Thursday, March 16, 2017

Nine Years Later: Another Crean Ending

Just under nine years ago Tom Crean announced he was leaving Marquette. A day later, I wrote what has ultimately become the most widely read post in the history of my blog. And all these years later, each year I still know exactly when Indiana’s season is turning south when I get an e-mail notification that someone has commented on the blog that I stopped updating long ago. That e-mail notification undoubtedly means the same thing each time–someone on an Indiana basketball message board has linked to my old Crean post and a small group of people is essentially proclaiming me to be Nostradamus. And I’ve got one post from the old blog that’s going to be pretty popular for a couple of days.

I get a few smiles when my old blog gets dredged up and a bunch of nice strangers say that I gave a perfect analysis of who Crean is and how his time at Indiana would play out. Like the people linking to it, I’m also kind of amazed that I was so strangely accurate in my forecast. As is true for most people, I get things wrong a lot more than I get them right. But I will admit that when I wrote the Crean post, every opinion that I held about him something that I felt very strongly about. So it’s kind of cool to think that I really did know what I was talking about back in .

I thought with the benefit of nine years worth of perspective that it might be fun to reflect on my old blog post for anyone who might be interested in what I’m thinking today, as a much quieter college basketball fan. This was actually already in the works before Crean’s firing earlier today, but his termination obviously makes it a good time to reopen this topic. I was always fond of bullet points when I was writing the blog, so I’ll stick with that format for my various reflections here:

–I always get a chuckle reading the message board posts that link to my Crean post, as they almost always say something to the effect of "This Marquette fan really got this right." It’s technically fair to say that I’m a Marquette fan. I certainly wrote the post from that perspective, have always liked watching Marquette games, and even had season tickets for a brief time. But I’m actually a UW-Madison graduate and am a pretty die-hard Wisconsin fan. So it’s mildly amusing that my most popular post defines me as a fan of my favorite team’s most bitter non-conference rival.

–Despite that aforementioned rivalry, one thing that my Wisconsin fan friends and my Marquette fan friends have long agreed upon is that it’s highly enjoyable when we get to see a Tom Crean team lose. I think some of my MU friends even faced a bit of a moral dilemma over who to root against when the Wisconsin and Indiana played each other.

–Since I’ve mentioned sympathies toward different schools, I’ll suck up to any Indiana fans reading and note that IU was my second choice school coming out of high school. If not for the lure of in-state tuition, I’d likely be a Hoosier. As a matter of fact, last week I finally wore out the mesh shorts I bought in the bookstore when I toured the campus back in 1995. Or rather, my wife did–I should never have allowed her to borrow such a sacred article of clothing.

–Nine years later, I’m a bit more sympathetic to the Crean hiring than I was when I wrote my blog post. That’s partly because I didn’t understand how low things had sunk at Indiana at the time. Sure, we all knew that Kelvin Sampson’s reign had put a black cloud over the Hoosiers. But when things started trickling out like the story about Eli Holman angrily breaking a flower pot in a meeting with Crean, or Eric Gordon talking about how he had to stay away from his teammates because a number of them were using drugs, the need for a complete overhaul of the program became way more clear. As I wrote at the time, hiring someone clean was the biggest consideration for Indiana. And Indiana definitely hired the most high-profile clean guy they could find.

Furthermore, while there are plenty of negative things to say about Crean, one has to concede that he’s pretty good at rebuilding programs. Consider what he’s done at Marquette and Indiana. At MU, he took a program that was trending more towards a mid-major conference than a power conference. Four years later, he found himself in the Final Four and parlayed that into a spot in the Big East, which at the time was probably the best conference in the country. At IU he took over a program on probation and a roster littered with guys he needed to weed out for the good of the program, and by his fifth year the Hoosiers were the preseason #1 team in the country.

Sure, I think we can all agree that Crean’s personality and shaky basketball knowledge will probably keep him from ever building a consistently great program. He’s got a less than satisfying ceiling. But in terms of public relations and recruiting, it still remains hard to beat him. Even as a guy who pumps his fist in excitement every time I see Crean lose in heartbraking fashion and sprint through the post-game handshake line without looking at anyone from the opposing team, I must concede that if my program was in a dark place, he’d be the first guy I’d call in an attempt to turn things around. He’d be a perfect hire for a lot of schools if you could force him out right when things started to get good again. Unfortunately, that’s not really how the world works.

