2016 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Best Picks for Every Matchup
I have a tendency to go chalky when it comes to the bracket.
My philosophy is always to pick the teams I trust the most to get far in the tournament. Some years that works out. Last season, for instance, I knew pre-bracket Kentucky, Duke and Wisconsin would be in my Final Four no matter the matchups. Those teams were just too good to pick against.
Some years, such as 2014, I feel like I'd be better off asking my nine-year-old to pick based on mascots. That season I went chalky, and my bracket turned into papier-mache.
This year, it's easy to take some chances based on seed lines. There is little difference between the teams on the first five lines from my vantage point, and the numbers back it up. As I wrote last week, while Kansas and Michigan State are challenging the no-elite-teams narrative, there is less difference this year between the top team in the nation and the 20th-best, according to KenPom.com's numbers, than there has ever been in the site's history (dating back to 2002).
So go wild, America.
As for my picks, they are here with way too much thought put into each game. I still have the teams I trust most in the title game, but hey, it's not all chalk this year!
No. 11 Wichita State over No. 11 Vanderbilt: Greatest First Four game ever? Vandy has three future pros, and Wichita State has one of the most accomplished backcourts in mid-major history. Vandy has a ton of talent but lacks toughness. That's a bad recipe against the Shockers, whose pressure will force the Commodores to crumble.
No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast over No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson: Former Kansas assistant coach Joe Dooley has maintained what former FGCU head coach Andy Enfield was able to build in a short time. Dunk City wins again in March.
No. 11 Michigan over No. 11 Tulsa: Tulsa struggles guarding the three-point line, and that's not a good characteristic for a team that's playing Michigan.
No. 16 Southern over No. 16 Holy Cross: Both of these teams struggled late in the regular season and then had surprising conference tourney runs, but I'm going to say the team that is more in the "just happy to be here" category loses out. That's Holy Cross, which did not win one game away from home in conference play until the Patriot League tournament.
Round of 64, East
No. 1 North Carolina over No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast: Dunk City 2? Nah. The Heels aren't going to let that happen.
No. 9 Providence over No. 8 USC: Both of these teams stumbled down the stretch. When you have two teams that aren't playing their best basketball, I lean toward the team with one of the best players in the country. That would be Providence point guard Kris Dunn.
No. 5 Indiana over No. 12 Chattanooga: The Hoosiers typically took care of business against lesser teams during Big Ten play. They'll do so here.
No. 4 Kentucky over No. 13 Stony Brook: Stony Brook big man Jameel Warney is a beast and could give Kentucky some issues. But Tyler Ulis has too much pride and talent to let his team lose in the first round.
No. 6 Notre Dame over No. 11 Michigan: This is another fun first-round game with two of the greatest offensive minds (Mike Brey and John Beilein) squaring off, assuming Michigan can get past Tulsa in Dayton. With the better talent and more postseason experience, the Irish win a high-scoring game.
No. 3 West Virginia over No. 14 Stephen F. Austin: Stephen F. Austin knocked off VCU two years ago, so it's not a leap to consider Brad Underwood's club here. But Bob Huggins has a much better offense than Shaka Smart's VCU club had that season. I'm going Press Virginia.
No. 10 Pittsburgh over No. 7 Wisconsin: Both front lines are underrated and make these teams go. I give a slight edge to Jamel Artis and Michael Young of Pitt over Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ.
No. 2 Xavier over No. 15 Weber State: Weber State senior forward Joel Bolomboy is one of the best players you've probably never heard of, but Xavier is one team that has the bodies and athleticism on the interior to match up with him. Bolomboy isn't going to have enough of an advantage to help his team pull off the major upset.
Round of 64, West
No. 1 Oregon over No. 16 Southern: Southern gave top-seeded Gonzaga a scare back in 2013, so Ducks head coach Dana Altman will have that to get his team's attention.
No. 8 Saint Joseph's over No. 9 Cincinnati: Learn the names DeAndre' Bembry and Isaiah Miles. That combination might be the best duo head coach Phil Martelli has had since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West. They're good enough to win at least one game in the tourney.
No. 12 Yale over No. 5 Baylor: Baylor is a tough team to play because of its zone and its ability to dominate the glass. Well, Yale has an answer in both of those departments. The Bulldogs can shoot the three (37.4 percent) and are one of the best rebounding teams in the country. For the second straight year, Baylor will lose in the first round.
No. 4 Duke over No. 13 UNC Wilmington: This is a great matchup for the Blue Devils, who are thin in the frontcourt. The five players who play the most minutes for UNC Wilmington are all 6'5" or shorter. It's hard to see Duke losing a battle of the perimeter players.
