Underrated: Underrated? More like understocked. Austin may be the most desirable Sweet 16 travel destination, but it's definitively the weakest of the quadrants. In a typical region at least one dangerous squad can be found lurking in the Nos. 6 to 12 range, but c'mon -- do Utah, Cincinnati, Stanford, Mississippi State, Iowa, UTEP or Old Dominion really strike fear into the hearts of Duke, Kentucky or Oklahoma? I doubt it. More likely, the top seeds here are thanking their lucky stars they didn't end up in Syracuse or Albuquerque. I guess if I have to pick an underrated team, it's the 27-5 Utes, who were slightly disrespected with a No. 6 seed after failing to win the Mountain West Conference tournament. Andrew Bogut & co. are a far cry from the Michael Doleac-Andre Miller squad of 1998, but they have won 22 of their past 24 games. That's worth at least a No. 4 or 5 seed -- not a first-round date with the likes of UTEP.
Overrated: Cincinnati. Bob Huggins' Bearcats closed the regular season on a six-game winning streak and enter the dance at 24-7. So why overrated? Because they've shot under 40 percent from the field in three of their past four contests -- including 32.8 percent against Memphis on March 5. They stumbled out of the Conference USA tournament in the first round, falling 80-68 to 11th-seeded South Florida. Cincy's post game -- behind Jason Maxiell and Eric Hicks -- is stellar, but it's missing a vital element in the recipe for tourney success: a dependable backcourt. While the nation's quality point guards can claim assist-to-turnover ratios of at least 2:1, the figure for the Bearcats' Jihad Muhammad is 1.2:1 -- 79 dimes versus 66 turnovers. That, suffice it to say, has me worried.
Bracket Buster: Michigan State. With an experience-laden roster and a Final-Four-tested coach, this is the tournament's biggest wild card. When you're making your picks, do you consider the Spartans 1) a bunch of underachievers who will bow out in the first round, like they did last season against Nevada; or 2) a deep, balanced, under-the-radar team that's capable of stunning Syracuse and Duke? Name the top seven players on MSU's roster -- Alan Anderson, Maurice Ager, Paul Davis, Shannon Brown, Chris Hill, Kelvin Torbert, Drew Neitzel -- and you'll see the talent is there for Tom Izzo. But try to make a list of their big wins this season -- uh, does beating Wisconsin in East Lansing count? -- and you'll realize why the Spartans have no shortage of doubters. The fourth-seeded Orange are looking like a popular choice to emerge from the Austin region -- and MSU is the team that could wreak havoc on those brackets.
Home Cooking: 'Cuse faithful should turn out in droves for the Orange's first- and second-round dates in Worcester, Mass., but judging from the outpouring of love for Vermont over the past two seasons, the Catamounts -- who themselves won't be too far away from home -- are bound to be the fan favorite at The Centrum. ... No. 1 seed Duke has a short trip to its opening games in Charlotte, but will the hordes of UNC fans also in attendance try to make life rough for the Blue Devils? ... When the action heads to Austin, third-seeded Oklahoma could have the advantage over the Blue Devils and second-seeded Kentucky, not just in fan support but also by way of having played -- and handily won -- a game against Texas there Feb. 28.
Best Player You Haven't Heard Of: If you haven't heard of Vermont's Taylor Coppenrath by now, you better ask somebody. I'm not going to be that obvious with my pick here. The guy you should acquaint yourself with -- and the man Kelvin Sampson is watching video of right now -- is Niagara senior forward Juan Mendez, who averaged 23.6 points and 10.5 rebounds this season. The beast of the Metro Athletic Athletic Conference, he powered the Purple Eagles to their first NCAA bid in 35 years, racking up 18 double-doubles on the season (including 27 points and 13 boards in a conference title-game win over Rider). Mendez, who hails from Montreal, is the highest-scoring Canadian in Division I history.
Best Matchup: No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Vermont. After suffering the standard fate of a 16-seed last season (a loss), T-Copp and the Catamounts get another chance in the dance. This is the most intriguing first-round game in the entire bracket, as it features a Northeastern powerhouse, the Orange, against a Northeastern darling, the Catamounts, in Worcester -- not to mention a grumpy Jim Boeheim against a friendly Tom Brennan and an athletic Hakim Warrick against a gritty Coppenrath. The 'Cuse may be on a roll, but expect Vermont to play inspired basketball: This is the end of the road not only for seniors Coppenrath, David Hehn and T.J. Sorrentine, but Brennan as well. The coach has already announced his retirement, effective at season's end.
The Pick: Oklahoma vs. Duke in the final -- a rematch of the Dec. 18 meeting at the Garden, which the Blue Devils won 78-67 after the Sooners held a halftime lead. Despite OU's geographical advantage in Austin, the Blue Devils will prevail. Coach K's thin ranks are bound to be tested -- especially against the Sooners' frontcourt duo of Kevin Bookout and Taj Gray -- but the Dukies appear to be a team of destiny. How else can we explain an ACC-tournament title path that didn't require beating UNC or Wake Forest? Or an NCAA tournament region that's set up like Austin is? It's a chalk pick, and I apologize for not going out on a limb, but the Blue Devils' road to St. Louis is too wide-open.