This year’s edition of The Big Dance, March Madness, Coke Zero’s 3-week ad campaign, or whatever you’d like to call it, got off to an auspicious start when the bracket was leaked before CBS’s two-hour(!) bracket reveal show. Try to tell me karma doesn’t exist after that. And yet, we must push on with all the tools available to us. BPI, SOS, RPI, and other assorted three-letter acronyms attempt to quantify the task before each and every one of us: to determine which team will cut down the nets in Houston three weeks from tonight. Herein, I will guide you through the murky waters that are this year’s bracket (I’m on a 1-year winning streak, so I must be an expert). And this time around, the field is wide open. Let’s do it.
Themes to look for:
Senior presence: This year’s crop of freshmen is not as outstanding as last year’s group was: two of the Final Four teams last year were led by freshmen, but this year’s top freshman, Ben Simmons, didn’t even make the tournament! The teams that have enjoyed the fewest upsets this year and have come out near the top of the field generally feature veteran presence. I like teams with veterans to have the edge this year.
Outstanding Guard Play: A great guard will always help a squad out. Some guards that might have flown under the radar this year include Demetrius Jackson of Notre Dame, Tyler Ulis of Kentucky (if only because he physically flew under the radar at 5’9″), and Kris Dunn of Providence. Look for teams with good guards to weather the storms and make good runs.
Let’s move on to the bracket itself!
South Region: The Committee Failed Maps
We begin in the South Region, headlined by the overall number one-seeded Kansas Jayhawks. The committee did the Jayhawks no favors by loading their bracket with potential roadblocks in Villanova (#2), Miami (#3), Cal (#4), and Maryland (#5), and on top of the difficulty of playing against those teams, the committee forgot that Kansas should have been in the Midwest region, in which the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 will be played in Chicago, and instead decided to send them to Louisville. Kansas will beat its 16-seed victim (you can write that one in with pen) and will play the UConn Huskies after they defeat Colorado in the 8-9 matchup. Cal and Maryland, 4 and 5 seeds respectively, will also advance to the second round. This region seems quite chalky early on, but I think the First Four winner, likely Wichita State, will take down Arizona in the 6-11 matchup. Also, Temple should beat a shaky Iowa team that lost to the 12th seeded Fighting Illini in the Big 10 tourney. I think UConn will give Kansas a run for its money in the round of 32, but the Jayhawks will have just enough to squeak past and play Cal in the Sweet 16. On the other side, Miami and Villanova will advance to play each other in the Sweet 16. Kansas gets by Cal, and in a mild upset, Miami will beat Villanova behind its veteran guard play and experienced, athletic big men. I think Miami has a decent chance to beat Kansas, but I just can’t bring myself to pick it. The Jayhawks finally overcome their early exits and make it to the Final Four in Houston.
West Region: Duck Duck Sooners
Most pundits will agree that the West region seems to be the weakest of the four this year, likely because its one seed, Oregon, seems a step behind the other three number one seeds. Oregon will be tested by Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Duke among others. I see a couple first-round upset opportunities here: in my obligatory 5-12 upset this year, I like Yale to beat Baylor (I don’t trust any teams that regularly incorporate highlighter-yellow into their uniforms), Northern Iowa to take down Texas, and VCU to beat Oregon State. The fact that Oregon State is a 7-seed is a travesty, by the way. Duke gets past UNC-Wilmington to disrupt its current streak of losing in the first round in massive upsets every other year to play Yale in the second round. As a Duke fan, I must address the fact that aside from a potential second round matchup with Baylor, Duke got a pretty friendly draw: Duke has struggled this year against big teams that hit the offensive rebounds hard, and none of the other top seeds really do this: Oregon, A&M, and Oklahoma are all guard-oriented, and so Duke has what I would qualify as a decent chance to make a run. The Sweet 16 here will feature Oregon, Duke, A&M, and Oklahoma. Look out for a feisty St. Joe’s team in the second round against Oregon. I think the Ducks squeak it out, though. I like Duke to surprise Oregon and get to the Elite 8, in which it will play Oklahoma. In many ways, Oklahoma is a lot like Duke: they rely on good shooting from the outside and lack a solid interior presence besides Ryan Spangler. If Duke is here, I think they’ll have found something shooting-wise and they will be able to get past the Sooners. I put Duke through to the Final Four mostly due to their favorable path. If you, unlike me, are not a Duke fan, I welcome you to pick Baylor to beat them. If there is a team that has a good chance to beat Duke here, it seems to be Baylor. In this alternate scenario, I would have Oklahoma in the Final Four.
