By Matt Straub
It’s time. We’ve taken a look at the keys to the bracket, then we spent two days looking at it. Now it’s time to help you finish filling it out.
Before we get to the picks, a few tips to help you make your selections.
Don’t go all chalk: A couple of years ago, three one-seeds made it to the Final Four, and it was a miracle. Usually only one goes. You won’t win just by taking the best teams.
Don’t go too far outside the box, either: The reason VCU and George Mason were special is because those teams usually don’t make it to the end. You want your regional winner to be a top four seed or a team wildly under-seeded, like in 2014 when Kentucky and UConn were both way too low and proved it. This year, that squad is Wichita State. You want about three lower-seeded teams in the Sweet 16, but none in the Final Four (unless it’s the Shockers).
11 is the new 12: The 5-12 upset is still a good upset pick, but 11s have made just as much of a habit of beating 6s over the last few years. Take an 11 or a 12. Or if you’re feeling frisky, both.
Worry about the end game: If you pick a couple of upsets correctly early, congratulations. You won nothing. You win a bracket pool by getting the most Final Four teams and the title winner. Spend more time thinking about the champs then which five loses to a 12.
Now, let’s make a bracket.
Upset specials: Vermont is on fire, and we’ll find out just how good the Catamounts really are against Purdue. Vermont has had success in the tournament in years past, and the Big 10 was down this year, so Purdue’s record isn’t that impressive. The bottom part of the region is where things really get exciting, however. Rhode Island was a Top 25 team before injuries decimated the Rams, but they’re back healthy and looking ready to reach their potential. Danny Hurley is also a phenomenal coach. If you really want to blow up the region, look at Iona. Oregon is coming off big injury news and is going into the dance down mentally. The Ducks seem primed to get knocked off, which would lead to URI beating Iona and ending up in the Sweet 16.
The Winner: This is the only region I don’t feel confident about. I’ve debated Louisville vs. Kansas since Sunday, but I’m going against history here and taking the Jayhawks. Bill Self slays another demon and gets back to the Final Four.
Upset specials: Wichita State is favored to win its first game by a wide margin in Vegas, and those guys are really, really good at these things. The Shockers haven’t beaten anyone of note this year, but they don’t get 10 or more chances to do so like the power teams do. Trust their talent if not the resume. Middle Tennessee is a popular choice based on what it did last year, and, while I usually go against the upset pick everyone loves, I’m taking this one. I’m even taking them over Butler in the next round.
The Winner: North Carolina was the best team in the best league all year. Duke got hot for the league tournament, but don’t let one week push you away from what happened for the previous four months. Kentucky and North Carolina played the game of the year in December, which Kentucky won 103-100, but the Tar Heels win the rematch and go the Final Four.
Upset specials: I have chalk all the way through in the first round of this quadrant, but if you’re looking for teams to take, go with East Tennessee State to beat No. 4 Florida, or the winner of the play-in game to beat No. 6 SMU. The Mustangs can be inconsistent on offense, and could get picked off. Also, at least one play-in winner wins a game in the main draw just about every year. SMU will be the team which causes volatility in this region one way or the other. If you believe defense wins championships like I do, don’t be afraid to take SMU over No. 3 Baylor in the second round.
The Winner: Duke had injuries all year, including to their coach, who, love him or hate him, is as good in the tournament as anyone. The Blue Devils are healthy now, and the regional final is in Madison Square Garden, which is a second home to Duke. The Devils are heading to Phoenix.
Upset specials: It’s popular now to pick on Gonzaga as the team which never finishes the job, but it’s also accurate. This year will be no exception. I’m taking Vanderbilt to beat the Zags in the second round. A one-seed often loses in the round of 32, and this seems like the best bet of the four. If you’re not that brave, take Arizona to beat Gonzaga in the regional final, or Notre Dame to get the job done in the Sweet 16. Take the Irish to beat West Virginia in the second round. The Irish are peaking and the Mountaineers are not. Vegas likes Xavier over Maryland in the first round, and I like VCU over an overrated St. Mary’s squad. Florida Gulf Coast is a popular choice in this region, but I don’t see Dunk City advancing this year.
The Winner: Arizona is healthy, has a potentially easy draw in a region which could blow up around it, and is battle-tested. The Wildcats are back, and Sean Miller finally goes to the Final Four.
THE FINAL FOUR
The Winners: Duke is peaking, and has more pros than Arizona does. But there’s something about the Wildcats this year. This could be an incredibly fun, high-scoring game, but I like Arizona to prevail. The other game would be North Carolina against Kansas. This one seems easy as well, with the best team getting past the team which never wins the big one. Carolina beats Kansas.
THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
The Winner: Carolina has too much for the Wildcats, who won’t be able to get past two straight ACC beasts. The Tar Heels cut down the nets.