High seed most likely to get upset in the first weekend — Duke
If it weren’t for Murray State, Duke would no doubt be this tournament’s biggest bracket destroyer. As a 2-seed led by possibly the greatest coach in the history of the game, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the Blue Devils made it to the Final Four. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if in Duke’s second-round game against Notre Dame or Xavier, ARPF1 finally started getting called for his flagrant traveling, Seth Curry went cold, Andre Dawkins stayed cold, the lingering pain in Ryan Kelly’s ankle slowed him down, Mason Plumlee missed so many free throws that it affected the rest of his game, and Miles Plumlee’s hair gel got in his eyes when he started sweating. The gap between the best-case scenario and worst-case scenario for Duke is greater than for any other team in the tournament, which is why even though I don’t necessarily think they’ll get bounced in the first weekend, an early loss from Duke wouldn’t catch me off guard as much as an early loss from Kentucky or Baylor.
ARPF = Austin Rivers’s Punchable Face, for those of you who don’t know
Double-digit seed most likely to make the Sweet 16 — Xavier
Xavier hasn’t exactly had a great season, and they enter the tournament coming off a dud in the Atlantic 10 championship game against St. Bonaventure. But this pick has less to do with them and more to do with how Notre Dame and Duke have been playing lately. Starting with a huge win over Syracuse in late January, Notre Dame went on a nine-game winning streak and became the darlings of the Big East. But the Irish have gone just 2-3 in their last five games, including a loss at 13-19 St. John’s and a six-point home win against 15-17 Providence. Duke’s last five games also haven’t been pretty, highlighted by having to eke out an overtime win against 16-17 Virginia Tech at home and getting shellacked by North Carolina two weekends ago. Success in the NCAA tournament isn’t about having the best team — it’s about peaking at the right time. And while Xavier isn’t exactly peaking, they also aren’t in the midst of a nosedive.
Final Four pick — Kentucky
With a struggling Duke as the 2-seed and an underachieving Baylor as the 3-seed in their bracket, Kentucky is the no-brainer Final Four pick from the South. None of the previous criticisms of John Calipari’s teams apply to this team, as they are about as flawless as a college basketball team gets. Their loss to Vanderbilt on Sunday is slightly worrisome, but it was pretty obvious that the Wildcats were bored with the entire SEC tournament and Vanderbilt’s slew of upperclassmen really wanted to win the thing. I’ll give them a pass. At the end of the day, Kentucky has the most talent (by a long shot) in the bracket, they’ll play relatively close to home in all four games before the Final Four, and they lead the country in both unibrows and Workaholics loose-butthole hand gestures.
High seed most likely to get upset in the first weekend — Florida State
There’s a good chance this pick will end up making me look stupid because of how well Florida State played in the ACC tournament, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take because Cincinnati might be playing even better. Some of you are probably concerned that the Bearcats put up 44 points against Louisville in the Big East tournament championship, but let’s not forget that that was their third game in three days and their first two games were a double-overtime win against 14th-ranked Georgetown and a three-point win against no. 2 Syracuse. Cincinnati closed out February with a huge win against Marquette, had a great March, and is the only Big East team to have beaten every ranked team in the conference. Don’t get me wrong — Florida State is a dangerous squad that’s hot at the right time, so this pick isn’t about the Seminoles’ shortcomings. It’s about Cincinnati having a ton of talent and appearing as though they’re finally getting it all working together.
Double-digit seed most likely to make the Sweet 16 — West Virginia
Without taking the time to actually look this up, I’d be willing to bet that West Virginia got about as good of a draw as a 10-seed has ever gotten in NCAA tournament history. Not only are the Mountaineers playing in Pittsburgh — a 90-minute drive from their campus — but their first game is against Gonzaga, which has to travel all the way from Spokane, Washington. West Virginia also matches up better with Ohio State than any other 2-seed in the tournament. Assuming they can upset the Zags in the first round,2 West Virginia would likely play Ohio State. And while OSU is clearly the better team on paper, the Buckeyes have struggled this season against big, physical teams that get after it on defense. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Deniz Kilicli’s beard held Jared Sullinger in check. And even though Deshaun Thomas has greatly improved his defense over the course of the season, I’m not sure anybody can guard Kevin Jones.
This wouldn’t even be much of an upset. Gonzaga is probably the better team, but West Virginia will have 10 times as many fans in attendance and they aren’t nearly as bad as their record indicates (they either beat or came within five points of beating each of the top seven teams in the Big East this year).
Final Four pick — Syracuse
My heart is screaming at me to not pick Syracuse for a variety of reasons, but my head can’t come up with a better alternative. I could see Kansas State, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, Florida State, and Cincinnati all giving the Orange a good game, but I don’t seriously believe that any of those teams will beat ‘Cuse. Then again, I seem to say this every year with Syracuse and every year they find a way to prove me wrong. But there’s something different about this Syracuse team that makes me want to believe in them, and it probably has something to do with the fact that this is the best defense Jim Boeheim has ever had and the Orange have a ton of weapons on offense. So I’m going with Syracuse yet again, which is a decision that two weeks from now I’ll probably be trying to convince myself was right.
