It’s that time of year again – March Madness is beginning. For three weeks, we get the opportunity to forget about our “real world” problems and just focus on a different kind of pain: getting our brackets busted. Even though I’ll be lucky if this article makes it even a day into the tournament without being blown up into 10,000 shards of sadness, I’ll share my predictions anyway. Get ready for upset city, everyone. This is going to be a fun 63 games.
(1)Villanova vs. (16)Mt St. Mary’s/New Orleans
Sorry guys, but it’s a 1 seed against a 16 seed. Nova cruises against whoever wins the play-in.
(8)Wisconsin vs. (9)Virginia Tech
The selection committee owes a written apology to this Wisconsin team, as nobody was as grossly underseeded as they were. Virginia Tech has had a good year, but the Badgers simply overmatch them on both ends of the court. Wisconsin has a 91.3 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (AdjD) rating – good for eighth in the country – which should be able to slow down the Hokies’ potent offense (79.3 ppg), along with a plethora of offensive weapons such as Bronson Koenig, Ethan Happ, and Nigel Hayes. These guys are really, really good. Badgers take the win.
(5)Virginia vs. (12)UNC Wilmington
UNC Wilmington is a very strong offensive team, as evidenced by their 117.8 Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (AdjO) – yet unfortunately for them, they’ve been matched off against the top defensive team the country per AdjD in Virginia, who have only allowed a miniscule 55.6 ppg. Despite the 5-vs.-12 curse that seems to haunt five seeds every year, I’m a strong believer that strong defense in the tournament is a consistent winner. This could go either way, but my guess is that Virginia gets it in a close one.
(4)Florida vs. (13)East Tennessee St.
Call it a hunch. There’s no hard data to back me up here, as Florida outranks East Tennessee St. in nearly every statistical category. But a deeper look shows that even though Florida is a four seed, they lack any true quality wins except for the one against Kentucky at home (they later lost to them on the road), with their next best being home wins against Seton Hall and South Carolina. I think neutral court, with the fans able to get behind an underdog, East Tennessee St. pulls it out against an overrated Gators squad.
(6)SMU vs. (11)Providence/USC
SMU all day. I’m buying in. These guys haven’t lost since a two-point game on the road in Cincinnati (16 games ago), and before that, you have to go all the way back to November 30th for their last defeat. They are hot, to put it lightly. I know that the AAC isn’t the most competitive conference, but these guys are riding a wave of confidence at the right time.
(3)Baylor vs. (14)New Mexico St.
Sorry Baylor, but I’m taking the Aggies here. I know how good Johnathan Motley and the Bears are, but I just don’t trust them. They’re 5-6 in their last 11, and I have trouble believing in a team peaking at the wrong time. Meanwhile, this is NM State’s fifth appearance in the big dance in the last six years. Still seeking their first win in that time frame, the Aggies are hungry. Plus, there’s no way that ETSU over Florida is the only upset in this quarter. Sometimes you gotta guess and hope for the best. They don’t call it Madness for nothing.
(7)South Carolina vs. (10)Marquette
South Carolina has a really good defense (3rd in the country in AdjD) while Marquette has a really good offense (7th in AdjO). I feel like I might regret this because the Gamecocks have been cold, but I think they win. Again, my good-defense-trumps-good-offense-in-the-tourney bias is coming into play, but even more than that, as a diehard Michigan fan (I promise to only keep a little bit of bias), I witnessed South Carolina suck the life out of the Wolverines – a team fresh off beating Marquette and SMU. South Carolina is the better team here.
(2)Duke vs. (15)Troy
My only worry here is that Duke looks past the Trojans and struggles in their opening game, making it closer than it has to be. But, I mean, the Blue Devils are really, really good (shocker). I don’t foresee a massive upset.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (16)South Dakota St.
1 vs. 16. Next please.
(8)Northwestern vs. (9)Vanderbilt
I would have Northwestern winning this round regardless of the opponent. The entire school is absolutely psyched after making their first NCAA tournament appearance ever, and often the outcome of these March Madness games is decided by things beyond what numbers can see. I like the Wildcats to maintain their endless positive energy.
