College Basketball Nation: Saint Mary's Gaels


The West Coast Conference is that rarest of birds: The mid-major league that realignment made better.

For a host of institutional and geographic reasons, Gonzaga was never tempted to realign upward these past few years. It's been a sturdy member throughout its 15-year run of success. Nowhere else made much sense. This set the WCC apart from other top mid-major leagues of the past decade, almost all of which lost a standard-bearer: The Valley lost Creighton; the Horizon lost Butler; C-USA lost Memphis; the Colonial lost everyone. But Gonzaga and the WCC's unique position -- and the desire of BYU to find a convenient men's hoops home when the Cougars went independent in football in 2010 -- have managed to put Jamie Zaninovich's league in a stronger position than ever before.

[+] EnlargeTyler Haws
AP Photo/Rick BowmerGonzaga and BYU are the top two seeds in the WCC tournament.
Top to bottom, per KenPom.com's conference efficiency average rankings, the WCC is better than the Mountain West Conference and is the ninth-best league in the country. This while Gonzaga is having an uncharacteristically injury-prone and so-so season, though not so-so enough to do something so crazy as, you know, not win the conference title. That position has a lot to do with the non-San Diego State or non-New Mexico MWC having a straight-up awful season, but still.

Gonzaga is not nearly as far out ahead of the rest of the league as it normally is this time of year. Some years, that's because Gonzaga is good and the rest of the WCC is not so much. Some years, Saint Mary's is the only challenger. Some years -- OK, last year -- Gonzaga is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. None of those things is true right now.

Which is to say that this week's WCC tournament in Las Vegas could be Champ Week's most entertaining.

Gonzaga and BYU are your No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, so they have Thursday's opening round off. The Zags will play the winner of No. 8 Pacific and No. 9 Santa Clara; BYU gets the winner of No. 7 Portland and No. 10 Loyola Marymount. That should all be fairly standard.

But San Francisco, the No. 3 seed, is where things get interesting. The Dons are having their best season in at least a decade. They finished the conference regular season ranked third in the league in points per possession (1.09) and second in points allowed (1.05) and finished 13-5 in league play. In November, Rex Walters' team began the season losing 92-90 and 93-90 in back-to-back home losses to Nevada (meh) and Idaho State (bad), respectively, and falling to Illinois State (meh) at home two weeks later. An 81-57 loss at St. John's went mostly unnoticed. Since then, though, the Dons' only losses have come to Gonzaga (twice), BYU (twice) and Saint Mary's (once).

The Gaels' season has been a little rough by their recent standards; they are, after all, the only WCC program in the past 15 years to unseat Gonzaga from the regular-season throne. But as the No. 4 seed in the conference, and with efficient inside-out scoring from Brad Waldow and Stephen Holt (Steve Holt!), they are absolutely a threat to win three games in the WCC tournament.

That's a standard disclaimer for Champ Week, and what makes it so great: Any team can get hot enough to win three games, and next thing you know you're going to the Dance with a sub-.500 record. But the WCC has been light on that kind of drama during Gonzaga's reign. Mark Few's program is usually that much better than the field. But this season's combination of a merely good Gonzaga with a stronger and deeper WCC might yet give us something more.

Weekend Homework: Island springboard

December, 19, 2013
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The last traditional neutral-site tournament, this weekend's Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, could end up being a memorable event for at least three teams with high hopes.

And all for different reasons in their respective conferences.

Iowa State.

Saint Mary's.

Boise State.

The Cyclones are rolling, undefeated and poised to be a Big 12 title contender with Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor and now perhaps Texas.

Saint Mary's suddenly is surging, undefeated, underappreciated and ready to resume being the pest to Gonzaga that the Zags seemingly cannot dismiss in the WCC.

Boise State, which is off its axis after losing at Kentucky and in Boise last week to the Gaels, must find its footing or face a long road to an NCAA tournament bid after making the NCAAs a year ago out of the Mountain West.

The bracket is favorable for the Cyclones, matching Iowa State against George Mason first (Sunday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU), then an erratic Oregon State or untested Akron.

The other side of the bracket pits Saint Mary's against South Carolina (Sunday, 11 p.m. ET, ESPNU), which has played only a handful of games, while Boise State drew the short straw and has to play a true road game against hometown Hawaii (Monday, 1 a.m. ET, ESPNU).

If the two meet in the semifinals, Boise State must avenge the loss, much in the way Memphis did in beating Oklahoma State after losing to the Cowboys in Stillwater.

If Iowa State gets derailed, the Cyclones will take a hit, but it won't take the luster off the Cyclones' home game against Kansas in early January. Iowa State already has wins over BYU on the road and over Michigan, Iowa and Northern Iowa.

Boise State is yearning for something to put on the shelf for the selection committee. Saint Mary's could use another neutral-site win of note to put it back in play for a spot if it is in the mix in the WCC.

The Beavers boast a prolific scorer in Roberto Nelson and could spoil the party and boost the Pac-12's power rating if they could pull off a few upsets.

A win by Mason, Akron, South Carolina or the hometown Warriors would shift the momentum of the event and for the losers who went to paradise looking for a springboard to March.

This event can get swallowed up by Christmas, but it has a chance to be a window again into a legitimate sleeper in Iowa State and a new darling in the Gaels or a much-needed restart for Boise.

Cyclones lead Diamond Head Classic field

December, 18, 2013
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Back in November, few outside of Ames, Iowa, would have predicted Iowa State as the last undefeated team in the Big 12. Yet, as the eight teams in the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic (which starts Sunday and will be broadcast on ESPNU) land in Honolulu, the No. 17 Cyclones are 8-0 and all alone in first place.

“We knew we had some great early-season tests,” said coach Fred Hoiberg, who is 70-39 in four seasons at his alma mater. “They’ve handled adversity well. That’s been a key to our early-season success.”

For “The Mayor” to become King of Diamond Head, his horses will have to deliver. His main thoroughbred is 6-foot-6 senior forward Melvin Ejim, the conference’s second-leading scorer (18.7 ppg) and sixth-leading rebounder (7.7 rpg), who has starred despite hyperextending a knee at the end of preseason.

Versatile 6-7 sophomore forward Georges Niang (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.1 apg) and senior point DeAndre Kane (14.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 5.8 apg) also are key pieces.

ISU is fast and unselfish offensively, leading the conference in scoring, 3-point baskets and assists. The Cyclones also lead in rebounding and field goal defense, and are second in three-point field goal defense. Although the favorite, Hoiberg is wary of the competition.

“It’s a great field,” he said. “Top to bottom … any team can beat any other in the field.

Here's a look at the rest of the field competing in the Diamond Head Classic:

Akron (4-2)

What's at stake? The Zips, back-to-back MAC champions, need to replace key pieces, including center Zeke Marshall. They’ll look to gain momentum heading into conference play.

Who's hot? Demetrius "Tree" Treadwell is taking root in the middle, averaging 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds and a block a game.

Who is the surprise? Sophomore big Pat Forsythe has shot 52 percent from the field, blocked a shot per game and been tough on the offensive glass.

Projection: There’s time to pull it together and battle for the MAC -- the Zips might not have that luxury in Honolulu.

Boise State (8-2)

What's at stake? The Broncos’ 8-0 start was the best in school history, before it lost at Kentucky. High-octane Boise wants to prove it can run with the big boys.

Who's hot? The junior tandem of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks averages north of 36 points a game. Drmic, a 6-6 wing from Australia, averages 18.6 ppg, while Marks, a 6-3 guard from Chicago, shoots 48.4 percent from the field and 82.8 percent from the free-throw line.

Who is the surprise? Senior guard Jeff Elorriaga has been a surprise for how hot he’s shooting -- 62.3 percent from the field, 60 percent from behind the arc.

Prediction: Boise State needs to keep the pace fast and hit 3s to prove its fast start wasn’t a product of its schedule.

George Mason (5-4)

What's at stake? Occasionally offensively challenged, the Patriots have a tough draw, starting with Iowa State.

Who’s hot? Senior forward Bryon Allen has shot almost 40 percent from 3-point range this season, hitting a career-best four 3-pointers against South Florida.

Who is the surprise? Sophomore forward Marko Gujanicic, the 6-8, 224-pound forward from Serbia, scores 11.4 ppg, more than double last season’s output.

Prediction: It’ll be a grind as uptempo opponents will test George Mason’s defensive principles and take the Patriots out of their comfort zone.

Hawaii (7-2)

What's at stake? The Big West-leading Rainbow Warriors are 7-2 for the second time in coach Gib Arnold’s four seasons. Are they a well-kept secret or a result of their schedule?

Who’s hot? Senior forward Christian Standhardinger, 6-8 and 220 pounds, leads UH and ranks among Big West leaders in scoring, rebounding, blocks and steals.

Who is the surprise? Junior guard Garrett Nevels, a junior college transfer, shoots 55 percent from 3-point range and is second in the conference with 22 3-point field goals made.

Prediction: The Rainbow Warriors can score, but running with the big dogs in this tournament might be too much.

Oregon State (5-2)

What's at stake? The Beavers miss suspended junior forward Eric Moreland and are struggling to find the right formula. Playing Akron, plus Iowa State or George Mason won’t help.

Who’s hot? The outside-inside senior tandem of guard Roberto Nelson and forward Devon Collier rank 1-2 in the Pac-12 in scoring. Nelson (24.7 ppg) hits 1.7 3-pointers per game. Collier is a bucket behind (22.7 ppg).

