No. 1 INDIANA
Best case: Nobody questions this Indiana net-cutting ceremony. It comes after a victory, and it comes in the Georgia Dome on the last night of the season. After a tumultuous, scarring, 26-year absence, the Hoosiers are back atop college basketball. The faith in Tom Crean – a kinder, gentler General – pays off with a title in his fifth season. Cody Zeller becomes a Steve Alford-esque hero, the in-state kid who fulfilled a dream and is named Final Four MOP. But Victor Oladipo is the Keith Smart sidekick, hitting the winning jump shot against Louisville in the closing seconds of a classic title game. Prior to that Indiana beats Georgetown for the second time this season, Miami in a regional final donnybrook, Syracuse in a blueblood Sweet 16 game, North Carolina State in a tricky round-of-32 game and has a walkover in the opening game. Bob Knight at last faces the realization that the program can go on without him. John Calipari, who dropped Indiana to play neutral-size games in football stadiums but wound up in a bandbox at Robert Morris, reconsiders and agrees to campus sites. Kelvin Sampson cannot be reached for reaction due to bad cell service.
Worst case: Worn down by the grind of the Big Ten and the pressure of massive expectation, the Hoosiers look fatigued and flat against an athletic North Carolina State team that has more talent than its record indicates. Indiana does not defend or rebound well enough to avoid a dogfight that goes down to the final minutes. Marion, Ind., native Scott Wood tosses in a 3 at the buzzer to shock the Hoosiers in the round of 32 and send his home state spiraling into depression. Crean takes two hours to leave a devastated locker room. A pall descends upon the limestone hills back home. From Tell City to Angola, nobody bounces a basketball for a full day. South of the Ohio River, Kentucky fans laugh long and hard. In West Lafayette, Boilermakers fans join in. Knight allows himself a spiteful chuckle as well. Zeller and Oladipo join seniors Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston in leaving, and "Yogi" Ferrell unexpectedly goes pro, too. The rebuilding job begins again.
No. 16 JAMES MADISON
Best case: Dukes white-knuckle through first 20 minutes against LIU-Brooklyn without leading scorer Rayshawn Goins, who was suspended for a half after being arrested Sunday on charges of disorderly conduct and obstructing justice. (Spectacular timing for a program playing its first NCAA tourney game in 19 years.) The 260-pound Goins then gets disorderly on the interior of the LIU defense, scoring 15 second-half points. He obstructs the LIU offense at the other end, and the Dukes pull out the victory. Having won five in a row for the first time in more than two years, JMU takes renewed confidence up against Indiana on Friday. It puts up a tussle for 15 minutes before fading, but that's more than most expected from a team that was 9-10 at one point this season.
Worst case: Dukes are lost without their leading scorer, falling behind LIU by 18 at halftime. By the time Goins gets back on the floor it's too late, thus making the party that led to his arrest the most costly night out in James Madison basketball history. Dukes quickly return to the anonymity of Harrisonburg, Va., and after losing three key seniors also return to the middle of the Colonial Athletic Association pack in 2013-14.
No. 8 NORTH CAROLINA STATE
Best case: Wolfpack go on a redemption run after a disappointing regular season. They easily handle Temple and the master of March disaster, Fran Dunphy, then get a giant-killing opportunity against Indiana. Against the Hoosiers, N.C. State reminds everyone why it was ranked in the Top 10 to start the season – namely, NBA talent. Between C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown and Richard Howell, Pack has plenty of athleticism to throw at Indiana. But Indiana native Scott Wood closes the deal with a buzzer-beating 3, sending N.C. State to a second consecutive surprise Sweet 16 berth. Once there the Pack clamps down on offensively struggling Syracuse before losing a third time to Miami. Leslie and Brown decide to come back for their senior seasons. North Carolina is crushed by Villanova and is the subject of more investigative stories about academic shenanigans. Duke loses early, too. Worst case: Hard to transform from season-long underachievers overnight, and the Wolfpack fails to pull it off. They cannot contain Khalif Wyatt, box out half-heartedly and miss key free throws late as the Owls end N.C. State's season. Fans who rejoiced at Gottfried's recruiting now blast his coaching, saying he's in over his head. Wolfpack fans keep digging for dirt on North Carolina, and the NCAA keeps ignoring it. Meanwhile, both the Tar Heels and Duke make the Final Four, gently reminding N.C. State backers how many times they've been there in the 30 years since the Wolfpack's last visit.
