A year ago, I knew who I thought would win the national title. There was no parcel of doubt in my mind that Florida — if it played up to its potential — would win its second consecutive title.
This year is a different story. UCLA? North Carolina? Kansas? Memphis? Tennessee? Texas?
It's a crap shoot.
Here goes — my picks from the first round through the final.
First round No. 1 UNC def. play-in winner: Um, yeah. No. 8 Indiana def. No. 9 Arkansas: Forget the fact that the Hoosiers have lost three of four. It's a new season and they're much better than an 8 seed. No. 5 Notre Dame def. No. 12 George Mason: Luke Harangody is a beast down low. No. 4 Washington State def. No. 13 Winthrop: WSU's guards handle the Eagles. No. 11 St. Joe's def. No. 6 Oklahoma: The Sooners are seeded too high. St. Joe's is overflowing with confidence. No. 3 Louisville def. No. 14 Boise State: No three-overtime miracle for the Broncos here. No. 7 Butler def. No. 10 South Alabama: Possibly the best seventh seed I've ever seen. No. 2 Tennessee def. No. 15 American: The run for American ends quickly.
Second round No. 1 UNC def. No. 8 Indiana: A scary game for the Tar Heels, but with the arena full of their fans, they put together a late run to pull away for the win. No. 4 Washington State def. No. 5 Notre Dame: Cougars kill the slower Fighting Irish with dribble penetration. No. 3 Louisville def. No. 11 St. Joe's: In low-scoring battle, David Padgett is the difference. No. 2 Tennessee def. No. 7 Butler: I hate the fact that these two teams play in the second round. Hate it, hate it, hate it!
Regional semifinals No. 1 UNC def. No. 4 Washington State: Heels have too much firepower for Cougs, who have to play in Charlotte. No. 2 Tennessee def. No. 3 Louisville: Another tough choice, but when the Vols play their game, they're clearly the better team.
Regional final No. 1 UNC def. No. 2 Tennessee: The main reason to make this pick? The Vols' tough road to this game. I feel much more comfortable picking UNC — playing in its home state — to get here than the Vols. As far as the game, it's hard to give the Heels much of an edge. They did, however, show how to beat a full-court pressure team like Tennessee this past weekend in their ACC Tournament title-game win over Clemson.
First round No. 1 Kansas def. No. 16 Portland State: The first trip to the Big Dance for Portland State ends abruptly. No. 9 Kent State def. No. 8 UNLV: When in doubt, pick the 9 seed. No. 5 Clemson def. No. 12 Villanova: Tigers are playing as well as anyone and they get the late game on Friday — a good fit for a team that played Sunday afternoon. No. 4 Vanderbilt def. No. 13 Siena: Vandy's a team that can beat anyone and get beat by anyone. It's too risky to pick this upset. No. 6 USC def. No. 11 Kansas State: The difference between these two teams? O.J. Mayo has much more help — much more consistently — than Michael Beasley. No. 3 Wisconsin def. No. 14 Cal State Fullerton — The Badgers got disrespected by not getting a 2 seed. Now, it's time to shut people down. No. 10 Davidson def. No. 7 Gonzaga: Another matchup that I hate to pick. But Davidson is playing in Raleigh. Can't really say more. This could go either way. No. 2 Georgetown def. No. 15 UMBC: Another first-time team's dance ends quickly.
Second round No. 1 Kansas def. No. 9 Kent State: No way the Jayhawks lose this game in Omaha. Too much depth. Too much firepower. No. 5 Clemson def. No. 4 Vanderbilt: Great second-round matchup. In the end, the Tigers have too much depth for Shan Foster to handle. No. 3 Wisconsin def. No. 6 USC: Badgers shut down Mayo, get timely baskets in game played in the 50s. No. 2 Georgetown def. No. 10 Davidson: Here's why you don't pick Davidson — because there's a 50 percent chance the Wildcats could be done by this game. Take the team you know is going to be playing.
Regional semifinals No. 1 Kansas def. No. 5 Clemson: The difference in this game? Free-throw shooting. Kansas makes more than Clemson. Kansas advances. No. 3 Wisconsin def. No. 2 Georgetown: In front of Badgers-pro crowd in Detroit, Wisconsin shuts down Hibbert, ekes out victory.
Regional final No. 1 Kansas def. No. 3 Wisconsin: Finally, Bill Self gets over the hump and into the Final Four. Wisconsin has to focus defensively on every Jayhawk on the floor, spreading the Badgers out. Kansas hits big 3s down the stretch.
First round No. 1 Memphis def. No. 16 UT-Arlington: It's all business for Tigers this season. No. 8 Mississippi State def. No. 9 Oregon: Ducks have hard time scoring in lane over shot-blocking Bulldogs, who have advantage playing in Little Rock. No. 5 Michigan State def. No. 12 Temple: Good to see the Owls back in the tournament, but the young Spartans play lock-down defense and are led by senior point guard Drew Neitzel. No. 13 Oral Roberts def. No. 4 Pittsburgh: I know this isn't a popular pick, but the Panthers are worn out. They won four games in four days at the Big East Tournament. Now, they play Thursday at 3 p.m. It all adds up to an early exit. No. 11 Kentucky def. No. 6 Marquette: Wildcats have rallied together since loss of Patrick Patterson. Now, they take advantage of at-large berth. No. 3 Stanford def. No. 14 Cornell: Be weary of the Big Red. I saw it play Duke tough inside Cameron. But the Lopez twins will carry the Cardinal. No. 7 Miami def. No. 10 St. Mary's: ACC vs. West Coast toss-up game — I'm going with the ACC. No. 2 Texas def. No. 15 Austin Peay: This is a dangerous first-round game for the Longhorns, who rely so heavily on a couple players. But I don't have the guts to make a 15-over-2 call.