No. 11 Northern Iowa over No. 6 Texas: Texas is struggling shooting the ball from the perimeter recently, and Northern Iowa's pack-line defense could exploit UT's lack of outside shooting. Also working in UNI's favor, this team seems to thrive against the best competition. See wins over North Carolina, Iowa State and Wichita State (twice).
No. 3 Texas A&M over No. 14 Green Bay: The Phoenix don't have the size to match up with A&M's front line. Unless Green Bay can wear those big guys out—head coach Linc Darner's team plays extremely fast—the Aggies will dominate this game in the paint.
No. 10 VCU over No. 7 Oregon State: I'd like Oregon State's chances better if I knew freshman Tres Tinkle was going to play. With Tinkle's status up in the air, I'll go with VCU.
No. 2 Oklahoma over No. 15 CSU Bakersfield: CSU Bakersfield had one of the best defenses in the WAC. But the last time the Roadrunners faced an elite offense, they lost 94-59 to Saint Mary's. Good luck slowing down Buddy Hield.
Round of 64, Midwest
No. 1 Virginia over No. 16 Hampton: The Pirates are one of the worst offensive teams in the tournament. It's not going to be a fun day going up against head coach Tony Bennett's defense.
No. 9 Butler over No. 8 Texas Tech: Texas Tech didn't show in Kansas City for the Big 12 tournament, and any team that cannot get focused for every possession in the postseason is not going to fare well against Butler.
No. 5 Purdue over No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock: The Boilermakers have a tough time playing teams that stretch the floor and like to shoot threes. Arkansas-Little Rock fits the bill there, so this is a prime upset candidate. But I also think Purdue's front line is one of the best in the country and will be too much for the Trojans to handle.
No. 4 Iowa State over No. 13 Iona: The Cyclones should be motivated after getting upset by UAB in the first round last year. Georges Niang is not going out like that. (Side note: If you like offense and fast-paced basketball, tune in. This one should be fun to watch.)
No. 11 Gonzaga over No. 6 Seton Hall: The Zags are way more talented than the typical 11 seed. Head coach Mark Few's guard play, which was the biggest weakness for this team earlier in the season, has started to improve as of late, and Gonzaga's postseason experience is an advantage over tourney newbie Seton Hall. I like whoever wins this game to get to the Sweet 16.
No. 3 Utah over No. 14 Fresno State: Utah is well-coached and typically takes care of business in games it should win. Look for the Utes to play through 7-footer Jakob Poeltl in this game and for him to have a huge day.
No. 10 Syracuse over No. 7 Dayton: Dayton played a team that zones in their nonconference slate (Xavier), and while the two zones are different, the result, a 90-61 Dayton loss, was troubling. The Flyers don't shoot many threes, and this seems like a poor matchup.
No. 2 Michigan State over No. 15 Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders can shoot the three, but so can the Spartans. It's not smart to bet against head coach Tom Izzo in March, especially this early in the tourney.
Round of 64, South
No. 1 Kansas over No. 16 Austin Peay: Kansas has played tight in the last few NCAA tournaments. Even if the Jayhawks come out that way, head coach Bill Self's club isn't becoming the first No. 1 seed ever to fall to a No. 16 seed.
No. 9 UConn over No. 8 Colorado: Colorado's best win away from Boulder this season was a neutral-site victory over Penn State. The Huskies have more talent and should be favored in this game despite being the lower seed.
No. 5 Maryland over No. 12 South Dakota State: South Dakota State doesn't have the size to match up with Maryland's big frontcourt. The tortoise beats the hare.
No. 4 California over No. 13 Hawaii: This is a scary opening-round game for California, as Hawaii's talent isn't exactly mid-majorish. The Rainbow Warriors nearly knocked off Oklahoma back in December. But that was on the island. Cal survives in a close game.
No. 6 Arizona over No. 11 Wichita State: Wichita State's frontcourt is not as strong as it has been in years past. Ryan Anderson and Kaleb Tarczewski will dominate inside and end the awesome careers of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.
No. 3 Miami over No. 14 Buffalo: The Hurricanes have had a tendency to play down to their opponents this season, but there's no excuse not to be locked in when the NCAA tournament begins. The Bulls don't have the talent to hang with the Canes.
No. 10 Temple over No. 7 Iowa: Calling the Hawkeyes an average team over the last month would be a compliment. They've collapsed and lost six of their last eight games. If the Hawkeyes start hitting jumpers again, they could be dangerous, but I like head coach Fran Dunphy's chances with time to study how the Big Ten has shut down that offense.
