Well dear readers, your favorite time of year in NCAA basketball is here – March Madness. It’s the one playoff system in all of sports, where even the most diehard fans are more dedicated to their brackets than their actual team. And it’s the one playoff system in sports where anything truly can happen, no where else can you find a #64 ranked team given the same chance to win the title as the #1 ranked team. #68, that’s a different story but still pretty close.
And who knows what to expect this year? Duke is the favorite to win it all, but we’ve seen this scenario before, and it’s essentially a coin flip if they will make or not. There isn’t the list of unbeatable juggernauts that somehow fall in rounds one and two (thanks for nothing Arizona), and there isn’t a team in the basement that everyone is counting on to make it to the Final Four. It’s March Madness, and anything goes.
In order to get to the bottom of the madness (careful, it’s scary down there), we asked Fireside Sports co-hosts Casey Mabbott (CM) and Bryant Knox (BK) to tell all of us who they are taking, how far you can expect to see Oregon go, what dark horse and Cinderella candidates to watch for, and if they are buying in this year or just staying kind of awake. These are the two craziest people we know, and it’s not even close, so if anyone knows madness, it’s them.
So without further ado, here is this week’s lightning round!
1. March Madness officially kicks off this Thursday after the Tuesday play-in games decide the official field of 64. Who is your favorite to win it all this year and why?
(CM) Call me crazy, but for the first time in my life I am going with the number one overall seed. Usually fool’s gold and this year may not be any different, but Duke is my lead horse this year. They looked great before Zion’s injury, now they simply look unbeatable. Some folks seem to think that was a conspiracy to get Zion his own shoe deal, but I think it may have been a way to keep him as fresh as possible for the most important stretch of his college career. This year’s Duke squad has 1970s UCLA level expectations, and let’s hope they live up to them.
(BK) I’m also picking Duke. Which based on the historical precedent that is my long, tortured past of selecting the Blue Devils, of course means they’ll no doubt be bounced in shocking fashion as early as, oh I don’t know, 8:00 p.m. the first Friday of the tournament? Duke has broken my heart before, and then the years I lose faith they go on a deep run when I’ve given up on strategy and choose the coolest dog-themed mascot to win it all. But Zion Williamson is different. He makes Duke different. If he stays healthy, he now has a national stage to show that he’s so much more than a dunker. And he, alone, can win Duke games against elite competition.
2. Pac-12 Champion Oregon Ducks were awarded a fitting 12 seed, and they draw #5 Wisconsin as their first opponent this Friday. How far do you have the Ducks going this year?
(CM) I have the Ducks losing to Virginia in the Sweet 16. They draw Wisconsin first who I think they can beat, and then they should face Kansas State in the round of 32, another mid range opponent I think they can handle. But Virginia is elite, and plays solid basketball for the entire game. I don’t think the Ducks winning their conference was a fluke, just a team gelling at the right time, but I don’t think this year is their year to get back to the elite eight.
(BK) Oregon being a 12 seed is quite fitting. As one of the hottest teams in the nation, they’re a dangerous threat to take down just about any second-tier team or lower on a neutral court. They’re less traditional in that you often think of mid-majors in this spot, but the sentiment still remains. Here’s the thing, though. I think the Ducks were given a 12 seed intentionally to hype up the traditional 12-5 upsets alerts. I don’t think this is necessarily a great matchup for the Ducks, and I don’t know how much I trust a team that had to change identities part way through the season. If Payton Pritchard becomes the next darling of March Madness, Oregon can get hot and win a few games. Otherwise, this group is at risk of falling in the first round. And unfortunately for the Ducks faithful, that’s what I see happening.
3. Is there a #8 or lower seeded “Cinderella” team you see making it to the elite eight or beyond?
(CM) The West and South brackets have some holes, and a low ranked team could sneak in some low impact upsets. I would say #10 Florida probably has the easiest bracket to survive, as they would have to get past #7 Nevada, #2 Michigan, and #3 Texas Tech to make it to the round of eight. Oregon is a nice Cinderella candidate in the South, and if they beat #5 Wisconsin and #4 Kansas State, they would have to get #1 Virginia and I don’t like those odds nearly as much as what Florida would have to get through in the West. I don’t like any low seed’s chances in the East or Midwest brackets.
(BK) Give me Murray State. THIS is the 12-5 game we should all be talking about. Ja Morant is going to use this tournament to prove to NBA scouts everywhere that he’s the next-best draft prospect behind Zion Williamson. He’s already considered a near-lock to go in the top five, but a good showing could lock him into the No. 2 spot ahead of Zion’s teammate R.J. Barrett and others. He isn’t the type of player I believe can win a national championship on his own—at least that’s my perspective knowing he played weak competition the majority of the season. But his explosive ability to take over a game makes Murray State potentially lethal on most given nights. That’s the type of excitement I, as an NBA fan, need in order to tune into a whole game, and this just might be one of the only first-round matchups where I do just that.
4. Duke is the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament, if you had to bet on a dark horse (#2 seed or lower) to win it all, who are you going with?
(CM) I picked Duke to win it all because I don’t see another team matching them blow for blow for an entire game in the tournament, but if forced I would pick Michigan as they have one of the easiest paths to the Final Four, and if they get through Duke they can beat anyone the South or Midwest throws their way. A Duke-UNC final is what the world deserves, but if we can’t have nice things then I suppose I’d rather see Duke lose in the Final Four than lose in the championship.
(BK) The Action Network has completed 10,000 simulations of the 2019 NCAA Tournament and their No. 1 Dark Horse Cinderella was Ohio State. In the simulations, the Buckeyes made the Sweet 16 13.9 percent of the time. That may not sound like a lot in a vacuum, but it’s actually quite high for lower-seeded teams. In fact, it’s the highest among all teams with a double-digit seed, which makes sense considering this group is a top-25 defensive unit this season. As a casual fan of the college game, I’m trusting The Action Network on this one. (It doesn’t hurt, either, that a successful $10 bet at the 500/1 odds would pay out a cool $5,000 ???)
5. This year’s tournament might lack the star power we have seen in prior years, and as a result, fewer potential upsets. Does that take away any interest for you?
(CM) It doesn’t take any interest away for me. If anything it adds to the intrigue because this is one of those rare years where I don’t expect upsets so it will be even more interesting when they happen. Especially since I have three of the four top seeds going to the Final Four and expecting a year like 2007, we may actually get so many upsets like last year that everyone’s brackets are busted before we even get to the round of 16. To be fair, there isn’t much they can do to take away my interest, anything with madness in the title is likely to keep my attention for at least a while.
(BK) For me, this competition isn’t about star power. College basketball as a whole lacks superstardom, which is certainly a deterrent over the course of an entire season (for me, at least). But when mid-majors and Cinderellas of all nature are doing serious damage in a single-elimination tournament and they get their 15 seconds of fame, it’s a beautiful thing. I enjoy watching Zion Williamson do what he does on the court, and I’m picking his Blue Devils to win it all. But would I like to see them fall in Round 1 to a group of future accountants, bloggers and ? Sign me up. I have no idea who anyone in this GIF is. But goddamn if I don’t wanna be them in that moment.