–My favorite moment of the Crean era? That’s an easy one–Crean’s first Big Ten win–a 2009 home win over Iowa. I didn’t like this moment because Indiana won (my preference was still for Crean losing). I liked it because his reaction to the win was the most Crean thing ever. Here’s Indiana, one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, notching a win (what would ultimately be IU’s only Big Ten win of the season, no less) over an Iowa team that entered the game 2-7 in Big Ten play and would finish just above the Hoosiers as the last two teams in the conference that season. And what does Crean do? He turns it into an impromptu pep rally in Assembly Hall, grabbing the microphone, gleefully addressing the crowd, and shouting to the fans "This is your win!"

I wish I could find archived video of Crean speaking to the crowd. I’m sure it would seem just as ridiculous to me if I saw it today. The best I can do is this video I found of a student TV production recapping the win. That video is amusing in and of itself, as none of the three players interviewed, Kyle Taber, Nick Williams and Malik Story, would be with the team the next season. Taber graduated, but Williams and Story, both freshmen at that point, did as so many other Crean players have and transferred elsewhere at the end of the season.

I say none of this to degrade the experience of IU fans at that game, by the way. I’m sure any small victory felt magnified for loyal fans gritting their way through the dark days of Indiana hoops. But Crean’s amplification of this nice little moment into something completely over-the-top was a great insight into how he runs things. Promote the heck out of any success that you have, and completely downplay the negatives while hoping that everyone just moves on. It works, but I’ve also always found it highly disingenuous. (I'm reminded of how, when he was at Marquette, he was always quick to join the post-game radio show after wins, but after tough losses you could bank on him sending out an assistant to do the talking.)

Ultimately, Crean's tenure at Indiana was not that much different than his time at Marquette--it was just magnified by a higher level of expectations. Crean’s got significant strengths, but they’re very specific. Indiana needed those specific strengths when Crean was initially hired, but the Hoosiers’ needs quickly changed as he got the program out of the gutter. Tom Crean, quite simply, is not a guy you want running your program unless it needs some major fixing. And once he fixed the major problems at IU, Crean was a terrible fit for the Hoosiers.

In the end, I’ll remember him as I saw him at the end of Tuesday night’s NIT game against Georgia Tech–sprinting through a handshake line after a loss without genuinely acknowledging his opponents and hoping that everyone will forget what just happened as soon as possible.

I can’t wait to see what’s in store for him next. And for the fans of whatever school Crean ends up at, please know that even though I’m not blogging regularly anymore, I’m always here for you, happy to lend support through this difficult era for you. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

2017 Bracket Breakdown

It was fun last year, so let’s make this a tradition–once a year I’m reviving the old blog for a day to share my NCAA tournament picks (for those Indiana fans who’ve been checking in on my old Tom Crean post, I might do a bonus update sometime in the near future, as well, since that’s an insanely fun topic for me).

Before I get to the traditional preamble, I need to vent about this year’s selection Sunday. As a Wisconsin fan, I saw the first two games of the tournament announced, stopped paying attention, and spent the remainder of the selection show angrily texting friends about Wisconsin’s 8-seed. And before you start telling me that’s not a thing to be upset about, I’d like to list the Big Ten conference standings for the top eight teams, followed by each team’s seeding:

#1 Purdue (4 seed)

#2 (tie) Wisconsin (8 seed)

#2 (tie) Maryland (6 seed)

#4 Minnesota (5 seed)

#5 (tie) Michigan (7 seed)

#5 (tie) Northwestern (8 seed)

#5 (tie) Michigan (9 seed)

#5 (tie) Iowa (NIT)

If you want to tell me that Wisconsin has some serious flaws this year, you’ll get no argument from me. Nor will I disagree if you point out that the Big Ten has not been its usual splendid self this season. It certainly hasn’t. But I would submit that the seeding of the teams (save for regular season champ Purdue) should not look like a bell curve when you list them out from first to last.

We'll stop there, thought. You don’t want to read the three paragraph angry-fan rant about injustice in the world, and I don’t want to re-read it and get my blood pressure up again. Let’s just say that it was glorious and ended with me offering hugs to Wichita State fans. And let's move on.

On to the traditional preamble, part of which I’m partially disclaiming this year. As always, my ground rules for picking tournament games:

1) Don’t just completely steal my picks (or anyone else’s, for that matter). I don’t mind it personally, but what fun is that for you? Think of it this way–what’s going to be more fulfilling to you: telling the guy in the cube next to you at work that you "totally called" Xavier knocking off Maryland, or telling him that some guy whose picks you followed clued you in that SMU is poised for a long run. Listen to advice from your doctor or your financial advisor, but the NCAA tournament is supposed to be fun. So relax and follow your instincts.

