Welcome, everyone, to the Campus Times preview of the March Madness Tournament. This year, our panel of experts include a sports editor, a former sports editor and a sports staff writer, so rest assured that our picks are intelligent and, judging by last year’s results, probably right on the money. While it’s true that Selection Sunday hasn’t happened yet, it’s never too late to start rooting for that team with a cool looking mascot.

So take a seat, grab a pen and start filling out your brackets because you haven’t lived until you’ve listened to Billy Packer for two straight weeks.

What is the surprise storyline this year?

David Maystrovsky: I would have to say that the most surprising storyline of the year would have to be the decline of some of the biggest established teams. Illinois and Syracuse are on the bubble, while UConn and Washington are probably going to the NIT. This might be the opportunity for a lesser known school to take it to the next level and establish itself.

Steve Goff: The most surprising storyline of the season to me was the release of Sean Williams from the Boston College Eagles. After violating team rules repeatedly, BC parted ways with Williams, who had 75 blocks in 14 games. A near lock for the NBA lottery, it’s tough to believe that Jared Dudley still has the Eagles in contention to go deep into the tourney, even without Williams.

Alex Moeller: There were many interesting twists and turns this season, but the one that stands out the most is the “decline” of Duke. A perennial powerhouse and fan favorite, the Blue Devils’ fall from grace was widely publicized when, on Feb. 12, they were unranked for the first time since the coaches poll was introduced 17 years ago. As of press time, they have lost six of their last 10 games and are poised to be the No. 7 seed in the ACC tournament. While a 22-9 record may not seem like a serious slide, for a team like Duke, it certainly is.

Which so-called “power conference” asserted itself this year?

SG: I think that the Pacific-10 conference really made a statement this year. While a program such as UCLA having a great season isn’t much of an eye opener, surprise teams such as Washington State, USC and Oregon have really given credibility to this conference. UCLA certainly is a threat to be a Final Four contender; I feel a team like Oregon with a fast offense who can really shoot the three has a chance to represent the Pac-10 well in the tourney.

AM: I normally think of football when talking about the Big 12, but the conference has blossomed into a solid group of basketball teams this season. While the Big 12 lacks depth, it boasts three teams in the top 15 in both polls, something no other conference can say at this point in the season. In addition, the conference is home to a potential National Player of the Year, as well as the winningest coach in Division I history.

DM: I am going to have to agree with Steve and say the Pac-10. Both Oregon and Washington State illustrate the surprising resurgence of the conference. Also, Stanford and USC have come back to life after several years of misery and mediocrity.

Who should be the National Player of the Year?

SG: I think it comes down to two players: Wisconsin’s Alando Tucker and Texas freshman Kevin Durant. Tucker is playing at an extremely high level on a very accomplished team while Durant has been showing why he would be in the NBA if it weren’t for draft rules. I think the nod might go to Tucker, as the award has generally gone to upperclassmen the last couple of seasons and his team has held a top spot in the rankings all season.

DM: Kevin Durant. Let’s all be honest with each other, he is a beast. In fact, it’s almost not fair how much he dominates competition. Sure he’s only a freshman, but next year, when he is putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds on Yao Ming, it will look like a good decision.

Which bubble teams should get into the tournament? Which ones should stay home?

AM: A key to performing well in the NCAA tournament is taking care of business on the road. Based on this, Drexel should be a happy group on Selection Sunday. The Dragons have a heap of wins away from home, including Syracuse and Villanova. On the flip side, the Oklahoma State Cowboys’ bubble is likely to burst, considering they have no wins in hostile territory this season. They’ve shown flashes of brilliance throughout the year, but any team that goes a whole season without a road victory is destined for the NIT.

DM: To get in – Texas Tech. If you thought Bob Knight was a loon during the regular season, you should experience him in NCAA tournament play, he is semi-insane. Not only has his team beaten good teams (Texas A&M twice) they are a fun team to watch. With a decent conference record in a tough conference, they should get the chance to play in the postseason. To stay home – Washington. They started out 0-6 in conference play and unless they pull off some miracles in the conference tournament, their mediocre out of conference record should keep them playing in the Little Dance (aka, the NIT).

SG: Should be in: Michigan State – While a couple of recent tough losses against both Michigan and Wisconsin hurt the Spartans chances, Tom Izzo’s squad had good wins earlier against both Wisconsin and Indiana and another close loss against Ohio State. Stay home: Oklahoma State. Without registering a true road win and after going 4-9 in their last 13 games once the competition heated up, the Cowboys should pack up now.

Who will get the No. 1 seeds in the tournament?

DM: Depending on how the conference tournaments play out, Ohio State and UCLA deserve No. 1 seeds. After that it gets a bit tricky. Kansas will get a top seed. Look for Florida or North Carolina to get the last top seed.

