BY ABE ASHER
Before we get to the teams and picks, let us take a moment to mourn the tournament Selection Show (1986ish-2018).
That’s right. TBS got the show for the first time this year, and hoo boy did they absolutely butcher it. Instead of using the tried-and-true, compact, dramatic, hour-long format, the folks at Turner went a little bit nuts.
They hosted the show in a studio the size of an aircraft carrier in front of a live audience (which added absolutely nothing), and, for reasons passing understanding, listed all of the teams in the field before unveiling the actual brackets, therefore killing all the suspense in the bracket unveiling.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the audio and video wasn’t synched up for the first segment of the broadcast, they couldn’t manage to correctly list the teams alphabetically, and all the hosts and analysts had to stand awkwardly while presenting.
Christ. What is wrong with these people?
Teams We Like:
There’s been a lot of talk this year about how there isn’t one great team in college basketball. Don’t buy it. Virginia dominated the best conference in the country, the ACC, going 17-1 during the regular season and sweeping through the conference tourney in Brooklyn over the weekend.
Their tournament struggles have been well documented, but Tony Bennett recruits and coaches the right way, and, like Mark Few was last year, he’s due.
The Cavs might not get the love and they might not have the stars, but they’ve done everything that has been asked of them this year and then some. They’re going to the Final Four.
Has the easiest path of any one seed to San Antonio, and two absolute studs in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. This is the best offensive team in the country per Pomeroy, and they feel ready to make a deep run after being upended by Wisconsin in the second round last year.
- North Carolina
Unlike Bennett or GQ Jay Wright, Roy Williams is money in the bank as a favorite in March. The man hasn’t lost a first round game in 28 straight tournament appearances dating back to 1989.
The Tar Heels aren’t quite the team of destiny they were last year, but they have a ton of tournament experience and are playing their best basketball of the year right now. They’ll be around.
John Beilein is the best coach in the country, and once again, he has the Wolverines dealing in March. Michigan ripped through the B1G tournament two weeks ago at MSG, polishing off Michigan State in the final, and is led by towering Berliner Mo Wagner at center.
Maybe the extra time off will have hurt Michigan’s rhythm; maybe it’s given them much-needed rest. Whatever the case, this is a team to watch.
- Michigan State
It’s been a harrowing, traumatic, extraordinarily disappointing year at Michigan State, and Tom Izzo’s once-shining star has been irreparably and deservedly tarnished – both by his severely underwhelming response to the Larry Nassar case and its fallout, and then by his program’s involvement in the FBI investigation.
That said, from a purely competitive standpoint, Michigan State is worth watching. They’ve flown under the radar over the last month, but have been one of the elite teams in the country all year. As for Izzo… March is where he made his legend in the first place.
If the universe has a sense of humor, the Wildcats – the team with a coach accused of lining up a $100,000 payment to sign the star freshman – will win the title.
So far, the universe is feeling pretty funny: despite the ESPN report, Sean Miller still has his job, DeAndre Ayton is still playing, Alonzo Trier came back from a PED suspension, and the Wildcats have won five straight.
They’ve got a tough road to San Antonio, but if you want to see the NCAA burn, this is your club.
- Ohio State
The Buckeyes haven’t played in two weeks thanks to their early-round upset at the hands of Penn State in the B1G tournament, but Chris Holtman’s team had a pretty, pretty good year to be languishing down on the five line.
Not a lot of people are going to pick the Musketeers to get to San Antonio, and fair enough. They’ve got UNC, Michigan, and Gonzaga in their region, and have never made a Final Four.
But this team has a NBA lottery pick in guard Trevon Bluiett, a Grayson Allen-lite in senior J.P. Macura, and a coach in Chris Mack who doesn’t lose early round tournament games.
They’re deserving of their one seed, and won’t go away easily – though you have to figure the psychological aftermath of their Big East tournament collapse against Providence will come into play for better or worse.
John Calipari thinks it takes six hours to fly from Lexington to Boise, has no idea where Idaho is, and hasn’t worn a tie all week. I like where he’s at this year.
His team is playing pretty well too. The Wildcats have won seven of eight since dropping four in a row to open February, and just won the SEC Tournament for the fourth straight year.
- Georgia State
RON HUNTER IS BACK AND THERE WILL BE NO RULES.
One of the coolest stories of the last week, the Thundering Herd won the Conference USA title to snap a 31 year tournament drought behind seven three pointers from junior guard Jon Elmore.
The Herd’s coach, Mike’s brother Dan D’Antoni, wears a t-shirt under his suit jacket and hates analytics. Let the good times roll.
This team is tough as all hell. They clawed their way through two overtime games against Creighton and Xavier to reach the Big East tournament final, where they played Villanova dead even before falling in OT. As a ten, they’re badly underseeded.
- Virginia Tech
Everyone loves Alabama because they have an NBA player in Colin Sexton and a former NBA coach in Avery Johnson, but it’s Buzz Williams’ Hokies – who beat Virginia, Duke, and North Carolina this year – who are going to win that 8-9 game and be a threat to make noise against ‘Nova.
- West Virginia
I don’t think like does it justice. I adore West Virginia.
Bob Huggins had a vintage year, getting tossed at Allen Fieldhouse, and Huggie’s old-school full-on bald senior point guard Javon Carter is just about the coolest player in college basketball. Carter’s backcourt partner Daxter Miles can fill it up as well.
This team is limited – they lost three times to Kansas despite having leads in every game – but you should be rooting for this team.
