So how many NCAA basketball games did you watch this year? Two, three? One with a couple of college friends at a sports bar get-together? And now it's tournament time, and you're scrambling to find out which teams to pick in your technically illegal office NCAA tournament pool. I'm here to help, with some advice and pointers, broken down by region.
Of course, the great allure of the NCAA tournament, beyond the sheer zaniness and the last-second shots and the leaping and the raw elation of the winners, is the unpredictability of it all. While there is a method to the Madness, it's important to remember that nothing about the Big Dance is a sure thing. And no one should want it any other way.
Now, every year, there is one person in the bracket pool—usually someone a lot like me—who has watched so much college basketball that he or she sees flaws in even the best teams and potential in all of the mediocre ones. This can lead to over-picking against the top seeds too early, basically because you’re such an expert that the laws of reality don’t apply for some reason. Yes, last season’s Final Four was remarkable in part for its lower-seeded participants. But it was remarkable precisely because it so rarely happens that way. The reason teams vie so hard for high seeds is because your chances of advancing go up dramatically the higher your seed. Sure, you still have to show up and play well, but the higher your seed, the more likely your opponent is overmatched and the setting for your game is friendly. Specific match-ups do factor heavily, of course. But at the end of the day, the powerhouses are powerhouses for a reason.
This season, the top three teams, while by no means flawless, appear to be a cut above the next tier of teams. The overall top seed, Kentucky, is very unlikely to lose its first three games. Yes, it could happen. But it’s not something that gets your bracket anywhere because it would be a real shock to everyone.
So long as freshman Anthony Davis doesn’t break his leg or drive a car into a crowd of people between now and Final Four weekend in New Orleans, Kentucky is extra inoculated against the upset bug by having the nation’s most disruptive, possibly best and certain most unibrowed player. The South Region, Kentucky’s region, is full of big-name teams with fatal flaws. Fourth-seeded Indiana doesn’t play well on the road, No. 2 seed Duke shoots way too many threes to win consistently and No. 3 Baylor has shown a lack of toughness in big games despite owning a stable of thoroughbred players.
The biggest worry for UK fans is actually more likely to be No. 9 seed Connecticut, who could be waiting in a third-round game. UCONN has the talent and size to hang with the Wildcats, not to mention defending national champion coach Jim Calhoun, who has returned after having back surgery. The Huskies have team chemistry issues, however, and have looked mostly pedestrian over the past two months. Other teams to watch for in the South are UNLV, who beat North Carolina early in the season, and the winner of a second-round mid-major clash between Wichita State and Virginia Commonwealth, both of whom play strong team defense and have go-to scorers. Interestingly, three of last season’s Final Four teams—Kentucky, UCONN and VCU—are in the South Region.
A search for potential spoilers leads you to underachieving Xavier, who was once ranked in the nation’s top 15 but who squeaked into the field. The Musketeers have a quality big man and superior backcourt play, when all cylinders are firing. Notre Dame has overachieved all season and its coach has a poor history in the NCAA tournament. Xavier’s potential second opponent would be Duke, who has had a good season but who has flirted with disaster many times. Depending on which Xavier squad shows up, a few wins are not out of the question.
The East Region features a slew of teams who play plodding but effective basketball. Whether any of them can be effective enough to beat top-seeded Syracuse is another matter. Syracuse has dominant depth, experience and a Hall of Fame coach in Jim Boeheim, not to mention a tricky 2-3 zone that gives teams fits. There's reason to wonder whether the Orange have been tested outside a Big East conference of questionable depth, but it’s inarguable that ‘Cuse won 31 of the 33 games it has played. Vanderbilt, the region’s five seed, is an interesting potential Sweet 16 matchup with Syracuse. The Commodores were a preseason top 10 pick but struggled to find their stride. Vandy appears to be hitting it at the right time, though, winning the SEC tournament title over Kentucky, and it has the shooters to give the Syracuse zone trouble as well as legit size in the paint. Vanderbilt will first have to get past Ivy League champ Harvard and then likely Wisconsin, assuming the Badgers aren’t picked off by upset-minded Montana.
