Last night I read someone has a better chance of winning the Mega Millions and Powerball in the same week than predicting a flawless bracket for March Madness. And yet I know not one of us whimsically clairvoyant souls hears that because we don’t want to and it’s more fun to believe in the impossible. March Madness represents the largest mass American sports predictive event documented every single calendar year, and cumulatively, of all time. We throw university-colored paint at the wall, knowing full well only raving fools insist their March Madness bracket selection is bulletproof. There is no way any one of us knows what actual shocking turn of events will elapse when the single greatest amateur American sports tournament begins. Yet, here we are, and here I am. We stand staring down the tournament field sure we’ve aligned the constellated madness clearly as the roaring, vibrant, thrilling, and the strangest, most convoluted – and let’s acknowledge a silver lining, creative, improvisational, and ingenious (bubble) – NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament we’ve never seen takes off at full speed. Just like you, I will try (with no real hope of success) to rambunctiously nail down a perfect Sweet Sixteen March Madness Bracket prediction with no more true expertise than a blind belief in the maddening precision(less) rituals of college basketball lore governed primarily by the ineffable and always popular commixture of statistics, blue-chip basketball program pedigree, advanced/esoteric analytics, the always flawed eye-test, injury reports and – of course – my gut instinct.
1 Gonzaga vs. 16 Norfolk State
Too many times this season the constant theme, and low hanging fruit, sportswriters and fans and onlookers’ argument for why the Zags don’t deserve the overall number one seed in the tournament – or in the nation during the season – has been a tired line the Bulldog faithful are sick of hearing: Gonzaga does not play any good teams during their WCC schedule. This is true. But it is also a lie and a lazy appraisal of what Mark Few’s team has accomplished. This season, the Zags took down the following on their way to the pre-tournament top ranking: Kansas, West Virginia, Virginia, and Iowa. All well within the top twenty-five’s upper echelon at the time of their trouncing. Get ready for a flurry of deep threes and quick points in transition. The Zags’ll drop triple digits on Norfolk State. Zags advance with ease.
8 Oklahoma vs. 9 Missouri
Oklahoma is nowhere near as much fun to watch as they were when Trae Young did his best Stephen Curry impersonation for the Sooners. And yet this team is electrifying, despite their flaws. Oklahoma finished their season a still very impressive seventh in the greatest Big 12 group of men’s basketball teams of all time. They flirted with the Top 25 consistently despite losing several big games in the last month of the season. However, they knocked off top-ten ranked West Virginia twice, and SEC champion Alabama plus a #5 Texas when they were red hot. The Sooners’ll light it up from deep and win by a dozen over Missouri.
5 Creighton vs. 12 UC Santa Barbara
All week people you know and trust and love but also disbelieve will tell you UC Santa Barbara is the classic example of a 12 seed taking down a 5 in the opening round of the tournament. History tells us, or at least in the last two decades it’s been true, that this is where the first major already qualified for the tournament, Cinderella stories begin and take flight. Yeah, well, not this year; and not with this team. Creighton is led by an absolute maximal manimal of a guard in Marcus Zegarowski. He leads the team in PPG and APG, 15.5 and 4.3 and he took the Blue Jays over the top during their stunning win over then-ranked #5 Villanova.
4 Virginia – 13 Ohio
Is Virginia still the defending champions if there was no tournament last season? Sure. Let’s go with that. Despite their positive Covid testing situation during the ACC tournament, and their disqualification, Tony Bennett’s team is strong, agile, tough, and healthy. They play great lockdown defense, giving up only 60.5 PPG. That should be more than enough to drop Ohio and charge forward, swords held high.
6 USC vs. 11 Drake
The Trojans are alarmingly inconsistent. And so is the rest of the PAC 12 for that matter. USC’s scoring drought in the first half of their semi-final PAC 12 conference championship game was the type of blunder that again, lends all sorts of credit to the theory that the eleven and twelve seeds should reasonably be expected to fall in a close game with their first-round five/six seed opponents. But maybe the extra rest – not playing in the PAC 12 championship against eventual champion Oregon State – will work in their favor. Trojans win by less than five.
