The College Football Fan's Guide to the 2019 NCAA Tournament

Not every college sports fan loves basketball as much as they love football, so here's a helpful gridiron-themed guide to the teams you need to know as the greatest tournament in sports tips off. Plus, the first-round game you need to see, bracket advice galore and the rest of Buckets, Boards and Brisket.
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I know you come to this column to read about football (and food). But on this one Monday a year, the entire sports world buzzes only about college hoops. And that’s why every year we turn Punt, Pass and Pork into Buckets, Boards and Brisket.

I also realize that not all of you who love college football feel the same way about college basketball. Maybe you didn’t watch Big Monday every week in January and February to see if Kansas could win a 15th consecutive regular-season Big 12 title. (Spoiler alert: the Jayhawks didn’t; Kansas State and Texas Tech split the title.) Maybe you weren’t watching Ohio Valley Conference games to catch a glimpse of Murray State superstar Ja Morant. Maybe the only thing you know about college basketball this season is that Zion Williamson’s shoe exploded and Barack Obama—who was sitting in the crowd—said, “His shoe broke.”

Fear not, football fans. In just a few minutes, you’ll be as literate as you need to be heading into this NCAA tournament (and you’ll get a restaurant recommendation if you’re anywhere near one particular site). And don’t worry, we’ll put it all in terms you’ll find familiar. So without further ado, here is SI’s College Football Fan’s Guide To The NCAA Tournament.

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On the surface, Duke seems like the analogue of Alabama. For most of the season, we presumed the Blue Devils would overpower everyone and win the national title. Then, later, we got a glimpse of some vulnerabilities we hadn’t anticipated. For Alabama’s football team, that was getting dominated by Georgia for the first three quarters of the SEC title game. For Duke’s basketball team, that was playing without Williamson after The Blowout Heard Round The World.

The Zion-less Blue Devils were blown out by North Carolina, won at Syracuse—which had beaten Duke with a healthy Williamson at Cameron Indoor Stadium—lost at Virginia Tech, barely escaped Wake Forest at home and lost again to the Tar Heels. Without Williamson patrolling pretty much anywhere inside the three-point line, teams could attack the basket with impunity. Plus, taking away the fear of what Williamson can do on offense (play anywhere from 22 feet in) allowed teams to guard Duke tougher on the perimeter. The Blue Devils already were a lousy three-point shooting team; this only compounded the issue. Given that R.J. Barrett, Tre Jones and Cam Reddish should also be first-round picks in June’s NBA draft, this shouldn’t have been as big an issue as it was. But the fact of the matter is that Duke didn’t look like an elite team without Williamson.

When Williamson returned healthy in the ACC tournament, teams couldn’t push the Blue Devils toward their deficiencies because they had to concentrate so many resources on dealing with Williamson. Duke didn’t merely look elite again. It looked like the best team in the country. So perhaps a more apt comparison is that Duke with a healthy Williamson is like Clemson’s football team after Trevor Lawrence was named the starter.

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Virginia is what would happen if Ohio State began running the triple option and ran it really, really well. I chose the football Buckeyes as the analogue for Virginia because for the past three seasons, they’ve been due for an inexplicable/inexplicably bad/both loss each season. Losing by 29 to Purdue isn’t quite like being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history, but it’s close. Virginia’s 20-point loss last season to UMBC has long been put to bed by the Cavaliers themselves, but it will be a talking point until Virginia takes a comfortable lead against Gardner-Webb on Friday.

There isn’t an elite football program as system-oriented as the Cavaliers, whose Pack Line defense and deliberate offensive pace—they rank 353rd (dead last) in the nation in possessions per game—make them feel like a football team that sells out completely for a certain system. The system itself isn’t that wacky. If you like great defense, it’s actually quite beautiful to watch. But remember, I also love the interplay between the quarterback, the dive man and the pitch man in the triple option. Virginia is a team basketball nerds love to watch just as Army is a team football nerds love to watch. The non-nerds, however, will be waiting for the piano to fall on the Cavaliers’ heads. Two years ago, they went ice cold from the floor in a round-of-32 game against Florida. You know what happened last year. Virginia will have a healthy De’Andre Hunter this time around, though. The basketball cognoscenti love the Cavaliers, but the casual fan isn’t buying Virginia until some nets get cut down.