No. 2 Villanova over No. 15 UNC Asheville: UNC Asheville is 1-0 against the Big East this season with a win over Georgetown. Villanova is no Georgetown.
Round of 32, East
No. 1 North Carolina over No. 9 Providence: Kris Dunn will be a tough matchup for UNC's guards, but the Friars just don't have enough scorers to keep pace with the Heels.
No. 4 Kentucky over No. 5 Indiana: Remember two years ago when Kentucky-Wichita State in the second round was the game of the tournament? This has the potential to be that game this year, and the winner is a real Final Four threat.
The talent is close to a wash, so I'm going to say it comes down to coaching. John Calipari has been to four of the last five Final Fours. Tom Crean did an awesome job turning this season around, but Calipari's postseason record wins out.
No. 3 West Virginia over No. 6 Notre Dame: This isn't a great matchup for West Virginia. Notre Dame rarely turns the ball over and has a great point guard in Demetrius Jackson. But it is hard to get ready for West Virginia's pressure with just a day to prep. Plus, it's best to have multiple ball-handlers against WVU's pressure, and I'm not sure anyone outside of Jackson is equipped to do so on Notre Dame's roster.
No. 2 Xavier over No. 10 Pittsburgh: The Musketeers have made five Sweet 16s since 2008, and this is arguably their best team during that stretch. I like that math.
Round of 32, West
No. 1 Oregon over No. 8 Saint Joseph's: This is a scary game for the Ducks. DeAndre' Bembry and Isaiah Miles can play and match up well with Oregon star Dillon Brooks. But the Hawks haven't fared great against teams that like to spread the floor and attack, and the Ducks do that about as well as anyone in the country.
No. 4 Duke over No. 12 Yale: These two teams played in November at Cameron, and Yale hung with Duke for a half—Duke led by two at the break. Amile Jefferson played a big role in that game (nine points and 12 boards), and he's no longer available for the Blue Devils. But back then, Brandon Ingram wasn't what he is now, so while I'm tempted to go with the upset, the gap between these teams just hasn't shrunk enough for me to pick Yale.
No. 3 Texas A&M over No. 11 Northern Iowa: The Aggies have Top 10 talent, and they've been playing to their potential lately with eight wins in their last nine games—the one loss coming to Kentucky in overtime on Sunday. The Panthers have been giant-killers, but they haven't played this complete of a team. (Before anyone mentions the North Carolina win, remember it was without Marcus Paige.)
No. 2 Oklahoma over No. 10 VCU: Oklahoma did lose to West Virginia in the Big 12 semifinals Friday, and VCU plays a similar pressing style. But the Rams aren't as talented as the Mountaineers, and it's not like the Sooners and their guards aren't well-equipped to handle pressure.
Round of 32, Midwest
No. 1 Virginia over No. 9 Butler: Butler's defense is not nearly as stingy as last season, and Virginia is way better offensively than the public perceives. Look for UVA All-American candidate Malcolm Brogdon to go off.
No. 4 Iowa State over No. 5 Purdue: The Boilermakers have struggled to guard teams that like to go small and can spread the floor with shooters. Well, that's Iowa State.
Freshman Caleb Swanigan could have a long day trying to figure out how to guard Georges Niang. The key for the Cyclones, who lack depth, is whether they can stay out of foul trouble and whether they get good production from Jameel McKay. If McKay isn't able to play big minutes, ISU could struggle to contain A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. But as long as Niang can stay on the floor and get his, it may not matter.
No. 11 Gonzaga over No. 3 Utah: Utah typically has a major advantage at center with Jakob Poeltl, but Domantas Sabonis is one of the few centers in college basketball who can match up with Poeltl. And while the seeding may not reflect it, the Zags have arguably the better talent outside of that matchup, which is close to a wash.
No. 2 Michigan State over No. 10 Syracuse: The Spartans are the best passing and three-point-shooting team in college basketball. That's a good recipe to carve up the Orange zone.
Round of 32, South
No. 1 Kansas over No. 9 UConn: This is the first of what could be some scary matchups for the Jayhawks in a difficult South Regional. Both programs have great defenses, but the Huskies will struggle to keep pace with the Jayhawks on the offensive end. KU's two point guards, Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham, will control this game.
No. 5 Maryland over No. 4 Cal: Both of these rosters are talented enough to get to the Final Four, which should send NBA scouts flocking to Spokane, Washington. Cal has struggled against teams with talented front lines, and Maryland's Diamond Stone and Robert Carter form one of the top front lines in the country. The Terps win what could be the best game of the second round.