3 Kansas vs. 14 Eastern Washington
Does anyone remember the lob city Florida Gulf Coast team? And the rest of that year’s theme, the alley-oop, which seemed to sprout, flash and slam and thunder every time down the floor or come down hard on every other possession? Seemed like it was happening throughout the entire country? Maybe it’s just me, thinking this was the trend that year. Anyway. This year’s big overwhelming and surprising trend, and or theme, was the unforeseen downfall of the college basketball’s blue bloods, where and when the old, super dominant supremely gifted and recruiting savant programs, like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, and yes, Kansas fell face first and some of them even failed to make the Big Dance (Duke and Kentucky). Well, Kansas nearly fell in stride with this awful trend but they righted the ship with more than enough time to spare. The Jayhawks found their stride and got hot at the right time. They’ll clip the Eagles with ease, and advance.
7 Oregon vs. 10 VCU
I must confess something upfront. I’m a Washington State University graduate. So I am outrageously biased against the Ducks when the Cougs plays them, and outrageously biased in favor of the Ducks when they play anyone not wearing crimson and gray. To me, and because the injury bug has plagued this team all year, the Ducks don’t know if they’re excellent or abysmal. Sorry, Oregon fans – you know I’m right. And that’s a major problem. The Ducks were bounced from the PAC 12 tournament long before anyone thought they’d fall. And add to that the fact that this season, they spent serious time in the top 25 but then dropped big games to teams they should have trounced and torched with the talent as deep as it is in Eugene. They’re good enough to slide past VCU. But that may be all there is before they regroup next year.
2 Iowa vs. 15 Grand Canyon University
The Big 10 was by the best conference in college basketball this year. With that said, it’s near impossible to proclaim a top ten ranked team, and now 2 seeded team, is flying under the radar. Yet, Iowa is here in a strange, talented, and uniquely excellent company. And what’s more, if Sporting News National Player of the Year Sporting News unanimous first-team All-American Luka Garza has a monster game, and believe me, he will – then they look like a team that could take down Gonzaga.
4 Sweet Sixteen Picks: Gonzaga, Virginia, Kansas, Iowa
1 Michigan vs. 16 Texas Southern
Seems like a team without a conference tournament win despite a number one overall seed in such a tournament, is trending the wrong way. But before Ohio State pushed Illinois deep into overtime for the Big 10 crown, I thought, you know what, the Michigan Wolverines have dodged a bullet here because both Illinois and Ohio State looked absolutely gassed. Exhausted. Toast. Michigan is an excellent team. The depth on this roster extends three players deep at every position. Before receiving the number one seed, they were ranked just behind the top three, Gonzaga, Illinois and Baylor. If they cruise through their first two games, and I expect they will do that, then the Sweet Sixteen may look even better with Illinois on the opposite side of the bracket.
8 LSU vs. 9. St. Bonaventure
Aside from stunning Arkansas down the stretch before the SEC tournament, LSU dropped almost every big game they played this season. Doesn’t bode well for a deep tournament run – but who knows? Maybe Shareed O’Neal comes off the bench and steps into his father’s (Shaq!) gargantuan shoes? They’ll win this but I don’t expect much after.
5 Colorado vs. 12 Georgetown
I know, I know – I said, don’t listen to anyone who tells you they can predict the always hotly contested 12-5 and 11-6 upsets before they happen. Yet this feels like the first big upset of the tournament. When Georgetown head coach Patrick Ewing escorted his team into Madison Square Garden recently, during the Big East Tournament, security asked Ewing for credentials to verify his identity. Everyone thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. And well – Ewing was without his proper documentation. So, he said and I’m paraphrasing, “Did you know that’s my jersey hanging up in the rafters?” His team loved it and came alive as the short story blew up last week and went viral and helped the Hoyas go from near about dead last in the conference to Big East champs by the end of the week. Not bad, coach.