Who is the surprise? Sophomore Victor Robbins, a 6-7, 197-pound swingman, chips in 7.3 points and 3.1 rebound in 21.4 minutes per game.

Prediction: The Beavers need contributions from the perimeter to keep teams from collapsing on Collier, and a dependable third option.

Saint Mary’s (8-0)

What's at stake? The Diamond Head is the Gaels’ opportunity to prove there is room for two West Coast Conference powers in the Top 25.

Who’s hot? Junior forward Brad Waldow scores a team-high 17.6 ppg (fourth in the WCC) and is second with a 65.1 field goal percentage.

Who is the surprise? Transfer junior guard Kerry Carter supplies instant offense off the bench, connecting on 50 percent of his 3-point attempts.

Prediction: The Gaels are a tournament favorite and, with a game against South Carolina and a rematch from last week with Boise or a contest vs. Iowa State, are a must-watch.

South Carolina (2-4)

What's at stake? Coach Frank Martin’s Gamecocks start two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior and have played mostly on the road. Diamond Head will be an interesting neutral-court test as USC continues to come together heading into the SEC.

Who’s hot? Freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell, a 6-5, 206-pound guard scores 12.7 points per game on 41.7 percent shooting from the 3-point line.

Who is the surprise? Sophomore forward Mindaugas Kacinas, a 6-7, 210-pound player from Lithuania, grabs a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game, almost half off the offensive glass, and scores 7.5 points on 56.3 percent shooting.

Prediction: The Gamecocks are young and talented and go a long way on emotion. Those same things also make them unpredictable and vulnerable.

BPI Talk: Duke is not a top-25 team

December, 17, 2013
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The Duke Blue Devils came into the season as a preseason Final Four contender, but after losses to Kansas and Arizona and a one-point win over Vermont, the Blue Devils are ranked No. 31 in BPI.

Duke's BPI game score in its six-point loss against Arizona (ranked No. 4 in BPI) was higher than two of its wins (vs East Carolina, vs Vermont). Other than its wins over No. 40 Michigan and No. 63 Alabama, Duke doesn't have any other wins over teams ranked in the top 180.

Duke has the best adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, but its adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 101st.

Is Wisconsin the best team in college basketball?

The Wisconsin Badgers rank No. 1 in BPI after starting 12-0 with five wins over top-50 BPI teams -- St. John's, Florida, Saint Louis, West Virginia and Virginia. Their five wins against top-50 teams are the most by any team. Kansas and Davidson are the only other teams that have even faced five top-50 teams.

Wisconsin has the 11th-most difficult schedule according to BPI. Seven of their 12 wins are against top-100 opponents and none of them are against teams outside the top 175.

The Badgers have been successful playing a slow pace (17th-fewest possessions per game). Two of their three worst BPI game scores this season have come in the two games in which they played at the fastest pace (at Green Bay, vs North Dakota).

Michigan State barely cracks the top 25

The Michigan State Spartans, previously ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, come in at No. 24 in BPI. The Spartans only have one loss, but it was by far their worst BPI game score and it came against their second-best opponent (No. 23 North Carolina).

Why else is Michigan State's BPI lacking? The Spartans have five wins against teams ranked outside the BPI top 100. Three of those wins are by 15 points or fewer, including two by single digits, and one of the five wins is against No. 338 McNeese State. Also, they haven't played a single true road game yet.

Welcome to the top 10, Saint Mary's

The undefeated Saint Mary's Gaels are ranked No. 8 in BPI, and it's not due to any wins over top-notch opponents. The Gaels haven't faced a single top-50 team yet, but five of their eight wins came against top-100 opponents and six of their eight wins are by double digits.

Saint Mary's has performed well against top-100 teams, posting a BPI game score higher than 95 in four of those five wins.

Why isn't Pittsburgh ranked yet?

The Pittsburgh Panthers are ranked No. 9 in BPI but aren't in the top 25 in the AP Poll. The Panthers are 10-0 with each of those 10 wins coming by at least nine points and nine of the wins coming by at least 17 points.

Pitt doesn't have any top-50 wins, but the Panthers do have two wins against teams just outside the top 50 (No. 51 Penn State, No. 55 Stanford). Their three best BPI game scores came against their three best opponents -- Penn State, Stanford and Texas Tech (No. 110).

Pitt is one of seven teams ranked in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, along with Louisville, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Carolina.

BPI Rankings

Nonconference analysis: Best of the rest

September, 11, 2013
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This week, ESPN.com has been breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Now let's take a look at the slates of a dozen of the top teams outside of those conferences.

BYU

Toughest: Iowa State (Nov. 20), CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 11), vs. UMass (Dec. 7 in Springfield, Mass.), at Oregon (Dec. 21)
The rest: Weber State (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 15), vs. Utah State (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City), North Texas (Dec. 3), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 11), Utah (Dec. 14)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- With Tyler Haws back, BYU could steal the WCC crown from Gonzaga. The Cougars certainly will be prepared for the task. A home game against the Cyclones will be an early test for the program. The pot of gold in the Hall of Fame Classic could be a matchup against Final Four participant Wichita State (if BYU gets past Texas). Games against UMass and Oregon in December could be the kind of matchups that pull Dave Rose's team off the bubble on Selection Sunday, if they're successful.

FLORIDA GULF COAST

Toughest: at North Carolina State (Nov. 26)
Next toughest: at Nebraska (Nov. 8), Iona (Dec. 1)
The rest: Hartford (Nov. 12), at Furman (Nov. 15), Eckerd (Nov. 18), Ave Maria (Nov. 23), at FIU (Dec. 7), Samford (Dec. 14), at South Florida (Dec. 17), at Mississippi State (Dec. 19), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Florida Gulf Coast's athleticism and acrobatics enhanced the NCAA tournament experience for everyone, as "Dunk City" became a national slogan. Well, FGCU's nonconference slate belies its playmaking ability. The Eagles' toughest matchups should be road games against a Nebraska team that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten last season and an NC State squad that lost most of its impact players. The trip to Vegas yields games against Florida A&M and either Radford or Sacred Heart. And it gets worse. You'll have to Google "Eckerd" and "Ave Maria." The dunks can't make up for this disappointing schedule.

GONZAGA

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), at West Virginia (Dec. 10), at Memphis (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: vs. Kansas State (Dec. 21 in Wichita, Kan.)
The rest: Bryant (Nov. 9), Colorado State (Nov. 11), Oakland (Nov. 17), Washington State (Nov. 21), Coppin State (Dec. 1), New Mexico State (Dec. 7), vs. South Alabama (Dec. 14 in Seattle)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Zags must recover from the loss of talented frontcourt duo Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. But they're still talented enough to maintain their reign in the WCC. There will be little doubt if they succeed in the Maui Invitational. Matchups against Baylor and Syracuse could follow Gonzaga's opening round game against Dayton. A loaded Memphis squad could be a problem for the Bulldogs in February. Kansas State is less interesting because Angel Rodriguez and others transferred this offseason. The potential at the Maui Invite boosts this slate, however, especially because there's a strong chance we'll see those matchups.

HARVARD

Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 24), at UConn (Jan. 8)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 28-30), Boston College (Jan. 1)
The rest: vs. Holy Cross (Nov. 10 in Boston), MIT (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Bryant (Nov. 20), at Northeastern (Dec. 4), at Boston University (Dec. 7), Vermont (Dec. 21), at Fordham (Dec. 28), at Rice (Jan. 4), at Florida Atlantic (Jan. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Tommy Amaker has one of the best rosters in Harvard history. He has the key players from last season's NCAA tourney squad. Plus, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are returning from last season's suspensions. We'll know more about the program's ceiling after it travels to Boulder to face Tad Boyle's talented Colorado squad. Harvard will encounter one of America's best backcourts when it goes to UConn in January. Not much beyond that. The Great Alaska Shootout features one of the weakest holiday tournament fields in the country. Nothing else in this lineup that would really interest the selection committee.

INDIANA STATE

Toughest: at Notre Dame (Nov. 17), at Saint Louis (Dec. 18)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27-30)
The rest: Ball State (Nov. 9), at Belmont (Nov. 14), Truman State (Nov. 22), at Eastern Illinois (Dec. 7), at Missouri-Kansas City (Dec. 14), IUPUI (Dec. 21), Belmont (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The Sycamores are Wichita State's biggest challenger in the Missouri Valley Conference now that Creighton has moved on to the new Big East. Jake Odum and three other starters return. They'll have to get comfortable off campus. Road matchups against Notre Dame and Saint Louis will be their toughest nonconference games. The Sycamores play five true road games before MVC play begins, and that does not include the Great Alaska Shootout. The latter features a subpar field, but Indiana State could get Harvard in the title game at least. The program might regret two nonconference meetings with Belmont once Selection Sunday arrives.

IONA

Toughest: at Kansas (Nov. 19)
Next toughest: at Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 1), at Dayton (Dec. 19)
The rest: at Cleveland State (Nov. 9), Wofford (Nov. 16), George Mason (Nov. 23), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 14), at Nevada (Dec. 22), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Tim Cluess' program has reached the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. And despite losing Momo Jones, the Gaels could return. Most of their starters from last season are back. Their nonconference slate, however, features few opportunities to boost their at-large resume. They'll play Andrew Wiggins and Kansas in Lawrence in November. George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast and Northern Iowa are all matchups they could lose. But even if they win all three, they'll probably need more quality wins to get some help on Selection Sunday.

