Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In this Bracket Fiasco, Georgia surprises and Kentucky wins

Georgia State’s dancing, having won the only game that mattered despite scoring 38 points in 40 minutes and seeing its coach hobbled in the celebration. Georgia’s dancing, having won enough mid-sized games to override going 0-5 against teams in the RPI top 50. But’s that the way of Selection Sunday: As long as you’re in, you’re golden.

Not since 2001 has our state dispatched two teams to an NCAA tournament. Georgia State has fond memories of that March, having upset Wisconsin in Round 1. The Panthers could spring an even bigger shocker this time, provided guard Ryan Harrow heals and Ron Hunter finds room on the bench for his crutches. The Bulldogs … well, we’ll get to them momentarily.

As the 28th edition of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco commences, we must acknowledge the obvious: Of the 68 teams invited, only one is playing for history. That’s Kentucky, the first team to enter the Big Dance unbeaten since … well, Wichita State last season, and the Wildcats know well that being undefeated on Selection Sunday guarantees nothing. Those Shockers were undone in the Round of 32 last season by, of all teams, Kentucky.

There’s a part of me that’s reluctant to pick the Wildcats to win because it has been so long since we’ve seen an unbeaten national champion, Indiana in 1976 having been the last. The UNLV team of 1991 was every bit as good as this Kentucky crew but sustained its only loss in the Final Four against Duke. Difference is, I don’t see a contemporary challenger on the order of the Duke of Laettner and Hurley and Hill.

The gap between Kentucky and everyone else is massive. For the Wildcats to lose, it would take someone pulling a Villanova-in-1985 on them, and at a time when making baskets is akin to oral surgery without anesthesia, do we really see any opponent — even a latter-day Villanova, the No. 1 seed in the East — shooting 78.6 percent against the nation’s best defensive team?

Kentucky shouldn’t have a close game until the Midwest final, where it will face Kansas. This isn’t one of Bill Self’s best bands of Jayhawks, and they'd enter as an overwhelming underdog. But that’s not the worst thing for a powerhouse program to be in a rematch. The Wildcats beat Kansas by 32 points in November, and here we note that the unbeaten Indiana of 1975 was felled in the Mideast final by Kentucky, which had lost to the Hoosiers by 24 in December.

The West Regional figures to come down to Wisconsin against Arizona, same as last season’s West Regional did. The Badgers won then; Arizona will prevail this time. That's not a knock on Wisconsin, which is the third-best team in the land. I consider Arizona, which is 12 points from being unbeaten itself, second-best to Kentucky, and it's high time Sean Millers sheds the tag of being the best coach not to reach the Final Four.

Baylor is the No. 3 seed in the West, and the Bears have gained the reputation of a team that doesn't always play to its talent. In sum, that's the kind of opponent a No. 14 seed loves to see coming. But I'm not sure Georgia State, which got only six minutes in two Sun Belt tournament games from Harrow, its second-best player, is healthy enough to do the deed. Maybe R.J. Hunter will hit 10 treys over the Bears' zone, but the coach's son has made only 30.8 percent of his 3-pointers this season.

Georgia could do real damage in the East. The Bulldogs will be given little chance against Michigan State in Charlotte, but the Spartans have 11 losses, same as Georgia. Michigan State hasn't been to the Final Four since 2010, the longest such drought under Tom Izzo. Provided the Bulldogs' Kenny Gaines can play at something approaching full speed -- he missed the SEC tournament loss to Arkansas -- this is a toss-up.

Should the Bulldogs prevail, they'd face Virginia in the Round of 32, and the Cavaliers haven't been themselves since leading scorer Justin Anderson was lost to a broken finger. Anderson returned to play 26 minutes in two ACC tournament games and didn't score. Don't be surprised if the Bulldogs, who are nearly as tough to play as Virginia, land in the Sweet 16.

What the heck. In for a penny, in for a pound. I actually have Georgia -- are you believing this? -- playing in the regional final. The team that hasn't beaten anybody of consequence will win three games in the crucible of March, and let's recall that the Bulldogs reached the 1983 Final Four by winning an East Regional in Syracuse, N.Y. Guess where this East Regional will be staged.

Try as I might, I don't see Georgia in the Final Four. (Almost nobody saw that 1983 team beating St. John's and North Carolina, either.) Only Kentucky was seeded above Villanova, but the Philly Wildcats aren't half as imposing. North Carolina State could take down 'Nova this weekend, and Northern Iowa could prevail in the Sweet 16. The guess, though, is that Villanova is good enough to win four games, beating Georgia in the Elite Eight.

Despite not finishing first in the ACC regular-season standings or making it past the tournament semis, Duke was awarded its accustomed No. 1 seed. The Blue Devils won't be undone by another Mercer, but they won't win the South, either. I picked Iowa State to reach the Final Four last season, but injuries undid the Cyclones. I'm picking them again because I never buy the this-is-the-year-for-Gonzaga blather, and because Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg is the hottest coach in the land.

So that's my Final Four: Three sets of Wildcats -- Kentucky, Arizona and Villanova -- plus Iowa State. I have Kentucky winning, but I've seen so many sure things miss that I wouldn't bet your house, let alone mine, on it. Houston's Phi Slama Jama lost to Jim Valvano's N.C. State. Georgetown got Villanova'ed. Vegas tripped two steps shy of an unbeaten season. Two exceptional Duke teams (1999 and 2002) were themselves thwarted. Even Indiana, the last unbeaten, needed a second try after its 1975 miss.

I invite you to enter the Fiasco online. Our winner gets the traditional champ's Final Four sweatshirt and a $50 iTunes gift card, plus everyone who enters our contest is automatically enrolled in the national upickem contest, which offers a $1 million prize.

I close by noting that over the breadth of the Fiasco, my alma mater -- that's Kentucky -- has won three NCAA championships. I picked the Wildcats in none of those years. I'm picking them this time. If they're good enough to beat the Bradley Jinx, they deserve to be included among the greatest teams ever.

For my full bracket, click here.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.