I’m here to tell you not to be ashamed if it took you an extra few days to fill out your NCAA Tournament bracket this week.
This college basketball season has been a roller-coaster ride of upsets, buzzer-beaters, stormed courts and no shortage of other indelible moments along the way.
The aftermath of it all has left us with a tournament, already widely regarded as the most exciting in sports, that is even more difficult to predict than usual.
While you’re pulling out your hair, destroying your erasers and crumpling up your brackets just to start all over again, here are some tips that might help you make some picks.
This year more than ever, though, take these words with the biggest grain of salt you can find.
■ Streaking to a title?
You’ll often hear the phrase “hottest team” when experts are comparing matchups in the tournament. It has become vogue to pick teams that won their respective conference tournaments, with the conventional wisdom arguing those are the squads playing their best basketball at the right time and benefitting from the confidence that comes with such a run.
History, though, doesn’t always favor the teams that enter the tournament on those blistering win streaks. In the past 20 seasons, nine NCAA champions had captured their conference titles earlier in the season, while nine Big Dance winners had fallen short in their league tourneys. (The Pac-10 Conference didn’t stage a postseason tournament when UCLA and Arizona won national championships in 1995 and 1997, respectively).
Of the six power conferences this season — ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — four league tournament winners are a Nos. 1 or 2 seed (Kansas, Louisville, Ohio State, Miami), while the other two are No. 12 seeds (Ole Miss, Oregon).
■ Gauging Cinderella
The emergence of Butler in recent years has altered the perception of what the so-called little guy can do in the NCAA Tournament.
The Bulldogs, a No. 6 seed in the East Region this season, have been in the national title game two of the last three seasons, and came within inches of winning it all in 2010 when Gordon Hayward’s final half-court shot in the final second against Duke just glazed off the rim.
But for all Butler’s success under Brad Stevens, small schools cracking college basketball’s biggest stage isn’t exactly a common occurrence. Of the 80 teams that have comprised the Final Four the last 20 seasons, only eight have come from outside the power six conferences, though three of those — Butler (twice) and VCU — have come in the last three seasons.
The last school to win an NCAA title from outside the big leagues was UNLV in 1990.
Delving further, one of college basketball’s elite powers — Kentucky, Connecticut, Duke, North Carolina and Kansas — has won the title in each of the last five seasons.
Could this be the year that another smaller conference school hoists the hardware? Top-seeded Gonzaga is among those who could certainly make a case.
■ What to make of the Big 12?
It was a banner year for the league in 2003, when Kansas and Texas both earned trips to the Final Four. In the nine tournaments since, though, only three Big 12 teams have reached that point, with Kansas the last team from the conference to win a national title in 2008.
I don’t see the Big 12 adding any more Final Four banners this season.
Kansas is a deserving No. 1 seed, but the Jayhawks have had too much inconsistency at the point-guard position from Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe. Here’s guessing they will struggle in the regional semifinals against formidable guard lineups from either Michigan or VCU.
Then again, its hard to count out Bill Self, who took a team few thought too highly of at the beginning of last season all the way to the national title game.
As for the rest of the league?
Kansas State has done a pretty remarkable job under first-year Bruce Weber, who has maximized the talent out of a roster without any big names save for guard Rodney McGruder. That said, I think Wisconsin’s physicality will prove too much in the third round.
At Oklahoma, Lon Kruger has become the first coach to take five different teams to the NCAA Tournament, and I think his Sooners will pull a minor upset of San Diego State. But they won’t be able to overcome Otto Porter and Georgetown in the round of 32.
Iowa State will struggle with the inside presence of Notre Dame in the second round. And the Irish, the top 3-point shooting team in the Big East, may be one of the few teams in the tournament that can hang with the Cyclones should this become a long-range shooting matchup.
The Big 12 team I think could surprise is Oklahoma State. That’s mainly because the league’s player of the year, Marcus Smart, has played his best basketball in the Cowboys’ biggest games of the season. Though inside production tends to be a problem for this team, it has what it takes to march to the Sweet 16, especially if OSU’s wild card, Le’Bryan Nash, plays to his potential.
■ A new Mr. March?
The NCAA Tournament is one of the biggest stage’s in sports, which opens the door for performers from anywhere in the country to make their mark on a national scale.
Some of the game’s greatest stars made their biggest impact during March Madness. Think Larry Bird and Magic Johnson dueling in the 1979 title game. Or freshman Carmelo Anthony putting Syracuse on his back in 2003 and carrying it to the championship. Or Joakim Noah and his impossible-to-miss combination of big hair and relentless energy leading Florida to back-to-back titles. Or Kemba Walker losing his mind while propelling Connecticut from a ninth-place finish in the Big East in 2011 all the way through the league tournament and on to a national championship.
Legends are made in this tournament, and the team that wins it all will probably do so on the back of a player who becomes a household name by the time the calendar hits April.
Here’s looking at you, Victor Oladipo.
■ Who is left standing?
My Final Four: Duke, Ohio State, Georgetown and Indiana. Why?
Duke: The Blue Devils have lost only one game this season with Ryan Kelly in the lineup. With the versatile forward healthy, they are a very difficult matchup for defenses.
Ohio State: Point guard Aaron Craft is an absolute pest, and the Buckeyes play the kind of defense necessary to make a major run.
Georgetown: Like UConn’s Kemba Walker in 2011, I think Otto Porter could be the kind of breakout star who could put a team on his back and shoot into the Final Four.
Indiana: The Hoosiers were picked No. 1 to start the season, and that was before Victor Oladipo became a major factor for the club.
Championship: Tom Crean restores glory to Bloomington as the Hoosiers top Duke to win their first national title since 1987.
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