No. 9 TEMPLE
Best case: Khalif Wyatt shows what everyone outside the A-10 has been missing: a gutsy, clutch play-maker capable of dominating a game. In N.C. State he finds a willing accomplice, letting him score 30 in an Owls victory. Then Temple backs it up two days later against Indiana, with Wyatt again the star. After years of March sadness, Fran Dunphy finally sees a Sweet 16 from the inside. Once there, Temple gets to beat Syracuse for a second time this season to make the regional final before submitting to Miami. Temple surge part of a big tourney for the A-10, which justifies its five bids.
Worst case: Anyone expecting a Temple surge doesn't know their Dunphy history. The coach is 2-14 in NCAA tourney play. Make that 2-15 after the Owls are routed by North Carolina State in their first game. Temple fails to guard the 3-point line and gives up eight of them to sharpshooter Scott Wood. Owls return home to watch LaSalle and Villanova carry the Philadelphia banner, wondering when they'll see the Sweet 16 (or even the round of 32) again.
No. 5 UNLV
Best case: Team with more than a little talent can redeem itself for a blah season, and takes advantage of the opportunity. Anthony Bennett got back in high gear at the conference tournament and reinforces himself as a Top 10 draft pick by tearing up California. Bennett gets help when a fickle 3-point shooting team gets hot against the Syracuse zone, earning a spot in the Sweet 16. There's even a Mike Moser sighting, as the 2012 star and 2013 forgotten man makes a contribution. Run ends against Indiana, but Dave Rice wins some converts among those who thought he was just a recruiter and not a coach. Bennett is gone to the pros, but other underclassmen stick around for next year.
Worst case: Those doubts about Rice as a coach intensify when Vegas loses to a No. 12 seed that appeared all but done for the year. California, blessed with a virtual home game in San Jose, swarms Bennett when he gets it and otherwise packs the interior, daring the Rebels to make perimeter shots. When they don't, the Golden Bears win, and Rebels fans go back to watching highlights of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony for another offseason. Meanwhile, Mountain West Conference rival New Mexico goes to the Final Four, putting more distance between itself and UNLV in the league hierarchy.
No. 12 CALIFORNIA
Best case: Given a geographic break by playing a higher seed in nearby San Jose, enough Cal fans actually show up to create a homecourt advantage for the Golden Bears against UNLV. Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs radio in for backup, and some arrive. Two-man offensive team gets a little help and the Golden Bears snap out of two-game funk. Mike Montgomery comes up with some defensive wrinkles that frustrate Anthony Bennett. Cal keeps it rolling two days later by upsetting a Syracuse team that was leaking oil down the stretch of the season. Bears must make the long commute to Washington, D.C., only to lose to Indiana, but the season ends on a high note. Monty is re-energized, and Crabbe and Cobbs return for their senior year, though every Cal sport in 2013-14 will be a supporting act to the Missy Franklin Show at the swimming pool.
Worst case: Midway through a miserable performance against UNLV, Monty puts a passive Crabbe in a headlock on the sideline. This "motivational tactic" does not go over as well as the shove vs. USC a month ago, as Crabbe kicks the coach in the shin. Coach-player wrestling match makes a bad situation worse, and the Golden Bears are blown out by UNLV. Monty resigns, and nostalgic but short-sighted Cal administration makes catastrophic decision to re-hire Ben Braun, now fresh off a disastrous tenure at Rice. Program implodes and is never heard from again. This worst-case scenario brought to you by DirecTV, which wishes it could come up with a "Get rid of cable" commercial this scary. Don't end up in a roadside ditch, and don't end up with Ben Braun as your coach.
