And here we go.
Each of the 68 lines on sports' greatest geometric structure is filled with a team that earned its way into March Madness, either through a season's worth of resume-building or a hot streak during its conference tournament.
No matter the avenue taken, there is no short cut, no road less traveled at this time of year. A national championship and One Shining Moment is right in front of each team, each with an equal opportunity (even if a disproportionate chance) to win it all.
Earning a spot the field can be a subjective exercise, but once you are here, lace 'em up and get after it. And as each team prepares to do just that with the first games starting Tuesday at the First Four in Dayton, From the End of the Bench provides some snap judgments on each region, outlining several contenders and pretenders, and assessing the selection committee's overall performance on seeding, balance and at-large selections.
Toughest Path for Top Seed
Syracuse. Yes, conventional wisdom, and Sunday night's Twitter chatter, aimed all difficulty at Kentucky's South Region, and perhaps from top to bottom that holds true. Yet, the Wildcats should have no problem with undersized Iowa State or underperforming UConn before using their own interior depth to trounce Wichita State or Indiana, which is playing the rest of the way without Verdell Jones (ACL tear). That leaves a regional semifinal with hot-and-cold Baylor or second-seeded Duke, the latter of the matador (by Duke standards) perimeter defense and Plumlees in the paint.
The Orange, on the other hand, could draw Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16 and either Florida State or Ohio State in the regional final. The Commodores and Seminoles each have significant tournament experience and are entering the madness on a high note (Vanderbilt beat Kentucky to win the SEC Tournament and Florida State knocked off UNC to take home the ACC title). The Commodores are particularly dangerous against the Syracuse match-up with zone-busters John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor.
Most Under-seeded Team
Memphis. The Conference USA regular-season and tournament titleholders finished with a Top-20 RPI (16) and Strength of Schedule (20), five Top-50 wins and countless close calls (losses to Louisville, Georgetown and Murray State by a combined 15 points). The Tigers have lost just once since early February, consequently playing their best basketball of the season. The committee did them no favors with an eighth seed in Columbus, though the second-round matchup is statistically a strong one against Saint Louis. According to KenPom.com, the Tigers have the 11th best chance to win the national championship. You normally don't say that about a team in an 8-9 contest.
Most Over-seeded Team
Indiana. The Hoosiers' seeding came off their work back in November and December, which included handing Kentucky its only loss of the regular season. Indiana is just 12-7 in 2012, including losses at Nebraska and Iowa. Now, the Hoosiers have to play out the stretch without the aforementioned Jones, a solid contributor at 7.5 points per contest. Hard to imagine a scenario where Indiana escapes the Portland sub-region and advances to face Kentucky in Atlanta.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee did a fairly admirable job in both selection and seeding with no glaring seeding issues or outlandish inclusions. The committee rewarded Iona for its non-league scheduling that included an away stretch against Canisius, Niagara, Denver, Marshall, Richmond, Vermont, William & Mary and Hofstra. The Gaels also faced Purdue, Maryland and Saint Joseph's during November and didn't have a home game between November 29 and January 2.
In the same respect, the committee punished Drexel for the 222nd-ranked non- league schedule. Also, the Dragons didn't get enough brownie points for winning the CAA in a down year for the league, and the same held true for Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington, which finished 14-4 in the league but didn't have a single Top-50 victory.
The lone misstep may have been BYU's addition, and in turn, Marshall's omission. The Cougars had middling computer numbers (RPI 46; SOS 101) and mustered just one Top-50 win (a 10-point home win over Gonzaga). The Cougars didn't challenge themselves in November and December with Baylor the only notable name on the schedule. Marshall, on the other hand, had better computer numbers (RPI 9; SOS 23), the ninth-best non-league schedule and four Top-50 wins. The committee rewarded Iona for its difficult scheduling, yet turned a blind eye to Marshall's arduous early-season slate that included a VICTORY over Iona.
Cinderella at First Glance
Each and every year, bracketologists around the country study long hours in search of the perfect Cinderella candidate. We will put our glass slippers on the line in the full tournament preview this Wednesday, but in the meantime, here are a few teams to consider. South Dakota State: Not just a cool mascot, the Jackrabbits can score, putting up 86 points against Buffalo and 92 in a win at Washington. You will get to know Nate Wolters over the next several days, as the 6-foot-4 guard leads the team in scoring (21.3), rebounding (5.2) and assists (6.0) per game.
Montana: The Grizzlies downed Long Beach State back in late November and roughed up a very good Weber State team twice, including the 19-point thumping that earned the automatic bid. Montana can defend, finishing 42nd nationally in defense efficiency according to KenPom.com, a very high number for a 13- seed.
Belmont: Numbers guys like myself love the Bruins every year because they value possessions. The Atlantic Sun champions finished 12th in offensive efficiency this season and held their own on the scoreboard as well, beating Marshall and Middle Tennessee. Teams that aren't overwhelmed by their surroundings often stand a better chance at pulling an upset, and the Bruins won't be awestruck by the NCAAs. For one, they have been here before, and they stool tall early this season at Cameron Indoor Stadium, losing to Duke by just one.