The Madness is here, everyone.
With Selection Sunday now behind us, we now have the official bracket of the 68 teams hoping to cut down the nets in Houston. While college basketball is already enjoyable as is, the eyes of the nation will be on the tournament for the next few weeks. Outside of the obvious stress of hoping for your team’s championship run, just about everyone is going to be building a bracket to list their predictions.
While your bracket (and countless others, including this one) is probably going to go up in smoke by the time the first weekend is up, it’s still fun to figure out how to go about building it up. Do you go full analytics and immerse yourself into the world of KenPom ratings, adjusted efficiencies, and upset tendencies? Maybe going off of name recognition and prior tournament success is more of your speed? Or just embrace the chaos and go off of which mascot would win in a fight? There’s no real wrong answer to how to build a bracket; that’s just how unpredictable the tournament is.
However, there’s nothing wrong with doing a little bit of research to help you make the best decision possible. It helped me out in 2018, when I predicted the Villanova-Michigan final and guessed correctly on Loyola-Chicago making a deep run in the tournament. Doing well in your bracket doesn’t have to be complicated; you just need to know who are the right horses to bet on and who might bust your bracket. Whether that means going based off of the chalk or hoping Cinderella wreaks havoc in one corner of the bracket, these predictions should hopefully shed some light on the bigger decisions.
So who’s going to Houston? Let’s find out.
Did Alabama choose who was seeded with them? Arizona needed a healthy dose of luck to beat a banged-up UCLA squad in the PAC-12 championship, and they have a recent history of struggling in the tournament. I’d typically like Scott Drew’s Baylor team, but they’re coming in as losers of four of their last six games. Tony Bennett’s always fielded some great defenses at Virginia, but one bad offensive night leads to…well, this. It’s rare to safely say a team’s going to at least the Elite Eight, but Alabama feels like an exception.
If you’re looking for one of the middle seeds to do some damage and make a surprise run to the Final Four, look no further than Creighton. KenPom rankings aren’t a direct indicator of a team’s tournament success, but they’ve typically been reliable in determining who has the potential to go far. Sitting at number 13 in the rankings, Creighton has the analytics on their side. Outside of a mid-season slump while star center Ryan Kalkbrenner was hurt, they’ve been one of the best and most consistent teams all season long. I’m confident they can beat Baylor in the Round of 32 or Arizona in the Sweet 16…assuming the higher seed make it that far.
Missouri vs Utah State has all the makings of the best matchup in the first round. Both have offensive figures in the high-70s, so the points shouldn’t be too hard to come by. Missouri may have the best player in that matchup in Kobe Brown, but Utah State has the more reliable defense out of the two and has the 18th ranking in KenPom to bolster their resume. This is a game that could go either way, but I’m confident either one has what it takes to beat Arizona in the Round of 32.
If you’re looking for a first-round upset, the reliable 12-5 bid is a great option here. Charleston is one of the mid-major teams to watch in the tournament this year, highlighted by being one of the deepest and fastest teams in the field. They push the pace on both sides of the court, which is a direct contrast to their first two opponents in San Diego State and Virginia. Coach Pat Kelsey will need to develop a gameplan that allows Charleston to dictate the pace and stay efficient; if the team can manage that, they have a great chance to hit the Sweet 16.
In the end, however, this feels like Alabama’s region to lose. Nate Oats has built a monster in Tuscaloosa, guiding it to pure domination over a loaded SEC. It helps that they have the best player in the region, if not the entire field, in Brandon Miller, a projected top-5 pick in this year’s NBA Draft. Yes, the Crimson Tide are dealing with a massive wave of controversy, and the ensuing off-court drama could threaten to derail a promising season. That said, if it hasn’t happened yet, when will it? Someone can play that game, but it won’t be me.
Region Winner: Alabama
Upset Watch: Charleston vs San Diego State/Virginia, Missouri/Utah State vs Arizona
Bracket Buster: Creighton
Unlike the other regions, there isn’t a single dominant team in the East, which poses some serious intrigue about who’s going to make it out. Don’t assume that team is top-seed Purdue, though. Sure, having the Player of the Year in Zach Edey is nice, but I fear Purdue is using him as a crutch. The rest of team has experienced some inconsistency as of late, showcased in the Big Ten tournament when the Boilermakers let the likes of Rutgers, Ohio State, and Penn State stick around for far too long. It doesn’t help that the committee gave them arguably the toughest 8-9 matchup of all. Edey’s size might help Purdue gut out a win over a tenacious FAU team, but they’re in deep trouble if they draw Memphis in the Round of 32. Kendric Davis is the kind of player who can take over a game, and he has a capable running mate in Deandre Williams to help him pile on the points. Again, Edey will make it difficult to win the rebounding battle, but Memphis can pull off an 8-1 upset if the shots fall regularly; such an upset has happened at least once in the past two tournaments, so there’s precedent to lean on if you’re feeling gutsy.
