By now you've heard the 2016 NCAA Tournament is the most wide open in years. The hype is real. No dominant teams. Legit parity in the 7-11 range. Sleepers galore among the 12-14 seeds. During the regular season, teams in the AP top 25 poll lost 74 times, the most since the poll began, and a healthy chunk came against unranked opponents. There are some intriguing draft prospects, but overall the 2016 class lacks some of the usual wow factor and the projected top pick, LSU's Ben Simmons, isn't part of March Madness.
This doesn't mean throwing darts at your bracket is the prognostication tool of choice (though I've heard worse and I'd also be down for this method if a local pub is offering). It doesn't mean final picks won't look rather chalky. It just means almost any picks and justification works, within reason, of course. As I went on the bracket picking journey, I considered the following:
* Only eight teams rated by KenPom.com top 30 in both offensive and defensive rating (points scored/allowed per 100 possessions): Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Purdue, Villanova, Virginia, West Virginia.
* The crux of KenPom's offensive, defensive and overall ratings comes from the "Four Factors": Effective field goal%, Turnover%, Offensive rebounding % and Free Throw rate (click here for definitions). Of the 68 teams, eight rank top 30 in at least three of the eight "Four Factors" categories: Cincinnati, Gonzaga, Michigan State (4), Oklahoma, Purdue (4), Weber State, Wichita State, West Virginia, Utah. Purdue actually was very close to a fifth. Same for Arizona (2), which just missed the group as did. Saint Joseph's, 31st in defensive offensive rebounding. Before you go picking Weber State as a first round upset, note the Wildcats are outside the top 275 in three categories. While we're here, Michigan State is 275 or worse in two of the eight.
* In a year without great teams, NBA talent could run the table so I gave extra weight to teams with projected lottery picks/ or multiple players among Draft Express's top 40: California, Duke, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Providence, Utah, Vanderbilt. While the Terps have Diamond Stone and Melo Trimble, Cal's Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb both rank ahead of Maryland's duo.
* Always a fan of veteran teams come March. Pr, KenPom, 24 teams in the field have 2.0 or greater years of experience: Of the teams with sincere Sweet 16 hopes, Iowa State, Miami, Oklahoma, Arizona and Utah made the list as did Cinderella types Arkansas-Little Rock, Iona, Stephen F. Austin, Stony Brook, Yale.
East (I'm not showing every game, but if you have your bracket handy and basic deductive reasoning you'll get it)
Round of 32: 1. North Carolina over 8. Providence, 4. Kentucky over 5. Indiana, 3. West Virginia over 6. Notre Dame, 2. Xavier over 7. Wisconsin
Regional final: 1. North Carolina over 2. Xavier
Factors: Possibly getting Kentucky-Indiana in the round of 32 with North Carolina likely deck warms the heart of any old school college hoops fans. No disrespect to Xavier and West Virginia, but one of those three bluebloods emerges from the East. Overall, this bracket is loaded. If the Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil can carry the otherwise ordinary Friars, I wouldn't be shocked with seven of the top eight seeds (Sorry, Wisconsin) advancing to Houston. UNC and Kentucky have the third and sixth best national championship odds respectively.
Round of 32: 1. Virginia over 9. Butler, 5. Purdue over 4. Iowa State, 6. Gonzaga over 3. Utah, 2. Michigan State over 7. Dayton
Regional final: 2. Michigan State over 5. Purdue
Factors: Seton Hall was the second best team in the Big East over the last six weeks of the regular season and the Pirates beat the best team (Villanova) for the Tournament title, but I'm following the KenPom numbers from above that back Gonzaga. Those numbers also have me going with the Boilermakers, a great alt bracket Final 4 pick, over top-seeded Virginia. As for Michigan State, picking the Izzo's for the Final Four is a safe and often correct pick. Triple-double threat Denzel Valentine and big man Deyonta Davis are pros.
Round of 32: 1. Kansas over 9. UConn, 4. California over 5. Maryland, 6 Arizona over 3 Miami, 2. Villanova over 7. Iowa
Regional final: 4. California over 6. Arizona
Factors: The committee did the Jayhawks, the overall number one seed, no favors starting with the potential round of 32 matchup against Kevin Ollie-coached Connecticut. Whether it's Cal or Maryland in the Sweet 16, Kansas will be on the short-end of NBA talent. If that talented opponent hit shots, look out. Cal, which doesn't have an easy first round matchup with Hawaii, surged over its final 11 games while Maryland looked lost at times. On the other side, the KenPom numbers love Arizona while I don't love Villanova if center Daniel Ochefu's ankle issues remain, though Josh Hart is a legit leader for the Cats. The safe pool entry pick in this region is Kansas. The standout calls are California or Arizona.
[THURSDAY AM UPDATE: Whoa, Cal's Tyrone Wallace might have a busted hand? That changes this region for me since he's the experienced standout leading the two star kids. Working in the dark, but I'll put Maryland into the Sweet 16 over Cal, but Kansas into the Elite Eight and then...the easy call would be the Jayhawks over the Wildcats, who could easily lose to Wichita State. If I started from scratch I'd probably get Miami deeper since I don't see Kansas, but since time is running out...The heck with boring. Arizona. Yikes.
Round of 32: 8. Saint Joseph's over 1. Oregon, 4. Duke over 12. Yale, 3. Texas A&M over 6. Texas, 2. Oklahoma over 10. VCU
Regional final: 2. Oklahoma over 8. Saint Joseph's
Factors: The weakest bracket of the four. Go Yolo on Yale based on KenPom numbers. Tempted to have UNC Wilmington knock of Duke, but one stat is a doozy considering the opponent. As for picking the Hawks for an Elite Eight run, that's dicey based 1) seed and 2) Cincinnati in the first round. Maybe it's because St. Joe's tore up GW at Foggy Bottom in perhaps the most impressive game I watched live. Perhaps there's some recency bias with the A-10 Tournament title. Maybe it's because the DeAndre Bembry-Isaiah Miles tandem is nasty, but I dig St. Joe's. For the purposes of a pool entry only, having them lose to Buddy Hield and the Sooners is the prudent move.
Final Four: Michigan State over North Carolina, Oklahoma over Arizona
National champion: Tom Izzo reached the Final Four seven previous times, cutting down the nets in 2000. Yes, he's overdue. With Valentine showing why he was the nation's best player this season, Izzo gets number two.