Maybe I should have quit while I was ahead. Three years ago, in my last year doing the NCAA Tournament bracket column for the local newspaper, I hit the sleeper of a lifetime when Loyola of Chicago made a run to the Final Four.
But I couldn’t resist. There’s something about the tournament that keeps pulling me back. It’s the ultimate puzzle, and a chance to stand up for the little guys against the greedy power conferences that have become increasingly dominant in college basketball.
And hey, we all missed it last year. Sports were a minor concern in a global pandemic, but it was a blow to bracket lovers everywhere when the Big Dance was canceled last March, just a week before it was about to get under way.
So I’m back, and more obsessed with upsets than ever. As we age, it seems our habits become more ingrained. After a few days of researching the field, I find potential upsets under every couch cushion. Look, there’s Ohio! Every obscure school from a minor conference seems primed to take down one of the high seeds.
That’s the fun of it, right? Who wants to go with all the favorites, the way the so-called experts do? None of the TV people ever pick a seed lower than 4 to get to the Final Four. I saw one bracket on a national website where the hoop savant picked the four tops seed in all four regions to reach the Sweet 16.
Really, you couldn’t toss in a 5 seed for balance? How do you identify this year’s Mercer or Georgia State or Florida Gulf Coast? Why not take a stab at finding a Final Four sleeper like George Mason or VCU, or, yes, Loyola of Chicago?
There’s more parity than ever in college hoops. Three years ago, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to fall in the first round, against Maryland-Baltimore County. Who saw that happening (actually, I said a 16 would win, but I didn’t have the guts to say which one).
As usual, I have some nutty picks. I’m not about to change after 30 years of this. But like everyone else, I couldn’t go against Gonzaga. The unbeaten Zags are one of the best offensive teams of all time. They’re not some methodical team that’ll panic if it starts missing shots, the way Virginia did in 2018.
Let’s not forget, Gonzaga is technically a “mid-major,” though it plays a major schedule. No team from a non-power conference has won the national championship since UNLV in 1990. So I can still see it as a blow for the little guy. I just wish there could be more Gonzagas, small programs that become perennial powers.
A few notes as you fill out your bracket
(The first note, of course, is not to take my picks too seriously.)
- The No. 1 seeds are 139-1 in the first round since the field was expanded to 64 teams (later 68) in 1985.
- The No. 2 seeds are 132-8. But if you’re tempted by Grand Canyon, keep in mind that upsets have become more common. The expanded field strengthened the 15 line by adding two extra 16s. In 2016, Middle Tennessee shocked Michigan State. In 2012, Lehigh beat Duke and Norfolk State upset Missouri. Gulf Coast did it in 2013 and became the only 15 to advance to a Sweet 16.
- The 14th seeds are 21-119 in openers. A 14 hasn’t beaten a 3 seed since 2017, when Stephen F. Austin beat West Virginia. The 13th seeds are 29-111. Four of them have won over the last four tourneys, including Buffalo’s blowout of Arizona in 2018.
- It’s from the fifth overall seed to the 12th that things get a lot tighter. There’s not that much to separate the 20th best team in the land from the 40th nowadays, and you’ll often see that reflected in the relatively low betting lines.
- The No. 12 seeds are 50-90 in openers, and it’s rare for all the 5s to survive. Two years ago, three 12th seeds won. Murray State, led by Ja Morant, crushed Marquette. Liberty beat Mississippi State and Oregon State buried Wisconsin. The only 5 seed to escape was Auburn by a point, and it reached the Final Four.
- You can’t go wrong picking two or more 11th seeds to pull upsets. Over the last 10 years, they’re an even 20-20 against the 6s. Loyola was an 11 when it made the Final Four. Syracuse and Buffalo won as 11th seeds two years ago.
Enough of that. Let’s move on to my brackets. Keep in mind, by a sleeper I mean any team seeded fourth or lower that could make a run to the Final Four. Some hardly qualify as sleepers, but hey, it’s my column.
Game to watch: St. Bonaventure-LSU, of course. The Bonnies and Tigers play Saturday in a fascinating 8-9 matchup, a classic contrast of styles. LSU is eighth in the country in scoring at 82.1 points a game. The Bonnies, the A-10 regular-season and tourney champs, are fifth in scoring defense at 60.4. Something has to give. LSU likes to play fast and suck opponents into its pace. Bona plays five guys most of the time and can’t afford foul trouble, especially to elite rim protector Osun Osunniyi, the A-10 defensive player of the year. The Bonnies’ tight team defense will need to contain 6-4 LSU freshman Cameron Thomas, who is fourth in the country in scoring at 22.8 points a game.