2) Normally this is where I tell you not to go nuts with picking upsets in the first two rounds, and that the NCAA selection knows more than you and has seeded teams appropriately. But this is a bizarre year. Leaving aside that the seedings of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Wichita State and Creighton have me questioning if the selection committee may actually know less than all of us, I can't recall the last time that every team in the field looks reasonably beatable. The overall top seed Villanova has three losses. The other #1 seeds are a one-loss team from a weak conference (Gonzaga), a team that lost its opening conference tournament game (Kansas) and a 7-loss teams (North Carolina).

And it just gets worse as you move down the lower seeds. If ever there was a year when a big number of the top seeds fail to make it to the second weekend and the Final Four is invaded by multiple 7-seeds, this is it. That’s what happens when the entire field of teams can be described by saying "I don’t know, they’re sort of good." This year the only thing I can confidently say about the tournament is that I have even less an idea of what’s going to happen than usual.

So while I’d normally caution you not to make a bunch of bizarre picks and eliminate yourself on the first weekend by picking all of the 3-seeds to bow out early, things are weird this year. So when it comes to your picks this year, let lean into it. Let’s get weird!

3) Have fun and make some picks for goofy reasons. There are 68 teams in this tournament, and unless your name is Jay Bilas or Dick Vitale, you probably haven’t seen all of them. So go ahead and pick Kansas State to win a game because your favorite aunt went there, or pick against Butler because the intern in your office who thinks he knows more than everyone who’s been working there for the past decade goes there. After all, last year wasn’t your pool won by the guy who meant to pick Vanderbilt to win the championship, but mistakenly took Villanova after mixing up the two private schools beginning with the letter V? See, you need some quirks, too.

On to the picks.  Some of the formatting is probably off, but hey, cut me a break--I only do this once a year.  Winners in bold:

First Four

(16) Mount St. Mary’s vs. (16) New Orleans: I know nothing about any of the 16-seeds playing in the two First Four games. I remember when I was a kid and I was jealous of the kids who went to parochial schools who got to play organized basketball for their school before 8th grade, when us public school kids finally got to play. So I just sort of naturally associate a school named "Mount St. Mary’s" with basketball. So they’re moving on.

(16) North Carolina Central vs. (16) UC-Davis: Like I said, I know nothing about the 16-seeds. I had a decent law school professor who went to UC-Davis, so that seems as good a reason to pick them as any.

(11) Kansas State vs. (11) Wake Forest: I’m kind of intrigued by Kansas State getting hot in the last few weeks, and in my initial run-through, I actually picked them to win here. Then I remembered that Wake Forest has John Collins and Bryant Crawford, two legit stars. Not to mention UWM graduate transfer Austin Arians, who my pals with Panther season tickets and I spent three seasons making fun of for his oddly short neck.

(11) Providence vs. (11) USC: Andy Enfield of Florida Gulf Coast "dunk city" fame back in 2013 was hired by USC after that epic run. He’s still there, and I still think that the Trojans are a bunch of guys who like to chuck the ball at the hoop as quickly as possible. In fairness, I didn’t see much of USC this year, but I really hated them last year. So I have them losing to a thoroughly uninspiring Providence team.

First Round

East Region

(1) Villanova vs. (16) Mount St. Mary’s: In past years I always dump on Villanova and talk about how I don’t believe in them. Well, I’m a believer now. Take note, college programs—all you need to do to win me over is win a national championship (preferably in a game with a super-exciting ending).

(8) Wisconsin vs. (9) Virginia Tech: As a Milwaukeean, I’m obviously familiar with VT coach and former Marquette coach Buzz Williams. And I’ll be honest—this matchup scares the hell out of me. Williams’ coached teams vacillate between being hyper-motivated and running their given opponent off the floor half the time and looking completely disinterested and unorganized the other half of the time. So while I know that this one won’t be close, I don’t know which way the blowout will go. I hope it goes the right way, or my outrage over Wisconsin getting a low seed is going to look really stupid.

(5) Virginia vs. (12) UNC-Wilmington: So the 5-12 matchup is the popular upset spot every year. But as my high school JV coach taught me way back when I was 15, defense is the one thing that never leaves you. Virginia’s defense isn’t going anywhere, and they’ll get by UNC-W in typically solid fashion.

(4) Florida vs. (13) East Tennessee State: Back when it existed last season, I became briefly enamored with daily fantasy college basketball. And Florida was always impossible to figure out, because every one of its players was good, but not great. Some would look upon that negatively (and indeed, it was awful for daily fantasy purposes). I call it balance and consistency. Florida wins this one, and I have no idea who leads the Gators in scoring in this or any other game.

(6) SMU vs. (11) Providence: If you asked me to describe Providence using one word, it would probably be "eh." The Friars are a complete non-entity to me. They’re so boring after losing their two stars from last year. As for SMU, I’ll just hold off on talking about them for now, because (foreshadowing alert) I’m going to talk a lot about them as I continue through my picks.