No. 4 SYRACUSE
Best case: James Southerland continues his blazing 3-point shooting. Michael Carter-Williams re-establishes his NBA point-guard credentials. Brandon Triche steps back up to January form. Jim Boeheim gets the zone mojo going and Syracuse takes advantage of a fairly easy path to the Sweet 16. From there, Orange frustrate Indiana and pull the upset and then take down Miami in the regional final. Boehiem is so happy he doesn't snap at a single reporter the entire tourney. In one last Big East party, Orange beat Georgetown before falling to Louisville for the third time in four meetings. Boeheim flirts with hanging it up, but comes back because the Syracuse winters so perfectly match his demeanor.
Worst case: Team that has lost five of its last nine games comes staggering into the Dance and doesn't stay long. Orange don't deal well with long commute out west and late tipoff time, and are stunned by Montana in their first game. Southerland's shot dries up, Carter-Williams has more turnovers than assists and Triche's game stays on sabbatical. Boeheim blames loss on Andy Katz, then goes after several other reporters for daring to ask questions about the game. With program under NCAA investigation and no interest in starting over in the ACC, Boeheim calls it quits – but not before coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins leaves for the USC job. Late-March blizzard dumps two feet on Syracuse, adding to the joy.
No. 13 MONTANA
Best case: Led by the lyrically named Wayne Tinkle, the Grizzlies score the biggest triumph in school history. They stun Syracuse on a 30-footer by Jordan Gregory, touching off a wild celebration in San Jose. Grizz then meet another double-digit seed in the second round, No. 12 California, and topple the Bears as well behind a big game by guard Will Cherry, whose return from a late-season injury saved Montana's season. Montana jets across country to Washington, D.C., to play Indiana in the Sweet 16 and promptly loses, but First Baller Barack Obama drops by to see the game. Unencumbered by re-election concerns, Obama does not have to focus his attendance on electoral votes and thus shows up to see the Cinderella from the three-vote state.
Worst case: Tinkle can't sprinkle enough pixie dust on his players to overcome Syracuse. Short team struggles with long Orange zone, and defense is not tenacious enough to stop the 'Cuse on the other end. Game gets ugly early as hope quickly evaporates. Montana is one-and-done. Fans are free to return to tying flies in anticipation of trout fishing season.
No. 6 BUTLER
Best case: Brad Stevens rekindles the old mojo, asking Final Four veterans Andrew Smith and Chase Stigall to lead the Bulldogs back to the destination of their wildest dreams. Playing characteristic Butler defense – never giving an inch and taking the physical play to the opponent – the Bulldogs strangle Bucknell and Davidson in Lexington. Then the guys that beat big names Marquette, Indiana and Gonzaga remind everyone how unafraid they are of those challenges. Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham catch fire from the outside in the Sweet 16 to shock Miami, and then Butler gets another game with Indiana. Hoosiers are primed for revenge but also play with all the pressure on their shoulders. Butler plays freely and slays the dragon again, this time on Stevens out-of-bounds play for a Dunham 3. Bulldogs beat Georgetown in the Final Four but again lose in the title game, this time to Louisville. But the Butler mini-dynasty is alive and well, as Stevens signs another enhanced, long-term contract to stay in Shangri-La.
Worst case: This Butler team is better than the one that missed the NCAAs last year, but Shelvin Mack, Matt Howard and Gordon Hayward are still not walking through that door. Bulldogs bunch that beat Marquette, Indiana and Gonzaga is not the same one that finished the season losing six of its last 16. Team that never has adequately solved its point-guard situation cannot handle the ball against Bucknell and is beaten in the round of 64. Stevens, sensing that the magic of 2010 and '11 may not be recaptured, finally starts getting restless and looks for other jobs. New bulldog mascot does not handle job very well either, having an accident on the court.
