This is the first of five posts between now and Thursday in which I will give you my picks for all four regions of the NCAA Tournament Field, the Final Four and the national championship. I will warn you now that these posts are going to be really long and deep, with none more so than our first: the East Region.
I am making the same picks here as I made in the full-bracket contest in our reader group for Philly.com's Hoops Hysteria contest. I have made a bunch of different picks in the round-by-round contest, just for the heck of it. We'll see which bracket does better.
Feel free to disagree with me in the comments; I wouldn't do this if I didn't want to hear from you, and I think you'll have a lot to chew on...
1. Pittsburgh over East Tennessee State in Dayton
I know they're good, you know they're good and anyone who doesn't believe it is going to find out the hard way this month.
8. Oklahoma State over 9. Tennessee in Dayton
These could be the two closest teams statistically in the field. The Vols are No. 32 in Pomeroy, 17th in offensive efficiency and 71st in defensive efficiency; the Cowboys are 33rd in Pomeroy, 16th in offensive efficiency and 71st in defensive efficiency.
My gut instinct is to take Bruce Pearl over
Sean Sutton Travis Ford (him too) because I think Pearl is a better coach (than either). But I took a second look at the stats and changed my mind at the last minute. Oklahoma State is 29th in effective field goal percentage and has the 13th-best offensive turnover percentage (fewest committed per 100 possessions) in Division I. Tennessee is 103rd and 59th in those respectve catgegories.
This game really could go either way, but I'll go with the head over the heart and take a team called the Cowboys.
5. Florida State over 12. Wisconsin in Boise
The ACC-Big Ten Challenge gets two new chapters in the first round of the Big Dance and could get more in later rounds. You might have noticed that the ACC has won the regular season version every year since it was created in 1999. After a certain points, it doesn't become a coincidence anymore.
Bo Ryan is a very good coach, perhaps a great one, but unless Florida State gets a big case of stage fright (which is possible), the athletic and tall Seminoles will move on.
4. Xavier over 13. Portland State in Boise
I realize the Muskteers have to go across the country and play Portland State relatively close to its home turf. But they will go West with a chip on their shoulders, and Sean Miller won't become a worse coach on the flight out there. His team had point guard trouble in Atlantic City, but they'll win this game with superior skill at the other positions.
11. Virginia Commonwealth over 6. UCLA in Philadelphia
I haven't see much of UCLA this season, but the Bruins are ranked 9th in Pomeroy and Ben Howland knows his defense. UCLA is ranked third in the nation in offensive efficiency, but don't let their 37th rank in defensive efficency fool you. The Bruins are ranked 275th in three-point percentage given up and 161st in two-point percentage given up.
This is Eric Maynor's stage for the taking and I expect him to end his college career by leading the Rams to another famous victory.
3. Villanova over 14. American in Philadelphia
I am now going to write something that I never, ever in my wildest dreams thought I would put on this blog: I grew up a mile and a half from the AU campus. I used to take swimming lessons at the pool adjacent to Bender Arena. I was at the Patriot League final in 2002, which was the first year the Eagles ever hosted the game, and I watched as AU blew a lead in the final minute and sent a truly overflowing crowd into stunned silence.
Not that long ago, I did not think Jeff Jones was the right coach to lead American to the postseason. I expected them to dominate the Patriot League immediately upon joining the conference in 2001 because they were in by far the largest media market. But it didn't happen. Holy Cross and Bucknell moved to the front of the pack, with Bucknell gaining national prominence in 2005 and 2006, while American languished at around .500 in conference play.
Then all of a sudden, Jones landed guards Garrison Carr and Derrick Mercer, the latter of which played with Ahmad Nivins at New Jersey prep powerhouse St. Anthony's, took over the backcourt on Nebraska Avenue. All of a sudden, everything changed.
For the first time since that '02 game, they got the Patriot League tournament final on their floor, and after 81 years of fielding a varsity men's basketball team, American University qualified for the NCAA Tournament.
And damn if they didn't scare the living daylights out of Tennessee last year. Did anyone really expect it, even famed AU grad David Aldridge? I can't fathom so.
Last year's success led to this year's expectations, and for a while I wasn't sure American would repeat as Patriot League champions in Carr and Mercer's senior season. But they got the job done, and now they will come here to Philadelphia for their grand send-off.
