On the eve of the NCAA Tournament starting for real, a few thoughts on the bracket…
*The pool that I’m in, like many others, makes it advantageous to pick lower seeds to win. For the national championship, in a year with no obvious favorite, I’m looking at the 3-line. Oregon and UCLA are each there and each have the talent to win it all. I’ve settled on one of these two teams to cut down the nets.
UCLA has the most talent and Lonzo Ball should be the first overall pick in the NBA draft (as his father will apparently be the first to tell you). A brand-name program usually wins this thing, so that’s the direction I’m leaning, but I worry that Steve Alford is just not a title-winning coach, while I think Oregon’s Dana Altman is. Although it is the 30th anniversary of Alford’s great 1987 NCAA Tournament run as a player leading Indiana to its last crown, so maybe the time is right.
*The Final Four is out west for the first time since 1995, when UCLA won it in the Seattle Kingdome and the Pac-12 is poised to have a feast again this year when we get to Phoenix. Arizona is uniquely situated as a 2-seed in a relatively soft bracket, with a clear path to play Gonzaga in the regional final. We could be looking at the Pac-12 grabbing three spots.
*Purdue is the team I’m going to end up kicking myself over. I’ve been high on the Boilermakers all year and still am. Caleb Swanigan is the most valuable player in the country. Isaac Haas gives them even more length down low. Purdue has an array of three-point shooters that can spread the court and I respect their coach, Matt Painter.
But while losing to Michigan in the quarters of the Big Ten tournament is no shame, I get a little leery of teams that go one-and-done in the league tourney. I could see the Boilers winning it all…or losing to an undervalued Vermont team in the first round. Be assured, whatever happens will be the opposite of what I pick. As a favor to a great fan base that deserves to win, I might have to pick the Boilers to lose.
*One of my favorite silly exercises on the first weekend is to look at the eight venues and decide which would be the most fun to be at in person. You want teams who are relatively close, thereby assuring a great atmosphere and of course, juicy matchups.
Indianapolis is the winner this time around. Kentucky and Louisville are there as 2-seeds. Possible Round of 32 matchups include Kentucky-Wichita, a rematch of that epic second-round game in 2014. And Louisville-Michigan, a rematch of the 2013 NCAA final. Wichita and Michigan have awfully good fan bases themselves and will be out in force. And even if Dayton beats Wichita and/or Oklahoma State upends Michigan, the Round of 32 games are still very good.
*This year is the 40th anniversary of Marquette’s 1977 NCAA title. That’s also the last time a Jesuit college won it all. While Marquette is out there again, look to the West Regional for the Catholic colleges. Gonzaga leads the way and is looking at a potential Sweet 16 matchup with Notre Dame—who offers nice value as a 5-seed. St. Mary’s lingers as the 7-seed. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope and surely has winning a national title high on his agenda.
*So bottom line, who makes the Final Four—I’ll go with the Pac-12 Feast of UCLA, Oregon and Arizona with Duke joining them in Phoenix.