Here we go again with my annual bold predictions about the NCAA tournament.
Without further ado ...
1. Kentucky will win the national championship. I know, I know. Not much of a "bold prediction." Well, you don't know the numbers (courtesy of the good folks at ESPN Stats & Info). Since the SEC tournament was reintroduced in 1979, Kentucky has not gone undefeated in conference play, won the SEC tournament title and secured the national championship in the same season. Also, the 11 teams that entered the Big Dance as a No. 1 seed after going undefeated in conference play and winning their conference tournaments failed to win the national title that year. In the past 30 years, five teams have entered the NCAA tourney riding winning streaks of 25 games or more. All five failed to win the national title. Only three teams have won a national title a year after losing in the title game. Kentucky is definitely the best team in America. I don't think the Wildcats will lose. But you should know that history does not favor its quest.
2. Gonzaga will face Kentucky in the national title game. The one thing hanging over Mark Few's head is the fact that he hasn't led Gonzaga to the Final Four. Yet. But that will change this year when the Zags beat No. 1 seed Duke in the Elite Eight and advance to Indianapolis for the first time in program history. Domantas Sabonis continues to evolve and Kyle Wiltjer will be a matchup challenge for the Blue Devils and the rest of the South Region. This is also the toughest defensive crew Few has had in Spokane. That's why the Bulldogs will be in the Final Four.
3. Wichita State will beat Kansas, proving it's the king of the Sunflower State. The selection committee claims the final arrangement of the bracket disregards rematches, rivalries and TV-friendly matchups. Maybe, but the selection committee has positioned Wichita State and Kansas to face one another in what would be a must-see round of 32 matchup. The Shockers have been unsuccessful in their attempts to arrange a perennial series with the Jayhawks. But they'll get the game they've desired for years in Omaha, Nebraska. And the Shockers will beat the Jayhawks to advance to the Sweet 16 and snatch all in-state bragging rights.
4. Wisconsin will win the Elite Eight rematch over Arizona. Last season, Wisconsin and Arizona staged one of the most competitive matchups in the NCAA tournament. The Badgers beat the Wildcats in a game that included a controversial foul call against Nick Johnson. The two will meet again in the Elite Eight. This time in Los Angeles. And it will be one of the best games in the entire NCAA tournament again. But Frank Kaminsky & Co. will squeeze out another victory and a second consecutive trip to the Final Four.
5. Georgia State will defeat Baylor in the round of 64. Scott Drew has overachieved in many ways this season. The Bears are still a strong team after losing some talented players from last season. But R.J. Hunter, a legitimate pro prospect, will be the best player on the floor when Baylor faces Georgia State in the round of 64. Kevin Ware is a veteran with NCAA tournament experience. And a healthy Ryan Harrow is a dangerous Ryan Harrow. Coach Ron Hunter, who hurt himself during his team's Sun Belt tourney title celebration, will score a major upset.
6. Notre Dame will push Kentucky to the brink. The Fighting Irish won the ACC tournament title, so they're clearly capable of a run. Standing in their way, however, is a Kentucky team that has it all. But Notre Dame won't back down when the two teams meet in the Elite Eight. Notre Dame will lose this game but only after a thrilling encounter that won't be decided until the final 30 seconds. For the first time in the Big Dance, the Wildcats will not look invincible.
7. BYU will go from play-in game to Sweet 16. Dave Rose's program will beat Ole Miss in Dayton to advance to a matchup against Xavier that the Cougars also will win after another stunning performance by Tyler Haws. Then, they'll outplay Cinderella Georgia State in the round of 32 to advance to the Sweet 16. Sorry, BYU fans. The Cougars are not getting past Arizona.
8. Eastern Washington will upset Georgetown in the round of 64. Why stop there with the upsets? Get ready for another one between the 13-seeded Eagles and the No. 4 seed Hoyas. Tyler Harvey, the nation's leading scorer, dropped 25 points in EWU's win at Indiana in November. He'll shine again in another win over a high-major opponent.
9. The Big 12 will not have any teams in the Elite Eight. The Big 12 sent 70 percent of its league to the NCAA tournament after earning seven bids. That's remarkable. But the league's tourney teams are all stuck in challenging slots. Kansas probably will have to get through Wichita State to advance to the Sweet 16. Iowa State is hot, but will the Cyclones outplay Gonzaga to reach the Elite Eight? Oklahoma might face a dangerous Providence team in the round of 32. Maryland and Kentucky stand between West Virginia and the late stages of the NCAA tourney. The Big 12 is the best league in America, pound for pound. It was certainly the most entertaining and competitive league this season. And the conference's collective finish in the Big Dance won't diminish that. But the NCAA tournament is all about matchups. And the Big 12's best are all involved in difficult scenarios.
10. The Fighting Bobby Hurleys will advance. Earlier this season, Buffalo led Kentucky at halftime and played tough in a loss at Wisconsin. The Bulls finished strong in the MAC (they've won eight in a row), and they won't be intimidated in their round of 64 matchup against West Virginia after battling a pair of No. 1 seeds during the nonconference season. They've committed turnovers on just 16.4 percent of their possessions (No. 35 in the country, per kenpom.com). West Virginia will come at coach Bobby Hurley's crew like a wrecking ball, but this team has the poise, experience and momentum to maintain its composure and upset the Mountaineers.