March Madness is here! Finally, the most exciting time in college basketball has arrived, and in just four days the NCAA selection committee will narrow down the 338 teams in NCAA Division I basketball to the 68 best and most-deserving teams in the country. Let the bracket pools begin and the productivity of the workplace decrease to its lowest levels of the fiscal year as endless streams of cubicle occupants rush to click’s “Boss Button” as the man walks by.

We already have seen fantastic postseason basketball. In four conference championship games Monday night we witnessed three overtime periods and a combined 13-point margin of victory for the winners. The three-point tying baskets were flying, the pressure-packed free throws dragged on and the lucky winners had their tickets to the Big Dance punched.

So with the seeds yet to be assigned and the 25 brackets that will inevitably be color-coded, sorted by eventual champion and plastered to your bedroom wall still to come, Hoops America will give you its Contenders, Pretenders and Dark Horse teams in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.


Let’s take a quick look at the projected No. 1 seeds: Kentucky, Syracuse, Kansas and North Carolina. All deserve to be on the contenders list by virtue of outstanding regular seasons, but there are a couple concerns to consider when deciding whether to pencil each one in all the way to the Final Four.

Kentucky: The Wildcats play arguably the best defense in the country and have a Player of the Year candidate in Anthony Davis, but the ‘Cats are young. Three freshman and two sophomores start for Coach Calipari and Cal has had young talented teams in the past that stumbled near the finish line. Also, don’t forget about the league that Kentucky hails from. The SEC is one of the weakest of the power six conferences, and getting used to a weak schedule could spell doom.

Syracuse: The Big East took a back seat to the toughness and depth of the Big Ten this year, but the East was still a beast. Watch closely how the Orangemen play in the Big East tournament this week to help determine if they can make it all the way to New Orleans. 30-1 is quite an accomplishment, but Syracuse has played a lot of close games down the stretch. While that may prove they can win the close games, if Syracuse cannot close come March, look for the Syracuse Orange to roll home early this year.

Kansas: A wild card of No. 1 seeds if you can have one. The Jayhawks have one of the top big men in the country in Thomas Robinson and a dynamic point guard in Tyshawn Taylor. The two split a majority of the time with the ball, and the duo can be turnover prone at times. Taylor averages almost four TOs per game. That gives a team with a strong fast break a chance against KU.

North Carolina: Earlier in the year, Hoops America questioned UNC’s toughness and whether they had the makings of a national champion. If the ACC Championship-clinching win over Duke means anything, they have it figured out. That aside, mental lapses do occur, and depending on which Kendall Marshall shows up in each game could determine how far the Tar Heels can go.

Now for a few other legitimate contenders: Missouri, Marquette and Michigan State.

Missouri: The Tigers have had a fantastic season, surprising many. Missouri is skilled, athletic and has experience on their side. Teams may have trouble matching up with Missouri’s four-guard lineup led by senior guard Marcus Denmon, who averages 18 points per game. Don’t forget that the Tigers shoot nearly 40 percent from three as a team, making them a lethal threat for a Final Four.

Marquette: Badger fans, it’s not a coincidence that Marquette came to the Kohl Center earlier in the season and beat the Badgers; the Golden Eagles are better. Marquette has one of the most talented guard-forward pairs in the country in Darius Johnson-Odom and Big East POY Jae Crowder. If you haven’t heard about DJO yet, you will. The senior guard averages more than 18 points per game, and senior forward Crowder averages more than 17.

Michigan State: This is a quick and dirty prediction. Tom Izzo goes to Final Fours. He has a Player of the Year candidate. It’s hard to pick against him.


The pretenders in this year’s dance are Baylor, Ohio State and Georgetown, all three of which are projected as a three seed or higher.

Ohio State: Too inconsistent and having lost three of their last seven, the Buckeyes could be looking at an early exit after a promising first half of the season. The Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer William Buford is a perfect example of the team’s inconsistency. Buford’s had scoring totals of 4, 24, 6, 17, 15, 6 and 25 in his last seven games. OSU can’t be counted on.

Baylor: The Bears struggled against the top two teams in its own conference. They are long and athletic, but a team that boasts defensive prowess could give Baylor problems.

Georgetown: The Hoyas have had some suspect losses this season, i.e., West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Seton Hall. It could be the rigors of a strong conference schedule, but a deep run seems unlikely.

Dark Horses

And now everybody’s favorite category: Dark Horses. There seems to be an abundance of Cinderella possibilities this year, but three that stand out are Iowa State, Wichita State and Creighton.

Iowa State: The Cyclones played strong, beating Kansas and Baylor during the regular season. The Cyclones have a trio of 12-point scorers (including La Crosse, Wis., native Scott Christopherson) and a good mix of youth and experience that will be a tough out for anybody in the first or second round.

Wichita State: It’s hard to consider No. 16 Wichita State a dark horse, but coming from the Missouri Valley Conference, they are. Despite a good ranking, nobody expects the Shockers to hang around with the big boys, but with the shooters this team has, don’t be surprised if they make a run. Senior guard Joe Ragland has made 57 of his 114 three-point attempts (50 percent).

Creighton: The Bluejays are a mid-major with a legitimate Player of the Year candidate that is only a sophomore. Doug McDermott is a name everyone will know a few years from now. Son of Creighton’s head coach, McDermott could single-handedly lead Creighton to multiple wins in the tournament behind his 23.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.