High seed most likely to get upset in the first weekend — Marquette
Yes, Memphis will be dangerous in the second round,3 and yes, Branden Dawson’s ACL tear is a huge loss for Michigan State. But I learned three very important lessons before my seventh birthday: Steve from Blue’s Clues can’t actually hear me when I yell out where Blue’s paw prints are; the other possibilities in the Choose Your Own Adventure books are always better than the one I choose; and Tom Izzo’s teams should never be counted out of the NCAA tournament. For any reason. Ever. Meanwhile, Missouri will play either Florida or Virginia after they win their opener, both of which would be favorable matchups for the Tigers.4 So I have no choice but to pick Marquette as the high seed in the West that’s most likely to get upset early, especially considering that in the second round they’ll have to play 30-1 Murray State in Louisville, which will essentially be a home game for the Racers since all the Kentucky fans in the arena (UK plays in Louisville, too) will surely cheer them on.
If you enjoy being annoying to the point that everyone in your life hates you, be sure to correct people who refer to the games played on Thursday and Friday as the “first round.” I don’t care what the NCAA says — unless the tournament expands to 128 teams, Thursday and Friday games are the first round and Saturday and Sunday games are the second round.
Florida is essentially just a worse version of Missouri, and thanks to my jinx a couple months ago (I wrote that Virginia would make the Sweet 16 barring an injury to a key player), the Cavaliers have lost 7-foot center Assane Sene to an ankle injury and a subsequent suspension for violating team rules.
Double-digit seed most likely to make the Sweet 16 — Virginia
I know — this pick doesn’t make any sense because I just wrote that Virginia is a good matchup for Missouri and that Florida is just a poor man’s Mizzou (in essence, both of Virginia’s first two opponents match up well with the Cavaliers). But here’s the flip side to that: These are also good matchups for Virginia, because the Cavaliers’ style could gum up Florida and Missouri’s high-scoring offensive machines. UVA plays great defense and slows the tempo, which could frustrate Florida and Missouri since both of those teams want to play up-and-down. The Gators and Tigers aren’t nearly as good when they score in the 60s.5 If Virginia can slow down the game, guard the 3-point line, and get Mike Scott going, they could pull off a pair of upsets this weekend.
When scoring 69 or fewer points this season, Missouri is 2-2 (including a one-point win at Texas that they were lucky to escape with), Florida is 5-6, and Virginia is 15-9.
Final Four pick — Missouri
Virginia may have what it takes to beat Missouri, but I don’t think they actually will. The Tigers are the best team in the West bracket, and I expect them to prove it by advancing to New Orleans. I know this contradicts my philosophy of not counting out Michigan State and I know that the Spartan frontcourt will probably destroy the Tigers if the two teams play in the Elite Eight, but I’m sticking with Mizzou simply because I think they’re the better team.
High seed most likely to get upset in the first weekend — Georgetown
Double-digit seed most likely to make the Sweet 16 — Belmont
Here’s a twofer. I have a feeling this game will be the popular 14-over-3 pick in this year’s bracket, and with good reason. Even with Cody Zeller pulling Indiana out of the Big Ten gutter, Georgetown has been the biggest surprise in college basketball this season. The Hoyas were picked to finish 10th in the Big East, but thanks to the combination of Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson’s leadership, Henry Sims’s improvement from last year, and John Thompson III’s steady coaching, they went 12-6 and finished fourth in a pretty tough league. They’ve had a great year and they deserve credit for it. But the truth is that I would’ve picked Belmont to beat any of the 3-seeds in this year’s tournament, because they’ve got that classic upset-minded mid-major feel to them. This, of course, is my way of saying that they’re undersized, they’ve got a ton of white guys, they’re experienced, and they’ve got a handful of shooters who you know are going to get hot just because it’s March Madness and these things are inevitable.
Final Four pick — North Carolina
I’m sure Duke fans will tell you it was completely worth it, but when Duke came back to beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill, they woke a sleeping giant. More specifically, they drew penises in permanent marker on the sleeping giant’s forehead and woke it up by hitting it in the crotch and pouring a bucket of cold water on its head. Ever since that loss, Carolina has looked like a completely different team — a team on a mission. Yes, I know that the Heels lost to Florida State in the ACC championship game and were lackluster against NC State in the conference semis, but it’s no secret that few elite teams actually care about winning their conference tournament, especially when they’ve got a no. 1 seed locked up. Plus, North Carolina was playing without John Henson, who is probably their most complete all-around player. Assuming he returns and they play as hard as they did when they exacted revenge on Duke last Saturday, I think the national title is North Carolina’s to lose.