It's bracket time!
For the record, I have never won an office, bar or other NCAA tournament pool. I did finish in the money once, I believe when UConn won its 1999 national championship. So you should in no way, shape or form regard this post as any sort of advice or guideline to follow.
OK, disclaimer done. I confront the bracket in front of me, on page 6C of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. (By this time, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I'm filling out an actual, old-fashioned newspaper bracket. Though I must confess, I bought the paper this morning because my Florida Panthers hockey notebook was in it.)
I never have a strategy, which is probably a problem. (Except for the second one I'm contemplating doing, which involves picking mascots. There are both specific rules and gut feelings in that one, but as a rule, humans with weapons come out on top, unless there's a train to consider.)
First, I just look at the bracket. It's beautiful, a study in symmetry, with all the first-round matchups also a study in mathematics, as every game's seeds add up to 17 (1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15, and so on). The only thing I keep in mind at this point is that every year for a very long string of years (35 overall, or once every three games), a No. 12 seed beats a No. 5. It's just gospel. It's going to happen. Often, but not always, that 12 seed will become the surprise Sweet 16 team that crashes just about every Big Dance, so it helps to get it right.
But first things first. I click my purple pen and start with the Sure Things*, a term used loosely in March. So I'll fill in Louisville, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, over the winner of the N.C. A&T/Liberty play-in game. Now, moving down the left side of the bracket ... No. 2 Duke over No. 15 Albany (though I do love a Great Dane), West No. 1 Gonzaga over 16 seed Southern (a 16 has never beaten a 1, though the refs in last year's UNC Asheville/Syracuse matchup deserve some credit for keeping that stat alive), Kansas State over the winner of the Boise State/La Salle play-in game, and Ohio State over Iona.
OK, to the right side, where Kansas is a shaky No. 1 seed but will probably, sadly, beat the Western Kentucky Big Red Blobs (otherwise known as the Hilltoppers, and who upset a five seed as a No. 12 in 2008). I'll also take No. 3 Florida over No. 14 Northwestern State, No. 2 Georgetown over No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast (though what that school has done in a very short D-I history is impressive), No. 4 Syracuse over No. 13 Montana and No. 2 Miami over No. 15 Pacific. Sentimentality and an ACC bias that really has no place in the tournament this year leads me to go ahead and ink in No. 8 N.C. State over No. 9 Temple.
Back to the left, where in the first remaining first-round game I confront Colorado State (8) vs. Missouri (9). Eight-nine games are notoriously tough matchups. As the seeds would indicate, the teams are pretty equal. I've seen Missouri play a few times and choke down the stretch this year, and the Tigers did lose to Norfolk State last year. But a short memory is important in filling out a bracket. What a team did - or didn't - do last year doesn't necessarily matter. I learned this the year I finally stopped picking Arizona to go deep into the tournament and instead lose in the first round. Out of spite, I'm convinced, the Wildcats won it all.
I'm really not sure what to do here, so I'll google some stats. Traditionally, in the Big Dance, it's more important how many points you give up than how many you score, so I'll go with Colorado State, giving up 62.9 points per game, over Missouri, allowing 66.2 and featuring a point guard with a tendency to make bad decisions down the stretch. Besides, that winner gets Louisville in the next round, so if I'm wrong, the damage shouldn't be too great.
Which brings me to Oklahoma State (5) vs. Oregon (12). Aha! A 12-5 upset possibility. The fact that first comes to mind is that I can't really watch Oregon games because their home court gives me seizures. So more googling.
Bonus point for the Ducks: Their athletics website has STATS in great big letters at the top of the page. But boo, I have to close a pop-up link to a story to get to the season box score, which reveals the Ducks score almost 72 points per game while giving up almost 64. They also outrebound opponents, by nearly six boards per game - always important, and possibly crucial. Last-second putbacks have won more than one NCAA tournament game, including the Old Dominion/Butler first-round thriller I covered in 2011.
OK, Oklahoma State's turn. The Cowboys' stats are easily accessible (reporters appreciate that kind of thing) and show OSU averages 72 points while allowing 63. Four players average double digits; offensive balance is also important, because the coach of an opponent you've never seen before can spend the days before the game drawing up any kind of junk defense to shut down a superstar player. The rebounding margin is not as impressive, and neither team has dominated on the road.
Well, if it comes down to it, the Cowboys might just gouge their eyes out after 40 minutes of staring at those day-glow yellow highlighter uniforms, so quack on.
We've really got to pick up the pace here, or the child will have to walk home from school.
In a nod to the late Rick Majerus, St. Louis over New Mexico State, and Memphis is too athletic for the winner of Middle Tennessee/Saint Mary's. As much love as I have for Bryce Drew and the memories, Michigan State over Valpo, and Cincy (God save us from camouflage with pink accents) over Creighton.
