March Madness Tips to Possibly, Maybe, Definitely, Potentially, Probably Not Win Your Bracket Pool
At long last, we have a bracket. The NCAA Tournament is back and it feels oh, so good after last year’s cancelation.
By now you’ve probably pored over your bracket and you’ve got a few teams picked out that you like. But if you’re still not feeling so great about it, I’ve got some advice to throw your way.
I’ve spent the last few months flushing things out with my bracketology series and I’ve got some teams I’m in love with and some teams I’m skeptical of. Here are all the nuggets you need to possibly, maybe, definitely, potentially, probably, probably not win your bracket pool!
It’s a cliché and no one really knows what it means. What’s the difference in a “Darkhorse” and a “sleeper” team? Your guess is as good as mine, but I define the sleeper term as any team that has a good squad, had a good season, but is a bit underseeded or under the radar. These guys, while primed for a good run in the Big Dance, fall short of being a Cinderella team — we’ll get to them soon enough.
USC was flying high a few weeks ago, but didn’t finish particularly strong, with a shaky 2-overtime win over Utah in the Pac-12 Tournament before losing a thriller to Colorado.
Andy Enfield has some tourney experience — does Dunk City come to mind? — and he’s got some real talent on his team. Led by a top-5 NBA Draft pick in center Evan Mobley and Tahj Eaddy’s shooting, the Trojans rank in the top-30 of KenPom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency metrics. I like USC’s draw with Wichita State or Drake, before likely facing a Kansas team that’s status is up in the air with COVID issues that forced them out of the Big 12 Tournament. That leaves us with a potential Evan Mobley vs. Luka Garza matchup in the Sweet 16. I could see USC pulling off that upset.
I had LSU as a 6-seed (with a procedural bump up from the 7-line) in my final bracketology projections and they wound up as an 8 after losing a fun game against Alabama in the SEC title game. They’ll be up against it in the second round against Michigan, but it’s not unfathomable the Tigers could pull off the shocker. Javonte Smart, Darius Days and Trenton Watford are all experienced dudes who can fill it up. And then there’s Cameron Thomas, among the nation’s top five leading scorers. Don’t sleep on Will Wade’s team.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
One name. Mac McClung.
The YouTube sensation from years ago that everyone assumed wouldn’t do much in college. But after transferring from Georgetown, he’s found his fit in Lubbock. McClung has hit some massive shots this season, but he’s also hit some bumps in the road. No matter, as Chris Beard’s team also features Terrence Shannon, Jr., Kyler Edwards, Marcus Santos-Silva and Kevin McCullar. Arkansas is a tough second round matchup, but that could be a game for the ages.
The “other sleeper teams”
These are the teams you should be sleeping on. The teams I’d advise against picking to make a deep run.
It pains me to say this, because I admire the hell out of Jay Wright’s program. After losing senior PG Collin Gillespie for the season, backup guard Justin Moore is also out with an injury. And it showed in the last two games for the Cats — losses to Providence and eventual Big East Tournament champ Georgetown.
Waiting in the first round is a trendy upset pick in Winthrop, a 1-loss team out of a sneaky good Big South. Villanova has plenty of talent left to win a game or two, but the odds are against the Cats with the thinned out roster.
This one could bite me in the butt, because Kelvin Sampson is a hell of a coach. But I’m not ready to buy in quite yet. The Coogs rate well in the NET and KenPom, but I’m skeptical about the level of competition they played in the American all season. They’ll see a scary matchup in the second round against Clemson or Rutgers, and if they get past that one, a showdown with West Virginia is looming. I don’t see a deep run coming from Houston.
Again, this one bums me out. I hate picking against the reigning national champions. And I love me some Jay Huff, Kihei Clark and Sam Hauser. But the Hoos enter the tournament with some COVID issues, much like Kansas and they don’t have any eye-popping results on their résumé. Ohio is a sneaky first-round draw, but if they get out of the first weekend, undefeated Gonzaga awaits. Don’t think we’ll be getting a deep run from UVA.
Behind every good tournament is a good underdog. Yes, in the end, we’d all prefer to see the best of the best duking it out in the Elite Eight and Final Four, but it’s the little guys we love seeing steal the show. As a Butler alum — and a lifelong Detroit Lions fan — I love the underdog.
I said it above, and I’ll reiterate it. Villanova is in trouble against Winthrop. Remember the name Chandler Vaudrin. The 6-foot-7 guard is the guy that can lift his team past Nova.
North Texas Mean Green
Javion Hamlet. Prepare yourselves. The senior from Memphis can fill it up. He played all 45 minutes of Saturday’s C-USA title game against a very good Western Kentucky team, finishing with 20 points and some huge shots down the stretch. The Mean Green will have a tough task with Purdue’s bigs, but I’m liking the idea of a 12-13 matchup in the South region.
