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Running down the NCAA tournament

Published: Thursday, March 15, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

Butler and Virginia Commonwealth defied the odds with Hoosiers-like runs to the Final Four last season, leaving a trail of ripped up NCAA tournament brackets across the country.

The Rams will get another shot after winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, but the Bulldogs – and lovable mascot Blue2 – are headed to the CBI after consecutive trips to the NCAA title game.

Last season seemed like a confluence of chaos, but this year’s bracket has the potential to match it after the top four teams in the AP Top 25 went down last week.

Kentucky, Syracuse, Michigan State and North Carolina got the No. 1 nods from the tournament selection committee. All four have their faults, though, particularly the Orangemen, who will be playing without center Fab Melo.

To get you ready for the action, we’ve got a rundown of what to look for leading up to the title game in New Orleans on April 2.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
SBlt Thomas Robinson, Kansas. Big, powerful, agile, dominating, player of the year candidate.

• Jared Sullinger, Ohio State. See “Thomas Robinson, Kansas.”

• Anthony Davis, Kentucky. Scores, blocks shots, dominates. You get the idea.

• Doug McDermott, Creighton. Third in the nation with 23.2 points per game, shot 61 percent from the field and that’s-not-a-typo 49 percent from 3. This year’s Jimmer?

• Peyton Siva, Louisville. That teardrop of his could bring rain.

• Draymond Green, Michigan State. Does it all, seems to know it all on the court.

• Austin Rivers, Duke. Hit that big three-pointer to beat North Carolina, can take over games down the stretch.

• Isaiah Canaan, Murray State. He’s the main reason the Racers are in the dance.

UPSET POTENTIAL

Every year there are high seeds that win games they’re not supposed to win and shatter brackets. Remember 13th-seeded Morehead State’s first-round takedown of No. 4 Louisville last year? Yeah, we’re still bitter about that, too.

Here’s a few potential opening-round upsets to consider:

• Colorado State over Murray State, West Regional. The Racers, the sixth seed in the West, like to shoot the 3 and have Isaiah Canaan. The 11th-seeded Rams have seen teams and players like this before.

• Virginia Commonwealth over Wichita State. The Rams were panned for getting into the NCAA Tournament last year, then went to the Final Four. Why not again?

• Colorado over UNLV. The 11th seed in the South, the Buffaloes were a surprise winner at the Pac-12 tournament. The sixth-seeded Rebels have had some shaky moments and lost in the Mountain West semifinals to New Mexico after blowing a big lead.

• Western Kentucky over Kentucky. Sorry, just checking to see if you’re still paying attention.

NUMBERS

5-2 – Odds for Kentucky to win the title, lowest by oddsmaker Mike Colbert of Cantor Gaming.

6-1 – Odds for Ohio State to win the title, second-best despite being a No. 2 seed.

1-100 million trillion – Odds of picking every game right by flipping a coin.

5 – Teams from North Carolina in the NCAA tournament: North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State, UNC-Asheville, Davidson.

9 – NCAA tournament bids by the Big East, most of any conference.

11 – At-large mid-majors in the bracket, most since 12 made it in 2004.

12 – Presidents since Harvard’s last trip to the NCAA tournament, starting with Truman in 1946.

26 – NCAA tournament appearances without reaching the Final Four by BYU, longest ever.

53 – NCAA tournament appearances by Kentucky, most all-time.

INTRIGUING GAMES

Wichita State vs. VCU. Two good mid-major teams, equally-matched, potential to make a deep run.

Louisville vs. Davidson. The Cardinals have lost in the first round each of the past two years, and Davidson has done the David vs. Goliath thing before.

Creighton vs. Alabama. Doug McDermott dominates. The Crimson Tide are peaking at just the right time.

North Carolina vs. Kansas, potential Midwest Region final. OK, a lot has to happen before we get to this, but two perennial powers and Roy Williams against his former team back in the Midwest builds a little anticipation.

MID-MAJORS TO WATCH

After Butler made it to consecutive championship games and VCU joined the Bulldogs last year, it’s hard to rule anyone out. Here’s a few of the mid-majors to keep an eye on this year.

Detroit: The Titans are as talented as anyone and have scoring machine Ray McCallum.

Memphis: The Tigers are long, athletic and can stay with anyone when they’re on top of their game.

VCU: Coach Shaka Smart. He did it once before, can do it again.

Wichita State: The Shockers must get by VCU in their opener but have the look of a team that could make a run.

Montana: The Grizzlies aren’t exactly grizzled when it comes to the NCAA tournament, but they enter with a 14-game winning streak and like to play defense.

Long Beach State: The Gauchos had three victories in as many nights to win the Big West Conference tournament but aren’t sure if Larry Anderson will be able to play against New Mexico on Thursday.

DISTANCES
Although North Carolina got a break in the bracket by playing in nearby Greensboro, fellow Tar Heel State school Davidson could be a little travel-weary.

The Tar Heels have the shortest distance for their opening game, a short bus ride of about 47 miles, with Duke needing only a couple more miles to face Lehigh in the same arena.

Davidson has the second-longest longest trip of about 2,800 miles to play Louisville in Portland, Ore., a few miles shorter than VCU’s trip to the Northwest to face Wichita State.

That’s a long plane ride or roughly 46 hours on a bus. We’re guessing they’ll fly.

Kentucky also has a quick trip of about 77 miles to play Western Kentucky in Louisville, while Harvard’s players will have plenty of time to catch up on their reading with a 2,200-mile trip to Albuquerque, N.M.

There’s so much more we didn’t get to, but this will get you started. Hopefully, you’ve got some sick days and can park it on the couch to watch it all unfold. We know we feel a cough coming on.

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