They will, however, run into a buzzsaw they likes of which they have never seen. This Villanova team is focused, determined, extremely well-coached and completely aware of its strengths and weaknesses. The Wildcats will be playing on their floor, with their fans, and their knowledge that if they want it enough, this will be the first of many games to come this month.
I cannot fathom that the Wildcats will not want it enough on Thursday, and for the rest of March. There may come a point when the alliance of desire and skill is not sufficient to win, but it will not come this week. It may not come next week either.
In other words, Villanova is going a long way in this NCAA Tournament. A very long way. Beating American will be the first step. Buckle up and get ready for the ride.
7. Texas over 10. Minnesota in Greensboro
Tubby Smith has done a fine job at the Williams Arena barn this year, and Texas' defensive masterclass against Villanova was many months ago. But I will take A.J. Abrams and Damion James, and call that enough.
2. Duke over 15. Binghamton in Greensboro
I am not the biggest proponent of Duke in the mediaverse, as many of you know. And I'm sure some of you might like to see
Jawan Carter D.J. Rivera (I knew I'd get that wrong) succeed. But it's not happening, even though I just expounded upon the merits of Eric Maynor a few hundred words ago.
This is Duke in the capital of ACC basketball, like it or not: Gerald Henderson, Kyle Singler, Mike Krzyzewski and so forth. Tony Kornheiser's alma mater makes a quick exit, and the folks out there who aren't so fond of Binghamton's transfer policy won't mind too much.
1. Pittsburgh over 8. Oklahoma State in Dayton
What was that about DeJuan Blair and Sam Young being really good?
4. Xavier over 5. Florida State in Boise
This is a gut instinct pick even though it's not an upset by seed. Both of these teams commit a lot of turnovers: Xavier is ranked 253rd per 100 posssessions and Florida State is 292nd. Both teams are top-20 in defensive efficiency, so this will be low-scoring and you can bet foul trouble will come into play.
I go with Xavier on the aforementioned gut instinct, which tells me that when an Atlantic 10 team plays an Atlantic Coast team, the former wants it more. No one said you had to use logic in this thing, right?
3. Villanova over 11. Virginia Commonwealth in Philadelphia
Everybody will be fawning over Eric Maynor, not least because Philadelphia is the closest first-round site to New York and VCU will have just knocked out a Los Angeles team. But Villanova will let Maynor take the glory and go to work. Two games, two wins and one big caravan heading up I-95 and the Amtrak line next weekend.
2. Duke over 7. Texas in Greensboro
These two teams have met before in recent years, usually somewhere near New York, and it's a safe bet they'll do so again one of these days. But this time, it's in Greensboro, and if that means a ref or two came west from the Triangle it's not like anyone down there will notice it. Oh, and the Blue Devils play pretty darn good defense too. Look for Gerald Henderson to star in this game, and I don't just say that because he's from Philly.
Sweet 16 in Boston
1. Pittsburgh over 4. Xavier
Not-quite-irresistible force, meet immovable object. See immovable object stop you from scoring, then dunk on you and knock you over at the other end. See Pittsburgh go to the regional final.
3. Villanova over 2. Duke
Yes, have at it. Go crazy. Shout yourselves hoarse at the Garden like there's no tomorrow, even though there's a two-days-from-then, and take down the biggest name in the laundry basket. Just don't do anything that could resemble traveling in the final seconds, okay?
In reality, this will be a hell of a game to watch. Dante Cunningham vs. Kyle Singler, Reggie Redding vs. Gerald Henderson, Fisher-Reynolds-Stokes vs. Paulus-Smith-Williams-et al. Toss it up and let them play, and isn't a shame Taylor King will be ineligible?
Regional Final in Boston
1. Pittsburgh over 3. Villanova
You can argue that Villanova knows how to win this game because it has already done so this season, and you'd be right - especially if DeJuan Blair gets into foul trouble again. You can argue that Pittsburgh knows how to win this game because it will have learned its lesson from last time, and you'd be right.
I seriously have no idea who would win this game. Can any of you say definitively that you know for sure? Pittsburgh could lose this game, or it could win it and go right on and win the national championship. That's how good they are and that's how well Villanova is capable of playing against them.
I seriously flipped a coin. Really, I did. That's how undecided I am. I said Villanova was heads. It came up tails. I can't lie to you.