I write this paragraph every year and it holds true year in and year out. This is our favorite time of year. The Masters is in a few weeks, along with the first pitch of baseball season. The NBA and NHL are rounding into their playoffs. European soccer league titles are being decided. Most importantly, it’s bracket time! March Madness!
It’s the time of year when people inexplicably read columns on what “experts” think and then assume that experts know what they’re doing.
Nobody knows what they’re doing with March Madness. There are buzzer beaters, about thirty teams nobody has seen play, and the average person can probably name about one player per team, if that. But who cares? Filling out brackets is the single best sports fan activity, especially when you couple it with Thursday through Sunday’s games coming up.
And now, the obligatory paragraph about the mental gymnastics we have to go through because I have major problems with the NCAA to put it nicely. But it’s MARCH MADNESS, so . . . on to the next paragraph!
First, we’ll go over some rules that we will be abiding by. Some of them we have used in the past. Some of them are new wrinkles.
RW RULES OF THUMB FOR YOUR BRACKET
Don’t pick a 1, 2, or 3-seed lose in the 1st round. Despite that there is a ton of parity, your odds of nailing the 1 over 16 or the almost as unlikely 2 over 15/3 over 14 are slim to none. Don’t pick them. A few too many bad upset picks and you’re out of your bracket before things even get underway. I know. I know. 1 UVA lost to 16 UMBC last year. Good luck predicting the next one though.
Stats matter. Try not to pick teams that can’t win the turnover battle. Also, don’t pick a team that can’t shoot or defend the 3-point line.
Coaching matters. Look at some of the players to come out of Texas when Rick Barnes ran the show. How did they never go deep into the tournament for about a decade? Coaching.
Poor Rick Barnes. We use him every year. But he really does provide the best example. And now he’s coaching a high seed . . . RICK BARNES!
Don’t pick an upset if the underdog can’t shoot threes. Conversely, a good higher seed to go against is one that can’t defend the 3-point line. Even if a team keeps pounding the ball inside and getting consistent buckets, if they’re giving up 3 points at the other end, they’re losing, they’re getting antsy, and they fall into the shootout trap. Oh, and how many times have we seen some mid-major catch fire from the 3-point line to come through with the upset? Ali Farokhmanesh is still our favorite combination of name/moment. Just watch the clip below. The onions to shoot that three.
Don’t pick a Pac-12 team to win a game? Why, you ask? Well, if you’re asking, then you haven’t watched the Pac-12 play this year. Turrible as Charles Barkley would say.
Don’t pick teams that got into the tournament mostly by how they played at home. Even though many of the early games will feature geographic advantages for some, it’s not the same as playing at home. Different gyms mean your eyes have to adjust. No student section. Etc. These games are on neutral courts. Plan accordingly.
NOTE 1: The deeper you get into the tournament, the more important it becomes to have a consistent scorer/play-maker. When we say scorer, we mean someone who can create on his own, not just a shooter. Balance matters, but the team that wins it all will have a go-to guy (e.g. Zion Williamson, Cameron Johnson, Rui Hachimura, De’Andre Hunter). Guaranteed.
NOTE 2: Stop reading here and find someone in your office who has no clue about any of these teams but understands what seedings mean. That person invariably wins all of these pools.
1 Duke, 2 Michigan State, and 3 LSU advance
4 Virginia Tech over 13 Saint Louis
This game should be a blowout.
5 Mississippi State over 12 Liberty
Yes, it’s sexy to choose a 12 seed. But Mississippi State is actually a good team. Boring. But good.
11 Belmont/Temple over 6 Maryland
I like this pick much more if it’s Belmont on the other side of the court. Belmont is ridiculously difficult to prepare for. They run a million offensive sets and are great at moving the ball.
7 Louisville over 10 Minnesota
Yes, a Richard Pitino-led Minnesota team upsetting Louisville makes for a good story, but not gonna happen. People are acting like this Louisville team didn’t wax UNC by 20 earlier this season.
9 UCF over 8 VCU
You could completely justify flipping a coin in this one. So, how about you have some fun and choose the team with 7’6″ Tacko Fall? It’s not like Shaka Smart is at VCU anymore.
1 Duke over 9 UCF
If you’re Tacko Fall, you get out of the way when Zion comes down the lane. Just a free piece of advice here.
2 Michigan State over 7 Louisville
This is going to be a tougher game for Michigan State than people realize but the Spartans are just too solid inside to lose this one.
