NCAA tournament predictions are the sports equivalent of Instagram dog pics. Everyone has a bracket and their bracket is so obviously the cutest thing on the planet that they cannot help but share their picks with the world.
By the time you've clicked on this article, you have likely heard no fewer than five people's Final Four selections. And not just from people who are paid to do this for a living. (Hi!) The great thing and totally horrible thing about the NCAA tournament is its inclusivity—everyone thinks their bracket has the shot to give them a couple extra bucks of walking-around cash.
And the problem with that, of course, is it leads to people who care turning in wildly underthought brackets. Carol from accounting grew up in Butler, Pa. so she chose Butler to go to the national championship game a couple years ago, and now everyone has just given up on life.
That, my friends, is not a smart way to live. Like anything in life, a solid NCAA tournament bracket requires actual research and a grounded knowledge base. No one is ever going to complete the Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge, but you're far more likely to finish near the top of your pool if you know whether Josh Davis is a carpet salesperson or San Diego State forward. (Verdict: Probably both.)
That means spending the next few days researching—not merely bragging about the exploits of your soon-to-be-tarnished bracket. Not to sound like the Fun Police here, but instant-reaction brackets are among the worst things you can listen to. One needs to start first with answering the big-picture questions, then follow that up by getting into the minutiae of finding a smart Cinderella.
After doing initial research and running numbers, I've come up with Final Four teams I'm relatively happy picking. So, of course, that means they're bound to be horribly wrong just out of spite.
Anyway, here they are just in case you were still wondering.
South Region: No. 1 Florida
There is no pick I'm more confident about heading into the tournament, and for pretty obvious reasons. The Gators have won 26 straight games after a 6-2 start and have emerged as a two-way force that's going to be hell for other teams to defeat—even in a one-game sample. Florida ranks fifth nationally in defense and 17th offensively.
Using the super-advanced metric of "addition," the Gators rank numerically as the third-best all-around team in college basketball. Only Louisville and Wichita State come out better, and both of those teams are in the Region of Oh Dear God This Is Terrible.
Florida has a relatively streamlined trip to the Final Four. There is no Kentucky or Oklahoma State looming in the round of 32 the way there is for Wichita State and Arizona, respectively. Fifth-seeded VCU and fourth-seeded UCLA are both flawed and inconsistent. The Rams' complete inability to score actually makes them a potential upset waiting to happen.
OK. Sure. Go ahead and point out Syracuse and Kansas are very, very good at basketball when at their respective peaks. Like...potential national champion-level good, right?
That would be totally fair if either team was remotely close to its peak at the moment. The Orange have lost five of their last seven games since starting 25-0. They're still a very good (borderline great) team overall, but their struggles putting the ball through nylon are a concern.
Kansas probably has the most talent in the nation. Joel Embiid's injury question marks just make the Jayhawks too risky of a proposition. Their defense has fallen apart in two of the four games Embiid missed to end the season, and one of their two wins in that period came in overtime. As much as Andrew Wiggins is taking a leap as a player, there isn't enough frontcourt depth for Bill Self without Embiid.
What's more, Kansas and Syracuse have to play one another in the Sweet 16—in case you knocked your head off the ground and forgot how brackets work. Florida is the best team in the country. And for all of its depth issues at the beginning of the season, Billy Donovan has found a rotation that plays exceedingly well together.
The Gators are my national title pick.
East Region: No. 4 Michigan State
The Spartans aren't winning the national championship because No. 4 seeds simply don't win titles. But in increasing numbers, they're beginning to make the Final Four—and the bracket broke just right for Tom Izzo and Co. to make another deep run this March.
None of the three teams seeded ahead of Michigan State inspires all that much confidence. It's unfair and condescending to suggest Virginia isn't ready for this stage. Winning the ACC regular season and conference tournament was good enough to quell any concerns about the Cavaliers' weighted conference schedule.
The more salient point to make with Virginia is that its style of play might make this team more vulnerable than anyone realizes. The Cavaliers play at such a glacial pace that less talented teams can stay in games, simply because there are rarely enough possessions for Virginia to actually blow an opponent out. The potential for another 38-point game rests somewhere within this team—and it could come out at any moment.
Villanova checks a lot of boxes, even after its loss to Providence in the Big East tournament. The Wildcats rank No. 14 in defensive efficiency and No. 16 in offensive efficiency while playing the nation's third-hardest schedule. They're also inherently lucky, with the Gaussian method showing they outperformed their win expectation by roughly three.