LONG BEACH STATE

Toughest: at Arizona (Nov. 11), Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), Creighton (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Kansas State (Nov. 17), at Washington (Nov. 30), at NC State (Dec. 7), at Missouri (Jan. 4)
The rest: Hawaii-Pacific (Nov. 9), Loyola Marymount (Nov. 14), USC (Dec. 19), Montana State-Billings (Dec. 21), at Nevada (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Dan Monson's program dismissed standouts Kaela King and Tony Freeland in the offseason. But the 49ers still can win the Big West, especially with former UCLA guard Tyler Lamb becoming eligible after the first semester. They'll need everyone to step up to deal with this strenuous nonconference schedule. The program will face national title contender Arizona on the road in early November. The 49ers open the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with a matchup against Michigan, another national title contender. The tourney also includes VCU and Georgetown. Big East title favorite Creighton travels to the West Coast for a matchup in early December. The slate ends with a matchup against Missouri in Columbia. Now that is a nonconference schedule.

LOUISIANA TECH

Toughest: vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 14 in Oklahoma City)
Next toughest: at Saint Mary's (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 30)
The rest: Centenary (Nov. 13), Central Arkansas (Nov. 20), Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Fla. (Nov. 25-27), at Jackson State (Dec. 1), UL-Lafayette (Dec. 4), Southern (Dec. 7), Northwestern State (Dec. 11), McNeese State (Dec. 17), at UL-Monroe (Dec. 22), Longwood (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Last season, Louisiana Tech won 27 games and cracked the AP's top 25 poll. The Bulldogs didn't reach the tournament, but they're still a potential favorite to win Conference USA in their inaugural season in the league. But they'll probably enter conference play with an inflated record. Their mid-December game against national title contender Oklahoma State is the only one that stands out. Road games against Saint Mary's and Oklahoma could be factors if Louisiana Tech is on the bubble at the end of the season. The Bulldogs' lack of quality nonconference wins hurt them last season. They at least have a shot at a few decent ones this season.

MERCER

Toughest: at Ole Miss (Dec. 22)
Next toughest: at Texas (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 2)
The rest: Reinhardt (Nov. 13), Seton Hall (Nov. 16), at Evansville (Nov. 18), Johnson & Wales (North Carolina) (Nov. 20), Yale (Nov. 23), at Ohio (Nov. 26), at Valparaiso (Nov. 29), Denver (Dec. 7), Alcorn St. (Dec. 16), St. Andrews (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Mercer brings back four starters from a team that won the Atlantic Sun's regular-season crown in 2012-13. That's the good news. But it's usually a bad sign when you have to Google some of the names featured on a team's nonconference slate. Yes, Johnson & Wales is a real school. Yes, Mercer is playing a bunch of high majors, too. But they're only high majors in name as 2013-14 approaches. Ole Miss should be its toughest game and the Bears have had success against the SEC in recent years. Texas has lost everyone, and Oklahoma has to replenish, too. Those three teams are not expected to contend for the title in their respective conferences. And then, there's Johnson & Wales.

SAINT MARY'S

Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next toughest: Louisiana Tech (Nov. 8)
The rest: Akron (Nov. 12), North Dakota State (Nov. 14), Drake (Nov. 16), Alcorn State (Nov. 24), Murray State (Nov. 30), Eastern Washington (Dec. 8), American University (Dec. 19)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This is actually better than some recent Saint Mary's nonconference lineups. But it's still so-so, even for a Gaels program that must reboot after losing star Matthew Dellavedova. A road game against Mountain West title contender Boise State is probably Saint Mary's toughest game. The Gaels could see the Broncos again if they beat South Carolina in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic. Iowa State might be waiting in the championship game. Louisiana Tech could win the Conference USA crown in its first season, so that November matchup should be meaningful. But the Gaels have just one true road game.

SOUTHERN

Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 18), at Arizona (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 8), at Baylor (Dec. 22)
The rest:, at Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 10), Tulane (Nov. 13), at North Florida (Nov. 16), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 22), Blue Mountain College (Nov. 25), at Denver (Dec. 3), at Louisiana Tech (Dec. 7), Dillard (Dec. 14), Champion Baptist College (Dec. 30)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- The squad that nearly upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last season is ready to play the role of David again. Southern, a team that returns star Malcolm Miller, could ruin a few nonconference seasons for some of the country's best teams. The Jaguars kick off the year at Marquette. They'll face Florida in Gainesville a few weeks later. Then, they have back-to-back road matchups against Arizona and Baylor in December. That November game against Blue Mountain College is actually an anomaly on this challenging nonconference schedule. You taking notes, SEC?

WICHITA STATE

Toughest: at Saint Louis (Dec. 1), vs. Tennessee (Dec. 14 at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.)
Next toughest: CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26), at Alabama (Dec. 17)
The rest: Emporia State (Nov. 9), Western Kentucky (Nov. 12), at Tulsa (Nov. 20), Oral Roberts (Dec. 7), North Carolina Central (Dec. 22), Davidson (Dec. 29)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The Shockers have elevated expectations after last season's Final Four run. With so much talent returning, a trip to Arlington in April seems feasible. Wichita State will get an early test against reigning Atlantic 10 champ Saint Louis, and then it will host SEC sleeper Tennessee a few weeks later. The Vols beat the Shockers in Knoxville last season. They could face BYU if they beat DePaul in the first round of the Hall of Fame Classic. Games against Bama and Davidson shouldn't be overlooked, either. But this slate lacks the power players you'd like to see a Final Four team encounter prior to conference play.


The best thing about the college basketball offseason is that it ends. The second best thing about the college basketball offseason is that when it ends, it ends so quickly and so exhaustively that within a few days you have to remind yourself that there was ever an offseason in the first place. By mid-November, it's impossible to imagine life without basketball.

We have the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon to thank for that. Hey, it might still be warm outside and the campus dorms are mostly empty here in the dog days of August. But exactly three months from now, college hoops will be back in full force with the Marathon, which will include more than a dozen games in more than 24 consecutive hours of basketball in what has become a great annual excuse to call into work sick.

At 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 11, the Marathon begins with an ESPN2 women's doubleheader (Stanford-UConn; then Tennessee-North Carolina) and an ESPNU men's doubleheader (Kent State-Temple; then Colorado State-Gonzaga). At 7:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 12, the Marathon ends with a Champions Classic doubleheader that very well might match up four of the nation's top five teams (Kentucky-Michigan State; Kansas-Duke).

In between, starting at 11 p.m. ET on the 11th, there's a run of men's games that will keep the hardcore fans up all night and morning and begging for caffeine by lunchtime. Who will be participating in those games? Well, stick with us here in the Nation blog. We'll be revealing each of the Marathon matchups at the corresponding time they'll be taking place three months from now. Keep this page open and refresh every two hours and you'll get a new game, along with an early analysis of the matchup. Starting with ...

BYU at Stanford, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Cougars and Cardinal will not only get the Marathon party started late on Nov. 11, they also provide a handy reminder that the earliest parts of the season mean just as much as what happens in February and March. In recent years, the NCAA tournament selection committee has de-emphasized recent results in its selection, instead emphasizing performance in the nonconference as much (or more) than any other single selection criterion. What happens on Nov. 11 matters, in other words, and that's especially true for both BYU and Stanford. The Cougars have quality players in Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws; Stanford is a quality defensive team with solid guard play from Chasson Randle. Neither team looks like a top-25 group, but they do look like they could be in the mix on Selection Sunday. So both will need as many quality nonconference wins as they can get to avoid languishing on the tournament bubble for months at a time. That process will begin immediately.

[+] EnlargeGregg Marshall
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsComing off a Final Four appearance in April, coach Gregg Marshall and the Wichita State Shockers are riding high entering this season.
Western Kentucky at Wichita State, 1 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Just two years ago, Western Kentucky, a proud, historically successful program, appeared to be in deep decline. In January 2012, a 5-10 team lost to six players (true, and long, story), then fired its coach. Since then, Ray Harper has managed to get WKU into the tournament twice, which is as much a testament to his coaching as it is to the wacky power of automatic bids and mid-major conference tournaments. But really, this fixture is about the Wichita State Shockers and their fans, who, in the wake of a surprise Final Four visit, are no doubt eager to showcase the strength of their program and their fan base to a national audience. Charles Koch Arena is always bumping. Imagine what they'll have cooking for a midnight local tip. Oh my.

Akron at Saint Mary’s, 3 a.m. ET, ESPN2: This midnight local tip -- you know, were it not for time zones, this whole Marathon thing would be a lot harder to pull off -- features two of the best mid-major programs of the past decade. You're likely already familiar with Saint Mary's, which has crept up on (and even briefly unseated) Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference in recent years. But Akron coach Keith Dambrot has taken the Zips to the tournament in three of the past five seasons, including as a 12-seed in 2012-13. Recovering from the loss of super-efficient center Zeke Marshall won't be easy (to say nothing of the Alex Abreu ordeal), but Akron has almost everyone else back and is ready to push toward another postseason berth, and then some.

