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Bracket Flames: Divine intervention, Billikens’ emotional ride won’t stop anytime soon

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Early last December a dark cloud descended over the Gateway City. Iconic head coach Rick Majerus, who just weeks before resigned as head basketball coach of St. Louis University, suffered catastrophic heart failure, ending a brilliant life entirely too early. Time stopped. Tears streamed. Minds reflected. Sadness enveloped the program.

Buried in his hometown, Milwaukee, with players acting as pallbearers, Majerus’ stamp on the small Jesuit school extended well beyond basketball. During that touching moment, his loving attachment to kids was clearly on display, a lasting tribute to an entertaining figure with a visionary basketball mind – he emerged victorious in more than 70 percent of games he coached – and endless stash of hilarious anecdotes.

[Related: Breaking down the Midwest Region]

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Majerus

Despite numerous criticisms about his lewd conduct off the court and often intense, militaristic practices, understudies who played on his watch were far more than just an "X" on a white board. To the jovial coach, they were friends, sons and confidants who gave their heart and soul to him for four years. His refreshing honesty and humor made it almost impossible not to like the guy. When news of his passing spread, it was no surprise why many from Utah to the East Coast were so grief-stricken, particularly those closest to him during his final days. From the Salt Lake Tribune:

"Some of them [Saint Louis players] lost a father figure," interim coach Jim Crews said this week. "They all lost a coach. Some of them for the first time lost someone close to them. It was a very emotional time."

Since Majerus was laid to rest on Dec. 8, the Billikens have carried on his legacy the only way they know how – win games. Over that span, they’ve amassed a 23-3 record, clinched the regular season title in the highly underrated Atlantic 10 and earned a favorable No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. They open against No. 13 New Mexico State on Thursday.

Continue to execute at a high level, and the sleeping giant just may ride an emotional wave to Atlanta.

Jim Crews has done a marvelous job building on what Majerus started. Still, the former coach’s influences remain everywhere. Staunch half-court man defense, a hallmark of Majerus-coached teams, is what the Billikens are best known for. On the season, they’ve surrendered a mere 0.87 points per possession, the eighth-lowest mark in the country. They’ve also defended the glass terrifically and forced turnovers on 23.5 percent of opponent possessions, well above the 20.1 national average. Most impressively, they thrice limited Butler, one of the more efficient offensive teams in the country, under 1.00 points per possession and suffocated high-powered VCU to one of its lowest scoring outputs of the season (62).

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Saint Louis doesn’t pack quite as much punch OH-ffensively, but it's no pushover. The well-drilled Billikens greatly value the basketball. Disciplined, calculated and slow-paced, they are rarely victimized by takeaways, cash in often at the free-throw line and splash routinely from three. Alone, junior guard Mike McCall has swished nearly 44 percent from downtown. Balanced across the board – five Billikens average at least 9.8 points per game – and mentally tough, they are in great position to far exceed the Round 2 appearance made a year ago. Butler head coach Brad Stevens completely agrees. From College Basketball Talk:

“I think Saint Louis is one of the best teams in the country,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens prior to Saturday's A-10 tourney semi-final game.. “I don’t care where they’re ranked or where they’ll be seeded. Somebody who hasn’t played against them next week, they’re going to say uh‑oh.”

Stevens offered even more praise for the top-seed following his team’s tough loss.

“I’ve said all year to the people who have listened, and some that don’t, how good they are. They are a legitimate contender to win the whole thing.”

Saint Louis' road to Atlanta is filled with potholes. Far and away, the Midwest region is the deepest and toughest, baffling when considering Louisville is the No. 1 of No. 1s. Despite the difficult path, the Billikens are a legitimate threat to dethrone the top seed, assuming they reach the Round of 16. Because St. Louis takes care of the basketball, it's well constructed to handle the Cardinals relentless pressure defense. It can also throw a wicked counter-punch when guarding the ball. Frustrate Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, and it could trash Pick 'Em brackets from coast-to-coast.

It’s been a somber season for Saint Louis, but a blazed trail to Atlanta would be the ultimate remembrance for its fallen mentor.

BRACKET FLAMES

Here are five additional Cinderellas hoping to don a glass slipper:

Bucknell Bison (REC: 28-5, RPI: 51, RPI top-50 Ws REC: 1-1, Seed: 11, Region: East)
Fear the Bison, high-majors. Among automatic qualifiers seeded No. 11 and below, Bucknell might be the most dangerous. Patriot Player of the Year, Mike Muscala, is a solid NBA prospect who's averaged a double-double per game on the season. His soft touch inside and strong rebounding ability has greatly aided Bryson Johnson and Cameron Ayers along the perimeter. Combined, the long-bombers have converted 40.3 percent from three. On the opposite end, Bucknell is incredibly stiff defensively. The Bison have held opponents to the fifth-lowest effective field-goal percentage in the country. The Buck doesn't play comfortably against fleet-footed teams, but against half-court oriented squads it should hold its own. Recall it nearly knocked off Missouri, in Columbia, in early January. It's opening-round matchup against Butler plays perfectly in its hands. The Bulldogs are very turnover prone, especially Rotnei Clarke. It's hard to bet against Brad Stevens, but in what should be a tortoise-paced, grind-it-out contest, the Bison defense should rise to the occasion. Its odds against Marquette, a possible Round of 32 opponent, are also stronger than you think.

