So let's get it out of the way. Yes, it's depressing Illinois has missed three straight NCAA Tournaments and five of the last eight.. What's more amazing is that the state of Illinois has been shut out the last three years and a non-Illini team hasn't made the tournament since Southern Illinois went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2007. The sheer quantity of programs in the state (outside of the Illini, there are 11 Division-I programs) makes that seem so unlikely. So why has the state drought occurred? The easy answer would be bad coaching decisions. Bradley fired Jim Les (154-140 at Bradley) to hire Geno Ford (46-86 at Bradley). Northern Illinois fired Rob Judson (74-101 at NIU) to hire Ricardo Patton (26-61 at NIU). Southern Illinois gave Chris Lowery a fortune only to watch him run the program into the ground his last four seasons. Oliver Purnell was a bit of a splash hire at DePaul, but he was the wrong one. Two schools that appear to have made the correct hires -- Illinois State (Dan Muller) and Northwestern (Chris Collins) -- enter next season with their best odds of making the tournament in a long while.
The Big Ten was pretty disrespected by the Selection Committee. The Big Ten regular-season champion (Indiana) is a 5 seed, the conference's best team and conference tournament champion (Michigan State) is a 2 seed and its two other teams seemingly capable of a Final Four run (Purdue and Maryland) are 5 seeds. The bottom of the Big Ten this season was bad -- real bad. But the top-eight still were good, the top-six were really good and the top-five all at times this season looked like top-10 teams. I guess we'll see if the committee was right or wrong in the next few weeks.
I've loved two teams all year. So I'm putting Kansas in my Final Four -- and my national title game, with Michigan State winning. Both are veteran-laden -- led by All Americans Denzel Valentine (MSU) and Perry Ellis (KU) -- with a bunch of talented young guys. They are the most complete teams who can match up against any style. And both teams can win on a down day. Kansas's toughest test could be in the Sweet 16, where it will likely meet Maryland or Cal -- two of the most talented teams in the country. Michigan State was robbed of a No. 1 seed but may have the better path in the Midwest Regional than No. 1 seed Virginia. Michigan State will only have to play one of Virginia, Purdue (5 seed) and Iowa State (4 seed) to reach the Final Four. Utah (3 seed) is good and Dayton (7 seed) is tough. But I just don't see Michigan State losing again ... the jinx is on.
I hate one regional every year, and this year it's the West Regional. If Virginia, Maryland, Purdue or Kentucky were in this regional, I'd have them win the Final Four. Oregon is very talented and great offensively but has defensive deficiencies. Oklahoma may have the National Player of the Year in Buddy Hield -- I'd give it to Valentine, by the way -- but they're pretty one dimensional and one bad shooting night, though rare, could derail them. Texas A&M, Duke and Baylor all are good enough to beat one of the top two seeds but have enough questions to get knocked out over the first weekend. I just chose Oklahoma by default ... and because of Lon Kruger.
The East Region is my favorite. North Carolina, Indiana, Kentucky fighitng it out for one Elite Eight spot? Yes, please. UNC got a bad draw. Indiana (5 seed) and Kentucky (4 seed) both had a case for a three seed. On the bottom half of the bracket, both West Virginia and Xavier are formidable Elite Eight foes for whoever comes out of the top half . I'm going with Kentucky here. John Calipari is almost underrated as a coach and usually has his freshmen-heavy teams playing best at the end of the season. Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis could be the best guard duo in the country and while the bigs have questions, they sure are talented. UNC, Indiana, West Virginia and Xavier are all really good, but I'm rolling with Cal's Cats again.
Wichita State and Tulsa should send a thank-you card to Rick Pitino and Larry Brown. With Louisville and SMU out of the NCAA Tournament due to sanctions -- Louisville's self-imposed, SMU's NCAA-mandated -- the non-power five teams made the field. Louisville and SMU both rank in the top-19 of the KenPom rankings and could have made runs to the second weekend. Viewers are also robbed of watching SMU senior point guard Nic Moore, a former Illinois State player.
This may be the best group of five seeds ever: Maryland, Baylor, Purdue and Indiana. The only 12-5 upset I'm considering is Yale. The Bulldogs are good. But Illinois beat Yale, so it's tough to pull the trigger. Actually, Yale (38 KenPom) was the Illini's best nonconference win.
Don't sleep on these teams for first-round upsets: Stephen F. Austin (West Virginia), Yale (Baylor), Northern Iowa (Texas), Fresno State (Utah).
Don't sleep on these teams for second-round upsets: UConn (Kansas), St. Joseph's (Oregon), Michigan (Notre Dame), VCU (Oklahoma), Gonzaga (Utah).
My Final Four: Kansas over Oklahoma, Michigan State over Kentucky. National title game: Michigan State over Kansas.