New Mexico State at Hawaii, 5 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There are many, many benefits to being in Hawaii and its time zone is typically not high on that list. But the Warriors' unique geography also makes them a yearly inclusion in the Marathon. At this point, 5 a.m. ET might as well be called the "Hawaii Slot." This year's edition of the Hawaii Slot features one of the more consistently successful and frequently slept-on mid-majors in New Mexico State, where Marvin Menzies has won 50 games over the past two seasons (and has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments). Expect to hear a lot about Sim Bhullar, who is not your average NMSU player: He's a 7-foot-5 Canadian-born son of Indian parents whose unique background (and sheer size) won him cross-cultural hype from the New York Times before he played a minute of college ball. The good news? Bhullar was good as a freshman, when he shot 62.1 percent from the field and grabbed 12.8 percent of available offensive rebounds. The dude can play, and you can see him do so live -- as long as you can get up early (or stay up that late).

Hartford at Florida Gulf Coast, 7 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There's something immensely fun about the early-morning Marathon entries. The schools involved are typically small enough that the very idea of being included in the event (and on ESPN) is enough to draw a raucous A.M. crowd, especially in the student section. Expect things to go up a notch or two in 2013. The folks at Florida Gulf Coast are riding as high as the sport allows these days. March's "Dunk City"-defined run to the Sweet 16 put the tiny 22-year-old school and its pristine beach dorms in front of every sports fan in the country. Merchandise flew off the shelves; enrollment (almost certainly, given precedent) spiked. It's safe to assume the party will be still be raging come November.

[+] EnlargeTyrone Garland
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty ImagesThe Explorers lost only one contributor from a team that won three NCAA tourney games in March.
Quinnipiac at La Salle, 9 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Are you sensing a theme? La Salle, like Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State above, are likewise coming off one of the best seasons in program history. The 1954 NCAA champs saw the last vestiges of ongoing relevance dry up by the mid-1990s, but their return to the tournament in 2013 -- which required a stopover at the "first round" in Dayton -- took them all the way to the Sweet 16 before they fell to Wichita State. The Explorers lose senior leader Ramon Galloway, but everyone else is back, including a great group of guards led by Tyrone "Southwest Philly Floater" Garland, who is entertaining and frustrating in equally perfect measure.

LSU at Massachusetts, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Typically, LSU fans devote more time to the mechanics of Les Miles' grass-chew habit than they do basketball, and in recent seasons it's been hard to argue with that order of priorities. The Tigers simply have not been very good. That may be changing. Johnny Jones' team returns four starters from a better-than-you-remember 19-12, 2012-13 group. But the biggest piece of news is the arrival of Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked overall player in a stacked incoming recruiting class. The Baton Rouge native took to basketball later than most, but he's already developed into an imposing (if somewhat raw) presence. If his development curve continues to do its best hockey stick impression throughout the rest of the summer, look out for the Tigers. Oh, and don't sleep on UMass -- one of the most stylistically entertaining teams in the country, with a solid returning core -- either. This could be one of those games that looks huge once bubble talk ramps up.

West Virginia at Virginia Tech, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN: Virginia Tech got off to a great start last season, its first under new coach James Johnson. But by the end of the year, about the only thing the Hokies had going for them was senior guard Erick Green, who managed to post a 120.0 offensive rating on 31.7 percent usage, which ranked him behind only Nate Wolters, Kelly Olynyk, Doug McDermott and Trey Burke on the list of players who managed to be efficient despite using so many of their team's possessions. Green was great, but now he's gone, which leaves Johnson facing a classic, long-haul rebuilding scenario. West Virginia isn't quite there, but Bob Huggins' team had a decidedly un-Huggins season in 2012-13, when they played some of the ugliest, most disjointed offense the college game had to offer (which, last season, was saying something). After essentially sending talented, but troubled, forward Aaric Murray away, Huggins will have to cull some semblance of a rotation from a smattering of pieces that never congealed last year. Incoming four-star power forwards Devin Williams and Elijah Mason should help.

South Carolina at Baylor, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN: Despite taking a massive L.J. Peak-induced recruiting gut-punch this summer, Frank Martin's Gamecocks have already made more progress in his one year at the school than in the 10 before it. Martin has a six-player class arriving this fall, led by No. 7-ranked shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell. A few years down the road, the talent level in Columbia is going to be unrecognizably high. Baylor fans could lend some experience on this front. Now entering his 11th season, Scott Drew has taken the Bears from the untouchable site of shocking scandal into one of the most consistently talented programs in the country. This season, the Bears are adding two top-100 talents (Ishmail Wainright, Allerik Freeman) to a group that already includes 7-footer Isaiah Austin and a score of rising youngsters and/or reliable veterans, including forwards Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers and guards Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin -- the list goes on and on. After an NIT title in March, Baylor should be after much more this season.

[+] EnlargeMick Cronin
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesSean Kilpatrick and Mick Cronin are looking to for a fourth straight NCAA tournament bid.
NC State at Cincinnati, 5 p.m. ET, ESPN: When everything was clicking, there were few sights in the college game as thrilling as NC State's offense last season -- Lorenzo Brown leading the break, T.J. Warren running to the block, Scott Wood spotting up on the wing. The problem, of course, was defense, or more precisely a lack of defense. Some of that had to do with personnel, but much of it was related to attitude. With Wood, Brown, guard Rodney Purvis (transfer to UConn) and forwards C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell all gone, coach Mark Gottfried won't have as much tantalizing talent on the court this time around. But he will have a pared-down group that actually wants to be in Raleigh, and he can build the additions of top-100 recruits Anthony Barber, BeeJay Anya and Kyle Washington around Warren, the Pack's most dynamic and promising player a season ago. A trip to Cincinnati will be a crucial early test of Gottfried's mini-rebuild, as a Sean Kilpatrick-led Bearcats group hopes the addition of power forward Jermaine Lawrence will push the program past the "solid NCAA tournament inclusion" hump into ever more rarefied air.

"College GameDay" from Chicago, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I don't need to preview College Gameday for you, do I? You already know how awesome College Gameday is. Let's move on.

VCU at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: It's almost unfair to pit the ESPN2 primetime games against the Champions Classic. They're bound to look pale by comparison. But on any other night of the season, VCU-Virginia (and its 9 p.m. ET follow-up, about which more below) would be must-see stuff. The basketball is good in and of itself. Under Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth has morphed 2011's shock Final Four run into a burgeoning outfit that plays one of the most recognizable systems -- a constantly turnover-hawking pressing style -- in the country. UVa, meanwhile, has steadily improved under fifth-year coach Tony Bennett, who has adopted many of the pack-line defensive principles that his father Dick Bennett developed long ago at Wisconsin-Green Bay. The contrast of speed and style couldn't be more pronounced here, and if a hearty quasi-cultural, in-state rivalry doesn't exist between these two very different schools already, it shouldn't take long.

Michigan State vs. Kentucky in Chicago, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: And so we arrive at the jewel of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon: The Champions Classic. In its first two years, the Champions Classic has done exactly what it set out to do -- provide mutually beneficial marquee college hoops scheduling at the start of the season -- and then some. It even offered an early national title preview (Kentucky vs. Kansas) in 2011-12.

This year's edition might be the best yet, and that starts with Michigan State-Kentucky. The Spartans are the prohibitive Big Ten favorite (or co-favorite with Michigan, your mileage may vary), and bring back about as solid and imposing a core -- senior guard Keith Appling, still-improving senior forward Adreian Payne, Big Ten freshman of the year Gary Harris -- and will begin the season in the top 5 because of it.

After the 2012 national title, Kentucky coach John Calipari probably didn't expect to be on the losing side of a first-round NIT game a year later (and in his hometown, no less), but even as Robert Morris fans stormed the court in March, Calipari could take solace knowing he assembled what is by all accounts the best recruiting class since the Fab Five, and maybe ever. With Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee, Calipari landed five of the top nine players in the class and six of the top 25. Oh, and he'll have Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein -- clearly talented players who struggled as freshmen, but should be more effective with more experience and more minimized roles -- back, too. The whole prospect is terrifying: For as good as UK was in 2011-12, this team might be better. What better early test than a veteran, Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State?

Florida at Wisconsin, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: See? This is another really good college basketball game that most people probably won't watch live, because you're not going to miss the beginning of what I have already imagined will be a Bird-Magic-esque Wiggins-Parker rivalry in Duke-Kansas. But the doubleheader on ESPN2 isn't too far behind. No coach in the country is as consistent as Bo Ryan, and this year very little should change. The only exception is the star power offered by sophomore forward Sam Dekker, a rare top-20 recruit for the Badgers who shined in an introductory role as a freshman, and will be asked to do loads more as a sophomore. Speaking of consistency, Florida has participated in the last three Elite Eights, and the Gators appear to be as capable of that feat as ever in 2013-14. No. 2-ranked freshman point guard Kasey Hill should start and star immediately alongside forward Patric Young, and if the Gators can get equally touted freshman power forward Chris Walker academically eligible, they'll have plenty of firepower to bring to the Kohl Center.

Kansas vs. Duke, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN: Yes, UK-MSU is awfully good, and the teams are probably better overall. But for sheer intrigue, it's hard to top Duke versus Kansas. On one side is the No. 1 player in the class, Andrew Wiggins, who is not merely your average top-ranked recruit but considered by pretty much every scout you talk to as the best prospect since Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, if not LeBron James. Which is funny, considering that's the same thing Sports Illustrated once plastered on its cover next to a photo of four-time Illinois state champion, No. 2-ranked Jabari Parker. There is already a bit of a LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony thing going on here. Wiggins is the world-destroying athletic freak with the intuitive all-court game; Parker is the smooth, natural scorer. In 2003, Anthony and James entered their rookie seasons having only ever met on the AAU circuit. In 2013, Parker and Wiggins will meet each other on one of the first nights of the season, following Kentucky's Julius Randle, who is good enough to steal the eventual No. 1 overall pick out from under both.

