This article is part of our College Hoops Barometer series.
What's the best part of writing about college basketball? March Madness. What's the worst part of writing about college basketball? Predicting March Madness. Everyone wants advice in March. "You watch all year, you must have some incredible insights!" The truth is, I don't always even win the bracket pool among my co-workers or law school friends. Let's be honest; your boss who couldn't name one player on Gonzaga or pick Ayo Dosunmu out of a lineup has a better shot at winning.
That's what the Madness brings; you're bombarded with statistics, formulas, diagrams, depth charts and "gut feelings". And, after all that time spent crunching numbers and doing research, your spouse who picked the games by color ends up with a better bracket than you. Or your four-year-old son picks UMBC to beat Virginia. Yes, that actually happened.
But fear not, my friends. There is hope for us yet. All hail, "The NCAA Tournament Gospel". The following five rules have been passed down from generation to generation. These tenets have been collected over the years, reprised, tweaked and edited. They highlight my strategies and theories on picking a successful bracket. I don't always pick the Final Four correctly, but when I do, these are my guidelines. Behold, the Commandments of Madness.
1. Do not pick all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. First of all, what's the fun in that? Secondly, the only year since seeding began in 1979 that four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four was 2008. In fact, three No. 1 seeds have made it just four times in the same year in the modern era. In 2019, just one No. 1 seed made the Final Four.
2. If you don't like a high-seeded squad, pick it to go out as soon as reasonably possible. So, if you don't believe in, say, Michigan, pick the Wolverines to lose once they get past the No. 16 seed. You'll be the only one who picks that game correctly, and even if it's an incorrect selection, you wouldn't have had Michigan going that far anyway.
3. There are no bragging rights for picking a No. 10 over a No. 7 seed, or a No. 9 over a No. 8 seed. These are not upsets. All those teams are basically even. Take bigger risks! Even the 11-6 matchup is starting to not feel like an upset anymore. And forget about 12-5, which will be explored in the next rule.
4. While we're on the subject of upsets, pick at least one 12-5 trap game. Maybe two. Or perhaps I could interest you in three? In 2019, No. 12 seeds defeated No. 5 seeds thrice. Liberty defeated Mississippi State, Murray State beat Marquette, and Oregon beat Wisconsin. The gap between conferences appears to be shrinking. Soon you're going to need to pick that Cinderella darling seeded 13 or lower to truly be able to pat yourself on the back for an upset.
5. Pick at least one seed lower than a 10 to make the Sweet 16. In 2019, Oregon made the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed. Besides, I'd rather pick the games by which mascot would win in a fight than pick all favorites.
Now that you're primed to fill out that winning bracket, let's take a more in-depth look at the regions.
Ok, so the whole geographical split of the regions is more for tradition than anything else this year, as all the games will be played in and around Indianapolis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With that out of the way, Illinois is the cream of the crop in the Midwest, but a difficult Round 2 matchup with Loyola Chicago could be on the horizon. That's right, Sister Jean and the Ramblers are back, and this squad may be better than the one that made that miraculous Final Four run in 2018. The matchup between Cameron Krutwig and Kofi Cockburn should be great theater. Of course, ACC Tournament Champion Georgia Tech is Loyola Chicago's first-round opponent and will certainly have something to say about that.
Liberty won as a No. 12 seed in 2019 as referenced above, and enters the tourney as a No. 13 squad versus presumptive No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have been riding high of late, but one player does not make an NCAA Tournament squad. Syracuse is an intriguing No. 11 seed as well. Rutgers is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, and plays a Clemson squad that lost to Miami in the ACC Tournament.
Houston is the No. 2 seed; can the Cougars resurrect Phi Slama Jama? Houston did make the Sweet 16 in 2019, its first appearance there since 1984. They look to have a favorable draw on their side of the region.
This region is a bit upside down in this respect; the middle seeds have had more recent NCAA Tournament success than the top teams. Villanova at No. 5, Texas Tech at No. 6, Florida at No. 7, North Carolina at No. 8 and Wisconsin at No. 9 have all been in the Final Four since 2014. Meanwhile, No. 1 seed Baylor has not reached that spot since 1950, No. 3 Arkansas has not made the Final Four since 1995 and No. 4 Purdue hasn't seen such a position since 1980. No. 2 Ohio State has made the Final Four most recently of that foursome, in 2012.
A potential second-round matchup between gigantic North Carolina and guard-heavy Baylor represents a huge clash of styles. While we are on the Tar Heels, please note that UNC coach Roy Williams has NEVER lost a first-round matchup, either while at Kansas or at North Carolina. Yes, you read that correctly.