The bottom half of the region could see some turmoil if St. Bonaventure continues to get All-American play out of center Andrew Nicholson. Neither Florida State, the Bonnies’ opening-round opponent, nor potential second opponent Cincinnati have much to offer on offense, and teams who struggle to score can be vulnerable to losing because lower seeds can be wonderfully adept at keeping games close into the final minutes when anything can, and often does, happen. That said, both FSU and Cincinnati are playing well. The Seminoles won the ACC tournament, beating Duke and North Carolina on back-to-back days, and Cincinnati made it to the finals of the Big East tournament for the first time.
The No. 2 seed in the East, Ohio State, is flying a bit under the radar. The Buckeyes are a team with all the tools to make a run at a national title, including a star that can take over games in sophomore Jared Sullinger. If you’re looking for a team that could potentially replace Syracuse in New Orleans, it may be Ohio State.
After losing its first two games—to North Carolina and Duke, no less—lots of fans wrote off Michigan State, the Big Ten champion and the fourth No. 1 seed. But the Spartans have emerged from that tough start a cohesive and dangerous team, led by All-American Draymond Green. Michigan State is a strong defensive unit that plays each possession like its entire existence depends on it. The Spartans face a potentially intriguing second game foe in Memphis, the eight seed, who underachieved early this season but has NBA talent and has been playing well of late. The Tigers also seem miffed at their seed, an intangible factor that can lead to extra effort. That doesn’t mean Memphis will beat the Spartans—it may not even beat opening-round foe Saint Louis—but it does set up a dicier draw for the No. 1-seeded Spartans.
Everyone keeps waiting for No. 2 seed Missouri to come back to earth, but the Tigers seem to enjoy keeping everyone waiting. Mizzou won the Big 12 conference tournament title and its unconventional guard-oriented lineup is still working. The Tigers’ draw is favorable early in that none of the teams likely to advance are physical power front-line teams that have given the Tigers trouble this year. A good sleeper pick could be Marquette, which boasts a pair of senior leaders and a team of overachievers. The Golden Warriors also have a pretty favorable draw, with a play-in winner first and then either Murray State, an over-seeded mid-major team that lacks size, or Colorado State, who beat some decent conference teams but nobody else of note. A Sweet 16 match-up with Mizzou would be a fascinating contrast of styles.
At the beginning of the season, Midwest Region No. 1 seed North Carolina was the consensus pick to win the national title. All these months later, it may be Kentucky getting the buzz but no one would be the least surprised if the Tar Heels managed to prove everyone right in the end. UNC is loaded with talent, well coached and has been in plenty of big games before. It has legit stars in Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller, maybe the nation’s best passer in Kendall Marshall and a defensive game-changer in John Henson. The only real issues with UNC are Henson’s health—he missed the final two games of the ACC tournament with a sprained wrist—and a lack of attention to detail. It’s not that UNC doesn’t play hard. They just appear to play loose with possession at times, throwing the ball away or allowing open three-pointers. In reality, UNC only lost to four teams all year, the lowest of which, UNLV, will be a six seed in this tournament. Barring a major surprise, UNC will be playing for a chance to go to the Final Four in a few weeks.
Missouri Valley Conference tournament winner Creighton can score with the Heels but likely can’t stop them enough. Alabama can perhaps stop them but likely can’t score enough. Temple and Michigan both play stingy defense and have some shooters, but it wouldn’t appear either has enough in the tank to go toe-to-toe with Carolina for 40 minutes. In the end, it will be a surprise if the team UNC will have to bear in order to reach New Orleans is anyone other than No. 2 seed Kansas. The Jayhawks would be playing that game close to home, in St. Louis, and current UNC coach Roy Williams made his name as the head coach at Kansas for over a decade. KU doesn’t have the depth or the scoring ability of the Tar Heels, but it does have Thomas Robinson, an All-American forward and national Player of the Year candidate.
In the end, it’s always tough to pick against the teams that have been the best all season long. It’s why most folks in your office pool will have Kentucky, Syracuse, Michigan State and North Carolina penciled in through to the Final Four. But do look carefully at Ohio State, Kansas, Missouri and Marquette, too. While the No. 1 seeds are by design expected to continue advancing in the tournament, only
twice, in 2008 and 1993 once, in 2008, have all four top seeds made it to the tournament’s final weekend.