As a high school junior in 2001, I finished in ninth-place in The Sporting News' online bracket challenge. In that bracket, I picked the entire Midwest Region correctly, and also picked 16 seed Boston to upset No. 1 Cincinnati because I legitimately thought it was going to happen. It didn't, but the Bearcats lost a round later, which allowed me to remain in contention and ultimately win a free pair of binoculars. Seriously, I finished in ninth-place in a contest with tens of thousands of participants and my reward was a pair of binoculars.
I've also lost to my mom, who I once heard ask how many points a charge was worth, in two of the last three bracket competitions I've participated in. Just letting you know a little bit about what you're getting into with the "expert" picks you're about to trudge through.
Liberty (16) vs. North Carolina A&T (16)
Rationale: The team with the losing record that made a remarkable run in its conference tournament to get here has fared pretty well historically at the "First Four" or in the "Play-in-Game." Liberty is historically bad (they have the worst RPI in NCAA Tournament history), but I'll still go with the team that's most living the dream.
Middle Tennessee State (11) vs. St. Mary's (11)
Winner: Saint Mary's
Rationale: Middle Tennessee becomes the third straight hotly-contested mid-major to crash the First Four. A year ago it was Iona who drew the ire of fans across the country, and the Gaels responded by blowing a 75-pont (hyperbole) second half lead and losing to BYU. The year before that VCU was the team nobody thought belonged, and the Rams wound up in the Final Four. I think the Blue Raiders (that's Middle Tennessee) are more Iona than VCU.
LIU Brooklyn (16) vs. JMU (16)
Winner: LIU Brooklyn
Rationale: Jamal Olasewere and the Blackbirds are too good to be in this game, which is a shame for James Madison.
Boise State (13) vs. La Salle (13)
Winner: Boise State
Rationale: It'd be hard for these two teams to be more similar. I'm riding with the Broncos because I love Anthony Drmic's game and because La Salle is heading into the tournament coming off of two pretty convincing defeats.
ROUND OF 64
Louisville (1) vs. Liberty (16)
Rationale: Because I'm not trying to be funny.
Colorado State (8) vs. Missouri (9)
Winner: Colorado State
Rationale: "Boring" team from a well-known conference versus under-achieving preseason national title contender is a classic 8/9 matchup. Everyone always wants to talk about how things could start to finally click for the latter team and they could upset the tournament favorite during the first weekend, and then they wind up not making it out the round of 64. See the 2011-12 Connecticut Huskies for more on this topic. It's not a fail-proof system, but always go with the consistent, disciplined, "boring" team in these situations.
Oklahoma State (5) vs. Oregon (12)
Winner: Oklahoma State
Rationale: Oregon got a raw deal with its seed, but they do get to play this game close to home in San Jose. Still, stars have a way of advancing in the tournament, and there might not be a bigger star in the Midwest than Marcus Smart.
Saint Louis (4) vs. New Mexico State (13)
Winner: Saint Louis
Rationale: The guys who have covered the Atlantic 10 closely since the start of the season talk about the Billikens the same way my dad and his friends talk about Phi Slamma Jamma. While I don't think they're quite the national title contender that A-10 enthusiasts believe they are, they're still far too disciplined to be knocked out by the WAC champions.
Memphis (6) vs. Saint Mary's (11)
Rationale: I hate myself for picking this Memphis team to win a game, any game, in the NCAA Tournament because I swore I wouldn't, but this is a favorable matchup for Josh Pastner's team. I promise I won't be doing it again.
Michigan State (3) vs. Valparaiso (14)
Winner: Michigan State
Rationale: Don't be surprised if this is close throughout. The Crusaders are a veteran team that shoots well enough to hang with just about anybody for an extended period of time. They also have a coach in Bryce Drew who knows a little bit about March Madness. Still, Tom Izzo, March and all of that. The Spartans aren't going down in the round of 64.
