Before I get to my region-by-region breakdown, a few Don’ts for your NCAA tournament experience:
1. Don’t say Kentucky “should” or “must” win the championship.
We know the Wildcats are the heavy favorites. Vegas says they’re even money against the field. But if you look at the long history of the NCAA tournament, you will find a lot more examples of the so-called favorite not winning the title. Yes, if Kentucky doesn’t win, the team and its fans will be disappointed, but that is a lot different than saying they have to win it all to be validated. I heard a commentator on television (O.K., it was Stephen A. Smith) say that Kentucky “had better" win the crown. I disagree. This is March Madness. It's hard to win six straight games under extreme pressure. We should never be surprised when we’re surprised.
2. Don’t use tournament results to validate or invalidate the selection committee’s decisions.
As I said on the CBS Selection Show, I don’t think Texas and UCLA deserved to be in the field, and I especially do not think they deserved to bypass the First Four. However, if they go on to win a game or two, that does not mean I was wrong; and if they lose in the first round, it does not mean I was right. A lot of people think Georgetown was over-seeded as a 4 (I am one of them), or that Northern Iowa was under-seeded as a 5 (yup), or that Michigan State’s being slotted as a 7 was a head scratcher (scratch, scratch). That's all well and good, but remember it’s the committee’s job to select and seed the field based on what happened during the season. It is not their job to try to predict what happens in the tournament.
3. Don’t use the tournament results to bash your favorite “underachieving” coach.
Gonzaga is one of the great stories in all of sports. Lots of so-called high major programs would love to have this program's record over the last 15 years. I don’t think Mark Few needs to get past the Sweet 16 to prove his worth. I hope you feel the same way. Ditto for Sean Miller and Mike Brey. Bill Self has gone to two Final Fours and won a title, and he has lost during the first weekend plenty of times. Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim, and every other great coach has suffered hard knocks in the early rounds of the tournament. I realize the tournament is what everyone remembers most (and last) about a season, but you are not everyone. Steer clear of this lazy argument.
4. Don’t blame the refs when your favorite team loses.
Spoiler alert: There are going to be some bad calls. Coaches make mistakes, players make mistakes and refs make mistakes. Every tight game in the history of sports has been decided by a couple of calls down the stretch that could have gone either way. When that happens, I guarantee you Twitter will be flush with people writing that “college basketball reffing is awful.” Those same people will make that same claim about NBA officials when their playoffs get started. Then it will be Major League Baseball umpires who suck, or the judges in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight. Heck, I can’t wait to see what people say about reffing in the women’s World Cup. Just because your favorite team was victimized by a close or bad call in the last few seconds does not absolve it of responsibility for how it played in the previous 39 minutes. You ever notice that fans of the winning team don't complain about the refs? Only the losers do that. So don’t be a loser.
5. Don’t use my picks.
You can find my “expert” bracket here, alongside my SI.com colleagues. Of course, I would never suggest that any of my opinions would be used for actual waging purposes, but just in case you started to think about doing that, I want you to stop. In the first place, if you are trying to win a bracket pool, the smart strategy is to be conservative. I'm in the media, and I find that to be boring. So I like to take chances.
Second, and more to the point, you should know that I really am guessing—just like you. You don’t have to know anything about college basketball to guess how things will play out. Watching a ton of games does not make someone better at predicting results. If there is anything I have proved over the years, it is that.
Of course, that is only if I am wrong. If I’m right, well, doesn’t that just prove I’m a genius?
• I am still trying to figure out how Dayton ended up as the last team in, but it’s not a bad consolation prize for the Flyers to play the First Four game in their hometown. Every few years, the NCAA offers the chance to host these two doubleheaders to other cities, but no one embraces the idea like this basketball-loving city. It’s going to be a great environment, and I’d be surprised if Dayton doesn’t reward the fans with a win over Boise State.
