NCAA Bracket 2011 Predictions: Which Low Seeds Have the Best Odds?
Get your brackets ready, everyone, because it's time for March Madness!
This year's edition of the NCAA tournament figures to be as crazy as any, with plenty of good teams but no clear-cut, dominant favorites to speak of.
Such parity, of course, is excellent for the quality and excitement of the games, but not so much for us bracketeers, whose attempts at clairvoyance and office pool success are so often struck down during the first weekend of play. And, with three more play-in games this time around, predicting the field looks to be just a smidge more difficult than ever before.
All of this works in the favor of the lower seeds—nine and below—all of whom must be rushing to their local department stores in search of Cinderella's slippers.
With that in mind, here's a list of those tournament bottom-feeders with the best shot at catching a ride to the ball.
USC Trojans/VCU Rams
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We begin in Dayton, Ohio with Wednesday's 11-seed play-in game between USC and VCU.
Frankly speaking, whoever wins this game should have an excellent shot at pulling off the upset over sixth-seeded Georgetown on Friday in Chicago.
Aside from the fact that 11's have been known to take out sixes, the Hoyas have struggled over the past few weeks without point guard Chris Wright, who broke his left hand in the team's loss to Cincinnati on February 23rd.
Wright is expected to play when Georgetown takes the floor on Friday night, though he isn't likely to be back at full speed without having played with live contact since sustaining the injury.
As such, whoever emerges victorious between the Trojans and the Rams will be in as good a position as any to send the Hoyas home early, though neither figures to do a whole lot against a strong Purdue squad in the second round.
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Elsewhere in the Southwest bracket, but still in Chicago for the rounds of 64 and 32, lies yet another lower seed with the look of a Cinderella: Florida State.
The Seminoles snuck their way into the tourney as a 10-seed despite losing in the ACC tournament quarterfinals to Virginia Tech, which subsequently was left out of the tournament for the fourth year in a row as a bubble team. Luckily for FSU, an 11-5 record and third-place finish in conference was enough to get them off the bubble just before it burst.
The accuracy of any prediction regarding Leonard Hamilton's 21-10 team is dependent on the health of star forward Chris Singleton, the 6'9", 225-pound junior whose skill and versatility will be much needed against Texas A&M and likely Notre Dame after that.
In short, if Singleton returns from his foot injury and is effective, the Seminoles have a legitimate shot at reaching the Sweet 16. If he doesn't...well, good luck to them anyway.
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Perhaps no team in the country saw a bigger drop due to injuries than Villanova.
The Wildcats can thank their 16-1 start for their spot in the tournament after finishing the season with 10 losses in their final 15 games, including a loss in each of their last five.
Why, pray tell, did Jay Wright's team struggle so mightily in the second half of the season?
Well, for one, surviving in the Big East, with games against the likes of Syracuse, UConn, Pitt and Notre Dame on a regular basis, is something of a daunting task, and thriving in such a conference is, naturally, even more difficult.
Especially when a team's three best players suffer through recurring and nagging injuries, as Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Mouphtaou Yarou did throughout the second half of the Wildcats' up-and-down season.
Therefore, the question of which 'Nova team shows up to the tournament—the one that started 16-1 or the one that finished 5-10—is largely one of whether the aforementioned core players are healthy enough to play at as a high a level as they did from mid-November until mid-January.
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And you thought Villanova was on the bubble in the Big East? Just have a look at Marquette!
The Golden Eagles were firmly on the bubble before snatching up wins over Providence and West Virginia in the Big East tournament, though they were firmly dismissed from the proceedings at Madison Square Garden by eventual runner-up Louisville.
Sure, Buzz Williams' team was the last of 11 Big East teams to make the Big Dance, but they still come plenty well battle-tested from the best conference in the nation, with wins over UConn, Syracuse and Notre Dame on their resume.
Don't get me wrong: Xavier will be a tough out for the Eagles in the first round.
Not that veterans like senior forward Jimmy Butler and junior guard Darius Johnson-Odom aren't up to it.
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In the event that Marquette makes it to the Sweet 16, there's an outside chance, though still a chance nonetheless, that the Eagles will meet the Georgia Bulldogs with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.
The Bulldogs boast a talented junior tandem of 6'10" do-everything forward Trey Thompkins, a First Team All-SEC selection, and high-flying guard Travis Leslie, who made the SEC's second team. Both of them could very well be headed to the NBA draft after Georgia's tournament run is done.
