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Monday, March 15, 2010
Bracket babble: Five things to love

By Eamonn Brennan

There have been plenty of gripes about this year's bracket, and with good reason. I'll get to those in a little bit. For now, here's a quick list of things to love about this NCAA tournament field -- besides, of course, the fact that it's an NCAA tournament field. Man, the tournament is awesome. Anyway, let's do this:

1. Midwest Madness. In so far as one can feel bad for a perennial power with the talent, size and depth of the Kansas Jayhawks, I feel bad for the Kansas Jayhawks. Bill Self's team was the best in the country from the beginning of the season to its end, and though the Jayhawks had the occasional stumble, they always had the feel of last year's North Carolina team -- a team smart enough, experienced enough, and deep enough to win the NCAA tournament with nary a realistic challenger.

On Sunday night, that prediction got a little hazier. To get to the Final Four, the Jayhawks will have to beat some combination of the country's best player (No. 2 seed Ohio State), one of its hottest, most balanced teams (No. 3 seed Georgetown), the co-ACC champions, featuring one the country's toughest guards (No. 4 Maryland), Tom Izzo (No. 5 Michigan State), Bruce Pearl (No. 6 Tennessee), and the lone Big 12 team to beat them, a team with arguably the best shooting guard in the country in James Anderson (No. 7 Oklahoma State). This is an absolutely loaded field, rife with experienced players and tourney-proven coaches, and if I were a Kansas fan I would totally put this in the "hate" category, especially given the comfortable region afforded the third No. 1 seed, Duke. But as a fan of college basketball in general? I can't deny how excited I am to watch this region play out. I still like Kansas to make the Final Four and win it all, but with this region, anything is on the table. Anything. Who wouldn't love that?

2. Sometimes, underseeding works out. Continuing with the "things I could also hate" theme, I give to you No. 5 Temple vs. No. 12 Cornell. Both teams are badly underseeded here, especially Cornell, which nearly beat Kansas at the Phog, which dominated its season from start to finish. It's becoming common to say the Big Red aren't your typical Ivy League team, but it's true; few Ivy League teams have the luxury of a seven-foot center who wouldn't look out of place in any of the country's biggest, most talent-rich conferences. Meanwhile, Temple deserved more from the committee after winning the regular season and tourney titles in a very good Atlantic 10. Temple is a complete, balanced team, one of the best defensive squads in the country. Cornell is as scary a No. 12 seed as there is. It hurts to lose one of these teams in the first round ... but the process of losing either ought to be the best first-round game in the entire field. I'll take it, I guess. (Wait, is that not positive enough? OK, sorry -- I love it! Yay for good first-round games!)

3. Beware the Bears. Expect Baylor to be a trendy Final Four pick. This is with good reason: The Bears enter the tournament with the fifth-highest points per possession efficiency mark in the country. Quite simply, the Bears make their shots, rebound their misses, and don't give enough away on the defensive end to offset that potent attack. LaceDarius Dunn and Ekpe Udoh form one of the best inside-outside tandems in all of college basketball. Coach Scott Drew is a name on the rise. And so on. But the best thing about the Bears in this tournament is their draw: Making it to the Elite Eight theoretically means beating No. 2 seed Villanova, easily the weakest of the No. 2 seeds, a porous defensive team that faded down the stretch in conference play. Nothing about Baylor's half of the South region looks particularly frightening. Drawing Duke as their region's No. 1 is likewise friendly. Duke is a very good team, but it's also a team that's banished its young reserves to the bench and played its starters an incredibly high percentage of minutes the last two months. Before this draw, Baylor was merely a sexy Elite Eight pick. After this draw, the Bears should be thinking Final Four. I am.

4. James Anderson vs. Evan Turner? Yes, please. Q.V. note No. 1.: "Midwest Madness." I've already gone through why the Midwest region is so very awesome, but this might be the best matchup in the entire bracket. (When you have to hedge that statement with something about Greivis Vasquez and Sherron Collins meeting on the other side, you know you have a loaded region.) Turner is without question the country's best player, a versatile point guard who does the majority of scoring -- heck, he does the majority of everything -- for his likewise efficient teammates. Turner is capable of taking over a game anytime he pleases. Same goes for James Anderson, a far less-heralded but nearly as effective scorer of the basketball. Anderson's offensive game used to be a tailored version of Turner's -- lots of drives, lots of curl-screens, lots of kicks to shooters. In 2010, Anderson added the 3-point shot to his repertoire, making him nearly impossible to stop. If both teams win their first round games -- Oklahoma State might have problems with Georgia Tech, mind you -- Anderson and Turner would meet in the second round Saturday in Milwaukee. One will be guarding the other for long stretches of that game, I'd expect. Don't miss it.

5. Fast-paced basketball in Oklahoma City. And no, I'm not talking about the Oklahoma City Thunder. Rather, if seeds hold and No. 7 seed BYU takes down its rather fluffy No. 10 first-round matchup with Florida, the Cougars will not only have won their first NCAA tournament game in ages -- they will have set up a dream matchup with No. 2 seed Kansas State. At 72.9 possessions per game, BYU is the No. 12 team in the country in adjusted pace; Kansas State is No. 31 with 71.1. Both teams feature great guards in Jimmer Fredette and K-State's Denis Clemente/Jacob Pullen duo, and both teams thrive on beating their opponents down the floor and hitting shots in transition. There's no chance this matchup was intentional, but three cheers to the committee here. For sheer entertainment, this second-round game will be hard to top.