What's the wildest dream for your team this NCAA tournament? What's the darkest nightmare? We plot out best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios for every team in the Big Dance.
No 1. VIRGINIA
Best Case: Tony Bennett assumes his place in the vanguard of his profession, going two steps farther than his father, Dick, did in taking Wisconsin to the 2000 Final Four. In a triumph of teamwork, Tony goes all the way without a single player averaging 13 points per game, winning 21 of the last 22 games along the way. Joe Harris leads the way in the early rounds and Malcolm Brogdon takes over later. The two lead Virginia past Coastal Carolina, George Washington, Cincinnati and Iowa State, with defense and deliberate tempo the predictable common denominators along the way. The Cavaliers win the battle of uber-balanced teams in the semifinals, beating Florida, and ultimately frustrate Louisville into submission in the national title game. They are the least sexy national champion in years, possibly decades, and could not care less. Thirty years after Ralph came and went without a title, the unfinished quest is fulfilled. The Tobacco Road elitist preppie prigs finally must pay their respects north toward the Charlottesville elitist preppie prigs. In the ultimate sign that BennettBall is a menace, the basketball rules committee approves legislation to shorten the shot clock to 30 seconds in an effort to speed up the game. Suitably inspired, lacrosse team also wins it all.
Worst Case: It's been a while, but this is a team that scored 38 points in one game and lost another by 35. So there is an offensive unraveling mechanism in there somewhere – and George Washington activates it in the round of 32. Virginia flails for baskets, and the pressure of the school's highest seeding in 30 years makes a sketchy free-throw shooting team even worse. The Colonials pull the upset and Virginia's most successful season in a long time is over early. Tobacco Road elitist preppie prigs curl their stiff upper lips at another flameout by the Charlottesville elitist preppie prigs, then watch Duke and North Carolina both make the Final Four. Lacrosse team bombs as well.
No. 16 COASTAL CAROLINA
Best Case: Thirty-five years after he took his first team to the Big Dance, certified relic Cliff Ellis is back with his fourth different school. That provides some nice nostalgia and story-telling for Ellis, who previously took South Alabama, Clemson and Auburn to the NCAAs. It doesn't provide much in the way of a competitive advantage for the Chanticleers against No. 1 seed Virginia, but Ellis has a few tricks up his sleeve to keep the fighting roosters in it for 15 minutes before going claws up. Coastal fans make the reasonable commute to Raleigh and make most of their first NCAA trip in 21 years. No animals are harmed in the making of this basketball mismatch.
Worst Case: A 9:25 p.m. ET tipoff is late for a certified relic, and Ellis has nothing up his sleeve to counteract the suffocating defense of the Cavaliers. Coastal Carolina, the No. 232 team in the nation with the No. 298 offense according to Ken Pomeroy, brings a pea shooter to a gun fight with predictable results. Ellis is ready for bed by halftime.
No. 8 MEMPHIS
Best Case: In a master motivational stroke, Josh Pastner convinces his players that every four-minute segment of every NCAA tournament game is the last four minutes against Louisville – the team Memphis outscored 29-4 down the stretch for their two biggest victories of the season. That Memphis team runs George Washington off the floor, then springs the upset on No. 1 Virginia in the round of 32. Ultra-quick Tigers guards strip the Cavaliers and score in transition, taking the game out of BennettBall tempo. Even after being eliminated in the Sweet 16 by Michigan State, the always moving Pastner Pendulum swings back to positive. Tennessee's flameout in the play-in round is another source of joy in the city, as is the early exit by hero-turned-villain John Calipari and Kentucky.
Worst Case: Josh Pastner has no master motivational strokes. His spastic collection of loosely affiliated talents throws the ball away in bulk, clangs free throws, clangs 3-pointers and gets smoked by George Washington in the Tigers' first game. This looks like the team that was blown out in its own building by Connecticut and lost to Houston, not the last-magicians who swept Louisville. Pastner's NCAA tourney record drops to 1-4, and the pendulum swings even further to the negative. Fans take to the airwaves and message boards to fire him by proxy. Anger is exacerbated by Tennessee's surprising Sweet 16 run and another Calipari national title at Kentucky. Even Conference USA champion Tulsa chirps after advancing farther than the Tigers.
