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Monday, March 15, 2010
Breaking down bracket predictions

By Christopher Harris
ESPN.com

If you're looking for unanimity, look elsewhere.

While our three ESPN Fantasy college basketball analysts -- myself, Keith Lipscomb and AJ Mass -- have some common threads in our brackets, our Final Fours aren't identical, and our projected upset teams in the earlier rounds vary fairly wildly. However, rather than merely show you our brackets, it seems more useful for us to explain them: to go round by round and discuss what makes us like certain sleepers and eschew others, and to defend and justify our respective national champs.

So that's what we'll do here. We'll discuss our thought process as we picked our respective brackets, hopefully helping you fill out yours. Of course, we're also occasionally guaranteed to contradict one another, thereby rendering our advice (shall we say) a tad mixed. But hopefully you'll at least get a sense of where we believe the pressure points are as you fill in your entry. So here we go, and remember, you can check out each of our brackets here:

Christopher Harris' bracket | Keith Lipscomb's bracket | AJ Mass' bracket

First round

Keith starts us off with these words of warning: "Allow me to say that I've seen too many of these teams at their best and worst, and that I had the most difficult time I can remember picking my bracket. Which teams are going to show up? I know I need to pick a few upsets, but flipping a coin might prove more effective." Amen, Keith. It's a strange year with a lot of talented teams but few great ones. The leading thought at this point seems to be that while there may be a bunch of upsets early, chalk may rule late.

Is there a double-digit seed we all agree will spring an upset in the first round? Yes, exactly one: San Diego State over Tennessee. I confess that I switched the winner of that game back and forth a few times, but finally did land on the Aztecs. AJ says, "The Aztecs are a team with both size and experience under the basket, which is exactly the type of team the Volunteers didn't want to see this early. After all, if Wayne Chism's contributions are minimized, there isn't enough of a supporting cast to make up the difference." And Keith says, "The Mountain West has been historically horrendous in the Dance, but I like San Diego State to take out Tennessee. I love Kawhi Leonard, but the Aztecs better make their free throws."

In the other consensus "upset" (though it's a No. 9 seed over a No. 8), we all took Northern Iowa over UNLV. For my part, I tend to think that this is a best-case type of matchup for the Panthers; they have good size and a lot of success in half-court-style games, and that's just what the Runnin' Rebels want to play, too. Keith says, "The UNLV-UNI game is going to be low-scoring and may not look pretty, but I think the Panthers' experience will come through."

And that's it. We couldn't agree on any other worse-seeded teams to topple a better seed. Which isn't to say that none of us picked upsets in the first round. In fact, I picked an upset in 10 of 32 first-round games, AJ picked upsets in nine of 32, and Keith (hereafter known as "Mr. Chalk") took five upsets out of 32. For a bit of context, in 2009, there were 10 first-round upsets (according to seed); in 2008, there were eight; in 2007 there were five; and in 2006 there were nine. Of course, that doesn't mean any of us are right; it goes without saying that you're only successful in the first round if you pick the correct upsets.

The picker who went biggest and boldest, upset-wise, was AJ. He took Oakland over Pittsburgh, a No. 14 seed over a No. 3. He says, "The Summit champs won't be intimidated by Pitt: They've played this season at Wisconsin, Kansas and Syracuse. Not only that, but they're actually bigger in the paint than the Panthers." AJ also took two No. 13 seeds to upset No. 4s: Murray State over Vanderbilt and Wofford over Wisconsin. Wofford-wise, here's his take: "Wofford has lost only once this calendar year -- a two-point defeat at College of Charleston -- and only lost to Pitt by three points back in November. They have all the momentum against a Wisconsin team that may have peaked before 2010 got underway." Alas, I don't find that one compelling, because I've seen the Badgers make too many deep runs in March using that weird swing offense, but I'm actually with AJ on the Racers over the Commodores. As AJ says, "Talk about a balanced team ... the Racers' top five scorers all average between 10.3 and 10.6 points per game. Whom do you key on? That's the problem for the Commodores, who won't be able to win if Jermaine Beal gets taken out of the game." And Keith was sorely tempted by Murray State, too: "It's trendy to pick Murray St. to beat Vandy, and the Racers are certainly capable, but I'm staying off the bandwagon and going with Vandy."

Now, Keith's first-round upsets are few and far between (I'm kidding about the "Mr. Chalk" thing; just wait, his bracket gets fun later), but he does say, "Gotta pick a No. 12 over a No. 5, right? I think Derrick Caracter is going to be too much for Matt Howard to handle, so I took UTEP to beat Butler." And I agree with him; I think UTEP got a raw deal with its seeding, and probably would've been a No. 8 if it had won that Conference USA title game against Houston. It's what looks like a bad matchup for a good Bulldogs team: When they've had problems this year, it's been against big, athletic teams that bang away inside, and UTEP fits that mold.

