- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Yesterday we covered the love/hate inherent in this year's NCAA tournament bracket. Let's do something different today. Let's make five bold predictions -- predictions so bold your face will melt, probably, which is itself a bold prediction -- about what we can expect these next three weeks. Disclaimer: Bold predictions made with every intention of sincerity. There's nothing worse than people who make crazy predictions simply for the sake of making crazy predictions, am I right? (In other words, I'm going out on a limb here, but I do actually think this stuff can happen.)
With that, let's get right to it. In the year 2010 ...
1. Kansas will lose to Lehigh. Ha! Got you guys! Just kidding. Deep breaths, Kansas fans. I'm not that bold. The real No. 1 is:
1. Texas A&M will make the Elite Eight. (Or: Duke won't make the Final Four.) Don't get me wrong. Duke has the easiest path to the Final Four of any of the No. 1 seeds. The Blue Devils are a very impressive team on the court and on paper -- they're Ken Pomeroy's top adjusted efficiency team in the country for a reason. Duke should make the Final Four. But if there is an upset candidate before No. 3-seed Baylor in the South region, it's Texas A&M. The Aggies are a strong defensive team, ranked No. 23 in adjusted efficiency. Mark Turgeon has a pair of experienced tournament players in Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis, both of whom have been to four NCAA tournaments. And the Aggies have the benefit of not relying on jump shooting to get themselves points. Rather, the Aggies rely on their ability to get to the free throw line, which they do at the sixth-highest rate in the country. This is the sort of offensive game plan that should serve them well against anybody, even Duke.
2. Temple will beat Cornell. Yes, counts as "bold." Since the East's No. 5/No. 12 matchup was announced, Cornell looked like the most likely candidate for the ever-popular (and logistically sound) 12-over-5 upset, one of which you should be picking in your bracket every season. In fact, this meme has crossed over into consensus. But guess what? Temple is no slouch. In fact, the Owls are pretty blatantly underseeded as a No. 5. Temple has flown as far under the radar as any team from a multi-bid league that won its own conference AND conference tournament possibly could. The Owls are No. 18 overall in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, a mark that exists primarily thanks to their third-ranked overall defense, a unit that allows fewer points per possession than any team in the tournament not named Florida State. Temple is the best team in the country at containing shooters; Cornell just so happens to be the best three-point shooting team in the country and the third best in team effective field goal percentage.
All of which means one simple thing: Cornell got jobbed. Everyone loves the Big Red, for good reason. A No. 12 seed is remarkably low for the best Ivy League team we've seen in years. But thanks to their matchup, Cornell's stay in this NCAA tournament should prove awfully short. That this might be considered a piece of unconventional wisdom -- "bold," as it were -- is a signal of just how high most people rate the Big Red.
3. BYU will edge Kansas State. OK, so this part of the limb might be a little further out than I wanted to tread, but the more I think about it, the more I think it's entirely possible the Cougars can top Kansas State in the second round in Oklahoma City. This BYU team is much better than their No. 7 seed. For starters the Cougars are a potent offensive team with a bonafide star in Jimmer Fredette and an experienced sidekick in Jonathan Tavernari. To be sure, Kansas State will be something of a shock to the Cougars' system -- BYU hasn't played a team that defends quite as thoroughly as the Wildcats. Nor do most teams attempt to run with BYU's uptempo offense. The Wildcats, who average 71.1 possessions per game, will be more than happy to go up and down with BYU for 40 minutes. In an up-and-down game like that, either of these teams can get especially hot and pull away before the other has a chance to regroup. Why can't that team be the Cougars?
4. UTEP will play Syracuse in the Sweet 16. And just how will they do that? By beating Butler in the first round and the winner of Vanderbilt-Murray State in the second. UTEP, like its first-round counterparts, are probably a bit better than their resume, and their resume is good. What's more, they're a tough matchup for Butler, whose lack of front-court depth could really struggle with the likes of Derrick Caracter and center Arnett Moultrie. After that small matter of business is concluded, the Miners will face a relatively forgiving No. 4 seed in Vanderbilt, a team that actually ranks behind the Miners in adjusted efficiency. It's one of the easier roads for any No. 12 seed into the Sweet Sixteen, and I think UTEP forges it.
5. Baylor will make the Final Four. At this point, so many people are picking Baylor to go deep into this tournament that this prediction hardly seems bold. Oh, but it is: The Bears are not a great defensive team, and they'll have to get through Villanova and Duke (or Texas A&M!) to make this prediction worthwhile. This is not un-bold, no matter how many people claim otherwise.
Still, though, I think the Bears have just as good a chance as any team in the South to emerge and play in Indianapolis on the first weekend of April. LaceDarius Dunn remains one of the country's most underrated players. Ekpe Udoh's overwhelming physicality will present issues for any team the Bears face. Most importantly, the Bears have an easy route to the Elite Eight -- their toughest test would ostensibly come from Villanova, a team equally indifferent on the defensive side of the ball and a team that lacks the size to match up with Udoh in the post. The South could get crazy. I think it does. And I think the Bears emerge unscathed.