There is debate about whether this is the easiest region, or whether it's the West region. I think that Syracuse has a slightly easier route to the Final Four in the West than Duke does, but obviously both teams have it relatively easy. This is potentially the hardest bracket to pick because the 4/5/12/13 pod is so bizarre. You can almost flip coins to settle those four teams. On the bottom side of the draw it seems like Baylor is getting a lot of hype just because they're surrounded by so many weak teams. Villanova has fallen apart down the stretch and is a very weak 2 seed, and Notre Dame as a 6 is the most over-seeded team in the entire Tournament. And even Richmond, a 7 seed that is getting a lot of hype, is probably the weakest 7 seed in the draw. You don't even need to be drunk to say to hell with it and to go for an Old Dominion-Saint Mary's Sweet 16 game.
My Picks:1. Duke over 16. Play-in Winner (probably Winthrop)
8. California over 9. Louisville
5. Texas A&M over 12. Utah State
4. Purdue over 13. Siena
11. Old Dominion over 6. Notre Dame
3. Baylor over Sam Houston State
10. Saint Mary's over 7. Richmond
2. Villanova over Robert Morris
Thoughts:The 1/16, 2/15 and 3/14 games are all going to be blowouts, so don't even think about them. But all of the rest of the first round games in this bracket will be very tough to call. I'll start at the top, where Louisville is a dangerous 9 seed, and since 9 seeds win 54% of games over 8 seeds it's usually a good idea to pick any dangerous 9 seeds to win, but California is a very underrated team. The Pac-10 was bad, but not nearly as bad as people think. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy put the Pac-10 as better than any of the mid-major conferences, including the Atlantic Ten and Mountain West. And Cal has played much better since getting completely healthy, is loved by the computers, and has to be considered a potential Cinderella team.
The Purdue-Siena game is perhaps the most interesting of the first round, because I can't recall a case in recent history where most people seem to think the 13 seed will win. Siena is certainly one of the most dangerous 13 seeds we've ever seen, as they're probably better than they were last year. I talked way back in April about how Siena was overrated last season, despite their good NCAA Tournament performance, and that I thought they'd be better this season but they'd end up being seeded worse. But that said, everybody is underrating Purdue, because they're treating Purdue like a 4 seed that suddenly lost their best player. In fact, Purdue is a 1 seed that suddenly lost their best player. The Selection Committee chair even came out and said that they dropped Purdue to a 4 seed even though their resume warranted a better seed, simply because of the Hummel injury. And let's recall that they would have been a 1 seed if Hummel hadn't gotten hurt, so even that 3 seed includes the post-injury losses. Last season Hummel missed a lot of time with injury, and was a shell of himself most of the time that he was playing, and they still got a 5 seed and made the Sweet 16. This team has all 5 starters back from last year. Even if Hummel hadn't played all season long they'd still have been a 4/5 seed quality team. They had a once-in-a-year type disastrous shooting performance in their final Big Ten tournament game, which feeds the perceptions, but don't sleep on Purdue being a legitimate Sweet 16 team.
Utah State is a strong 12 seed, but Texas A&M is not the type of team you should pick to get upset. They went 1-6 against the RPI Top 25, 4-3 against the RPI 26-50, and 18-0 against the RPI 51+. In other words, they're the ultimate "They are what they are" team. Don't pick them to get upset in the first round, but don't pick them to the Final Four either. On the other hand, Notre Dame and Richmond are both very vulnerable teams. The Irish should have been a 9 or 10 seed instead of a 6, and if not for a six game win streak in late February into March they would be NIT bound. Old Dominion in particular is an issue for them because their defense is still not that good - it's improved from where it was (they had the second worst defense in the Big East until the last couple of games), but it's still weak. And Old Dominion is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation (Pomeroy actually rates them the #1 best offensive rebounding team in the nation), so even when they fail to score they'll get a lot of second chances. So considering that both of these teams like to play at very slow tempos (expect a 60 possession game) there will be a lot of pressure on Notre Dame to hit a high percentage of outside shots. The Irish are already heavily dependent on outside shooting, and there's going to be a lot of pressure on them here. If they don't hit better than 35% behind the arc and 50% inside the arc, they're going to lose. Richmond, meanwhile, has that very dangerous Sagarin rating breakdown: an ELO_CHESS of 24th and a PREDICTOR of 55th. It's very rare for teams with computer ratings that staggering to not underperform their seed, and it's also very rare for teams with PREDICTOR ratings outside the Top 50 to win a game. Pomeroy also puts Richmond as the 48th best team in the nation. Both ratings consider Saint Mary's the better team, with Sagarin making St. Mary's a two point favorite, and Pomeroy making them a one point favorite. Throwing in Tournament psychology (higher seeds tend to overlook lower seeds) and Saint Mary's is an excellent first round pick.
My Picks:1. Duke over 8. California
4. Purdue over 5. Texas A&M
3. Baylor over 11. Old Dominion
2. Villanova over 10. Saint Mary's
Thoughts:As I said, California is a dangerous 8 seed, but they're one of the only teams in the country that Duke can dominate with their frontcourt. And as long as Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer can stay out of foul trouble, and if Andre Dawkins can play extended minutes, then they can really neutralize that Cal backcourt. And the Cal frontcourt is downright awful. The only chance Cal has is for their guards to take the ball at the basket early and to get the Duke big men in foul trouble. It can happen, but I'd bet against it.
