How good will this NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament be?

I mean, sure, the George Mason thing was amazing last year, and let’s not forget Wichita St. and Bradley made the Sweet 16, LSU upset Duke, Kansas lost in the first round for the second year in a row, a #14 seed. (Northwestern St.) upset a #3 (Iowa), and #2 Tennessee needed a buzzer hit to avoid losing to #15 Winthrop.

Heck, we may not even have that many surprises this year, and I can pretty much guarantee you that no one from the Colonial Athletic Association will make it to the Final Four. But a combination of factors will come together and make this one of the most difficult years to fill your rank of office. This is why:

Freshmen! Over the past decade, guys like Greg Oden and Kevin Durant would have jumped right into the NBA, but now they’re playing at least a year of college basketball. That makes for some big surprises. Who would have believed that Texas would be in the tournament this year after losing all five starters to an Elite Eight team, let alone being a threat to go deep?

Leaving freshmen. And while that’s all well and good, you also get a lot less quality depth in traditional power schools, because their stallions don’t stay four years. This is the great leveler: LaMarcus Aldridge (Texas, #2 in the 2006 NBA draft), Tyrus Thomas (LSU, #4), Rudy Gay (UConn, #7), Patrick O’Bryant (Bradley, #9 ), Ronnie Brewer (Arkansas, #14), Cedric Simmons (NC State, #15), Shawne Williams (Memphis, #17), Quincy Douby (Rutgers, #19), Renaldo Balkman (South Carolina, #20), Rajon Rondo (Kentucky, #21), Marcus Williams (UConn, #22), Josh Boone (UConn, #23), Kyle Lowry (Villanova, #24), Shannon Brown (Michigan St., #25) and Jordan Farmar ( UCLA, #26). All of these kids left before they were out of their fourth years, as we can expect Oden, Durant and others to after 2007. That kind of continual brain drain culture brings the little one a little closer to the big one.

Advertising For “Non-Traditional” Schools. Fewer and fewer teams are wowed by the national television attention of playing at the Grand Ball. The Missouri Valley Conference has more pub than the Britney netherlands these days (ok, okay, it’s close), so there’s really nothing “major middle” about the MVC. Winthrop beat Mississippi St., Old Dominion and Missouri St. on the road this year, and scared North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas A&M (his only four losses). They may not win their first round game, but they sure as hell won’t be scared of their opponent.

Who is a top seed? No one seems to want to be #1 this year. A month ago, it was easy: North Carolina, Florida, UCLA and Wisconsin. So every single one of those schools started to lose. UCLA just came out of the first round of the Pac-10 tournament. Carolina lost three of its last six regular season games. Florida lost three of its last five. Wisconsin lost two of its last three. Now Ohio St. is the highest ranked team in the country, but man, are they young. Does anyone really expect them to stick together through six NCAA tournament games? Other possibilities for #1 seeds: Kansas, Texas A&M, Georgetown, Memphis (ew). There is no faultless team in the group.

Regardless, it should be one hell of a March Madness run. No team is without failure, and very few are without possibilities.

Boy, the NFL never sleeps. What do you think have been the best acquisitions so far in pro football’s free agent season?

BoDog Bookmakers, Two teams made a series of moves that made them the “co-winners” of the early 2007 free agency period. The New England Patriots shed their label as a “thrifty” team and they really made a splash in free agency. Adalius Thomas was arguably the most sought after defensive player on the market, while Wes Welker has quietly become one of the most versatile PR/KR/WRs in the NFL. They also added value in backup RB Sammy Morris to make up for the loss of Corey Dillon. The San Francisco 49ers also did a lot to improve their woeful secondary that ranked 26th against the pass a year ago. Nate Clements is a Pro-Bowl-caliber DBm, while Michael Lewis is a solid, if unspectacular, upgrade at safety. On offense, the Niners added Ashley Lelie, receiving another deep threat to work in quarterback Alex Smith’s offensive arsenal.

I’ll ask about some specific NCAA Tournament matchups next week, but for now, can you give me your early Final Four, pre-brackets?

BDB, Let’s save the Bodog punters for this one. Currently, the top four favorites to win the NCAA title are North Carolina (9/2), Florida (9/2), Ohio State (6/1) and Kansas (6/1).

And give us a couple of teams that will be seeded #9 or worse, who do you think has the best chance of pulling off an upset in the first round?

BoDog Bookmakers, Well, everyone ruled out Gonzaga when they lost Josh Heytvelt to suspension, but you can never forget the Zags come tournament time. After losing to a very tough Memphis team by a single point on February 2. On January 17, Gonzaga won his last five games to take the West Coast Conference tournament for the fourth straight season. Senior guard Derek Raivio has put this team on his shoulders, and so far it’s working. He, too, should watch out for Syracuse if he gets an offer. The Orange beat Georgetown on February 2. 26 batting average and won five of his last six games after struggling big in late January.

Mavs or Suns? Suns or Mavs? I know Dallas has been amazing during the regular season… do you see that translating to another trip to the NBA Finals? Does Phoenix have enough to do it this time? Can San Antonio sneak in there?

BoDog Bookmakers, Teams that make it to the NBA Finals are rarely one-dimensional. So until Phoenix learns to play defense — or half-court offense — they will have their doubters. Still, with 9/4 to win it all, they have their fair share of believers as well. San Antonio will not sneak up on anyone. Not with a list that includes Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs have 7/2 to reach the NBA Finals and 6/1 to win. That’s not representative of flying under the radar. However, according to Bodog bettors, the team with the best chance is the Dallas Mavericks. They’re a well-rounded team that can beat San Antonio with a stifling defense and outpace Phoenix with a barrage of offense. The Mavs’ ability to play anyone’s style makes them 1/1 favorites to return to the Finals and 2/1 to win the title.