Go ahead and count all of the things the Kentucky Wildcats don't have going for them. Like a breakout scorer. Like a bunch of NBA prospects. Like a true big man who dominates on the blocks.
This isn't exactly the 1996 team that won the national title while fielding a team of eight future NBA players.
But overlook the Wildcats, the top overall seed of the tournament, at your own peril. Tubby Smith isn't much for superstars. But all his teams do is win and win and win.
Last season UK rode a 26-game win streak into the Elite Eight before Dwyane Wade and Marquette ended the dream. This year UK is 26-4 after wrapping up its 25th SEC tournament title.
This isn't the nation's most talented team. This isn't a Wildcat program dripping with prep All-Americans the way it used to be. Smith doesn't recruit that way.
But the winning hasn't stopped, even if the personality has. Kentucky is a reasonable pick to win its eighth NCAA title based on defense, rebounding and teamwork.
"I'm proud of this group and what they've been able to achieve throughout the season," Smith said Sunday. "They've shown their competitive grit and moxie all year long – a never-quit, never-say-die attitude. That's what has pulled us through."
It is an endearing team. The senior trio of Gerald Fitch, Erik Daniels and Cliff Hawkins are defensive studs who just know how to win. Chuck Hayes is an undersized (6-feet-7-inches) big man who somehow makes it work. Sophomore Kelenna Azubuike is perhaps the best pro prospect, but it isn't like he is going to come out early.
The Wildcats have five double-figure scorers and a lot of heart.
They may be susceptible to a truly great talent (a la Wade), but beating the Wildcats won't be easy. Which is why few do it.
1. Gonzaga – The one-time loveable underdog of the NCAA tournament is now a bona fide heavyweight, a Final Four contender. Seeded No. 2 in the region, the Bulldogs are 27-2, with the two losses coming to No. 1 seeds Stanford and Saint Joseph's.
They haven't lost since December. Blake Stepp is an All-America candidate at guard and big man Ronny Turiaf is a supreme talent. Gonzaga enters the tournament with a great chance at becoming the first non-power conference team to reach the Final Four since Indiana State and Penn did it in 1979 (if you count the Big West as a power conference when UNLV went in 1990 and 1991.).
2. Kansas in Kansas City – Back in 1988 the Jayhawks used a couple NCAA tournament games in Kemper Arena to propel the upstart Danny and the Miracles to the NCAA title. Can the same magic formula work again? This should be a love affair for KU and a rough matchup for upset-minded Illinois-Chicago and No. 5 seed Providence. If the Jayhawks win, the regional is three hours away in St. Louis.
3. Valparaiso – After a one-year absence the Crusaders are back in the NCAA tournament. Also back is head coach Homer Drew, who retired after the 2002 season only to return when son Scott took over at Baylor. Expect even more replays of Bryce's game-winning shot than usual.
Who Will Win?
Georgia Tech has a ton of potential. Gonzaga is a fearsome team, and Turiaf is going to be a matchup problem. Kansas is pretty good.
But while there are contenders, you don't pick against Kentucky unless you are absolutely certain the Wildcats are going down. And we aren't. Put the 'Cats into the Final Four. It may not happen, but it is the surest bet of the NCAA tournament. Kentucky and Tubby Smith just know how to win.
Dark-horse pick (sixth seed or worse)
Washington. This is the craziest team in the country. In non-conference play it lost to Wyoming (by 16) and Houston (by 13). Then it opened Pac-10 play by dropping its first five. NCAA? Please. This wasn't a NIT selection.
But right now this is an excellent team. The Huskies (19-11) defeated Arizona three times, handed Stanford its only loss of the season and has won nine of 11. There are five double-figure scorers, guard Nate Robinson is a ridiculous talent and the whole team has a complete why-not attitude that makes just about anything possible.
So why not?
Most likely upset
Northern Iowa over Georgia Tech.
You've heard of a puncher's chance in boxing? How about a shooter's chance? Northern Iowa can flat-out burn up the nets, playing a little like you'd expect some small-town Iowa guys would.
Five players shoot better than 33 percent from behind the arc, led by sophomore Ben Jacobson at 39.8 percent. Plus, the Missouri Valley is a terrific league and annually produces teams that spring upsets (Creighton, Southern Illinois).
Tech is way more talented, way more athletic, way deeper. But any coach will tell you a team that can shoot is dangerous. This looks like the Butler team from a year ago that shot past Mississippi State and Louisville.
Fun potential matchup
UAB vs. Kentucky (second round).
Kentucky has ruled the SEC forever, but if there was one program that could claim to be a serious challenge to the Big Blue's throne it was Nolan Richardson's Arkansas teams of the 1990s. UAB is coached by Mike Anderson, who spent 15 years as an assistant to Richardson at Tulsa and UA.
Anderson, the C-USA Coach of the Year, has worked miracles with the Blazers by playing the exact same "40 minutes of hell" system Richardson employed. Might be interesting to see if the old magic is still there vs. the 'Cats.
Or if you prefer ...
Maybe picking teams based on ability isn't your cup of tea. Hey, we all know anything works in the tournament, so here are a few other factors to consider:
Toughest mascot: The Lehigh Mountain Hawks – If it was just a valley hawk then no way, but this sounds tough.
Coolest school colors: Florida A&M's orange and green (the band wears it so well).
Best coach: Kentucky's Tubby Smith.
Best academic reputation: Georgia Tech.
Prettiest campus: Boston College.
Best home court: Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse.
Best state flower: Georgia (Georgia Tech), Cherokee Rose.
Best state bird: Rhode Island (Providence) – the Rhode Island Red (I used to know a bookie by that name).
Five stars to watch
Wayne Simien, F, Kansas: A double-double machine and a total warrior in the paint.
Ronny Turiaf, Jr., F, Gonzaga: The NBA loves the dreadlocked big man and when the Zags need a basket, this where they turn.
Carldell "Squeaky" Johnson, So., G, UAB: Unrecruited out of high school, the 5-foot-8-inch point is a joy to watch and almost never commits a turnover.
Craig Smith, So., F, Boston College: Combination of power and skill is averaging 17.3 points, 8.4 rebounds a game.
Ryan Gomes, Jr., F, Providence: Versatile All-America candidate has developed into one of the best players in the East.
• There is not a more exciting player in the NCAA tournament than Washington's 5-foot-8-inch tall freak-of-nature athlete Nate Robinson, who also happens to be a defensive back on the Husky football team. We can only hope he gets free for a dunk.
• Utah is coached by Kerry Rupp. If he wins three games there is a chance he could face Kentucky, which also used to have some coach named Rupp.
• Lehigh and Florida A&M meet Tuesday in the opening-round game in Dayton, Ohio. This game should feature the last two at-large selections (UTEP and BYU) but doesn't because the major conferences that control the NCAA use the game to cheat a smaller conference out of an extra share of tournament revenue. At least this game will be entertaining because of FAMU's world-class band.
- If Michigan State and Gonzaga meet in the second round, former Spartan coach Jud Heathcote is in a tough spot. He has lived in Spokane, Wash., since retiring from MSU.
- Valparaiso is the only team from basketball hotbed Indiana in the NCAA tournament.