NCAA Tournament 2018: The Men's Chaos Bracket That Could Actually Happen
You're going to see a lot of cockamamie ideas for picking brackets—coin flips, mascot fights, jersey colors, etc.—but what about an upset-filled tournament that could realistically occur?
Following a regular season in which there were 25 instances of an unranked team upsetting an opponent ranked in the Top Five of the AP poll, March Madness could take on a whole new meaning.
Translation: No one is to be trusted.
We won't waste your time by trying to explain why a No. 16 seed could win the 2018 men's NCAA tournament. In fact, we have 11 of the 12 teams on the Nos. 1-3 seed lines at least reaching the second round.
But would a tournament without a single No. 1 seed in the Final Four be chaotic enough for you?
How about a No. 5 seed winning it all?
Usually, filling out this bracket requires many leaps of faith. This time around, though, no individual pick feels that shocking. For instance, North Carolina State just lost to Boston College in the ACC tournament, but it wouldn't be that surprising if a team with wins over Arizona, Duke, North Carolina and Clemson turns around and upsets Kansas in the second round.
And that's just one example. You could make a compelling case for just about any of the No. 8 or No. 9 seeds to reach the Sweet 16. (Given Alabama's play in the SEC tournament and the allure of Michael Porter Jr.'s return to Missouri, don't be surprised if a disproportionate number of people are picking those big upsets.)
If the alleged four best teams aren't locks against a bunch of squads who spent the past month sweating on the bubble, you best believe it only gets easier to defend upset picks from there.
Biggest First-Round Upset: No. 13 College of Charleston over No. 4 Auburn
Every offseason, I do one piece ranking the teams that lost the most talent and one on the teams returning the most talent. It's how I keep track of roster turnover, and it's how I came to fall in love with College of Charleston as a Cinderella team months ago.
The Cougars were No. 4 on the most returning talent list, bringing back more than 95 percent of their scoring from last season. And that 2016-17 team was already doggone good, winning 25 games. With Joe Chealey, Jarrell Brantley and Grant Riller all coming back, there was a good chance this team would get even better. And it did. It enters the tournament having won 14 of its last 15 games, and the lone exception was an overtime contest on the road against William & Mary.
Granted, the Bucknell Bison were No. 3 on that list, and they are the No. 14 seed in this region. But even in a chaos bracket—and even though it happened two years ago against No. 15 Middle Tennessee—I can't justify picking Michigan State to lose in the first round.
Auburn, though? Yeah, I can justify picking against a team that has dropped four of six games since losing Anfernee McLemore to a devastating ankle injury. The Tigers looked like they had the lives sucked out of their bodies in the second half of the 81-63 loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament.
Other first-round upsets: No. 12 New Mexico State over No. 5 Clemson; No. 11 Arizona State / Syracuse over No. 6 TCU; No. 9 North Carolina State over No. 8 Seton Hall
Biggest Second-Round Upset: No. 9 North Carolina State over No. 1 Kansas
The bottom half of this bracket was tailor-made for a Champions Classic rematch between Duke and Michigan State. Whether the Blue Devils draw Rhode Island or Oklahoma, they'll play a team heading in the wrong direction that is woefully unequipped to guard Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. And none of the teams in Michigan State's pod are particularly good at forcing turnovers.
With a No. 12 vs. No. 13 matchup in the top half of the region, that only leaves one viable option for chaos.
And North Carolina State is already a proven giant-killer.
The Wolfpack slayed Arizona, Duke, North Carolina and Clemson—when Clemson was damn good prior to Donte Grantham's injury—this season. To be fair, they are a No. 9 seed for a reason, and losses to the likes of Northern Iowa, UNC Greensboro, Georgia Tech and Boston College are outstanding reasons not to trust them to beat Seton Hall.
But three years ago, when they beat Villanova in the second round, it was a similar story. That team had a couple of marquee wins and a few head-scratching losses that produced a middling seed capable of a shocking upset or a face-plant in the first round.
The real reason to like NC State, though, is this team ranks 14th in the nation in three-point field-goal defense and 25th in defensive three-point rate, and Kansas lives and dies by the three. In those huge upsets earlier this year, those four teams shot a combined 15-of-67 (22.4 percent) from downtown. Also, the combination of Omer Yurtseven and Lennard Freeman could wreak havoc on KU's frontcourt, especially if Udoka Azubuike is still a little banged up.
