C’mon, you saw this coming. In this post I’d like to provide a breakdown of my brackets, and picks for some of the most interesting games on the slate. Now, I’m a bit unconventional in that I fill out three brackets every year: one for the men’s tournament, one for the women’s tournament, and one for the NIT (I’ve always wanted to do the WNIT too, but there’s so little material out there on women’s teams that I’d feel like I was flying blind making my picks… I even did a CBI bracket one year when Virginia was in it). Anyway, here we go. Click on the images for a bigger view if you have trouble reading my picks.
I’ll start here, since this tournament has already started. Sadly, Robert Morris’s upset win over Kentucky has put a crack in my bracket, but otherwise, my picks have mostly held, which is a bit of a surprise. The NIT is maddeningly hard to pick, as the gap between a 1 seed and an 8 seed here is much narrower than a 1 seed and a 16 in the NCAA tournament. Computer rankings such as those published by Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin can help. I’ve also found that reading any Bubble Watch columns on a publication like ESPN or Sports Illustrated can help you understand the teams better, as the NIT is filled with teams that just barely missed the Dance. Anyway, here’s some interesting second-round matchups:
Virginia vs. St. John’s: Of course, I’d start with this one. This Virginia team is talented, but has looked gassed since beating Duke a few weeks back. This was evident in their game against Norfolk State, in which they consistently led but could never quite finish off the Spartans, letting them back in the game multiple times before finally winning. I hemmed and hawed over this pick but ultimately picked UVA to advance in the second round, and I’m standing by that pick. Virginia is a much better statistical team than St. John’s, and thus has the advantage in this game. It’s also at home, where the Cavaliers have lost only once all year. I’m still going with my Hoos, but wouldn’t be surprised at all to see St. John’s pull it out.
Robert Morris vs. Providence: Despite their radically different seeds (4 vs. 8), these teams are more evenly matched than you think. The Friars are led by junior guard Bryce Cotton’s 19.6 points per game, and sophomore forward LaDontae Henton’s 8.4 rebounds per game and 21 total blocks. Providence is battle-tested from playing in the Big East conference, arguably one of the best in the country. They’ve pulled out a couple of good wins against NCAA teams Villanova and Notre Dame (the latter they thrashed 71-54). I like their chances against Cinderella Robert Morris. They don’t score or rebound as much as Providence, but any team that beats Kentucky deserves some attention.
Iowa vs. Stony Brook: I highlight this one because I totally called Stony Brook’s upset against overseeded UMass. I think Iowa is the best team in the NIT field, and I have them winning it all, so I think they’ll make short work of Stony Brook.
Mercer vs. BYU: I frankly have no clue how Mercer beat Tennessee, but I don’t see lightning striking them twice. BYU is much better statistically and should win here, but you could’ve said the same thing about Tennessee.
Women’s NCAA Tournament
The women’s tournament is the easiest of the three to pick, because chalk almost always rules. It is not at all uncommon to have 4 No.1 seeds in the Final Four, while that has happened only once in recent memory in the men’s tourney. Contributing to the notion of consistency, the four No.1 seeds in this year’s bracket are the exact same teams that were No. 1 seeds last year, and 3 of the 4 No. 2 seeds are identical. There typically aren’t that many upsets, but they do happen, so the trick is to find out where. Here’s some intriguing first-round games:
5 Iowa State vs. 12 Gonzaga, Spokane Region: Gonzaga is one of the few teams that could really mount a Cinderella run in this tournament, as they are drastically underseeded. They’ve pulled upsets before, having knocked off six-seed Rutgers and three-seed Miami in the NCAA Tournament last year. I think the Bulldogs win here, and I have them advancing to the Sweet 16.
8 Florida State vs. 9 Princeton, Oklahoma City region: Florida State is a few spots ahead of Princeton statistically, but the Tigers have all-everything forward Niveen Rasheed, who could lift them to a win here if she catches fire. The winning team unfortunately will likely run into a buzzsaw named Baylor, who is led by Brittney Griner, one of the most prolific scorers in NCAA history (and one of the few women to dunk in a game).
6 Delaware vs. 11 West Virginia, Bridgeport region: Just seeing one of Delaware forward Elena Delle Donne’s last games is worth the price of admission. Delle Donne’s story is interesting, as she originally committed to hoops titan UConn, but left the team, citing overwhelming pressures, and transferred to Delaware. After giving up hoops for volleyball for a year, she came back to the game and is ready to make noise in the Dance. West Virginia can give the Blue Hens a fight, though, as they thrive on the road and are led by Christal Caldwell’s 13.2 points per game.
6 LSU vs. 11 Green Bay, Spokane region: Green Bay is another team that looks underseeded, ranking ahead of tourney heavyweights Georgia and Delaware in the Sagarin rankings (and just ahead of other well-regarded lower seed Gonzaga). They also rank ahead of LSU, and I have them springing the upset.
My final four: Baylor, Penn State, Notre Dame, UConn
Champion: Baylor over Notre Dame
Men’s NCAA Tournament
Ah, yes. The crowning glory of March Madness, the men’s field. I’d say it’s in between the other two tournaments with regard to difficulty, as you can sometimes see a few upsets coming before they happen. Rather than previewing games, as many other outlets have done, I’m just going to share some overall impressions of the field as the tournament kicks off.
Minnesota, Oregon, and Davidson feel like the most likely double-digit first-round upsets to me. Minnesota gets a UCLA team that drove to the tournament in reverse, and lost freshman guard Jordan Adams to a broken foot. Oregon dominated while their star Dominic Artis was healthy, and he will be for their first round game against Oklahoma State. Don’t forget, they were Pac-12 tournament champs. Davidson shoots well, and 3-seed Marquette has struggled badly away from home this season.
Looking for a non-1 or 2 seed to get to the Final Four? Try Butler, Wisconsin, or Saint Louis. Wisconsin is able to slow teams down and get them to play their game, and have made great strides since UVA beat them early on in the season. They will be a tough matchup for both 1-seed Gonzaga and 2-seed Ohio State. Butler is accustomed to pulling strings of upsets to get to the Final Four, having done it two of the past three years under wunderkind coach Brad Stevens. And if my Davidson pick holds, they wouldn’t face a bad draw. They’d likely face 2-seed Miami in the Sweet 16, but teams that overachieve in the regular season typically stumble in the tourney. They’d then just have to get past a very strong Indiana squad. Though they can’t overlook Bucknell, their first-round opponent, which famously upset Kansas a few years back. St. Louis is playing inspired basketball following the death of coach Rick Majerus, and will give Louisville all they can handle in a potential Sweet 16 matchup.
This could be a very chaotic tournament. We’ve had the No. 1 team in the country lose so many times it was tough to keep track of who was No. 1 at any given moment. It’s very possible that we might not see a single 1-seed in the Final Four, so don’t be afraid to pick a few upsets. Maybe even a lot of them. Just about every team is viewed as flawed in some way, unlike last year when Kentucky felt like the clear-cut favorite (and ended up winning it all).
My Final Four: Louisville, Ohio State, Florida, Indiana
Champion: Indiana over Ohio State