No. 3 Miami over No. 6 Arizona: Miami did just lose to Virginia in the ACC tournament, and head coach Sean Miller, like UVA's Tony Bennett, uses the pack-line defense. However, Arizona's defense is not what we're used to seeing. The Hurricanes have the more talented roster and should have an easier time cracking that defense.
No. 2 Villanova over No. 10 Temple: Villanova beat Temple by 16 earlier this year, and that game was at Temple's Liacouras Center. Nova's run of losing in the round of 32 ends this season.
Sweet 16, East
No. 4 Kentucky over No. 1 North Carolina: The Heels have struggled against point guards who can create off the bounce. They lost to Northern Iowa's Wes Washpun and Texas' Isaiah Taylor in the nonconference and also had problems slowing down Maryland's Melo Trimble. All three guys put up great numbers against the Heels.
UNC's defense has improved lately, but it hasn't faced a point guard as good as Tyler Ulis all season. UNC's best chance is to bully Kentucky in the interior, and that's one reason to like the Heels. But I like the Wildcats for two reasons: Ulis and John Calipari in March. The head coach has reached four of the last five Final Fours, and since he's been at Kentucky, Cal is 4-2 against Roy Williams and 1-0 in that matchup during the NCAA tournament.
No. 3 West Virginia over No. 2 Xavier: These teams are evenly matched, and Xavier has heady guards who should have a chance against West Virginia's pressure. West Virginia has penetrating guards who should be able to get into the gaps of Xavier's 1-3-1 defense. I think the backcourts are a wash.
Both teams also have big and physical front lines. The reason I like the Mountaineers is Devin Williams. He just went for 31 points and 10 rebounds against Kansas, and he seems to invite the challenge of playing against other physical frontcourts.
Sweet 16, West
No. 4 Duke over No. 1 Oregon: Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has to like his draw on the top side of this region, especially if Duke is able to avoid Baylor in the second round. The other teams just don't have the beef up front to exploit Duke's biggest weakness.
This will be an uptempo game with both teams trying to attack each other off the bounce. I love Oregon's Dillon Brooks, and freshman guard Tyler Dorsey is starting to play well. But in a game that should be free-flowing, Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram will kill it, giving the Blue Devils a slight advantage over Brooks-Dorsey. Oregon's major advantage is depth, so Duke better stay out of foul trouble. But if the Blue Devils can do that, they should emerge victorious.
No. 3 Texas A&M over No. 2 Oklahoma: The Aggies have their own version of Buddy Hield in Danuel House. House may not be on Hield's level, but he's a similar player and has the size and quickness to at least give Hield a run on both ends. Where A&M has the advantage in this game is on the inside. That's OU's biggest weakness, especially with Ryan Spangler's play declining late in the year.
Spangler will be the key in this game. If he's on, that makes the Sooners a lot harder to guard and increases their chances of victory. But if he plays like he's performed lately, the Aggies have the better talent and should be able to topple Oklahoma thanks in large part to their superior interior depth and scoring.
Sweet 16, Midwest
No. 1 Virginia over No. 4 Iowa State: Iowa State struggled to guard Buddy Hield, and while Malcolm Brogdon is not quite on Hield's level as a scorer, he's pretty dang close.
I was hesitant to take Iowa State this far because I think Purdue is a good team, but ISU was a bad matchup. It's hard to find any team that's a bad matchup for Virginia, and this pick comes down to trusting UVA more and betting on Iowa State's lack of depth eventually being a problem.
No. 2 Michigan State over No. 11 Gonzaga: Gonzaga's guards are playing better, but Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes are a major advantage for Michigan State in this game.
Sparty also has the bodies to throw at Gonzaga's inside duo of Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis. If this game is close, Valentine will make the plays down the stretch for Sparty to pull out the win.
Sweet 16, South
No. 1 Kansas over No. 5 Maryland: Maryland has struggled this year with teams that go small and spread the floor. While head coach Bill Self rarely goes small, Perry Ellis brings the qualities of a small-ball 4-man because he's so skilled and able to stretch the defense with his shooting.
Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham have improved on the defensive end during KU's winning streak, and I like KU's ability to neutralize Melo Trimble. Slow Trimble down, and you're probably going to stop the Terps.
No. 3 Miami over No. 2 Villanova: Villanova thrives on being able to turn its opponent over and then pounce off the dribble on the offensive end with a spread attack. The Hurricanes have the guard play to handle that pressure, and when they're locked in on the defensive end, they can guard well.
This game will likely come down to the final possessions, and in games decided by seven points or less this year, Villanova is just 3-3. Plus, I like Miami's playmakers more than Nova's down the stretch of a close game.
