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Preliminary Thoughts On The NCAA Field

A very different tournament but the basics will still be the same

NCAA East Regional
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: NCAA March Madness logo on the floor before the East Regional game of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament between the LSU Tigers and the Michigan State Spartans at Capital One Arena on March 29, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Every year we vacillate, equivocate and otherwise approach the NCAA bracket like Frodo going to Mt. Doom. It’s impossible to get it right for any number of reasons, among them: it’s impossible to know anything about the emotional state of any team, it’s very difficult to know very much about 68 individual teams, and, importantly, relatively few people are experts.

Which pretty much rules this joint out.

So we’re going to do a few things differently this year as we work towards our final picks. First, let’s rule out the teams we don’t think have a snowball’s chance of winning:

  1. Norfolk State
  2. Appalachian State
  3. Missouri
  4. Creighton
  5. UCSB
  6. Ohio
  7. USC
  8. Wichita State
  9. Drake
  10. Eastern Washington
  11. Oregon
  12. VCU
  13. Grand Canyon
  14. Mt. St. Mary’s
  15. Texas Southern
  16. LSU
  17. St. Bonaventure
  18. Colorado
  19. Georgetown
  20. UNCG
  21. UCLA
  22. Abilene Christian
  23. UConn
  24. Maryland
  25. Iona
  26. Hartford
  27. Villanova
  28. Winthrop
  29. North Texas
  30. Utah State
  31. Colgate
  32. Florida
  33. Virginia Tech
  34. Oral Roberts
  35. Drexel
  36. Loyola
  37. Georgia Tech
  38. Oregon State
  39. Liberty
  40. San Diego State
  41. Syracuse
  42. Morehead State
  43. Clemson
  44. Rutgers
  45. Cleveland State

You might quibble about a couple of these and there will be upsets, but the odds of any of them getting to the Final Four are minimal.

So here are the real contenders in no particular order:

  1. Gonzaga
  2. Oklahoma
  3. Virginia
  4. Kansas
  5. Iowa
  6. Michigan
  7. Florida State
  8. Texas
  9. Alabama
  10. Baylor
  11. UNC
  12. Wisconsin
  13. Purdue
  14. Texas Tech
  15. Arkansas
  16. Illinois
  17. Tennessee
  18. Oklahoma State
  19. West Virginia
  20. Houston

So that’s really where to start. Gonzaga faces a potential rematch with Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen and while the Zags ripped Virginia apart early, we’re sure Tony Bennett will make this a slower and closer game. Can he pull off an upset? Maybe. Remember that the NCAA tournament pretty much mandates cautious play. That would favor Virginia in a tight game.

On the other side of the West bracket, Southern Cal, Kansas and Iowa are the most likely to emerge although we wouldn’t rule out a surprising run by Drake and remember too that Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon has been a great clutch player throughout his career.

In the East, we like Michigan, despite missing Isaiah Livers, to get at least to the Sweet Sixteen. We’d like to see Florida State advance because that could be a good game and give Leonard Hamilton a chance to make up for his bizarre last NCAA game with the Wolverines (or rather his post-game interview).

On the lower half, look for Texas or Alabama to advance. Special note here: clearly, Alabama is a better team than Iona. However, Rick Pitino has a chance to make a point against the Crimson Tide, or really, against how he’s been treated since the change in fortunes at Louisville. Let’s put this in the nicest way possible: Pitino always does the Eddie Haskell when he’s in public but in private?

This guy has a huge ego. However, he also has huge coaching talent. He’s burning for redemption, just burning. Alabama better be ready because we’re pretty sure Iona will be. And also you know that Louisville, the first alternate, is really hoping that of all teams, Alabama stays healthy.

In the South, we think UNC will move past Wisconsin and will play Baylor. We’d like to see Baylor win of course but Covid clearly slowed that team down and they can’t match UNC’s inside game. Plus Ol’ Roy knows his way around the tournament. On the other hand, Baylor, if they’re close to 100 percent, is smaller but a great defensive team and Georgia Tech just reminded us of how that can turn out sometimes.

