Top Team — Pittsburgh (1)
The Panthers (27–5, 15–3 Big East) were TKO’d by Connecticut in the first round of the Big East Tournament, but that didn’t stop point guard Ashton Gibbs or center Gary McGhee from making national title predictions for this year’s team. Coach Jamie Dixon has made the NCAA Tournament in every season of his tenure at Pitt. But the former Naismith, USA Basketball and Big East Coach of the Year has never gotten over the hump, going 0-for-7 thus far in his quest to reach the Final Four — advancing to one Elite Eight in three trips to the Sweet Sixteen, while failing to make the second weekend four times. Will this be the year Dixon rips the monkey off his back? His players think so.
James Taft Fever — Jimmer Fredette, BYU (3)
James Taft “Jimmer” Fredette (28.5 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.5 rpg) has scored 20 or more points in 30-of-34 games this season, at least 30 points in 13 contests, topped 40 four times and put up a career-high 52 points against New Mexico in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals on Friday — breaking Danny Ainge’s career scoring record at BYU in the process. But without suspended center Brandon Davies (11.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), the 6’2” senior from New York will have carry even more of the load if the Cougars hope to live up to their lofty expectations — and keep “Jimmer-mania” going.
Iz-zone Defense — Michigan State (10)
The Spartans struggled all season, bouncing in and out of midseason NCAA Tournament projections before finishing with a 19–13 record (9–9 Big Ten) and the short end of a 7-10 NCAA first-round matchup with UCLA. Murphy’s Law has been in effect up until now, but the Iz-zone Defense may be the perfect counter now that the single-elimination cross-examination is here. Remember, point guard Kalin Lucas (17.2 ppg, 3.3 apg), point forward Draymond Green (12.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 4.0 apg) and uber-athlete Durrell Summers (11.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) were the nucleus of last year’s Final Four team and the national runner-up in 2009.
Unlucky Bucky — Wisconsin (4) vs. Belmont (13)
Before brackets were even announced on Selection Sunday, many were predicting that this year’s Belmont team would win its first-round matchup — regardless of opponent. Then, Rick Byrd’s disciplined, well-coached team of shooters (46.4 percent from the field, 73.7 percent from the free-throw line and 38.1 percent from 3-point range) were paired with Wisconsin, a similarly disciplined, well-coached squad (with shooting lines of 44.5, 82.4 and 37.1). Bo Ryan’s Badgers are chronic overachievers, but after losing 36–33 to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, they look awfully vulnerable to the Bruins — who nearly upset Duke in 2008.