A first look at the 2013 NCAA tournament East Region:
Ten first impressions
1. You can take your No. 1 overall seed and well, you know. After Indiana dropped Michigan in Ann Arbor on March 10, it was generally assumed that the Hoosiers would be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. We probably spend too much time fretting about the No. 1 seeds, but in this case it felt right: If Indiana got the top spot in the bracket, it would be placed in the Indianapolis Regional, would play its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games 45 minutes north of Bloomington, Ind., and would thus have a genuine home-court advantage. Then Indiana lost to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semis and Louisville played one of the most impressive second halves in Big East tournament history en route to a championship. The Cardinals got the No. 1 overall seed, received geographic preference and got their own tidy home-court advantage -- albeit a little further up I-65.
And guess what? Indiana still got the better deal. For Louisville's accomplishments, the Cardinals were gifted with an utterly stacked region: Duke as a No. 2 seed, Michigan State as a No. 3, Saint Louis as a No. 4, Oklahoma State as a No. 5. Even No. 8 Colorado State is vastly underrated, and No. 9 Missouri is no joke, either. There are seven teams in the Midwest Region ranked in the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency top 20. Meanwhile, for the ostensible trouble of having to fly a couple of hours on a chartered jet to Washington, D.C., the nation's best offensive team got a No. 8/9 game featuring two teams (NC State, Temple) that haven't guarded anyone all season. Really, Syracuse is the only team in IU's side of the bracket that might strike fear, and Miami is the only team in the region on the level of either Duke or Michigan State.
Indiana fans travel in droves, and the Hoosiers have plenty of alumni in the D.C. area; they won't lack for moral support -- and they got a much easier regional. Who needs the No. 1 overall seed, anyway?
2. Butler-Bucknell is one of the best round of 64 matchups in the bracket. Many casual fans won't have heard of him, but in college hoops circles, Bucknell center Mike Muscala is well known. The best defensive rebounder in the country, Muscala also carries a huge offensive load (his 31.7 percent usage rate is the 14th highest in the country) for a Bison team that nearly knocked off Missouri in its own building in January. Butler hasn't played its best basketball in the past month, and the Bulldogs' upsets over Indiana and Gonzaga left them a little residually overrated, but they do have center Andrew Smith, as physical and punishing a post presence as there is in this bracket.
3. Geek heroes collide! It's not exactly J.J. Abrams versus Joss Whedon, but within smart-guy basketball circles, Butler coach Brad Stevens and Marquette coach Buzz Williams are dual pillars of forward thinking. Both have been open about their reliance on efficiency statistics and advanced scouting data in their game preparation, and both have been remarkably successful at their respective basketball-obsessed schools. They don't have much else in common -- Brad walks off buzzer-beaters; Buzz shows out in pinstripes and floral-pattern pocket scarves and can barely talk at the end of games -- but they are both very well regarded in a certain subset of the college hoops fandom. The good news about all this: If Butler and Marquette survive their round of 64 opponents, we'll get to see another impeccably scouted, well-waged game -- and a rematch of Butler's thrilling November win in Maui.
4. Of course, that's if Marquette wins. You would expect the Golden Eagles to, not only because they are the No. 3 seed (obviously) but also because they are an excellent offensive team playing a just-OK Davidson D. But here's the thing: Davidson's defense might be average, but its offense is the real deal. Forwards Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks lead the way on the front line -- they'll give Marquette big man Davante Gardner some serious issues -- and the rest of the Fightin' Steph Currys are pretty good, too. To wit: Senior guard Nik Cochran shot 48.5 percent from 3 this season and posted the highest true shooting percentage in the country. Marquette will be favored, and rightfully so, but the gap between these two teams isn't half as wide as the seeds say.
5. Looking for a 5/12 upset? Here you go. The committee had plenty of flubs in seeding this field this year, but perhaps none was bigger than No. 5 UNLV versus No. 12 California in San Jose. Not only is this game a rematch of UNLV's 76-75 win on Dec. 9 but it is just an hour south (depending on traffic) from Cal's Berkeley home. When's the last time a No. 12 seed got home-court advantage?
6. Speaking of UNLV, the Rebels got a tough break here; they might as well be playing in Haas Pavilion. Even so, you'd still expect Dave Rice's team to knock off Cal. True to Mountain West form, the Rebels play top-15 efficiency defense. This is especially good news in a nerve-wracking single-elimination tournament, when knees start shaking and shots start clanging. And they have the best player on the floor in Anthony Bennett, a surefire lottery pick this summer. But despite their desire to get out and run, the Rebels have been pedestrian on offense all season, mainly because senior guard Justin Hawkins and freshman sharpshooter Katin Reinhardt have struggled. Insert your favorite axiom about the importance of guard play in the tournament here.
7. Set your DVRs for NC State-Temple. The Wolfpack and Owls can cross the how-do-we-stop-Indiana bridge when they come to it. In the meantime, they can focus on outgunning each other for our entertainment! Mark Gottfried's team wields one of the best, most balanced scoring attacks in the country; Temple has gifted scorer Khalif Wyatt and an almost frightening tendency to find itself in close games -- in February, the Owls played five games in a row decided by just one point -- regardless of opponent. We might get a close game; we're almost certain to get a festival of offense. Either way, it'll be a good one.