(3) Baylor vs. (14) New Mexico State: Have I mentioned that things are going to get weird this year? Here’s my first "let’s get weird" pick. Baylor has great big men, did well in a very strong Big 12 conference, and by all accounts should win this game. But Baylor University’s recent sexual assault scandals make it a pretty unsympathetic institution to root for. And given that my pal Peter got his master’s degree from NMSU, we’re going with the Aggies.

(7) South Carolina vs. (10) Marquette: I hope you like guards, because the big guys on both sides of this game are nothing to write home about. South Carolina defends really well. I didn’t see much of them this year, but every time I saw one of their scores come across the crawl this year, I thought to myself "oh yeah, I keep forgetting that those guys are surprisingly good." Ultimately, I’m giving the local guys the win this year, simply because history tells of that at least one of Andrew Rowsey, Katin Reinhardt, Markus Howard or Sam Hauser will go completely berserk from three-point range. And because I’m a shameless homer.

(2) Duke vs. (15) Troy: Duke is red hot, and some have even argued that they should have been a one-seed. Troy just sounds like the name of a complete douche you went to high school with that’s now attending Duke.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga v. (16) South Dakota State: Kudos to Milwaukee native T.J. Oltzelberger for getting the Jackrabbits to the tourney in his first year at SDSU. You need to save some goals for the future, though, so we’ll save the first tourney win for another year.

(8) Northwestern vs. (9) Vanderbilt: Great nerdy-looking point guard battle here. Vanderbilt has former Brookfield Central star Riley LaChance, who’s shockingly talented for a guy who appears comically undersized next to his teammates. Northwestern boasts Bryant McIntosh, the first Wildcat player to make me sort of like Northwestern since Vedran Vukusic. McIntosh really is pretty great, so we’re going Northwestern here.

(5) Notre Dame vs. (12) Princeton: I actually really like Notre Dame this year—they’re deep, they play well together, and as one of my friends convinced me week or two ago, if Mike Krzyzewski retired tomorrow, the best candidate to replace him out of all the former Duke assistants would probably be Irish coach Mike Brey. But right after the brackets came out, my dad commented to me "Princeton has a good shot at winning that one." It’s entirely possible he’s making that pick based on the play of 1960s Princeton star and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. But my theme for the tourney this year is "let’s get weird," and my dad picking an Ivy League winner is as good an excuse as any to get weird this tourney season!

(4) West Virginia vs. (13) Bucknell: West Virginia’s profile rose significantly when they pressed the hell out of then-#1 Baylor and ran the Bears off the court back in January. Less notable was their loss to Baylor a few weeks back. WVU hasn’t lost to any bad teams this year, though, so we’ll move them past Bucknell here.

(6) Maryland vs. (11) Xavier: Melo Trimble probably should have gone pro two years ago (side note--I didn't realize that he's still only a junior until hearing talk about whether he would go pro on a radio interview with Terps coach Mark Turgeon on Monday), as he suffered the classic freshman star fate of sticking around and letting people pick apart his game in order to make him undraftable. Meanwhile, Maryland has a couple of freshmen whose stock will trend in the right direction in the coming years. But for now, I’ll take a Xavier team from a better conference (and yes, it did hurt my soul to admit that).

(3) Florida State vs. (14) Florida Gulf Coast:  Florida State has outstanding athletes, but as one ESPN talking head I saw over the weekend said, "I don’t trust Florida State, and I don’t even think Florida State trusts itself." Add  the excitement of the 2013 "Dunk City" FGCU team, which I'm going to say (with no evidence to support my point) is the reason that all of the 2017 seniors decided to attend FGSU, and this felt like a wonderful place to pick an odd upset. Note also that there’s a very reasonable chance that the crowd in Orlando turns on FSU if this game gets close.

(7) St. Mary’s vs. (10) VCU: I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen to me that St. Mary’s is for real this year. Australian center Jock Landale puts up crazy number every night (besides having a completely awesome name), and has a stable of other steady forwards locking down the frontcourt with him. Against a post-Shaka Smart VCU team, that should be enough to move them along.

(2) Arizona vs. (15) North Dakota: Where would you rather live—Tempe or Grand Forks? I rest my case.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas vs. (16) UC Davis: Fun fact: I strongly considered both institutions for law school. I ultimately concluded that I wouldn’t get into UC Davis and didn’t apply, saving $60 on an application fee. Kansas admitted me, offered me generous aid, and I nearly went there. 17 years later, the warm feelings between me and the Jayhawks continue.