No. 9 GEORGE WASHINGTON
Best Case: With a rousing run to the Sweet 16 that includes an upset of top seed Virginia, people inside the Beltway finally stop mistaking Mike Lonergan for an insurance adjuster. The D.C. product and third-year coach makes a name for himself by leading the Colonials past Memphis in the round of 64, with Isaiah Armwood controlling the middle and outplaying Shaq Goodwin. Then Maurice Creek, the injury-prone Indiana transfer, continues his torrid recent 3-point shooting (18 of 35 over the last five games) to take out the Cavaliers. With the rest of the area teams out of the picture, GW has a rare moment in the sports spotlight of the nation's capital. After GW makes its first Sweet 16 in 21 years, the Lonergan love is spreading nationwide – but he turns down overtures from elsewhere to stay home.
Worst Case: Lonergan remains as anonymous and uncelebrated as a local insurance guy when the Colonials are heated up and turned over by a focused Memphis team. Thin team wears down against the Tigers' tempo and pressure. GW's NCAA tourney record falls to 4-11, allowing Georgetown to continue to look down on the neighboring school it refuses to schedule. Tournament moves on with scant evidence that the Colonials participated.
No. 5 CINCINNATI
Best Case: Bearcats give the Ivy Leaguers from Harvard a proper education in full-contact basketball, muscling their way past the Crimson. Then their barbed-wire defense locks up Michigan State and Sean Kilpatrick makes all the big shots, ruining a lot of brackets nationwide. In the Sweet 16, coach Mick Cronin's enraged sideline elf persona motivates his team and terrifies officials in an upset of Virginia. In a fourth meeting with AAC rival Connecticut in the regional final, the Bearcats even the score at 2-2 as Jumpin' Justin Jackson throws down dunk after dunk. Cincy advances to its first Final Four in 22 years. Loss there to Florida is no shame. Hometown hero Cronin signs lifetime contract. Xavier lost so long ago, nobody even remembers the Musketeers were in the tournament.
[Slideshow: Check out all of the East region matchups right here]
Worst Case: Fouled on a put-back attempt with a second left and the Bearcats down one, Jackson must go to the line to beat Harvard. Horrified Cincinnati fans avert their eyes as the beloved senior who has missed 10 straight free throws, and 14 of his last 15, bricks them both. Cronin had previously been ejected when his enraged elf sideline act spills over into a Jeff Van Gundy leg grab of Harvard's center. Sean Kilpatrick's Cincy career ends on a 6-for-22 brickfest as the offensively laborious Bearcats bog down without him hitting enough shots. Meanwhile, Xavier executes a surprising dash from Dayton to the Sweet 16, reveling in Cincinnati's early ouster along the way. And there still is no other conference eyeing the Bearcats for expansion.
No. 12 HARVARD
Best Case: As the dangerous Crimson make an unprecedented encroachment into Bracketville, the basketball bandwagon again fills with faux fans who never attended a game while in school. Beating Cincinnati and Michigan State in a 48-hour span will do that, as the program continues its stair-step progression – earn first bid in 2012, got first win in '13, makes first Sweet 16 this year. Software savants laud Tommy Amaker's assiduous man-to-man defense. Policymakers marvel at the sublime athleticism of wingman Wesley Saunders. Nuclear physicists delight in the proficiency of 3-point specialist Laurent Rivard. 'Twas a well-spent weekend in Spokane, rubbing elbows with the Little People who cheer for players studying criminal justice.
Worst Case: Bandwagon empties as fast as it filled up. Harvard gets bullied inside by the Bearcats, Rivard is covered on the catch, and the help defense keeps Saunders from having space to work. Crimson meet the same fate as the vast majority of Ivy champions, being abruptly dismissed in their first game. Amaker considers a return to high-major coaching and checks out the vacancies. Crimson cognoscenti return to running the country and worrying about having Harvard man Obama replaced by Yalie Hillary Clinton.