Creighton (7) vs. Cincinnati (10)
Rationale: I'm very aware that I've picked straight chalk up to this point, which makes me want to go with an "upset" here, but Creighton is a better team than Cincinnati, and they have a lot of guys who have already experienced winning in the NCAA Tournament. They also have Doug McDermott, and Cincinnati does not have Doug McDermott.
Duke (2) vs. Albany (15)
Rationale: As badly as the world wants a "LOL, DUKE LOST TO ANOTHER 15, Y'ALL" moment, it ain't happening with this group.
ROUND OF 32
Louisville (1) vs. Colorado State (8)
Rationale: Here's a little known fact: When Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich was looking for a replacement for Hallf of Fame coach Denny Crum, Larry Eustachy was actually his second choice behind Rick Pitino. That...that would not have gone as well as the Pitino thing has. The Rams will make this a very competitive game if U of L doesn't come out with the mindset that it has to protect the glass in order to win.
Saint Louis (4) vs. Oklahoma State (5)
Rationale: I've had it in my mind for about six weeks now that Oklahoma State was going to be my sleeper Final Four team, but they haven't played their best basketball over the past two weeks, and they got a brutal deal by being stuck in this region. I'll go with discipline and tournament experience over next-level talent in this one.
Michigan State (3) vs. Memphis (6)
Winner: Michigan State
Rationale: I'm not saying I'm trying to make up for my guilt over picking Memphis in the last round, but the Spartans win this one by 150.
Duke (2) vs. Creighton (7)
Rationale: Gonna be a lootttt of white guys on that floor. Duke's are better.
Louisville (1) vs. Saint Louis (4)
Rationale: The Cardinals get more transition points off of turnovers than any other team in this tournament, which makes the Billikens - who prefer to slow things down and take care of the ball extremely well - an unattractive opponent for a regional semifinal. All you have to do is look at the way SLU performed against VCU and their "Havoc" defense to know that they have a fighting chance against the No. 1 overall seed. Still, Louisville isn't VCU, and the Cardinals have just as much poise and experience as the Billikens.
Duke (2) vs. Michigan State (3)
Rationale: Izzo vs. Krzyzewsk in the Sweet 16? Not bad, Midwest Region. Not bad at all. The Blue Devils have a huge advantage inside with Mason Plumlee, and Michigan State's veteran guards have been inconsistent all season long in big games. Duke moves on and sets up a mammoth regional final.
Louisville (1) vs. Duke (2)
Rationale: This would be a rematch of the Battle 4 Atlantis championship game from back in November, in which Duke defeated a Louisville team playing without starting center Gorgui Dieng. One of the most overlooked weaknesses of this Blue Devil team is that they have multiple players who have trouble being at full strength without a full three or four days of rest. Seth Curry is the biggest example, but Coach K also blamed a poor performance from Mason Plumlee in February on the fact that he was "playing on fumes." Struggling with exhaustion isn't a good trait to have when you're going up against a Rick Pitino Louisville team in a regional final.
ROUND OF 64
Gonzaga (1) vs. Southern (16)
Rationale: They're a lot better than Southern at basketball.
Pittsburgh (8) vs. Wichita State (9)
Rationale: The Panthers seem like one of the more under-seeded teams in the field, especially when you consider that the teams that finished just above the in the Big East earned seeds of one, two and three, and that the team that finished just behind them (Syracuse) is a four seed. Everyone is predicting that they'll beat Gonzaga before this game is even over.
Wisconsin (5) vs. Ole Miss (12)
Rationale: Unless Bo Ryan has a heart attack after watching five minutes of Marshall Henderson, then the Badgers are moving on.
Kansas State (4) vs. Boise State (13)
Winner: Kansas State
Rationale: Classic McGruder. The last time I'm ever going to be able to say it (foreshadowing).
Arizona (6) vs. Belmont (11)
Rationale: This is the situation I hate most when filling out brackets. If Arizona wins this game then I can see them advancing all the way to the Elite 8, BUT, I love the Bruins here. Give me the always reliable Ian Clark over the always unreliable Mark Lyons.