No. 11 BUCKNELL
Best case: Mike Muscala, the best player most fans have never seen, finally gets seen. And the people are impressed. The Bucknell big man dominates Butler's Andrew Smith in the opener and handles Davidson's post players in the round of 32, as the Bison make an unlikely Sweet 16 run. Flush with Patriot League pride, John Feinstein rushes the court after the second victory. Run ends in D.C. against Miami, but Bucknell has a sufficient enough stay on the big stage that America learns where it is located (Lewisburg, Pa.).
Worst case: Bad omen occurs before tipoff when mascot Bucky Bison is bitten by Blue, the Butler Bulldog. It goes south from there as Muscala gets in a rare bout of foul trouble battling the super-physical Smith inside. Lacking a great supporting cast, Bison flounder against Butler defense and are beaten in a trench-warfare game. Feinstein does not rush the court. America does not learn where Bucknell is located.
No. 3 MARQUETTE
Best case: The underrated Buzz Williams does it again, taking a team that cannot shoot from the outside and does not have great offensive options inside and still winning 23 games. Golden Eagles do hit the glass and drive the ball well, and those two things hurt Davidson in a round-of-64 victory. Marquette gets 11 seed Bucknell in the round of 32 and wins that one easily, then upsets cold-shooting Miami in the Sweet 16. In a battle of current and former Marquette coaches, Williams gets the best of Tom Crean in the regional final and the Eagles make their first Final Four in a decade. Williams turns down interest from myriad schools to stay put. And Marquette still has the coolest jerseys in the Dance.
Worst case: Trailing Davidson by one in the final seconds, round mound Davante Gardner gets a pass inside but cannot elevate his 290 pounds (at least) high enough. Gardner pins winning dunk on the rim as time expires, and Marquette is shocked by the No. 14 seed in the round of 64. It's not all his fault, of course – Eagles made just two of 15 shots from 3-point range against packed-in Davidson defense. After five straight seasons in the NCAA tournament, Williams decides it's time to go and leaves for another job. School inexplicably announces a uniform change for next season, going with a hideous camo design.
No. 14 DAVIDSON
Best case: Five seasons after cerebrally guiding the Wildcats to the brink of the Final Four, Bob McKillop has his best team post-Steph Curry. Davidson brings a 17-game winning streak into Rupp Arena and, after playing New Mexico, Gonzaga and Duke, is not intimidated by what Marquette brings to the table. Balanced, veteran Wildcats grab a slim lead and hold it into the final minutes, where the nation's leading foul-shooting team locks it up at the line. Davidson backs that up with a round-of-32 victory over 11 seed Bucknell, and it's back in the Sweet 16. Like 2008, school pays to bus students to D.C. to watch Wildcats battle Miami. They lose, but memories are made again and Irishman McKillop can savor the season over a Final Four Guinness.
Worst case: McKillop wishes he had a Guinness with him on the bench, as his team is outmanned immediately by Marquette. Lacking elite firepower to compensate for a lack of athleticism, Davidson can't hang with Marquette's quickness. Golden Eagles hurt the Wildcats on the glass, and they don't have anyone capable of taking over at crunch time. Davidson loses by 15 and is still looking for its first NCAA victory without Curry since 1969. Students must content themselves with merely being elite academically, not athletically.
No. 7 ILLINOIS
Best case: Coach John Groce, who bred the confidence into Ohio to win two games in last year's NCAA tourney and one in 2010, does the same for the psyche of the Illini. Team toughened by rigorous schedule is overjoyed to be free from the grind of the Big Ten and unleashes a torrent of 3-point shots on Colorado. Enough of them go in that the Illini advance to take on Miami and use the same formula to shoot down the Hurricanes in a major upset. Illinois then beats Cinderella Bucknell before losing to Indiana. Champaign residents raise a champagne toast to Groce for bringing the program back after the slide in recent years under Bruce Weber.
Worst case: That liberated feeling never arrives for the Illini, who are matched up with a Colorado team that has played a tough schedule in its own right and doesn't mind grinding out a Big Ten-style game. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson combine to go four for 21 from 3-point range, and that's all she wrote. Illinois is bounced in its first game and still has just one NCAA win since 2006. Groce lovefest is toned down considerably by the loss to the Buffaloes, and even moreso later when Weber takes Kansas State to the Final Four.
