An annual tradition of mine during Schmolik Bracket Analysis is to begin with the regional my alma mater and beloved Illinois Fighting Illini are in (assuming they are in). This year that is the Southwest Regional.
The season for Illinois began with high expectations and a big win over North Carolina, but Illinois slumped. After being absent from the tournament last year, it's great just to be back. Illinois will try to win its first game since 2006.
They will face a familiar face in UNLV coach Lon Kruger. Younger Illini fans won't remember, but Kruger was Illinois's coach before he left for the NBA, failed (like John Calipari and Rick Pitino), and landed at UNLV. If Illinois wins, they will play another former Illini coach in Bill Self (assuming Kansas doesn't become the first No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16).
Recently, Illinois hasn't beaten anyone really good (Iowa and Indiana don't count). I would rather play UNLV than some Big East team (we had an 11 out of 68 chance in drawing one so we got lucky!) but I just don't have much faith in them.
Besides, even if Illinois wins, how much of a chance do we have against Kansas anyway? Then again, if I had to play one of the No. 1 seeds in the "third" round, I would want Kansas. Kansas as a No. 1 seed has lost in the "second" round several times, including last season.
Speaking of Kansas, before Self was Illinois's coach, he was Tulsa's coach (I really am old!) So it is a homecoming of sorts for Self in the "second and third" round games. Now, Self has not fared too well in the state of Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament. The last two times Kansas played in Oklahoma were 2005 (1st round loss to No. 14 seed Bucknell) and last year (2nd round loss to No. 9 Northern Iowa). But those two games were in Oklahoma City, not Tulsa.
Vanderbilt is trying to buck a recent trend. They lost their last two NCAA Tournament games as No. 4 seeds to No. 13's. This year, Vanderbilt plays Atlantic 10 champion Richmond, who I think is underseeded as a No. 12. If you are looking for a 5-12 upset to pick, I think this is a good one.
In the bottom half of the Southwest, we have my favorite nickname in recent memory, the St. Peter's Peacocks! When's the last time there were Peacocks in the NCAA's? They are catching Purdue at a good time with Purdue having lost their last two games, but I hope Purdue shows up and defends the Big Ten Conference honor. The last thing I want is Purdue losing their first game (though the worst would be Ohio State losing their first game!)
This year introduces "play-in" games for at-large teams. We know the chances of a No. 16 play-in game winner beating a No. 1 seed is slim and none. But a No. 11 seed beating a No. 6 is not out of the realm of possibility.
Will the play-in game tire out its winner? Does No. 6 seed Georgetown have an advantage or a disadvantage over the other No. 6 seeds? This is another reason I hate the 68 team format. The play-in game among No. 16 seeds doesn't really affect the tournament that much but this could disturb the competitive balance in the NCAA's, one way or the other.
This season, I don't think either USC or VCU belongs in the Tournament. I hope Georgetown destroys whoever they play and redeems themselves for last year's debacle vs. Ohio. Georgetown's Chris Wright has been cleared to play. The Hoyas certainly didn't play well in his absence. If Georgetown plays like they did earlier this season, Purdue (and the rest of the bottom half of the bracket) are in trouble.
In the NCAA Tournament this year, a lot of eyes will be on the Big East. Were their 11 bids deserved (I think they were) regardless of the outcomes? Will all that competition during the regular season and at Madison Square Garden help the schools in the tournament?
Meanwhile, you have Kansas playing in the Big 12 Conference. I think they are overrated. They've only beaten one team that is top four seeded in the tournament—a win over a slumping Texas in Kansas City (it might as well been in Lawrence). I am picking Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals (they beat Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Syracuse this year) to "upset" the Jayhawks.
I'm going all Big East in the regional final. I like a rematch of the semifinal between Notre Dame and Louisville—and for Ben Hansbrough to be cutting the nets down. Notre Dame will advance to its first Final Four since 1978.
Final Pick: Notre Dame over Louisville.