My family started doing an NCAA Tournament bracket pool a few years back, with the winner picking dinner and a movie—the latter is a particularly contentious topic each and every night when we are browsing potential choices, so it’s as good of a prize as you could wish for.
Despite watching the most college basketball, reading the most articles, and pouring over advanced stats for hours on end, however, I have never won. I haven’t been particularly close, either. It’s a painful fact that each year, without fail, I end up grasping at straws as my title pick is bounced in the Sweet Sixteen, or a particularly low seed catches fire at the right moment and leaves my bracket in shambles.
The tournament reflects a popular adage—Murphy’s Law. It states, in its simplified form (at least per Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar), “that whatever can happen, will happen.” Ask Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, a player of the year candidate back in 2016, about that, and you’ll surely get a similar answer. His Spartans, picked to win in the second-highest amounts of brackets, were bounced in the first round by No. 15 Middle Tennessee—just the eighth time in 132 games a two seed has bowed out on the first day of games.
The Spartans are just one of countless teams that have seen their seasons end ingloriously, running into the kind of problems that haven’t plagued them all year, until the bright lights and tremendous spectacle that marks college sports’ biggest event hit them. Then, turnovers, missed 3-pointers, and poor execution start to pile up—and that mid-major starts to look every bit the David to a power five’s Goliath.
Despite the struggles of facing the undeniable fact that things will go wrong, and an even mildly successful bracket is a tremendous reach, I still love it. Each year, I get incredibly excited as the conference tournaments wrap up and the selections come out, and then chaos descends in the form of noon tip-offs and 32 first-round games over the course of just two days. Players see their draft stocks soar, coaches see their legacies defined, and teams look to be that year’s Cinderella at the Big Dance.
A quick recap of last year’s tournament: Northwestern made its first appearance and picked up a last-second win (and an iconic video after they lost), Middle Tennessee knocked off a higher seed for the second year in a row, Wisconsin stunned Villanova, South Carolina followed suit with an upset of Duke, seventh-seeded Michigan rolled into the Sweet Sixteen, and even 11th-seeded Xavier went to the Elite Eight. Granted, blue blood North Carolina spoiled Gonzaga’s chance at a coronation, but it was still another tournament that left brackets busted at every twist and turn.
(The lesson, as always: You can’t predict basketball.)
Quick tangent: March is a tremendous month, if only because of the collective mania that comes over the country regarding college basketball. I’m biased because baseball also returns with the excitement of spring training, but overall, it’s hard to argue that any other month works its way into the public eye so completely. June is excellent—with NBA and NHL finals alongside the World Cup some years—but when you’re sitting in class watching two back-and-forth basketball games when you desperately need your pick to escape with a win, there’s no comparison.
So, as an ode to March—despite the snow dump that New England just received—here’s four assorted thoughts on this year’s field, in honor of the disappointing fact that my bracket’s Final Four rarely has more than one team left standing.
1) It is so, so hard to look at the top overall seed Virginia and bet on it to win a championship. During his nine-year tenure, head coach Tony Bennett has developed an impressive pack line defense and recruited for his system exceptionally well, but he hasn’t been able to get his team over the hump. Time and time again, the Cavaliers let the country down—myself included—and each year I fall for it. Last season, they flamed out in the second round, scoring just 39 points in a blowout loss to Florida. As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, like Virginia has, and I refuse to write your school’s name in the Final Four.
In all seriousness, the Cavaliers are so tempting. They’re first in defensive efficiency, 21st in offense, and steamrolled through one of the best conferences in college basketball. The question marks around UVA making a deep run never seem to go away, though, and the loss of ACC Sixth Man of the Year DeAndre Hunter for the tournament to a wrist injury definitely doesn’t help.
2) You never really know what you’re going to get from Syracuse and that’s easily one of the more frustrating things about the team that consistently slips in off the bubble. In the three years prior to this one, the Orange made one tournament appearance, bookended by years where it earned preseason top-25 honors, only to fall out of everything. That one year? Syracuse was the 10 seed and unleashed its frustration on the tournament, crushing Dayton and Middle Tennessee before taking down heavyweights in Gonzaga and UVA—once again ruining brackets. There’s no way this can happen again, right? The Orange is better on defense this year, moving seven spots up to 11th in defensive efficiency, but its downfall would be on offense—it ranks 129th, compared to 50th during its 2016 run. I think there were plenty of more deserving teams that should’ve been in over Syracuse this year, but that’s the same storyline when it wound up in the Final Four.
Overall—the Orange are easily the tournament’s biggest trolls. A quick sampling of tweets after the Selection Sunday show reveals that.
“Syracuse could go 0-27 and make the tournament somehow. What a clown show,” SiriusXM host Joe Dolan said. Amateur bracketologist Jeff (for Basketball Predictions) chipped in with, “You can set your watch by Syracuse getting in with a crap resume. Every goddamn year.”
At the end of the day, Jim Boeheim has gone from taking teams loaded with talent to scotch-taping together a roster after NCAA sanctions. The Orange didn’t deserve to be in this year, but it’s still not out of the realm of possibility that Syracuse turns in another upsetting (for fans, media, and other teams alike) run deep into the tourney.
3) Want an underdog to root for? Meet the 12-seed in the West, South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits are making their third tournament appearance in as many years, and tend to be a tough out. Last year, the 16th-seeded SDSU team trailed eventual runner-up Gonzaga by just four at halftime (they would lose by 20, but hey, they gave it a good shot). The year prior, they rallied from a 12-point halftime deficit to give No. 5 Maryland a scare, losing by single digits. This year, the Jackrabbits have No. 5 Ohio State firmly in their sights—and I’m 100 percent in on them. Mike Daum has tourney experience and is averaging 25 points per game, so he checks a box as a star poised to break out (he’s been held to 16 and 17 points his previous two appearances, so this is it).
4) 0-132. That’s the all-time record for No. 16 seeds against No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, but this year, quite a few people are convinced that Ivy League heavyweight Penn will pull off an upset of Kansas. They’re convinced enough to have FiveThirtyEight write over a thousand words on the topic, hailing the Quakers (underrated mascot in my opinion) as the best No. 16 team in history, period. The numbers don’t lie: Penn enters having won eight of nine (the lone loss by a single digit) and has the highest ELO rating and smallest resulting difference in points. Still, the game is in Wichita, Kansas, and the Jayhawks are no slouch in the numbers themselves. Maybe if Penn was taking on Xavier—the weakest of the one seeds—it’d be just the fifth single-digit loss to a one seed in history.
Ken Pomeroy said it best: “Stop predicting Penn will beat Kansas. It won’t happen if people keep predicting it.”
Overall, good luck with your bracket, folks. Odds are definitely in your favor.
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