Second round No. 1 Memphis def. No. 8 Mississippi State: Tigers have too much depth in this one. No. 5 Michigan State def. No. 13 Oral Roberts: More lock-down defense played by the Spartans. No. 3 Stanford def. No. 11 Kentucky: Without Patterson, Wildcats can't handle the Lopez twins down low. No. 2 Texas def. No. 7 Miami: A.J. Abrams matches Jack McClinton 3 for 3. Longhorns have advantages elsewhere.
Regional semifinals No. 1 Memphis def. No. 5 Michigan State: Tempted to pick the upset, but Chris Douglas-Roberts is the difference for the Tigers. No. 2 Texas def. No. 3 Stanford: Texas' guards trump Stanford's big men.
Regional final No. 1 Memphis def. No. 2 Texas: I don't care that this game is in Houston. Derrick Rose is almost as good as D.J. Augustine, and the Tigers have advantages elsewhere. Tigers' defensive presence in the paint and versatility on offense are enough for hard-fought victory.
First round No. 1 UCLA def. No. 16 Mississippi Valley State: Jerry Rice's school can't quite pull off the upset (OK, they don't come close). No. 8 BYU def. No. 9 Texas A&M: If the Aggies show up, they might win — but they've been too inconsistent all year to pick here. No. 5 Drake def. No. 12 Western Kentucky: Another battle of mid-majors in the first round, which drives me crazy. I haven't seen a minute of Drake basketball this season, but I've heard and read very, very good things. No. 4 Connecticut def. No. 13 San Diego: Toreros' Cinderella run comes to a halt against balanced Huskies. No. 11 Baylor def. No. 6 Purdue: Bears are riding high after being the last team shown when CBS revealed the brackets. Youthful Boilermakers have struggled down the stretch. No. 3 Xavier def. No. 14 Georgia: Bulldogs finally show fatigue during Thursday afternoon matchup. No. 7 West Virginia def. No. 10 Arizona: Mountaineers always play with a chip on their shoulder this time of year. Arizona should be questioning why it's even in the field. No. 2 Duke def. No. 15 Belmont: Both teams shoot a ton of 3s. Duke, however, also can score at the basket and in transition.
Second round No. 1 UCLA def. No. 8 BYU: Bruins are healed by this point, and when everyone's healthy, there's no way they're losing to BYU. No. 5 Drake def. No. 4 Connecticut: Great run continues for Keno Davis' bunch. No. 3 Xavier def. No. 11 Baylor: Musketeers don't blow second-round game this time around. They're more experienced and Drew Lavender is a good backcourt leader. No. 2 Duke def. No. 7 West Virginia: Devils outrun Mountaineers with their depth and conditioning.
Regional semifinals No. 1 UCLA def. No. 5 Drake: Too much power inside for the Bruins, with freshman Kevin Love leading the way. No. 2 Duke def. No. 3 Xavier: Tough choice here, but I'll go with Devils because they have more offensive options.
Regional final No. 1 UCLA def. No. 2 Duke: Third straight Final Four birth for the Bruins, who lock down the Devils and show off their brute force against Duke's weaker front line. Plus, the Bruins — minus Love — have plenty of big-game experience.
FINAL FOUR So there you have it — for the first time, four No. 1 seeds will make the Final Four. Well, at least according to me.
Kansas def. North Carolina 82-76: This could change if Ty Lawson gets himself back to the old Ty Lawson, but I'm banking on that not happening. He still lacks that quickness he used to have. Because he's slower, the Jayhawks guards will be able to penetrate and dish against the Heels and will limit Wayne Ellington's open looks on the perimeter. Tyler Hansbrough will have a big game, but it won't be enough against the deeper Jayhawks.
UCLA def. Memphis 60-53: For the second time in three years, the Bruins eliminate the Tigers. Finally, Memphis' poor free-throw shooting catches up to it at the end. Veteran point man Darren Collison outplays Rose and Russell Westbrook contains CDR. The big men negate each other.
Kansas def. UCLA 69-67: In a rematch of last year's Elite Eight, we get a different result. The bottom line is that Kansas has too much backcourt depth for the Bruins. They'll wear down Collison with their array of versatile guards and turn UCLA miscues into easy transition baskets. It will go down to the very end, with Brandon Rush making the game-winning shot in the final minute. What a blessing in disguise it was that he tore his ACL a year ago. Otherwise, he'd be sitting on an NBA bench instead of winning the national title.
So there you have it. Again, I'm more unsure of these picks than last year's, when I won a few pools. Follow my suggestions at your own peril.