(5)Notre Dame vs. (12)Princeton
On one hand, I want to pick Notre Dame so badly. They have so many weapons. They can hurt you from anywhere. They have experience. But on the other hand, this is a 5 vs. 12 game and Princeton is as hot as hot gets after not losing a single game in league play. Yes, they were playing against inferior competition to what Notre Dame is, but wins are wins and confidence is confidence. Princeton is another balanced, strong sleeper pick that could bust some brackets come Thursday.
(4)West Virginia vs. (13)Bucknell
Sorry to Bucknell, but I have trouble seeing it. WVU lost last year in a heartbreaking upset at the hands of SF Austin, and I think that they’re motivated to do better this year. Plus, they’re a numbers darling per Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM). No crazy pick from me here.
(6)Maryland vs. (11)Xavier
I really, really don’t like this Maryland team for reasons I can’t explain. I think they were overseeded and I think that Melo Trimble is overrated after an outstanding freshman season. But I hate Xavier even more. No Edmund Sumner on a cold team. Yikes. Have to give Maryland the W.
(3)Florida St. vs. (14)Florida Gulf Coast
Hey, why not. I like Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon, but their late season losses are hard to ignore (4-4 in their last 8). Confidence is key in these games, and FGCU is on a hot streak with nothing to lose. No, it’s not the same team as in 2013, but these guys are legit, with four players averaging over 10 ppg. Can they recapture their magic? I think so.
(7)Saint Mary’s vs. (10)VCU
Three of Saint Mary’s four losses on the season are to Gonzaga. Take the star-studded Bulldogs out of the equation, and this is a team with one loss and a true star in Jock Landale. They take the win here against a VCU team still trying to live up to its past.
(2)Arizona vs. (15)North Dakota
I don’t think Arizona is as terrific as they are seeded (their AdjEM is only good for 20th in the country), but I also don’t think that North Dakota is a match for them. Arizona rolls in their first round game.
(1)Kansas vs. (16)NC Central/UC Davis
Kansas is not losing this game.
(8)Miami (FL) vs. (9)Michigan St.
I could easily be wrong here, as many advanced metrics, a higher seeding, and a better record would all point to the Hurricanes winning here. But you can’t put the impact of Tom Izzo into numbers. I can’t see them losing in the first round.
(5)Iowa St. vs. (12)Nevada
Iowa State has earned this win after years of tournament futility. Nevada has been a trendy upset pick for some, but the Cyclones will be able to get at least one victory off of the back of the always-trustworthy Monte Morris. Such a stabilizing force (he never turns the ball over as the primary ball-handler) is extremely valuable when trying to fend off an upset-hungry team.
(4)Purdue vs. (13)Vermont
I feel guilty picking an entire eighth of the bracket without any first round upsets, but I don’t think that Vermont has what it takes to get past twin beasts Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. Similarly to the Monte Morris situation, put the ball in the hands of either one and watch them go to work – they can act as stabilizing forces against a Cinderella.
(6)Creighton vs. (11)Rhode Island
Alright let’s get to the upsets. E.C. Matthews is a stud who can lead this team past almost anybody, as the Rams currently boast wins over Cincinnati, VCU, and a close loss to Duke. They’ve won their last 8 games and can take on any challenge. Creighton, on the other hand… eh. They only boast two quality wins on the season (both against Butler), and after starting the season very strong, they are only 5-6 in their last 11. Hot vs. not; I’ll always take hot. Rhode Island gets the upset.
(3)Oregon vs. (14)Iona
The analytics don’t love Iona (118th in AdjEM), and I can’t say I have much of a reason to disagree. That being said, it’s really hard for me to pick Oregon to win this game. They haven’t beaten a top team away from home this year, and they just lost Chris Boucher to a torn ACL. That’s not a recipe for success. But, I don’t think they lose… yet. They deke out a win here, but barely.
(7)Michigan vs. (10)Oklahoma St.
This seems like a trap game for Michigan, a very trendy pick to make a run at this tournament (a trend I will be likely to follow. Beware of bias), as Oklahoma State ranks first in the country in AdjO. They’re a sneaky good team who have been prone to cold streaks (six game losing streak in the middle of the year, three games to end their season) but has some good wins, such as beating WVU on the road. Regardless, I think Michigan is simply too hot right now. Fresh off of a Big Ten championship in which Derrick Walton Jr. looked like one of the best players in the country, Michigan takes the win and continues their momentum.
