After 36 hours of poring over analytics websites and all the metrics one could ever want (or not) to know about the 68 teams in this year's NCAA Tournament field, it's time for me to take my best shot at guiding you through a winning bracket.
Full disclosure: I haven't won one of these since -- gasp -- picking the Louisville Cardinals to cut down the nets in 2013, much to the dismay of my Scout colleagues. I've also managed to finish dead last one one occasion in a contest that had 50-plus members.
Bracketeer discretion is advised. (TV-MA L V)
But here goes something (or nothing) with a few notes on what I feel are the key games in each round...
This was a fairly easy year for me to break down the opening round, which probably forebodes chaos when they tip this thing off Thursday. The only games that really bothered me involved SEC teams: Northwestern (8) versus Vanderbilt (9) in the NCAA's "We Don't Do That" SAT Classic of the West Region, and Arkansas (8) versus Seton Hall (9) in the South.My no-exceptions rule for the last few years has been never, ever, ever, ever -- did I mention ever? -- trust Vandy in the brackets. Kevin Stallings killed my chances repeatedly when I bought into his squads that saved up their best efforts of the year for
My no-exceptions rule for the last few years has been never, ever, ever, ever -- did I mention ever? -- trust Vandy in the brackets. Kevin Stallings killed my chances repeatedly when I bought into his squads that saved up their best efforts of the year for
On the other side, I'm going to compensate by taking Seton Hall, who played really well late in the year against Butler,
My obligatory 5/12 "upset" is Middle Tennessee (actually a 1.5 favorite) over Minnesota in the upper half of the South bracket.
Round of 32:
Again, the SEC poses a difficult decision as Florida (4) takes on Virginia (5) in the East. I think the Gators are equipped to win this game because, once again, the Cavaliers cannot score to save their lives, but Florida hasn't been the same since big man John Egbunu went down with a season-ending knee injury. My head says take UVA.
In the West, the most difficult game I had to predict in perhaps the entire tournament was another 4v5 encounter in West Virginia-Notre Dame. I loved the Mountaineers during the regular season. I thought at one point they may have had
I don't see any major upsets in the Midwest or South, although I've had the itch to pick Kansas State (who outlasted Wake Forest in a play-in game Tuesday night) to shock Cincinnati and UCLA. I just can't pull the trigger on it.
Oh boy, things are really heating up now. In the East, defending champ Villanova (1) has to get past a Virginia team that makes playing basketball about as fun as changing a flat tire. In the middle of nowhere. In the rain. With a migraine headache. You get the point. But the Wildcats march on. Also in the East, Duke (2) and Baylor (3) could be a great test for the Blue Devils and their massive national media bandwagon. Baylor's length and defensive prowess could give Coach K's bunch a problem here, but I think Duke will find a way to survive.
In the Midwest, there are two great matchups featuring four teams you could easily slot into your Final Four: Kansas (1) versus Purdue (4) and Louisville (2) versus Oregon (2). I have the Boilermakers and the Cardinals moving on. Purdue has the combination of perimeter scoring and inside presence that will be difficult for the guard-heavy Jayhawks. Louisville's Rick Pitino will have a defensive plan to stymie the Ducks.
In the South, Kentucky (2) avenges its December loss to UCLA (3), and North Carolina (1) holds off a really impressive Butler (4) crew to set up a rematch of college basketball's best game of the season -- the Wildcats' 103-100 win over the Tar Heels in Las Vegas.
The West will see West Virginia upset top-seeded Gonzaga, and Arizona (2) remain red hot with a win over a Florida State (3) team that feels like it's seeded way too high.
Let's face it, at this point, they're all hard.
East: Duke dethrones Villanova in an epic battle of 3-point shooting. Uber-talented freshman Jayson Tatum is the difference-maker at small forward.
Midwest: Purdue keeps the upset train rolling by dispatching Louisville in a rematch of the teams' Nov. 30 matchup won 71-64 by the Cards. Caleb Swanigan adds to his national player of the year campaign.
South: Kentucky doesn't need 47 points from Malik Monk this time, but shows it is vastly improved on the defensive end of the floor against the Tar Heels.
West: Arizona turns back West Virginia with the carrot of playing a Final Four in its home state dangling above the Wildcats. Sean Miller removes the label of "best active coach who hasn't been to a Final Four."
Arizona tops Duke, Kentucky tops Purdue to set up a 20-year anniversary rematch of the 1997 title game. This time, with a little luck, UK's best player will be on the floor, and Nazr Mohammed cracks a smile as UK center Bam Adebayo sinks all the clutch free throws down the stretch in a 77-71 win by the proper Cats.
The Big Blue hangs No. 9, and John Calipari bolsters his resume as one of the select few to have ever won two rings. In defeat, Sean Miller makes a case to be Calipari's eventual successor, but not before Cal starts thinking about catching UCLA beginning next season with yet another ridiculous No. 1 recruiting class.