In other words, the three reasons why you'll hear so much about NBA teams tanking in the next 12 months are all playing on the same United Center night in mid-November, and two of them are playing each other. Man, the Champions Classic is awesome. Did I mention that already? We covered that part, right?

So get your remote control handy; get your DVR game tight. That's good advice for the primetime doubleheader, but it works for the whole Marathon, too. By the time it's over, you won't even remember the offseason existed. I can't wait.
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

When and where: Dec. 22-23, 25 in Honolulu.

Initial thoughts: I like this field. No, it doesn’t feature any powerhouse programs. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle won’t be here. But I think this might be one of the most balanced brackets among the early tournaments. That’s why I’m intrigued.

Boise State is stacked. About 92 percent of the team’s offensive output from last season returns. The Broncos squad that reached the NCAA tournament last season only had one senior. Leon Rice’s program could be (should be) the favorite to win the Mountain West in 2013-14. And the Broncos are certainly a strong contender to win the Diamond Head Classic title. They have a clear path to the championship game. Hawaii returns two of its top three scorers from a 17-15 squad that couldn’t defend anyone last season (262nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). Saint Mary’s enters the “Life After Matthew Dellavedova” era. Frank Martin’s 2013 recruiting class at South Carolina is a promising addition and a sign of progress, but it might take some time to fit all of the pieces together and that might not be enough to help a Gamecocks team that went 4-14 in the SEC in 2012-13. Boise State stands tall on this side of the bracket.

Iowa State, however, could be potent, too. Fred Hoiberg just signed a 1,000-year extension. So he’s going to be the coach in Ames forever. There’s stability now. And he has a true pillar in Georges Niang. The sophomore is a combo forward who will showcase his full arsenal in 2012-13. He can lead the Cyclones to their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. A pair of ESPN top-100 recruits, Matt Thomas and Monte Morris, will be in the mix, too. And former Marshall guard DeAndre Kane (15.1 PPG and 7.0 APG 2012-13) will be eligible to compete next year after recently graduating. But Sherrod Wright and George Mason will put up a fight against the Cyclones. The Patriots, who are moving to the Atlantic 10, were second in the CAA in 3-point defense (31.6 percent allowed) last year. Iowa State led the nation in 2012-13 with 878 3-pointers. Oregon State is my sleeper pick to win the championship. Eric Moreland, the team’s top rebounder, returns along with Craig Robinson’s top three scorers from last year (Roberto Nelson, Devon Collier and Angus Brandt). The Beavers will open the tournament against an Akron team that lost shot-blocking savant Zeke Marshall and could be without suspended point guard Alex Abreu, who pled guilty to one count of felony drug trafficking last month.

But I’m intrigued by the parity and possibilities.

Matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, Isaac Fotu's afro is just one of the reasons I can’t wait to see the opening-round contest between Hawaii and Boise State. This will be one the first times Boise plays under the pressures that come with expectations. Last year, the Broncos surprised the country. Now, success is expected. The bulk of last year’s tourney squad is back. And now, the team could enter the season as top dog in the Mountain West. But squads unprepared for the spotlight have stumbled early in the past. Perhaps Hawaii will catch BSU at the right time and score a major upset in this game.

[+] EnlargeBoise State's Anthony Drmic
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsBoise State's Anthony Drmic averaged 17.7 points for the Broncos last season.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, fast forward to Boise State versus Iowa State in the championship game. There’s a lot on the line for both teams. Boise State wants to meet the hype. Iowa State wants to prove that it can continue to build despite losing key veterans. Niang & Co. would make a huge statement with a victory over a Broncos team that might be in the Top 25 of the preseason polls. Boise State, however, would acquire the same momentum with a Diamond Head Classic title. Last season ended with a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament. It just wasn’t the team’s best night. The Broncos could erase that memory with a strong start in 2013-14. And a tournament victory here would be a great step toward achieving that.

Five players to watch:

Georges Niang, Iowa State: You might not know him yet. But you will soon. Last year, he averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG and also made 39 percent of his 3-pointers. And Hoiberg is convinced he’s capable of more in 2013-14. He won’t have a choice. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last season. Niang has to deliver.

Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: His achievements were buried last year due to his team’s struggles. Although Oregon State lost 14 Pac-12 games, Nelson averaged 17.8 PPG. The 6-3 guard also made 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Can’t get too excited about a squad that struggled the way that Oregon State did a year ago. But Nelson is a star.

Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, Boise State: Both Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Marks (16.3 PPG) cracked the Mountain West’s all-conference second team last year as sophomores. The two guards fueled a Boise State attack that was No. 33 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. The explosive duo could carry Boise State to another NCAA tournament appearance.

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Frank Martin promised two things when he accepted the South Carolina job last year: more love for Pitbull and an upgraded recruiting pool. Thornwell -- ranked 41st among ESPN’s top-100 recruits in the 2013 class -- represents change at South Carolina. He anchors an incoming crew that’s ranked 23rd nationally by ESPN.com. The 6-5 guard could be the young stud that Martin needs to truly build the South Carolina program.

Title game prediction: All signs point to Boise State and Iowa State meeting in the championship. They’re clearly the most talented teams in the field. But the Cyclones might need some time to build chemistry, especially with Kane possibly seizing the starting point guard role. Boise State has the benefit of continuity. And the Broncos’ offensive attack is deep and versatile. I expect to see a close game because Iowa State is legit. But I think Boise State will win the title.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
Jeff Goodman: Boise State over Oregon State
Andy Katz: Boise State over Iowa State
Jason King: Iowa State over Boise State
Dana O'Neil: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
In 1985, Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Tom Gralish won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo essay on the Philadelphia homeless. Gralish's work, composed in black and white, was stark and haunting, but for different reasons than you might expect. Not once in the piece were his subjects treated as victims. Instead, the panhandlers were funny, boisterous, defiant and philosophical. They found romance in rootlessness; they felt purity in survival. As Gralish would later say: "They saw themselves as the last free men."

It strikes me, as we head into the home stretch of our Realignment Reality week, that college basketball fans could relate. (Stay with me.)

We fans like to think of sports as essentially pure, free from the messy and confusing nature of day-to-day life, a world apart from the distressing politics and economics that dominate our lives from birth until death. They are not. They are as beholden to money as anything else. If the past three years of conference realignment have taught us anything, it is this: When the fight card pits nostalgia versus cash, cash always wins in a knockout.

Once you can wrap your head around this fact, it's a lot easier to shrug at the casual manner in which realignment has gutted some of the most enjoyable, most heated, most psychologically-invested rivalries of the past 50 years. Money always wins.

Beyond spending as much time as possible watching the actual basketball itself -- my favorite remedy for just about everything, with the possible exception of "The Big Lebowski" -- the best we can do, I'd wager, is to try to look on the bright side. There are always new rivalries to be formed.

In that spirit, let's see if we can scout out a few worth watching in the years to come:

Duke vs. Syracuse

This one is awesome enough on its face: Duke and Syracuse are both really good at basketball. Now that they're in the same league, they're guaranteed to play at least once a season, and any combination of familiarity and excellence is a guarantee to produce healthy, thrilling distaste.

There's much more to it than that. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in the history of college hoops. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim ranks No. 2. The men are friends, frequent USA Basketball colleagues, cheap dinner companions, and fellow enthusiasts of acerbic wit. But they are also obsessive competitors, and you can bet that for however long both of them have the chance to coach against each other in the coming years -- Boeheim is 68, Coach K 66 -- there will be a little something extra on the line.

The men might be similar, but the schools are vastly different. Syracuse is a private research institution that nonetheless feels like a state school,* and plays its hoops in a cavernous football arena; Duke is an elite private institution with the world's best boutique gym. Syracuse feels (from afar, at least) tightly woven into the culture of the community around it; Duke's looming Gothic facades might as well be Hogwarts. About 40 percent of Syracuse's 2010 class hailed from New York state; roughly 90 percent of Duke students come from somewhere that isn't North Carolina. These are the kinds of sociocultural and perceptual differences that breed hatred beyond basketball. They are fuel for the rivalry flame.

There is also the matter of regional rivalry. That seems weird to say, given that one school is 45 minutes from the Canadian border and the other is 350 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But there is a reason Duke is sure to schedule at least one nonconference game in the New York/New Jersey area every season: There are a lot of Blue Devils alumni in the Northeast. In the past five years, Syracuse has made a concerted effort to market itself as "New York's college team."

If it were just as simple as "two really good programs suddenly in the same conference," then we could just as easily look forward to the North Carolina-Syracuse rivalry. But a great rivalry has to be about much more than that. Duke-Syracuse has all the makings.

Memphis vs. Cincinnati

Another benefit to conference realignment: rivalries reborn! The Millennials among us might not remember it too well (OK, guilty as charged), but in 1991-92 Memphis and Cincinnati joined UAB, DePaul, Marquette and Saint Louis as charter members of the Great Midwest Conference. (That's just a a fantastic name, by the way. I've been giving the new American Athletic Conference a tough time lately, but the more I think about it, the more I've come to believe that pretty much any conference nomenclature sounds completely silly if you think about it for longer than five seconds.) The six-member GMC was short-lived; it merged with the Metro Conference in 1995, which both Memphis and Cincinnati had left in the first place, to form Conference USA. Ah, realignment. Never change.