(8) Miami vs. (9) Michigan State: Never pick against Tom Izzo in March. Well, unless it’s last year. Then you should have picked against them. I’m going to say you’re on safe ground picking against the Spartans this year, too. Izzo is still great, but instead of a bunch of well-seasoned stars, this year he’s got a bunch of freshmen (albeit super-talented freshmen) leading the way. Yeah, in the last month they’ve finally gotten just good enough to be kind of scary in the tournament. But Miami coach Jim Larranaga is no slouch himself and is uniquely poised to make his team stand up to the Spartans where others would wilt. Don’t worry—Izzo should be poised to conquer the world again next year.

(5) Iowa State vs. (12) Nevada: Iowa State is my pet team. They always have plenty of Wisconsin natives on the roster (including star forward, Milwaukee Vincent grad and MU transfer Deonte Burton) and they play a super fun up-tempo style. This game is being played in Milwaukee, and if it wasn’t at the exact same time as the Wisconsin game, I’d be out on the corner of 4th and State on Friday night scalping tickets to cheer on Monte Morris and his pals. This one’s going to be fun, just not if you’re a Nevada fan.

(4) Purdue vs. (13) Vermont: Boilermakers vs. Catamounts is presumably the most unique first round mascot pairing around. I don’t know anything about Vermont, but I do know that I love Caleb Swanigan, and I loved him even more after reading
this SI profile about his rocky path to becoming a college hoops star. I can’t bring myself to pick against a kid who overcame stuff like that in the first round.

(6) Creighton vs (11) Rhode Islans: Creighton record before losing star point guard Maurice Watson for the season: 18-1 (and that one loss was to #1 Villanova). Creighton record after losing Maurice Watson: 7-8. Was the seeding committee aware that Creighton lost its point guard back in January? Because a 6-seed for a team that’s gone under .500 over the past two months seems very generous.

(3) Oregon vs. (14) Iona: Ironically, despite their array of colorful uniforms, the Ducks aren’t a ton of fun to watch. They’ve got a really good starting five, though, so I guess there’s that.

(7) Michigan vs. (10) Oklahoma State: I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of times about what a great story Michigan winning the Big Ten tournament was. And despite them beating my Badgers in the championship game I’m not going to crap on that story, because it’s actually a pretty great one. So let’s take a moment to reflect on the fact that the Wolverines walked away from a freaking plane crash, nearly voted to forfeit their first game in the Big Ten tournament, flew to DC a few hours before their 11am opening game against Illinois, beat the tar out of the Illini, and vanquished three more foes en route to winning the tournament. Meanwhile, one of Oklahoma State’s top players is 5'11" 
Phil Forte, whose photo I can already picture being examined by a bunch of kids in the future as someone tells them "See–I told you. Grandpa Phil really did play college basketball for the Cowboys."

(2) Louisville vs. (15) Jacksonville: Louisville is not actually good (more on that later), but they’re good enough to get by a 15 seed. The gods aren’t ready to reward us with such an early Rick Pitino departure.

South Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Texas Southern: My favorite campus in the country vs. a school located in a place where geographic clues imply to me that there’s presumably a ridiculous border wall about to be erected next to the quad? Get my sharpie so that I can write in "UNC."
(8) Arkansas vs. (9) Seton Hall: Having watched Seton Hall match up against Marquette this year, I cannot understate how good the Pirates’ big man Angel Delgado is. He’s a complete beast. Arkansas has their own beast down low in Moses Kingsley, but I simply saw Kingsley play less this year, so I’m going with the dude from the Big East who you can almost always count on for 15 rebounds.

(5) Minnesota vs. (12) Middle Tennessee State: I’m picking this one mostly because of the steam coming out of my ears when the Gophers snagged a 5-seed while Wisconsin came away with an 8-seed. Starting guard (and noted UWM transfer) Akeem Springs just blew out his Achilles and is done for the year, so there’s a logical reason to pick against Minnesota, as well. But I’m more concerned with balancing out injustice in the world.

(4) Butler vs. (13) Winthrop: I’m going to level with you–for a team that was in Marquette’s conference, I didn’t actually watch a lot of Butler this year.  I feel like they're just going to crash and burn next round anyway, so let's eliminate them now at the hands of a Winthrop team that I know nothing about.  It's a low-risk way to work in another upset in a year when we're going to see lots of them.

(6) Cincinnati vs. (12) Wake Forest: Every time I would see Cincinnati on TV this year I’d go into the game thinking that they weren’t that great, and then be quickly reminded that they never seem to lose. In any other year I’d probably pick against the Bearcats because head coach Mick Cronin preemptively called the NCAA selection process "rigged" a few weeks back (heaven knows I hate conspiracy theorists). But after my palpable anger when the seeds were released on Sunday night, I find myself kind of liking this Cronin fellow now. The strong run by Wake Forest to close out the season ends here.

