At long last, March Madness is here.
Gone are the days of seeking refuge inside a toasty Mizzou Arena from 30-degree temperatures. Now it's time to huddle around TVs, cell phones and laptops to see if you've won a million dollars for the perfect bracket.
Missouri has made the NCAA Tournament field of 65 for the second consecutive year, after missing out on the Dance the previous five seasons.
After "working" tirelessly over the past week, the NCAA Tournament selection committee slotted Missouri as a 10 seed to face seventh-seeded Clemson of the Atlantic Coast Conference in the first round Friday.
Clemson finished 9-7 in a down year for the ACC and 21-10 overall. It finished 5-6 versus top 50 RPI teams but only 2-5 on road/neutral sites. Clemson's most significant road victory was against Butler way back Nov. 29.
For Missouri to pull off the upset, it must play the same game it did against Texas on Feb. 17. Clemson relies on the inside presence of senior forward Trevor Booker, who is a (slightly) smaller version of senior center Dexter Pittman of Texas, who Missouri neutralized with its up-tempo style of play. Clemson's strength is rebounding, so it's imperative to wear it down.
Clemson likes to apply the full court press as well, so Missouri must utilize its speed and run past its opponent to make up for its lack of height. After breaking the press, Missouri needs to keep driving all the way to the lane and attack the defense. Missouri absolutely cannot let the pace slow down like last week against Nebraska, settling for long-range shots and limiting the impact of its much deeper bench.
Missouri received a favorable draw as the 10 seed, avoiding a second round date with a No. 1 seed. Clemson does not represent a completely contrasting style that can force Missouri out of its game, and the orange Tigers certainly do not have the athleticism and depth compared to a team, such as Kansas. As long as Missouri can turn up the pace and shoot a reasonable 45-50 percent from the field, I like the minor upset.
Should Missouri win, it would presumably face second-seeded West Virginia, winners of the Big East Conference. West Virginia is not the biggest team, which is good for Missouri, nor are the Mountaineers the quickest. But they are the toughest, as they demonstrated in the Big East Tournament. It would take a superb shooting performance for the Tigers to pull off the upset.
As for the rest of the field, I believe there is a clear favorite. Kansas has the depth, size and quickness to withstand any other team. It also has senior guard Sherron Collins. Another factor in Kansas' favor is the locations of its tourney games. Oklahoma City, St. Louis and Indianapolis will all have a healthy serving of crimson and blue.
As for the rest of the Final Four, I like Syracuse over Pittsburgh out of the West Regional, West Virginia over Kentucky from the East and Villanova over Texas A&M out of the South.
Of course, there are two reasons why Kansas probably would not win its next six games. First, Kansas is the favorite, and Division 1 sports are anything but predictable. Second, the Jayhawks are bound to lose is because I am picking them, and I have yet to win the million-dollar prize.
Good luck, bracketologists. Enjoy the Madness, and may the best bracket win.