Pittsburgh will likely prove too physical for Wichita State, and as much as I, and everyone who favors the modern game, would like Wisconsin to lose, it's not wise to pick against a Badger early. Arizona (grrrr) over Belmont, New Mexico over Harvard, and, because I need another upset, and because I saw ODU beat them in New Orleans, and because Notre Dame's nightmare-of-the-Irish green uniforms are the worst yet, Iowa State over ND.
See? This is highly scientific process, to be attempted only by trained professionals.
This brings us to possibly the most intriguing first-round matchup - North Carolina vs. Villanova. I'm torn here, both personally and basketball-wise. My mother is a die-hard Tar Heels fan, and many years ago, overrun at our Myrtle Beach paper by the Missouri J-school Mafia, friends and I formed the Carolina Alliance. But I like Villanova's fast, guard-oriented play, and Jay Wright is the best-dressed (and best-looking) coach in college basketball. Both teams have been inconsistent, but both have the potential to get it together for a lengthy postseason run.
This is especially tough because, in a tournament full of weak No. 1 seeds, Kansas may be the weakest and could well lose to the UNC/Nova winner. We're going to have to come back to it.
Time to take some risks now. If you pick all higher seeds, and have all the 1 seeds make the Final Four, and you win your pool, it doesn't matter. No one will respect you.
VCU over Akron, and then - I'm tempted, and so I'll do it. South Dakota State has had NCAA success in the recent past, plus they're the Jackrabbits, which is awesome, and plus Michigan has horrible unis, too. Oklahoma over San Diego State, Minnesota and the bespectacled Tubby Smith over UCLA, California over UNLV (just in case that other 12-5 thing doesn't work out), Butler over Bucknell to set up a Cinderella fight with Davidson (over Marquette and not entirely based on past history; the Wildcats are solid again this year), and Illinois and Miami to meet in the final second-round matchup. The Hurricanes, a 2 seed despite winning both the ACC regular-season and tournament championships, have something to prove. I, for one, am still not convinced, but we'll ride the Ibis for a while, anyway.
I don't like how this bracket is shaping up. For all my first-round angst and angling, I've got an awful lot of top seeds marching on. The exception is the South, where I've gone with my heart and have the Tar Heels meeting VCU in an intriguing Sweet 16 matchup after dispatching Wright and his wardrobe and proving me right (I hope) about Kansas (which at this point is probably a good bet to win the national championship).
We'll also put Cal in the Sweet 16. I'd like N.C. State to beat Indiana, which, like a bunch of other teams, spent a day at No. 1 this year, but I don't think it will. C.J. Leslie can take over a game, but far too often doesn't, and I musn't let "Survive and Advance" send my bracket up in flames.
But all of this is about to give us the following Elite Eight: Louisville, Duke or Michigan State, Gonzaga, Ohio State, UNC, Florida or Georgetown, Indiana or Cal, and Davidson or Miami. Two 1 seeds, three 2s, and a 2 or a 3. I don't like it.
I'm tempted to scratch the Spartans and maybe make it Memphis going to Atlanta, but Tom Izzo is tough to bet against in the tournament. And a field like this, with talent but no real odds-on favorite, sets up well for a tourney-tested team like the Blue Devils, who feature (love him or love to hate him) one of the greatest coaches of all time and a 180-pound-dripping-wet sharpshooter, to go far.
OK, let's play it on out, then. The troublesome Elite Eight pairing is Indiana/Cal, because I don't believe in the Big Ten, but I believe less in the Pac 12. But Indiana is a No. 1 seed. But Cal could well lose to UNLV in the first round. Argh. Can I do the mascot bracket now?
My Final Four (and no, I haven't started drinking yet) appears to be: Louisville, Miami, Florida (because I like that flow there, Miami, Florida) and ... no one believes in the Zags this year, but twice I watched them destroy a St. Mary's team that usually provides pretty stiff competition. But I don't want to pick them just because I will be tremendously tired of BUCKeye nation by now. But that's as good a reason as any.
So. In the national championship game, Miami loses to Louisville. Creative, I know, but the Cardinals are as strong as any No. 1 (there's a reason they got the top overall seed), they won eight games on the road this year, they score 74 points and give up 58. Rick Pitino is a good coach and game-planner, and he may well rock a white suit in the title tilt. And, finally, my daddy once coached Cardinals, though of a different feather.
This bracket has no space for a final score, but we'll say 77-68. Cuz seven is my favorite number.
Who's your Final Four? Your national champion? What's your reasoning? Take your shot.
Now. Bring on the mascots.