11 Belmont over 3 LSU
This could easily backfire, especially if Belmont doesn’t get out of the play-in game. But Belmont’s Achilles heel is giving up the 3-ball. LSU can’t shoot.
4 Virginia Tech over 5 Mississippi State
Virginia Tech is 8th in offensive efficiency and 30th in defensive efficiency. Mississippi State? 16th and 53rd. In other words, this is a good game but Va. Tech is slightly better.
1 Duke over 4 Virginia Tech
Virginia Tech beat Duke this year . . . when Zion was injured. Zion isn’t injured. Duke isn’t losing this one.
2 Michigan State over 11 Belmont
And boom goes the dynamite for Belmont. Michigan State is going to dominate down low and win by double digits.
1 Duke over 2 Michigan State
Duke can’t really shoot the ball and Michigan State can stroke the three. However, Sparty is fighting some injuries. Duke is healthy at the right time. A full-strength Michigan State could win this game. Not a hobbled one though.
1 North Carolina, 2 Kentucky, and 3 Houston advance
4 Kansas over 13 Northestern
I was really really really close to taking Northeastern because Kansas is that overrated. Northeastern can shoot, but they won’t be able to force Kansas into that many mistakes, and that is the key to beating a susceptible Kansas team this year.
5 Auburn over 12 New Mexico State
The committee is trying to bait you into taking New Mexico State. Don’t take the bait. Auburn is legit.
6 Iowa State over 11 Ohio State
The Big Ten is better than people think, but so is Iowa State. They’re 20th in BPI and 21st in KenPom.
7 Wofford over 10 Seton Hall
Man, Wofford can really shoot the ball. I watched a lot of Terrier basketball this season (no I didn’t) and I can tell you that this isn’t a team that’s going to lose in the first round.
8 Utah State over 9 Washington
Pac-12 team? Run the other way.
1 North Carolina over 8 Utah State
Way too much talent on the North Carolina side of the ball. Utah State is good, but this is not a good match-up for them.
2 Kentucky over 7 Wofford
What’s more fun, rooting on Wofford or rooting against John Calipari? Toss up. But this is about winning your bracket. Kentucky has looked much better down the stretch and has enough length to challenge Wofford’s shots. Tough draw for Wofford.
3 Houston over 6 Iowa State
Iowa State just isn’t good enough at getting to the free-throw line to take advantage of Houston’s lone weak spot. Houston is a team that few have watched but will surprise many these next two weeks.
5 Auburn over 4 Kansas
Here is where the overrated Jayhawks will get bounced. Auburn leads the nation in forcing turnovers. Kansas will lose this game by coughing up the ball.
1 North Carolina over 5 Auburn
Yes, North Carolina turns the ball over, but not that much considering how many possessions they play as a running team. Simply too much Tar Heels in this one.
2 Kentucky over 3 Houston
Houston is a disciplined team and will be able to overcome some of the talent discrepancy in this one. But Kentucky will get to the rim early and often and edge out Houston late.
2 Kentucky over 1 North Carolina
This is the game where Cameron Johnson goes from “guy you probably have heard of” to “guy whose name you know”. But this is the game where you wonder how John Calipari does it every year too. As good as UNC is, Kentucky is better. And that’s saying something.
1 Virginia, 2 Tennessee, and 3 Purdue advance
13 UC Irvine over 4 Kansas State
UC Irvine won at Texas A&M and at Saint Mary’s, not easy places to play. This will be a sloppy game and that figures to favor the underdogs against an overseeded Kansas State squad dealing with a major injury. Plus, UC Irvine’s mascot is the Anteaters, so they have that going for them, which is nice. #CaddyshackReferences
5 Wisconsin over 12 Oregon
Some expert referred to Oregon as the “hottest team in the country”. Even my 10-week old spit out her milk. Pac-12 = Stay Away. Plus, Vegas is BEGGING you to take Oregon. Vegas doesn’t lose.
6 Villanova over 11 Saint Mary’s
Villanova could lose this game, win the tournament, and/or everything in between. Saint Mary’s is a good team, but Villanova wins this one on Coach Jay Wright’s good looks.
10 Iowa over 7 Cincinnati
This is another game that will get ugly. I like Iowa’s ability to get to the line as the stat that tips the scales here.
9 Oklahoma over 8 Mississippi
This game should come down to which team can play better defense and that is Oklahoma.
1 Virginia over 9 Oklahoma
Virginia gets by in this game because I just don’t see how Oklahoma scores against them.