New Mexico (3) vs. Harvard (14)
Winner: New Mexico
Rationale: They won at Cal early in the season, but this Harvard team - which lost senior co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry to a season-long suspension at the beginning of the year - isn't as dangerous as their name and seed would lead you to believe. The Lobos, on the other hand, are a genuine article.
Notre Dame (7) vs. Iowa State (10)
Winner: Iowa State
Rationale: Because Notre Dame is Notre Dame and they don't win games in the NCAA Tournament.
Ohio State (2) vs. Iona (15)
Winner: Ohio State
Rationale: Iona is the fourth-highest scoring team in college basketball and lays claim to one of the most exciting players in the tournament in Lamont "MoMo" Jones, but they're also as interested in playing defense as I am in "Married to Jonas" (slightly). Still, this will be fun to watch for extended periods of time.
ROUND OF 32
Gonzaga (1) vs. Pittsburgh (8)
Rationale: In a way, this would be sweet revenge for Pitt. The Panthers were stunned by mid-major power Butler in a complete role-reversal of this situation in 2011's Round of 32. Everyone and their drunk aunt is going to tell you that Gonzaga is going down here, but the Bulldogs aren't the complete pretender that college hoops purists desperately want to believe they are. Kelly Olynyk might score 40 in this game if Steven Adams doesn't play show up with the right mindset.
Kansas State (4) vs. Wisconsin (5)
Rationale: This Kansas State team has felt destined to lose in the Round of 32 since the season began. Don't ask any questions and don't try to understand (Blessed Union of Souls).
New Mexico (3) vs. Belmont (11)
Winner: New Mexico
Rationale: Despite having a pretty a great fan base and a pretty healthy tradition, the Lobos have never advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. It's a fact that's in jeopardy of persisting for most of the game, but big shot Tony Snell makes the difference down the stretch.
Ohio State (2) vs. Iowa State (10)
Winner: Ohio State
Rationale: The Cyclones have no answer for DeShaun Thomas, who goes off on the first weekend of the big dance for a second straight yet.
Gonzaga (1) vs. Wisconsin (5)
Rationale: Double overtime. Period. Write it down. Take it to the bank.
Ohio State (2) vs. New Mexico (3)
Winner: Ohio State
Rationale: The general public picks Ohio State at an alarmingly high rate which leads ESPN analysts and college basketball writers to defend New Mexico profusely in the days leading up to this game. The Buckeyes win by double digits.
Gonzaga (1) vs. Ohio State (2)
Winner: Ohio State
Rationale: I think this is the region where it's most likely that we'll see a 5/11 (or something along those lines) Elite 8 matchup, which is why I'm ashamed of myself for copping out and going with another 1/2 regional final. Anyway, Gonzaga loses a close game and everyone celebrates it as a moral victory for the little guy like they did with St. Joe's in '04. It'll be ridiculous and downright demeaning to GU's fantastic program, but it will happen.
ROUND OF 64
Kansas (1) vs. Western Kentucky (16)
Rationale: Love you, Big Red.
North Carolina (8) vs. Villanova (9)
Winner: North Carolina
Rationale: Typically when there's a potential juicy round of 32 matchup like Roy Williams going up against Kansas, it winds up not coming to pass. Because of this, I would have taken any of the other nine seeds to beat North Carolina in this game, but 'Nova is over-seeded and doesn't have the firepower to keep up with a UNC team that's playing its best basketball of the season.
VCU (5) vs. Akron (12)
Rationale: Getting matched up with VCU is pretty much the biggest middle finger from the committee a team that just suspended its starting point guard could get.
Michigan (4) vs. South Dakota State (13)
Rationale: I was 99.97 percent sure that Michigan was losing to Ohio in last year's 4/13 game, and on paper this looks like a similar situation. It's just hard to envision a team with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. being one and done, even if Nate Wolters and company are fully capable of springing an upset or two. This might be the best game of the first two days of the tournament.
