Editor’s Note: Antony Dinero is the No. 1 college basketball handicapper on VegasInsider.com. Don’t miss out on all of his postseason picks, which include expert analysis. Click to win!
Chalk originated as a horse racing term and is well-known gambling vernacular, but it's wild to hear how loosely it rolls off people's tongues this time of year.
If you're in a bracket pool, riding chalk is met with instant ridicule, as if going against the grain is a badge of honor. It's apparently more interesting to fill out a bracket highlighting your Lehigh-Duke upset pick than it is to place four No. 1s into the Sweet 16.
Pat yourself on the back if you chose the boring approach and had them all alive at this point in the tournament. Stop and immediately start worrying if you chose them all to reach New Orleans. That has only happened once (2008) in the entire history of the tournament. By contrast, a Final Four without a single No. 1 has now occurred three times after last year's upset-filled tourney blasted them all prior to Houston, making it twice in six years that the Final Four has gone on without a top seed.
Bank on no repeat performance. Despite an exciting season filled with great stories like Murray State, this has been a top-heavy year for the truly elite. The selection committee released its seeds this year and they’ve been proven correct.
From Thursday-to-Sunday, one or two may be weeded out, but I'm of the opinion that it's more likely that we'll get a repeat of '06 and see them all get there than we have of watching them each get bounced. Here's a closer look at the No. 1s and the obstacles they face.
Big Blue Chalk: Kentucky is the chalkiest team available for good reason. Everyone among the rotation's top six has an NBA future, while No. 7, freshman Kyle Wiltjer, could develop into that kind of player down the road. If John Calipari ends up cutting down the nets, the Wildcats will be in the conversation among the most talented championship teams in college basketball history. Anthony Davis has changed the game around the rim the way Greg Oden and Emeka Okafor did during their recent Final Four runs. Marquis Teague looks like a better prospect than brother Jeff with his deadly speed and more accurate jumper. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's desire to do whatever it takes has scouts drooling. Terrence Jones has lottery-level talent, while wings Doron Lamb and Darius Miller have combined for 123 3-pointers at a shooting clip of over 42 percent to keep defenses honest. Calipari has done of one of his best jobs in battling complacency and ridding the team of bad habits, which is why even when Iowa State rallied to tie that third round clash, Kentucky never panicked. The Wildcats simply took their game up a few notches to a place teams at this level aren't supposed to reach.
Final four reasons to balk:
1. Jones and Lamb felt the sting of losing in last year's Final Four, but have rarely stepped up to the plate to lead by example, leaving that role to senior Darius Miller and the anomaly that is Kidd-Gilchrist. Do they have it in them to turn that pain into fuel? Right now, the verdict is out.
2. Davis has really grown comfortable taking the 18-20 footer, but that's not where UK needs him. Teams will increasingly attempt to bait him into that easy out.
3. The Calipari curse, perhaps tied to his cleaning up based on one-and-done, has kept him from delivering a championship to Memphis or Kentucky yet. He probably still cringes watching former Kansas Jayhawks standout Mario Chalmers with the Heat.
4. You know Kentucky's defense will be there, but in the Mar. 11 loss to Vandy, a similar scoring drought to the one that cost them in last year's national semifinal peeked out and reminded us where this team is most vulnerable. Indiana is one of the highest-scoring teams left in the field and is capable of taking advantage of an off-shooting night.
Green Chalk: Draymond Green originally committed to Kentucky, but it's almost poetic that a player with his last name has made such an impact at Michigan State. Kentucky’s Davis is going No. 1 in the NBA draft, but Day Day can be this year's Kemba Walker, a force that simply won't be denied. Help has come in the form of frontcourt mates, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, who have helped the Spartans rack up an 86-42 advantage in points in the paint through the first few rounds. Brandon Wood has stepped up and shot 8-of-14 from the field in helping to create space, while blur of a point guard Keith Appling has been consistent and generates mismatches with his speed. Saint Louis nearly tripped up the Spartans thanks to tempo and a few lucky shots to keep things close, but they kept their heads throughout, fed off Green and exhibited championship composure. They've already claimed one tournament in that fashion, edging Ohio State for the Big Ten and their top seed. Tom Izzo has a national championship and another title game appearance, so his influence certainly helps.
Final four reasons to balk:
1. Rick Pitino has never lost a Sweet 16 game, a perfect 9-0 in his distinguished career. His Louisville squad is up first for Izzo, a spectacular 7-2 in regional quarterfinals.
