I distinctly recall filling out paper brackets back in the day, so trust me when I proclaim myself an expert at this. Some of my predictions last year held true, while others (specifically referring to Kentucky and Iowa State) were complete misses. This year in college basketball we've seen more parity than I can recall in recent memory. There is truly not a dominant team like last year. Take your pick from any of the 1-4 seeds (maybe even a few of those underrated 5s) and you should find yourself a quality choice for a national champ. With that, here's my rundown.
1. Chalk is King
Some of the chaos of conference tournaments has deprived us of potential March darlings. It appears the committee went with big conference schools over team records, which could pose a problem for college basketball moving forward. Teams like Monmouth, Saint Mary's and Saint Bonaventure were left out of the tournament despite quality resumes. An 11-loss Michigan team, 13-loss Syracuse team and an 11-loss Tulsa team do not belong in the field over 3 teams that combined for 17 losses. This makes the jobs of the top teams even easier. Instead of playing teams who may have a bit more to prove in March, the best teams of the top conferences get another chance to bully the mediocre teams from the power conferences.
2. Once again, don't doubt Tommy Izzo
Michigan State keeps coming back, and have been knocking at the door for years. With a potential National Player of the Year candidate on their side in Denzel Valentine, and a motivating factor after being skipped over for a one seed over Virginia and Oregon, the Spartans have a recipe for success in March. This team has taken its fair share of lumps in the regular season as they fluctuated in the rankings early on, but Tom Izzo always has his teams prepared for March. If I'm trying to lead a team through March, I want either Izzo or Louisville's Rick Pitino as my coach. With Pitino's team ineligible for the tournament, I would have Michigan State as my championship pick if I were filling out a bracket.
3. Underrated power teams are a thing too
I'll put the following teams as underrated just based on their seeding alone: Kentucky, Purdue, Indiana, Cal, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Notre Dame. Most of these teams are very familiar with traversing March. If any of these teams get going at the right time -Kentucky seems to be fitting that bill - then the rest of the field should watch out. These are the "buzzsaw" teams - teams that will stop your team's March run right in its tracks. Pick one of these teams to be in your Final Four.
4. Big 12 is big time
The best conference in college basketball is the Big 12 - no questions asked. Having 70% of your league get into the tournament is pretty good. One of the great games of the entire college basketball season featured Oklahoma and Kansas when they were ranked as the top two teams in the country. I still believe they are the top two teams. The quality at the top is why teams like Texas Tech - who went .500 in conference play - get a crack at making a run in March. West Virginia is another team to watch out for out of the Big 12, as they play a physical brand of basketball that will make life difficult for teams on short rest. Based on how the bracket sets up, we could very well see another classic game between Oklahoma and Kansas in the Final Four.
5. Don't be afraid of the usual darlings
UConn was sitting on the bubble before making a run in their conference tournament to earn an automatic bid in the tournament. Wichita State squeezed in the field as an 11 seed. If you've watched college basketball over the last few years, you would know that either of these teams are capable of turning on a switch that no other teams seem to possess. I'd put both teams in the round of 32 and put their opponents in those rounds on serious upset alert. Don't be surprised to find one of these teams in the Sweet 16.
6. The weird 6-11 games
In one game, you have two conference champions (Seton Hall and Gonzaga) squaring off against one another. In another, you have (more than likely) a Wichita State team known for making runs facing off against a perennial power with a higher-than-usual seed. In another you have a shaky Notre Dame going against either Tulsa or Michigan - who shouldn't even be in the tournament. In the last one, you have a Texas team headed by coach Shaka Smart - who knows a thing or two about leading a team through March - against a team that is becoming a perennial pest in Northern Iowa. I think these are the most intriguing games. I'd call a split between these games in some way (you choose) and be prepared to have some of these make a run.
7. America East Tidbit
As an America-Easter I have to show some love for my conference. That being said, despite having one of the best seasons of any America East team ever, the Seawolves of Stony Brook get rewarded with a round of 64 match against the Kentucky Wildcats. Talk about a buzzkill. A 13 seed is the highest any team from the America East has received since 2007, and they get to face a team that is playing its best basketball right now and has as good of a shot as anyone to win it all. At least Stony Brook and Jameel Warney will get some well-deserved national attention, even if it's only for a few hours.
8. Is this the year a 16 seed beats a 1?
In this year's bracket there are some interesting candidates. Oregon was rated as one of the worst one seeds ever. Virginia is a team that dominates at home, which is somewhere they won't get to play in the tournament. UNC may have to face one of the all-time favorite Cinderellas: the Eagles of Florida Gulf Coast a.k.a "Dunk City". Kansas has no shot at being upset, so we'll focus on those 3 games. If I had to choose one 1 seed to lose in the round of 64, I'd go with Virginia against Hampton. It's not going to happen though so don't worry about it.
9. No one region should have all that power
It's clear which region is the toughest. Whichever team comes out of the East region deserves a few days off. Let's say you're North Carolina. To get to the Final Four, you will have to play some combination of the following teams: Kentucky, Indiana, Xavier, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and a dangerous Providence team. Indiana and Kentucky are terribly under-seeded - as I mentioned above. Providence is another team to be scared of. Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil are two guys who could get it done on any team in the country. Xavier is a team with a plethora of March experience. This is the gauntlet region, and whoever comes out of this should get some serious consideration as your national champion.
10. Let's get down to it
If I were to fill out a bracket, here are the teams I'd have in the Final Four: Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Oklahoma. I know, boring right? This is because of how top-heavy college basketball is this year, how few Cinderellas are in the field, and how wrong I think the committee got their seeding. Kansas' region is a relative breeze compared to the others, and I think Oklahoma or Michigan State should have been a 1 seed. These are the teams I trust the most right now. They have star power and/or are well-versed in navigating through the madness of March. The beauty of the madness is the clarity that comes at the end, and I think that will hold true this year. Happy madness!