they move on, Oklahoma would be the presumed opponent, and we’ve all seen the Sooners limp down the stretch.
Finally, there’s VCU and Mississippi St. The Rams will upset UCLA, and they might knock off Villanova too. Anthony Grant can’t be happy about the prospects of taking on the Wildcats in their home city, but that’s the draw VCU faces. Remember, Eric Maynor and Co. knocked off Duke two years ago and took Pitt to overtime before falling in the second round.
For the same reasons I tabbed MSU as my sleeper team in the SEC Tournament, I think the Bulldogs will be a tough out. For starters, they have the nation’s best shot blocker in Jarvis Varnado. Secondly, they have streaky perimeter shooters that all have deep range. Perhaps most importantly, freshman point guard Dee Bost is playing like a veteran and is a player that can break down defenders off the dribble.
We touched on UNC as the 2/1 "chalk." The Tar Heels are followed on the board by Pitt (4/1), Louisville (9/2), UConn (5/1), Duke (10/1), and Memphis (10/1).
If you’re looking for value with a future bet, it’s hard to ignore the 30/1 number that Oklahoma is sporting. As previously mentioned, the Sooners haven’t played well recently, but they have the best player in the country in Blake Griffin, who can put this team on his shoulders for a six-game stretch.
Finally, don’t be scared to get a small taste of Syracuse to win it all for a 50/1 return (risk $10 to win $500!). The fun starts Thursday. Happy March Mayhem to everyone!
Bet on college basketball’s March Madness at BetSportsWeb.com.
By Brian Edwards
BetSportsWeb Sports Writer
Managing Editor of Vegas Insider