When CBS' selection show revealed the first bracket of the 2013 tournament, you would have thought the selection committee forgot to actually put good teams anywhere else. Any way you slice it, the region is absolutely loaded. They have 7 of the top 20 KenPom-rated teams. Every seed 1-8 has a top-25 RPI apart from Oklahoma State... who is 26th. They have 8 teams ranked in both the AP top 25 and the Coaches' Poll, including a 12-seed (!!) that's ranked 24th. They have three major-conference champions and a couple of minor-conference ones (Memphis and Creighton). A lot of people are saying with a region full of dark horses, this could be a corner of the bracket where chaos is king. Louisville and Duke fans are all crying foul that their historic programs were given the bumpiest of paths to Atlanta.
But personally, I can't help but look at it the other way around - the teams that should really be miffed here are the dark horses themselves. Because before you go and pencil in an A-10 team for the Final Four, remember that the top three seeds in the Midwest are all teams with pedigree, experience, great coaching, and weaknesses that aren't easily exploited. In some other region, glass-eating Colorado State might have had a chance. Solid and experienced St. Louis could have made a run. Plucky Creighton might have, oh, I don't know, broken some other star player's wrist and made a game of it. But Louisville, Michigan State and Duke are too deep and too talented, and one of those teams is going to be the one who makes it out.
As it is every year with the tournament, matchups dictate much more how a game will go than a team's overall performance throughout the year, and the matchups are looking at a cakewalk for Duke into the Sweet 16. Playing Creighton and Doug McDermott isn't much of a challenge because they don't have penetrating guards to exploit Duke's perimeter D, and Cincinnatti's offense is so anemic Ryan Kelly or Seth Curry could outscore them by themselves. From the Sweet 16 in, any top-seeded team can expect to have a rough game, so Duke should have no real bone to pick at that point. Even in a matchup with Michigan State I would expect Duke to be a comfortable favorite, since the Spartans don't have the kind of isolation players that have hurt Duke in their losses and the Devils have the kind of well-balanced, floor-spacing offense that gives defensive-minded teams nightmares. Look at teams that have beaten Duke in the past three years: Michigan, Arizona and Lehigh were all athletic, offensive-minded teams who collectively caught fire at the right time, and Duke isn't likely to play anyone that fits that profile in the entire region. They'll have to battle through any number of tough defensive teams (Michigan State, Louisville, St Louis) but maybe the only sleeper with the guard play and athletes to give the Devils trouble is Memphis, and they're inconsistent enough to possibly lose in the first round.
Honestly, Duke haters dreaming of another early-tournament exit are going to want to take a deep breath and wake up. The team that lost to Lehigh last year saw Quinn Cook play just 11 minutes, had Ryan Kelly missing due to injury, and didn't have an athletic wing like Rasheed Suilamon to D up any perimeter player that could potentially kill them as a slasher. The Devils do seem to occasionally slip into a collective funk as a unit, but I'm betting the ACC Tournament loss to Maryland serves as more of a wake-up call than a harbinger of doom, with three seniors on the team who all have plenty to prove in the NCAAs. I would be surprised if Duke doesn't make at least the Elite Eight this year, and if they don't.... then the fan base needs to shout at their own team, not the selection committee.
Best first-round matchup: Easy choice here, as the committee's truly bizarre choice to make Oregon a 12-seed means that we get a matchup of top-25 teams in the first round with Oklahoma State taking on the Ducks. The two teams are pretty evenly balanced, feature dynamic freshmen point men in Marcus Smart and Dominic Artis, and as a team scored over 80 points 17 times between the two of them. I can smell the singed nets already...
Dark Horse: Much as I would love to think Memphis has the athletes and backcourt to make a run, their lack of even half-decent nonconference wins has me staying well, well clear. The clear choice, as it is for most people, has to be Saint Louis, who feature eight seniors on their team, don't turn the ball over, and control the tempo. If that weren't already enough of a recipe for success, the Billikens are coming out of the A-10 battle-tested, with games against VCU and Butler preparing them for teams that like to pressure the ball on defense and turn that into transition points... you know, kind of like Louisville. And St. Louis went 5-0 against Butler and VCU this year (small side note though: the Cardinals are like a supercharged version of either of those teams). I was one of many fans who I am sure were heartbroken to see the Billikens in the same region as a team like Louisville, because in lots of other scenarios, I would be taking a much harder look at them as a Final Four candidate.