Midwest Region's Final Four Representative: No. 3 Michigan State Spartans
It's a tough call on the Sweet 16 game between Duke and Michigan State, but if there's one team in the country equipped to beat the Blue Devils' zone, it's the Spartans.
Michigan State moves the ball so fluidly, and it is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. It might beat up the zone so badly that Duke goes back to man-to-man just to try to stop the bleeding, which is saying something, if you recall how awful this defense was for the first three months of the year.
From there, North Carolina State could give Michigan State some problems in the turnover department, but the combination of MSU's elite offensive rebounding and NC State's poor defensive rebounding should mean a landslide victory for the Spartans.
Biggest First-Round Upset: No. 13 Marshall over No. 4 Wichita State
A lot of people are probably going to pick No. 14 Stephen F. Austin over Texas Tech as the big first-round upset in this region, but I don't see any of the No. 3 seeds getting immediately ousted this year.
Rather, the big upset here is the Thundering Herd's stampede to the round of 32.
I don't get many opportunities to write about mid-major schools, but when it did happen this season, Marshall always seemed to feature prominently. The Thundering Herd landed at No. 7 in my early-February ranking of the best Cinderella candidates. (No. 4 among teams who made the tournament.) And in a mid-January list of the 10 underhyped stars you should be paying attention to, Marshall had not one, but two players in Jon Elmore and Ajdin Penava.
This team takes and makes a ton of three-pointers. Per Sports Reference, the Thundering Herd rank 13th in made threes, averaging slightly more than 10 per game. That's how they knock out Wichita State and its dreadful perimeter defense in the first round. And once they get hot, they could stay hot against a West Virginia perimeter defense that allows a lot of deep balls.
Other first-round upsets: No. 9 Alabama over No. 8 Virginia Tech
Biggest Second-Round Upset: None
There is almost always one region that plays to form with the Nos. 1, 2, 3 and either 4 or 5 seeds reaching the Sweet 16. Thus, even in a chaos bracket, we've got to abide by that generality.
You should know, though, that the East Regional is where we applied that line of thinking last year, and that's where all hell broke loose with No. 1 Villanova and No. 2 Duke losing in the second round, paving the way for No. 7 South Carolina to reach the Final Four. (Alas, the South is where all the favorites made it through the first weekend in 2017.)
East Region's Final Four Representative: No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders
For months, this has been my sleeper pick to reach the Final Four.
At full strength, Texas Tech is remarkable on the defensive end of the floor. The Red Raiders struggled in the first few games of Zach Smith's 13-game absence and again had some issues in late February while Keenan Evans was well below 100 percent because of a toe injury. And yet, they finished the year with the third-most efficient defense in the country.
Because of the defensive prowess, when Evans is having average-or-better offensive outputs, Texas Tech almost always wins. The Red Raiders are 20-2 when he has an O-rating of 100 or better. The two exceptions were a road game against Oklahoma back when Trae Young was still the best thing since sliced bread (27 points, 10 assists) and a neutral-court game against Seton Hall in which the Pirates played their best game of the season (11-of-20 from three-point range; 15 offensive rebounds).
Basically, as long as Evans shows up, it takes something extreme for this team to lose. It's more than a little bit possible that Purdue and/or Villanova could provide the offensive explosion that negates a 20-point effort from Evans, but it's also possible that this is the defense to stifle those three-point shooting machines.
Biggest First-Round Upset: No. 12 South Dakota State over No. 5 Ohio State
Unless you count the No. 8 vs. No. 9 games as upset possibilities, this might be the most popular first-round upset pick this year.
Ohio State's stock faded at an alarming rate over the final few weeks of the campaign. The Buckeyes got swept by Penn State during the regular season and lost to the Nittany Lions for a third time in the Big Ten tournament. With all due respect to the Nittany Lions, you can't go 0-3 against that team and still be considered a strong candidate to reach the Elite Eight. Especially when two of those losses bookended a three-game stretch with a 12-point loss to Michigan and a double-overtime game against Indiana.
This isn't just some anti-Ohio State pick, though. Heaven knows I had premium seating on the Keita Bates-Diop bandwagon back in mid-December.