For Villanova, losing point guard Colin Gillespie was bad enough; Justin Moore’s ankle injury just piles on. He won’t be 100 percent even if he plays. The Wildcats could make a run but it’ll be really hard and more so if Moore struggles.

We’d expect Purdue to advance to the second round and likely the Sweet Sixteen.

It’s hard to argue against Texas Tech or Arkansas with one caveat: we’re not sure how Arkansas will do under the bright lights. Eric Musselman is a talented coach but the players haven’t been in this spot lately and it wouldn’t be the first time a good but inexperienced team blinked.

We’d see Florida-Virginia Tech as a toss-up but if Florida plays Omar Payne after what he did during the Tennessee game, something’s gone really wrong.

If you missed it, he gave UT’s John Fulkerson a concussion and serious facial injuries that have ended his season. If his coach, athletic director, university president and conference commissioner haven’t suspended him for the NCAA Tournament then the NCAA should do something. If Fulkerson can’t play in the NCAA Tournament then Payne shouldn’t either.

We really like Mike Young and his offense and Florida tends to be erratic so we’ll take the Hokies to move to the second round. Can they beat Ohio State?

We wouldn't rule it out but the prudent choice here would be OSU and they should advance to the Sweet Sixteen as well.

Something to consider in the Midwest: what happens if Loyola gets a shot at the home state Illini? Our guess is they’d be sky-high for that chance.

Georgia Tech was brilliant in Greensboro, but we’ve seen many teams hit an emotional high only to quickly realize that they can’t sustain or recapture it.

At any rate, we see Illinois going to the Sweet Sixteen no matter who gets in the way.

Oklahoma State and Tennessee in Round Two would be a really fun game partly to see what UT’s defense would do to counter OSU’s sensational freshman Cade Cunningham.

San Diego State traditionally plays good defense so they could certainly take Syracuse and then West Virginia, assuming the Mountaineers get by Morehead State, which they should, but keep in mind that Morehead is, like so many Kentucky schools, pretty good at basketball and rarely gets a shot at a West Virginia which is just a few hours over the mountains. Not that getting by Syracuse will be a breeze. Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone always gives his team, at a minimum, a puncher’s chance.

We’ve never thought much of Rutgers basketball frankly but this year the Scarlet Knights have played a brutal schedule and that should work in their favor against Clemson.

Possible upsets to watch:

  • UCSB over Creighton. It’s hard to tell how much Gregg McDermott’s plantation comments hav affected his team but since Georgetown beat them senseless, you have to wonder. We might take a flyer here.
  • Iowa is really tough but Grand Canyon is now coached by Bryce Drew. Unfairly fired by Vandy, he’s a very good coach who could make this an interesting game, especially if Iowa takes them lightly.
  • Could Drake make a run? They’re a very good team that could get to the Sweet Sixteen if things break right.
  • We’d like to see UNCG pull off Florida State but realistically, we don't see it. s
  • Iona. As we argued above, Rick Pitino would dearly love to kill someone in this tournament and start to restore his reputation. It can’t be Louisville unless Alabama has to pullout, but knocking off Alabama would be a solid accomplishment.
  • Winthrop. Villanova is hurting and Winthrop has, we think, the second-best record in the field at 23-1. Given Villanova’s guard woes, Winthrop has a legitimate shot. And if they pull this off, the time will never be better for Kelsey to take a bigger job.
  • We’re not sure that we’d call a Loyola win over Georgia Tech, if it happens, much of an upset, but one team plays in the ACC and one plays in the MVC. Media-wise,that would be portrayed as an upset.

A few extra notes:

  • Gonzaga has the pressure of being undefeated and not being challenged for months other than BYU in the WCC Conference Finals. Don’t underestimate that. They could get a level of game pressure that no one else will see.
  • Prior to the Livers injury, we thought that Michigan was an ideal candidate to beat Gonzaga if they both advanced that far. It’ll be tougher without him but given Michigan’s toughness, not impossible.
  • We haven’t said much about USC but we know they’re talented and we remember Dunk City. If you’d forgotten, USC coach Andy Enfield engineered that run.
  • For Loyola, it’s nice to see that Sister Jean is still with us and will be in Indy but she’s planning to be fairly reserved.