(3) UCLA vs. (14) Kent State: I’ll talk later about how UCLA is overrated, but for now, let’s just agree that they’re still good enough to out-talent a Kent State team that snuck in by winning the MAC tournament.

(7) Dayton vs. (10) Wichita State: My gut reaction when I saw this game announced was to think that Wichita State was seeded too low, but to then question how much I really knew about Wichita State. After some digging, I learned that I was right–Wichita State is seeded too low. That’s a shame not just for them, but for a legitimately good Dayton team that shouldn’t have to play the Shockers this early. In a just world, I’d be talking about how great both of these mid-major teams is and how they’ll each make waves in the tournament. But instead, here I am talking about which one will be killed off immediately. So I’m going with a sympathy pick for the team that got hosed. Plus, the Wichita State fans my pal Samip and I befriended at the opening round games in Omaha two years ago were really cool.

(2) Kentucky vs. (15) Northern Kentucky: Fun fact: I visited the Northern Kentucky campus six years ago (back when they were Division 2) and own an NKU jersey and two NKU basketball t-shirts, thanks to an unbelievable clearance sale going on at the bookstore. Less fun fact: As a season ticket holder for a Horizon League team this year, I can tell you definitively that winning the league is a bit less impressive feat this year than usual. Which is to say that the starters for Northern Kentucky are going to be crying in the second half of this one, while the starters for Regular Kentucky are going to be resting.

Second Round

East Region

(1) Villanova vs. (8) Wisconsin: I love the Badgers, but I don’t trust them. It’s certainly possible I’m wrong, but when your second round opponent is the #1 overall seed in the tournament, I don’t see things ending well.
(4) Florida vs. (5) Virginia: I have a friend who’s a big Virginia fan. Loves the team, goes to most games, and knows more about them than 99% of the population. A few weeks ago when Virginia was in the midst of a rough patch, we were talking about their upcoming game against N.C. State and he noted he had randomly seen the Las Vegas line on the game and that betting against Virginia to win by 5.5 would be the easiest way of making money ever. Virginia proceeded to win the game by 15, contradicting everything that my friend said (and making me very happy that neither of us was anywhere near Vegas at the time). But his lack of confidence in UVA’s ability to score still speaks volumes. Take the Gators here.

(6) SMU vs. (14) New Mexico State: I’m not just picking the Mustangs here because I picked a 14-seed to be their opponent. SMU is legitimately awesome. They have no bench and rely almost exclusively on a 6-man rotation of interchangeable guys. But every one of those guys is pretty great. They’re athletic, fun to watch, and while I’m not saying that their team trainer found a cure for cancer earlier this year, I’m not *not* saying he found a cure for cancer. I think other people have caught on to how good the Mustangs are, so they may end up being a trendy upset pick. This mildly angers me, as I was on them months ago.

(2) Duke vs. (10) Marquette: Steve Wojciechowski has decent talent and will be taking on his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, a coaching legend, who has outstanding talent. Duke wins every metric here. They’re even traditionally better at getting hot from three-point range. Marquette always has a puncher’s chance with their three-point shooters, but that chance is pretty slim in this one.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga vs. (8) Northwestern: In an ironic twist, Northwestern falls here because a weak Big Ten failed to prepare it for the talents of the West Coast Conference champion.

(4) West Virginia vs. (12) Princeton: Fact: Less than a month ago while coaching against Texas, WVU head coach Bob Huggins collapsed during a timeout when his defibrillator went off, shocking his heart back into correct rhythm. He proceeded to briefly talk to team medical staff before shaking off the near heart attack, heading back to the bench, and continuing to coach. So yeah, I’d say he’s not leaving until he’s good and ready.

(11) Xavier vs. (14) Florida Gulf Coast: My "let’s get weird" proclamation puts me in a situation where neither team looks like a realistically good bet to get to the Sweet 16. Xavier is more of a proven commodity, however, so let’s go with the Musketeers here.

(1) Arizona vs. (7) St. Mary’s: As I said last round, St. Mary’s is legit. One problem, though. Their star player Jock Landale who completely overwhelms most opponents? He tends to struggle mightily when he has to play against good big men who can stand up to him. I’m thinking he’s not going to like Lauri Markkanen and Dusan Ristic.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas vs. (9) Miami: Frank Mason is well-rested after Kansas’ early exit from the Big 12 tournament, and teammate Josh Jackson is even more well rested after his suspension from that tournament game for damaging the car of a KU women’s hoops player. A well-rested KU team wins this on easily.