Realistically, I can see three teams with convincing arguments to come out of this region: second-seeded Marquette, third-seeded Kansas State, and fifth-seeded Duke. Marquette’s fast-paced offense has them averaging almost 80 points per game, and having one of the best point guards in the country in Tyler Kolek certainly helps matters. Kansas State, picked to finish dead last in the preseason Big 12 polls, has roared to the third seed behind first-year coach Jerome Tang and the dynamic duo of Markquis Nowell and Keyontae Johnson. The Wildcats will need to maintain possession to go far, but they have the defense and efficiency rates to propel them. Whereas Marquette and Kansas State win off of efficiency and tempo, Duke wins on sheer size. With two seven-footers in Kyle Filipowski and Dereck Lively II, good luck trying to get anything going inside on the Blue Devils. These contrasts in styles should create some fun matchups late in the tournament, and whoever makes it out will have to earn it.
It breaks my heart to see Oral Roberts paired with Duke. In any other region, the Golden Eagles would have been a favorite to push for their second Sweet 16 spot in three years behind Max Abmas and Connor Vanover. Alas, they get the toughest five seed of the year, so I’m looking elsewhere for first-round upsets. Eleventh-seeded Providence and thirteenth-seeded Louisiana are both good bets to shake things up. Providence taking on Kentucky is arguably the juiciest matchup in the first round, with the Friars being led by Kentucky transfer Bryce Hopkins. The inconsistencies of the Wildcats have been well-documented this season. and it’s too hard to ignore those when going against a team like Providence that will come with major fire in their bellies. Looking at Louisiana, Jordan Brown is a double-double threat backed up by some solid shooters. That will help against an overseeded Tennessee team who has plummeted in the eyes of college basketball fans and pundits alike. Tennessee’s concerns are identical to another vulnerable fourth seed in Virginia: the defense is great, but the offense is going to get this team bounced early, especially with Zakai Zeigler out with a torn ACL. Is it also a bad time to say Rick Barnes has only been to the Sweet 16 once in the past ten times he’s made the tournament?
Marquette and Kansas State is the best potential matchup in the Sweet 16, but I’m choosing the Wildcats to continue their dream run to the Elite 8. In the battle of first-year coaches between Kansas State’s Tang and Duke’s Jon Scheyer, Nowell’s playmaking becomes the X-factor that the Wildcats need to advance to the Final Four and knock out the Blue Devils in Madison Square Garden.
Region Winner: Kansas State
Upset Watch: Providence vs Kentucky, Louisiana vs Tennessee, Memphis vs Purdue
Bracket Buster: Memphis
With the chaos that the other regions can easily fall into, the Midwest stands out as a beacon of sanity. The top two seeds feel like the clear-cut best teams in the region, and there’s a few other standouts ranked pretty highly here as well. This isn’t to say to bring out the chalk for this one; Houston’s Marcus Sasser won’t be at one hundred percent, and both Xavier and Indiana have dealt with bouts of inconsistency this season. There’s not as much upset potential here as the other regions, but it still exists if you know where to look.
Houston and Texas feel like the favorites to set up a home-state advantage in the Final Four. Despite Sasser’s injury, Houston has a lot going for itself to justify a Final Four berth. Jamal Shead is the focal point of an amazing defense, while Jacare Walker and J’Wan Roberts have emerged as key pieces. If Sasser comes back and finds his form early, the Cougars will be difficult to stop. Meanwhile, while Texas has had a rough go in the tournament in years past, this iteration of the Longhorns feels different. Coming off a Big 12 title that saw them smoke Kansas in the championship game, Texas has all the makings of a championship contender. A three-headed monster in Marcus Carr, Sir Jabari Rice, and Timmy Allen should ensure that the Longhorns have enough firepower to stay competitive.
Keep an eye on the First Four game between Mississippi State and Pittsburgh. Mississippi State plays some of the stingiest defense in the field, while Jeff Capel has pushed Pittsburgh from last-place prediction to a bubble team. Either one could give an inconsistent Iowa State team fits, but I’m more concerned about Xavier. Sure, the Musketeers earned the three seed, but they’ve been much more difficult to trust since Zach Freemantle went down with injury. Sure, the offense is still in good hands with Colby Jones and Souley Boum, but they’re a cold streak from either one or a hot streak from the opposing offense from danger. Even more difficult to trust if fifth-seeded Miami, where an injury to Norchard Omier compounds their current problems. Isaiah Wong can still take over a game if need be, but defense is going to be a massive issue. Even worse is that they pair up with Drake, a defensive-first team that can fire the ball from long range rather well. Put both of those teams on upset alert, with at least one not making it past the first weekend.
