If you like favorites, this is your year.
It shouldn’t take more than five minutes to fill out a viable NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket that has an excellent chance to win your annual office pool.
And don’t worry about the so-called bracket busters, those notoriously hard-to-foresee upsets that seem to kill the chances of so many pool players every year. This isn’t one of those years.
The tournament now belongs to the Big Boys. Regrettably, the charm of little schools that could upset the giants of the game may be a thing of the past. Cinderella will have to ride to the ball in her old pumpkin coach, or whatever that was — and will be turned down at the door by a great big guy with a wire out of his ear.
Nope, the NCAA is strictly for favorites these days. That’s partly because it is rigged by seeding. Yes, that is the correct word: rigged. Seeding is something invented at the country club. It should have no place in basketball, but sadly, it does. Seeding (placing the strongest teams against the weakest) helps the big-draw teams skip along through the tourney TV schedule.
But beyond that annual feast for the 1-percenters, there is a distinct split forming in college basketball. In 2017, there are about 20 schools out of a total of 351 Division 1 teams that can win the tournament. It may be as few as 10 — that have the best players, best recruiting coaches, best dates on TV and best free shoes.
You look at the Associated Press rankings for the 2016-17 season, and find the same 16 teams, pretty much, on top in the first poll of the season as the last — and filling the 16 top seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
And there may even be a split developing between the top eight and the second eight. Someday there could be only a four at the top. Like in Rome, with Ben Hur and the chariot drivers at the Coliseum. Hippodrome.
OK, so that’s a little far-fetched.
But here’s the test: Take a look at the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in this tournament. Try to find one you wouldn’t have said four months ago belonged on the list today. From Villanova top left on the page, to Kentucky bottom right. And Arizona bottom left to Kansas top right. Then add Duke, Gonzaga, Louisville and North Carolina in the middle, and …
And now you may proceed to fill out your brackets.
This forecaster won a big pool two seasons ago by marching little-considered Wisconsin to the final game (you remember the red-clad Badgers, don’t you?). But I don’t see a Wisconsin this time, unless it might be Wisconsin again. As the No. 8 seed in the East, Wisconsin will get the first good crack at top-rated Villanova.
Duke, the hottest team in the country at the moment, also is in the East — so that could be the region for a mild upset. Still, one must admire Villanova, the defending NCAA champion. Villanova is steady and confident. It’s between Villanova and Duke. Are you already yawning?
Elsewhere, it’s a breeze.
Out West, Gonzaga has a really nice team. Some folks will snicker at the Zags schedule, which is mostly Pacific Northwest teams. And they’ll note that Gonzaga has had chances before and not made it to the Final Four. But those are the same people who were all broken up when Goliath got beat by a kid with a slingshot.
The hardest to pick game inside the West Region is bookworms Northwestern vs. Vanderbilt. Those are team with records of 23-11 and 19-15, respectively, merely filling out a 64-team tourney. Your choice.
A more interesting match is Notre Dame (25-9) and Princeton (23-7). Two good teams. If your pool allows you to score more points based on seedings, try Princeton, a 12 seed against Notre Dame’s 5.
Over in the Midwest, Kansas is a little suspicious because historically it seems to find a way to get knocked out early. But the Jayhawks get the regional finals played in Kansas City, and should be OK if they can beat Purdue.
At the bottom of the Midwest bracket is Louisville, which earned its No. 2 rating around Christmas when it was playing so well. But as was pointed out in this space a week ago, the Cardinals seem to have lost their edge. You hear a lot of moaning about missed free throws costing Louisville an ACC tourney triumph over Duke this past weekend. But we would suggest it was horrible three-point shooting that doomed Louisville. Miss after miss. Tired late-season legs.
I think Michigan, which is streaking now, will take care of Louisville in the second round.
It would be a big thing for Louisville, though, to fight its way out of Indianapolis by beating Jacksonville State and Michigan. Then go off to Kansas City to play Oregon or Creighton, and maybe even Kansas.
It is usually a given that Louisville enters the tournament each year with experience in the NCAA (41 NCAA appearances, 10 Final Fours). But Louisville forfeited an NCAA appearance last season as self-punishment for salacious recruiting violations.
The Cardinals are a young team, and many of its best players, such as Deng Adel and Donovan Mitchell, have never played in the NCAA. A good experience this year would be invaluable next season.
Just incidently, have you noticed North Carolina coach Roy Williams and Louisville’s Rick Pitino taking pot shots at President Tweet? But they don’t have to worry, Trump University didn’t make the tournament.
Anyhow, the Midwest region is interesting, with Purdue, Creighton, Oregon and Michigan. All good teams. If you can steer one of those along through the bracket, that will help your pool immensely. But Kansas should win it.
Kind of the same look to the South Region, where North Carolina looks like the best chance on the board to make the Final Four.
Butler, which once was a Bracket Buster, is now a No. 4 seed — which puts them in the elite company. But the Bulldogs can’t beat North Carolina.
An interesting points pick-up possibility is our old friend Middle Tennessee (30-4, seed 12). Middle Tennessee is a booming state school near booming Nashville. Remember when the Blue Raiders upset Kentucky in 1982, to postpone the Louisville vs. Kentucky Dream Game for one year? Middle Tennessee will be pretty far north playing Minnesota in Milwaukee, but the gym will be heated.
Kentucky is the No. 2 seed in the South, and should march nicely along to a regional final against North Carolina. The Wildcats are playing well, and well rested, after a stress-free journey through the Southeastern Conference. This picker just thinks North Carolina — which has a team full of players with more than 100 college games played — is better.
Dayton could win a game against Wichita. The Wheat Shockers are no longer fun to root for now that the Koch Brothers own the school.
The upset possibility is UCLA, which may be a year away. The Bruins have a freshman center named T.J. Leaf who does it all, from every spot on the floor.
So there you have it, a couple mild upsets, but in general, the Royal Four advancing to the Final Four: Villanova could find the road rockiest, but we will include them to make this story’s lede work, with Gonzaga, Kansas and North Carolina.
What’s that you say? You could have picked those teams yourself?
Well, of course. That’s what we said. It’s a no-worries tourney. Fill out your bracket in a lot less time than it took to wade through this column. But thanks for reading.
And what? Oh, you wish the winner!