Upset City: UNC-Greensboro over Florida State. There have been four upsets in the 4-13 line in the last four tourneys, including UB over Arizona in 2018. We could see one here. The Seminoles have a tendency to underachieve in the Big Dance, and they’re overseeded as a 4. UNCG is a live underdog, a consistent power in the Southern Conference under Wes Miller, who played on North Carolina’s national title team in 2005. The Spartans have a terrific leader in senior guard Isaiah Miller. They’re 15th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and should be able to rattle an FSU team that’s prone to giving the ball away.
Sleeper: Colorado. The No. 5 seed Buffaloes are a chic pick to go down against Georgetown in the first round. Don’t buy it. Point guard play is crucial in March, and they have one of the best in the land in senior McKinley Wright, who became the first Pac-12 player ever with 1,700 points, 600 assists and 600 rebounds in a career. Wright is the school’s best player since Chauncey Billups, who went on to be an NBA finals MVP. The Buffaloes are second in the country in free-throw percentage at 82.2 percent.
Did you know? Evan Battey, a starting forward at Colorado, is the grandson of the late Earl Battey Sr., who was a catcher and five-time All-Star for the White Sox and Twins from 1955-67. Evan Battey suffered a stroke when he was a freshman in college.
Sweet 16: St. Bonaventure, Colorado, Texas, Alabama.
Game to Watch: Syracuse-San Diego State. An annual ritual in New York, trying to figure out how far the Orange will go. The Aztecs were 30-2 when the pandemic struck last year and haven’t lost since mid-January this year. But I’ve learned to be wary of Jim Boeheim teams that seem to be underachieving. Boeheim is 23-5 in first-round games. He’s dangerous as a low seed. ‘Cuse went to the Final Four as a 10-seed in 2016. In 2018 they came out of the First Four as an 11 and reached the Sweet 16. The zone is always tough for teams that rely on three-point shooting, which includes San Diego State.
Upset City: Morehead State over West Virginia. The last No. 3 seed to lose in the first round? West Virginia five years ago. Morehead, which won 19 of its last 20, is a very live 14th seed out of the underrated Ohio Valley Conference. Two years ago, the Valley rep was Murray State, which beat Marquette by 19 as a 12 seed. Morehead upset Louisville as a 4 a decade ago in its last NCAA trip. The Eagles are 15th in the country in blocked shots, led by 6-10 freshman leaper Johnie Broome. They’re the only team from Kentucky in the field, by the way.
Sleeper: Loyola of Chicago. Come on, how could I resist, after they rewarded my faith in 2018? The Ramblers aren’t as offensively gifted as the team from three years ago, but they lead the nation in scoring defense and defensive efficiency (love the modern analytics). But let’s not bury the lead. Sister Jean is back! The Loyola chaplain recently turned 101, but she talked her way into the school’s traveling party after being away from the team for a year due to the pandemic. “I was like that old woman in the Gospels who went to the judge so many times, the judge finally said, ‘Let’s let her do what she wants,’ ” she said.
Did you know? Buffalo native Desmond Oliver is an assistant and top recruiter for Rick Barnes at Tennessee. Davonte Gaines, a fellow Buffalonian, is a reserve for the Volunteers.
Sweet 16: Loyola, Oklahoma State, Syracuse, Houston.
Game to Watch: Arkansas vs. Colgate. Put away the shot clock. Colgate is second in the country in scoring behind Gonzaga at 86.3 a game. The Razorbacks are seventh at 82.4. The 3 seed is their highest since losing the national title game in 1995, back when President Clinton was a big fan. Keep an eye on Arkansas freshman Moses Moody, who is off to the NBA after this season. Colgate went 14-1, playing Boston University five times on a schedule compacted by COVID-19. The Raiders’ top four scorers — Jordan Burns, Jack Ferguson, Nelly Cummings and Tucker Richardson — are all guards and upperclassmen. It always helps.