4 Florida State vs. 13 UNC Greensboro
The Seminoles finished just one game behind Virginia in the ACC for the regular season. This is a very good team. At times, they resembled what North Carolina should have been were the Tarheels not a shell/shadow of their former self. Florida State was also well with striking distance during the ACC championship game for many reasons. But Georgia Tech found that extra gear – which is what I expect the Seminoles to go through their first two games.
6 BYU vs. 11 Michigan State
Does anyone remember Mullets vs. Mormons from the college football season when BYU traveled cross country down south for a slugfest against the Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina? I do. (I was pulling for the Mullets.) And here we go again, BYU is slated for a prime-time smackdown against an excellent opponent. Too bad UCLA is coming into their own down the stretch here. Led by a mercurial 27 points from Jamie Jaquez Jr. and 21 points from Johnny Juzang to go with a final blistering 50% 3-pt FG mark. UCLA’s late surge over Michigan State, as they outscored Sparty 53-36 in both the second and overtime, was way more than enough to break into the next round of the tournament. UCLA snapped a five-game losing streak to earn a shot at BYU. If they stay hot, and I expect they will, then UCLA might wind up the Cinderella team we’ve overlooked all along.
3 Texas vs. 14 Abilene Christian
Much like many diagnosed with Covid19, Texas Longhorns head coach, Shaka Smart, said, more or less, he thought was going to die while suffering from severe symptoms after contracting the virus. Then he recovered. Then his Longhorns went on a blistering run. Texas has appeared much like what we thought Baylor would be throughout the first half of the year. Tons of depth. Great size inside. Then even better from deep. Look out for Texas to run the whole table, because, well, Smart is a genius.
2 Alabama vs. 15 Iona
The first time I went out of my way to watch Alabama they were pummeled by Arkansas in Little Rock. In the first part of Alabama’s SEC tournament championship game appearance, they nearly got into an all-out brawl with their opponent, Auburn (for those that don’t know, this is among the most bitter of college sports rivalries in the country) before the tip. This team has fight. I can’t wait to watch them take on Texas.
4 Sweet Sixteen Picks: Michigan, Alabama, Texas, Florida State
1. Baylor vs. 16. Hartford
Most of the college basketball world will disagree with me after this proclamation. But Baylor is extremely overrated. Can and point: the Big 12 tournament. Never once did I think this team could take down Gonzaga, Michigan, Alabama, Illinois, West Virginia, and many more. They seem to have suffered tremendously from their unforeseen multi weeks-long Covid19 cancellations. I’d like to see them thrive but I cannot predict much in the way of long-range success. They’ll win this game and maybe one or two more after, but that’s about it.
8. North Carolina vs. 9 Wisconsin
To quote Jay-Z, “All I see is life cycles just repeating themselves.” And don’t look now – but these two teams are carbon copy duplicates. Both were preseason favorites. And both do an excellent job playing lockdown defense and forcing tough shots. Then they’ll go seven or eight minutes without a bucket of their own. It’s how stressful a game is when nothing exciting happens, right? I’ve got North Carolina moving on.
5 Villanova vs. 12 Winthrop
There is actually an excellent chance the majority of the ESPN brackets submitted have Winthrop defeating Villanova in another classic, “Oh, hey, look, here’s a 5 seed ready to lose to a 12.” But this is not the case. Villanova is down, and their best player, Collin Gillespie is out for the year. But Jay Wright’s team is way, way, way too deep to drop their opening game. Wildcats advance.
4 Purdue vs. 13 North Texas
I get these awful and slanderous pop-up advertisements occasionally, that consistently rank the worst colleges and universities in each and every state. Tragically, North Texas is the lone star state’s ignominious choice among click-bait manufacturers. And their basketball team will get blown about by the lone Indiana team where this year’s bubble site is located. Purdue also has a 7’4” Toronto native, freshman, Zach Edey, coming off the bench. Be forewarned, you might think you’re ready to watch this behemoth domain-ate in the paint – but I’m telling you, this is like watching a more agile Yao Ming play.