(2)Louisville vs. (15)Jacksonville St.
Fun Fact: Jacksonville State is located in Jacksonville, Alabama, not Jacksonville, Florida. Another Fun Fact: Louisville is almost certainly going to beat them on Friday/
(1)North Carolina vs. (16)Texas Southern
It’s another 1 vs. 16. Are you sensing a pattern yet?
(8)Arkansas vs. (9)Seton Hall
The analytics slightly lean toward Arkansas, as they rank better in AdjEM and far better in AdjO. But, on the other hand, Seton Hall ranks better in that all-important defense (38th in the country as opposed to 96th) and are on a hot streak, capping off five straight wins with only a two-point loss to number one overall Villanova. My guy tells me to go with the Pirates.
(5)Minnesota vs. (12)Middle Tennessee
Another trendy 5-12 upset pick has one of last year’s Cinderellas, the Blue Raiders, defeating the much-improved Golden Gophers. As much as I enjoy rooting for a turnaround from Rich Pitino’s squad, an upset here seems like a decent possibility. Middle Tennessee doesn’t rank far behind Minnesota in terms of AdjEM, suggesting that the supposed gap between the teams really isn’t that big. Beyond that, it’s a confidence game. Middle Tennessee has lost once in their last 21 games and are riding high right now, while Minnesota is coming off of a rough loss to Michigan on a neutral court. Middle Tennessee has got the looks of a Cinderella to me – they have my pick here.
(4)Butler vs. (13)Winthrop
Butler might be the most bipolar team in the country this year, with quality wins over Arizona, Cincinnati, and Villanova (twice), yet also losses to Indiana State, Saint John’s, and Georgetown. Could this be one of those games? I don’t think so. The Bulldogs will be too prepared to lose this one, and they have a nice history of success in March. However, next round could offer an intriguing matchup….
(6)Cincinnati vs. (11)Kansas St./Wake Forest
This one is a little complicated because of the play-in game, but in the end, I don’t think will really matter. Wake Forest is too inconsistent in my book to defeat Kansas State, so my best guess of what will happen is that Kansas St. will advance and then defeat Cincinnati, as the Wildcats have proven that they can beat top opponents and don’t rank far behind the Bearcats in the analytics department. On the other hand, if Wake Forest beats Kansas State, I think they fall to Cincy in the next round. But, no matter what, my real prediction is that it all ends up being for naught because (spoiler alert) UCLA beats whoever survives in the round of 32.
(3)UCLA vs. (14)Kent St.
Every time I see a three seed that “know” can’t lose, I whisper to myself, “Mercer, Duke. Mercer, Duke. Mercer, Duke”. But, I mean, Lonzo Ball and UCLA can’t lose this game. Right? Right?
(7)Dayton vs. (10)Wichita St.
Boy, do the analytics love Wichita State (8th in the country in AdjEM), and boy do I agree. These guys are one of the most balanced teams in the country, with not even a single player averaging 12 PPG along with a stifling defense. They can hurt you in so many different ways and with so many different players that Archie Miller will have a lot of trouble game-planning this one. I think Wichita, on a 15 game winning streak, overwhelms the Flyers and becomes a very rough matchup for Kentucky.
(2)Kentucky vs. (15)Northern Kentucky
Sorry guys, but no 15 seeds over 2 seeds or 16 seeds over 1 seeds this year. I’ve called all those games with so much confidence that you just know they’re all going to be wrong.
Round of 32:
(1)Villanova vs. (8)Wisconsin
Yikes, tough matchup for the defending champs. All the pressure is on the Wildcats, but I think they pull through here. Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, Jalen Brunson and company are really, really good, and while I’m sure Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes make this very interesting in one final go-around along with sophomore Ethan Happ, Nova overwhelms the Badgers with their all-around ridiculous-ness.
(5)Virginia vs. (13)East Tennessee St.
Sorry East Tennessee, but the Cavaliers put an end to the magic with their top-ranked stifling defense. Have fun with that one Nova.
(6)SMU vs. (14)New Mexico St.
