The NCAA Tournament begins Thursday (sorry, play-in games, you don’t count as the beginning no matter what the NCAA says), which means you need to fill out your bracket soon. There are dozens of ways to do that, and I’ve tried pretty much everything with no success. You can rely on any number of stats-based rankings, from Ken Pomeroy’s to Jeff Sagarin’s to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index. Even better, you can check Nate Silver’s projections, which combines them all and then some.
None of that really matters, of course, because this is one large crapshoot. You’re probably better off picking based on jersey colors, mascot names, the best names on each team, or, as a friend of mine did last year, based on how much you like the state each team comes from. You can put some thought into it by choosing teams to go deep that few other will — that was my strategy in picking Miami last year (it didn’t work). Jeb Lund probably has the best advice, though: crack open a few beers, get sufficiently buzzed, and scribble down semi-coherent team names.
No matter how you do it, your chances are probably about the same.
But it’s still fun to take a break from talking about lawsuits against the NCAA to think through the tournament, to look at the various teams and the possibilities and try to find some reasonable manner of putting it all together. And even if you don’t win your bracket pool — spoiler alert: you won’t — it’s worth pointing out what players to watch and which match-ups could make for the most entertaining tournament. Here’s my attempt to do both: I’ve combined both a few picks for who’s going to go all the way and the players and match-ups I can’t wait to see or want to see along the way. Don’t take the picks as gospel – I’ve never won one of these things – but hopefully you weren’t planning to do that anyway.
A copy of my full bracket is below, along with a printable blank bracket. If you want to make your picks and compare them to mine, send them along!
What could stop top-seed Florida: This Florida team is solid in every way if not extravagant in many areas at all. The Gators are led by experienced seniors, and they’re a staunch defensive team (57.9 points per game, 39.9 opponent field goal percentage). They rebound enough (+4.8 margin), and while traditional stats don’t love their offense, KenPom rates them as the 15th-best adjusted offense in the country. Florida hasn’t lost since December, when they were still waiting on their full lineup to return. And Billy Donovan is one of the best coaches in America. That said, there are questions, chiefly about whether Florida is more than a little inflated by running through a weak SEC schedule. And while they have a lovely draw, they could meet a Kansas team in the regional final that’s more talented than anyone they’ve seen in months.
Who will win if the Gators don’t: Kansas wasn’t as impressive as we might have expected them to be at the beginning of the season, but the Jayhawks still managed to win their 10th consecutive Big XII title. Given its brutal schedule, there probably isn’t a more battle-tested team in the Dance. They have big concerns too, none bigger than the health of center Joel Embiid’s back. Embiid won’t play until at least the Sweet 16. If the Jayhawks can survive two games without him, and if he’s healthy when he comes back, they’re a contender. Without him, this region is Florida’s to lose. UCLA could be an outside choice in this group — especially if you want to take a risk in your bracket challenge by choosing someone nobody is picking to reach the Final Four.
Most intriguing team(s): It’s Syracuse. The Orange started the season 25-0 and looked like the best team in the country. Then they lost five of their last seven games entering the tournament. Syracuse has the defense (59.5 points per game) to win it all. But can they score? At their best, sure: they scored 91 points and 1.4 points per possession in a win over Duke. But the Orange have slumped since then, and their offense is a little less potent than you’d want a true title contender. And yet, if Kansas isn’t healthy, the Orange could find their way into an anything-goes regional final against Florida, a defensive battle that would fit the style Syracuse prefers.
Best early upset pick: Stephen F. Austin (12) is 31-2 and could do to Virginia Commonwealth (5) what the Rams did to everyone else in 2011.
Two games that could wreck your bracket: An Embiid-less Kansas falls to New Mexico or Stanford on the first weekend. Or a talented UCLA team figures out Florida’s defense and rids the tournament of Billy Donovan’s Gators.
Best potential match-ups: That’s easy: a star-studded and healthy Kansas meets senior-laden, solid Florida in the regional final, with two of the nation’s best coaches patrolling the sidelines. It’d be a rematch of their December 10 meeting, which Florida won 67-61 in Gainesville.
Three players to watch: If Kansas is going to make a run, it’ll need stud freshman Andrew Wiggins to be at his absolute best. Florida’s Scotty Wilbekin, who almost got kicked off the team earlier this year, will have to be as steady as he’s been since returning in December if the Gators want to win it all. UCLA’s Kyle Anderson could help the Bruins go deep.
The Pick: It’s a risk, but let’s bet on Embiid’s health and pick Kansas.
