By ADAM SHINDER and MICHAEL KELLY
Brackets make things more fun. That's pretty much one of the ironclad rules of life.
And there's no bracket more entertaining than the 68-team mass of confusion that is the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament. Action officially got underway Tuesday night with the first two games of the "First Four," but -- apologies to UAlbany Great Danes fans -- things really start to get interesting Thursday and Friday with all-day basketball smorgasbords that leave a great many basketball fans searching for excuses to call in sick from work as they nervously clutch their soon-to-be-ruined brackets.
But, before everyone's bracket is busted and that one guy at the office starts bragging about how amazing he's doing in his tournament pool, The Recorder's Adam Shinder and Michael Kelly decided to hash out their observations and predictions for the 2014 edition of March Madness.
The bracket is out, and there's been pretty much non-stop jabbering about it ever since. What sticks out to you the most from this year's field of 68?
MK: How unbalanced the regions appear. I think three of the regions feature a bunch of strong title contenders ... and the West Region is filled with teams boasting severe flaws. No. 1 Arizona is missing one of its best players; No. 2 Wisconsin might have a half where it does not score; No. 3 Creighton struggles with athletic clubs; and, No. 4 San Diego State played one of the easiest league schedules imaginable. Furthermore, any region that has its best player -- Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart -- playing on the No. 9 squad is just weird.
AS: The West is weird, it's one of those regions where I could see a team like seventh-seeded Oregon pop up and make a deep run out of nowhere. It's also a spot where I saw the selection committee's trademark sense of humor with a potential round of 32 matchup between Creighton and Nebraska. You could also see a Philadelphia Holy War between St. Joe's and Villanova on the opening weekend and Louisville head coach Rick Pitino will have to open against his former player and assistant coach, Manhattan's Steve Masiello. The committee always says it doesn't engineer matchups, and I facepalm every time I hear that.
MK: But I also would not want the committee to purposefully avoid matchups, either, so I don't have a huge problem with seeing some games with built-in storylines. Now, to completely change the topic, give me the pulse of Orange Nation heading into this tournament.
AS: Hovering-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff nervous. The season started off magically for Syracuse, ascending to No. 1 in the country and collecting a legion of heart-stopping wins. Then came the overtime loss to Boston College, and nothing's been the same since. There's still hope that Trevor Cooney can rediscover his shot to give the team a third option behind Tyler Ennis and C.J. Fair, but that's the only way the run has any chance of going deeper than the Sweet 16 -- and it could end even earlier than that.
MK: All I ask is that you do not hold back. Please let the insanity flow on Twitter.
The opening weekend is usually a cross between chalk and complete chaos. Which high seeds have the most to be worried about, and what tiny program could pull a Florida Gulf Coast and light up Twitter this year?
AS: I said on Twitter when the bracket came in Sunday night that I'm all-in on 13-19 Cal Poly to run the seven-game table and finish the season above .500. That probably won't happen. But, I wouldn't at all be surprised to see Duke -- a team with some surprising losses this season that isn't particularly great defensively -- get knocked off by 14-seed Mercer, which has a potent offense and reached the tournament by bouncing Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun final. Plus, it gives me a reason to pick against Duke early on, and there's nothing more American than that.
MK: I won't pretend to know anything about Mercer, though I am hoping that the school is named after Ron Mercer. BUT, I'd be surprised if Duke loses to an upstart that prides itself on offense; the Blue Devils' memorable early-round losses to mid-majors in recent years came against defensive squads that had superior athleticism. Also, the answer to this "light up Twitter" question is simple: Harvard. Is it even going to qualify as an upset if No. 12 Harvard beats No. 5 Cincinnati?
AS: For my bracket? Yes, but that's only because Cincinnati's the key to me (hopefully) outsmarting the big heap of folks that's going to be riding Michigan State for the long haul and give me the inside edge to Warren Buffett's billion dollar prize. And, yes, I understand that using the word "outsmart" to refer to Cincinnati beating Harvard is potentially the biggest oxymoron to ever appear in The Recorder. Also, I want to see Dayton make a run just to have continued opportunities to talk about point guard Dayshon "Scoochie" Smith. His name is Scoochie, for heaven's sake.