2. The Spartans are so reliant on Green to lead them that he won't be able to leave the floor for more than a minute or two. Can he continue to play at such a high level without wearing down? No team's chances are more closely tied to one individual.
3. Considering Michigan State must own the paint, it's disconcerting that Green, Payne and Nix aren't the greatest free-throw shooters. Teams figure to start putting them on the line as opposed to giving up dunks and layups, so the trio has to improve on a collective 68 percent FT shooting. Thus far in the tournament, they're 8-of-12, nearly right at that dubious average.
4. The loss of Branden Dawson, a key figure at power forward for most of the season, figures to catch up with Sparty at some point. Izzo questioned his team's ability to handle complicated matchups going forward, knowing what a luxury the strong, rangy freshman offered.
Carolina Blue Chalk: North Carolina is the only team in the country that can match Kentucky's vast frontcourt talent, especially now that John Henson looks to be fine after his wrist scare. Of course, now another wrist injury has Tar Heel nation worried sick, as it remains unknown whether point guard Kendall Marshall can make it back and how effective he can be after fracturing a bone in his non-shooting hand. Roy Williams knows what it takes to win at this level and had his team playing at his desired pace, thriving on secondary breaks and using their skill and athleticism to run away from opponents. The offense can run through the sublime Harrison Barnes, while Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston are capable of stepping up in increased minutes. No one is going to cry for the Tar Heels about losing their point guard considering the talent they've assembled.
Final four reasons to balk:
1. Marshall's wrist is a bad break, literally. Even if he returns and is able to play with the screw inserted during Monday's surgery, he'll be affected by the injury. It may not even bother his shot, but dribbling, comfort level and mobility won't be what we've grown accustomed to seeing from him. He's dished out 351 assists this season and was 35-for-60 from the field in March prior to getting hurt against Creighton. It's a serious blow.
2. Even when Marshall was perfectly healthy, backcourt depth was a concern. Having lost Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald earlier this season, the Tar Heels were already down to relying on 19-year-old freshman Stillman White, shooting less than 25 percent from the field. Ideally, he wouldn't play in competitive situations at this stage of his career, but Williams has no choice but to throw him out there.
3. Barnes should already be playing in the NBA, but has only shown the killer instinct that would guarantee his greatness in flashes. He's capable of putting UNC on his back, but no one can be sure he will.
4. After playing Cinderella Ohio in the Round of 16, Williams will see either Mark Gottfried and ACC rival North Carolina State, which nearly beat him on Mar. 10 or Kansas successor Bill Self in the regional final. Both would have good ideas of how to take advantage of UNC's Marshall-related deficiencies.
Orange Chalk: Syracuse has overcome a scandal-filled year and actually set a school-record for wins. When you consider the teams Jim Boeheim has put out there over his 36-year career, that's pretty special. This Orange team is like an octopus, able to squeeze the life out of you with anyone of its tentacles, although it is missing their biggest one in 7-footer Fab Melo. Boeheim has recruited a team with savvy, ball skills and length, perfectly suited to run his 2-3 zone and execute a balanced offense. Even with Melo out, the Orange rolled through the incredibly deep Big East losing only once in league play before an upset loss in the conference tourney. Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph, Brandon Triche, Dion Waiters, CJ Fair and James Southerland have now each taken 200 or more shots. That type of balance is a nightmare to prepare for.
Final four reasons to balk:
1. Melo allowed the Orange to rebound effectively despite playing zone and blocked three shots per game. His absence has been downplayed by Boeheim and his teammates because no one wants to throw him under the bus for flirting with ineligibility, but there's no question that blame will find itself his way if and when the team is eliminated.
2. The Orange led the country in turnovers created for most of the season, so even though you love how disruptive they can be, a team that relies on miscues for easy offense and would be lost without those points in transition is difficult to trust.
3. Boeheim's style is vulnerable to teams that can shoot the ball from beyond the arc well, so while they can thank Wisconsin for eliminating Vanderbilt, the Orange must be aware that the Badgers have hit 10 3-pointers in each of their tournament wins. Should they survive, they'll get an Ohio State team that strokes it well or a Cincinnati squad that led the Big East in 3-point makes.
4. Jardine keyed the big win over Kansas State with his terrific play, getting into the lane at will, setting up teammates and finishing with 16 points and eight assists. He's the straw that stirs the drink, so it's downright scary that he's shooting a career-worst 53.8 percent from the free-throw line. If he doesn't solve his issues, that will ultimately cost Syracuse dearly.
VI users can follow Antony Dinero on Twitter at @antonydinero