2 Tennessee over 10 Iowa
Tennessee is just too talented for this gritty Iowa team.
3 Purdue over 6 Villanova
I fall in love with Purdue every year and this year is no different. Villanova is a tough test but Carsen Edwards and his 23.4 ppg average win this one.
5 Wisconsin over 13 UC Irvine
I have no idea why the general public is sleeping on Wisconsin. They’re a solid team all the way around and UC Irvine will have difficulty scoring against the #4 team in the nation in defensive efficiency.
1 Virginia over 5 Wisconsin
Wisconsin may be efficient on defense but they struggle to score at times. Not a good thing if you’re playing Virginia.
3 Purdue over 2 Tennessee
This is the game where the wheels fall off for Rick Barnes and Tennessee. Purdue is a team that can rise to the occasion as evidenced by their win against Michigan State earlier this season. Expect another big win here.
1 Virginia over 3 Purdue
This game is going to come down to the fact that Virginia is more efficient, ever so slightly, but can shoot the ball a heck of a lot better. (This is a direct quote from my picks last year. I had this same match-up. Same seeds. Same region. Same logic too. Scary.)
1 Gonzaga, 2 Michigan, and 3 Texas Tech advance
4 Florida State over 13 Vermont
Vermont is definitely capable of pulling this upset but they just get too tough a draw in Florida State.
5 Marquette over 12 Murray State
Everyone is talking about Murray State’s Ja Morant, and for good reason, but this is the game where you’re going to get to know a guy from Marquette named Markus Howard instead.
6 Buffalo over 11 Arizona State/Saint John’s
It’s no fluke that Buffalo is a 6-seed. They won at West Virginia and at Syracuse this season. This is a seasoned squad that wants to go further than last year’s round of 32.
7 Nevada over 10 Florida
Nevada has much more talent than you think. They are unbelievably well-coached and deserving of a much better seed than they got. They play a pro-style game and don’t really have a weakness outside of offensive rebounding. Florida won’t keep up with them.
8 Syracuse over 9 Baylor
Baylor is a solid team but that long zone is going to give them fits. Bad matchup for Baylor.
1 Gonzaga over 8 Syracuse
Zone meet team that can drive, kick and shoot. Winner? Team that can drive, kick, and shoot.
7 Nevada over 2 Michigan
Michigan can go all the way this season but I just like this senior-laden Nevada team’s ability to switch on defense. This will be a “grind it out” game and Michigan’s lack of experience will hurt them in the last couple of minutes.
6 Buffalo over 3 Texas Tech
Another clash of styles game. But Texas Tech’s defensive mentality can actually help Buffalo to avoid getting caught up in the moment and losing steam down the stretch. This game will come down to the wire and Buffalo will make that one extra bucket.
5 Marquette over 4 Florida State
These are two talented teams that could each go to the Final Four. It’s a shame that they meet each other this early. Florida State’s inability to shoot the 3-ball is going to hurt them here.
1 Gonzaga over 5 Marquette
Gonzaga can match Marquette’s talent and then some. Rui Hachimura starts to make his name here.
7 Nevada over 6 Buffalo
This is such a tough pick. I like both of these teams but I expect Nevada to get Buffalo in foul trouble and win this game at the line.
1 Gonzaga over 7 Nevada
Mid majors rejoice! But just too much Zags for Nevada.
1 Gonzaga over 1 Duke
This is where the inability to shoot the three will haunt Duke. The pace in this game will be bananas and the Zags will goad Duke into a shootout, thus slightly nullifying the Zion impact. It’s tough to win when you’re trading 2’s for 3’s. Don’t be fooled by that loss to Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga is a great team.
1 Virginia over 2 Kentucky
Kentucky’s youth is going to have a tough time against Virginia. You need to be focused and patient for 40 minutes against Virginia and I just don’t see it from this Kentucky squad. Not to mention that UVA has some nice weapons of its own to punish Kentucky and that 189th ranked 3-point shooting % defense.
1 Virginia over 1 Gonzaga
I started thinking “Give me Rui Hachimura as your tournament MVP” but here’s the thing in this clash of styles: Virginia is ranked #2 in offensive efficiency, #3 in defensive efficiency, #4 in 3-point shooting %, and #1 in 3-point shooting % defense in the nation. Plus, they don’t turn the ball over. You want a story? How about Dick Bennett’s crew going from the first ever #1 seed to lose a first round game to winning it all the next season? Pretty good one and I see it coming to fruition with De’Andre Hunter as your Tournament MVP.