• The team I like better than its seed here is Providence. If the NCAA tournament were a two-on-two game, the Friars would be a No. 2 seed. Point guard Kris Dunn and power forward LaDontae Henton have shown the ability to score in big numbers at various points this season. Either one is capable of taking over a game.
• The team I like less than its seed is Louisville. If your bracket pool has a points system that gives higher weight to lower seeds, then it’s a good idea to pick an early round upset over a team that you don’t think can go far even if they win. The Cardinals limped to the finish line after dismissing their starting point guard, Chris Jones, so I don’t see them as getting beyond the Sweet 16. (Actually, I don’t even see them getting that far.) So going with UC Irvine (you’ll love watching the Anteaters’ 7’6” center Mamadou N’Diaye) might be a worthy risk.
• It seems everyone is in agreement that this is the region where you should pick someone other than a No. 1 seed to make it to Indy. Since all four No. 1 seeds have gone to the Final Four just once, it’s smart to look for other candidates. The obvious non-Villanova pick here is Virginia, but I am still concerned that Cavaliers leading scorer Justin Anderson will not return to the form he showed before he broke his finger in early February. (Anderson was supposed to return for the end of the regular season, but that was put off for a week by an emergency appendectomy.) So I took a pretty big chance by picking Northern Iowa. Think of the Panthers as Wisconsin-lite. They are an extremely experienced and disciplined team that has a very effective halfcourt offense built around Seth Tuttle, a 6'9" senior who plays point center, and a bevy of three-point shooters. Their defense, like Wisconsin's, is efficient but not all that disruptive. The Panthers also won 30 games this season to just three losses. I believe winning is a habit, and it’s not one this team is likely to break.
• Just in case you’re not aware, St. John’s lost an important player over the weekend in starting center Chris Obekpa. He was suspended for two weeks for the proverbial violation of team rules. Obekpa is ranked fifth in the country in blocks per game, and even with him available, the Red Storm’s rotation was only six players deep. St. John’s might be able to squeeze by an offensively-challenged San Diego State squad in the first round, but this is not a team you want to hitch your wagon to as a potential bracket buster.
• My favorite sleeper team in the entire tournament is in this region, and that’s Stephen F. Austin. You will recall that the Lumberjacks defeated VCU last year in a crazy Round of 64 game. They returned three starters from that squad, most notably Jacob Parker, who was the Southland Conference’s Player of the Year in 2013-14, and Thomas Walkup, who was the conference's POY this season. In the last two seasons this team has gone 61-6. The 5-12 matchup is the classic first-round upset pairing, and in this case the 12 seed has more tournament experience than its opponent, Utah. I’ve got Stephen F. Austin in the Sweet 16. For what it’s worth.
• I’ve been touting SMU for much of the last two months, but I have to say, a game with Iowa State would be pretty daunting. Still, one thing the Mustangs have going for them is a trio of agile big men who can defend out to the halfcourt line if necessary. That is vital against the Cyclones because Georges Niang is one of the most versatile offensive forwards in the country. I also believe that coaching takes on even greater importance in the NCAA tournament. You could do worse than take a chance on Larry Brown. That’s why I have his team going to the Elite Eight.
• The last of my upset picks in this region is Eastern Washington over Georgetown. For the record, the Hoyas’ opening-game losses in three of the last four years are meaningless to me. Why is that more of a reflection on John Thompson III than his ability to take the 2007 team to the Final Four? Eastern Washington is darn good for a 13-seed. The Eagles have the nation’s leading scorer in left-handed guard Tyler Harvey (I can’t wait to see him go at it with the Hoyas’ D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera), and they showed in winning at Indiana that they are not afraid to mix it up with the big boys. We know upsets are going to happen in this tournament, so I’m guessing—yes, guessing—that this will be one of them.
