No. 1 SEED LOUISVILLE
Best case: As Kentucky fans sullenly withdraw into their homes and draw the blinds, giddy Louisville backers descend upon Lexington to see the Cardinals launch their NCAA run in Rupp Arena. They watch a team playing like the great ones Rick Pitino used to coach in that building: deep, relentless and capable of routing good teams. Which Louisville does, demolishing Colorado State in the round of 32. Pitino continues his career unbeaten streak in Sweet 16 games by throttling Saint Louis, then wins a Lucas Oil Stadium revenge game against Michigan State, which upset the overall No. 1 seeded Cardinals in the same building four years ago. Rolling into Atlanta for the Final Four, Louisville handles Ohio State in the semifinals and Pitino is voted into the Hall of Fame on the day of the national title game. That night, Louisville beats Indiana in the final as Peyton Siva and Russ Smith blow by Jordan Hulls and "Yogi" Ferrell all night long. Pitino becomes the first coach to win national titles at two different schools. Center Gorgui Dieng decides that was so much fun he returns for his senior year. Just as Kentucky fans are getting over the devastation of a year gone badly wrong, a Pitino-owned thoroughbred wins the Kentucky Derby. [The NCAA tournament is almost here, fill out your bracket now!]
Worst case: Siva commits his second foul 90 seconds into the round-of-32 game against Colorado State, slapping a dribbler 80 feet from the basket, just because he can. He charges twice in the first two minutes of the second half and then fouls out, scoreless, with eight minutes remaining. Smith goes haywire in his absence, forcing one kamikaze drive after another into the Rams' stout interior defense, shooting 5-for-20 for the game. Still, the Cardinals have a chance to win late when Smith fires a pass to wide open Chane Behanan beneath the basket. He fumbles it out of bounds and Louisville is stunned in Rupp Arena. Impromptu Big Blue street party erupts a few blocks away on Kentucky's campus. Entire starting five goes pro. Pitino, snubbed for the Hall of Fame, abruptly retires. John Calipari lands every remaining unsigned McDonald's All-American.
NO. 16 NORTH CAROLINA A&T
Best case: Riding a high after the first NCAA tourney win in school history Tuesday night, the Aggies bus from Dayton to Lexington feeling good about their chances to hang around against overall No. 1 seed Louisville. A&T shows poise and grit against the Cardinals' full-court pressure, and beats the press for two layups and an Adrian Powell dunk. Then they have the second TV timeout. After that it's all Louisville, stampeding to a 20-point victory. But the Aggies were in it for eight minutes at least, and nobody can take that away.
Worst case: Aggies aren't even in it for eight minutes. Louisville waylays them with relentless pressure from the opening tip, Russ Smith and Peyton Sive slapping at everything, and the turnovers come in bunches. Louisville is dunking in transition, and red-stepped Rupp Arena is roaring. This isn't Dayton anymore, and that's not Liberty. Louisville wins by 35, and America quickly forgets the Aggies were part of the Big Dance.
No. 8 COLORADO STATE
Best case: Hammering the glass and controlling tempo, Larry Eustachy's underrated Rams frustrate go-go point guards Phil Pressey of Missouri and Peyton Siva of Louisville in consecutive Rupp Arena triumphs. Unexpectedly in the Sweet 16, they don't stop there, upsetting Saint Louis behind a huge game from Colton Iverson to become the first Mountain West Conference member to reach a regional final (UNLV was in the Big West during its glory years under Jerry Tarkanian). CSU finally bows out there against Duke, but it marks the greatest run in program history. New Belgium Brewing Co. introduces a Mighty Ram Porter in honor of the run. Eustachy signs a 10-year deal that includes a lifetime supply of Diet Coke to keep beside him on the bench during games. Meanwhile, Colorado loses in the first round and Tad Boyle leaves Boulder for another job.
Worst case: At an athletic deficit against Missouri, Colorado State is run off the floor in its first game of the tourney by a Tigers team that finally taps its potential and doesn't self-destruct late in the game. Eustachy, excessively caffeinated, reprises his famed 2000 NCAA tournament meltdown against Michigan State and is ejected late in the game. Rams finish the year 0-6 against NCAA tourney teams away from Fort Collins, returning home to poor spring skiing conditions and no new microbrews. Meanwhile, Colorado makes a deep run and Boyle signs a 10-year deal.
No. 9 MISSOURI
Best case: Phil Pressey is at his galvanizing, charismatic best: passing brilliantly, driving fearlessly, shooting prudently. Alex Oriakhi shows up and locks in his effort and focus. Laurence Bowers scores from all over. Jabari Brown makes key 3s. The Tigers easily sprint past Colorado State, then shock Louisville. In the Sweet 16 they win an in-state battle with Saint Louis and upset Duke to reach the first Final Four in school history. Mike Slive cries tears of joy, relieved that someone salvaged the SEC basketball season. The beleaguered NCAA drops charges against Frank Haith, who is rewarded with a long-term contract. Meanwhile, Kansas is beaten in the round of 32 by North Carolina.