Anyway, it was in the early '90s, in the GMC, when Memphis and Cincinnati managed to pack in some truly rivalry-worthy stuff. In 1991-92 the Tigers, led by Anfernee Hardaway and David Vaughn, met the Bearcats in the inaugural GMC tournament and again during their thrilling Elite Eight run, losing to a sublime Nick Van Exel both times. Hardaway and Van Exel met again in 1993, when Memphis upset the No. 4-ranked Bearcats 68-66 to notch the program's 1,000th win. The fact that there is no video of this game on the Internet is a shocking crime against humanity. In 1995, Memphis clinched the final GMC regular-season title over the Bearcats (thanks to 33 points from Michael Williams) on the road, and the rivalry continued on into Conference USA.

If you think either of those basketball-obsessed cities forgot about any of that, you'd be wrong. That bodes well for the future, by the way: Memphis and Cincinnati are large metropolitan areas that, despite having professional sports franchises, nonetheless eat, breathe and sleep college hoops.

Memphis vs. Louisville

OK, so this doesn't really count: The return of the Memphis-Louisville rivalry -- exponentially more heated than Memphis-Cincinnati -- will last just one year in the American before Louisville sets off for the ACC. But I had to mention it anyway, because before we all wept for Kansas-Missouri and Syracuse-Georgetown, the Cardinals' departure from C-USA last decade put a hold on a blood feud dating back to 1967. Fortunately, these two teams put each other on their nonconference schedules the last couple of seasons, and it's likely we'll see that again going forward. But still, it will be fun to add a little intraconference hatred to the mix.

UCF vs. South Florida

Neither of these programs are likely to excite basketball fans individually. Historically, neither has been very good, or even all that concerned with trying to be good, at this funky roundball thing. Maybe that's just a fact of life. But the new American Conference configuration should keep them both in the same digs for a while to come. Here's hoping that the rise of collegiate basketball in Florida in the past decade, the inherent regional familiarity and state-school ties, and the massive student bodies (nearly 110,000 enrollees between them) make for an increased focus on the basketball side of things -- and, as a result, increased success.

Butler vs. Xavier

This one isn't totally new -- the Bulldogs did enjoy a one-year stopover in the Atlantic 10 before both teams jumped to the new Big East this summer -- but it has the potential to be awfully good. For one, there is a bit of shared coaching history: Ohio State coach Thad Matta left Butler in 2000 to move to Xavier, and his eventual successors (new Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Arizona coach Sean Miller) moved on to become immensely successful in their own right. They really are natural enemies. Alongside Gonzaga and Memphis, Butler and Xavier are the marquee non-Power Six programs of the past decade, and they're poised just a couple of hours apart on I-74. Now both affiliated with something that looks like a power conference if you squint hard enough, they will no doubt be prospecting in many of the same talent-rich areas of Indiana. This could be a thing.

Pittsburgh vs. Virginia

Pittsburgh and West Virginia don't exactly get along. Never have. Why not extend that to West Virginia's eastern cousin? Sure, the geographic intensity might not be as immediate -- Morgantown sits just south of the Pennsylvania border, while Charlottesville is a five-hour drive -- but with Pittsburgh such a consistent hoops force, and UVa on the rise under Tony Bennett, who's to say what the relationship might become? At the very least, the slow-paced Cavaliers look best poised to prevent Pitt from totally grinding an otherwise finesse-first ACC on the glass in seasons to come.

Oakland vs. Detroit

Oakland's move from the Summit League to the Horizon is a step up in general, but it also lays the groundwork for a sneaky-fun city-suburbs dispute in the greater Detroit area.

Pacific vs. Saint Mary's and/or Gonzaga

Think it's going to be tough for Butler to move to the Big East without Brad Stevens? Imagine being Pacific, which just waved farewell to the greatest coach in its history (and one of the sport's most annually underrated), 25-year veteran Bob Thomason, on the eve of a move from the Big West to the West Coast Conference. The good news? If Pacific can rise a notch or two to the level of its best WCC competition, it will be not only a perfect fit for the WCC, but also an excellent candidate to form rivalries with Saint Mary's to its west and Gonzaga to its north.

It might be a stretch, but that's the case with a few of the entries on this list. But hey, if conference realignment can toss rivalries aside so easily, who's to say new ones can't grow just as rapidly in their wake? Let's hope so, anyway.

[*Correction: An earlier version of this post described Syracuse as a state school, not a private institution. My mistake. -- EB]

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Josh Pastner walked out of the tiny Memphis locker room late Thursday afternoon, saw the crowd of media waiting and tried to gather them in a huddle.

The 35-year-old appears forever happy, working through media lines and all over the Palace of Auburn Hills the past two days. Since he took over at Memphis for John Calipari four years ago, he had won 105 games and done almost everything he needed to so Memphis would remain at its previous level.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMemphis' Josh Pastner directs his team during the second half against Saint Mary's in what would be his first NCAA tournament win as a head coach.
Except win a game in the NCAA tournament.

Pastner tried to not make a big deal of his Tigers holding on to beat Saint Mary’s 54-52, yet his team understood the implications. The players had heard all about the one thing Pastner hadn’t done.

“It’s a major monkey off his back in the grand scheme of things, but right now he’s thinking to the next game,” senior forward Ferrakohn Hall said. “Definitely a big deal, going to the tournament three years in a row and not being able to get over the hump and now you can; it’s a great achievement.”

It is an achievement the Memphis players took personally. They knew they were still a good team -- 31 wins this season and counting after winning 25-plus games the prior two seasons -- but in past years, they couldn’t replicate their regular-season success.

And it almost happened again, as Memphis had a 15-point lead in the first half dwindle to two with 1.9 seconds left. Point guard Joe Jackson had lost the ball, giving Saint Mary’s one final chance to send Memphis home for the third straight year without a win.

Saint Mary’s guard Matthew Dellavedova took the ball on the wing and attempted a 3-pointer.

"It came off, and once it left, I knew it was long," Pastner said. "So it was good. It was a good win.

"... I was totally at peace. I really was. You might not believe me, but I was. I really was at peace.”

As it sailed over, Pastner and his players stayed calm. They had waited three seasons for this moment, to say they won an NCAA tournament game.

The players talked about it in huddles during Thursday’s game. They constantly reminded each other of the importance of getting past this, of being able to finally reach the second game in the NCAA tournament.

"We've been here with him, so we say, 'We. It’s a we thing,'" Hall said. "The whole staff and team, everyone in our locker room -- it’s the thing we definitely have talked about.

"It's a group thing. It’s pretty much understood. Even in the huddle, we'd say, 'Let’s get past this. Let's get over this hump.'"

Pastner’s players understood. As they left the locker room, just after Pastner came out of it himself, D.J. Stephens yelled out, "Congrats, Coach." And Pastner smiled.

Then Stephens gave Pastner what he might have wanted to hear the most: “We ain’t done yet.”
DAYTON, Ohio -- Middle Tennessee knew it. Saint Mary's knew it, too. In a world of advanced statistics and granulated scouting reports, even the most rudimentary preparation could tell you a very obvious thing about the Gaels coming into Tuesday night's First Four matchup in Dayton: Matthew Dellavedova was off.

Typically a 38-percent shooter from beyond the arc, Dellavedova spent the final week of the Gaels' pre-Dance season clanging one long-range shot after another. Zero for seven against Santa Clara. One for seven against San Diego. Zero for four in another lopsided loss to rival Gonzaga. All told, he finished WCC competition a whopping 1-of-18 from 3-point range, and Saint Mary's finished WCC play with its most important offensive option wielding just a fraction of his considerable abilities.

On Tuesday night, playing for a spot in the NCAA's 64-team "second round," Dellavedova's long-range drought lasted exactly three minutes and 2 seconds.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Dellavedova
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportMatthew Dellavedova's 22-point, 6-rebound, 4-assists effort sent Saint Mary's into the Round of 64.
The scoring drought was over. So too was Middle Tennessee's first foray into the NCAA tournament in 24 years.

By the final buzzer, Dellavedova had gone 5-of-7 from 3-point range and 7-of-14 from the field, finishing with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, leading the Gaels to a 67-54 win over the Blue Raiders. Now he's got a chance to knock off No. 6 seed Memphis on Thursday, when the tournament begins in earnest.

"The whole thing is, can he shoot it?" Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said. "You can just sit over there and watch him play. I know [Saint Mary's coach] Randy [Bennett] has got to love that. He just puts guys in different spots. He sees it as good as anybody.

"He's big, strong and he can still a run a team," Davis said. "But he hadn't made those plays from the perimeter. When he does that, he may be the best point guard in college basketball."

That may be a bit of hyperbole from a recently vanquished opposing coach, and Trey Burke may beg to differ, but the praise isn't that far off. Dellavedova, a beloved senior whose career has coincided with the program's first WCC regular-season titles (in 2011 and 2012) and tournament titles (in 2010 and 2012) since 1997 and its first Sweet 16 appearance (2010) since 1959. The Australian native and 2012 Olympian is the Gaels' all time leader in points, assists, games started, games played and free throw percentage.

And -- oh by the way -- 3-point shots. And 3-point makes.

