A jam-packed day in the Southeast Region with all 16 teams tipping off this afternoon. Included in that group is No. 1-seed Pittsburgh, the only top seed taking the floor today in the 2011 NCAA Basketball Tournament. Here's a look at the schedule and who I have winning in the Southeast Region today:
2010's National Runners-Up is back and in true Butler fashion they look to be playing their best basketball of the season at exactly the right time. After struggling through much of the Horizon League regular season, Butler steamrolled through their conference tournament.
Even so, Butler has won 11 tournament games in their six NCAA Tournament appearances.
Old Dominion knows first hand what it is like to lose to Butler, doing so in 2007. In preparation for Thursday's rematch, Monarchs coach Blaine Taylor ran a tape of that game on the team bus ride to the nation's capital. The Monarchs enter the tournament on a 9-game winning streak.
MY PICK: Butler - It is hard to pick against Butler, so I won't. There is way too much experience and the Bulldogs are playing their best basketball of the season.
A 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed and it isn't going to happen this year either. While Pitt has often been in a position to make noise in the tournament, only to fall short, the Panthers are primed to get over the hump this year.
Their opponent is making just their 2nd NCAA tournament appearance, the first coming in 2003, and needed to win their first-round game against Arkansas-Little Rock on Tuesday night to earn the right to face Pittsburgh.
MY PICK - Pitt - A 16 will beat a 1 eventually, just not this time.
Some think a #2-seed was a bit high for Florida. They'll get the chance to prove their worth today with their 2nd round match-up against the Gauchos of UC-Santa Barbara.
While I tend to agree that the Gators are a bit overseeded, they shouldn't have much issue with the Gauchos. UCSB finished just 8-8 in the Big West standings before getting hot in the conference tournament and beating regular-season champ Long Beach St. in the title game.
MY PICK: Florida - The Gators will have a hard time going deep in the tourney, but they'll win this one easily.
If for some strange reason you don't know who Jimmer Fredette is, chances are you will after the NCAA Tournament. The BYU Cougars have had their best season every, but the midseason removal of Brandon Davies could have a huge impact on just how far BYU goes this month.
Right now, however, the Cougars hopes lie with Fredette - He's the nation's leading scorer with the nation's best name -- a humble, eminently watchable star who has revved up the Cougars program to a level not seen since the days of Danny Ainge. Or maybe better than that.
"What's it they say? You get Jimmerized? He's a verb, he's an adverb," said CBS' effervescent color commentator, Bill Raftery, who will certainly have fun calling this game -- and saying that name. "From watching the tapes, what stands out is his enjoyment of the game. It's visible with the energy and the infectiousness and the personality he plays with. It comes across the screen when you're watching it."
To move on, Brigham Young will have to handle Wofford, which is making its second straight trip to the tournament as champion of the Southern Conference.
The Terriers are ranked eighth in the nation in shooting percentage (47.9) and sixth from 3-point range (40.7). They're led by 20-point-a-game scorer Noah Dahlman. With an average of 2.73 years' experience, the Terriers are one of the most seasoned teams in the country. Last year, they took Wisconsin to the wire in a first-round game before falling 53-49.
MY PICK - BYU - Something tells me this game could be tougher than BYU would hope for, but there is no way 'Jimmer-time' ends today.
When is an upset really not an upset? When it's Belmont, inexplicably a No. 13 seed, facing Wisconsin, inexplicably a No. 4 seed. The Badgers have holes, tons of them, and I don't care what league you play in, a 30-4 record is impressive at the Division I college level.
The small school based in Nashville, TN is deep and they can shoot the ball. In his 25th season at Belmont, coach Rick Byrd directed the Bruins (30-4) to their fourth Atlantic Sun championship in six years. Belmont's losses have been at Tennessee twice, at Vanderbilt and, in its lone conference loss, at archrival Lipscomb.
Meanwhile, the Badgers have to be wondering which team will show up. After getting drilled by Ohio St. in the regular season finale 93-65, the Badgers followed it up with a dismal 36-33 loss to Penn St. in the Big Ten Tournament.
Belmont, on the other hand, has won 12 in a row and 18-of-19.
MY PICK - Belmont - Other than the seeding, I'm not sure this is really an upset. I think Belmont is the better basketball team and they'll prove it.
I have a few rules in the tournament. One of them is to pick Michigan State to go one round further than you think they'll go . For me, that round might actually be today. Can anyone really see a Tom Izzo team bail in the first weekend of action?
Facing them is another team rich in tournament tradition - UCLA. The tradition-rich programs, which have combined for 26 trips to the Final Four and 13 national titles, meet in the second round of the Southeast region Thursday night, each hoping to salvage seasons marked by inconsistency.
Surprisingly, this is the first ever meeting between the Spartans and Bruins in the tournament.
Both struggled at times this season. Michigan State coped with injuries and playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. UCLA overcame youth and inexperience to surge late to finish second in the Pac-10.
"It's been a journey this year. ... We didn't sit back and wonder what seed (we were). We sat back and wondered if we were in," Izzo said. "That's been different at Michigan State, but it's also brought some humility to everything, and it's made you appreciate things a little bit."
UCLA is coming off a 17-point loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals. The Bruins have lost two of their past three games following a stretch in which they won 12 of 14 to right themselves following a slow start in conference play.
MY PICK - Michigan State - Everything in me says to pick the Bruins, but like my tourney rules say - always have MSU go one round further than you expect.
Another questionable pairing based one seeding. St. John's did play a tougher schedule in the Big East, but all the recent tournament pedigree belongs to Gonzaga. Combine that with the loss of D.J. Kennedy for St. John's, and you have a recipe for an upset that really isn't.
Senior D.J. Kennedy tore is ACL during the Big East tournament. Given Gonzaga's size -- the Bulldogs have nine players at 6-foot-5 or taller -- Lavin will start 6-8 senior Sean Evans in Kennedy's place. He was a starter the last two years, but has been coming off the bench this season.
"It's humbling knowing the reason you got in there is because of one of your closest friends is hurt," Evans said. "Our focus is on the game. But it's also on D.J., knowing what he put in for us. Him not being there is a big motivation for us."
Gonzaga found its stride late in the season, winning nine straight games, including the West Coast Conference tournament title game against Saint Mary's to secure an automatic bid.
"This team was able to really draw a line in the sand, started winning games when we had to," said senior guard Steven Gray, who's averaging nearly 14 points and four assists this season. "It was tough realizing that this team, who's put in a lot of time, really had some growth, wasn't potentially going to get this opportunity to play in one of the greatest sporting events out there."
MY PICK: Gonzaga - Even with Kennedy, I might think about picking Gonzaga. Without Kennedy, I am going with 'Zags to pull the upset.
Could it be? Another upset? You bet. I have a soft spot for teams that win 30 games in a season. Kansas State, however, looks like they have saved a season on the brink.
"We're starting to gel at the perfect time where we have to go on a streak," Kansas State senior forward Curtis Kelly said Wednesday. "That streak could be big for our program and I think it's the perfect time. Now's the time we've finally knocked off all the negative stuff."
Utah State, led by six seniors, rolled through the regular season to win the WAC by five games and followed that up with the conference tournament title.
The Aggies are tenacious, disciplined and multidimensional. They have one of the country's best -- and most patient -- post players in WAC player of the year Tai Wesley, steady-and-heady point guard Brockeith Pane and plenty of experience with just three underclassmen on the roster.
MY PICK: Utah State: This is a veteran group that knows how to win - even in March.