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North Carolina is actually more like Alabama. Like the Crimson Tide, the Tar Heels mix instant-flash five-stars (Bama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and UNC guard Coby White) with ultra-valuable players who took some time to blossom (Bama nose tackle Quinnen Williams and Carolina forward Luke Maye). No team has dominated college basketball the past few seasons quite like Alabama and Clemson have dominated college football, but North Carolina and Villanova probably would be the closest. The Tar Heels played in consecutive national title games in ’16 and ’17 (winning in ’17). They lost in the round of 32 to Texas A&M last year, but they built a much better team this year. This team has beaten Gonzaga and beat Zion-less Duke handily twice before giving Zion-included Duke all it could handle in an ACC tournament semifinal. This is a deep, balanced bunch that can win in a lot of different ways.

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Gonzaga is a more loaded 2010 Boise State, right down to the “They-don’t-play-nobody-in-conference” argument and the loss against the last conference foe. The 2010 team probably was Chris Petersen’s best at Boise State, and though it may have never had a chance to play in the BCS title game because Auburn and Oregon went undefeated in the regular season, it might have had a chance to make a four-team playoff had it gone undefeated. But the Broncos’ momentum got derailed by an overtime Black Friday loss to Nevada.

This Gonzaga team entered last week at No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and probably would have been the No. 1 overall seed had it not lost the West Coast Conference tournament final to St. Mary’s on Tuesday. The Bulldogs have reached a national title game under Mark Few, and this specific team has beaten Duke—which had a healthy Williamson while Gonzaga played without 6'10" stretch forward Killian Tillie—but the Zags still get dinged for the level of play in the WCC. Tillie is back on the court, joining 6'8" Japanese swingman Rui Hachimura and do-it-all guard Josh Perkins. Gonzaga has the pieces to beat anyone in the tournament. The Zags may play in a mid-major league, but they have the resources and the roster of a power conference program. But until they get over the hump and win a national title, they’ll be viewed by the mainstream fan as a group that must overcome its lousy conference schedule.

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Tennessee is Notre Dame from 2018. The Volunteers have a bunch of veterans who have seen everything. They have some top-shelf players (Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield) who would be stars anywhere. But they don’t go as deep as some of the best teams they play. Notre Dame football’s lack of depth relative to the other playoff teams was exposed when cornerback Julian Love got hurt in the Cotton Bowl and Clemson capitalized almost immediately. Tennessee basketball fortunately hasn’t had to deal with critical injuries like that one, but the Volunteers can be beaten by deep, athletic teams. This Tennessee group seems like the last one you’d choose to get upset by a double-digit seed—the Vols got that out of their system when they lost to Final Four-bound Loyola-Chicago in last year’s round of 32—but they’re 6–4 in their last 10. The good news? Those six wins include two victories against loaded Kentucky. The bad? Two of the four losses are to Auburn, a team not dissimilar to the type of competition Tennessee could face in the round 32 or the round of 16. Selection Committee chairman Bernard Muir (Stanford’s athletic director) told Westwood One Radio on Sunday night that Tennessee would have been a No. 1 seed instead of Gonzaga had it beaten Auburn in the final of the SEC tournament.

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Michigan State is like the better Michigan State football teams of the early part of this decade. It’s sturdy and tough. It plays smarter than most of its opponents do. Because of this, the Cassius Winston-led Spartans can beat some of the best teams in the bracket. But just like their mid-decade football counterparts, these Spartans can be beaten by a superior group of athletes when that superior group of athletes is tough enough to handle Michigan State’s bruising style. An LSU–Michigan State Sweet 16 matchup would be particularly intriguing.

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Speaking of the Tigers, LSU is a little like the 2010 Auburn football team in that it was engulfed in a scandal down the stretch, but the biggest difference is that the Cam Newton affair had been put to rest by the SEC and NCAA before Auburn played Oregon in the BCS title game. LSU’s case feels a long way from over. Its coach is suspended by the school and has been subpoenaed to testify in a federal trial that begins next month. The team is good enough to make the Final Four or win a national title, but no one knows if it would all have to be vacated later. It has been less than two weeks since Yahoo! Sports reported that the FBI recorded LSU coach Will Wade on a wiretap speaking to a handler and referring to a “strong-ass offer” for then recruit and current LSU freshman Javonte Smart. Smart was held out of the regular-season finale against Vanderbilt but reinstated for the SEC tournament.