East Region: Blue Bloods
The East region is headlined by UNC and pits them against the likes of Xavier, West Virginia, and Kentucky, among others. The strength of the higher-seeds here is quite apparent, and so I don’t foresee too many opening round upsets. Of the top six seeds, I think Notre Dame has the best chance to be upset in the first round, but I am not picking that upset. The Friars of Providence will give Carolina a test in the second round, but I think Carolina’s interior strength will prove too much for the Friars, and so Carolina proceeds to the Sweet 16. Indiana and Kentucky will light up the ratings board in the second round, and I think Kentucky gets by Indiana because of its hot guard play behind Tyler Ulis and our friend from the Great White North, Jamal Murray. In the bottom half, I actually like Notre Dame to get by West Virginia. This may surprise some people, but I think Notre Dame is built to beat Press Virginia’s system because it has a tremendous point guard in Demetrius Jackson and other capable ball handlers in Steve Vasturia and others. Notre Dame will meet the Musketeers of Xavier, who will dispatch Wisconsin in the second round. Carolina and Kentucky’s Sweet 16 game will be memorable. Kentucky seems to be a trendy pick for the Final Four, but I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid: Carolina’s veteran, interior presence has the athleticism to beat Kentucky, and the emergence of Joel Berry as a real outside shooting threat gives Carolina a dimension it didn’t have even six weeks ago. Carolina gets by Kentucky in a great basketball game to play Xavier in the Elite 8. Carolina also will dispatch Xavier in the Elite 8 behind its athleticism and up-and-down game to get to Houston as the East’s Final Four representative.
Midwest Region: Third Time’s the Charm?
The Wahoos of Virginia secured the 1-seed in the Midwest region behind the play of Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC, Malcolm Brogdon. The Hoos, unfortunately, drew a potential Elite 8 matchup with their postseason nemesis, the Spartans of Michigan State, which has knocked out the Hoos the last two years in the NCAA Tourney. Utah is the three seed here, and Iowa State is the four. My upset special here is Iona over Iowa State in the 4-13 matchup. Iowa State succumbed to a 3-14 upset last year and I think they were over-seeded (as do my colleagues) as a 4. Iona and AJ English get past the Cyclones and open up the slate of games in Denver with a nice upset. Syracuse and Butler (though only technically) are the only other lower seeded teams that I think will make it through to the second round here. Many are picking Seton Hall to lose to Gonzaga, but I liked what I saw out of the Hall in the Big East tournament: veteran guards are always a good thing to have. I also like Seton Hall to get to the Sweet 16 by beating Utah in the round of 32: although Utah benefits from the inside presence of Jakob Poeltl, their guards won’t be able to keep up with Seton Hall as the Pirates advance to Chicago. They will meet Michigan State. Virginia will play Purdue in the other Sweet 16 matchup. I think Purdue has a decent chance to beat Virginia: those with more intestinal fortitude than I might be willing to pick that upset, but I’ll put the Hoos through to face the Spartans of Michigan State in the Elite 8. Alas, I do not think the third time will prove to be the charm for the Hoos, as Denzel Valentine and the Spartans will get the better of Virginia and get to the Final Four.
Final Four: Who stands alone in the Lone Star State?
To recap: I have Kansas meeting Duke in one semifinal and UNC meeting Michigan State in the other. I think Duke’s luck runs out as Kansas beats them to face UNC in the finals. The UNC-Michigan State game should be tremendous, but I’m giving UNC the edge again because of its athleticism and inside presence. The Wooden Award candidate for Michigan State, Denzel Valentine, usually provides matchup problems for other teams due to his size and ball-handling ability. I think UNC’s defensive presence has improved a lot this year and the athletic wings/bigs of UNC will be able to mitigate Valentine’s effect on the game offensively. UNC will draw Kansas in the Roy Williams’ Sweet Tea Invitational presented by Lipton Tea (aka the National Championship game). I give Carolina the edge. They put something special together towards the end of the year. They are deep, athletic, veteran, and have found a new guard in Joel Berry to help them shoot from the outside. As much as it deeply pains me (I will likely be excommunicated from Duke University), I think the Heels cut down the nets in Houston.
My overall sentiment on this year’s tournament is that most of the traditional mid-major teams aren’t overly scary for the higher seeds. If the bracket will get mucked up, it’ll occur in the second round and later: we’ve seen throughout the year the shuffling that has gone on in the top 25 rankings, and so I think there’s a shot that someone unlikely in the 1-8 range will make a run to the Final Four. Look for veteran guards to fuel the run. As always, Go Duke (2017 national champions).