NCAA men's basketball tournament: Early predictions and early upsets

Mark your brackets: The NCAA Men's basketball tournament start today in earnest. Games begin at 12:15 p.m. EDT Thursday and are being broadcast on TruTV, TNT, TBS, and CBS. 

Wisconsin Badgers' Frank Kaminsky (L) and Ohio State Buckeyes' Sam Thompson fight for a rebound during the first half of their NCAA men's college basketball game at the 2013 Big 10 tournament in Chicago, Illinois, last weekend.

This year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament promises to be one of the most open fields in its 75-year history, with really no dominant No. 1 seed.

Of the four No. 1 seeds, all of which are deserving of that ranking in their own way, the most questionable is Gonzaga, coming out of the West region.

The NCAA admitted this was a “reward” for the West Coast Conference mid-major squad; but high seeds come with high expectations. Some have argued that Miami (FL) was more deserving, having won the ACC tournament and also having beaten Duke by 27 points in one game and North Carolina by 26. That should have the benefit of taking some of the pressure off the Hurricanes, who should go deep into the tournament, with nominal competition until the Sweet Sixteen, when they may face a team like Marquette.

The Midwest region is the toughest bracket in the tournament, by far. With teams like Louisville (1), Duke (2), Michigan State (3) and Saint Louis (4), this will likely eliminate some major competition for the other regions by the time the Sweet Sixteen rolls around. The winner of that region will likely be the favorite to win it all. Michigan State is a perennial “tough out” and in a matchup with the high-scoring Peyton Siva-led Louisville Cardinals, Michigan State should advance.

Of course, there will be upsets, and the 5-seed versus 12-seed games are a great place to start looking. In the Midwest region, Oregon (12) plays No. 5 Oklahoma in San Jose, and it should play like a home game for the Ducks, who were vastly under-seeded – having won the Pac-12 tournament and compiling a 25-9 record for the season. Oregon should move easily to the next round.

Ole Miss (12) over Wisconsin (5). Mississippi’s high-scoring tandem of Murphy Holloway and Marshall Henderson powered the Rebels to the SEC conference title over a very high-scoring Florida Gators team. In the tournament for the first time since 2002, the Rebels are not intimidated by the likes of Wisconsin, who just lost to Ohio State in the Big 10 title game, and who have had spotty results in the tournament over the years.

Bucknell (11) over Butler (6). The Bucknell Bisons of the Patriot League are fortunate to have a dominant center in Mike Muscala. Brad Stevens, Butler’s accomplished coach, is well-aware of that dominance, and has remarked that Muscala’s essentially an NBA-level player. Averaging a double-double (18 points/11 rebounds) per game, Bucknell’s 7-footer is a threat at both sides of the floor and could give the Bulldogs a very difficult time in trying to defend him.

Harvard (14) over New Mexico (3). This may be a long shot, but all the ingredients are there for an upset. The background is intriguing. Tommy Amaker, Harvard’s coach, played against New Mexico’s coach Steve Alford in the Sweet Sixteen of the 1987 tournament (Amaker with Duke and Alford with Indiana). They then faced each other repeatedly as coaches in the Big 10 (Amaker with Michigan and Alford with Iowa.)  Alford had a slight win advantage over the decade they faced each other. Amaker has just achieved his third Ivy League title in as many years, and the Crimson are among the nation’s leaders in 3-point shooting percentage. And watch out for Harvard's sophomore Wesley Saunders, who averages just under 17 points per game. New Mexico was 8-4 on the road this year, and is in only its fourth tournament since 1999 - in which early exits were their trademark. 

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