Worst case: With the game on the line against Colorado State, Pressey throws a chest pass out of bounds and a lob pass into the upper deck for turnovers. Then he shoots three airballs from successively deeper range. Oriakhi takes another in-game sabbatical. Bowers and Brown make nothing against vigilant Rams defense. Haith looks on, befuddled but resigned, as if he's lived this nightmare before – he has. For the third straight season, Mizzou is one-and-done in the tourney. Meanwhile, Kansas wins it all again and the NCAA charges stick to Haith.
No. 5 OKLAHOMA STATE
Best case: Freshman guard Marcus Smart plays like the top talent in the tourney, doing a little of everything in leading the athletic Cowboys past Oregon and Saint Louis. In Indianapolis, Travis Ford one-ups his former coach, Rick Pitino, handing the mentor his first-ever Sweet 16 defeat. Back in his home state, grateful Kentucky fans suggest putting Ford's jersey in the rafters at Rupp Arena. Not stopping there, Oklahoma State advances to the Final Four by beating Duke on a Phil Forte 3-pointer at the buzzer. Oklahoma is dispatched in its first game, and the Cowboys' collection of young talent unexpectedly decides to stay in school. [Related: NCAA tournament favorites, bracket wreckers, frauds and more]
Worst case: Matched up with a badly under-seeded Oregon team, the young Cowboys are bounced in their first game. A sketchy 3-point shooting team launches too many of them and makes too few. Late-game offensive execution is a debacle, and fans go back to grumbling about Ford being a great recruiter and a bad game coach. The grumbling intensifies as Oklahoma makes an improbable Final Four run.
No. 12 OREGON
Best case: Playing with the fury and purpose of a disrespected 12 seed, the Ducks lock up Oklahoma State in the opener and Saint Louis in the round of 32. Freshman guard Damyean Dotson continues his breakout Pac-12 tournament performance, filling it up from the outside as part of a balanced Oregon attack. Chronically underappreciated coach Dana Altman outflanks Travis Ford and Jim Crews along the way. Phil Knight is so tickled, he orders new Sweet 16 uniforms that actually light up every time Oregon scores. Ducks lose in Indy to Louisville, but they look marvelous.
Worst case: Turns out the disrespect of the selection committee was justified. Oregon team that lost to Utah and UTEP is plenty capable of losing to Oklahoma State, too – and does. Ducks get lit up from the 3-point line, turn the ball over too much and are easily dispatched. Rest of the Pac-12 goes home early, too. Altman remains underappreciated, largely because he's just 3-8 in the NCAA tourney. Knight doesn't lift a finger for new basketball uniforms, goes back to designing football gear.
No. 4 SAINT LOUIS
Best case: The tourney's best story keeps getting better as the Billikens, playing to honor late coach Rick Majerus, advance to their first Final Four. Interim coach Jim Crews, once fired at DI bottom feeder Army, becomes the face of Madness. Undersized power forward Dwayne Evans continues his phenomenal two-month tear, grabbing rebounds and scoring inside and getting to the foul line. Team that has won 15 of its last 16, allowing more than 62 points just three times in that span, locks up New Mexico State and Oregon before shocking Louisville and Duke to reach Atlanta. Once there, Billikens bust Ohio State before finally falling to Indiana in the title game. Along the way everyone learns what a Billiken is, and we hear a lot of great Majerus stories.
Worst case: Burdened with the pressure of being touted everywhere as the hot team coming into the tournament, the Billikens collapse in their first game against New Mexico State. Team not blessed with an overabundance of athleticism struggles to contain the Aggies, and cannot make enough shots. Saint Louis isn't around long enough for anyone to find out what a Billiken is.
No. 13 NEW MEXICO STATE
Best case: America gets a load of coach Marvin Menzies' foreign legion, a squad that includes four Canadians, a Croat, a South African and a Frenchman. The primary novelty act: Canadian Sim Bhullar, at 7-foot-5 and 355 pounds is the biggest man in the Big Dance. Using their overall size, the Aggies upset media darling Saint Louis in the round of 64 and then take out Oregon to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1992. Meanwhile, New Mexico busts against Harvard in its first game, and the Aggies unexpectedly own the Land of Enchantment.