No. 4 MICHIGAN STATE
Best Case: Finally of sound mind and body, this is the Michigan State we thought we'd get this season. Strongman Branden Dawson continues his out-of-body jump shooting from the Big Ten tournament. Adreian Payne is an inside-outside stud. Gary Harris is swishing big shots. Keith Appling is running the show. The role players play roles. Tom Izzo maintains his streak of getting every four-year player he's ever coached to a Final Four – and then some. Sparty isn't done until it wins it all. Michigan State handcuffs the Cincinnati and Virginia offenses, then outscores Iowa State in a 2000 regional final re-enactment to cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden. In Arlington, the Spartans wear down Florida in the semifinals and outfight Louisville in a ferocious title game. Couch fires erupt in East Lansing. Fresh off the Rose Bowl victory and now this, athletic director Mark Hollis proclaims it the Year of the Spartan and announces plans for a football-basketball doubleheader in Ford Field against the Lions and Pistons. High-level recruits rediscover the Joy of Izzo and start committing to the Spartans again. Michigan is upset early, and Big Blue fans reach for the antacids watching Michigan State win everything.
Worst Case: Appling falls and re-injures his wrist in victory over Delaware. Dawson hurts his thumb again in practice the next day. Random anvil falls from the sky, Bugs Bunny-style, on Payne's foot. Izzo gets the flu. The plague returns and short-handed Sparty is bounced in the round of 32 by Cincinnati. A pall sets in as Izzo's Final Four streak is snapped. The pall intensifies as Michigan wins the national title. Fed up with losing all his top recruiting targets to Duke, Kansas and Kentucky, Izzo finally scratches his NBA itch and jumps to the Pistons. Program begins painful regression to the Gus Ganakas Era level of competitiveness.
No. 13 DELAWARE
Best Case: Exile in Spokane is fine with the Blue Hens, who don't have that many fans anyway. It's less fine with Michigan State, which is lacking its usual fan support and comes out flat. Savvy, perimeter-based Delaware refuses to turn the ball over and makes tough shots. It's a game right down to the end. Michigan State pulls it out, but the tough little chickens nearly earn their first NCAA victory – and do earn a new level of respect in their first tournament game since 1999. Ross' incremental program building is rewarded with a new contract that keeps him there and happy.
Worst Case: Team that was all but beaten in CAA final by William & Mary is perfectly capable of being blown out by Michigan State, and it happens. Blue Hens stick to their M.O. and try to run, playing right into the Spartans' hands. Delaware surrenders 91 points and loses by 25. Monte Ross bails on the diminished CAA for a better job. The world goes back to ignoring Delaware – the basketball program, the university and the state.
No. 6 NORTH CAROLINA
Best Case: Having succeeded in once again lowering expectations with back-to-back losses, the Tar Heels are due for another jarring change of course. They provide it by making a spirited sprint to the Final Four. Marcus Paige plays like the best point guard in the tournament, scoring and distributing and making steals. James Michael McAdoo stays out of foul trouble and delivers consistently inside. Leslie McDonald's wandering shooting eye returns, and the Heels even make key free throws when they have to. Ol' Roy enjoys this dadgum ride as much as any of 'em, even if it ends in the national semifinals against Florida. Then he gets busy again on the recruiting trail and closes the widening talent gap between Chapel Hill and Durham. Speaking of Durham: Duke flames out against Mercer. Meanwhile, the PackPride vigilantes find another hobby and stop the proctology exam of the Tar Heels.
Worst Case: Carolina goes 2-for-9 down the stretch from the foul line and loses its opener to Providence. After all the heavy breathing late in the regular season about the Tar Heel resurgence, it's only fitting that a team this unpredictable goes out with a whimper on a three-game losing streak. Ol' Roy doesn't even bother to summon the annual season-ending tears on behalf of a group as loco as this one. Williams spends more time at Pinehurst and Peach Jam, and Duke keeps winning the recruiting battles – after the Blue Devils win yet another national title in North Texas. Meanwhile, the PackPride vigilantes have no other hobbies and vow to retrace every step P.J. Hairston took while at North Carolina.