What could stop top-seed Virginia: The Cavaliers answered all the questions about their regular season Atlantic Coast Conference championship by winning the ACC tournament last weekend, and few squads are hotter than Tony Bennett’s team. The Cavs are hawkish on defense and don’t rely on any one player. The questions about UVA aren’t hard to find, though. Virginia’s a plodder on offense, albeit an efficient one (22nd in KenPom). But that style of low-scoring, slow basketball invites opponents to hang around and could hurt the Hoos in the tournament.
Who will win if the Cavaliers don’t: This region is as wide open as any. Michigan State has emerged as the go-to pick out of the East, and that makes sense: the roster that made Sparty one of the top preseason picks is finally healthy, and State looked good in romping to the Big Ten tournament title over the weekend. Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State team just won the Big XII tournament and is plenty good enough to pick its way through this region. Villanova is an interesting team: its best wins aren’t great, it lost to the best teams it played (to Syracuse and twice to Creighton, including one that wasn’t close), and it comes into the tournament off an ugly loss to Seton Hall. But the Wildcats also beat St. Joseph’s, who they could meet in the second round, by 30 points in December, and they’re balanced on both sides: KenPom’s ratings have them as the 17th-most efficient offense and 16th-most efficient defense in the country.
Best early upset pick: Everyone seems to love Harvard (12) over Cincinnati (5), and it’s not a bad choice. Want to think out of the box? Try Providence (11) over (6) North Carolina or North Carolina Central (14) over Iowa State (3), though I’m not confident in the latter. Another choice: Connecticut or St. Joe’s (7/10, respectively) over Villanova (2) in the round of 32.
Most intriguing team(s): I’m curious to see the two American Athletic Conference teams in action. Memphis and Cincinnati have both been tough all year, and they also boast players (in Cincy’s Sean Kilpatrick and Memphis’ Joe Johnson) that can change games by themselves. Can either of these two teams use the tournament to prove that the Selection Committee undervalued the AAC? Or will they only help legitimize it?
Two games that could wreck your bracket: Sticking with the AAC: an interesting Memphis team could give Virginia trouble in the round of 32. And while everyone likes Michigan State, could the winner of that Cincinnati/Harvard game shock the Spartans?
Most fun potential match-up: No matter who wins the Connecticut/St. Joseph’s match-up, we get an interesting round of 32 battle. If UConn wins, they’ll meet Villanova in a clash of former Big East rivals. If it’s St. Joe’s, we get Philly’s Holy War in the NCAA Tournament.
Three players to watch: Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim is the guy who could make the difference between the Cyclones making a run or, worst case, going home right away, and you could say the exact same about Cincinnati’s Sean Kilpatrick. I’d be remiss, though, in not touting Bryce Cotton, the Providence guard who averages 40 minutes a game, can score from outside the gym, and will battle UNC guard Marcus Paige right off the bat.
The Pick: Michigan State. I will admit to following the “never bet against Tom Izzo in March” rule, and if this team stays healthy and gels quickly, they also have the advantage of being the most talented group in the region.
What could stop top-seed Arizona: The Wildcats are scary, long, athletic, and tough to score on. They have the nation’s best defense and NBA-type players in Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson. Zona’s offense leaves a little to be desired, and their obvious weakness is free throw shooting (among the worst in the tourney). What could kill the Wildcats, though, is the loss of Brandon Ashley, their talented wing scorer who is out for the season. Arizona’s just 9-4 since he left on February 1, though three of the four losses are to other NCAA Tournament teams.
Who will win if the Wildcats don’t: Creighton has the likely national player of the year in Doug McDermott, and the Blue Jays also bring with them the nation’s most efficient offense. The obvious caveat is that they’re extremely beatable if McDermott doesn’t score, but…that doesn’t happen often. The other is that they aren’t a great defensive team. There’s also Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin, a team whose lack of offense has turned them into a perennial tournament disappointment. But the Badgers can actually score this year – they’re fifth in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings — and it might be enough for Ryan’s squad to finally make the deep run that is the only thing missing from his coaching resume.
Most intriguing team(s): Oklahoma State, which started the season among title contenders but nearly fell apart midway through, righted the ship enough to get in and could wreak havoc here if they play like the team they were supposed to be. Same goes for Baylor, which is talented and freakishly athletic. The Bears have been to two straight regional finals and could – could – have what it takes to make it a third, especially if Wisconsin goes Wisconsin and loses early.
Best early upset picks: North Dakota State (12) over Oklahoma (5) is the trendy pick, and it’s legitimate: the Bison lead the nation in field goal percentage, making 50.9 percent of their shots. The Sooners, meanwhile, are 169th in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 43.5 percent for the season.
Two games that could wreck your bracket: Not to harp on it too much, but Oklahoma State could ruin this entire region by knocking off Arizona in the round of 32 (come to think of it, Gonzaga could too). And if they get by BYU, a streaking Oregon team could trouble Wisconsin.