Worst case: Upsets in the league tournament paved an easy path for New Mexico State to reach the NCAAs, and the Aggies are immediately exposed by the disciplined, tough Billikens. A team that commits too many turnovers and shoots poorly from both the foul line and the 3-point arc is no match for one of the hottest teams in the country. After being quickly dispatched, the Aggies must sit back and watch New Mexico double down on ownership of the state by making a Final Four run. Menzies then loses half his foreign legion to the pros – in this country and elsewhere.
No. 6 MEMPHIS
Best case: Point guard Joe Jackson continues to mature and improve, leading the athletic and scrappy Tigers into the Elite Eight. Jackson gets the better of Keith Appling in a round-of-32 upset of Michigan State, and young coach Josh Pastner puts the first big skin on his wall by beating Tom Izzo. Memphis gets a break by catching Creighton in the Sweet 16, proving too quick for the Bluejays to contain. The Tigers top out in a close rematch loss to Louisville in the regional final, but at last everyone is convinced that the program is going to be fine under Pastner and in the aftermath of John Calipari.
Worst case: The program is not fine under Pastern and in the aftermath of Calipari. Softened up by a dismal Conference USA, Memphis isn't ready for the challenge of guarding St. Mary's Matthew Dellavedova and is knocked out for the third straight season in the round of 64. A team that only played four NCAA tourney opponents all season – and lost to three of them – finds out that life is nasty, brutish and short outside the Tulsa-Marshall-Rice-SMU comfort zone. Jackson and his teammates backslide into shaky ball handling and questionable shot selection. Pastner looks powerless on the sideline. Dejected fans curse Mario Chalmers all over again.
No. 11 ST. MARY'S
Best case: Committee gave the Gaels an inch by squeaking them into the field, and they take a mile by winning two games. After handily beating Middle Tennessee State, the Gaels take their skilled passing and shooting squad to Auburn Hills for a meeting with Memphis. Crafty creator and drop-dead shooter Matthew Dellavedova makes the Tigers pay for undisciplined defense as the Gaels advance to the Sweet 16. Omar Samhan flashbacks abound. Run ends with a loss to Michigan State, but St. Mary's further establishes itself as a program that's on the national radar to stay – as long as Randy Bennett can follow the rules when recruiting foreign players.
Worst case: Memphis is too athletic for the Gaels, jumping over and running past them in an easy victory. Tigers swarm Dellavedova to force the ball out of his hands and not enough teammates step up. Mitchell Young misses eight layups. West Coast Conference again is labeled Gonzaga and a bunch of non-factors. Bennett has to pay the piper next year for NCAA recruiting sins, and the foreign player pool dries up while the Gaels are forced to follow the rules.
No. 3 MICHIGAN STATE
Best case: Tom Izzo does it again, getting his team to play its best basketball at precisely the right time for a run to Atlanta. With Adreian Payne blowing up into a star, Gary Harris hitting shots and Keith Appling making winning plays at point guard, the Spartans breeze past Valparaiso and Memphis to Indianapolis. Once there, Michigan State muscles out Duke and repeats history with a Lucas Oil upset of top-seeded Louisville to reach a Big Ten-centric Final Four. Given a fourth game against Ohio State, the Spartans even the season series at two each and then beat Indiana in the title game on a Derrick Nix layup as Cody Zeller flops trying to take a charge. Meanwhile, Michigan flames out against South Dakota State and all pertinent Wolverines go pro.
Worst case: Izzo doesn't do it again, being upset in the round of 32 by a Memphis team that won't back down against the Spartans' muscle. Appling loses his head late, making several critical errors. Payne forgets how talented he is and resumes passivity. Harris plays like a freshman. Nix whacks a Memphis player in the jewels. Michigan wins the national title in a Big Ten-centric Final Four that doesn't include the Spartans. Harris, Branden Dawson, Appling and Payne all go pro. Izzo contemplates retiring to the Upper Peninsula to chop wood and build stuff by hand.
No. 14 VALPARAISO
Best case: Ryan Broekhoff hits another spectacular buzzer-beater while heavily guarded, and Bryce Drew falls flat on his back again. But this time it only forces overtime against Michigan State, and doesn't win the game the way it did in the Horizon League semifinals. Valpo falters in the extra session, but pushing the Spartans into OT represents the Crusaders' best NCAA showing since reaching the Sweet 16 in 1998. Season solidifies Bryce Drew as worthy heir to the Homer-Scott-Homer again Drew coaching lineage at Valpo.
Worst case: First game against Michigan State resembles the 2000 NCAA meeting with the Spartans – a beatdown. Little point guard Erik Buggs is forced into a flurry of turnovers, post man Kevin Van Wijk is neutralized by the Spartans' size, and the game is never close enough for Broekhoff to make a shot that matters. Valpo team that wouldn't have been an NCAA entry if Butler hadn't left the Horizon League is outmanned.