No. 11 PROVIDENCE
Best Case: Every once in a while, a senior guard does something magical and carries the Friars to the Final Four. In 1973 it was Ernie DiGregorio. In 1987 it was Billy Donovan. In 2014 it is the least likely of all, Bryce Cotton. A complete afterthought recruit from Arizona, Cotton has literally become irreplaceable – he is averaging 39.9 minutes per game. Cotton gets the best of Marcus Paige in an upset of North Carolina, then the Friars catch consecutive breaks in an upset-littered bracket. They beat North Carolina Central in the round of 32 and St. Joseph's in the round of 16, setting up a third meeting with Villanova. This time Providence beats its Big East rival with a 3-point barrage and waltzes into Arlington. The run ends there against Donovan's Florida Gators, but coach Ed Cooley puts his name alongside Dave Gavitt and Rick Pitino in the PC history books. Dominicans, always overshadowed by the Jesuits when it comes to Catholic education, grab temporary bragging rights. Eternally overlooked state of Rhode Island puffs up its chest for three weeks, throws a welcome-home clambake for the team.
Worst Case: There are no clambakes for first-round losers, and the Dominicans remain overshadowed. The volume-shooting Cotton (526 hoists on the season) is not as good as North Carolina's Marcus Paige, who outplays him as the Tar Heels send the Friars packing. Never terribly good around the basket offensively, Providence can't make anything against the Carolina interior length. Game gets away and becomes a blowout in the second half. Cooley's name may eventually be mentioned alongside Gavitt and Pitino, but not this year.
No. 3 IOWA STATE
Best Case: Contrary to old-school axioms, offense tends to win championships in modern-day college basketball. And few teams are better offensively than the Cyclones, who have shooters and drivers and ball handlers all over the floor. In Melvin Ejim, DeAndre Kane, Georges "The Bleeder" Niang, Dustin Hogue & Co., coach Fred Hoiberg has one of the toughest teams to guard in the nation. The Clones blaze through North Carolina Central and North Carolina, dispatch interloper Connecticut in the Sweet 16 and then bust out the long ball to shoot down Michigan State in the regional final. Iowa State doesn't stop there, upsetting Florida in the national semifinals and Louisville in the title game. It's officially the greatest moment in Iowa State athletic history, made all the more enjoyable by the first-game flameout by rival Iowa. Hoiberg resists the temptation of coaching the Chicago Bulls to stay in Ames. City is so grateful it devotes millions to making itself less dismal.
Worst Case: Pretty little jump shooters have the bad fortune of drawing the best MEAC team in years, maybe decades. N.C. Central harasses Iowa State into an uncharacteristic proliferation of turnovers, and turns them into points. Cyclones can't get enough stops to mount one of their patented comebacks, and start to feel the weight of their high seeding and high expectations. The Eagles pull off the biggest shocker of the first round, plunging Iowa State fans into gloom. That gloom is compounded by a deep Iowa run, the loss of Hoiberg to the NBA and the realization that Ames will remain dismal for the foreseeable future.
No. 14 NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL
Best Case: Overlooked team that has forgotten how to lose wins its 21st straight, catching Iowa State flat in a late-night tipoff. Tenacious defensive team then takes down No. 11 Providence in a bracket-collapse round of 32 game, thanks to 35 points from dynamic guard Jeremy Ingram. The Eagles are into the Sweet 16 in their first NCAA tourney experience. It ends there but the run renews pride in HBCU basketball nationwide – and garners the respect of N.C. Central's Tobacco Road neighbors in the ACC. Coach LaVelle Moton is suddenly in demand but opts to stay at his alma mater.
Worst Case: Arguably jobbed in the seeding process, N.C. Central lands on the 14 line and draws an Iowa State team that is on a torrid roll. Bad luck and a bad matchup lead to a bad result, as the Cyclones scorch the nets and run out a first-time Bracketville visitor suffering some Big Dance stage fright. HBCU pride is pre-empted. Moton loves his alma mater but is seen on the RiverWalk in San Antonio after the game talking to an athletic director with an opening at a bigger school.
No. 7 CONNECTICUT
Best Case: Sprung from APR jail, the Huskies are back in the Big Dance after a one-year forced absence and have something to say about how it will unfold. Shabazz Napier plays brilliantly in his final run at UConn, averaging 25 points, six rebounds and six assists over four games to lead a surprising Final Four surge. In a nostalgic old Big East brawl against Villanova in the round of 32, Amida Brimah blocks a late shot to secure the win. Napier, Ryan Boatright and the resurgent DeAndre Daniels blitz North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Niels Giffey hits a 3 at the buzzer to upset Michigan State in the regional final. Run ends against Florida in the Final Four, but second-year coach Kevin Ollie convinces the nation he can adequately succeed Jim Calhoun – and do so with less anger and confrontation. For a school stuck in the American Athletic Conference, this is making the best of it.
