There's one region I haven't picked yet, so it's time to deal with the West. Before you read my choices, be sure to check out this photo gallery from today's practice sessions at the Wachovia Center.
I remind you once more that 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.
1. Connecticut over 16. Chattanooga in Philadelphia, Pa.
The only thing notable about this game is that from what I have heard, former Chattanooga football player Terrell Owens will not be in attendance at the Wachovia Center. I have no idea what kind of karma he would have brought.
8. Brigham Young over 9. Texas A&M
I don't really know what to make of either of these teams. They both have lots of upperclassmen, they're both pretty efficient on offense and they're both playing a Thursday lunchtime game after traveling more than halfwayacross the country.
I'll go with BYU for its win at San Diego State, its 11th-lowest turnover percentage in Division one, and its eighth-best two-point field goal percentage. But it's an 8-9 game - it's supposed to be hard to choose.
12. Northern Iowa over 5. Purdue in Portland, Ore.
Go ahead and call me crazy. I know the Boilermakers are playing really well right now, and their defense is fantastic. But the Panthers rank 45th in the nation in two-point percentage and don't turn the ball over much at all, and the difference in free-throw shooting is staggering: the Panthers rank 31st and the Boilermakers rank 49th. Yeah, I just overlooked Siena's struggles from the line, but I'm going on a gut instinct with this one.
4. Washington over Mississippi State in Portland, Ore.
I have friends who watch a lot of Pac-10 basketball, and they alternate between singing the Huskies' praises and not expecting much of anything from them this month. But we all watched the SEC Tournament final, and the Bulldogs had no business beating to Tennessee (even if the Vols had no business blowing the game either). Jarvis Varnado is good, but Washington playing close enough to home will be better.
11. Utah State over 6. Marquette in Boise, Idaho
I've been hearing all season about how good the Aggies are, especially guard Tyler Newbold and forward Gary Wilkinson. The Golden Eagles won't have to travel as far as you think, but Boise is renowned for hosting weird games (think Missouri-UCLA in 1995 and most famously Hampton-Iowa State in 2001) and I think this will be one.
The numbers make a case too: Utah State is fourth in the nation in offensive efficiency, while Marquette is 253rd in defensive effiency. The Golden Eagles have been reeling ever since Dominic James went down, and I think they'll be an upset victim here.
3. Missouri over 14. Cornell in Boise, Idaho
Some folks think Purdue is the hot team; I think it's the Tigers. Mizzou is ranked 10th in Pomeroy and comes in having won every game it played in the Big 12 Tournament by double digits. They are ranked eighth in the country in most turnovers forced per 100 possessions, and 12th in fewest turnovers given up per 100 possessions.
This is a better Big Red squad than last year's, and they won't come to Boise looking into the headlights the way they did last year in Anaheim. But Mike Anderson's edition of 40 Minutes of Hell will be too much for the Big Red.
And it should be noted that the last time Cornell played a team nicknamed the Tigers away from home, it didn't go so well.
10. Maryland over 7. California in Kansas City, Mo.
I should know better than this. I really should. How many times in recent memory have the Terrapins gone on a late-season win streak and seized our hearts, only to shatter them into a thousand little pieces as hardened as Testudo's shell?
But I'm doing it again. Somehow or other, I feel like the white-hot spotlight that was shone on Gary Williams last month by the Washington Post brought his team together and got them focused for what became an outstanding stretch run. On the day that series concluded, the Terrapins beat Virginia Tech at home; a week later, they took down North Carolina in overtime and a national television audience got to see one of the all-time court stormings in College Park history.
Across the floor, there's no question that Mike Montgomery is a great coach and has the Berkeley Bears going in the right direction. Among other big numbers, they were the best three-point shooting team in Division I this season. But I think they go down in this game, even if it's not by much.
2. Memphis over 15. Cal State-Northridge in Kansas City, Mo.
The Tigers are the top-ranked team in the Pomeroy ratings and have the best defensive efficiency in Division I. Too bad for the Matatdors, who commit an average of 24 turnovers per 100 possessions. As in, they turn the ball over almost one out of every four trips down the floor. Yikes.
1. Connecticut over 8. Brigham Young
I was in an elevator at the Wachovia Center with a bunch of Connecticut writers this morning who were discussing the Huskies' near-loss to Albany on the same floor in 2006. Then, as now, UConn was a 1-seed. I say this because there is a chance that for all their talent, Jim Calhoun's players once again lapse into not caring about an elimination game as much as they should. And it should be noted that the Huskies head into tomorrow morning on a two-game losing streak.
There can't be any doubt that if Hasheem Thabeet, A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien show up as they should, UConn will head to the Sweet 16 with some ease. I mentioned BYU's two-point field goal percentage above, but the guess here is that Thabeet will have something to say about that. With that in mind, Connecticut heads to Arizona.
4. Washington over 12. Northern Iowa
The Huskies are not all that great on offense or defense, but they're the third-best team in Division I in offensive rebounding percentage. They also won 25 games with the 16th-best overall strength of schedule, including their first ever Pac-10 regular season title. I figure that has to count for something, so I'll count it for this game.
3. Missouri over 11. Utah State
Missouri's style really appeals to me, even as someone who is happy to watch a team slow things down when it's time to finish off a win. Utah State's 30 wins are impressive, but the Aggies' BracketBusters loss to a Patty Mills-less Saint Mary's is a warning sign.
2. Memphis over 10. Maryland
For as well as the Terrapins have been playing lately, they are really undersized. 6-foot-9 Robert Dozier and 6-10 Doneal Mack will pound Maryland inside and send the Terrapins packing. The big question will be whether there are more riots in College Park after the Cal win or this loss.
Regional Semifinals in Glendale, Ariz.
1. Conneticut over 4. Washington
Connecticut has the talent to beat Washington, and I also think they will adjust more easily to playing in a football stadium than the Huskies will. That hunch comes from the (eastern) Huskies' annual trip to the Carrier Dome. Winning this game will leave them 40 minutes from the Final Four and salve some of the wounds caused when the Selection Committee didn't put them in Boston.
3. Missouri over 2. Memphis
Bruiser Flint loves Memphis, Dick Jerardi loves Memphis, and a lot of other blogs I've read love Memphis too (including Basketball Prospectus, which means something). They're even ranked in the top 100 in free throw shooting perencage this season.
But even though I've spent much of this post praising the Tigers, I still don't trust them. I don't trust racking up so many of those wins against Conference USA opponents, even with the win at Gonzaga mixed in. Tyreke Evans is very talented, but he's a freshman. I am sticking my neck farther out with this pick than with any other I've made, but I have to do it sooner or later.
Regional Final in Glendale, Ariz.
3. Missouri over 1. Connecticut
Yes, really. Why? Because at some point, not having Jerome Dyson is going to matter. Connecticut has a pretty easy path to this game, and this will be their first big test. The other reason why I pick the Tigers is that I've sent No. 1 seeds to the Final Four from all the other regions. I know all four qualified last year, but I'm not willing to bet that happens twice in a row. Missouri goes to the Final Four.
I'll be at the Wachovia Center all day tomorrow, and will have live coverage in some form of every game. This will include our chat setup for Villanova-American. But please know that the NCAA restricts me to five updates per half, and has a history of tight enforcement of that rule.
To make up for it, I'll do a live chat from the Wachovia Center starting at around 10 a.m., assuming I can get set up there on time. It will run until 11:30 and I'll take as many questions as I can fit in.
I'll also post my predictions for the national semifinals and championship game.
The best two days of the year arrive in mere hours. We've waited long enough, and now it's finally time to celebrate.