No. 7 CREIGHTON
Best case: America's best jump-shooting team catches fire and stays hot for three games, rolling all the way to the regional final – the furthest the Bluejays have ever been in the NCAAs. Team McDermott does everything right – dad Greg from the sidelines, son Doug from inside, outside and all over the court. Creighton rains 3s on Cincinnati in the first game, then does it again in a round-of-32 upset of a Duke team lulled into a defense-optional shootout. Bluejays catch a break in the Sweet 16, facing a Memphis team that upset Michigan State, and takes out the Tigers as well. Run finally ends against Louisville in the regional final, but Doug McDermott declares afterward that he's coming back for his senior year because he wants to play in the new Big East. [The Dagger NCAA tournament previews: East | Midwest | South | West]
Worst case: Creighton's defense has gotten better, but still isn't good enough to deter Cincinnati in a first-game upset. The Bluejays block little and steal even less, and the Bearcats get to the rim effectively and often. Doug McDermott goes 6-for-21 from the field and gets screamed at by his dad. None of the other Creighton shooters step up to fill the void. McDermott goes pro, Big East invitation falls through, Nebraska spring football returns to front and center of state media attention.
No. 10 CINCINNATI
Best case: For the third straight year, Mick Cronin leads the Bearcats to an NCAA first-round victory. For the second straight year, he then leads them to a round-of-32 upset win – this time shocking Duke to reach the Sweet 16 behind five 3-pointers from mercurial point guard Cashmere Wright. Cincy then faces Memphis in a bracket-collapse/C-USA flashback/Great America 12 preview game and prevails on a blocked shot by 7-foot-1 David Nyarsuk. The madness stops with a regional final loss to Louisville, but Cincinnati fans are ecstatic – especially since Xavier fans with nothing to do are forced to watch from home.
Worst case: Cincinnati takes a 10-point lead into the final five minutes against Creighton – then misses everything: free throws, 3-pointers, shots in the paint. Cronin keeps calling timeouts and diagramming plays that all end the same way – clank. Bearcats come from ahead to lose in brutal fashion, and Cheikh Mbodj kicks a Creighton player in the final seconds. Xavier fans gleefully point out that Cincy won exactly as many NCAA games this year as the Musketeers did. Feeling unappreciated, Cronin stuns everyone by bolting from his hometown for another job.
No. 2 DUKE
Best case: After a brief ACC tourney hiatus, Ryan Kelly resumes his Dirk Nowitzki imitation and shoots the Blue Devils into the Sweet 16. From there, Mason Plumlee shows his home state what it's been missing with a powerful performance against Michigan State, and then Seth Curry steals the show in the regional final by gunning down Louisville. Jay Bilas sends Pervis Ellison a text reading, "all square." Mike Krzyzewski goes to a 12th Final Four, tying John Wooden for the most all time. Once there, Duke beats Ohio State for the second time this season and topples Indiana to win the national title as Victor Oladipo fouls out on controversial charging call while driving for the tying basket. Bob Knight sits behind Duke bench in a blue sweater for the title game. Krzyzewski says he loves his kids. He also loves the fact that North Carolina gets blown out by Villanova in the round of 64.
Worst case: That Kelly/Nowitzki thing? Yeah, that's over. Kelly follows up his mundane ACC tournament performance with another forgettable showing in a round-of-32 game against Creighton. With his shot off, Bluejays are free to swarm Plumlee in the paint and Curry on the perimeter, and Duke struggles to score. Blue Devils try flopping in front of Doug McDermott every time he puts the ball on the deck or posts up, but get no calls. Creighton scores the upset and Duke fails to live up to its NCAA seeding for the seventh time in the last eight years. After the game the Duke bus is delayed leaving the arena by celebrating Creighton fans, and Kryzewski wants to know where the (expletive) arena security is when he needs it. Somewhere, Virginia AD Craig Littlepage smirks. And in Kansas City, North Carolina launches an improbable Final Four run.
No. 15 ALBANY
Best case: After winning three America East tournament games by a total of seven points, karma keeps kissing the Great Danes on the lips. They get a fan-friendly NCAA location (Philadelphia), and an early tip-off that catches sometimes-slow-starting Duke sleeping. Albany jumps out to a 22-13 lead, forcing a Krzyzewski timeout. The fans erupt, the band plays the fight song, and someone takes a picture of the scoreboard to record the moment for posterity. After that Duke rolls, but Albany can always talk about the day it made Coach K call timeout.
Worst case: Karma did its job getting Albany this far and has moved on to help someone else. A team that finished fifth in the America East isn't quite ready to contend with the skill and athleticism of the Blue Devils, who are wide awake and ready to play at the 12:15 tip-off time. Will Brown, not Krzyzewski, is the one calling the timeouts here as Duke rolls to an easy victory.
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