But my love for South Dakota State's Mike Daum runs much deeper than that. The Dauminator was one of my favorite players in the country when he was a freshman. If the Jackrabbits would ever play a game within a couple hundred miles of Charlotte, I'd be there in a heartbeat. And if and when they win this game, he's going to become America's favorite player.
The real reason this team will succeed where previous iterations failed, though, is David Jenkins Jr. When this freshman shooting guard scores at least 11 points in a game, South Dakota State is 24-1. And considering Tony Carr put up at least 25 points in each of Penn State's wins over the Buckeyes, you have to like the odds of Jenkins finding his rhythm against this defense.
Other first-round upsets: No. 10 Providence over No. 7 Texas A&M
Biggest Second-Round Upset: No. 6 Houston over No. 3 Michigan
As far as seeding is concerned, this isn't a massive upset. But it would feel like one, right?
This is Michigan's seventh trip to the NCAA tournament in the last eight years, which includes three Sweet 16s and a national championship appearance. No one knows how well the momentum from two weekends ago will hold over, but the back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Purdue to claim the Big Ten tournament title opened a lot of eyes to the Wolverines' potential for a deep run.
Then there's Houston, which has some great history from before I was born, but it is making just its second NCAA tournament appearance in the last 25 years and seeking its first win in the tournament since 1984. It won neither the AAC regular-season nor conference-tournament championship, and it suffered atrocious losses to Drexel, Tulane and Memphis this season.
And yet, the Cougars seem to match up favorably here. The only blatant weakness on their KenPom profile is a poor defensive free-throw rate. But putting the Wolverines on the free-throw line isn't a bad strategy, as they shoot just 65.7 percent from the stripe as a team. That might be enough of an edge for Rob Gray and Co. to get the win.
West Region's Final Four Representative: No. 2 North Carolina Tar Heels
Call it a hunch, but this is the region that is going to destroy everyone's bracket. One could easily make the case that the best No. 8, No. 10, No. 11 and No. 12 seeds all reside in the West Regional. It's also not hard to argue that the weakest No. 1 and No. 3 seeds are here, which could produce chaos.
But if you ignore the matchups and just pick your Elite Eight teams by looking at the sub-regions and deciding whom you trust the most, there's little question it should be a rematch of last year's national championship game. North Carolina had more Quadrant 1 wins than any team in the country, and Gonzaga is both blistering hot and under-seeded.
Once there, it's a coin-flip affair. Gonzaga's offensive efficiency should be a huge problem for North Carolina. And in Killian Tillie and Johnathan Williams, the Zags have great options for defending Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson in UNC's small-ball lineup. But in what appears to be the weakest region, it's hard to argue with the likelihood the Tar Heels will get back to a third straight Final Four.
Worth noting: If Gonzaga were to win this game, there are quite a few repeats on its path to the Final Four. The second-round game against South Dakota State is a flashback to last year's No. 1 vs. No. 16 game. The Sweet 16 game against Xavier would be a do-over of last year's Elite Eight matchup.
Biggest First-Round Upset: No. 15 Georgia State over No. 2 Cincinnati
At long last, a massive upset! We have two No. 12 seeds and two No. 13 seeds advancing to the second round, but that isn't too chaotic. Heck, from 2008-13, there was a No. 12 vs. No. 13 matchup in five out of six years. And everyone knows there's at least one No. 12 over No. 5 upset in just about every tournament.
But a No. 15 over a No. 2? That has only happened eight times in tournament history. It has happened four times in the last six years, though, so it's not patently absurd.
There are several reasons to like this spot for a major bracket-buster.
First, it's the Sun Belt. This was the league responsible for No. 14 Georgia State over No. 3 Baylor, as well as No. 12 Arkansas-Little Rock over No. 5 Purdue in the past three seasons. It doesn't get regular-season attention like the Missouri Valley or Mountain West Conferences, but this has become the league for shocking upsets.
Second, Cincinnati is unequivocally the worst of the No. 2 seeds. I am well aware that KenPom has the Bearcats as the fourth-best team in the country, but a good portion of that is the home games they won against Savannah State, Western Carolina, Coppin State, Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Cleveland State by a combined score of 547-344. They didn't win a single game against a No. 3 seed or better. Duke and Purdue each won two. North Carolina won four.