As for me, I apparently was the most profligate in terms of first-round upsets. I'm alone on an island taking Florida over BYU, but this Florida team reminds me of last year's Arizona squad: one of the final teams in, maligned because of how they compared to other tourney hopefuls, and lo and behold they ran right to the Sweet 16. In fact, the six final at-large teams who made the field in March 2009 went 5-1 in the first round. (Of course, two years ago, the final six went 2-4 in the first round, and three years ago they went 0-6.) I was also alone taking Washington over Marquette and Missouri over Clemson. In the former case, it's again a question of styles: Marquette likes the pace slow and has rebounding issues, while the Huskies will run and play frenetic, plus have depth and size. Heck, they were a top-10 team in the preseason, which obviously isn't a justification for loving them now, but I think the "Pac-10 stinks" angle is overblown. As for Mizzou over Clemson, I know this isn't the same Missouri team that nearly went to the Final Four last year, but I like its size and bench, plus I think it can force Clemson into about a million turnovers.

Before we advance to the second round, here were the first-round favorites that all three of us endorsed: all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, Georgetown, New Mexico, Baylor, Maryland, Purdue, Temple (over my beloved Cornell Big Red, sigh), Xavier, Richmond and Gonzaga.

Second round

Keith may have looked chalk-ish in the first round, but he picked the most non-protected seeds to advance to the Sweet 16. He has six such unexpected advancers, while AJ and I each have five. The worst-seeded team Keith has advancing past the second round is UTEP, and here I agree with him. He says, "I expect Randy Culpepper to become a known quantity to those who haven't seen him play, and I have them advancing to the Sweet 16," and I think that's a really good point; the Miners' 2-guard is generously listed at 6-foot, but he's just a tremendous scorer and a really difficult matchup. Like me, Keith also thinks Georgia Tech will ride their solid play in the ACC tournament and finally put things together to upset Ohio State "I'm going out on a limb," he says, "but if Tech's guards can show up, I think they can beat the Buckeyes. Tech will have a big advantage on the interior as it is, but the Jackets' guards are capable of doing enough to pull the upset." AJ is unmoved, since he picked James Anderson and Oklahoma State to topple the Yellow Jackets in the first round. He has Ohio State advancing well beyond this round.

One place where all three of us agree: Michigan State won't advance past the first weekend. AJ has the Spartans losing to New Mexico State in the first round; Keith and I both have the Spartans falling to Maryland in the second. Quoth Keith: "I couldn't stick with Michigan State for more than a game. I really don't like the way the regular season finished for it, so I took Maryland to move along." And AJ actually has NMSU beating the Terrapins here; the punster quips: "I just don't like Maryland here even if Michigan State wins the Round 1 game, so if I am going to be wrong, might as well be Greivis-ly wrong."

A question that will plague a lot of brackets at this point will be: What do you do with Purdue? I surprised myself by having the Boilermakers stave off an upset against battle-tested Siena in the first round, but I couldn't see taking them over a tough-minded Texas A&M team without Robbie Hummel. And AJ also has Purdue losing here, though it's to Utah State, whom he selected to surprise A&M: "Just a feeling that Hummel's absence makes the Boilermakers a potential easy bounce from this competition, making this spot in the bracket completely up for grabs." But Keith has a different take: "So many are picking against Purdue that I feel compelled to take it. I think it'll get things on track, especially in a game that will be physical. JaJuan Johnson will need to play well and Chris Kramer's defensive abilities will be critical."

Finally, in what would be a pretty big-time upset, Keith took No. 7 Richmond over No. 2 Villanova. He says, "I love the guards in the Richmond-Nova matchup and think Chris Mooney's Spiders pull the upset." This would be an appropriate juncture for me to mention that in my opinion, the three Atlantic 10 teams in this tournament could all go to the Elite Eight. I didn't pick it that way (I do have one of 'em going), so I guess I didn't put my money where my mouth is, but I see Keith's point. However, I actually think Nova would be an unfavorable matchup for the Spiders; I think it takes a strong rebounding advantage to bump the Wildcats this year, something I don't think Richmond would have over the Wildcats. My other rather monstrous Sweet 16 inclusion is that same Washington team I talked about in Round 1, though again, I'm on an island there.

And where do the three of us agree for the 16 winners in this round? We all have the No. 1 seeds advancing, as well as West Virginia, Kansas St., Georgetown and Xavier advancing, meaning our common ground is down to only half of the field.