"You just get too many shots up for them not to go in," Dellavedova said.

In other words, 1-of-18 was less a great disturbance in the Force than a minor fluctuation to be ignored; a selective piece of data that would regress eventually to the mean. Now that it has, Dellavedova and his teammates, who have spent the past two days in a whirlwind of last-minute travel arrangements, can focus on knocking off Memphis in Auburn Hills on Thursday.

There are some minor similarities between Middle Tennessee and Memphis, namely the athleticism at every position and the desire to score in transition, but Memphis is a bigger, better, NBA-talent-loaded version of the Blue Raiders, coming off a perfect 19-0 run through the Conference USA regular season and tournament.

Memphis coach Josh Pastner will no doubt keenly watch Davis' strategy for slowing Dellavedova in the second half. It included a trapping 1-3-1 zone and eventually switching to tight man-to-man defense and hard-hedged screens -- all during a stretch that saw the Blue Raiders close Saint Mary's second-half lead to just three. Stephen Holt and Beau Levesque combined for 31 points and 10 rebounds, which helped relieve the pressure in the rare moments when Dellavedova was hassled into an unfavorable pass. The undersized Gaels will have replicate that effort and then some against Memphis to avoid being overwhelmed by the Tigers' speed and size.

"With Memphis, it's pretty much the same game plan," Bennett said. "You have to take the transition away from them, to see if you can do that, which is the No. 1 thing we did tonight."

And having the same Dellavedova as Tuesday night -- with that game-changing shooting in the quiver next to all the other arrows -- won't hurt, either.

"We're not going to win games like this if Matt doesn't shoot it well," Bennett said. "Or at least shoot it decent."

DAYTON, Ohio -- Quick reaction to Saint Mary's 67-54 win over Middle Tennessee on Tuesday night:

Overview: It was fitting: While much of the nation's attention was turned to Robert Morris' thrilling buzzer-beater win over Kentucky, two of the nation's more overlooked tourney-worthy teams -- one from the West Coast Conference, the other from the Sun Belt -- met here in the UD Arena. With Twitter buzzing about the NIT (really, the NIT!), Middle Tennessee and Saint Mary's scrapped with a bid to the proper 64-team NCAA tournament field on the line.

And one of the nation's most underappreciated players simply wouldn't be denied.

As he has all season, Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova carried the Gaels to a victory. He finished with 22 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field and 5-of-7 from beyond the arc with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and nearly 40 minutes of conducting his teammates like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report."

Middle Tennessee was often up to the task, and was impressively athletic and lightning quick from end to end. But the Gaels' steady stream of offense was enough to get them past play-in stage -- or the "First Round," if you're feeling generous about the NCAA's odd naming conventions -- and through to a matchup with No. 6 seed Memphis Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Turning point: Despite Saint Mary's eventual tally, the Gaels struggled on offense in the first half, shooting just 9-of-25 from the field. Fortunately, Middle was even worse, hitting just 8 of 25 shots overall and just 2 of 8 from 3, and Saint Mary's took a 29-20 lead to the half.

The Blue Raiders came out in the second half with their favored 1-3-1 half-court trapping zone, but the Gaels were ready -- on Monday, Dellavedova included it in the very short list of things he knew about MTSU coming in -- and he mostly shredded it. A pair of 3s later (including one ice-cold standstill shot from the wing), Saint Mary's led 39-28.

That's when Blue Raiders coach Kermit Davis abandoned the zone look, inserted guard Tweety Knight into the game, assigned Knight to Dellavedova alone, and told his players to hedge every ball screen to force Dellavedova to give up the ball. This worked, and as the rest of the Gaels missed shots or occasionally coughed it up, MTSU came roaring back into the game 41-38. It looked like a turning point; instead, it was the high-water line. Beau Levesque made a pair of free throws and a layup, Stephen Holt finished an interior bucket, Dellavedova found Mitchell Young with a sweet no-look pass that sent the entire Middle Tennessee defense in the wrong direction and he knocked down an open 3 to bring the lead to 52-42. The Gaels would cruise from there.

Key player: Of course, it would be foolish to consider Saint Mary's a one-man team. Dellavedova is the engine that makes the Gaels run, but Stephen Holt is an aggressive penetrator, offensive rebounder and the secondary ball handler when Randy Bennett moves Dellavedova off the ball. Levesque was crucial, too.

Key stat: The Gaels, thanks in large part to Dellavedova's 5-of-7 mark, made 8 of their 14 3-point field goal attempts Tuesday night.

What's next: Middle Tennessee ends another excellent season under Kermit Davis 28-6. The Gaels survive and advance, and will play Memphis in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Thursday.
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. On Tuesday, it's the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.

No. 16 North Carolina A&T vs. No. 16 Liberty, 6:40 p.m. ET, truTV

Here’s the bad news. The winner of this First Four matchup will face Louisville, the top overall seed in the tournament, on Thursday in Lexington, Ky. So it’s like, “Hey, you win!” quickly followed by, “And you kind of lose, too.” But a win is a win. And both teams can snap their lengthy droughts in the NCAA tournament.

Neither team has ever won an NCAA tournament game. So tonight will be a first for one of these squads. North Carolina A&T has been to the Big Dance nine times but not since 1995. Liberty has gone twice (1994, 2004).

So history is certainly on the line.

Liberty will represent the Big South even though the Flames finished the regular season with a 6-10 conference record. They’ve lost 20 games. But they won the conference tourney. And that’s what matters. John Caleb Sanders has one of the best names in the entire tournament, and he leads the Flames with 14.2 PPG.

The Aggies of North Carolina A&T are on a four-game winning streak. They’ve forced turnovers on 23.7 percent of their opponents’ possessions per Ken Pomeroy, 20th in the country. But that number is inflated by the level of competition the Aggies have faced in the MEAC. But their defensive aggression could be the difference in this matchup.

No. 11 Saint Mary’s vs. No. 11 Middle Tennessee, 9:10 p.m. ET, truTV

Some people questioned the Blue Raiders’ inclusion in the field of 68. They lost two games in the weak Sun Belt conference and they failed to win their conference tournament. But they’ve also won 28 games. That includes a win over SEC tourney champion Ole Miss.

They’re ranked 20th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.

And the Blue Raiders have the poise, experience and talent to pull off a VCU-like run in the NCAAs. Plus, they’re going to play with a chip on their shoulder because so many folks have doubted them.

But advancing past Saint Mary’s won’t be easy. If Gonzaga were in a different league, the Gaels would be the undisputed kings of the West Coast Conference. The Zags have defeated Saint Mary’s three times this season. The Gaels also have losses to Pacific, Georgia Tech and Northern Iowa. A BracketBusters win over Creighton was impressive.

The jury is still out, however, on the Gaels. Is this a program that’s just been misjudged based on its losses to the No. 1 team in America? Or is this a squad that’s as average as its nonconference losses suggest that it is?

We’ll find out soon. Matthew Dellavedova (15.8 PPG, 6.4 APG) is a magician with a basketball. But the Blue Raiders’ pressure could make the Australian star and his teammates disappear.

Yes, that was corny. I know. Enjoy the tournament.
I know the feeling. You’re nervous. You know the big names -- Ben McLemore, Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke -- but who’s this Nate kid I keep hearing about? Let me help you. Here are 10 mid-major stars who could really mess up your bracket in the coming days.

Mike Muscala (Bucknell) -- The Muscala Monster is a dangerous creature. The Bison are capable of upsetting Butler in the second round Thursday in Lexington because they’re led by one of America’s most underrated stars. He scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a two-point loss to Missouri in January. Muscala (19.0 PPG, 11.2 RPG) dropped 18 points in a win against NCAA tourney participant La Salle in December. He’s finished with 25 points or more in 10 games. He also has the strength of 10 men. Not really, but he’s legit and more than prepared to help Bucknell ruin brackets worldwide.

[+] EnlargeNate Wolters
Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsCan Nate Wolters and South Dakota State upset Michigan in the NCAA tournament's second round?
Nate Wolters (South Dakota State) -- He plays with a chip on his shoulder. Few Division I schools sought his services when he was a high school standout in St. Cloud, Minn. Every season since, however, Wolters has proven he was clearly overlooked. He led the Jackrabbits to their second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance via a silky game that’s caught the attention of NBA scouts. He’s one of the nation’s most explosive offensive performers. Wolters (22.7 PPG, 39 percent from the 3-point line) recorded a Division I-high 53 points in a Feb. 7 win against IPFW. He’ll make Thursday’s matchup against Michigan in Auburn Hills interesting.

Will Cherry (Montana) -- Damian Lillard is arguably the top player in the NBA’s rookie class. When he was a Big Sky star at Weber State, Cherry was his top adversary. The senior is known for his defensive prowess (1.9 SPG), but he’s a talented offensive player, too. Cherry is averaging 13.9 PPG for a Montana team that will face Syracuse in San Jose on Friday. The Grizzlies don’t have top scorer Mathias Ward, who is out for the season with a foot injury. But Cherry is a proven leader. He’s tough, too. He missed a few games in early March after aggravating a foot injury that cost him the first few months of the season. But he hasn’t shown any signs of regression since his return.