Like the last game, the supreme underdog had their fun, but it’s time for the ultra-versatile-grossly-underseeded Mustangs to make a run. SMU is ranked 11th in AdjEM and they don’t have any glaring weaknesses. They’re dangerous.
(7)South Carolina vs. (2)Duke
I really am inclined to call upset here, I really am. South Carolina looked spectacular at the start of the season, but they’ve gone cold, going 3-6 in their last 9. Duke gets the win, and if I have to guess, it probably won’t be close either.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (8)Northwestern
I want the magic to continue but the dream dies here. Gonzaga is a great basketball team with a little bit of extra motivation to prove that they’re not chokers. Northwestern obviously also has an extra push of school spirit going for them, but Gonzaga is simply fantastic all-around, ranking tops in AdjEM due to a tenth overall ranking in AdjO and a second overall ranking in AdjD. It’s going to be really tough to stop them.
(12)Princeton vs. (4)West Virginia
I feel guilty putting a 1 vs. 4 in the Sweet 16 because that literally never, ever happens but I don’t feel I have a choice. WVU is spectacular by the numbers, with their 5th-ranked AdjEM resulting in part from their 5th-ranked AdjD (and you know how I love my defense). I don’t think Princeton, despite their recent success, has the firepower to overcome such stinginess.
(6)Maryland vs. (14)Florida Gulf Coast
I hate Maryland. So I’m picking Florida Gulf Coast. Dunk City has returned. Don’t like it? Maryland is 4-6 in their last 10. FGCU is 9-1. Yes, those are crude statistics. But Maryland is too cold and not talented enough to make a run here. And more importantly, how could you root against Dunk City?
(7)Saint Mary’s vs. (2)Arizona
Time for the biggest upset pick so far. Yup, that’s right – Jock and the Gaels over the Wildcats. Arizona has lost games so far this season to Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon, and UCLA. To me, that’s evidence that they are a very strong team, but when faced with a challenge they can fold. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, has lost games to UT Arlington and Gonzaga (three times). To me, that looks like a dominant team with a slip-up and an Achilles’ heel. I could be very far from right here, but hey, in March you have to make some tough calls (based on educated guesses) that seem to make little sense. This, to me, is as good a bet for an early upset of a top seed as we can get this year.
(1)Kansas vs. (9)Michigan St.
Although I believe in Izzo as a great coach who can will his team to places few others can, at some point, the reality that must be accepted is that this Spartans team simply is not that good. Sure, Miles Bridges is a star, but they have little else as a consistent supporting cast. Kansas takes this one, although I’m sure Izzo gives Bill Self a scare.
(5)Iowa St. vs. (4)Purdue
While Purdue’s twin towers have wreaked havoc all season, one of the weaknesses of the team has been defending strong guard play (see: losses to Nova, Louisville, Minnesota, Iowa, and Michigan twice – that’s almost every loss for Purdue on the season coming against a top guard), and Monte Morris and Naz Long are as good as guards come. Purdue bows out early this year.
(11)Rhode Island vs. (3)Oregon
And another one bites the dust. While Oregon will still be good without Boucher, his loss is going to hurt big time. Meanwhile, URI has got a star that can light it up. Rhode Island establishes itself as a Cinderella by beating a (possibly overrated?) three seed and reaching the Sweet 16.
(7)Michigan vs. (2)Louisville
While, yes, I have a lot of Michigan bias, I honestly feel that even if I was not a Michigan fan I would still pick them to win this game. Derrick Walton has been stellar not only on offense as of late but also in terms of shutting down opposing guards, and Donovan Mitchell fits the bill. If Walton continues his hot streak, Michigan simply has too many weapons playing at too high a level for Louisville, and they take the win in a rematch of the 2013 National Championship game.
(1)UNC vs. (9)Seton Hall
Yikes… this is bad… all of my 1 seeds are going to be in for the Sweet 16… this will never happen…. As reluctant as I am to move my fourth 1 seed forward, I don’t think Seton Hall can win this game. UNC is spectacular by the numbers (3rd in AdjEM) and can hurt teams with nearly any of their players. I don’t like it but the Pirates don’t have the firepower in my eyes to take these guys down.