While Indiana could make a good run behind Trayce Jackson-Davis or the 7-10 matchup between Texas A&M and Penn State producing a bracket buster, Houston and Texas both feel pretty safe. While Houston should play pretty well, give me Texas in a nail-biter to fly back into the Lone Star State as the Midwest’s Final Four representative.
Region Winner: Texas
Upset Alert: Mississippi State/Pittsburgh over Xavier, Drake over Miami
Bracket Buster: Mississippi State/Pittsburgh
You know how the World Cup always has a Group of Death featuring plenty of stacked teams? Say hello to the college basketball equivalent. Outside of the defending champion Kansas Jayhawks, the West is loaded with two additional powerhouses in UCLA and Gonzaga, plenty of middle seeds hoping to secure a run, and a fair share of upset candidates. Make no mistake, this is the region that is going to ultimately decide how well your bracket goes.
Let’s start with the top three teams in Kansas, UCLA, and Gonzaga. Bill Self will be back behind the bench for the repeat, and the Jayhawks will ride a strong trio of Jalen Wilson, Gradey Dick, and Dajuan Harris. While the Jayhawks aren’t necessarily elite in any particular category, they make up for it by being one of the most well-balanced teams in the country. A team that plays with equally fast pace could give them fits, but no one will hold it against you if you choose Kansas to run it back. UCLA can safely rely on Jaime Jaquez and its incredible defense to carry them through, but there are question marks. Jaylen Clark is out for the tournament, center Adem Bona might not be one hundred percent. and UCLA’s offense can let them down just as easily as the defense can lift them up. The first-round matchup against UNC Asheville could be worth monitoring to see how the Bruins cope with such a loss. Gonzaga is the virtual opposite of UCLA, coming it with a fantastic offense and plenty of playoff experience to try and end Drew Timme’s tenure with a championship victory. That said, defense has been a sticking point for the Bulldogs and they haven’t performed particularly well against elite teams. Gonzaga will either make a spirited run deep in the tournament, or get crushed before the first weekend is done.
Outside of those three, there’s still a lot of intrigue that needs to be discussed. Fourth-seeded UConn is a stronger version of Creighton: a serious championship contender that no one talks about due to a rough stretch in the middle of the season. With Adama Sanogo down low and Jordan Hawkins leading a balanced offense, they have serious potential to cut down the nets. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they got paired with some dangerous low seeds. Sixth-seeded TCU may not be a dangerous offensive team, but Mike Miles can carry a game to go with some impressive defense. Expect them to beat their bubble team handily and give Gonzaga all they can handle. Eighth-seeded Arkansas took a hit when Trevon Brazile went down, but Nick Smith and Anthony Black have stepped up in his absence, and Eric Musselman is one of the best coaches in the nation. Don’t be surprised if they end Kansas’s repeat bid in the Round of 32. Even 12th seeded VCU’s stout defense and a Rick Pitino-coached Iona are real first-round upset threats.
In this unpredictable region, it’s fair to go with an unpredictable winner. Despite having the fortune of having higher-seeded opponents bow out, UConn will have to earn every victory. Iona and VCU are prime Cinderella material, Arkansas has great talent and coaching, and UCLA or Gonzaga would make for worthy Elite Eight opponents. In the end, UConn has the right amount of talent, versatility, and analytical support I’m looking for.
Region Winner: UConn
Upset Alert: VCU over Saint Mary’s, Arkansas over Kansas
Bracket Buster: Arkansas
In this Final Four, we have Alabama squaring off against Kansas State, while Texas gets home-field advantage over UConn. Alabama should put an end to Kansas State’s storybook season behind a big game from Brandon Miller, but the Wildcats should do enough to stay in it until the end. Even more unpredictable is Texas vs UConn: Texas has the better talent between the two, but UConn would be the favorite in terms of depth and analytics. The home crowd does just enough to push Texas to the championship in a nail-biter. Overtime, perhaps?
Winners: Alabama, Texas
National Champion: Alabama
With the controversy surrounding the Crimson Tide and the home crowd supporting the Longhorns, Nate Oats cutting down the nets could be met with a barrage of jeers and boos. However, it just makes too much sense in the end. Brandon Miller is elite, but the Crimson Tide also have players like Jahvon Quinerly, Charles Bediako, and Noah Clowney that are essential towards winning a championship. They were the best team in the nation, won arguably the best conference in the nation, and have the best player in the nation at their disposal. Why does this championship game sound like it belongs in football?