Worst Case: Bad seeding – a familiar refrain for AAC teams – leads to tough opening matchup against St. Joseph's. Napier and Boatright revert to not trusting the UConn big men, jacking up one contested shot after another. Most of them miss. Ollie has another go-ballistic moment on a no-call, like he did against Louisville in January, and gets hit with an ill-timed technical. Hawks score the upset. UConn fans question whether Ollie is the right guy for the job, and continue questioning whether the AAC is the right league for the program. But there's nothing to be done about that. After losing to Louisville three times and watching the school swipe their spot in the ACC, Huskies endure the final indignity when the Cardinals cut down the nets in Arlington.
No. 10 ST. JOSEPH'S
Best Case: The Hawk will never die, and apparently neither will Phil Martelli. After a six-year absence from the Dance, Martelli's Atlantic 10 tournament champions stay hot and advance to the regional final. Beating UConn behind a hot shooting game from Langston Galloway is nice, but reversing a 30-point December blowout against hated rival Villanova in the round of 32 is ecstasy. After a Sweet 16 victory over North Carolina, St. Joe's finally maxes out in a close loss to Michigan State. It's the best run in a decade, since the legendary team of 2004, and the Hawk mascots bulks up in the shoulders with the extended two weeks of tournament flapping.
Worst Case: Hawk is accidentally run over by UConn big man Amida Brimah during warm-ups, tearing a rotator cuff. He cannot flap. Disastrous omen throws the whole team off and dooms St. Joe's to a horrible showing in a blowout loss. Martelli streak without an NCAA tourney win now reaches a decade, and he decides to retire. Already depressed, Hawks fans must sit back and watch Villanova win it all.
No. 2 VILLANOVA
Best Case: The most uncelebrated 28-4 team from a major conference in recent memory wants to earn your respect, America. Motivated and rejuvenated after early ouster in the Big East tournament, Jay Wright's super-solid squad rolls easily past Milwaukee and has the pleasure of pounding hated Big Five rival St. Joseph's for a second time this season in the round of 32. North Carolina does 'Nova a favor by taking out Iowa State, and the Wildcats avenge losses in the 2005 and '09 tourneys to the Tar Heels. In an evenly matched regional final against Virginia, Villanova runs its overtime record to 5-0 on a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper at the buzzer. Moving on to Arlington, Villanova beats Kansas for the second time this season and then wins a Big East flashback game over Louisville for the national title with Harold Jensen, Ed Pinckney and Rollie Massimino in the house. Wright is no longer simply America's foremost metrosexual basketball coach; he's a national champion.
Worst Case: That Big East tourney upset loss to Seton Hall wasn't a blip; it was a warning sign. Villanova wheezes past Milwaukee in the opener but then is ambushed by a St. Joe's team that has improved drastically since the 'Nova beatdown in December. Losing to the Hawks is always intolerable, but especially in March. JayVaughn Pinkston, a 75-percent foul shooter who inexplicably went 3-for-10 at the line against Seton Hall, stays shaky and misses two big ones down the stretch as St. Joe's wins. Villanova fans like Jay Wright and all, but wonder if he'll ever be anything more than America's foremost metrosexual basketball coach.
No. 15 MILWAUKEE
Best Case: Panthers were sub-.500 in the Horizon League before catching fire at the end, winning their last five games and unexpectedly capturing the automatic bid. Good feelings continue into Buffalo, where Rob Jeter's team gets a big game from streak-shooting guard Jordan Aaron against Villanova. No, it's not enough to win – but the Panthers at least keep it close all game and uphold the honor of a league diminished by the departure of Butler. A sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls and the original Buffalo wing restaurant makes it all worth it.
Worst Case: League champion Green Bay activated its gag reflex in the Horizon tournament semifinals, and the result is having the No. 163 Ken Pomeroy team in the NCAAs instead of No. 61 – but that's tournament basketball. Nevertheless, the Panthers are no match for 'Nova and take their eighth loss of the year by 15 points or more. Too many turnovers and too little paint defense lead to an early blowout. Bad weather cancels Niagara Falls visit. And once you've had one Buffalo wing, you've had them all.
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