(12)Middle Tennessee vs. (4)Butler
I actually believe that if Butler were to win this game, they could take down UNC. But hey, remember that whole bipolar basketball issue? It works both ways. While Butler may be able to take down the Tar Heels, I think that the Blue Raiders, hot as they are, pull off the upset to become the only 12 seed to make the Sweet 16 this year. Butler has been shown to be very beatable by non-elite teams, and I think that Middle Tennessee is going to be better than the typical mid-major winner.
(3)UCLA vs. (6)Cincinnati/(11)Kansas St.
Remember that whole confusion with the Cincy/Kansas St./Wake Forest mess? Yeah, it won’t matter now. UCLA is too much of an offensive powerhouse (their 3rd overall ranking in AdjO doesn’t even do them justice) to lose to any of them.
(10)Wichita St. vs. (2)Kentucky
Welcome to the best game of the round of 32: a rematch between the tightly contested, instant classic 2014 round of 32 matchup with so many storylines that it was hard to count. Sound familiar? Well, this year, Wichita State sans Baker/Van Vleet, has reinvented itself as the underdog in this edition, yet one who plays a tough, balanced brand of basketball that has been tough for any team to beat in the last several months. Meanwhile, this year Kentucky is playing up to expectations with its most recent crop of superstar freshman. In this exciting role reversal from not-too-long-ago, I’m going with the underdog once again: Wichita State. The Shockers haven’t forgotten how their perfect season was destroyed in memorable fashion, and they want revenge. Gregg Marshall’s teams can never be counted out, and his defensive attack will give the shockers a Sweet 16 berth.
(1)Villanova vs. (5)Virginia
Get ready for a shock to your system. I’m calling it here. I don’t believe in repeat champions – not in a tournament like this – and if there’s anyone that has a chance to stop the onslaught that the Nova stars put on, it’s Tony Bennett’s Cavs and their incredible defense. If you have Nova winning this game along with the next three, I wouldn’t argue – but I just don’t have that feeling that they’re special enough to finish on top again.
(6)SMU vs. (2)Duke
This is going to be a close one, but I got to go with the reliable Coach K to bring his guys to another Elite 8. SMU is actually slightly better by advanced analytics, ranking one spot ahead of Duke in AdjEM. But I just don’t feel the magic. This Duke team has so many ways to hurt you: Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen – the list goes on and on. Their talent will win out over the Mustangs.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (4)West Virginia
I’ve been talking up WVU for a while now, but Gonzaga gets the win here. The Bulldogs are just a solid, complete basketball team with no weaknesses. I can’t see a way for WVU to pull off an upset here.
(14)Florida Gulf Coast vs. (7)Saint Mary’s
As all good things do, the best Cinderellas must die off. I hope Dunk City gets another crack at the Elite 8, but similarly to the WVU/Gonzaga game, I don’t see a way for them to beat a prepared Saint Mary’s team who has lost to only two teams this year – one of them a one seed and the other a blip on the radar. FGCU definitely stands a chance, but Landale and the Gaels (they should trademark that) come through in a close one.
(1)Kansas vs. (5)Iowa St.
I feel like I’m going to regret this because of Iowa State’s past suffering in the tournament, but… Cyclone on. When Kansas and Iowa State faced off this year, both games were decided by under four points and the season series was split. These teams are about as even when they face off as even gets, and something tells me the Monte Morris will be just as great as ever once the lights get brighter. The crowd should get behind the underdog, and that could be the difference maker here. Iowa State gets it in what could be one of the best games in the tournament.
(11)Rhode Island vs. (7)Michigan
Derrick Walton keeps doing Derrick Walton things and Michigan takes this one on the back of their defense of E.C. Matthews and their multitude of ways to attack on offense. Michigan will be building even more momentum at this point, and if their shots are falling, they will be nearly impossible to stop.
(1)UNC vs. (12)Middle Tennessee
It was fun while it lasted. Sorry to the Blue Raiders, but UNC is balanced and looking to make a statement with this game while trying to build confidence with a tough matchup coming up (regardless of who makes the Elite 8 of that bottom eighth of the draw, the last team standing there will be a very good one – that section is stacked). These guys are pros who have been here before. They won’t fall into a trap game.