As for Purdue, I know that's not a popular pick, but I'm going to stand by what I said before: they're not a 4 seed that lost their best player, they're a 1 seed that lost their best player. And let's not make Robbie Hummel out to be an Evan Turner type player who does everything for his team. Purdue is a trio of stars (JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore are the other two), and while Hummel is the best of the three I'd argue that he's the one they can most afford to lose. Johnson is needed for his inside presence and Moore is needed for his ability to get to the basket and create offense. The biggest risk with Hummel out is that they become very, very small if Johnson gets in foul trouble. So if Johnson fouls out then Purdue will lose to Texas A&M, but if they can keep all of their stars in the game then I like their odds. And let's go back to what I said about Texas A&M before: they're 1-6 against the RPI Top 25, 4-3 against the RPI 26-50, and 18-0 against the RPI 51+. And they went 2-8 in road/neutral games against the RPI Top 60. Purdue, on the other hand, went 4-2 against the RPI Top 25 (0-0 after the Hummel injury, though) and 3-1 in road/neutral games against the RPI Top 60 (again, 0-0 after the Hummel injury). Texas A&M has a ceiling, and they have not beaten elite teams all season long. So if they play Siena in the second round then I'd take Texas A&M to beat them, but if they play Purdue then I like the Boilermakers.
Villanova is a very weak 2 seed, but even so I just don't like the 7/10 seeds they're up against. Saint Mary's is a decent 10 seed, but they do not have the athletes to hang with Villanova's backcourt. The only chance they have will be to pack the defense in and knock down a few guys going towards the basket, to turn them into a hesitant team that just chucks up threes without probing the defense. This is what Syracuse did to Villanova a few weeks to blow them out, but Saint Mary's doesn't have the big men that Syracuse does. Picking Saint Mary's is not a bad pick, but I would still lean towards Villanova. Here is the stat that clinches it for me: Villanova went 2-5 against the RPI Top 15 this season, and 22-2 against the RPI 16+. Villanova gets tentative against elite teams, but their backcourt just blows away athletically inferior teams.
And finally, I can't see any way to pick against Baylor in the second round, no matter who they play. They got a gift of a draw to the Sweet 16.
1. Duke over 4. Purdue
3. Baylor over 2. Villanova
I don't think Duke should be too afraid of either Texas A&M or Purdue in the Sweet 16. Texas A&M, as I've covered, has been unable to take down elite teams all season. And Purdue is just too thin without Hummel. The one hope that Purdue will have is toughness, because Chris Kramer (one of the greatest "glue guys" of the last decade) has the ability to really get under the skin of the opposition. And Purdue's guards are very long and can out-muscle the Duke backcourt. They can possibly get Duke frustrated and in foul trouble. But I'd bet against it. Duke has a pretty easy route to the Elite 8. I'd almost worry more about California taking them out than either Texas A&M or Purdue just because of the possibility of Duke looking past an 8 seed from the Pac-10.
And I just think that Baylor is just the best team in the bottom half of the draw. Both Sagarin and Pomeroy rate Baylor as slightly better than Villanova, and Villanova has had troubles all season long playing good teams. Not only that, but they've really tailed off down the stretch. Over the last month they are 0-5 against teams with an RPI better than 65th. And Villanova is at their worst against teams with big men who can intimidate their guards to make them tentative. And not only would you be hard pressed to find five players better at blocking shots than Ekpe Udoh, but they also start 7-footer Josh Lomers. You also need to consider here the potential for upsets in earlier rounds, and I think Baylor has an easier path to this Sweet 16 game than Villanova. So when you figure that Baylor is more likely to even be in this game, and probably has a 55% chance of winning a head-to-head match-up, I think Baylor is the best pick here.
1. Duke over 3. Baylor
Duke isn't too daunting of a 1 seed, although they're certainly deserving of that 1 seed. But I just think they've got a pretty easy path. Baylor is a scary and very good team, but this is a new experience for that program. If you'd asked any Baylor fan or player in the preseason if they'd accept a Sweet 16 appearance to finish the season they'd all have signed up. By the time they get to the Elite 8 they'll definitely have a "We're just happy to be here" look on their face. And it's not like their coaching staff has experience at this level either. Duke is going to be hungrier to win this game.
Interestingly enough, I think Villanova would be a better challenge to Duke than Baylor. Villanova's stellar backcourt will torch Duke. And you wonder whether Andre Dawkins will be able to get on the floor considering how young he is, and considering how savvy and experienced the Nova backcourt is. Brian Zoubek has a bad habit of getting himself in early foul trouble, and so if Coach K doesn't feel comfortable with Dawkins then he might be stuck going very long stretches of time with only Smith, Scheyer, Singler and the Plumlee brothers on the floor. He certainly wouldn't dare giving Ryan Kelly any playing time against Villanova unless he was forced to just put another warm body on the floor. And so that's why if you've got Villanova in the Elite 8, I'd really like their chances to knock out Duke. They just match up very, very well.