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Creighton Blue Jays (REC: 27-7, RPI: 25, RPI top-50 Ws: 4-3, Seed: 7, Region: Midwest)
The Blue Jays are the most efficient half-court team in the nation, ranking No. 2 in both 3-point and 2-point field-goal percentage. Wooden Award candidate Doug McDermott is the heart and soul of this team, but Creighton boasts much more than just one star. Ethan Wragge and Jahenns Manigat can really fill it up from the outside, Gregory Echenique is a muscle man down low, and Will Artino and Avery Dingman have provided valuable minutes off the bench. Defensively, the Jays are often gentlemanly, leaving the door wide open for its opponents. They lack a true shot-blocker and force few turnovers. Overall, they rank 76th in defensive efficiency. However, Creighton did show massive improvement in that area down the homestretch conceding a respectable 0.96 points per possession. If it can sustain that defensive intensity moving forward, it's more than capable of stringing together multiple wins. The "Jays" opening-round matchup against Cincinnati is a classic contrast of styles. Mick Cronin's half-court oriented club relies on smash-mouth defense to thwart opponents. But because of Creighton's deadliness on offense it should dictate tempo. Beat the Bearcats and a 3-point showdown against sketchy Duke looms. A No. 2 seed has been ousted in the Round of 32 in 14 of the past 16 tournaments. Count on the 'Jays to keep the streak alive.

VCU Rams (REC: 26-8, RPI: 23, RPI top-50 Ws REC: 3-7, Seed: 5, Region: South)
Relentless, exhausting and fearless, the Rams are again poised to wreck "havoc" on the competition. Speed and pressure are hallmarks of Shaka Smart-coached teams. This year's VCU brand is no different. It ranks No. 1 in defensive turnover percentage, forcing side changes on a mind-blowing 28.6 percent of opponent possessions. Thieves Darius Theus and Briante Weber have combined for more than 5.0 steals per game. Teams that are careless with the basketball will pay the ultimate price. On offense, the Rams are above average from downtown, netting 35.5 percent. Senior Troy Daniels has nailed at least three money balls in a game 18 times. When searing, he can sway outcomes almost single-handedly. Interestingly, for a feisty team with an attacking nature, VCU rarely gets to the line. Only 17.1 percent of its points are accumulated at the charity stripe. Also undersized, it has struggled against squads with sizable beef in the post, though it does generate ample second-chance opportunities. It's unlikely the Rams will again blaze a trail to the Final Four, but a Sweet 16 appearance, or more, is well within reach. A possible regional semifinal matchup with Kansas would be highly entertaining.

Illinois Fighting Illini (REC: 22-12, RPI: 38, RPI top-50 Ws REC: 6-8, Seed: 7, Region: East)
It's been a seesaw year for the Illini. They roared out of the gate reeling off 12 straight wins, including arguably the best non-conference road win this season (at Gonzaga), only to stumble to a 2-7 start in Big Ten play. But a late-season turnaround, spurred by key wins over Indiana and Minnesota (twice), has Illinois on a roll. The enigmatic club will go as far as its guards will take it. Brandon Paul's and D.J. Richardson’s shooting from behind the arc is instrumental for Illinois. When the pair blaze the nets from distance and commit to defense, the Illini are capable of eliminating anyone. However, bouts of inconsistency leave them vulnerable to 20-point blowouts, particularly against zone-oriented teams with considerable front-court depth. Nnanna Egwu, their primary interior presence, must stay out of foul trouble. X-Factors Tyler Griffey and Joseph Betrand must also attack the rim to weaken defenses, particularly if the Illini draw Miami in Round 2. The Hurricanes' massive size down low is a matchup nightmare, but Illinois has overcome similar disadvantages (See Gonzaga). Still, this is a dangerous midrange seed that could reach the second weekend if it finds its long-distance stroke.

North Carolina Tar Heels (REC: 24-10, RPI: 16, RPI top-50 REC: 2-8, Seed: 8, Region: South)
To borrow a line made famous by Vince Vaughn in "Swingers," the young Heels are "all growns up." It's been a roller-coaster season in Chapel Hill. Not long ago, bracket pundits were unsure Carolina would even make the field. But on the right side of the ledger in eight of their past 11 games, Roy Williams' bunch is peaking at the perfect time. Defensively, the Heels have executed at an admirable level all year, surrendering a mere 0.91 points per possession. On the opposite end, however, is where they've made the greatest improvement. P.J. Hairston and Marcus Paige have elevated their games considerably, splashing rain-makers from three with regularity while making opponents pay at the line. Also cautious with the basketball – it's turn the ball over on just 17.1 percent of its possessions – fruitful on the boards and immensely talented, UNC owns the necessary characteristics to transform from perennial contender to mid-seed spoiler. If it escapes what should be a hotly-contested first-round game against Villanova, Kansas will come calling, a top seed that is far from invincible. Just ask TCU fans.

TOURNEY TIDBITS

Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:

• At least one No. 12 seed has advanced beyond the opening round 11 of the past 12 years. In the second round No. 12s are 19-19 (50.0%) all-time.

• A No. 16 has never defeated a No. 1, though Alonzo Mourning still wakes up in cold sweats about Princeton.

• Since 2000, No. 13 seeds have survived the opening round in just 23.1 percent of its attempts; No. 14s 5.8 percent.

• No. 15 seeds are 3-49 in opening-round games since 2000; 6-106 all-time. Last year, Norfolk State and Lehigh stunned the world.

• Notable mid-majors' tourney win percentage since 2000: Atlantic 10 (46.3%), West Coast (46.2%), Colonial (43.3%), Missouri Valley (35.9%), WAC (32.3%), Mountain West (30.6%)

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