Elite Eight, East
No. 4 Kentucky over No. 3 West Virginia: The last thing I would ever do against Tyler Ulis is press him. Ulis can dribble his way out of just about any situation, and when he gets in the open floor, he's dangerous. The Wildcats also start three point guards, so even if you can keep the ball out of Ulis' hands, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe are capable handlers.
Would head coach Bob Huggins entertain not pressing? The chances of that are about as good as him showing up to Philadelphia in a suit and tie.
If this matchup happens, Ulis will navigate the press and make the Mountaineers pay once he breaks free. And Calipari will get revenge from WVU's upset of his 2010 team in the Elite Eight.
Elite Eight, West
No. 3 Texas A&M over No. 4 Duke: If the bracket plays out like this, Duke will be meeting a team with its kryptonite (a big and talented front line) for the first time in the tournament.
Not only do the Aggies have the size and inside scoring to give Duke issues, they also have two athletic power forwards (Jalen Jones and Tonny Trocha-Morelos) who will be able to get out on the floor and guard Brandon Ingram. Danuel House also has the ability to guard Grayson Allen. Duke, on the other hand, is going to have a tough time handling A&M's inside scoring trio of Jones, Trocha-Morelos and freshman Tyler Davis.
Elite Eight, Midwest
No. 2 Michigan State over No. 1 Virginia: This could be the third straight season that Virginia and Michigan State meet up in the tournament. The Spartans, the lower seed each time, have won the first two meetings. This year, the seeding should probably be flipped, but the committee helped the Spartans out by sending them to Chicago. MSU's faithful will likely far outnumber UVA's fans.
The Spartans also have the better talent and team. That's not a knock on the Cavaliers, who are one of the five best teams in the country. Sparty just so happens to be one of the two best (and hottest) teams in America.
Elite Eight, South
No. 1 Kansas over No. 3 Miami: Miami can overwhelm opponents with its perimeter depth and talent, but Kansas is one team that can match up well with the Hurricanes.
These teams are close to even talentwise across the board—except at power forward. Former Oklahoma State forward Kamari Murphy has seen KU's Perry Ellis in the past during his time in Stillwater, and he should know Ellis is going to win that battle. KU's senior star will have a big game and reach the Final Four for the first time in his career.
No. 2 Michigan State over No. 4 Kentucky: This would be a dream matchup for anyone who loves crafty guards with extremely high basketball IQs. Tyler Ulis and Denzel Valentine are two of the best the college game has had to offer in those departments in a long time.
Both have command of the game and are on another level mentally. The difference between these two teams is Valentine is surrounded by a cast that's better prepared to handle the pressure of a Final Four. And if you're not buying that line of logic, I also like Michigan State's front line more. Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis are better scorers and defenders than any combination John Calipari can put on the floor.
It would be one heck of a run for UK to get this far, but it ends here.
No. 1 Kansas over No. 3 Texas A&M: The team that most resembles Kansas in the SEC is Kentucky. Like UK, Kansas starts two scoring point guards in the backcourt. The Aggies went 1-1 against the Wildcats—both games went to overtime—but they struggled to contain Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. Ulis averaged 26 points and eight dimes, and Murray averaged 19 points per game.
KU's backcourt of Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham are not quite on Ulis and Murray's level, but they're not far behind, especially based on the way they've been playing late in the year. What gave A&M trouble with Ulis was trying to contain him off the dribble, and both Mason and Graham are crafty off the bounce.
The KU guards also have a better supporting cast than Kentucky's. The Aggies are talented enough to be in the Final Four and maybe even get to the championship game, but at this point in the bracket, I like to go with who I trust more. And the easy answer there is Kansas.
NCAA Championship Game
No. 2 Michigan State over No. 1 Kansas: Back when these two teams played in the Champions Classic, I came away from that game thinking Kansas was the better team. The Spartans won because the Jayhawks had some mental gaffes, and Denzel Valentine single-handedly picked them apart down the stretch. But over the long run, I thought KU was going to have the better team.
Well, that brings us to Valentine's injury.
Valentine missed four games in the middle of the year, and while it looked like the Spartans regressed when he came back—they lost three of four upon his return—it actually wound up making them a better team. In his absence, Michigan State went inside more to Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis, and once Valentine was Valentine again, the confidence those guys got from carrying the water for a bit helped this team go to another level it might not have reached had Valentine never been injured.
Kansas, meanwhile, is also playing on another level lately. The emergence of Devonte' Graham has given the Jayhawks their own mini version of Valentine. Graham has the presence of a Valentine and brings a lot of similar intangibles. But he's not on Valentine's level—no one is. And when it comes to winning time, Valentine took over in the first meeting, and he'll do so again in the national championship game.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.