(3)UCLA vs. (10)Wichita St.
It pains me to pick offense over defense here, but UCLA takes this one. Wichita State had a great run against two very tough teams, but playing such good games take their toll, and UCLA will be better rested and ready to play their up-tempo, shoot-at-will style of offense that few this year have been able to stop. While, once again, this should be one of the best games of the tournament, Lonzo, TJ, and Bryce are simply too much for the Shockers to handle. They’ll be back though. Don’t you worry.
(5)Virginia vs. (2)Duke
And this is where UVA’s run comes to an end. While I’m being forced to pick against defense for the second game, Duke has proven that they can beat the Cavs before, defeating them by 10 on the road. While yes, that’s not necessarily indicative of how things will go this time around, Duke simply has so many weapons that it will be difficult for a defensive-minded team to contain all of them. The Blue Devils and Coach K make another Final Four.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (7)Saint Mary’s
It’s the Achilles’ heel! Saint Mary’s couldn’t beat these guys three times during the regular season, and they won’t be able to do it here either. Gonzaga advances.
(5)Iowa St. vs. (7)Michigan
Hail to the victors! One thing that Derrick Walton has been able to do over the last month is to consistently outplay his matchup, and in this game, the same thing happens. Monte vs. Derrick will be outstanding, pure basketball to watch, but it’s hard to bet against Walton after the several weeks he’s had. Walton also has an impressive supporting cast surrounding him, with every type of weapon imaginable at his disposal. Once again, Michigan hits their shots and moves on.
(1)UNC vs. (3)UCLA
This will be a fun one, but Lonzo and the Bruins head to the Final Four. They just have it – it’s not describable, but it’s fun to watch. UCLA is high-flying, fast-shooting, deep, and a joy to witness on every level. UNC will put up quite the fight, but they won’t be able to keep pace with the reckless abandonment that the Bruins play with. Lonzo carries the team to the Final Four while LaVar looks on proudly talking trash (in a friendly way).
(2)Duke vs. (1)Gonzaga
This is the year. I can feel it. After being criticized for as a mid-major power who can’t beat top programs, Nigel Williams-Goss and Przemek Karnowski get their squad over the hump and carry their team to a National Championship appearance. This game will certainly be a close one, but at this point in the tournament, there’s games within the game. There’s the fatigue game – Gonzaga will have had the easier road to get to the Final Four, so they will have an edge there. There’s the numbers game – but at this point, the slight edge in advanced analytics that Gonzaga holds isn’t important; both of these teams can play, big time. But most importantly, there’s the media and fans game – Gonzaga will have the public support because, despite being a 1 seed, they’re a perennial underdog who have never gotten proper respect; while Duke, well, to put it kindly, the general public typically doesn’t like them. This will be as even as even gets, but Gonzaga pulls through and gets the W.
(7)Michigan vs. (3)UCLA
I’ll be sorry to see my Wolverines go, but UCLA will get this one. Both teams play a very similar style, and this game should be a joy to watch – fast-paced, lots of threes, lots of fast-breaks, lots of smart offense. But Michigan simply can’t hang with the Bruins for a full 40 minutes. When the two teams played earlier this season, the first half was one of the best displays of college basketball I’ve ever seen. But, after halftime, Michigan couldn’t maintain the same pace and shooting that the Bruins have kept up all season. It should be impossible for the Bruins to have played as well offensively as they have – college kids shouldn’t be this skilled already. But after months of consistent production, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt, and as a result, common logic would suggest that they defeat Michigan in a terrific game.
(1)Gonzaga vs. (3)UCLA
After months of grueling workouts, spectacular finishes, and relative parity (resulting in some great games) across college basketball, I’ve selected this year’s national champions to be… the UCLA Bruins. While this should be another closely contested game, all of what I have already stated about UCLA holds true here. They are an offensive juggernaut with just too many weapons to contain – and while Gonzaga will certainly put up a great fight, the Bruins are simply too good to fail.
Of course, come Thursday everything I have predicted will be proven wrong with a dazzling array of upsets no logical person would ever have seen coming. Oh well. Hey, at least that’s the fun of it, right?
Data courtesy of ESPN and Kenpom