Wade, however, remains suspended by the school. Though Wade believes he should be coaching now, his refusal to meet with athletic director Joe Alleva to answer questions about the recorded conversation essentially tied the hands of the LSU administration. So now LSU will enter the tournament with all this swirling. Led by point guard Tremont Waters and versatile big man Naz Reid, the Tigers are capable of beating anyone in the field. They’re also capable of losing to just about anyone. LSU won the SEC regular-season title but got bounced from the SEC tournament on Friday by Florida. That was LSU’s second loss to the Gators in a month. Florida wound up a No. 10 seed—thanks mostly to its two wins against LSU—so you can see how the Tigers could be an adventure once they reach the round of 32.

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Arizona State, Oregon and Washington aren’t comparable to any Pac-12 football teams, because no Pac-12 football team has had a chance to compete for a national title since Washington in the 2016 season. What that trio can do is help boost the reputation of the beleaguered conference, which seemed in danger of being a one-bid league as late as Friday.

Arizona State has some good wins and some terrible losses. Oregon enters the tournament red-hot after winning the Pac-12 tournament and crushing regular-season champ Washington in the final. The Huskies were the most consistent program throughout the conference season, but they don’t have any signature non-conference wins.

None of that matters now, though. If even one of these teams can get hot and advance to the second weekend, it will bring some joy to the Conference of Champions (that can’t seem to win championships in the sports people care about).

Read on for more tourney viewing tips (after some non-sports viewing tips). And remember that while college football may be the greatest sport in the world, Thursday and Friday of this week are the best days on the American sports calendar. So schedule your vasectomies, sit back and enjoy.

A Random Ranking

I can only rank the One Shining Moment montages every fourth year. So today, we’ll take John’s excellent suggestion and rank the best shows-within-shows.

1. The Larry Sanders Show
Within: The Larry Sanders Show

Maybe the only thing better than one of prestige TV’s great comedies was the fictional talk show that employed its principal characters.

2. Terrence And Phillip
Within: South Park

Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Kenny’s favorite show provided a window into what life is really like in Canada.

3. The Itchy and Scratchy Show
Within: The Krusty the Clown Show
Which was itself within: The Simpsons

It’s what Tom and Jerry would have been if there had been no network censors.

4. The Krusty the Clown Show
Within: The Simpsons

If only Krusty could have found an effective sidekick…

5. TGS
Within: 30 Rock

The thinly veiled Saturday Night Live stand-in is the reason Liz Lemon and company gather every day, but this really makes a list as a stand-in for the dozens of fake NBC—and NBC family of networks—shows that spawned. Admit it: You’d watch Queen of Jordan, MILF Island, Homonym, Dealbreakers and God Cop*.

6. Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities, What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!
Within: Bojack Horseman

It truly was J.D. Salinger’s finest work.

7. Tool Time
Within: Home Improvement

I always wanted Al Borland to show me how to use a lathe.

8. Sports Night
Within: Sports Night

(Obligatory pithy sportswriter “cancelled too soon” comment goes here.)

9. Philbert
Within: Bojack Horseman

What can we say? Animation lends itself to shows within shows.

10. Inspector Spacetime
Within: Community

It was a dead heat for this spot. Cougarton Abbey barely missed out.

*The best part about God Cop is that someone in Jerry Bruckheimer’s office must have seen that episode of 30 Rock and decided the world needed a police procedural featuring a divine being. But instead of God, the wise-cracking partner would be Satan. Voila. Lucifer was born. That thing made it three seasons on Fox and then got picked up for a fourth by Netflix.

Three-Point Play

1. The best individual matchup in the first round will be Murray State’s Morant against Marquette’s Markus Howard. Morant is a likely top-five pick in the NBA draft, and Howard has broken 30 points 10 times this season. Check these highlights, then tune to TBS around 4:30 pm ET on Thursday to watch.

Here’s Howard…

… and here’s Morant.

2. Speaking of the OVC, regular-season champ Belmont became a bit of a bubble cause célèbre after losing to Murray State in the final of the conference tournament. Would the 26–5 Bruins get in, or would they be NIT-bound with a loss-heavy Power 5 school taking the at-large spot they would have had? The selection committee decided to give Belmont a shot to play its way into the main bracket from the First Four. Here’s what it looked like when the Bruins learned they’d face Temple in Dayton on Tuesday.

