What’s the best way? We’re all still searching. Some, like myself, go over each matchup with tortoise-like consideration and the best analytics handy. Others fill it out based on the ferociousness of the mascots, travel appeal or which team their dog looks at first when they hold up flash cards. I’ve filled it out by region, by round, by upset potential and backward from the champion. I’ve been right in spontaneous picks; wrong on scrutinized decisions. But perhaps that’s the beauty of the process: Each path yields a highly personal result and gives both the average fan and the junkie a rooting interest in every single game ... until you’re far too wrong to care anymore, that is. And best of all: Filling out the bracket gives us all, for one day at least, a chance to be the expert. This time around, I landed on Iowa State. The Cyclones have been attacking March, furiously returning from double-digit deficits and racing past great teams with a high-scoring, deep roster. Come for the cascade of threes; stay for the active front line. This team is going places, and I’m excited to watch it do just that.
Dream matchup: Want to see a prime collegiate environment with story lines galore and big upset potential? Root for Kansas to play in-state-wish-they-were-a-rival Wichita State in the round of 32. The Shockers, who ran the table in the regular season a year ago, were underseeded as a 7, and the Jayhawks are more than a little banged up. Look forward to a matchup that should occur every year but doesn’t. And Fred VanVleet vs. Frank Mason at point guard. And, oh yeah, a big Shocking victory by the underdog.
Upset special: I’m taking Buffalo, a Ken Pomeroy darling, over a West Virginia team that has plenty of holes. Bobby Hurley’s Bulls have no real weaknesses to exploit and put together a nonconference schedule that showed them something about how to compete in the spotlight. Now they will have another shot.
And the winner is … Kentucky. Surprise, surprise, right? The big, long, deep Wildcats are the favorite, whipping up on teams by an average of 20-plus points per game. The scary thing? The Wildcats might only be getting better.
Dream matchup: Coaching buddies Rick Pitino and Larry Shyatt go head-to-head in a game that pits powerhouse Louisville against Wyoming, a wannabe-Cinderella with substance. If not for a couple of bad losses endured without leading scorer Larry Nance, the versatile, defensive-minded Cowboys would be seeded higher. They have a chance against an inconsistent Louisville team that no longer has Chris Jones.
Upset special: Michigan State over Virginia. Yes, an argument could be made for the Virginia as a championship contender. But with the Cavaliers currently riding an injured Justin Anderson, the door is left open. Enter Michigan State, playing its best ball of the season. The Spartans, though occasionally mind-numbing in their poor decisions, have talent, experience and of course the great Tom Izzo at the helm.
And the winner is … Oklahoma. The Sooners aren’t garnering a ton of national championship-type talk, but coach Lon Kruger’s bunch, led by Buddy Hield and Isaiah Cousins, is plenty capable after emerging from the Big 12 battle-tested, resilient and defensively tougher than ever.
Dream matchup: Another parade of enticing potential matchups here. Quick-and-agile teams Baylor and Brigham Young as a possible head-to-head in the round of 32 would be DVR-worthy. Wisconsin vs. North Carolina would pair up two long, athletic teams. And if the Badgers get through, as I have them doing? Their top-notch offense will have Arizona’s first-class defense to reckon with. With this much drama, you won’t be getting off the couch, so bring snacks.
Upset special: BYU all the way to the Sweet Sixteen — from the play-in game. I know what you’re thinking: That’s a lot of upsets. But these Cougars have the stuff, and they showed it in beating Gonzaga on the road at the end of February. Keep an eye on Kyle Collinsworth, who at 6-6 has notched six (SIX) triple-doubles this year.
And the winner is … Arizona. What is it they say about defense? It wins championships. I don’t have the Wildcats going quite that far, but their size, elite coaching (Sean Miller vs. Bo Ryan) and sturdiness of T.J. McConnell give them the heat necessary to get by Wisconsin in a rematch of last year’s region final.
Dream matchup: This region is full of them — an all-Cinderella matchup with Eastern Washington and Stephen F. Austin in the round of 32 anyone? — but Duke-Iowa State takes the cake. Both have top-10 offenses. Both have extremely versatile and entertaining players manning the frontcourt. But while the Blue Devils are relying on an infusion of hotshot youths, the Cyclones are built on the sturdy bricks of veterans. Who wins out?
Upset special: Perhaps the better question is: Who isn’t getting upset in this region. The South hosts some of the masses’ most popular darlings, starting with Eastern Washington over Georgetown (I ultimately decided against it) and Davidson over the hot-and-cold Iowa. My favorite? Stephen F. Austin over Utah. I’m not taking the Lumberjacks quite as far as I did last year, but I still like their hectic defense.
And the winner is … Iowa State. With Georges Niang in the frontcourt, Monte Morris in the backcourt and plenty of matchup advantages otherwise, the Cyclones have the pieces in place. As each of its past five opponents found out after big leads crumbled, Iowa State can put up points in a hurry — on anyone.