March Madness 2018 Predictions: Breaking Down Experts' Picks

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2018

March Madness 2018 Predictions: Breaking Down Experts' Picks

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    Teams in the 2018 NCAA men's tournament have one chance to get it right—as do experts with their March Madness bracket picks. 

    Like the NFL draft, bracketology has become a year-round affair in college basketball. That has given rise to various experts, all of whom are putting ink to paper to give their tips for the 68-team tourney.

    It isn't easy, especially during a year in which parity was once again a top talking point over the course of the season.

    If it were simple, though, we wouldn't need help with picks in the first place. Here's a look at experts' top picks this year—otherwise known as a guide for who to credit or blame for a bracket's correctness. 

Gary Parrish, CBS Sports

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    Ben McKeown/Associated Press

    Gary Parrish's bracket

                              

    Smartest picks

    A longtime heavyweight in the bracket game, Parrish isn't holding back on his decision to make the Duke Blue Devils the winners. And why would he?

    "... The Blue Devils have the nation's most talented roster and the GOAT of college basketball coaching on the sideline [Mike Krzyzewski]. None of that has changed," he wrote.

    Duke isn't dead in the water like earlier in the season. It clawed its way to third and seventh in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, at KenPom.com

    He also likes No. 12 New Mexico State to make a run to the Sweet 16 before getting buzzed down by the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, which makes sense given the Aggies' suffocating defense ranked 14th in adjusted efficiency (94.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). 

                             

    Biggest gambles

    Though the Ramblers sit 28th in ESPN's RPI, it's going to be hard for some to get behind the idea of No. 11 Loyola-Chicago storming to the Sweet 16 before Cincinnati stops its run. A 68th-ranked offensive efficiency against the 158th strength of schedule could leave the Ramblers overwhelmed on the big stage. 

    Parrish's Final Four also might lean too much on the safe side. Having Virginia, Villanova, Gonzaga and Duke doesn't stray too far from a safe path, and this tournament is known for being prone to upsets. 

                                                                                                                                                    

    Trust meter

    Safe path or not, few should complain about a title showdown between Duke and Virginia. The two met near the end of January—it was a 65-63 win for the Cavaliers—but Parrish is right to lean on a Krzyzewski-led team that has only improved as the season has gone on. 

Nicole Auerbach, The Athletic

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    Nicole Auerbach's bracket

         

    Smartest picks

    Another reliable bracket veteran, Auerbach isn't afraid to push Michigan State to the Final Four despite the Duke trend making the rounds. The Spartans' toppling No. 1 Kansas is interesting, until we remember head coach Tom Izzo's side sits ninth in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.

    Auerbach also smartly buys into the star power behind Arizona's Deandre Ayton, whose 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game should be enough to push the team past No. 5 Kentucky in the second round. 

                                    

    Biggest gambles

    Tossing No. 3 Tennessee into the Elite Eight seems like a major risk, especially with the Vols already reeling from a loss to Kentucky in the SEC title game. The South Regional is also downright brutal, and it's hard to imagine a team that is 40th in adjusted offensive efficiency will be able to overcome Cincinnati and its No. 2 defense. 

    Overall, Auerbach has seven upsets in the first round, which isn't too many, but it's risky to pick No. 12 South Dakota State over No. 5 Ohio State—even though it's trendy—when the Jackrabbits only went 1-2 against the RPI top 50 despite a strength of schedule ranked 211th.

                                                                                         

    Trust meter

    There's South Dakota State's upset of the Buckeyes and at least one unexpected team charging to the Elite Eight. Virginia is a bit risky given its track record in recent tournaments, but it's also a statistically sound pick. 

Seth Davis, The Athletic

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Seth Davis' bracket

                            

    Smartest picks

    Davis said he's "feeling more chalky than usual this year," which is fine because it produces a sound bracket most can nod along with as a reference point. 

    Davis also has New Mexico State upsetting No. 5 Clemson, propelling the Aggies to the Sweet 16, where they lose to Kansas. He said picking between Duke and Michigan State gave him problems in the same round, but the Blue Devils moved ahead perhaps in large part because they didn't have many problems dispatching of the Spartans in November, 88-81, before undergoing some changes for the better. 

                                                 

    Biggest gambles

    Davis has nine upsets in the first round, including No. 10 Providence over No. 7 Texas A&M, even though KenPom has the Aggies 34 spots higher in its rankings. And the seeds don't tell the whole story, not when Texas A&M ranks 12th in adjusted defensive efficiency and the Friars are 105th in adjusted offensive efficiency. 

    Granted, numbers aren't the only thing to consider. Early-round picks affect a bracket's overall potential for points, however, so the disparity is worth pointing out.

                                                            

    Trust meter 

    Davis isn't going to do wrong by those trying to perfect bracketology over a short time frame.