Aside from the Villanova alumni, everyone is going to have this upset; the No. 5 Wildcats could be in trouble against No. 12 Winthrop. The Wildcats lost their floor general in the form of Collin Gillespie to a season-ending knee injury, leaving them vulnerable. Winthrop is deep, plays at a fast pace and lost just once this season. This contest has upset written all over it.
Will 2021 be the culmination of Gonzaga's incredible string of success, punctuating the rise from Cinderella darling to mid-major powerhouse to National Champion? Don't forget about the specter of an undefeated season hanging over the 'Zags as well. The committee certainly did the Bulldogs no favors with this draw, setting up a Sweet 16 battle with No. 4 Virginia, assuming the Cavaliers can overcome recent COVID issues within the program. The Hoos were the best team in the ACC during the regular season but had to bow out of the ACC Tournament early due to COVID. Of course, if No. 3 Kansas and No. 4 Virginia cannot field teams due to the virus, or are less than full strength, then Gonzaga has a cakewalk to the Elite 8.
Iowa is the No. 2 seed in this region, led by National Player of the Year Luka Garza. I'm torn between VCU and Oregon as a second-round opponent for the Hawkeyes; both teams get slightly overlooked due to the conferences they play in. However, on the right day, either one of them could knock off Iowa.
In fact, the rest of this region could be a glorious mess. The Gauchos of UC-Santa Barbara are sitting pretty at No. 12, leaving Creighton, who was pasted by Georgetown in the Big East Championship, as a nervous No. 5 squad. Evan Mobley of USC strikes fear in his opponents, but the rest of the Trojans have been inconsistent, leaving them open to a letdown versus either Wichita State or Drake.
How big is the injury of Isaiah Livers for Michigan? It wasn't enough to deter the committee giving them a No. 1 seed, and the Wolverines nearly topped rival Ohio State without him in the Big Ten Tournament. Still, they will be missing 13.1 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per contest from the senior due to a stress fracture in his foot. A meeting with LSU or St. Bonaventure in the second round could spell early doom for the shorthanded Wolverines. The Bonnies are a particularly intriguing squad after winning the A-10 Tournament but garnering just a No. 9 seed.
Patrick Ewing and the Hoyas started from the bottom, but now they're here. The Hoyas shook off a dicey regular season and won the Big East Tournament, barely pushing their overall record to above .500. Still, few teams enter the big dance playing better than the Hoyas, who have won four-straight contests punctuated by a 25-point mashing of Creighton in the Big East Title game. And guess what? Georgetown is a No. 12 seed. Watch out, Colorado.
Michigan State and UCLA are No. 11 seeds in one of the play-in games, but whoever advances could have a unique role as a giant killer. Normally favorites, the Spartans in particular have won a bevy of games against top-tier opposition in the Big Ten down the stretch of the season. No. 3 Texas and No. 2 Alabama could get much more than they bargained for in this side of the region. Also, as an NCAA columnist I am contractually obligated to mention that Rick Pitino coaches No. 15 Iona.
Picking against Gonzaga, at least before the Final Four, seems like a bad idea. The 'Zags have been by far the most consistent team this season, have survived a couple of tests and still come out the other side unscathed. The rest of the regions, though, appear to have the No. 1 seed in some sort of peril prior to reaching that point. Illinois survived a bruising run through the Big Ten Tournament, and may face difficult second and third round matchups with Georgia Tech, Loyola Chicago and/or Oklahoma State. However, the other side of the region feels a bit soft. I love love love Loyola-Chicago, but will stick with the bland pick and the Illini.
The East region feels entirely up for grabs, and I do not believe Michigan will be able to overcome the injury to Isaiah Livers. I can find a case for any of Alabama, Texas or Florida State. I wouldn't even mind No. 11 Michigan State. The Seminoles have been to just one Final Four (1972), but have been to the Sweet 16 in each of the last two tournaments, as well as the Elite 8 in 2018. This may be Leonard Hamilton's best coaching job, and the rest of the country will become much more familiar with freshman sensation Scottie Barnes. I'll take FSU in the East.
Baylor could have to beat half of the Big Ten in order to get to the Final Four in the South, with Wisconsin, Purdue and Ohio State as possible opponents. Duane Washington for the Buckeyes has been scoring at a high rate of late and could be the key to an OSU run to the Final Four. I'll take the Buckeyes as the last Final Four entry. The Big Ten has been the best conference in college basketball this season, so it seems right to have two team representatives. Certainly, Big 12 fans will have something to say about that.