8. Syracuse is underseeded. No. 4 seems awfully low for a team that suffered most of its struggles while James Southerland missed games to academic suspension. Apparently the committee was very impressed by Louisville's second-half tidal wave in the Garden on Saturday night, but it also apparently forgot that Syracuse had beaten Georgetown the night before. In any case, if seeds hold, it will be a very autumnal atmosphere in D.C. -- Indiana crimson and Syracuse orange vying for Verizon Center dominance.
9. Illinois is overseeded. For all the back-and-forth over whether the committee stuck by its "principles," namely the eternal "who'd ya beat?" question, it seems that's exactly what the committee saw in Illinois. Indeed, the Illini as a No. 7 seed makes sense, given the committee's classic résumé erogenous zones: John Groce's team won at Gonzaga in November, upset Indiana and Ohio State at home and beat Minnesota on a neutral court. When you actually dig into Brandon Paul & Co., and when you watch them play superior teams, you can't help but think they're more like a No. 10 seed themselves. Then again, when you have wins like that, who's to judge?
10. Miami is lurking. We read from top to bottom, right to left and on ESPN.com that means the last top team you'll notice in the NCAA tournament bracket is the No. 2-seeded Miami Hurricanes. That feels strangely appropriate, doesn't it? Miami has been roundly slept on since that Ryan Kelly-return-fueled loss at Duke despite the fact it was a one-possession game in Cameron Indoor. (Admittedly, a letdown home loss to Georgia Tech in the Canes' next game didn't help the perception.) Point is, Miami is really good; the ACC regular-season and tournament champion plays lockdown defense, has great frontcourt and backcourt balance and wing players who link the whole thing up and is coached by Jim Larranaga, who, let's not forget, took George Mason to the Final Four. It's frightening all around.
Five players to watch
Victor Oladipo, Indiana: This ought to require no explanation. Not only was Oladipo arguably the best all-court player in the country this season but he was undoubtedly the most exciting, a high-flying, 360-dunking, center-swatting force of nature who must be seen to be believed.
James Southerland, Syracuse: Point guard Michael Carter-Williams is one of the nation's best assist men (which is borderline unfair, given his small forward's frame), but Southerland really is the key to this offense. When Southerland is hitting those parabolic 3s, Syracuse is an entirely different offensive proposition.
Davante Gardner, Marquette: Shooting guard Vander Blue will get the ball late in the game, but Gardner -- a 6-foot-8, 290-pound junior who has morphed from an overweight freshman project with soft hands and quick feet into an efficient, foul-drawing workhorse on the low block -- will get Marquette to winning time in the first place.
Anthony Bennett, UNLV: Bennett has had his struggles from time to time this season, but that's fair to expect of every freshman not sent to us from far-off alien worlds to teach us about the next phase in human evolution (that is, Anthony Davis). For the most part, Bennett's first season has been an unqualified success, as the Canada native has posted efficient scoring numbers (and even hit 38 percent of his 3s), rebounded well on both ends of the floor and patrolled the front of the rim on defense. He's the real deal.
Shane Larkin, Miami: Even if you're not a college hoops die-hard, you might be vaguely aware -- through a process I like to call SportsMosis, in which you have "SportsCenter" on in the background at all times -- that baseball legend Barry Larkin's son plays for Miami. Neat, right? Not really. Shane Larkin deserves to be taken on his own merits, and those merits -- as the assist-dropping, 3-point-shooting engine that makes the Hurricanes go -- are considerable.
Three round of 32 games to watch
1. Marquette-Butler: A rematch of our first buzzer-beater of the season (Rotnei Clarke, in Maui) and a great tactical and stylistic matchup between two of the smartest young coaches around.
2. Syracuse-UNLV: Can the Rebels get past Cal in San Jose? And if so, can they do enough for Anthony Bennett to prevent their star freshman from becoming swallowed up by the Orange's 2-3 zone?
3. Indiana-NC State: The first road win of note of Tom Crean's career came last season at NC State. Both teams returned much of their cores from last season and added talented freshmen, but only the Hoosiers have skyrocketed into national championship contention -- because only the Hoosiers have added consistent defense to their potent offensive style. Can NC State slow them down?
Possible future matchups
1. Indiana vs. Butler: Even in a comparatively less stacked region, it's never easy for top seeds to advance. And Butler might be a long shot to get past Marquette, let alone Miami. But if it happens, look out. After the Bulldogs' overtime win in December, a matchup with a Final Four spot on the line might finally birth a real live Butler-Indiana rivalry. It had to happen eventually. Might as well be now.
2. Indiana vs. Syracuse: At the risk of being too Hoosiers-heavy, it would be a mistake to gloss over this game, which itself feels a lot more like a No. 1-No. 2 matchup than a No. 1-No. 4. Indiana's top-ranked offense against Syracuse's 2-3 zone? Cody Zeller working the creases on the interior, Oladipo crashing the glass, Jordan Hulls doing his best to see the hoop over a 6-6 point guard, two massive fan bases descending on D.C. -- it's all dream stuff, really.
3. Marquette-Syracuse: Big East! ACC! Loud noises about conference realignment! A chance to see Gardner play at the top of the key against the 2-3 zone, which he did in Marquette's Feb. 25 win over the Orange! Yes, please.
Here are two: Bucknell and Colorado. The Bison are more obvious, a No. 11 seed from the Patriot League with a potential pro center in Muscala, what feels like annual experience in the NCAA tournament and a totally doable first matchup with Butler. Colorado is less obvious, if only because a Pac-12 team usually can't be classified as a Cinderella. But if you're looking for a double-digit seed that can go deep, getting on board the Spencer Dinwiddie train might not be such a bad idea.