Third, Georgia State is the best No. 15 seed, and it has one of the best candidates to take over a game in D'Marcus Simonds. The sophomore scored in double figures in all but one game this season, averaging 21.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.7 steals. And he is surrounded by teammates who can stroke it from three-point range, which spreads the floor for him to do his thing.
Other first-round upsets: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago over No. 6 Miami
Biggest Second-Round Upset: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago over No. 3 Tennessee
The bottom half of the South Regional is going to be absurd. There is not a team in that octet you look at and say, "Oh yeah, that's a Sweet 16 team." So, that's where we're loading up on the madness.
Loyola-Chicago isn't your typical No. 11 seed that just barely sneaks into the tournament as a middle-of-the-pack team from a major conference. The Ramblers have great metrics and haven't lost a game since the end of January.
Most notably, Loyola-Chicago won a road game over Florida back in early December. But here's the incredible thing about that contest: one senior starter (Ben Richardson) did not play because of a broken hand, and leading scorer Clayton Custer suffered an ankle injury, finishing with just four points in 14 minutes. The Ramblers were nowhere close to full strength and still pulled off one of the bigger upsets of the season.
They did lose three of their next five games because of those injuries, but they are 17-1 at full strength since Jan. 7. And feel free to message me with your "the Missouri Valley isn't the same without Wichita State" retorts. Every single team in that league finished in the top 155 on KenPom. Each game was a potential loss in the most balanced league in the country, but Loyola cruised through it.
So, yeah, the Ramblers are capable of beating Miami and Tennessee.
South Region's Final Four Representative: No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky may lose in the first round to Davidson. It's going to more than have its hands full with Arizona in the second round, as well as Virginia in the Sweet 16.
But this is John Calipari we're talking about, and his team is peaking at the right time, just like it always seems to do.
In the previous 12 years—eight with Kentucky, four with Memphis—Calipari has one national championship, five Final Fours, nine Elite Eights and 10 Sweet 16 appearances. And that coach is scheduled to go up against the two coaches (Sean Miller and Tony Bennett) who are probably the most notorious for having never taken a team to the Final Four.
After beating Arizona and Virginia, knocking off No. 7 Nevada will feel like a walk in the park.
Feel free to lose sleep over the potential Sweet 16 showdown between Deandre Ayton and the pack-line defense, but we're going with Kentucky to make an unlikely Final Four run on par with what it did in 2014.
Final Four Pairings
No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 2 North Carolina
No. 3 Texas Tech vs. No. 3 Michigan State
Nary a No. 1 seed, and it was tempting to pick the lone No. 2 seed to lose to No. 4 Gonzaga in that Elite Eight game. Yet, aside from Georgia State over Cincinnati in the first round of the South Regional, none of the picks were that outlandish.
That's just a testament to the lack of a gap between the No. 1 seeds and the double-digit seeds. Providence got a No. 10 seed despite three wins over No. 1 seeds (Xavier twice, Villanova once). Arizona State is in a First Four game despite a road win over Kansas and a neutral-court win over Xavier.
There are years in which it's more than reasonable to just pick all four No. 1 seeds to the Final Four. But this year, it seems like the much safer bet to have no teams from the top line reaching the final weekend.
But I digress because we still ended up with one heck of a battle between blue-blood programs, as well as a No. 3 seed that would feel like a Cinderella story since it has never been to the Elite Eight before.
In the higher-profile game, let's go with Kentucky to continue its remarkable run. The Wildcats were a bubble team a month ago, but it appears they have finally figured out how to harness the unbeatable potential that we saw earlier in the season against Louisville and in the second half of the game against West Virginia. Though it doesn't have any surefire lottery picks for the first time in a long while, this team always had the talent, height and athleticism to be a national champion.
And in the battle of No. 3 seeds, Texas Tech is where Michigan State finally runs into a team that can make it pay for not valuing the ball. The Red Raiders will force upward of 20 turnovers, keeping the Spartans from getting into a rhythm. It'll still be a close game, because Texas Tech isn't that good on offense and Michigan State's defense is outstanding, but give me the Red Raiders in a low-scoring showdown.
That somehow sets up a championship pairing between teams who could lose in the first round. But the Kemba Walker run for Keenan Evans falls just shy of producing a title when the Wildcats scrape out a win in a physical game that could be hard on the eyes and relatively devoid of three-point attempts.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.