MK: Ah, man; I just remembered Scoonie Penn existed and got upset that he's not part of our lives anymore. Anyway, my high seed that should be worried: No. 4 Michigan State -- which would also have you very worried. I love the Spartans because Tom Izzo is the best coach out there ... but doesn't it seem like people are a little too crazy about MSU? Also, for a Round of 32 upset, I'll throw out No. 9 Oklahoma State topping No. 1 Arizona in the West; with that pick, I get the region's best player advancing to the Sweet 16 at the expense of a Wildcats program that routinely comes up short.
AS: Oklahoma State has been completely unpredictable this season, so by this point there's nothing I wouldn't be surprised by. I also think a Kansas team without Joel Embiid for the first weekend is ripe to get picked off by New Mexico in the round of 32 -- although if the Jayhawks do advance, they might just win the whole thing.
After running the table during the regular season, Wichita State's reward is the top seed in a Midwest Region loaded with power programs. Can the Shockers survive that gauntlet and get back to a second straight Final Four?
MK: They're not my pick, but I do think the Shockers could get to the Final Four -- and I think the gauntlet has been overstated. Kentucky is every bit of a No. 8 seed and should not be a problem for the Shockers. The second wave of games for Wichita State will be incredibly tough, but games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight are not supposed to be easy.
AS: I wouldn't sleep on Kentucky -- the Wildcats are young, but they're playing well right now and pushed Florida in the SEC championship game. But the 2, 3 and 4-seeds in this region are just ridiculous. The Midwest has three of last year's Final Four teams among its top four seeds -- and the other top seed is Duke. While I think the Blue Devils are ripe to be upset, they've still got one of the top players in the nation in Jabari Parker. I'm rooting for the Shockers, but it's a frightening regional.
MK: Yeah, but Wichita State does not have to (potentially) play both Michigan and Duke because of the way the bracket is situated, so both teams being in the region really does not matter for the Shockers. Also, let's just be real: Wichita State's biggest problem heading into this tournament is that the club played nobody all year.
AS: The worst thing that happened to Wichita State this year was Creighton's move to the reconstituted Big East, leaving the Shockers with no legitimate competition in the Missouri Valley Conference. That and nobody wanted to play them after last year's Final Four run. By the second weekend, they'll be seeing competition on a whole different level than what they're used to the past few months.
MK: In the end, I do think it will simply be too much for the Shockers. I have Louisville topping them in the Sweet 16, but I think I'd pick Saint Louis to top them, too, if the Billikens get past the Cardinals.
We've had since Sunday night to digest the bracket. Now, it's time to show down and see who's going to look really stupid in a couple of weeks. What's your Final Four and who gets "One Shining Moment" at Cowboys Stadium?
AS: Alright, Final Four first, I'll get to my title winner after you've thrown your picks out there. I like two top seeds to reach North Texas -- Florida out of the South and Arizona to get through the West. In the Midwest, I like Louisville to navigate a tough region, and I'm gonna hang my hat on third-seeded Iowa State to come out of the East.
MK: It is going to be tough for Iowa State to make it to the Final Four once it loses to North Carolina in the Round of 32. I've got a foursome of UNC, Florida, Louisville and San Diego State. That's a 1, a couple 4s and a 6. I'm probably breaking some long-held tournament rule about not having your seeds add up to more than 10.
AS: Yeah, but George Mason kinda scuttled that rule when everything went head-over-heels in 2006. Anyway, in the national championship game of overwhelming narratives, Pitino's Louisville team faces off against his former Providence player Billy Donovan and Florida. The apprentice strikes down the master, and the Gators cut down the nets.
MK: I have UNC topping Louisville because the Tar Heels already beat the Cardinals, and my entire bracket's purpose is to figure out how North Carolina ends up the winner. If I strip away my biases, I do think Florida is the clear-cut favorite. My only concern with the Gators is that potential Sweet 16 matchup with VCU; the Rams play such a crazy style that they could destroy some brackets.
AS: Destroyed brackets? Now there's something I know about.