Sweet 16

Sure enough, here's where the parity seems to fall away. As Keith says, "Here's where the cream begins to rise to the top," and as AJ says, "If last year taught us anything, it's that you shouldn't be afraid to go chalk if you truly believe that's how it's going to turn out." What you'll notice first about our three brackets is that each of us believes all four No. 1 seeds will advance to the Elite Eight.

So where do potential "upsets" rest in this round? There's literally no consensus among the three of us, so let's let each picker make his case. Keith likes Notre Dame as his surprise entrant into the Elite Eight, whereas AJ and I each had the Irish losing to Old Dominion in the first round. "I think Notre Dame's role players gained a lot of confidence playing without Luke Harangody," Keith says. He also likes a pair of No. 3 seeds to advance: Georgetown and New Mexico. He says the Hoyas will "cruise" no matter who their opponent is in the Sweet 16, and that "West Virginia seems to be everyone's darling, but I think Dairese Gary will show his grit against a tough Mountaineers squad. And the country will come to know Darington Hobson."

Like Keith, I have a No. 6 seed advancing past the Sweet 16, but mine is Xavier. Keith admits he was tempted to pick the Musketeers: "Xavier versus Kansas State will be a lot of fun to watch, but I expect Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente to accept the challenge Xavier's guards will issue." I went the other way: I don't think the nation realizes how long and athletic Xavier is, and I think one of the Wildcats' strengths -- being able to force turnovers -- gets neutralized by how well the Musketeers take care of the ball. Plus, I just think they're better shooters. But I'm with Keith on Georgetown.

AJ, true to his "chalky" words, has two No. 3 seeds crashing the Elite Eight, but nobody ranked worse. Like Keith, he'll take New Mexico, and he'll also cast his lot with Baylor. He says, "I fear that Villanova is too reliant on Scottie Reynolds," and indeed, when the Wildcats have had trouble this season, it's been against big, banging teams like the Bears. There's some question about whether Baylor can consistently bring it every night (it didn't during the regular season), but if it plays to its talent, it's a solid pick.

And so it's come down to this: The only thing we all agree on heading into the Elite Eight is that all four No. 1 seeds will be alive.

Elite Eight

I'd say the biggest upset any of the three of us selected in the regional finals is AJ's pick of Ohio State to shock heavy tournament favorite Kansas. He says, "Evan Turner is going to carry this Buckeyes team as far as he can before he leaves for the NBA." If that's true, and the Jayhawks go down, it'll mess up a whole lot of brackets, because from the looks of things, Kansas is going to be a favorite in more folks' picks than any other team.

The only other non-No. 1 seed that any of us picked to go to the Final Four was my selection of Villanova over Duke. Listen, I agree with AJ that the Wildcats are flawed. I just think the South Regional doesn't have a lot of great teams, and if it comes down to the two top seeds, which would be a rematch of the regional semifinals from the 2009 tourney, I don't see what's changed to alter what was a 23-point Nova win. It's still a dream matchup for Villanova: Duke is a team without great athletes inside whose guards the Cats can dominate.

Otherwise, folks, we weren't very adventurous. All three of us have Kentucky and Syracuse advancing to the Final Four. Keith says, "I have never picked four No. 1 seeds to get to the Final Four, but the way things worked out, I just don't feel any of them will lose on the way there. I'm so disappointed in myself."

Final Four

Let's let each picker explain his own selections.

Keith says, "Kansas is the best team in the country in my mind, so I think it will take care of Syracuse. Kentucky is young enough to lose almost any game after Round 1, and it'll be very confident by this point. But I just feel like this is the most tournament-tough Duke team in years, so I think it takes out Calipari's crew. But it all comes back to Kansas in the end for me. I felt it would win it all in October, and nothing has changed my mind ever since."

AJ says, "Duke over Kentucky: John Wall can take the Wildcats far, but I actually believe Duke earned a No. 1 seed and is a better overall team. But Syracuse beats Ohio State, and then wins it all. Of course, if Arinze Onuaku is unable to play, this pick is dead in the water. But if he's good to go, there's no better-balanced team in the country. The only way the Orange don't make the championship game is if a team like Butler drains a million 3s in Round 2, or they simply choke against Kansas State. Full disclosure, I'm a Syracuse alum, and while that's probably why I picked the Orange over Duke, it's not why I picked them to get to the final game."

And as for me, I guess it turns out I'm the chalkiest of us all, because I'm taking Kansas and Kentucky in the two national semifinals. Kansas' merits are, I think, widely known, and having watched Kentucky pull its fat out of the fire time and time again, I think it has a toughness that belies its relative youth. In the final, though, I'm with Keith: I picked Kansas back before the season started, and there's no reason to change now.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.