It was easy to dismiss the Ducks during the middle of the Pac-10 season when their defensive deficiencies were glaring and the losses piled up, but Ernie Kent's crew has righted the ship while adding even more weapons on the offensive end. How many guys can score on you? Let's see: Aaron Brooks, Bryce Taylor, Malik Hairston and Tajuan Porter. What's more, Maarty Leunen is just the sort of rebounding wide-body big man who'll make things tough for Notre Dame's Luke Harangody in Round 2 and Wisconsin's Brian Butch-less interior guys in Round 3.
The Bulldogs were magnificent in November and December, but the bloom has fallen off this rose over the last month, and I was surprised the committee gave Butler a 5-seed. Old Dominion is just the sort of tough Colonial team that can (and will) win the battle of the glass with Butler in the first round -- and put a new spin on the 5-12 upset. (It just isn't the same when both teams are mid-majors.)
Bracket Buster: Old Dominion
Looking for "this year's George Mason?" Don't, there won't be a mid-major in the Final Four. The Monarchs do, however, come from the same conference as George Mason and could pull off two upsets against over-rated foes in No. 5-seed Butler and No. 4-seed Maryland.
Home cooking: Wisconsin
I was all set to pick 10th-seeded Georgia Tech over the struggling Badgers in Round 2, but then I remembered Wisconsin will be playing its first two games in Chicago (aka East Madison). It's fashionable to dog Wisconsin because leading rebounder Brian Butch won't be available, but there's enough depth here (and familiar surroundings) to survive until the second week.
Best player you've never heard of: Torrell Martin, Winthrop
Now that he's healthy again, Martin will be able to show off the kind of fearless outside shooting that stung North Carolina, Wisconsin and Mississippi State earlier this season. Martin is a hidden gem, an NBA-quality player who will give Big East foe Notre Dame all it can handle.
Best matchup: Notre Dame-Winthrop
Don't worry, I won't go all Digger Phelps on you and act like the Irish are suddenly the team to beat in the NCAAs, but anyone who saw ND's electric performance in a close loss to streaking Georgetown knows the Irish are the most dangerous 6-seed in the tournament. Too bad for Winthrop, which deserved a less imposing first-round opponent and probably would rather have drawn, say, Virginia (an overrated 4-seed) or Memphis (an overrated 2-seed). Regardless, these are two evenly-matched teams, and I'm envisioning a classic tournament matchup.
The pick: Florida
I'm not sure why Florida is the tournament's No. 1-overall seed, nor do I know why the Gators were placed in the Midwest Region as opposed to the South or the East. But the fact is the Midwest is a thin region whose second-best team might just be 6th-seeded Notre Dame. In fact, Florida's biggest roadblock to the Final Four could even be Arizona in the second round. (If the "good" Wildcats show up like they did last year in Round 2 against Villanova, they have the talent to hang with the defending champs.) That said, I don't see any team posing enough problems to keep the Gators from reaching Atlanta.