If you’re at all serious about it, you’ve probably taken your first stab at filling out a bracket by now. If you were as
serious ludicrous as I am about it, you’d have done it in real time as it was announced. I’d hear Greg Gumbel say, “Now ... the 15 seed in the West…” and immediately see an entire regional battle unfolding before me, much like that very intense prodigy who saw chess pieces on her ceiling in The Queen’s Gambit. But I don’t expect such levels of fanaticism from the vast majority of bracket-filler-outers. Most of you just wanna toss $20 in the pot, nail one or two first round upsets for office bragging rights and maybe have a team alive that final weekend to keep it interesting. I wish you luck, and I’m here to “help.”
Most people reading this article will not win their pool. Fact. There’s billions of potential avenues this thing can ramble down, and your sense that Texas is on a hot streak (or my sense that Creighton sucks) is just hot air. Nearly half the teams in the tourney are on hot streaks, having won three or four of five games in a row to capture their conference title. Spare me magic theories. We’re all tossing darts here, and we’ve all had a few too many Guinness to be trusted with sharp, projectile objects.
But if you’re like me, you read everyone’s takes anyway. Because yes, I also fill out two brackets every year and don’t trust anyone who doesn’t. I have my “gut” insta-analysis bracket that happens alongside Mr. Gumbel, then I have my bracket that is the sum of my picking apart of other folks’ insta-analyses. I’m not one of these people who drops the, “I’ve watched 437 hours of college hoops this year so I alone know how this is gonna play out.” I may have, but I still don’t have a clue. But I do know that the masses also lack sound reasoning in their prognostications.
So no, I do not like Georgetown to upset Colorado … are you mad?! The Hoyas just completed a historic — nay, unheard of — run to a Big East title. But they now become just one of 68, and are essentially a 19-seed, non-tourney team parading around as a 12. Good luck with that. Everyone’s running around with their hair on fire about Colgate and their top 10 NET ranking. They played three teams all season. THREE TEAMS! Boston University, Holy Cross and Army, who managed to clip them once. Over and over and over again, that was their “season.” The Red Raiders played a fourth team, Loyola (MD) in the Patriot League semis. Aaaaand dassit. I believe their first round matchup with Arkansas will be a high-scoring, entertaining tilt and they will lose.
So you want some reasoned upset picks? Understanding that I am exposing myself here to the perils of NYAH-NYAHism when I’m wrong, I’m not scared to take a leap of faith and put these on the record. Here are two for ya:
This happens every year. A team that many people (including me) believe didn’t deserve their bid comes out and wrecks a team that a bunch of TV talking heads put through to their Sweet 16. First of all, understand something: I loathe Syracuse basketball. I’m a St. John’s fan. My Sophie’s Choice is which team would I ban from NCAA basketball forever if I could, Syracuse or UConn? So it kills me to know that a win for the Orange here is a distinct possibility. San Diego State is another one of those teams who has played no one this year, and were 1-3 vs. tourney teams. The ‘Cuse had the shit kicked out of them by ACC teams all year, and while they didn’t win many of those battles, I’ll take my chances with that kind of trial by fire. One other note: Don’t expect a very high-scoring affair here.
Yeah, that’s right. I’m picking Virginia to lose in the first round for the second time in three tourneys. Yes, they won a national championship in the middle. They barely beat Syracuse on a last-second trey and then had to bow out of the ACC Tourney due to COVID protocols. They’re a good team, not great like they were two seasons ago, and they’ll be rusty and frankly weirded out. And they fall into that pack of teams that, for me, has a better record than the team I see on the floor (see also: Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, all also prime for upsets). Ohio beat 15-seed Cleveland State by 55 points this season. They lost to Illinois by two. And they can flat out score, averaging over 80 a game. The Cavaliers vaunted D will have their hands full no matter what.
The 6-line is turrible. I don’t like any of them. It wouldn’t shock me to see a Play-In Game winner waltz past USC or BYU. You know my thoughts on Syracuse. Utah State could easily surprise Texas Tech (they are an 11 who beat a 6 in San Diego State TWICE). Then in round two it’s a crapshoot, with a pretty solid grouping of 3-seeds. But I’m all for chaos, and this is where I’ll choose mine. And yes, there is historical precedence here, with VCUs 2011 run from PIG to Final Four being the standard bearer.
The top half of the East Region is the bracket of death. Loyola-Chicago is an 8-seed and Georgia Tech is a 9-seed and both are outstanding teams. You could kinda see the Ramblers’ jubilation on live TV turn to horror the second the Yellowjackets popped up as their opponent. Then to get Illinois in round two? My lord. Both teams could beat the Illini or get housed by 25. Then you have the potential for probably No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham waiting for you in the Sweet 16. Whichever team survives that bloodbath will destroy the lower-half survivor in the Elite 8 and, if it’s not Baylor they are up against in the Final Four, roll into the title game.
I do think Baylor survives the Midwest, but the 2-3-4 combo in that region of Ohio State-Arkansas-Purdue is probably my favorite, and the strongest, out of all the regions. Kansas/Iowa is a potential superb Sweet 16 matchup. Every 1-seed has a dangerous foe waiting for them in EITHER 8/9 winner. Watch out. That said, I believe Michigan has the easiest path of any 1-seed to win their region.
And that brings us to the obvious question: can Gonzaga shed a generation of doubt and finally claim their crown? Can they do so being the best team in basketball this season and become the first undefeated champ in 40+ years?
Prolly not. It’s just too much to ask for a team that didn’t play the prior year’s tournament because there was none. It’s too much when all they’ve heard for 20 years is how they choke in the big spot. It’s too much when the weight of history has taken down better teams (1990-91 UNLV, 2014-15 Kentucky, for two) seeking that perfect record. Add all that up and I just can’t see it, but I’ll be rooting for it as a fan of the game. I think Gonzaga has earned their shot at glory after so many disappointments. But I’m not going there with my bracket selections. I’m gonna work with those chess pieces I immediately saw on my ceiling Sunday evening and give you not a definitive Final Four, which you don’t need from yet another nobody on the internet, but my best-case scenarios. I said I liked Michigan’s path to the Final Four and I do, but if any team will knock them out, it will come from that 2/7 pod, UConn or Alabama. Gonzaga should make a Final Four at least, but if not, look to that Iowa/Kansas winner as the reason not (and don’t sleep on the Jayhawks in a “down” year for them). Baylor is a helluva team. But that 2-3-4 combo is lethal and one of those sides will stop them. Then I’ll go with that Illinois/Georgia Tech/Oklahoma State battle royal survivor, and if it’s the Illini then I have them pegged wrong. From this mishegas I’ll make these definitive statements:
Gonzaga can’t overcome the history standing in their way. Michigan cannot win a title without Isaiah Livers returning from injury. Illinois’ unpredictability will be its downfall.
Congratulations to the Baylor Bears, your 2020-21 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champions.