Five years ago, the last time the Final Four was being played at NRG Stadium, the bracket was like a playground for underdogs, which is always fun for a round or two of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but eventually you want to see best-on-best, clashes of the titans.
That year, back in 2011, the bracket could not have unfolded in a more unfortunate way for the city of Houston and its ticket brokers. The top seed to make it through was eventual champion Connecticut, a 3-seed that year. The other three teams were 4-seed Kentucky (one of John Caliper's least star-studded squads in his time in Lexington), 8-seed Butler (sans Gordon Hayward) and 11-seed VCU. If you were part of any of these fan bases, particularly Connecticut's, it was a fun little weekend. If you were a casual fan, it was probably a dud, ruined further by a title game whose final score was 53-41.
This year, with the Final Four back at NRG, it would appear that the city is fairly bulletproof this time around, as all four number one seeds have made it through to the Sweet Sixteen, and the only four teams still in play that are seeded lower than a 5-seed are all teams with marquee value — 6-seed Notre Dame and 7-seed Wisconsin, who play each other, and 10-seed Syracuse and 11-seed Gonzaga, who also play each other.
If you're looking for best and worst case scenarios for the Final Four next weekend, I'd put these forth:
BEST CASE: 1 Kansas vs 3 Texas A&M, 1 UNC vs 1 UVA
On one side of the bracket, you get the overall favorite against the only remaining Texas team in a rematch from their Big XII days in front of a Houston crowd, and on the other side you get an ACC bloodbath. The optimal final from this group, for TV purposes, would be UNC and Kansas, but for inside-the-stadium purposes, it's probably A&M against anybody.
WORST CASE: 5 Maryland vs 1 Oregon, 7 Wisconsin vs 4 Iowa State
I guess the question is "How much better or worse is this than the Final Four we had here in Houston five years ago?" The problem with that Final Four is that the two lowest seeds played each other in a semifinal — an 8-seed Horizon League team versus an 11-seed Colonial team, so we were guaranteed an overmatched team in the finals. This combination of teams for 2016 has some local intrigue with Mark Turgeon, former A&M head coach, to go with Houston's adopted Big Ten school, Wisconsin, There's a 1-seed in there as well as a Big XII team. It's not sexy, but three of the four teams (sorry, Wiscy) play an exciting style of ball.
Now some picks for a few of the games on Thursday and Friday...
Maryland +6.5 over Kansas
The Jayhawks had one of the more impressive second-round wins in their dismantling of a UConn team that many thought would give Kansas some trouble. The Terps took apart upstart Hawaii and looked pretty solid in doing so. Kansas might be the best team remaining, but that doesn't change the fact that a) Maryland actually has as much (maybe more) NBA-level talent, and b) Bill Self's teams typically have at least one stinker in them reserved for March.
Miami +4 over Villanova
Congratulations to Villanova for finally playing to their seed and making it to the second weekend. I'll take the team with the conference pedigree (ACC, y'all), the pluckier point guard (Angel Rodriguez, yo) and the better coach (Jim Larranaga, yo), especially when I'm getting more than a bucket.
Iowa State +5 over Virginia
If I thought that Virginia was too soft to win this region when Michigan State was still alive, then I'm inclined to think that laying five points is too many against an experienced team who may have the best player on the floor in Georges Niang.
Gonzaga -4.5 over Syracuse
All these years, Gonzaga has been luring me in, fooling me into taking them deep into my bracket, and now, this season, in which they are in the tournament only because they won the WCC conference tourney, will finally be the year that they make a run at the Final Four, from the 11 seed no less! Gonzaga has the best scorer (Kyle Wiltjer) and the best big man (Domantis Sabonis) in this game, and has smoked two good teams so far in the tourney — Seton Hall by 16, Utah by 23. Syracuse has beaten oversewed Dayton and a 15-seed MTSU. Take the Zags.
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