If you’re not ready for the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, this podcast will get you there. TheSportsNotebook.com joined forces with Prime Sports Network in a 1-hour/15 minute show that broke down the bracket from a number of different angles.
In my appearance with PSN host Greg DePalma, we did more than the standard routine of simply giving our Final Four picks. We also looked at who the best darkhorses were, and then went into the betting futures in Las Vegas to see what teams offered the most value as bets to win the national championship.
Going region-by-region, here some of the topics that Greg and I touched on…
EAST: North Carolina is one of the two favorites I like to hold serve and get to the Final Four. I share Greg’s optimism about 3-seed West Virginia on the bottom half of the bracket, and we both like Wisconsin as a sleeper in the 7-seed hole. Particularly given that 2-seed Xavier appears vulnerable.
The middle of the bracket holds a lot of intrigue, starting with Kentucky and Indiana on a collision course to meet in a Round of 32 game on Saturday. And even West Virginia doesn’t have it easy—the Mountaineers could be looking at Notre Dame or Michigan in their second game.
And the 8-9 game in the Round of 64 promises to be fun. Providence has two great player in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, both of whom are prolific scorers and tough rebounders. USC is coached by Andy Enfield, who led Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City” edition to their Cinderella Sweet 16 run in 2013.
The bottom line: I’ve got UNC, Indiana, West Virginia and Wisconsin advancing out of the first weekend with North Carolina in the Final Four.
MIDWEST: Everyone is anticipating Virginia-Michigan State to meet for the third straight year, this time in a regional final. I’m not so sure, and neither was Greg. The Cavs are the source of our doubts. I see a big and physical Purdue team being able to oust Virginia in the Sweet 16 and set up a game with Michigan State that would be a rematch of the Big Ten tournament final.
We both have sleepers here that we like a lot. Gonzaga has had a rough go of it with injuries this season, but Kyle Wiltjer is still a fantastic player, capable of scoring and rebounding explosions against anyone. I think the Zags are getting the Sweet 16 before falling to Sparty. Greg likes the darkhorse prospects of Seton Hall (6), Dayton (7) and Syracuse (10), but is troubled by their pairing on the same side of the draw as Michigan State.
The bottom line: Virginia, Purdue, Gonzaga and Michigan State survive the weekend. And the big Final Four darkhorse comes out of this regional, with the Boilermakers finally making their first trip since 1980.
SOUTH: Kansas is another top seed that I like a lot, and this was problematic, because they’re in a bracket where there a lot of darkhorses I like. Foremost among them is Arizona. The Wildcats had injuries during the season, but they’re healthy now and have been back together long enough to develop chemistry.
Sean Miller missed his chance to get to a Final Four with high seeds the last two years (#1 in 2014, #2 in 2015, both times losing to Wisconsin). It would be ironic—though not unprecedented—if he got his Final Four in a year where he’s the 6-seed (it would be reminiscent of the way Virginia got to the 1984 Final Four, or the 1997 Detroit Red Wings in hockey).
I also like Wichita State, though the Shockers could be eliminated in a play-in game by the time you read this. If not, Wichita would play Arizona in the Round of 64. Miami is another dangerous team in the 3-hole.
The bottom line: Kansas, 4-seed Cal, Arizona and 2-seed Villanova reach the regionals. And Kansas is able to hold serve and go to the Final Four.
WEST: Greg and I were in agreement that this was easily the weakest of the four regionals, led by Oregon as the top seed. I posed this question—is it a bigger darkhorse pick to take the Ducks to hold serve, or to grab 4-seed Duke to reach the Final Four? It goes to the issue of what a darkhorse really is, perhaps one of the great existential questions of our time.
I don’t see Oregon surviving the weekend, combining both my doubts about the Ducks and my belief in 9-seed Cincinnati and their solid team defense. St. Joe’s is the 8-seed, and they’ve got a couple great forwards in Isiah Miles and DeAndre Bembry that would also cause Oregon a lot of problems.
That opens the door for Duke to reach the regional final. And the bottom of half of the bracket is nothing special. Oklahoma is good and has one of the best players in the nation in Buddy Hield. They’re side of the draw isn’t very good, with Oregon State, Texas and 3-seed Texas A&M all vulnerable right from the outset. The Sooners should also make a regional final.
The bottom line: Cincinnati, Duke, Texas A&M and Oklahoma advance to the Sweet 16. And in spite of their atrocious defense all season, look for Duke (111th in the country in defensive efficiency) to ride some great individual talent and great coaching to another Final Four trip. It isn’t often that Duke is also a good bet, but at odds of 25-1 to win the national championship they’re as value-laden a wager as there is.
And the ultimate bottom line? North Carolina beats Purdue in one semi, with Kansas knocking off Duke in the other. And the Jayhawks cut down the nets in Houston. That’s our story for now. By the time the whirlwind that is this weekend finishes, it’ll be time to reset and do this all over again.