No. 10 COLORADO
Best case: The wholly underappreciated Spencer Dinwiddie – possessor of a grand name, a fine game and a stellar mustache – persistently drives the ball at Illinois and spends all game making the Illini pay at the foul line. Athletic forward Andre Roberson gets all over the offensive glass. The impressively coiffed Sabatino Chen hits a couple of key threes. Colorado has its second straight season with an NCAA tourney round-of-64 upset. Road ends next game with a loss to Miami, but it's abundantly clear that Tad Boyle has the Buffaloes on the rise – and the school commits anew to keeping him happy. Meanwhile, Colorado State is abruptly dismissed in its first game, giving Buffaloes fans the chance to claim superiority in both basketball and campus beauty.
Worst case: The Pac-12 is not the Big Ten, and the difference in quality of competition gives Illinois the edge. Colorado is not quite tough enough defensively or efficient enough offensively to keep up, and the Illini ride a 3-point bombardment to an easy victory. Boyle may be from Colorado, but it doesn't mean he's a captive in the state – he starts to listen to other offers. Meanwhile, Colorado State reaches the Elite Eight under Larry Eustachy, and keep-it-real Rams fans tell Colorado backers to shove that in their smug pieholes. Adding to the gloom, Colorado persists in fielding a football team and holds spring practice.
No. 2 MIAMI
Best case: Jim Larranaga firms up his Hall of Fame credentials with a second storybook season. First, he took George Mason to the 2006 Final Four as a No. 11 seed. Now he takes Miami, with its scant basketball history, to the national championship. Hurricanes ride the brilliant, confident backcourt of Shane Larkin and Durand Scott, plus the timely shooting of big man Kenny Kadji. Role players all do their parts, as Miami easily wins two games in Austin and then dispatches Cinderella Bucknell in the Sweet 16 in Washington, D.C. That sets up an epic clash with Indiana in the regional final, and the 'Canes prevail on a Larkin 3 late. The jovial, gentlemanly Larranaga becomes the talk of the tourney again, inundated with questions about reviving Miami and the sudden arrival of a Spanish-language tilde above the "n" in Larranaga. He handles it all deftly and still has his team ready to play in Atlanta, beating Georgetown in the semifinals and Louisville in the final. Against all odds, Miami is a basketball school, as bewildered Miami media struggles to grasp this development. Everyone associated with the school is overjoyed – with the exception of Nevin Shapiro.
Worst case: Pre-tourney hype obscures the fact that Miami had two ghastly losses late, one at Wake Forest and one at home to Georgia Tech. Any team that can lose to those two can lose in the Big Dance, and the Hurricanes do that in the second round against Illinois. Occasional struggles to score reappear, and Miami still is getting very little from center Reggie Johnson. 'Canes squeezed out what was left in the orange to win the ACC title, and just don't have enough left mentally and physically for a long stay in Bracketville. Miami is forced to go back to being a mediocre football school, while Shapiro fires off emails from jail.
No. 15 PACIFIC
Best case: Jim Larranaga isn't the only classy old coach in this matchup. Bob Thomason, completing his 25th season at Pacific, brings a pretty good team into the Dance. Tigers squad that beat St. Mary's and Xavier early on a neutral court and has won seven straight late is ready for an overconfident Miami. Deft 3-point shooting team hits enough of them to extend the game into the final minutes before submitting. Pacific makes its mark, giving fans something to talk about other than whatever happened to Michael Olowokandi.
Worst case: There isn't much to talk about here after all. Laissez-faire defensive team that guards too little and fouls too much is beaten to the basket repeatedly off the dribble by Durand Scott and Shane Larkin. Thomason wishes Olowokandi were still in the lineup and not consigned to the dust bin of history as Pacific is eliminated with haste and prejudice by the focused Hurricanes.
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