The 2011 NCAA tournament officially tips off tonight with a pair of play-in games -- I'm still scratching my head at UAB and Clemson playing for a No. 12 seed -- but the bracket bonanza for most pools begins Thursday afternoon with the Round of 64. That means we have approximately 48 hours to sort through statistics, break down matchups and finalize our brackets.
I did all of my homework last night for our unofficial employee pool here at The Baltimore Sun, and I'm confident that I will win a pool for the first time since Maryland was last in the Sweet 16 (that was back in 2003 if you have forgotten). I'll pass along my cheat sheet for the tournament -- including my contenders and pretenders -- but don't blame me if my tips sabotage your bracket.
The contenders (chalk you can count on):
1. Ohio State: Freshman forward Jared Sullinger, a player of the year candidate, averaged 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds this season for the 32-2 Buckeyes. And Ohio State has the outside shooters to complement the big man if teams stack the paint. Depth could be an issue, but led by Sullinger, the Buckeyes are poised to go deep
2. Duke: Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and the Blue Devils are tourney-tested from last year's title run and -- groan -- are one of the favorites to again this year, which would make them the first repeat champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007.
3. Kansas: A stacked squad capable of pouring in the points, the Jayhawks should benefit from having the most favorable draw among the tourney's top seeds. (Side note: Keep an eye on the local kid, Josh Selby.)
The pretenders (sure to send your bracket to the trash bin):
1. Pittsburgh: Like many Pittsburgh teams over the past decade, the Panthers have grit, talent and swagger. But for whatever reason, the Panthers have been perennial disappointments, failing to make it to the Final Four under Ben Howland and then Jamie Dixon. Are you willing to bet your bracket that it will change this year?
2. Notre Dame: Overrated. Clap. Clap. Clap-clap-clap.
3. BYU: Jimmermania will carry into the Sweet 16 -- and we should thank the basketball gods for that -- but the loss of big man Brandon Davies will be too much for Jimmer Fredette and BYU to overcome.
Sleepers (darkhorses capable of a title run):
1. Kansas State: The Wildcats, a popular preseason Final Four pick, had a topsy-turvy regular season until things started to click in February. Led by sweet-shooting guard Jacob Pullen, K-State now enters the tourney on a roll, having won six straight games before losing to Colorado in the Big 12 tournament.
2. Kentucky: After losing a slew of players to the pros last spring, John Calipari restocked his roster. The Wildcats lack experience, but are capable of shocking the Buckeyes and taking the East region.
3. Connecticut: Kemba Walker and the Huskies are expected to be running on fumes after playing five games in five days in their run to the Big East tourney title. But if they can survive the first weekend, they will get a chance to catch their collective breath and gear up for a Final Four run.
Cinderellas (busting brackets near you):
1. Morehead State: Sure to be a popular pick for its name alone, Morehead State boasts the career rebounding leader in NCAA history in Kenneth Faried. Morehead's first-round opponent, Louisville, has had trouble cleaning the glass this season, so if Faried brings it, the Eagles can sneak into the Sweet 16.
3. Penn State: OK, so maybe I'm repping my alma mater a little here, but the Nittany Lions have a two-time All-Big Ten selection in Talor Battle and a manageable path to the Sweet 16 (Temple and San Diego State).
My Final Four:
Ohio State, Duke, Kansas, Kansas State
My big winner:
Ohio State over Kansas
Lovers of botched brackets and/or green beer, join The Baltimore Sun at our Tournament Tweetup viewing party on March 17, which conveniently is also St. Patrick's Day. The event is at Hightopps Backstage Grille in Timonium from noon to 3 p.m. Check out the official Facebook invite here.
You tell me: Chime in with your contenders, pretenders, sleepers and Cinderellas.
***This blog post has been updated since it was first published