Well, the seeds are set and the matchups have been all lined up. All around the country, people are filling in their brackets with an eye on which team is going to be the last one standing at the end. Picking which team is going to win each game is certainly a challenge, but trying to predict which individual player is going to have that breakout performance and burst onto the national stage? That's a far greater challenge. But fear not, for those of you who may not follow the college basketball game until March comes around, I'm here to give you a helping hand by giving you my selections for the first week of the tournament.
In Hardcourt Challenge, you are asked to select one player from each of the predetermined buckets. Our goal is to pick the player who will end up with the most combined points, rebounds and assists for the first week of the tournament. Right now, we don't have to look any further than that, because we'll have a chance to refresh our roster once we're down to 16 teams at the end of Sunday's games.
The way I see it, there are two ways to go with your selections.
One is to go with as many players as you can from the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. After all, there's really no reason to believe these players won't be playing in two games, as no 16-seed has ever won, and there have been very few 15-seed upsets historically. The only potential downside to this plan is that these teams may have such an easy time in their first-round games that their top players might not play much in the second half, cutting into their production.
On the other hand, identifying that sensational upset story, like Stephen Curry and Davidson last year, may well win earn you the most points of all. Curry, Tyrone Brazelton of Western Kentucky and Jamont Gordon of Mississippi State all had more points than some of the more household names, like Memphis' Derrick Rose and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, in last year's first week of play. However, they were all risky picks. By using this same approach, you just as easily could've gone with first-rounder losers like Adam Emmenecker of Drake or Taj McCullough of Winthrop.
It's a fine line to walk, but the general rule of thumb should be to go with the guys who you think will win in Round 1, and then let the chips fall where they may. With that said, let's look at our picks from each bucket for this week:
UConn's Hasheem Thabeet would be my pick if we were incorporating blocks into the mix, but since we're not, I'll pass for this round. However, I really like Ben Woodside of North Dakota State here. First of all, I'm picking the upset over Kansas, so I do think he'll play two games. Plus, he's the only player in the top 10 in scoring to make the tournament and he passes well, too. I also like Gary Wilkinson of Utah State and Jarvis Varnado of Mississippi State as possible sleepers, but in the end I'm going with the top Bison, Woodside.
Here, I'm taking Jonny Flynn. He's in the top 10 in assists on one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country, which he contributed greatly to this season. Plus, there's the possibility of a second-round matchup with Arizona State, which should be a high-scoring up-tempo affair. Of course, you can't go wrong selecting Blake Griffin, but I think so many people will make that pick that I'm hoping Flynn does just a little bit better and rewards me for my going a bit "off the board." DeJuan Blair is also a solid pick, but I'm not sure how much playing time he'll get in the opener. My deep sleeper is Josh Heytvelt of Gonzaga.
This was a tough call for me between A.J. Price of UConn and DeMar DeRozan of USC. In the end, it comes down to the fact I'm more confident in the Huskies playing two games than the Trojans, though I do like USC to beat Boston College. I don't love a lot else in this bucket, though if I had to pick another player, it would likely be Devin Ebanks of West Virginia.
I really like Eric Devendorf of Syracuse here, for many of the same reasons I liked Flynn earlier. However, I'm hesitant to put too many eggs in one basket, so I'll go with Levance Fields, one of the best dishers in the nation. Obi Muonelo of Oklahoma State would have more appeal to me if the Cowboys weren't playing Tennessee in the first round. My other sleeper choice would be Semaj Inge of Temple.
Ronald Moore of Siena is my pick here. The Saints are sorely underseeded and I'm not sure they won't be the team to make the biggest splash in this year's tourney. Because I think Missouri has an easy time with Cornell, I'd go with Matt Lawrence as my second choice here. Again, he's not the best player on the Tigers, but he does play and possibly will get some extra minutes in Game 1, along with his usual output in Game 2. Ali Farokhmanesh of Northern Iowa and Luka Drca of Utah are also decent selections, depending on how far you have their respective teams going.
While Deon Thompson of UNC is a solid pick, there's something that's scaring me about selecting a Tar Heel. Call it bad mojo if you like, but I'm going with Garrett Temple of LSU instead, though both players could well be on the same court at the same time in Round 2. Andy Rautins is a stellar pick from this bucket, but again, I'm avoiding the Orange double-dip here. Justin Mason of Texas is also a solid pick here.
Travis Walton of Michigan State is my pick here, again going with the theory that the role players on a top seed will end up with more production in two games than any standout performer on a one-and-done squad. Having said that, there are some lesser known players in this bucket with lots of appeal and upside, like Lucas O'Rear of Northern Iowa and Ty Patterson of Chattanooga.
This one is entirely a hunch, but I'm rolling with Kyle Coston of Portland State against Xavier. There's always one 3-point shooter who goes nuts in the first set of games, and I'm just rolling the dice that it will be Coston. Corey Stokes will probably end up making me regret this pick, or perhaps it will be Duke's Brian Zoubek, or one of the Syracuse boys in this bucket.
Well, those are my picks for this first week. It's my first time at this rodeo, so I'll surely take a few lumps along the way as I learn the proverbial ropes. However, all things considered, I think I'll be in the mix when next week rolls around and I'm asked to make new picks from the freshly thinned herd. Good luck to one and all, and most importantly, have fun with it! March, it comes but once a year.
A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.