In just his second year in Athens, head coach Mark Fox has his team poised to make some noise in the Big Dance, even though the 'Dogs managed only one big win all season: a home victory over Kentucky back in January.
Still, Georgia has the skill and athleticism to match up well against a Washington team that, despite its talent and depth, struggled with inconsistency throughout the 2010-2011 season.
Whether that will be enough for them to sneak past, say, North Carolina is a different story entirely.
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Speaking of talented but underperforming teams from the SEC, Tennessee has more than enough potential to make a run in the tournament.
The Volunteers endured something of a turbulent season, due in large part to an ongoing NCAA investigation into inappropriate recruiting contacts and a subsequent cover-up by head coach Bruce Pearl.
As such, 2010-11 turned into a roller coaster ride for the ballin' Creamsicles. Improprieties aside, Pearl's roster is still stacked with precocity, with junior guard Scotty Hopson, of flat-top fame, and freshman forward Tobias Harris leading the way,
A win over eighth-seed Michigan in the first round wouldn't necessarily come as a surprise, though a victory over Duke, a team that tends to struggle with more athletic competition, may well be in store on the way to the Sweet 16.
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Tennessee isn't the only team capable of cracking the bracket in the West region.
Memphis may not be what it once was under John Calipari, but the Tigers, like so many of these lower-seeded teams, have a bevy of young talent that's ready to shine on the national stage.
Josh Pastner's precocious party is led by a trio of freshman phenoms—guards Will Barton and Joe Jackson, and forward Tarik Black—who should be able to wreak some havoc against a less-agile Arizona team in the first round.
A matchup with Texas in the round of 32 would be a serious step up in competition for the young Tigers, though the Longhorns' backcourt is similarly skilled too and only slightly more experienced than Memphis'.
As such, the Tigers have the potential to be a serious Cinderella contender as a 12 seed.
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The weakness at the top of the West region is further underscored by the strength of its lower seeds, including 11-seed Missouri.
Certainly, the Tigers have had their share of struggles in recent weeks, dropping their last three regular season games, and Cincinnati is far from a pushover as a higher-seeded opponent.
That being said, it's tough not to like Mike Anderson's team, which features five players who average double figures in scoring and a fast-paced, full-court style of play—Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell"—with which Mizzou has had tournament success in recent years and that no other team is accustomed to.
Thus, making a Cinderella run is a matter of tempo and approach for the Tigers, which makes them a threat to pull off an upset in any and every game they play.
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As much success as Mizzou has had with Mike Anderson at the helm, few teams can match the success that Mark Few's Gonzaga teams have had in recent years.
That success didn't exactly help the 'Zags in seeding this year, as the Bulldogs ended up as an 11-seed despite once again conquering the West Coast Conference and finishing with a solid 24-9 record.
For their efforts, the 'Zags received a first-round date with a resurgent St. John's squad, which posted six wins over ranked teams during the year.
While Steve Lavin's Red Storm appears poised to wreak havoc in the tournament this year, Gonzaga will likely have something to say about it. After all, guys like Steven Gray, Robert Sacre and Elias Harris, each of whom averages better than 12 points per game, have been to the Big Dance and had some success.
On the other hand, St. John's stars Dwight Hardy and Justin Brownlee will be making their first-ever appearances in March Madness come Thursday.
And, with the stakes as high as they are in the one-and-done format of the NCAA tournament, an edge in experience like that possessed by Gonzaga has to count for something.
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No bottom-half seed in this year's bracket boasts the kind of tournament experience with which Michigan State's roster is replete.
As impressive as it is that head coach Tom Izzo has won 35 games in the NCAA tournament and taken MSU to six Final Fours in 14 tries, what's more important is that the Spartans have reached the final weekend of play in each of the last two years, losing in the championship game to North Carolina in 2009 and in the semifinal against Butler last year.
Consider, then, the fact that Izzo's roster this time around includes seven players averaging at least 10 minutes per game this season who were at least around for those Final Four runs, including the likes of Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, who played prominent roles on those teams.
So while the Spartans may have snuck their way into the field after something of an underwhelming performance during the 2010-11 season, their wealth of experience and senior leadership bodes well for their chances of advancing a round or two this year, especially with an opening act against a UCLA squad that missed the tourney entirely in 2010 and has struggled in high-pressure games all season due to its youth and lack of senior leadership.