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McCollum's Column: Will anything really be that shocking in NCAA tournament?

Posted: March 20, 2013 - 5:24pm

We were stunned somewhat by the shock waves — but what happened Tuesday night was not terrifically earthshattering.

Robert Morris, the namesake of one of the Founding Fathers and signer of the Declaration of Independence, knocked off Kentucky, a foundational college basketball team and classic architect of one-and-done players but not won-and-done teams. That victory sent the defending national champions tumbling from the NIT.

The madness of the season also exists in the NIT, whose status was elevated this season by the appearance of Kentucky, an iconic name but a vulnerable team.

That might set the tone for the NCAA tournament.

Technically, there may be upsets when things begin in earnest Thursday. But there may not be many games that are shake-your-heads, pound-the-table surprises.

It may be the most balanced fields ever. Everybody is vulnerable. Given the right matchups and situations on a neutral court, most in the field are capable of beating anybody else. There are some very dangerous teams on the 7 through 9 slots on the bracket.

This tournament may have the greatest potential of a No. 16 seed knocking off a No. 1.

A great variable in a tournament without a clearcut dominant team is familiarity. Teams within conferences know each other extremely well and have weeks and a double round-robin season to prepare for each other. Teams in the NCAA tourney have a week, maybe even a day. A middle-of-the-pack team in one conference may be a tough matchup for a upper-echelon team in another. A team such as Iowa State, for example, that can spread the court and be dangerous for 3-point range, could give a higher-rate team fits if it gets hot from afar.

Many teams might not have the depth or consistency to win five or six games but certainly have the manpower and firepower to win a game or two.

Another caution flag in filling out those brackets: Often teams that get hot and look so strong in their conference tournaments fizzle in early rounds of the NCAA which is why I am hesitant to get on the Cinderella bandwagon for Ole Miss right now.

Some thoughts after a glance at the brackets:

• Teams that may play better than their seeding: Memphis (the Tigers won 30 games and play well as a unit); Michigan State (always seems to be in the Final Four hunt with coach Tom Izzo); South Dakota State (the Jackrabbits don’t have a big name but have a game behind star Nate Wolters).

• Potential first-round upsets: Belmont over Arizona (a great matchup for Belmont’s team of shooters against the Wildcats’ suspect perimeter defense). Akron over Virginia Commonwealth (a role reversal of the hunted for VCU, a Cinderella prospect the last few years). Northwestern State over Florida (could happen if the Demons get the fast pace they want and the Gators reflect inconsistency they showed in the late part of the regular season).

• Best 12-5 or 13-4 surprises: Oklahoma State over Oregon; Akron over Virginia Commonwealth; Montana over Syracuse; South Dakota State over Michigan. And underachieving Missouri has the talent and firepower to defeat No. 1-seeded Louisville if both advance to the third round of the Midwest Regional.

• Teams may be the best fortified for the three weeks of madness: Indiana, Ohio State, Miami, Duke and Georgetown.

• Best potential early-round games: North Carolina-Kansas (third round); UNLV-Syracuse (third round); Butler-Davidson (third round); Wisconsin-Ole Miss (first round); Memphis-Michigan State (third round).

• Best bet for a 16-1 upset: Southern over Gonzaga. The Zags were not terribly challenged in conference. And if the Jaguars get off to a good start and a few breaks ... Don’t bet the farm but it’s not impossible the way this crazy season has played out.

• The patriotic question: If Robert Morris can beat Kentucky, can James Madison — if it get past its first-round game against LIU-Brooklyn — handle Indiana.

The bottom line: This year’s tournament could reflect a new world and a fresh perspective on college basketball.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)

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