Ohio State, Kansas, Pitt and Duke enter the dance as No. 1 seeds.
Time to put the soapboxes away and concentrate on what is instead of what if.
All the debates, speculation and discussions on airwaves and around water coolers this past week or two evaporated in less than an hour on Sunday night when the 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed. If you spend more than five minutes right now worrying about the VCU's, UAB's, St. Mary's and Colorado's of the world, you've wasted more than six minutes of your life.
With tip-off times and TV lineups still being finalized, here are some early thoughts and predictions for this year's Big Dance.
Final Four Picks
It's very difficult not to like both Ohio State (East Region) and Kansas (Southwest) making it to Houston that first weekend of April. There's no real joy from a gambling standpoint picking the biggest chalk – until it wins, that is – but in a season that has so many potential national champions, the Buckeyes and Jayhawks rose above them all.
There's a possible Sweet 16 matchup for Ohio State with No. 5 Kentucky, a game that would be very intriguing. No. 2 North Carolina looked awful for most of the ACC Tournament, and it's difficult right now to think of the Tar Heels as a big threat to the Buckeyes in the end.
Kansas has a much tougher 8/9 draw in Round 2 facing the winner of the UNLV/Illinois game and will also have to get through Louisville most likely to make Regional Final where I expect them to meet third-seeded Purdue.
The Southeast Region is a crapshoot. Pittsburgh draws the top seed with a hard second round matchup against either Butler or Old Dominion. I really like No. 13 Belmont against No. 4 Wisconsin for an opening round upset as well as No. 11 Gonzaga over. No. 6 St. John's. Second-seeded Florida really doesn't impress me, but the Gators are a threat assuming they get to New Orleans for the Sweet 16. Kansas State, seeded fifth, will end Florida's bid then.
Duke, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, gets to open its title defense in Blue Devil-friendly Charlotte before actually heading west to Anaheim. The Devils' initial opponent there should be No. 4 Texas but the Longhorns have a tough opener against Oakland and then will likely have to get through No. 5 Arizona. If there's no joy in picking chalk then there's certainly no joy in picking Duke. Ultimately, I like the winner of the 2/3 contest between San Diego State and UConn to take the region. Count me among those who have caught Kemba Fever with the Huskies heading to the Final Four.
The mess that is the Big East
Speaking of the Huskies, how 'bout that Big East? The conference grabbed 11 spots in the dance with its ninth seed in the conference tourney, Connecticut, winning it all with five victories in five days.
Marquette drew an 11th-seed in the East Region for honors as the lowest-seeded Big East , but Villanova at No. 9 in the same regional has the most to prove among conference entries. A preseason co-favorite with Pitt to win the Big East, 'Nova just about played itself out of March Madness with five losses to close the regular season and 10 defeats in the final 15 games.
If the Wildcats are going to redeem themselves, they'll have to get past George Mason to start with and then top-seeded Ohio State.
There are a pair of potential BE second-round matchups looming. No. 3 Syracuse and No. 11 Marquette are possible combatants in Cleveland next Sunday; the Golden Eagles scored a 76-70 win as two-point home favorites against the Orange in late-January, Syracuse's fourth-straight loss at the time.
UConn and Cincinnati are very likely to face off next Saturday in Washington DC. The Bearcats were 3½-point favorites when the Huskies posted a 67-59 upset in Cincinnati a little more than two weeks ago.