One of the most alluring aspects of March Madness is bracketology. Yes, everyone loves to see a Cinderella like Florida Gulf Coast, but fans around the country trying to win office pools may adopt a team for their tournament run.
Getting off to a strong start on opening weekend is absolutely vital to a successful bracket. That trendy Sweet 16 sleeper you selected becomes an albatross if it falls flat in the round of 64. Similarly, you'll want to stay ahead of the curve in identifying potential bracket busters before they arise.
So which round of 64 games are the toughest calls, and how can we determine who has the upper hand? Here are a few of the tightest projected games, as well as predictions on who will ultimately emerge victorious.
(No. 9) Oklahoma State Over (No. 8) Gonzaga
The most glamorous No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchup pits annual mid-major powerhouse Gonzaga against Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State. The Cowboys, who were a Top 10 team early on, have experienced a wild season but recovered from a debilitating seven-game losing streak to re-emerge as a dangerous dark horse:
While the Pokes have received plenty of national attention, the Zags have largely flown under the radar after earning a No. 1 seed last year. Gonzaga lost top scorer Kelly Olynyk to the NBA but has compensated with the 13th-ranked defense on a per-possession basis.
Sam Dower is the engine for the Bulldogs this year, leading the team in points (15.1) and rebounds (7.1). In addition, Gonzaga has a deep and experienced backcourt with Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and David Stockton.
However, the Cowboys are simply loaded with NBA-quality talent and are finally coming together with five wins in their past seven contests. With Markel Brown, Le'Bryan Nash and Phil Forte III, Oklahoma State has three top scorers to complement Smart.
With Oklahoma State ranked in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the Cowboys are simply a more well-rounded team. Even if Gonzaga can contain the Cowboys' arsenal of scorers, it won't be enough for the Bulldogs to pull off the upset.
(No. 8) Memphis Over (No. 9) George Washington
The Memphis Tigers have shown the capacity to be one of the top teams in the country, with quality wins over Louisville (twice), Oklahoma State, Gonzaga and SMU. The Tigers are making their fourth consecutive tournament appearance under Josh Pastner but have won just one game to date.
However, this Tigers squad looks like the best rendition yet during Pastner's tenure. Memphis can be a potent offensive team when it forces turnovers and gets out in transition, which it does with 8.7 steals per game. And as ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman notes (subscription required), the Tigers have an X-factor in the form of a Colonial transfer:
The Tigers added David Pellom prior to the start of the season as a fifth-year transfer via the graduate transfer rule -- and the Colonials weren't overly upset to see him go. Pellom is a reserve forward who averages 4.3 points and 2.9 rebounds, but his bigger impact lies elsewhere. He may be able to help Memphis coach Josh Pastner and the Tigers in preparing for GW's tendencies prior to meeting the Colonials in Raleigh.
George Washington is a solid defensive squad that should get an offensive boost with the return of second-leading scorer Kethan Savage. But Savage played only one minute in GW's loss to VCU in the A-10 tournament and may not make much of an impact. Thus, expect Joe Jackson, Shaq Goodwin and Co. to move into the round of 32 for the second consecutive season.
(No. 8) Pittsburgh Over (No. 9) Colorado
While many have ninth-seeded Oklahoma State conquering Gonzaga, another ninth seed is favored over their higher-seeded opponent:
KenPom.com does not have this as much of a contest, however, with Pitt ranking 18th overall in total efficiency, whereas Colorado is just 64th. That separation is due to the Buffaloes averaging just 105.9 points per 100 possessions, the 141st-ranked offensive efficiency in the country.
Colorado's offensive woes have been exacerbated without starting point guard Spencer Dinwiddie, out since Jan. 12 after tearing his ACL against Washington. The Buffaloes have not scored over 70 points since Feb. 16, when they thrashed hapless USC.
After a midseason swoon, the Panthers are on an upswing headed into the tourney, having won five of their last six regular-season games before falling in a close contest to Virginia in the ACC tournament. Even as underdogs, look for Pitt to take down Colorado and move on to the round of 32.