It all comes down to this: Who has what it takes to win six straight games — and an NCAA title?
While Memphis' late-season loss to Tennessee blocked its shot at an unblemished record, the beauty of the NCAA tournament is that every team starts over during the madness that is March. "You have to be 6-0 to win a championship," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas says, "so your record is really irrelevant."
Which team will emerge unscathed from the Final Four in San Antonio, giving folks a reason to remember the Alamodome? Memphis, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and UCLA have all been highly ranked, but only four teams will get a coveted No. 1 seed. "It's really important, because no No. 1 seed has ever lost in the first round," Bilas says, "and it is very unusual for a top seed to be out before the Sweet 16. It's a first-class ticket to the second weekend [of the tournament]."
Following this week's conference tournament frenzy, the field of 65 will be determined on Selection Sunday, (Sunday at 6 pm/ET, CBS). After the opening-round game between the 64th and 65th seeds on March 18 (7:30 pm/ET, ESPN), the first round starts Thursday, March 20 (noon/ET, CBS). And so begins the wild ride to the Final Four, April 5 and 7.
CBS analyst Clark Kellogg calls the tournament a "three-week rush" when having a famous basketball tradition isn't necessarily an advantage. "The tournament tends to be about matchups more than it is about pedigree," he says. "Sometimes you run into a really tough matchup in the second round if you're a Duke or a Carolina that can cause you to stub your toe and go home."
Sometimes it's not what your opponent does, and Bilas cautions that even a seemingly dominant team like Memphis could trip itself up. "The Tigers are not a great shooting team, and they're abysmal from the free-throw line," he says. But he adds that the Tigers also were abysmal at the line last year (61 percent), and improved to 71.6 percent in the tournament to reach the Elite 8.
Bilas calls his alma mater, Duke, "one of the scary teams to play" because of its style of putting everyone on the perimeter. Kansas has been "magnificent," he adds, but he doesn't think anyone will take the Jayhawks "as seriously as they should until they make a Final Four," because of previous tournament letdowns.
Kellogg believes injuries to UNC guards have changed the Tar Heels' dynamics and "makes them a little more vulnerable than people might think on the surface."
Lesser-known teams are hoping to try on Cinderella's glass slipper, last worn by George Mason University. Kellogg thinks Butler, Xavier and St. Mary's could "crash the party" like Mason did in 2006, making it all the way to the Final Four as an 11th seed.
Bilas likes the same teams, plus Drake. But can teams in the top 25 really qualify as Cinderellas? Sure, "because people don't know them," Bilas says. "I think if you went up to guys who watch college basketball every week, they wouldn't be able to tell you who their best players are. Couldn't even tell you who their coach is."
Bet they will if those teams make it to the Final Four.
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