Don’t sleep on the Zags. They pressure is off in every way after they reached the title game last year, no one is talking about them, and they sure as hell know where Boise is.
Kelvin Sampson, hired by the Cougars after serving a five year show-cause several years ago, has done a remarkable job.
Houston went undefeated at home this season, and knocked off Wichita State in the American tourney before coming up a point short against Cincinnati in the title game. Michigan will be an extremely tough second round matchup, but this team is for real.
- Rhode Island/Davidson/St. Bonaventure
That’s right! Two at large bids for the superb Atlantic 10 this year, and all three of their teams can do damage. A couple of them will get wins, Danny Hurley’s Rams being the most likely bunch. Whichever big Northeast school hires Hurley in a couple weeks is going to have done some fine business.
- Loyola Chicago
They’ve got a tough ask in Miami, but the Ramblers score a gazillion points a game and have captivated Chicago by making the tournament for the first time since 1985.
Teams We Don’t Like
This team is 4-11 in their last fifteen and 2-8 in their last ten. They finished the season as the ninth best team in their conference.
It’d be fun to see Trae Young fill it up in his only tournament, and this team got some lovely wins early in the year, but they’ve been terrible since late January and will dispatched in short order.
- Arizona State
It’s much the same story here: The Sun Devils were great to start the year, and then were a sub-five hundred team in an atrocious Pac 12.
Bobby Hurley – and maybe this won’t shock you – hasn’t exactly proven himself adept at steadying his team during bad stretches. The only hope for Hurley is that his first four opponent is…
God. Not them again, not when they’re a piffling 20-13, 8-10 in conference, can’t score, and have no elite talent.
This is the ceiling these days for Jim Boeheim, by the way, and now that Boeheim has run Mike Hopkins out of town, not only will Syracuse be irrelevant for the next five years, but they now have no coaching succession plan. Well done.
- Florida State
The ‘Noles inspire no confidence. They went a soft 20-11, 9-9 in the ACC, and enter the tournament having lost five of eight. The ACC is going to have a lot of teams playing into the weekend and beyond, Florida State won’t be among them.
Purdue’s star center Isaac Hass is 7’2 and looks like a stone carving of Spartacus (really, they did a side-by-side comparison at Michigan State), and that – along with point guard Carson Edwards – is about the only thing fun about the Boilermakers. This team isn’t a serious threat to win anything.
- Cincinnati/Wichita State
Both of these teams won a lot of games because they’re miserable to play against: the Bearcats are suffocating on defense, while the Shockers are well-coached and have a couple of difference makers in transition.
But there are obvious holes. Wichita doesn’t have any depth, and the Bearcats don’t get any easy buckets. Those aren’t recipes for deep tournament runs.
- Texas A&M
Another one of these teams that was great to start the year and has been straight trash for two months.
A lot of people rave about the guard play, but the Gators were just a 20-12 team for a reason: no inside presence, streaky offense, and not a lot of quality wins. The SEC had plenty of okay teams, but no great ones. Which brings us to…
I’m not buying either one of these clubs, being led by Rick “3-6 In My Last 9 Tournament Games” Barnes and Bruce “Actively Not Cooperating Into My School’s Internal Investigation” Pearl.
Their records were good, they were good stories, and they don’t pass the eye test. Whatever the seeds say, there wasn’t a second that Kentucky didn’t feel like the favorite at the SEC tournament in St. Louis last weekend.
We’re not done with the SEC yet. Mizzou brought back Michael Porter for the SEC tournament, and watched Porter shoot 5-17 in a 62-60 loss to a Georgia team coached by a lame duck in Mark Fox.
Unless Porter shakes off the rust and figures out his teammates in a week of practice, it’s going to be an ugly tournament appearance.
No one likes Duke, obviously, but the real problem with the Blue Devils this year is that they’ve underachieved.
On talent alone, Duke should be the best team in the country – and while 26-7 wasn’t a bad season by any stretch, the Blue Devils didn’t come particularly close to winning the ACC regular season or tournament championship.
They’re awfully young, and Coach K in March has been, shall we say, hit or miss over the last decade. This could be a Final Four team, or Rhode Island could punch them in the throat in round 2.
Tips and Tricks
- If You Don’t Trust Me…
And you have absolutely no reason to, I haven’t picked a good bracket since Bush 43 was president, Five Thirty Eight’s predictor was on the money last year.
- Chalk At The End
I wrote this last year, and it bears repeating: barring Kevin Ollie – for whom life is not good right now – only the very best coaches win championships.
Here are your winning coaches since 1999: Calhoun, Izzo, Krzyzewski, Williams, Boeheim, Calhoun, Williams, Donovan, Donovan, Self, Williams, Krzyzewski, Calhoun, Calipari, Pitino, Krzyzewski, Wright, Williams.
It’s not a different story with the losers. Those guys in the last ten years are Calipari, Izzo, Stevens, Stevens, Self, Beilein, Calipari, Ryan, Williams, and Few. That is to say: get your upsets in early.
- Speaking of Upsets Early…
Last year was an unusually quiet year in terms of first round upsets, with all sixteen of the top sixteen seeds advancing. That won’t happen again this year.
- Don’t Pick Teams Who Can’t Score
If only because watching a team you picked lose because they shot 26 percent from the field and posted 49 points is the very definition sports hell. Looking directly at you, Jamie Dixon.
With that, godspeed and may your champion not be upset by Middle Tennessee in the first round. It’s time for the madness.