SG: With many of the top teams losing multiple games, it is tough to tell who will be No. 1 seeds. Ohio State, UCLA, Kansas and early season favorite to repeat Florida should get the nods, all holding dominant records, even against tough opponents. Florida has struggled as of late, but I think their retention of many key starters from last year’s championship run will have many voters slapping a No. 1 seed next to their name.

AM: It looks like UCLA, Kansas and Ohio State are locks, barring any insane upsets this week. The final spot should go to either the Wisconsin Badgers or the UNC Tar Heels. In my mind, the edge goes to the Badgers based on their place in the polls. In the end, however, the final top seed will be whichever team fares better in their respective conference tournament.

Which big-name schools are going to lose in the early rounds this year?

SG: Duke. I think this is a great year for the Blue Devils to get bounced in the first two rounds. Duke left the Top 25 for the first time in over a decade. Coach K’s team suffers from inexperience, with 13 of 14 players being freshman or sophomores and they seem prone to an early round exit in the 2007 tourney.

AM: It’s strange to think of Gonzaga as a big-name school, but that’s exactly what they have become over the past seven years. This year the biggest news they’ve been making is on the police blotter, as two players were kicked off the team for possession of illegal drugs. The ‘Zags will get a lower-than-normal seed, bow out early and surprise no one.

Which teams will become “Cinderellas” in this year’s tournament?

AM: I’m going to watch the Southern Conference champions Davidson Wildcats. This team is on a 13-game winning streak, and during that streak they have won by an average of 17 points per game. Granted, the teams they beat weren’t top quality squads, but to consistently dominate anyone the way the Wildcats have been lately is impressive. Keep an eye on guard Stephen Curry, who averages more than 21 points per game.

DM: I know that they a
re from a major conference, but look for Vanderbilt to surprise some people. The Commodores have either good games or truly terrible games. If they can crank out a deep SEC tourney run, look for that momentum to carry them to at least the Sweet 16, possibly even an Elite Eight berth.

SG: The best part of any March Madness tourney is always the Cinderella team. Indiana finished in third place in the Big 10 that included both Wisconsin and Ohio State. Indiana played a tough schedule. With junior D.J. White and sophomore Roderick Wilmont at their best, I like Indiana to make its way to the Elite Eight and maybe beyond.

Which mid-major team can make a George Mason-like run to the Final Four this year?

SG: With a slew of very good teams at the top of the rankings, I really don’t see another mid-major like George Mason making it to the Final Four. However, the tourney is sure to be as unpredictable as ever, and I never count any of the 64 teams out of doing something special.

DM: This is tricky because there are several teams that could make a deep run. Winthrop could go far. However, perhaps a surprise pick could be UMass. Sure they play in a conference that my high school team could win, but they’ve got a senior-laden team and if last year showed us anything, experience counts. Also, look for a Missouri Valley Conference team to make a deep run again this year. Pretty soon, the MVC should be up for major conference status.

Which teams will make up the Final Four this year?

DM: I do believe that Kansas will finally break the curse of being upset in the first round. Ohio State can make it if they don’t get bored and suffer an upset. Also, look for Texas to come through with a Final Four appearance and set up an instant ESPN classic battle between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. The final spot will go to Memphis, only because they went undefeated in their conference and know what it’s like to play horrible teams, which will serve them well in the opening rounds of the tourney.

AM: With so much parity among the top teams this year, don’t be too surprised if only one or even none of the top seeds advance to the Final Four. While a lot still depends on how the actual bracket shakes out, I’m going with UCLA, Texas A&M, Ohio State and (my upset special) Louisville. After a shaky start, the Cardinals have caught fire over the second half of the season.

Last, but certainly not least, who is your pick to win the national championship?

DM: Unless either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant can figure out how to guard five guys at the same time, or Acie Law can score 70 points a game, look for Kansas and their unparalleled depth to take home the national title. After the game, watch the entire starting lineup of the Jayhawks declare for the NBA draft.

AM: Texas A&M has lost just five games this season, and four of those were by three points or less. They have arguably the nation’s best point guard in Acie Law, a senior leader who can take control of a game not only with his play, but also with his poise. None of the other Final Four squads have a leader quite like Law, although UCLA’s Arron Afflalo is close. The Bruins will have to settle for second again this season as the Texas A&M Aggies lift the championship trophy.

SG: I really still like Florida, even though I leave them out of my Final Four. Repeating is nearly impossible with everyone wanting to make a statement against the reigning champs. Thus, I will have to take Ohio State. The most complete team in the tournament has remained solid all year and has the dominant player (Oden) and the supporting cast to win it all.

Maystrovsky is a member of the class of 2009.

Moeller is a member of the class of 2009.

Goff is a member of the class of 2008.

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