• Don’t you just love in-state rivals playing each other in the NCAA tournament? In this region we potentially have two such games: Butler-Notre Dame and Wichita State-Kansas. Of course, Butler is going to have a hard time getting past Texas, and the Shockers don’t have the inside presence to take advantage of Indiana’s lack of size, but I still think that’s what’s going to happen. It would be especially sweet if the two Kansas teams meet because Bill Self has (understandably) insisted for a while that he has no interest in playing the Shockers during the season. When I first filled out my bracket right before the start of the CBS Selection Show, I picked Kansas to go to the Sweet 16, but later that night I changed my mind to the Shockers. Even though Jayhawks freshman forward Cliff Alexander had not been playing well the last month, I still believe this team will suffer from his absence. (He is being held out because of an NCAA issue.) Even as Kansas was wrapping up yet another Big 12 title, I was feeling like this team was slipping. Besides, the postseason is all about guard play, and I believe the Shockers are more talented on the perimeter.
• Once again, picking a 12-5 upset here is mighty enticing. West Virginia loves to play up-tempo, but Buffalo plays even faster. Because West Virginia loves to pressure fullcourt and go for a lot of steals, it is ranked dead last in defensive free throw rate. Buffalo is a 72% free throw shooting team. Also, the Bulls more than held their own in true road games at Kentucky and Wisconsin this season, so they are not going to be fazed by the competition. If it sounds like I picked the Bulls to win, it’s because I did.
• We all know Kentucky is the best team in this region, but to me, the most intriguing team is Notre Dame. In a year where we haven’t seen a lot of points scored, the Irish have been a treasure. They move the ball, they make a lot of threes, and they never lose their poise. Yes, they are vulnerable when they have an off-shooting night, but what team isn’t? And here’s the thing: To beat Kentucky, the number one thing you have to do is make jump shots, because it is impossible to score against the Wildcats at the rim. The Irish can put four players outside the three-point line and make teams chase them. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, this has evolved into a pretty solid defensive team. You don’t beat Duke and North Carolina to win an ACC tournament title if you’re a bad defensive team.
• This is a region where you go right to the regional final and work backward. It’s hard to say anything that happens in the tournament is surprising, but I will truly be surprised if Wisconsin and Arizona do not play each other with a trip to Indianapolis on the line. These teams have one important trait in common: They don’t need to make outside shots to beat good teams. Yes, it helps, but they are so good defensively (especially Arizona) and so good at scoring in the paint (especially Wisconsin) that they are able to overcome the pitfalls to which favorites typically succumb. I give a slight edge to Arizona, largely because of the offensive improvement of Brandon Ashley, who missed last year’s Elite Eight meeting because of an injury, but this feels like one of these games that will be in the balance until the final possession. Last year, Bo Ryan broke through for his first Final Four. Is it now Sean Miller’s turn? I say yes.
• I’m sensing that people are itching to pick Harvard to upset North Carolina. Not me. In the first place, Harvard is not nearly as good as it has been the past two years when it won its opening-round games. The Crimson lost to Yale at home on the final day of the regular season and were very fortunate to backpedal their way into the field after Yale fell to Dartmouth on a last-second layup. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are playing their best basketball of the year, thanks to the emergence of freshman forward Justin Jackson as a secondary perimeter threat alongside Marcus Paige. I’ve been saying all season long that I didn’t think North Carolina was a second weekend team, but the NCAA tournament is all about matchups. Arkansas, which would be North Carolina’s likely opponent in the second round, is a good-but-not-great team that likes to run. The Heels are a better version of that.
• If you are concerned about a lack of scoring in college basketball, then this is the region for you. It is loaded with a ton of teams that love to get out and go: Oregon, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, North Carolina, BYU, Ole Miss, Baylor, VCU. Any of those teams will hang 80 on you if you give them a chance. They are also all teams that struggle defensively, so if the shots aren’t falling, they can lose to just about anybody. Good luck making your picks along the way, but it doesn’t matter, because Arizona and Wisconsin will be the last two standing. I am absolutely certain of this. I think.