Over the following three weeks, 68 teams will battle for the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, now simply referenced as “March Madness.” Millions of people have filled out their brackets on various sports websites, ESPN being the most popular, and are now waiting to see which teams are pretenders and contenders. To make the situation even more interesting, two of the wealthiest men in the world: Warren Buffett and Dan Gilbert are both tossing 500 million dollars into the pot for anybody that completes a perfect bracket in the Quicken Loans tournament challenge. The odds are extremely small for anyone to achieve this feat (about one in 12 billion at best), but to sweeten the deal they are also offering 100,000 dollars to the top 20 brackets (the odds here are much better … about one in 750,000, assuming Buffett’s 15 million entry cap is reached).
So who’s going to win the tournament? Who’s going to be 2014’s “Cinderella story” (a team not expected to advance very far that ends up doing so)? How about upsets? Well, I’m no bracketologist, but I have been following the college basketball season since it started back in November. So here’s what I think.
For starters, anyone that watches sports knows that it isn’t how a team has done over the entire season that determines their likelihood of winning. It is more important to determine who has been playing well as of late. If a team has lost five out of six going into the NCAA tournament, they probably won’t do very well. Take a team like 2011’s University of Connecticut: As a ninth seed in the Big East Conference tournament, they weren’t even sure they were going to make it to March Madness. But, five wins, including four wins against nationally ranked opponents, later they were Big East tournament champions. And it didn’t end there; after cruising past Bucknell and Cincinnati in the first two rounds, Connecticut knocked off a proficient San Diego State squad in the Sweet Sixteen and a hot Arizona team that had knocked off top-ranked Duke the round before in the Elite Eight. One week later, they were the most surprising national champion since perhaps the 1988 Danny Manning-led Kansas Jayhawks, a six-seed.
So what does this story have to do with this tournament? Well, it’s important to know that the games that happened in November and December especially have very little relevance in terms of deciding who will win in March and early April. Now, I won’t talk about any of the one seeds, everybody knows all of the one seeds are contenders every year (whether they play well or not in the tournament). But how about the defending national champions, Louisville? They’ve won their past five games by an average of more than thirty points. And they still have most of their key players from last year, plus an improved Montrezl Harrell, who has become an all-around dominant post player in the past few months. They’re playing in the toughest region, but being defending champion means confidence and understanding of what it takes to get it done in the big games.
Then there’s Big Ten champion Michigan State, who battled through months of injuries and finally has everybody healthy for the big tournament. Besides having a force in the middle named Adreian Payne, Michigan State has a potent duo of guards named Keith Appling and Gary Harris that can shoot, create turnovers, and set up their teammates for easy baskets. If this team stays healthy, they might be the best team in the country under head coach Tom Izzo, who has led Michigan State to six out of the past fifteen final fours, more than any other coach during that span.
Besides these two teams, those still filling out brackets should look at the teams that have been deep in past tournaments. Two-seeded Kansas looks primed to make a run should injured big man Joel Embiid return to the lineup before a possible confrontation with third-seeded Syracuse or sixth-seeded Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen. In addition, two and three-seeded Michigan and Duke, respectively, are both teams to seriously consider due to their potent offenses and tournament experience. Michigan was last year’s national runner-up and Duke has one of the greatest coaches in NCAA history—Mike Krzyzewski as well as a recent Elite Eight appearance.
Now for my surprise pick. If one were to judge the Oklahoma State Cowboys solely on their seed (nine) they would maybe pick them to win one game, or none at all. However those of us that have followed them know better than to count them out. Led by Naismith Award caliber guard Marcus Smart, they are playing more like a three or a four-seed going into the tournament, losing to only Kansas, Big 12 champion Iowa State, and Big 12 runner-up Baylor, all in overtime, since mid-February. But they also beat then number five Kansas during that span, and look to be playing their best basketball of the season right now. Plus, one-seed Arizona, who they will most likely face in the third round should they defeat Gonzaga, has looked sluggish the past three or four weeks, sustaining a loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 conference championship game. Finally, if they get past Arizona, they would have potential matchups with San Diego State, Creighton, and Wisconsin, all of which are very beatable due to their recent inconsistencies for a team as explosive as Oklahoma State.
So who’s my national champion? The best defensive team in the country, number one overall Florida. I know, genius.