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Foul Shots: March sadness

In the modern history of the NCAA men’s basketball Tournament (since 1979), the Final Four has been made up of the top four seeds in the tournament exactly one time, in 2008. Every single year other than 2008, a lower seed has crashed the party.

So, it’s fair to assume that this season will be no different. The No. 1 seeds this year are the University of Florida, University of Arizona, Wichita State University and the University of Virginia. The first two teams are traditional basketball powers, while the latter two aren’t. At varying points this year, all four teams have been considered to be contenders for the national title. As the top overall seed, Florida is the prohibitive favorite to win it all.

No top seed has ever lost a second-round contest to a 16th-seeded team, so we can probably rule out that happening. But top seeds have lost third-round games that are played against the winner of the No. 8-9 seed game. The University of Northern Iowa topped Kansas in 2010. Butler University beat the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. Just last season, Wichita State topped Gonzaga University on its way to the Final Four.

This year, I could see Florida losing to Pittsburgh in the third round. Florida has won a number of very close games, and Pitt has lost some close ones. Remember when Syracuse University freshman Tyler Ennis hitting a 40-foot prayer at the buzzer to beat Pitt? I do. It was awesome. But Pitt had Syracuse, at the time unbeaten, on the ropes until a miraculous last-second heave. Pitt matches up very well with Florida, and the Gators may be overconfident. After all, they haven’t lost a game since Dec. 2.

Another top-seeded team that I believe could go down early is Arizona. They were the top-ranked team in the country for nearly two months but had several late-season losses, including a loss in the Pac-12 Conference Championship game to the University of California-Los Angeles. Arizona’s best players are freshman Aaron Gordon and junior Nick Johnson, who both average over 12 points per game in a strong offense.

However, the Wildcats could face sophomore Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State University in the round of 32. Smart is, indisputably, one of the best players in college basketball. He’s also a bit of a head case; he was suspended for three games this season for shoving a fan in a game against Texas Tech University. But if he and Markel Brown, Oklahoma State’s explosive guard can get going, I think they could take down Arizona. In fact, I hope they do. I love watching Smart and Brown play together, and I want to see them go far in the tournament.

The No. 1 seeds are not the only high-ranked teams that could fall early, as other strong teams have the chance to lose an early game. The University of Kansas has perhaps the most talented NBA prospect of the last five years in freshman Andrew Wiggins. But the reason the Jayhawks considered a true threat to win the title was the presence of another fantastic freshman, Joel Embiid. The center was averaging over 11 points and eight rebounds per game before being sidelined with a stress fracture in his back. It’s unlikely that he’ll return before the first weekend of the tournament, which is when Kansas could run into seventh-seeded University of New Mexico, which won 15 out of its last 18 games on its way to winning the Mountain West Conference title. Lobos coach Craig Neal is known for getting the most out of his teams, and this squad isn’t an exception. The Lobos could disrupt Wiggins, make him shoot from outside instead of allowing him to drive the lane, and shut down the Jayhawks.

Syracuse was under a lot of scrutiny this year, as the Orange jumped off to a 25-0 start — best in school history. But the Orange have failed to close the year out strong, losing five out of their last seven games, including a first-round defeat to North Carolina State University in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. The Orange shouldn’t have any problems in the first game when they play Western Michigan University. However, a second-round matchup looms with Ohio State University, which is always a tough team to play in March. Ohio State advanced all the way to the Big Ten Championship Game, falling to the University of Michigan 72-69. But the Buckeyes, led by senior Aaron Craft, could shut down the Orange’s high-octane offensive attack.

Of the hypotheticals I wrote about here, maybe all of them will happen. Maybe none will. But, most likely, some of them will happen. March Madness is exactly that: madness. Top seeds lose, Cinderella teams win and the nation’s sports attention is focused on college basketball for a few wonderful weeks. Bring it on.

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