I have absolutely no idea how a panel of supposed college basketball experts could have watched Michigan State, Louisville and Iowa State play this season and select the Cyclones as the best of the bunch. It is literally beyond the realm of my cognitive abilities.
The Spartans are far from perfect, but they were the No. 1 team in the country at a point and seem to be finding their way back to that style of play. Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are back to playing like their former, pre-injury selves at the perfect time. Any team that can flat out dominate Wisconsin and Michigan in back-to-back days is one Virginia didn't want to see anywhere near its bracket.
The East Region has its flaws, which will ultimately help Izzo earn his first Final Four since 2010.
West Region: No. 1 Arizona
Getting past Oklahoma State in the round of 32 may well be the Wildcats' biggest test of the entire bracket. Oklahoma State is rightfully going to be a popular upset pick. The Cowboys aren't remotely as bad as their record, and Marcus Smart is the best player on the floor in a potential matchup with Arizona.
In the rush to anoint Oklahoma State as a dangerous No. 9, though, we've forgotten this team's penchant for implosion. Losing seven straight games, even if three of them were without Smart, highlights the Cowboys' foundational flaws. They will play Arizona tough in what could be the best matchup of the round of 32, but that will be all.
Elsewhere, you're looking at a pretty darn easy road here. Wisconsin and Creighton are very good offensive teams—OK, the Bluejays are a great offensive team—but their defensive flaws are glaring. Creighton ranks No. 126 nationally in defensive efficiency. That, folks, is not a great sign—even if Doug McDermott is so fantastic he might lead his team to the Elite Eight alone.
And for all the credit Bo Ryan gets as a great defensive mind, his Badgers' problems this season have not been offensive. Wisconsin is a very surprising 59th in defensive efficiency and was torched by Michigan State and Nebraska down the stretch. If the Badgers and Bluejays play in the Sweet 16, McDermott is going to have a field day.
Either way, both teams match up well for an Arizona Final Four trip. The Wildcats are to college basketball what the Indiana Pacers are to the NBA. They are nearly three points better than any other team on a per 100 possessions basis, frustrating opponents with length and athleticism everywhere on the floor. Not having Brandon Ashley is an unfortunate break, but Arizona is learning to play well without him.
Aaron Gordon is coming into his own as a defender, and Nick Johnson doesn't nearly get enough Player of the Year buzz. (Because it's all reserved for McDermott, obvs. And rightfully so.)
The roadblocks here are minimal. I ran 25 simulations on Accuscore and came out with Arizona in the Final Four the most of any team in the entire tournament (22). Given that Ken Pomeroy also has the Wildcats as his top-ranked squad, and I'm not filling out a bracket this year without Arizona in the Final Four. (As a random aside: Baylor-Arizona was the regional final far more often than I was comfortable with.)
Midwest Region: No. 3 Duke
Or, as it's otherwise known, the region where you throw a damn dart and just hope it all works out. Had Duke, Wichita State or Louisville (and to a lesser extent Michigan) been in the East Region, they would have been my Final Four team without much question. The committee's decision to give the Cardinals a No. 4 seed borders on unconscionable, and their double middle fingers to the AAC as a whole is weird.
Wichita State, as much as it pains me to say, is not getting out of this region. The Shockers are a fantastic story, and there is a palpable personal pleasure (alliteration!) I'd receive from having the whole "ain't played nobody" storyline buried once and for all. Drawing Louisville in the Sweet 16 is just a cruel twisting of the knife.
In the Duke-Michigan Battle at the bottom of the bracket, the Blue Devils are just better at what both teams do. Both sides rank among the most efficient offenses in basketball and have massive lapses at times on the defensive end. Duke is just marginally better in both areas and grade out better in peripheral measures.
Accuscore simulations say Duke would defeat Michigan 54 percent of the time. It says roughly the same thing in Louisville's favor for a potential matchup with the Blue Devils, but because I am not a robot, the stats don't totally behold me to a Louisville Final Four selection.
From a matchup standpoint, Duke has almost the perfect recipe to take down Louisville. The Blue Devils boast shooters all over the floor, space their offense really well and have a superstar coming into his own in Jabari Parker. Quinn Cook is experienced and smart enough to handle the press defense, and the Cardinals' propensity for pushing the tempo may only exacerbate Duke's brilliance in transition.
The Blue Devils rank in the 81st percentile nationally in transition, per Synergy Sports. It's a game that could frankly go either way, and Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino will likely spend their non-game hours hoping the other loses to clear their paths.
All advanced metrics are via Ken Pomeroy.
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