By almost any measure you can come up with, the Bears got a dream draw. The least efficient 5 seed in the tournament in the first round. The least efficient 4 seed in the second round (and a relatively weak 13 seed to boot). No blatant match-up nightmares a la Missouri and UNLV. Except . . . the play in game.
A few weeks ago, when the Bears were on a six game winning streak, playing great basketball, seemingly destined for a Pac-12 title, a draw like this would have triggered lofty dreams of the Sweet 16. Instead, the Bears have played one good half of basketball since sweeping the Oregon schools at home in mid-February, and everybody fears that the heavy load placed on Cal's starting five has finally started to show. Do any Cal fans have the faith that the Bears can return to playing like the team that the computers like so much and take advantage of their good fortune?
Hell if I know. As a fan, I'll be trying my hardest to take things one game at a time because the Bears haven't played well enough of late to justify looking ahead. But that won't stop us from looking at the rest of the region and how things might break down. Kenpom has his log5 predictions. If you're looking for the traditional media's point of view you can check ESPN or SI's Midwest breakdowns. Cal and USF are barely mentioned, which isn't a surprise - it's tough to find a reason to talk about either team when the nature of playing an extra game makes it so unlikely for either team so make a deep run (insert obligatory-VCU-anything-can-happen reference here).
The Favorite: North Carolina
It's a tough, tough call between the Tar Heels and the Kansas Jayhawks, but I ultimately sided with UNC because their side of the bracket is significantly easier. True, a potential 2nd round match-up with Creighton is probably a little tougher than the average 8 seed, but the Blue Jays don't play the defense to keep up with a dynamic, athletic offense like North Carolina's. Kansas has to get past a tough Georgetown team and I just don't see anybody stopping UNC until the regional final. If it does come down to the 1 and 2 seeds it might make for the best elite 8 game this year.
Team Most Likely To Be Upset: San Diego State
There are really three great candidates for this slot - Temple and Georgetown are both vulnerable, though for different reasons. But Georgetown's talent and Temple's advantage of playing a tired team push the Aztecs to the top of the list. SDSU has a picked up some solid wins out of the mountain west but their non-conference resume mostly rests on very narrow wins over weakened Pac-12 teams. I may be biased, but any team that only beats USC by 2 at home is immediately suspect.
Best First Weekend Match-Up: Creighton vs. North Carolina
As I said above, I don't particularly think the Blue Jays have a great shot at winning. But these are two of the best, most exciting offensive teams in the country and they could very well put on a thrilling, back-and-forth scoring show on Sunday. I'm already looking foward to watching it, which means that Alabama's very stingy defense will earn the Tide a win. Must you ruin another college post-season, Alabama?!?
Most Mediocre Pod In The Region (and perhaps the Tournament): Nashville
Like I mentioned in my intro, none of the four teams in the Mid-west bracket that will head to Nashville are especially distinguished. Michigan pulled a four seed in part because they had quite a knack for winning back and forth contests, including three overtime wins. Temple does have very impressive wins over Duke and Wichita State but also some head-scratching losses (Bowling Green? Richmond? UMass?) and a very lucky 5-0 in overtime games. And of course Cal and USF are both flawed enough to end up in the first four round. Only Michigan cracks Kenpom's top 25 . . . at #25.
Now, don't get me wrong, none of these teams are bad . . . but there just isn't a favorite, a team that makes you think "Gee, I could see them going to the Final Four if things broke right." But somebody will get to visit St. Louis for the Sweet 16, and the relative parity means that there could be some exciting games and upsets in the cards. Dare I dream that David Kravish gets to play in his home state for the 2nd time this year?
So, who's your favorite, your upset, your dark horse? Is this the toughest region or the easiest? Or are you incapable of rationally analyzing any of this because Cal's name is sitting smack dab in the middle of it all?