This is mostly based on Virginia’s uncertainty, but also because of Jason Preston. If you don’t know his story, you gotta check it out. He averaged two points as a high school senior and didn’t garner much attention from college coaches.
But now he’s averaging 16 points for the Bobcats and has his team ready to rock. He put up 31 points, eight assists and zero turnovers against Ayo Dosunmu and Illinois back in November. This is definitely a team to watch.
Much like the aforementioned pod in the South, it’s not out of the question to see a 12-13 matchup in the West Region. Creighton is coming off an ugly loss to Georgetown and UCSB has a sharpshooter in Jaquori McLaughlin.
I’ll be up front about this one. I’m not picking Liberty to beat Oklahoma State. I’m in love with the Cowboys’ team, but the Flames aren’t going to be an easy out. Any other draw, and I likely would’ve picked Liberty to win at least one game.
Michigan State Spartans
I also don’t think I’m picking MSU — maybe one game — but I’m not in the business of counting out a Tom Izzo team in March. It had to be said.
Best of the best
Here’s what you really want to know. Who will be standing in the end? My initial Elite Eight:
Gonzaga over USC,
Baylor over Ohio State,
Illinois over West Virginia and
Alabama over Michigan.
From there, I’ve got Gonzaga getting by Bama and Illinois knocking off Baylor in what would be a strong candidate for best game of the tournament.
I’m rolling with Mark Few and the Zags to rewrite the history books in a fitting fashion — becoming the first undefeated team since 1976 Indiana, and doing so in the Hoosier State. As a big fan of the narrative, that would be a beautiful story.
You’ll notice that’s pretty chalky — which is typically what you’re looking for in a winning bracket.
I absolutely love Gonzaga, as I’ve been quite vocal about all season. And I’ve been steadfast on Illinois being one of the best teams in the country all the way back to my preseason rankings.
The Zags are on the precipice of history, and I implore you to forget about this strange narrative that Gonzaga can’t win a title because they play in the WCC. This is a team that has gone (-) against power conference teams over the last five regular seasons, while reaching at least the Sweet 16 in each of those seasons — including an appearance in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
So now that I’ve got that off my chest, here’s my piece on Illinois. Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn are the most exciting duo to watch in all of college basketball. I trust you know that by now. But what’s sold me on the Illini is their depth. In Dosunmu’s absence a few weeks back, guys like Andre Curbelo, Adam Miller, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams all took that next step and grew up. That’s all without even mentioning Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who is more than capable of spelling Cockburn at times. This team is galvanized and ready to make a run at the title.
When Baylor went on COVID pause a month or so back, that team was humming. Undefeated and on a collision course with Gonzaga in the title game in Indy. We all wanted it. And honestly, we still may get it. Even though the Bears aren’t undefeated and not performing at the level they once were, this is still undeniably one of the best teams in all the land. I could go on and on about the grittiness of Jared Butler, Mark Vital’s defensive prowess, “Everyday John,” and many others on this team, but take my word for it — this is a Final Four team with the capability of winning it all.
I’m cautiously optimistic about Michigan. What we saw from that team at points this season was unbelievable. They’re a very good team. Though I’m worried about the prolonged absence of Isaiah Livers, I’m not buying into the early exit that some are calling for. I’ve got Juwan Howard and Co. getting past LSU and Florida State, but that’s where my next team comes in.
I love Alabama. I love Nate Oats’ style of play. The Crimson Tide, much like the Zags, are among the fastest teams in the country, and yet the second-best defensive team, per KenPom’s AdjDE. That’s unheard of. You might see Alabama take three or four truly “bad shots” all tournament. They only shoot open 3s and shots within a few feet of the rim. Read this amazing story from CBS Sports on the Tide. I beg you.
I’d be remiss to not mention the Texas Longhorns. Shaka Smart has finally put it all together in Austin this year, and my goodness, they’re fun to watch with guys like Jericho Sims, Kai Jones, Matt Coleman and of course the brilliantly beautiful story of Andrew Jones. I’ve got an eye on a potential Sweet 16 showdown against Alabama. Either team could knock off Michigan.
So there you have it — my thoughts on this year’s bracket. Do what you wish with it, but I must leave you with a few important words.
2020 sucked. For many reasons far more important than basketball. But the absence of the NCAA Tournament left a gaping hole in my soul. So it feels amazing to have the madness back at our fingertips. I just want everyone to take a few seconds before ripping the altered tournament format, or lamenting everything different about this year’s Big Dance.
Instead, let’s give a big hand to everyone who’s putting in the hard work to make this thing happen. From the suits at the NCAA, to health officials in Indiana, to the coaches and student managers, and all the TV announcers, analysts, podcasters, writers and reporters. They’re all a major part of this.
But most importantly, props to all these student-athletes who have navigated the most treacherous season in college basketball history. It’s nothing short of impressive and admirable. Major props and best of luck in Indiana.
Now let the madness commence, because… This. Is. March!