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The Maddest of Marches

The Maddest of Marches

Gab Session: The Maddest of Marches     by: Brian Gabrielle
How great is this NCAA men's college basketball tournament going to be?

I mean, sure, the George Mason thing was awesome last year, and let's not forget that Wichita St. and Bradley made it to the Sweet 16, LSU shocked Duke, Kansas lost in the first round for the second straight year, a #14 seed (Northwestern St.) shocked a #3 (Iowa), and #2 Tennessee needed a buzzer-beater to avoid losing to #15 Winthrop.

Heck, we might not even have as many upsets this year, and I can practically guarantee you that no one from the Colonial Athletic Association is making the Final Four. But a combination of factors will get together and make this one of the most difficult years to fill in your office bracket. Here's why:

Freshmen! Over the past decade, guys like Greg Oden and Kevin Durant would've jumped straight to the NBA, but now they're playing at least a year of college hoop. That makes for some great surprises. Who would've believed Texas would even be in the tournament this year after losing all five starters from an Elite Eight team, let alone be a threat to go deep?

Underclassmen Who Leave. And while that's all well and good, you also still have far less quality depth at traditional powerhouse schools, because their studs aren't staying four years. This is the great leveler: LaMarcus Aldridge (Texas, #2 in '06 NBA draft), Tyrus Thomas (LSU, #4), Rudy Gay (UConn, #7), Patrick O'Bryant (Bradley, #9), Ronnie Brewer (Arkansas, #14), Cedric Simmons (NC State, #15), Shawne Williams (Memphis, #17), Quincy Douby (Rutgers, #19), Renaldo Balkman (South Carolina, #20), Rajon Rondo (Kentucky, #21), Marcus Williams (UConn, #22), Josh Boone (UConn, #23), Kyle Lowry (Villanova, #24), Shannon Brown (Michigan St., #25) and Jordan Farmar (UCLA, #26). All these kids left before their fourth years were up, as we can expect Oden, Durant and others will do after 2007. That kind of continued culture of talent drain brings the little guy a bit closer to the big guy.

Publicity For "Non-Traditional" Schools. Fewer and fewer teams are awed by the national-TV spotlight of playing in the Big Dance. The Missouri Valley Conference gets more pub than Britney's nether regions these days (well, okay, it's close), so there's really nothing "mid-major" about the MVC. Winthrop beat Mississippi St., Old Dominion and Missouri St. on the road this year, and gave scares to North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas A&M (their only four losses). They might not win their first-round game, but they sure as heck aren't going to be afraid of their opponent.

Who's A Top Seed? Nobody seems to want to be a #1 this year. A month ago, it was easy: North Carolina, Florida, UCLA and Wisconsin. Then each of those schools started losing. UCLA was just bounced from the first round of the Pac-10 tourney. Carolina dropped three of its final six regular-season games. Florida lost three of its last five. Wisconsin lost two of its last three. Now Ohio St. is the top-ranked team in the country, but man, they're young. Does anyone really expect them to hold it together for six NCAA tournament games? Other possibilities for #1 seeds: Kansas, Texas A&M, Georgetown, Memphis (ew). There's not an unblemished team in the group.

Anyway, it should be an amazing March Madness run. No team is without flaws, and very few are without a chance.

Boy, the NFL never sleeps. What do you think the best few acquisitions have been so far in pro football's free-agent season?

BoDog Bookmakers, BoDog.com : Two teams made a series of moves that made them the "co-winners" of the early 2007 free agency period. The New England Patriots shed their label as a "thrifty" team and really made a splash in free agency. Adalius Thomas was arguably the most sought-after defensive player on the market, while Wes Welker has quietly become one of the most versatile PR/KR/WRs in the NFL. They also added value in backup RB Sammy Morris to compensate for the loss of Corey Dillon. The San Francisco 49ers also did a lot to improve their woeful secondary that ranked 26th against the pass a year ago. Nate Clements is a Pro-Bowl-caliber DBm while Michael Lewis is a solid-if-unspectacular upgrade at safety. On offense, the Niners added Ashley Lelie, another deep receiving threat to work into QB Alex Smith's offensive arsenal.

I'll ask about some specific NCAA Tournament match-ups next week, but for now, can you give me your anticipated Final Four, pre-brackets?

BDB, BoDog.com : Let's defer to Bodog oddsmakers for this one. Currently, the top four favorites to win the NCAA title are North Carolina (9/2), Florida (9/2), Ohio State (6/1) and Kansas (6/1).

And give us a couple of teams who'll be seeded #9 or worse who you think have the best chance of springing a first-round upset?

BoDog Bookmakers, BoDog.com : Well, everyone counted Gonzaga out when they lost Josh Heytvelt to suspension, but you can never forget the Zags when tourney times rolls around. After losing to a very tough Memphis team by a single point on Feb. 17, Gonzaga won its last five games and took the West Coast Conference tournament for the fourth straight season. Senior guard Derek Raivio has put this team on his shoulders, and so far it's working. Also watch out for Syracuse if it gets a bid. The Orange beat Georgetown on Feb. 26 and won five of its last six games after struggling big-time at the end of January.

Mavs or Suns? Suns or Mavs? I know Dallas has been unbelievable during the regular season...do you see it translating to another trip to the NBA Finals? Does Phoenix have enough to get it done this time? Can San Antonio sneak in there?

BoDog Bookmakers, BoDog.com : Teams that make the NBA Finals are rarely one-dimensional. Therefore, until Phoenix learns to play defense, or half-court offense, they'll have their doubters. Still, at 9/4 to win it all, they've also got their fair share of believers. San Antonio won't be sneaking up on anyone. Not with a roster that includes Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs are at 7/2 to make the NBA Finals and 6/1 to win the thing. That's hardly representative of flying under the radar. According to Bodog oddsmakers, though, the team with the best shot is the Dallas Mavericks. They are a complete team that can beat San Antonio with stifling defense, and outscore Phoenix with a barrage of offense. The Mavs' ability to play anyone's style makes them a 1/1 favorite to return to the finals and 2/1 to win the title.

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