(5) Iowa State vs. (4) Purdue: Let’s take a look at that
Deonte Burton dunk in the Big 12 tournament. I want more of that in my life. Plus, have you heard that the Big Ten isn’t actually all that good this year? Cyclones advance.
(11) Rhode Island vs. (3) Oregon: My pal Austin is a huge Ducks fan. A couple days ago I texted him my condolences on Chris Boucher’s torn ACL closing out one of the most patently unfair senior seasons for any player ever. Austin replied that he thought this development put Oregon’s ceiling at about the Elite Eight. Taking the standard discount for rabid fan expectations, this means Oregon shouldn’t make the second weekend. I actually kind of think they’re going to win this one, but hey, I’m not the expert on the Ducks.

(7) Michigan vs. (2) Louisville: If you don’t think real hard, Louisville looks really good. Then when you look at their schedule, it reveals that they’ve got a 5-7 record against teams that were top-25 at the time the Cardinals played them this season. And one of the wins in that total was against early-season Indiana, which we now know was an overrated garbage team. I looked up that info basically just because it seemed like I needed a better justification for this pick than really liking Wolverine big man Mo Wagner.

South Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (9) Seton Hall: Seton Hall’s trio of junior stars (Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez and Kadeem Carrington) make this one closer than anyone expects, but the Pirates ultimately can’t overcome Carolina’s super deep, super talented roster.

(13) Winthrop vs. (12) Middle Tennessee State: I once saw an episode of Bar Rescue that featured a place from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where Middle Tennessee State is located. Let’s just say I have no interest in ever going to Murfreesboro.

(1) UCLA vs. (11) Wake Forest: Let’s get this straight–UCLA is maybe the most fun team to watch in the entire country. Fun does not always equal good, though, and so I think they’ve been overrated for a good portion of the year. The 3-seed they received, though, implies that people eventually caught on to the Bruins’ flaws. I’ve been waiting since December to pick someone to upset them in the tournament, but none of the thoroughly uninspiring first and potential second round opponents is going to get the job done. Plus, for the good of the country, we need to see UCLA play an insanely entertaining Sweet Sixteen game against...

(2) Kentucky vs. (10) Wichita State: Right about now Kentucky’s players are realizing that this is their last shot at a national championship. Not because they’re seniors who’ve exhausted their eligibility, but rather because they’re freshmen who stopped going to class second semester and would be ineligible to play next year. So this game is going to mean a lot more to them, since it's their final chance to shine before going pro.


Sweet Sixteen


East Region

(1) Villanova vs. (4) Florida: I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize for promising that things would get weird, and then making my first game prediction for the Sweet 16 one where both seeds hold, and the 1-seed keeps winning. If it’s any consolation, Villanova is usually the 1-seed that I proclaim to be a sham and have losing in the second round.
(2) Duke vs. (6) SMU: Can we talk for a moment about Grayson Allen’s bizarre career? His first year, he was largely unknown before being forced into action in the national championship game and almost single-handedly stealing the title from Wisconsin. His sophomore year he became arguably the most dangerous offensive player in the country. And now? He’s no longer a starter, stays on the sidelines during crunch time, and is best known for his dirty tactics on the floor. Anyway, enough about Grayson Allen. Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye is leading SMU to victory over his old teammates. Mark it down.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga vs. (4) West Virginia: A few weeks back I heard a few media types talking about how people tend to think that Gonzaga rarely lives up to expectations in the tournament, but that when you actually look at things, they tend to live up to exactly what they’re supposed to do in the tournament. This year the Zags have a stacked roster and are supposed to make a deep tournament run.  Presuming that those media types are accurate (and I did not stop to check their research), the Zags should keep moving on.

(2) Arizona vs. (11) Xavier: Arizona isn’t going to let freaking Xavier get in the way of a chance to avenge its December 3rd loss to Gonzaga. I just wish they’d show next round’s rematch at 10:30pm so that it could feel normal to those of us who like to take in the occasional West Coast hoops game.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas vs. (5) Iowa State: As noted earlier, Iowa State is my pet team. They also went 1-1 against Kansas during the regular season. So it’s only natural that I’d take the Cyclones to steal one more against a conference rival they’ve proven they can beat. Your square friends are all picking the Jayhawks, because 1-seeds are safe. Safety is for chumps this year, though.
(7) Michigan vs. (11) Rhode Island: I should be freaking out and questioning my sanity for having these teams playing for a spot in the Elite Eight, but I’m not. The higher seeds in their bracket are ones that aren’t going to win your bracket for you, anyway, so I’m happy taking a shot with these two. Let’s go with Michigan for the win here because a) I think a 7-seed going to the Elite Eight still sort of qualifies as getting weird, and b) it will make me feel better about Wisconsin losing to the Wolverines in the Big Ten championship game.

South Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (13) Winthrop: Winthrop may or may not be playing in this game, but given that the toughest potential opponent that the Tarheels could play here is Butler, I'm highly confident that North Carolina won't be challenged here.
(2) Kentucky vs. (3) UCLA: Good God is this going to be fun. I’m working out now just so that I don’t lose my breath just watching these teams run up and down the floor. Besides enjoying the massive point total that this game will produce, it will be fun observing your friends who watch less college hoops than you notice UCLA forward Thomas Welsh try to blend in with everyone and hearing them eventually ask "How did that tall, dorky-looking dude sneak past security and get a UCLA jersey?" Wildcats take this one on the last day when Malik Monk ever feels like he has the upper-hand on Lonzo Ball.

Elite Eight

Midwest Region

(1) Villanova vs. (6) SMU: If you read my earlier comments, you’re probably thinking "Really, Chris–a team that mostly plays just 6 guys is getting this far? Aren’t they going to get tired at some point?" And I’ll answer that fake question that I made up to fit my own narrative with another question: Do you remember what it was like to be 20 years old? I was a worst case scenario at that age: overweight, out of shape, and my only regular physical activity came when they played "Jump Around" at Wisconsin football games and six times per year I had to jump up and down for 45 straight seconds. But whenever one of my buddies randomly asked if I wanted to play pick-up hoops at the rec center? I was running up and down the floor like a crazy person for two hours without ever even thinking about my stamina. So no, I’m not going to worry about some college kids wearing down from playing four basketball games over a two-week period. I think they can handle it.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga vs. (2) Arizona: Right about now is when you should usually start questioning how good Gonzaga is, given that they play in the WCC. But this is a roster that would compete in the Pac-12. And they’ll prove that by taking down the Pac-12 champ. 

East Region

(5) Iowa State vs. (7) Michigan: Two of my battles to get to the Final Four involve one and two seeds facing off, so let’s be happy that I effectively lived up to the "let’s get weird!" theme in at least one region (truth be told, I have extreme trouble getting weird). I’m thinking Michigan’s strong end of season run finally ends here, though. Without doing any historical research, a loss in the Elite Eight feels like the usual John Beilein team ceiling. (Note: Don’t read that as a slam on Beilein–top eight is a pretty great landing spot.)

South Region

(1) North Carolina vs. (2) Kentucky:  This is a pure odds play.  Kentucky's half of the bracket features about four other teams that could end up in this spot without it being totally surprising.  I see only one team on North Carolina's side of the bracket (I'm looking at you, Seton Hall) that I think has a legit shot at beating them.  So because UNC is so much more likely just to be here than Kentucky is, I'm picking the Heels.

Final Four

Gonzaga vs. SMU: So by now you know how much I love SMU. And you probably know that I want to pick them through to the finals. But they’ve got one fatal flaw: my friend Adam picked them as his sleeper team this year. Each year Adam runs through some weird amalgamation of statistics that he compiles and finds one team that he completely falls in love with. And it has been my experience that while Adam is a really wonderful guy, his statistical models are pure garbage. So while my gut tells me that SMU can do this, my brain tells me that Adam can’t possibly be right about something this big.  I’m hedging my bets and picking Gonzaga through to the finals.
North Carolina vs. Iowa State: Logically, UNC wins this game. But two #1 seeds in the finals in 2017? That’s just not right. Iowa State–you’re in the right place at the right time, so I’m saying you win this game. Let’s get weird! Let’s get weird! Let’s get weird!


Gonzaga vs. Iowa State: Honestly, I wondered how Gonzaga couldn’t take a step back after losing Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer, the stars of last year's team. Enter transfers Nigel Williams-Goss and Johnathan Williams, a healthy Przemek Karnowski, and McDonald’s All-American freshman Zach Collins and against all odds, the roster actually got better. We’ve known for close to a decade that Gonzaga isn’t just some tiny mid-major from the Northwest, and this is finally the year that they notch their first national championship to validate their status as a national power and reward coach Mark Few's decision to stick around for awhile (say, what's Dan Monson up to these days?). Plus, I’ll level with you—I’m confused at how I picked Iowa State to get this far. That’s honestly probably not happening. I’m realizing just now that I may have gotten too weird.

I’ll be happy for the Zags when they pull this off. But I’ll be sad for the rest of the nation, as we’ll be resigned to at least two years of listening fans of every mid-major program in the country bitterly arguing that their team should be able to do exactly what Gonzaga just did if they just start doing things the right way. Yeah, you have fun with putting that really easy plan together Quinnipiac fans.

Enjoy the games, and enjoy getting weird with the brackets!


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