Siyani Chambers (Harvard) -- The West Region is probably the easiest region. With Gonzaga as the 1-seed, it just seems more wide open than the other three. So expect the unexpected. Harvard could spur some madness in its second-round matchup against New Mexico in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The Lobos are the better team. But the Crimson have overcome adversity to reach this point. Stars Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry left the team prior to the season because of an academic scandal. Chambers (12.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 44 percent from the 3-point line), just a freshman, helped Tommy Amaker’s squad recover from those losses and earn another automatic berth with its second straight outright Ivy title.

Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s) -- The senior was a member of the Australian national team in the London Olympics. He’s struggled in his past two games, but Dellavedova will be ready for the NCAA tourney. The Gaels will face Middle Tennessee in Dayton in the First Four on Tuesday night. If they get past the Blue Raiders, they’ll see Memphis in the next round. Dellavedova (15.8 PPG, 6.4 APG, 38 percent from the 3-point line) is not just recognized as a mid-major star. He’s one of the best point guards in America, regardless of level. He’s talented and experienced. And he might help the Gaels nullify your bracket.

Jamal Olasewere (LIU Brooklyn) -- I don’t think we’ll see the first 16-over-1 upset. But if it is to happen, I pick the Blackbirds to pull off the feat. Why? Because Olasewere (18.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG) is a tough matchup for any team in the country. The 6-foot-7 forward is active inside, and he’s efficient in transition. The Blackbirds must get through James Madison in the First Four in Dayton on Wednesday. If they do, they’ll see Indiana on Friday in Dayton. If something crazy happens, Olasewere will certainly be involved.

[+] EnlargeLamont Jones
Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsSenior guard Lamont Jones, who is averaging 23.0 PPG, will have Iona prepared to face Ohio State.
Lamont “Momo” Jones (Iona) -- Iona is second in America with an average of 80.7 PPG. Jones, who started his career at Arizona, is the catalyst for the Gaels’ offense. He’s averaging 23.0 PPG, third in the nation. He’s recorded 30 points or more in six different games. He’s certainly a potent performer who guides a Gaels squad that can score in bunches. Iona, however, is facing one of the hottest teams in America right now. Ohio State has won eight games in a row, a streak that the Buckeyes capped with a Big Ten tournament title in Chicago on Sunday. But the Gaels play fast (17th in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy). And their defense is porous. Still, Iona can overwhelm teams with its high-powered offense. That’s what makes its second-round matchup against Ohio State in Dayton on Friday so intriguing.

Ryan Broekhoff (Valparaiso) -- The 6-7 forward from Australia cracked ESPN's "SportsCenter" recently when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer knocked UW-Green Bay out of the Horizon League tournament. He’s one of the top mid-major players in the country. Broekhoff is averaging 15.9 PPG and 7.3 RPG for a Crusaders squad that will face Michigan State on Thursday in Auburn Hills. The atmosphere will favor the Spartans, but Valpo will be tough. The Crusaders are a versatile team with an offense that’s ranked 44th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. And Broekhoff is the key to that success.

Doug McDermott (Creighton) -- The Bluejays might be the most dangerous 7-seed in the field. They certainly hit a few bumps during Missouri Valley Conference play. Overall, however, they’ve been one of the top mid-major programs in the country. They have wins against Wisconsin, Arizona State, Akron and Cal. They lead the nation with a 50.8 percent clip from the field. Their defense is suspect (78th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). But McDermott, their leader, is a legit star. He’s averaging 23.1 PPG and 7.5 RPG. He could really go off in the Big Dance. First, he has to lead his team through a tough opening-round matchup against Cincinnati in Philly on Friday. Creighton is definitely a sleeper in the Midwest Region.

Ian Clark (Belmont) -- On paper, there’s a lot to like about Belmont. The Bruins are a strong squad that’s faced some of the best teams in the country in nonconference matchups. Belmont can beat Arizona in the second round Thursday in Salt Lake City. And a Sweet 16 run isn’t a crazy concept for this veteran squad. Clark (18.1 PPG, 46.3 percent from beyond the arc) is just one of the weapons that the Wildcats will have to neutralize when the two teams meet. He’s a stud who could really disrupt brackets throughout the country.

Video: Upsets in the round of 64

March, 19, 2013
3/19/13
9:15
AM ET

On "Bracket TV," Peter Keating identifies a likely upset in each region of the NCAA tournament.
It’s so easy to bash the bracket and, by extension, the NCAA tournament selection committee.

But this is also a subjective process, where beauty is in the eye of the computers and still, the beholder. The country will never see eye-to-eye with the decisions made and no matter how many mock brackets the NCAA holds, plenty will still think the fix is on.

Of course, that’s frankly the beauty of Selection Sunday. If it were easy and boring, we wouldn’t be talking about it.

In the next few days we’ll be able to critique the committee’s job more thoroughly, but for now here are a few bracket first impressions:

A field day for conspiracy theorists

The NCAA tournament selection committee chair this year is Mike Bobinski, who is the athletic director (at least until next month when he takes over at Georgia Tech) at Xavier. And, Xavier is in the Atlantic 10 (at least until this week when the Musketeers join the Big East).

The A-10 received five bids (more than the ACC and the SEC): Saint Louis, the league's conference tournament champion, earned a No. 4 seed, VCU a 5, Butler a 6, Temple a 9 and bubble-dwelling La Salle a 13.

Out West, meanwhile, the Pac-12 also received five bids. Except the league’s conference champion, Oregon, was a 12-seed while Arizona and UCLA came in as 6-seeds, Colorado earned a 10 and Cal another 12.

So was this Bobinski strong-arming the committee to give his league its due?

I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case, as the process truly is set up to avoid such personal favoritism.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesRuss Smith and Louisville face what could be a hard road to the Final Four playing in the Midwest Region.
And in truth, is the committee wrong? Was the brand of basketball played in the Atlantic 10 not better than the Pac-12?

So why did we want to be the overall No. 1 seed?

That’s what Louisville has to be thinking right now.

The Cardinals earned the distinction on merit, winning the Big East Tournament in a steamroller of an effort against Syracuse. But Louisville’s reward is a date in the Midwest Region, which apparently was set up by the masochistic dentist who is sidelining on the selection committee.

Yes it’s a nice, easy drive for fans from Louisville to Indianapolis, but they might want to bring some sedatives with them.

The team I believe is the best in the country and the committee tabbed the best in the country has the most difficult road to Atlanta.

In their second game the Cardinals will either get Missouri or Colorado State, two of the best rebounding teams in the country.

Survive that and it’s on to a possible Sweet 16 date with Saint Louis, a team that can match Louisville’s defensive intensity (albeit in a different way) head to head, a team that none other than coach Brad Stevens said could win the whole thing.

Make that, Cards, and congratulations -- you might get Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski in the Elite Eight.

Neither of them know anything about getting to a Final Four, right?

OK, here’s what the committee did right

Enough with the questionable calls, it's time to throw a few rose petals.

Middle Tennessee State, Boise State, La Salle and Saint Mary’s are in the tournament, and that’s a good thing.

Maybe not if you’re a Tennessee or Kentucky fan, but oh well, tough break.

The big-league teams have plenty of chances to prove their worth. Their conferences are set up as NCAA tournament auditions, with brand-name games and RPI-grabbing opportunities weekly. Conjuring up a nonconference schedule isn’t terribly difficult, either.

Try being Middle Tennessee State. You think anyone wants to go to Murfreesboro to play? No. Frankly not too many would be willing hospitable hosts to the Blue Raiders, either. What’s there to gain but a bad loss?

Ditto Boise State. Idaho isn’t on most blueblood’s charter flight patterns.

So what are they to do? How about the best they can, and hope they’re recognized for it.

This year, at least, the committee did just that.

The cruelty of March

Poor Shaka Smart.

When ESPN set up Akron and VCU in a BracketBuster game in 2011, both he and Zips head coach Keith Dambrot prayed it would be the last time.

So much for that.

In Auburn Hills, Mich., Smart and Dambrot will go head-to-head once more and this time it’s a legit bracket buster.

The two are coaching best friends. Smart considers Dambrot a mentor. The two spent three years together at Akron, and Smart was Dambrot’s right-hand man after he was named head coach. Dambrot was even in Smart’s wedding.

Now one will have to beat the other.

“It will be strange for sure," Smart said via text message.

Random thoughts:

  • Michigan’s Trey Burke versus South Dakota’s Nate Wolters in the first round, that’s a nice little point guard matchup.
  • Word to the wise for Duke fans. Seven years ago, Albany was a No. 16 seed in Philadelphia and scared the pants off of top-seeded Connecticut for a half, leading by 12 at the break. The Great Danes are back in Philly as a 15 seed, set to face the Blue Devils.
  • If Florida and Georgetown meet in the Sweet 16, will they move the game from Washington D.C. to a battleship to make up the cancelled game from November?
  • Butler versus Bucknell? Really? We have to pick one? That’s mean.
  • How many times will Villanova and North Carolina have to answer questions about the last time they met -- at the 2009 Detroit Final Four? Forget the fact that both teams are considerably, um, different this time around.
  • Can someone please set up an on-camera conversation about court decorum and attitude between Bo Ryan and Marshall Henderson?
The possibility

After the Louisville-Indiana rivalry officially was killed off, Rick Pitino and Tom Crean gave fans -- both local and national -- a little hope when they floated the idea of playing one another next season. It would be a terrific game between two national powers that sit only a short ride from one another.

We very well could get an earlier date.

The two teams that started the season as Nos. 1 and 2 in both polls may be rolling downhill toward a meeting in Atlanta.

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