March Madness is tough to predict

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NEW YORK — College basketball fans with fond memories of the wild 2011 NCAA tournament might have forgotten this fact: A mostly tranquil regular season led up to it, with the four top seeds combining for just 13 losses.

In 2007, by contrast, the No. 1 seeds had 18 defeats among them. Then the tournament started, and the familiar upsets of March were almost nowhere to be found.

A chaotic season can turn into a tame tournament for many reasons.

Matchups are always part of the mystery. Some years, the top seeds find themselves up against a string of opponents they stack up favorably against. In other seasons, they run into a team in an early round whose strengths seem perfectly targeted for whatever their weakness.

College basketball analyst Clark Kellogg sounded another note of caution about why the regular season instability might not be a predictor of true March Madness: Tournament games are on neutral courts.

“Much of the tumult you see during the regular season happens in conference play on the home court of the underdog,” he said.

Still, Kellogg is expecting a topsy-turvy tournament, evidenced by his struggle in picking the Final Four. He suggests that two of the top teams will make it to Atlanta, joined by a school from a power conference that had an unremarkable regular season, with perhaps a George
Mason-esque squad to round out the field.

He bases that as much on the muddle in the middle of the brackets as on the vulnerabilities of the highest-ranked teams. He thinks the selection committee will struggle to differentiate programs for the fifth through 14th seeds.

“Because of that, you’re going to have some matchups that will create high drama,” he said. “And teams that come out of 8-9 games against certain 1s may be better positioned to move on.”

With most conference tourneys yet to start, the four No. 1 seeds will total at least 16 losses when the NCAA tournament opens next week. The contenders for those spots certainly seem beatable, but perhaps they will roll through the tourney. Maybe Indiana will dominate once it escapes the brutal Big Ten. Maybe Duke is a powerhouse again with Ryan Kelly healthy. Maybe Gonzaga really is as good as its record despite playing outside a power conference.

For all the talk about the opportunity for teams from outside the power conferences to make a run this year, many of the
schools being mentioned for top seeds are established winners: Duke, Indiana, Georgetown, Louisville, Kansas.

And while the executives at CBS and Turner who televise the tournament love those buzzer-beaters that spring major upsets, they wouldn’t mind a few big names hanging around, too.

“Brands do matter,” Turner Sports chief David Levy said. “It always good to have powerhouse brands that are in the tournament and that get themselves deep into the tournament.”

The tournaments that inspire the most buzz seem to star both David and Goliath, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said. The 2010 Duke-Butler title game was the classic example of that.

“It’s a combination of the big national traditional powers,” McManus said, “and the Cinderella stories.”


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