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Will we see Cinderella leave dance early again?

The Baltimore Sun

The art of filling in a bracket you can be proud of is all about picking the right upsets. Take at least one No. 11 seed and probably a No. 12 seed in the first round, right? Probably find a sleeper that could go deep.

Maybe the key is restraining yourself and not thinking too hard, letting your basketball mojo flow, as you go from line to line.

But after last season, a different question needs to be asked - will the Cinderella team even return this season?

The 2007 NCAA tournament was seriously lacking in major surprises. The worst seed in the Elite Eight was No. 3 Oregon; in the Sweet 16, it was No. 7 UNLV. The first round featured only five upsets, and three of them were No. 9 seeds defeating No. 8 seeds.

However, those who like to go crazy with upset picks might be encouraged by the return of George Mason - the Colonial Athletic Association program that made the improbable run to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in 2006.

All the No. 1 seeds - North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA and Kansas - are obviously looking good right now.

But no Final Four has ever featured all of the top seeds. Many will pick No. 2 seed Texas to be the surprise, as the Longhorns would play in Houston during the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

Instead, I'm going with No. 4 seed Pittsburgh, which just battled through the Big East Conference tournament to win the title at Madison Square Garden. The Panthers will bump free-throw-phobic Memphis and then Texas, if things play out according to my bracket plan, to join the three remaining top seeds in San Antonio. North Carolina, the top overall seed, takes UCLA in a classic title game.

First round

Indiana has never recovered from the Kelvin Sampson disaster, so Arkansas is an easy pick. Oklahoma's tourney run could be short as Saint Joseph's made a nice run in the Atlantic 10 tournament, and I like No. 6 vs. No. 11 games for upsets. See Kentucky over Marquette and Kansas State over Southern California.

South Alabama got in despite falling in the Sun Belt tournament, but Butler wins big. George Mason briefly revives its 2006 Cinderella run by surprising Notre Dame. Davidson, winner of 22 straight, can earn respect by beating Gonzaga.

Texas A&M; will need a healthy Donald Sloan to get by BYU. West Virginia shows that the committee could've left Arizona out this year. Baylor has been too iffy for me to pick it over Purdue.

Second round

All the top seeds advance without much trouble. Kent State could be a giant killer, but since its name doesn't start with a "B," I'm fine with Kansas moving on. Louisville is dangerous with a healthy David Padgett.

Butler and Tennessee feature great guards in the Vols' Chris Lofton and the Bulldogs' A.J. Graves and Mike Green, but the Vols prevail. Wisconsin's kill-you-with-the-basics style could drive K-State crazy. Georgetown ends Davidson's winning streak. Stanford's inside play will be too much for Billy Gillispie and Kentucky.

Regionals

The Longhorns get a boost by playing in Houston, and they will need every advantage to get past Stanford. Memphis goes cold from the outside, and its free-throw woes continue as the first No. 1 seed goes down to Pittsburgh. The Panthers then continue their red-hot ride by taking down Texas, whose lack of depth catches up with its tremendous starting five.

UCLA, behind guard Darren Collison and center Kevin Love, takes down UConn. Xavier has a team that can give Duke headaches, but coach Mike Krzyzewski makes sure the Blue Devils survive until they can't match up with the Bruins. Louisville takes down Tennessee, but the Tar Heels, playing in Charlotte, N.C., are too much for the Cardinals. Kansas pulls away from Georgetown with superior defense and balance.

Final Four

It's North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA ... and Pittsburgh in San Antonio. The Panthers figured things out, but being on a roll takes you only so far. The Bruins could benefit from playing in their third straight Final Four, and this year, there's no Florida.

Roy Williams burns his former school again, this time by leading the Tar Heels past Kansas in the semifinals. Carolina and UCLA make for a powerhouse of a championship game, in which the Heels prevail.

TODAY'S TV GAMES

All games on chs. 13, 9 (times p.m.):

12:30: Michigan State vs. Temple

2:30: Kentucky vs. Marquette

7:10: Belmont vs. Duke

9:50: George Mason vs. Notre Dame

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