So much for all of the No. 1 seeds making it to Indianapolis. I can only look back and laugh at my Selection Sunday predictions now. I learned long ago, that when it comes to tournament predictions, it's likely I'll be wrong most of the time. Then again, I've never had more fun being wrong on an annual basis.
I was, however, on the right track in thinking that something different was going to happen this year. Heck, in a season when the Big East and Missouri Valley both sent a record number of teams to the tournament, I felt there could be a change in store for this year's Final Four. If only I would have said, "for the first time since 1980, no No. 1 seeds will make it to the Final Four this year." Oh well, maybe next year I'll get it right.
OUT OF NOWHERE
The story of this year's tournament is the surprising run of the George Mason Patriots. This team has won impressively at each stop on the road to Indianapolis. It won convincingly over Michigan State and Wichita State. It came from 14 points down to beat North Carolina and took down Connecticut in overtime. In short, the Patriots are for real.
Playing with confidence, hunger and poise, the Patriots have proudly carried the banner of the Colonial Athletic Association. As a non-power conference school, they also symbolize the new era of compression and parity in college basketball. The talent gap between power conference and non-power conference schools has been closing for over a decade, and scholarship reductions and early departures of the most talented players are two obvious reasons.
I also think late bloomers and good players overlooked by power conference schools are filling rosters at some of the smaller programs. And in the one-and-done tournament format, the non-power schools that have good talent play without the weight of expectations and with a hunger that serves them well.
I again salute the selection committee for using its experience, eyes, heads and hearts to make tough and subjective decisions when it came to making the last few at-large tournament spots this year.
How a non-power conference team would do in a power conference, or looking at the history of a conference's success in the tournament is immaterial to selecting teams for the tournament. I think we'll see more non-power conference schools making strong tournament runs in the years ahead.
- Florida vs. George Mason – Saturday, 6:07 p.m. ET
Florida has been the tournament's most impressive team thus far, and George Mason is just slightly behind. Both teams defend well and have a varied menu of scorers on offense.
The Gators, however, have shown efficiency and execution at both ends of the floor and I think they are the most balanced team in the tournament. They can play fast or slow, can beat teams inside and out, are intelligent and unselfish on offense and defense and don't have any glaring flaws. If I were to choose a favorite based on what I've seen to this point in the tournament, Florida would be my choice. But to borrow a disclaimer from the mutual funds industry: "past performance is not a guarantor of future results."
George Mason's three-guard attack featuring Folarin Campbell, Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler has been free spirited and high octane. They get it done at both ends and can create with the dribble or drop jumpers from deep. And Jai Lewis and Will Thomas have handled their business down low.
I think the difference in this game could come down to the battle in the paint, and Florida's overall size and athleticism gives the Gators an advantage. Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Chris Richard and Adrian Moss are four athletic players at 6-foot-8 or taller that can challenge Thomas and Lewis inside. However, against a similar disadvantage up front versus UConn, Thomas and Lewis combined for 39 points and 19 rebounds. Can they do it again?
On the perimeter, the matchup looks even – unless the size of Florida's 6-foot-8 Corey Brewer on the wing can bother whoever he's matched up with. His size and wingspan could also pose problems if Florida decides to play zone. George Mason has shot 48 percent from the field and 26-of-62 from behind the arc in four tournament games, and the Patriots are good enough to beat Florida. But I think the size and speed of the Gators will force a lower field goal percentage for Mason, an advantage on the boards for Florida and, ultimately, a win for the Gators.
- LSU vs. UCLA – Saturday, 8:47 p.m. ET
These teams share a few similarities. Both are young (UCLA plays two seniors and LSU just one in its playing rotations). Both play outstanding defense and are comfortable in the halfcourt – grinding out games. And both play seven or eight players.
Looking at the guys on the court, Ryan Hollins has been terrific the last five weeks for the Bruins, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a glasseater at both ends who plays with poise that belies his freshman rank. And Alfred Abboya and Lorenzo Mata round out a solid UCLA frontline. But with Glen Davis, Tyrus Thomas, Tasmin Mitchell, Darnell Lazare and an improving Magnum Rolle, the Tigers' frontline has the edge in size, athleticism and skill.
This edge is something the Bruins will be hearing all week, and undoubtedly they will be highly motivated to win the battle of frontlines. Handling Davis and posting up Thomas in the paint will be a high priority.
But when it comes to the backcourt, I think the advantage tilts in UCLA's favor. Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo, Cedric Bozeman and Darren Collison make up a strong foursome. All can handle the ball, score and defend – though their offensive production has been subpar recently. And that is a concern because it will take better shot-making from one, if not all, of them to beat the Tigers.
Much like the UCLA frontcourt, the LSU backcourt is a little undervalued and underappreciated. Freshman point guard Garrett Temple is ever-improving as the team's quarterback and has shown his value as a versatile defender all season long. Darrel Mitchell, LSU's lone senior, is an excellent three-point shooter and makes big shots. Ben Voogd plays sparingly as a backup, but usually is solid.
Because I think both teams will do a good job defending, the outcome could hinge on easy scores (putbacks, free throws, points off turnovers) and the play of the marquee players. I give a slight edge to LSU because of Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas, barring foul trouble.