I know your pain.
You’re sitting there, wasting the day away, staring at your NCAA Tournament brackets, trying to figure out exactly why in the world you can’t find Austin Peay on the map anywhere near Texas (it’s in Clarksville, Tenn.). Or if Oral Roberts is something you should even be saying in front of your kids (it is). Or why teams like Arizona, Temple and Purdue are back in the tournament but you don’t see any sign of Lute Olsen, John Cheney or Gene Keady (they’re long gone, at least for now).
Don’t fret. I’m here.
I consider myself something of a college basketball savant, an expert who doesn’t even know why. I’m here to impart some wisdom and point to the fact that I had something ridiculous like 55 of the 63 games in the 1990 tournament correct as a high school freshman. I was on fire back then and don’t think anyone will ever have a better tournament than that. I have won about four pools since then, but nothing like that.
But I’ll keep trying forever. Here are some things I look for when I fill out my brackets. Hence, you should look for the same thing:
Most road wins: It’s a sign of mental toughness to be able to go on the road and win close games on a regular basis. Most coaches spend November and December scheduling as many home games as possible to beef up its record (Jim Boeheim, I’m looking in your direction), so they just don’t have that many road wins to speak of. But then there are other teams — like St. Joe’s, with 13 road/neutral court wins in 20 tries — that are truly battle tested and know what it’s like going into hostile territory. That could serve them well against Oklahoma (upset alert! upset alert!) which was a very pedestrian 8-8 in road/neutral games. But it only counts for teams in power conferences, not Davidson’s 14-4 road/neutral record. And of the power conferences, which team lower than a 2 seed had the best road/neutral record? How about Washington State (at 79%)? I’m just sayin’.
Avoid the popular pick: Every year, there is one team that looks too good to be true. That if they can catch some breaks here and there, they can make the Sweet 16, and then who knows? It’s also the team everyone is saying is a possible upset pick. That team this year is Davidson. The North Carolina school (which somehow scored a sweet date in Raleigh, N.C.) is everybody’s upset favorite — which is why you should stay away from them.
Tough non-conference schedule: Here’s where Davidson comes back into the picture. They weren’t ready to play the likes of UNC, Duke and UCLA in the preseason. Hey, who is? But it played those games close, toughened up and breezed through its conference schedule. Now it should be ready to take on a team like Gonzaga, except for the fact that Gonzaga did the same thing and has guys that fall under the next category. You’re going to hear approximately 5 zillion people telling you Davidson is the upset pick of the tournament. But that’s just wrong. Avoid them like the plague. Same goes for Georgia, that magic carpet ride is over.
Been there before: These are 19 and 20-year-old kids. Stepping into the NCAA Tournament for the first time is something not everyone can take — let alone when you advance a couple rounds. So in the early rounds, first-time teams and long-time absences like American, Cornell and Siena just aren’t good bets. But teams like Winthrop — which upset Notre Dame last year — are. When you’re talking about national champions, teams that have been to the Final Four before — like UCLA for the last two years — know what it takes to win in that type of atmosphere.
There will be upsets: If history has told us anything, it’s that there will be at least one top seed and another two seed that lose before the first weekend. There will probably be more. I know you’re hearing a lot about “This is the year all four #1 seeds make the Final 4.” But we hear that every year. If Mississippi State wins its first-round game against Oregon, it’s got a great chance to knock off South #1 Memphis in the second round. Its interior defense will force Memphis to shoot from the outside (not a specialty) and its bruising style of play will send the Tigers to the foul line early and often, and Memphis is embarrassingly bad from the line. As much as it pains me, I can also see North Carolina losing to Indiana because it refuses to play defense (a glaring problem all year) and Eric Gordon lights them up for 42. Duke as a #2 in the West will be extremely vulnerable against either West Virginia or Arizona in the second round.
And more upsets: Every year since what seems like the dawn of time, a 13 seed has beaten a 4 seed, and two 12s beat two fives. Vanderbilt was never as good as advertised, and they’re vulnerable against Siena. Oral Roberts fits the bill of a potential Cinderella (been there before, 12 road wins, 14th toughest non-conference schedule in the country) and Pittsburgh fits the potential downer (see below). As for the 12s, Western Kentucky is better than people think, and Drake is going to be extremely vulnerable to any team that is patient against them. Western Kentucky will be.
Potential downer: Every year, there is a team that is ranked in the top 10 at the start of the year before falling off the map (Pitt). By the end of February, you found yourself wondering if they even belong in the tournament (Pitt). Then it gets hot for a weekend and wins its conference tournament (Pitt). But it expended so much energy that it comes into the tournament flat and lays an egg (Pitt). Every year, there is one upset I talk myself into, and this year it’s Oral Roberts over, that’s right, Pitt. It just stinks of upset.
You need a star: Every year, one emerges. One that can change a game with his energy or with what he potentially can do. Every tournament has one of these players. Preferably, it’s a senior that can get hot for a weekend or two shoot the lights out. Paging Mr. Neitzel, Mr. Drew Neitzel, you have a call at the front desk! Between Neitzel and Tom Izzo, I think Michigan State has a real chance to make some noise. The only problem is he’s playing another potential star in Dionte Christmas of Temple. Since I already think Oral Roberts beats Pitt, the winner of that game goes to the Sweet 16 over Oral. Other “star” candidates include Chris Lofton of Tennessee, Scottie Reynolds of Villanova, David Padgett of Louisville, Derrick Low of Washington State, Kyle McAlarney of Notre Dame and Dominic James of Marquette.
Avoid everything I’ve just said: Actually, avoid everything everyone tells you. Have fun, pick some upsets, and when you do, shove them in the face of the people who said it wasn’t possible for Belmont to beat Duke.
But just in case you want to listen to me, I’m going with North Carolina, Georgetown, Michigan State and UCLA to make the Final Four.
Happy viewing to all!