by Mike Hayes - 03/14/2006
I've heard it said that that Oral Roberts (20-11) might be the best team ever seeded No. 16 in the NCAA Tournament and that the Golden Eagles have the best chance in recent memory to rewrite the history books against a vulnerable No. 1 in Memphis. While Oral Roberts might be better than the Monmouths and Belmonts of the college basketball world, I have to believe it would take a miracle to get Oral Roberts past the Tigers and into the second round.
Still, there will be upsets, a few big ones included among them. But it seems to me the point-spreads are a bit smaller than in previous years, an indication perhaps that the smaller conferences have decreased the gap between themselves and the big dogs.
Of the 32 first round contests, just eight feature double-digit favorites, with four of those being No. 1 vs No. 16 match-ups. Everybody scoffed at the notion of Air Force getting a berth, but the line says Illinois is only 8 points better. Gonzaga, with a 27-3 record and a 10 RPI, has been made a favorite of just 5 points against Xavier (21-10 RPI 77), the surprise winner of the A-10 Tournament. North Carolina of the mighty ACC is only an 11or12-point choice over Murray State and when you have to ask yourself 'Where the hell is Murray State?' you would think the line would be at least 20 points.
So maybe there aren't as many big favorites as in previous years, but there will still be an underdog or two who screw up more than a few office pools.
Here's a look at a few that might be primed for an upset and worthy of a wager on the moneyline or a pick in the office pool.
Iona College - The 13th seeded Gaels are 7-point underdogs in this first-round match-up against LSU, but they are no stranger to the tournament, having represented the MAAC on three previous occasions over the past eight years.
The Gaels finished 23-7 with an RPI of 64 and were clearly the class of the MAAC this season However, at times they played rather uninspired basketball during much of the conference season and, as a result, finished second behind Manhattan. The Gaels, led by Steve Burtt and his 25 ppg., defeated Iowa State this year in Iowa and stayed with Kentucky before losing, 73-67, in Louisville.
LSU, with an RPI of 13, was the regular season champ in the SEC. The Tigers did drop regular season games to Houston and Northern Iowa, giving the Gaels, who have performed well in previous tournament appearances, a glimmer of hope.
Bucknell - The 9th seeded Bison cannot be considered much of a Cinderella anymore. They do play in the woeful Patriot League, but rolled through the regular season with a perfect 14-0 conference mark and they finished at 26-4 with an RPI of 42. Non-conference wins for Bucknell include games against Big East champ Syracuse, St. Joseph's and Depaul, not to mention that they defeated Kansas in first-round action last year.
They are a 4.5 point underdog to Arkansas, 22-9 RPI 45, one of the teams that found its way off of the bubble and into the tournament in the last week of the season.
Bradley - The Braves (20-10, RPI 33) are playing their best basketball of the season, going 11-3 down the stretch to land in the tournament. They are a 7-point underdog to Kansas (25-7, RPI 20). The all underclass Jayhawk line-up could be vulnerable to a team playing with house money, but Kansas will not be taking this game lightly after last year's opening-round loss at the hands of Bucknell. This is a huge opportunity for the Missouri Valley Conference to show the NCAA selection committee was correct in rewarding the conference with four bids.
In fact, if the selection committee knows what its doing, Northern Iowa +4 against Georgetown and Southern Illinois +4 against West Virginia might prove to be live dogs as well.
Xavier - Why not? The Musketeers are playing well when it counts, having won four games in four days to win the A-10 Tournament and earn a ticket to the dance. They face a 3rd seeded Gonzaga team that barely escaped as West Coast Conference Tournament champs last week, though the Zags didn't have much to play for as they were assured an NCAA bid and a good seed. Still, Gonzaga has looked pretty ordinary as of late and the Zags haven't enjoyed some of their past NCAA tournament success since people started expecting them to win.
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