The "Who' Award (team you haven't heard of): You know it's a loaded region when even the teams in the 11-seed play-in game (Middle Tennessee and St. Mary's) have gotten some pub this year. This award probably has to go tiny Liberty University, who was off your radar screen this year because they were too busy losing 20 games for you to notice them. Liberty was founded in 1971 by noted televangelist Jerry Falwell, who's son - Jerry Falwell Jr. - now serves as chancellor. That's gonna be suuuuuper awkward if he has to shake hands with Rick Pitino...
All-Atlas Squad (guys who can carry a team): Marcus Smart, Ok. State; Doug McDermott, Creighton.... other than that, honestly, these are all really well-balanced, strong teams that don't have to lean on just one guy (SERIOUSLY, selection committee, WHAT WERE YOU DOING??)
Upset Special: People are likely to look hard at Oregon over Oklahoma State because the 12-over-5 is a thing now, but I'd give a better chance at Memphis going down to either St. Mary's or Middle Tennessee State given that the only quality games the Tigers played this year were against VCU, Minnesota and Louisville... and they lost all 3.
Best Potential Second-Round Matchup: This region is brimming with them - even the 8/9 going against Louisville will be fun to watch as Colorado State or Missouri could make it an entertaining game (for about 10 minutes), and lots of people are hoping for Creighton vs Duke in the matchup of team UNC has hated since forever vs team UNC has hated since last year. But the nod probably has to go with St. Louis against whoever comes out of the Oregon-Ok. State matchup, as all three of those teams have some combination of athletic wings, good defense and streaky shooting to throw at each other.
Best Mascot: Has to go to the Oregon Duck, who was making hilarious Gangam Style parody videos before I even knew what Gangam Style was.
Worst Mascot: The Albany Great Dane, who looks like a meth-addled Marmaduke with those dark circles under his eyes. (Duke also gets an honorable mention here, as always, because they are named after French soldiers. Suck-re bleu!)
God Shammgodd Award (best name): I'm pretty sure last year I we already gave this award to Cincinnatti's Cashmere Wright, so this year I'm awarding it to his Bearcat teammate, Titus Rubles. Honorable mentions go to Grandy Glaze, St. Louis, Hippolyte Tsafack, Memphis and Colorado State's Colton Iverson (yes, he wears #45).
The All-Downton Abbey Team (for names that sound like English aristocracy): Wesley Alcegaire, Liberty; Pierce Hornung, Colorado State; Michael Cobbins, Oklahoma State; Coleton Baker, Oregon; Finoy Perkins, Middle Tennessee; Treaven Duffy, St. Mary's; Geoffrey Groselle, Creighton.
The All-Tyrion Lannister Team (tiny terrors): 5-6 Stephon Wynn, Colorado State; 5-10 Kwamain Mitchell, St Louis; 5-8 Johnathan Lloyd, Oregon; 5-11 (yeah right) Phil Pressey, Mizzou.
The Gates/Gonzalez Award (for guys who could seek alternate employment in the NFL): Gregory Echenique, Creighton (6-9, 260 and he already spends his time on the basketball court hitting people); Chane Behanan, Louisville (6-6, 250); Alex Oriakhi, Mizzou (6-9, 255); Tarik Black, Memphis (6-9, 265); Derrick Nix, Michigan State (6-8, 270).
The Home Cooking Award (beneficial geographic placement): For as badly as Oregon got hosed in the seedings, at least they will be playing in San Jose, California, which is a heck of a lot closer for their fan base than Oklahoma State's.
The Cold Wendy's Fries in the Lobby of the Comfort Inn Award (the reverse): Gotta go to Duke, who were awarded for being the #6 overall team in the eyes of the committee by... having to potentially play Michigan State in their own Big Ten backyard. Have fun with that, Dookies!
The PittCincyWakeBigTen Award (perennial underperformer to avoid picking for a deep run): Like I said earlier in this article, DO NOT get sucked in by Memphis. They are athletic and sport a sparkling record every year, only to flame out because they haven't played anyone to actually achieve said record.