3. Still trying to bone up on the players who matter most in the NCAA tournament? Check out SI’s list of this season’s top 50 players.

What’s Eating Andy?

When I open my p.r. consultancy, one of the first lessons I’ll teach clients is how not to turn a giant positive into an even larger negative. And this may be the example I use.

You probably have no idea what Bradley University is, but you would have heard about it a little this week because the fifth-seeded Braves’ basketball team stunned the field in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and earned a surprising NCAA tournament berth. At this point, it should have all been gravy. Any coverage Bradley received probably would have been overwhelmingly positive because the Braves are a plucky mid-major team that wasn’t even supposed to be there.

Yet somehow Bradley’s coaching staff and athletic department p.r. staff managed to turn that fortuitous turn of events into a year’s worth of negative media coverage in one morning. It truly was a towering achievement in stupidity.

Here’s what happened: Bradley restricted the access of longtime Peoria (Ill.) Journal-Star beat writer Dave Reynolds because of coverage the staff considered unfavorable. Reynolds said the school’s sports information director complained that Reynolds didn’t “promote the Bradley brand.” Of course, it isn’t the job of a beat writer to promote a school’s brand, so that shouldn’t be a big deal.

When word got out about the restriction Saturday morning, it became a national story. Bradley basketball made it onto ESPN and into SI, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. Bradley was trending on Twitter. When he realized what had happened, Bradley president Gary Roberts acted quickly to correct the problem and sent out a release that, if you read between the lines, says, “I’m surrounded by idiots.”

This was only going to end one way, of course. With an apology and a proof-of-life photo.

Take it from Uncle Andy, kids. The world is trying really hard to hand you Ls every day. Make it work a little harder. Don’t hand them to yourself. 

What’s Andy Eating?

At some point in the past 10 years, someone decided that an extremely regional fried chicken dish needed to go nationwide. Hot chicken, a Nashville creation that involves a lot of cayenne pepper and just a little crying, went coast-to-coast after staying mainly in the 615 area code and surrounding areas for decades. (The Buffalo wing, invented in the 1960s and spread wide in the early 1980s, experienced a similar but more impactful moment.) Hot chicken joints have sprouted everywhere, and national fried chicken chains have aped the style in an attempt to cash in on the craze.

While I’m glad the masses now get to appreciate something only Middle Tennesseans could enjoy before, I want to know which fried chicken variation will be the next fad. We love fried chicken, and we get bored easily. So it’s almost time for another craze. I think I may have stumbled into it in Salt Lake City last week.

Curry Fried Chicken sounds like a restaurant named by a web page designer. It’s search engine optimized because it explains exactly what you can order if you walk in. It’s a startlingly simple concept—mix curry powder in with the flour and spices you’d normally use when frying chicken—that sounds delicious, but a scan of the web shows few restaurants actually serving chicken cooked this way. There are plenty of recipes available to make it at home, but I’m too lazy to fry my own chicken. Plus, there are so many people who fry it better.

One of those people is the lady who runs the fryer at Curry Fried Chicken. She juggles frying whole pieces of chicken with preparing chunks of chicken for shawarma—which appears to be running neck-and-neck with the restaurant’s titular dish for Most Frequently Ordered Menu Item—with the kind of dexterity that would make a Waffle House cook jealous.

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Curry fried chicken tastes exactly how you’d expect it to taste. It’s fried chicken with curry mixed into the batter. If you hate curry, you’ll hate it. If you like curry, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been eating your chicken this way your entire life. The embraces of buffalo wings and hot chicken tell us that a significant portion of the population likes spicy fried chicken. Doesn’t it stand to reason that dialing back the heat a tad and adding sweet elements would satisfy a healthy chunk of that population?  The chicken I got was crispy outside and juicy inside. The spicy-savory-sweet hits just right, and within two bites I was wondering why there isn’t a place like this in every town in America.

Because everyone behind me ordered one, I ordered a shawarma wrap when I finished my fried chicken. It was also spicy, sweet and tender and tasted great wrapped in a warm pita with lettuce and a Tzatziki-type sauce. It tasted great, but at this point I can find something similar almost anywhere. I haven’t seen curry fried chicken everywhere, but it needs to be the next fried chicken variation that enjoys a wider release.

So to the folks heading to Salt Lake City for this weekend’s NCAA tournament subregional, go eat some curry fried chicken. Then head home and spread the word.