Every year, I go into this feeling great. My bracket is fresh and crisp and full of clean lines and sensible logic. All season, I’ve watched hoops. I’ve done my research. I’ve compared styles and matchups; considered injuries and mental fortitude; identified the perfect Cinderellas. So now, at the cusp of what we’ve all been waiting for, my bracket is immaculate.
That feeling will last until about 3 p.m. Thursday. After that it likely will be a sea of regret and angry red scribbles, crumpled from being folded into my back pocket and getting balled up after a particularly damaging result. Last season, as the college basketball writer, I finished second-to-last in the company pool. I wore that one. Let’s never mention it again, though.
Understandably, all of this might not inspire you to adopt this rendering. But my confidence is renewed. This year, I did something different. In a season without a clear front-runner, I picked my bracket mostly backward, starting with my national champ and moving back to my Final Four. And so forth. I took some calculated chances here and there. But I stuck with my gut. Maybe it’s brilliant. Maybe it’s terrible. Either way, for at least today, it is immaculate.
Dream matchup: Florida vs. Kansas. As long as Jayhawks big man Joel Embiid is back, that is. These are two teams playing at perhaps the highest level of anyone in the country at the moment, and two that are loaded with talent. Both have top-20 offenses, but the Gators also boast the fifth-best defense. And you know what they say about that: It wins games.
Upset special: Stephen F. Austin over Virginia Commonwealth. This should be a great matchup as well, with both teams loving to pressure and get steals. Can the Lumberjacks out-havoc the program that coined the phrase? I say yes. Stephen F. Austin hasn’t lost since November and forces turnovers at the nation’s third-best rate, and the Lumberjacks don’t appear to be slowing down now.
And the winner is ... Florida. The Gators are just too balanced a team to be overcome. But plowing through the SEC is a different story than doing so in the Big Dance. When they hit the tournament’s most elite, the Gators will fall.
Dream matchup: Arizona vs. San Diego State. Two defensive stalwarts, one ticket to the next round. The Wildcats are a favorite by many to climb to the title game, but San Diego State will test their will early. If the Aztecs can score enough to keep up, Arizona could find itself in trouble in the final minutes. Still, the Wildcats will do what they have done all season, and walk away with the victory.
Upset special: Nebraska over Baylor. So you have survived and advanced in the terrifying Big 12, Baylor. So you have a top-10 offense and a center who swats away shots at the rim like mosquitoes in July. Doesn’t matter. Nebrasketball has staged an improbable run to the Big Dance and Tim Miles and Co. ain’t going home yet. Terran Petteway and his hot-shooting hand will lead the way.
And the winner is ... Creighton. It seemed like the Big East tournament should have belonged to the Bluejays. Instead, they crumbled to Providence. That loss, plus two in the final three games of the season, will have Creighton angry. Doug McDermott will top off his career with the one thing he doesn’t have: a deep run in the Dance.
Dream matchup: Michigan State vs. Iowa State. The second and third seeds are not the strongest in this region. Both the Spartans and the Cyclones are coming off tournament championships in perhaps the two best leagues in the country. Tom Izzo and Fred Hoiberg have each gotten their teams to improve as the season has gone on. With Michigan State finally healthy and rolling, I can’t wait to see this one.
Upset special: St. Joe’s, St. Joe’s, will you be this year’s Cinderella? A few days ago, the Hawks were teetering precariously on the bubble. But St. Joe’s took its fate into its own hands, winning the A-10 conference tournament and landing a 10 seed. There is plenty to like about this wily, tested bunch. And they will get plenty of opportunities to prove they belong, starting off with UConn.
And the winner is ... Michigan State. And they won’t stop at the Final Four. It has been a long road for the Spartans, but they found a way even when players were dropping like 16 seeds. Now that their ailments are behind them, it’s almost scary to think about what they could do.
Dream matchup: Louisville vs. Manhattan. You have to think the committee smiled a little when they penned this one. Jaspers head coach Steve Masiello started out as a walk-on for Rick Pitino and later was an assistant coach under the living legend. Mentor vs. protégé. This is going to be fun for all.
Upset special: Massachusetts has been inconsistent this season, but when the Minutemen are on, they’re on. Does anyone have more heart and guts than 5-9 point guard Chaz Williams? If he can adequately feed Cady LaLanne in the post and UMass can stay away from turnovers, the Minutemen have a shot. See ya, Blue Devils.
And the winner is ... Louisville. What did Wichita State get for going undefeated? A path that is lined with the likes of Duke, Louisville and Michigan. Oy. This region is absolutely stacked, but someone has got to walk away with it. Louisville, I think that’s you, playing ruiner to the pursuit of perfect. The defending champ knows a little about the trials in getting to the top. But this time, the Cardinals will stop just short of cutting down the nets.