Putting together a winning tournament bracket takes intuition and research—and sometimes a little insanity.
In order to stand out from the competition, making bold predictions is a necessity. There’s a reason all four No. 1 seeds rarely reach the Final Four in a given year.
The college basketball season was peppered with big upsets, and we’re likely to see a lot more in the NCAA tournament. This is the year to roll the dice on some teams that aren’t heavily favored to represent their respective region in the Final Four.
Let’s take a look at some fearless predictions for teams that will escape the first five rounds en route to a Final Four appearance.
Prediction: No. 3 Michigan State
Of the top Big Ten teams in this tournament, Michigan State may be the most overlooked this year. With losses to Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State (twice) down the stretch, it’s easy to understand the apprehension, but the Spartans are in no position to make an early exit in the tournament.
Michigan State is one of the best tournament-basketball teams in the entire nation, and Tom Izzo’s squad should never be counted out. With Sweet 16, Final Four and championship-game appearances in the last four years, the Spartans will be prepared for a deep run in the tournament again this year.
The Midwest Region provides a fairly easy path for the No. 3 Spartans. Their second-round matchup with Valparaiso isn’t worrisome, though a potential pairing with either Creighton or Duke in the Sweet 16 would present some matchup problems.
Still, regular season wins over Kansas, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan can’t be ignored. Michigan State has the talent and experience to be a big factor in the Big Dance. If Louisville trips up in the top half of the bracket, expect the Spartans to emerge as the Midwest Region representative in the Final Four without much resistance.
Prediction: No. 1 Gonzaga
Picking Gonzaga in the Final Four and excluding Louisville and Indiana seems crazy, but that’s the nature of the national tournament. Upsets happen, and nothing plays out quite like we expect.
The Bulldogs benefited from an easy WCC regular season schedule, and possessing the 96th-toughest schedule in the country explains why they are the most overlooked No. 1 in the tournament. Regular season play means nothing in the Big Dance, though.
Gonzaga has the kind of offense that can catch fire in the tournament. The Bulldogs averaged 77.6 points per game this season with a field-goal percentage (50.4) that ranks No. 3 in the nation.
With a good blend of experience, quality defensive play and offensive balance at nearly every position, the Bulldogs have an excellent chance of reaching the Final Four, and there are few teams in the West Region that will prevent such a tournament run.
Big Ten representatives Ohio State and Wisconsin finished the regular season on a strong note, but there’s no guarantee either team will avoid faltering before the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Should those two teams make an early exit in the tournament, Gonzaga will be a lock to make the Final Four.
Prediction: No. 1 Kansas
Being a No. 1 seed has its advantages, but Kansas could have gotten a much better draw. Getting through a potential minefield of North Carolina, Michigan and Georgetown won’t be an easy task.
Still, Bill Self’s squad is one of the most talented in the country, and there isn’t a team in the South Region that matches up well with the Jayhawks.
With a mix of young talent and veteran leadership, Kansas brings to the tournament the kind of balance that facilitates a deep tournament run.
Freshman guard Ben McLemore has been outstanding, leading the team in scoring with 16.4 points per game. He has the ability to knock down any shot from anywhere on the floor, and paired with senior center Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks can play equally well in the paint and around the perimeter.
With just one loss in the last five weeks, Kansas has the momentum to sustain a deep tournament run and advance through the South Region to the Final Four, despite the tough matchups that lie ahead.
Prediction: No. 2 Miami
There’s almost no reason to pick an East Region winner from the middle of the bracket. With Indiana at the top and Miami at the bottom, the rest of the region is in for a rough tournament.
While I’m not convinced Indiana has the consistency to sustain a deep tournament run, the top of the bracket is laden with similar inconsistency. For the Hurricanes to earn a trip to the Final Four, they will likely have to go through the Hoosiers.
A late-season stretch of three losses in four games put a dampener on Miami’s momentum, but the Hurricanes finished the year strong with four wins and an ACC title. That kind of momentum translates well to a deep tournament run, especially when it’s paired with an experienced roster and excellent coaching.
Lack of elite talent is troubling, but Miami is one of the few teams in the country that can hang with any squad at the defensive end. With the No. 38 scoring defense in college basketball (60.7 PPG), the Hurricanes won’t be faced with a lopsided matchup at any point in the tournament.
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