Most fun potential match-up: Creighton against Arizona in the regional final could put the nation’s best offense against its best defense. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Three players to watch: McDermott is the easy choice, and don’t miss him, because his amazing college career is almost over. Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart is the one who could help the Cowboys turn this entire region on its head. Keep an eye on North Dakota State’s Taylor Braun, who averages 18.2 points per game and could help make the Bison this year’s Cinderella.
The Pick: Arizona. The Wildcats had their struggles down the stretch, but they’re still the best team in this region…and maybe in the tournament.
What could stop top-seed Wichita State: It’s been 38 years since a team won a national title without losing a game, but Wichita State has a chance to do just that. The 34-0 Shockers are solid and experienced – Gregg Marshall’s team went to the Final Four a year ago – and while the schedule wasn’t all that tough, they beat both St. Louis and Tennessee. If you’re looking for a reason to doubt the Shockers, here are two: first, they have an absolutely devilish draw that could take them through Kentucky, Louisville, and either Duke or Michigan all before they get to the Final Four. Second, their margin of victory against a relatively weak schedule isn’t as large as it should be if we’re assessing them against past national champs.
Who will win if the Shockers don’t: Louisville, the defending champion, is the popular pick here – and some statistical models think the Cardinals are the best choice to win the entire thing. The Cards play stifling defense and score enough to win it all. Michigan is good enough to win this region, and Duke, which lost eight games but has, in Jabari Parker, the type of player than can take over the entire tournament, might be too.
Most intriguing team: Kentucky is the squad that could throw this bracket into disarray. The Wildcats looked mediocre for most of the year – and I’m still not convinced they aren’t – but they also might have (as much emphasis as possible on might) started putting it together at the SEC tournament last week. The Cats have shown the ability to play with and beat anyone – they lost by a nose to Michigan State and beat Louisville. Coach John Calipari also has an outstanding record in the NCAA Tournament — he’s 38-13 overall as a head coach and 13-2 at Kentucky. But it’s been two months since this Wildcats group beat a tournament team, and they’ve proven in that period that they can lose to just about anyone. It wouldn’t shock me to see Kentucky end up in the Sweet 16 or beyond. It also wouldn’t shock me if Kansas State beats them handily right away.
Best early upset pick: Mercer (14) comes from the conference that gave us Florida Gulf Coast last year, and they meet a Duke (3) team that lost to Lehigh in the opening round the year before. That said, the best pick is either Iowa or Tennessee (11) over UMass (6).
Two games that could wreck your bracket: The good version of Texas gets past Arizona State and puts Michigan out early. A version of Kentucky no one has seen in months gets hot and knocks off both Wichita State and Louisville.
Best potential match-up: It’s impossible to choose just one. Kentucky, a team that talked about an undefeated season, could meet a Wichita State team that could actually do it. Louisville and Kentucky could meet in the Sweet 16, or the Cards could face the Wichita State team they beat in the Final Four last year. I’m looking forward, though, to Duke-Michigan in the Sweet 16. Not only do they have their share of NCAA Tournament history against each other, it’d also match two of the best offensive teams in the country.
Three players to watch: Wichita State’s hopes for an undefeated season hinge on the play of guard Fred Van Vleet. The aforementioned Jabari Parker is a guy who could go all Carmelo Anthony and carry his team to a title. And while he likely won’t be around long, check out N.C. State’s T.J. Warren, the nation’s third leading scorer.
The Pick: Louisville. The Cards aren’t without questions, but they’re the most solid team in this region.
I’m less than confident in all four of my Final Four picks, but that’s the name of the game. Once we get to Dallas, I’ll take Arizona over Louisville. And while I like this Kansas team with a healthy Embiid, I love the healthy version of Michigan State that we caught a glimpse of in November. The Spartans have experienced guard play with Keith Appling — a must in March — plus a future NBA guy in Gary Harris. Add a healthy Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne, plus one of the best tournament coaches in history, and, well, it’s hard to pick against the Spartans. They were an early-season favorite for a reason.
An Arizona-Michigan State final game feels like a throwback to the late ’90s/early ’00s, when both were consistently at the top of college basketball, and both have been waiting for another title since then. As much as I love Michigan State, I think this is the year that Arizona’s Sean Miller cracks into the group of title-winners. Zona has the best defense in the country, based on the KenPom ratings, and even without Brandon Ashley, the offense is good enough. I’ll take Arizona to win it all. Of course, these choices mean that the Wildcats and Spartans will probably blow up my bracket by losing early.
Here’s a copy of my full bracket:
Think you can do better? Here’s a blank bracket for you to use:
Graphics by Adam Peck. Photographs via Associated Press.