Upset City: Winthrop over Villanova. Classic matchup of a dangerous 12 seed vs. a 5 with issues. The Eagles are 23-1 out of the Big South. They play fast and are one of the best offensive rebounding teams around. Chandler Vaudrin, a 6-7 senior point guard, is one of two players in the country averaging six rebounds and six assists. Winthrop is also deep, with only Vaudrin playing more than 24 minutes a game. Villanova will be without its star point guard, Collin Gillespie, who has a knee injury. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, who had 26 points against Georgetown in the Big East tourney, will have to come up large.
Sleeper: Purdue. OK, so they’re not exactly a Cinderella. The No. 4 seeded Boilermakers lost in overtime in the ’19 regional final to Virginia, who went on to the national title. Purdue finished 11-3 and was second in the nation in “quad 1-2” wins with 14. They have an emerging freshman in 6-4 Jaden Ivey and an all-Big Ten forward in 6-10 junior Trevion Williams. Matt Painter has coached in 27 NCAA games. His team has won four times when trailing by 11 points or more. Look out for this team.
Did you know? Patrick Stasiak, a Williamsville South graduate, is the head of basketball operations for Colgate, which is playing in its second straight NCAA tourney under head coach Matt Langel.
Sweet 16: Baylor, Purdue, Texas Tech, Ohio State
Game to Watch: Gonzaga-Norfolk State/Appalachian State. Not because it’ll be close against either, but because the unbeaten Zags are a can’t-miss show, one of the best offenses in the sport’s history. Mark Few’s squad leads the nation in scoring (92.1ppg), field-goal percentage (55.1) and scoring margin (23). They’re third in assists and seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio. They’re a great rebounding team that likes to push the ball off misses. Corey Kispert, a 6-7 forward, shoots 44 percent from three-point land and 6-4 freshman Jalen Suggs is a future lottery pick. You’ll be watching history if they become the first team since 1976 Indiana to have a perfect season.
Upset City: UC-Santa Barbara over Creighton. A classic 12-5 matchup. An overrated Big East team against a rising mid-major that’s ready to seize the nation’s attention. UCSB, out of the Big West, is 18-1, with 11 of the wins by double digits. The Gauchos have one NCAA win in their history. It was an 8-9 win over Houston in 1990. Yes, the Houston team that I picked for the Final Four and was the first team eliminated on Thursday. More history — UCSB coach Joe Pasternack was a student manager for Bobby Knight at Indiana. Just typing that gives me a shudder.
Sleeper: USC. Evan Mobley, a 7-foot freshman, led the Pac-12 in rebounding and blocked shots. Get a good look, because he’ll be heading to the NBA as a top five pick. His older brother, Isaiah, was third in the league in rebounding. The Trojans stumbled to a 4-4 finish, but could get through to the Sweet 16 against a Kansas squad that has had Covid issues. Coach Andy Enfield knows about sleepers. He guided the Florida Gulf Coast team that became the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 in 2013.
Did you know? Grand Island native Carlin Hartman is in his fifth season as an Oklahoma assistant. Hartman played on the Tulane team that reached the NCAAs for the first time in 1992. Tulane inducted that squad into its Athletics Hall of Fame a year ago.
Sweet 16: Gonzaga, Iowa, USC, UCSB.
Teams: Gonzaga, Alabama, Purdue, Loyola Chicago.
Gonzaga 98, Alabama 95 — This could be one of the most entertaining Final Four games in years, a matchup of two of two dynamic, up-tempo teams. Nate Oats’ team is very efficient on defense and could make it tough for the Zags in transition. But in the end, the Tide won’t make enough three-pointers to pull it off. Oats isn’t ready to out-coach Mark Few in a game this big.
Purdue 62, Loyola 54 — Loyola runs into a hungry Purdue team and sees its latest dream season come to an end. Trevion Williams out-duels Cameron Krutwig in a battle of post men, and Purdue freshman Jaden Ivy has a breakout game. Loyola runs into a team that can play at its methodical pace and has the defense to hold down the Ramblers’ perimeter shooters.
Gonzaga 90, Purdue 84 — The Zags come from behind in the second half to complete college basketball’s first unbeaten season since Indiana turned the trick in 1976. Jalen Suggs takes over the game in the last 10 minutes and Drew Timme makes some big plays inside in the stretch. Gonzaga finally gets the national title that slipped away in the 2017 final. Suggs is named tournament MVP.