6 Texas Tech vs. 11 Utah State
The Overtime Sports legend Matt McClung’s tall tale continues as the Red Raiders will almost certainly triumph in this first-round game! McClung transferred from Georgetown this year and not only has fit in very well leading this Lubbock, Texas team, but he’s climbing draft boards left and right. He’s a stud. Go find his highlights. Well worth your time.
3 Arkansas vs. Colgate
This is the single best Razorbacks men’s basketball team out of Little Rock in half a century. They’re tough. And they took down Alabama in a game I expected the Crimson Tide to win by 15+ going in. They’re not perfect. But they’re fun. Look for them to make a great pass at moving on for the Sweet 16.
2 Ohio State vs. 15 Oral Roberts
Ohio State should have received the number one seed over Michigan for the singular reason the Buckeyes pushed Illinois into an overtime period on one of their worst days in recent memory. As of now, Ohio State is my pick to advance from this wing of the bracket and qualify for the Final Four.
4 Sweet Sixteen Picks: Baylor, Ohio State, Texas Tech, Arkansas.
1. Illinois vs. 16. Drexel
This is the best Illinois team I’ve ever seen. And there are countless Fighting Illini faithful who agree with this – not really all that – outlandish proclamation. Please, do everything in your power to watch this team play because – I’m calling it now – this is their year. Illinois will win the National Championship.
8 Loyola Chicago vs. 9 Georgia Tech
I think it’s safe to say Georgia Tech’s head coach, Josh Pastner, was the only coach wearing a face shield instead of a face mask during the final month of the regular season and the conference championships. Maybe that’s the secret? (I’m kidding. Although the two head coaches in this year’s Super Bowl wore face shields instead of face masks all season so maybe they’re all onto something we’re overlooking?) Georgia Tech won an absolute thriller against Florida State to claim the ACC championship. This is a very good team heating up at the right time.
5 Tennessee vs. 12 Oregon State
Boy, should I? Do I dare disrespect the Pac 12 tournament champions while they’re riding high…? Absolutely! It was a fluke! Volunteers win.
4 Oklahoma State vs. 13 Liberty
Cade Cunningham has played like several current and top-tier NBA superstars – Paul George in his prime, Kawhi Leonard now, and some Bam Adebayo, all year long. The man not just talented, he is a luminous gift from the Basketball Gods. Oklahoma State went from basement of the Big 12 – the second-best conference this year – to play in the conference tournament championship game because of – that’s right! – the first overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Cade Cunnigham. Watch out for the Cowboys.
6 San Diego State vs. 11 Syracuse
Here we go again – eleven seed vs. six seed upset alert! Just kidding. San Diego State is very strong from deep. And Syracuse relies primarily on zone defense. I like the Aztecs to get red hot and win this game by ten or more.
3 West Virginia vs. 14 Morehead State
This is not Bob Huggins’ classic “Press Virginia” but at times they’re just as potent, doing all of the little things that win games and never make it into the highlights. Doesn’t it seem like the big bear (allegedly grizzly and or teddy depending on his mood and his proximity to a basketball court) Bob Huggins is long overdue for a national championship?
7 Clemson vs. 10 Rutgers
There are times when a bracket prediction faces the unrelenting forces of the wild guess – that’s what’s happening here. Your guess is as good as mine because I cannot find the daylight between these very evenly matched teams. Yet, here were go! Clemson moves on.
2 Houston vs. 15 Cleveland State
There were all sorts of hype surrounding Cincinnati when they squared off with Houston last weekend for the American Athletic Conference crown. But it was truly, never in doubt, and Houston cruised. I expect them to glide into the Sweet Sixteen mostly or totally, unscathed.
4 Sweet Sixteen Picks: Illinois, Houston, West Virginia, Oklahoma State
Pre-Tournament National Champion pick: Illinois.
Let’s go dancing!