    Sometimes chalky is the way to go. The recent swell of parity has been fun, but it isn't a guarantee to create numerous upsets each year. 

Shelby Mast, USA Today

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Shelby Mast's bracket

                  

    Smartest picks

    This one buys into the Ayton hype as well, sending Arizona not just to the Elite Eight, but through the No. 1 Xavier Musketeers in the Final Four before the Wildcats lose to Duke in the title game. 

    Speaking of Xavier, it's fun to see another Cincinnati team make it deep into a bracket. Those Musketeers ranked seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency, and Trevon Bluiett's 19.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from the field and 42.3 percent from deep inspires confidence. But Mast goes smartly bold here with Ayton and Arizona—like Auerbach—putting the No. 4 seed over the top-seeded Musketeers. 

               

    Biggest gambles

    This one doesn't feature many upsets. Mast does have New Mexico State making a run to the Sweet 16, however.

    Also, the No. 3 Texas Tech Red Raiders are making it all the way to the Final Four, which is a tough one to swallow. While the Red Raiders are third in defensive efficiency, that came against the 62nd-ranked strength of schedule.

    The Red Raiders have a tough path, starting Thursday with No. 14 Stephen F. Austin, a veteran squad making its third appearance in the Big Dance over four years. The Lumberjacks picked up a win in the 2016 tournament over No. 3 West Virginia. 

    It's also concerning that Keenan Evans (17.5 points per game) doesn't get much help in the scoring department. The supporting cast features no one else averaging over 11.7 points per contest.

                            

    Trust meter

    This one has a somewhat unique run by an overlooked Texas Tech team, but otherwise, it's a textbook case of playing it safe. For those who want to do so, it's worth a look. It's a nice mix of a calm beginning and a little late-developing wildness. 

Mike DeCourcy, Sporting News

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    Steven Ryan/Getty Images

    Mike DeCourcy's bracket

                 

    Smartest picks

    DeCourcy loves what he sees from the No. 3 Michigan Wolverines, and he sends them right into the title game, where they come up short against Villanova. They certainly qualify well on the adjusted scale, sitting 29th and fourth in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively. 

    There are also some savvy upsets, such as No. 10 Butler over No. 7 Arkansas in the East Regional. It's a trendy pick, but Butler is simply too diverse, with two players averaging north of 15 points per game, to stumble against a 103rd-ranked defense

    Biggest gambles

    No. 8 Virginia Tech over No. 9 Alabama is scary because it underestimates Collin Sexton, a guy averaging 19 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting. 

    You don't see many deep runs listed for No. 4 Auburn either—in large part because the 44th-ranked defense is well outside that of the typical tournament contender (25). These Tigers—projected to make a run to the Sweet 16 by DeCourcy—have also gone off a cliff lately, losing three of four to close the season. 

                                                                         

    Trust meter

    This might be the most entertaining bracket of the bunch. This one can guide those playing for fun right through. There is still a serious element here, however. Key insight, like the threat of Michigan and Butler, is the dabble of expertise also necessary in a sea of similar-looking offerings.  

C.J. Moore, Bleacher Report

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    C.J. Moore's bracket 

                          

    Smartest picks

    It wouldn't be fair to only stick with experts from outside, so let's take a look at Moore from Bleacher Report, who starts off things with a bang by pointing out New Mexico State has a huge advantage over Clemson in the opener thanks to an injury: "Clemson is 7-6 since losing senior forward Donte Grantham to a torn ACL. You could argue that had Clemson played the entire season without Grantham, it wouldn't be seeded this high."

    Almost for fun factor alone, it's nice to see No. 12 Davidson get the nod over No. 5 Kentucky. But as the write-up mentions, Kentucky's offense against Davidson's style of defense could have the game closer than most would expect. 

                      

    Biggest gambles

    No. 3 Tennessee over No. 2 Cincinnati in the Sweet 16 is a risky proposition. We've talked about the Volunteers before, but keep in mind Cincinnati ranks fourth at KenPom and is just three shy of 30 points in adjusted efficiency margin. 

    It's also a lofty gamble to send Gonzaga to the title game, where it's downed by Villanova. Head coach Mark Few's crew is talented but lost key players from last year. And that 3-3 mark against the RPI top 50 on a 151st-ranked strength of schedule sticks out. 

                                                

    Trust meter

    Moore doesn't go with a typical showdown between top seeds in the final, and his Kansas squad isn't one of the teams he projects to make it there either. This is a fun offering with action throughout, and Moore leans strongly toward consistent winners when it matters most by featuring a title game between Gonzaga and Villanova. 

                                                      

    RPI rankings courtesy of ESPN.com. Advanced metrics via KenPom.com