UCLA (6) vs. Minnesota (11)
Rationale: I've been saying that people were going to take the Bruins too far in their brackets for months, but now that Jordan Adams is done for the year and everyone has them going one and out, I almost want to pick them here. Almost. Minnesota isn't a bad draw for UCLA, but I trust post-2007 Ben Howland as far as I can throw Reggie Johnson.
Florida (3) vs. Northwestern State (14)
Rationale: This isn't 2006, and Florida isn't Iowa.
San Diego State (7) vs. Oklahoma (10)
Rationale: Jamaal Franklin potentially doing something cool is the only draw here. The Aztecs have lost six of their last seven games away from home.
Georgetown (2) vs. Florida Gulf Coast (15)
Rationale: If there's another 2/15 stunner in this year's tournament, it's probably going to involve the 15 seed that beat Miami by double digits. I don't think there's a 2/15 stunner in this year's tournament ... which is why 10 seconds ago you read that I picked Georgetown.
ROUND OF 32
Kansas (1) vs. North Carolina (8)
Rationale: I don't trust North Carolina teams with any less than four potential first round NBA Draft picks. Even if you stretch, it's hard to find any more than three on this squad.
Michigan (4) vs. VCU (5)
Rationale: Pressing, running, shooting, guards, guards, guards; that's my five-word summary of this game. It should be enough to draw you in. John Beilein's guards are better.
Florida (3) vs. Minnesota (11)
Rationale: Accurate or not, it feels like Florida always winds up playing a double-digit seed that sprung an upset in the round of 32. It also feels like they always win said game with ease. It happens again in 2013.
Georgetown (2) vs. Oklahoma (10)
Rationale: Because of their occasional offensive struggles, I can see the Hoyas going down early like they did in 2008 and 2010. I just can't see Oklahoma doing the upsetting.
Kansas (1) vs. Michigan (4)
Georgetown (2) vs. Florida (3)
Florida (3) vs. Michigan (4)
Indiana (1) vs. LIU Brooklyn (16)
Rationale: LIU isn't going to not get up-and-down just because they're playing Indiana. That's not going to go well for them.
N.C. State (8) vs. Temple (9)
Rationale: Please see the 8/9 picking guide from the Midwest Region.
UNLV (5) vs. California (12)
Rationale: The ever-rare Round of 64 rematch from the regular season. Vegas has consistently disappointed in the tournament in recent years, but this is a good draw for them. Anthony Bennett and company dispose of the Bears for a second time.
Syracuse (4) vs. Montana (13)
Rationale: This one has all the makings of an upset. Syracuse is coming off a historic collapse in the Big East title game and is facing a team with tournament experience and a bona fide star in Will Cherry ... which is why I'm picking the Orange. See the Blessed Union of Souls lyric from earlier.
Butler (6) vs. Bucknell (11)
Rationale: Mike Muscala and the Bison give the new "Hollywood" Bulldogs from the A-10 a taste of their own medicine.
Marquette (3) vs. Davidson (14)
Rationale: I feel very confident about this. The Golden Eagles have no business being on the three line, and Davidson would be one of the more dangerous 13 seeds in the tournament had they been slotted there. Bob McKillop, Jake Cohen and the Wildcats advance in the big dance for the first time since Stephen Curry left town.
Illinois (7) vs. Colorado (10).
Rationale: This will be the game anti-college basketball fans point to and say "how can you watch this?" Fork stab them in the kidney as Andre Roberson snags another rebound.
Miami (2) vs. Pacific (15)
Rationale: Larkin and Scott combine for 50 plus. You say "yes," when asked if Shane is Barry Larkin's son on at least three separate occasions.
ROUND OF 32
Indiana (1) vs. Temple (9)
Rationale: The casual college hoops fan falls in love with Victor Oladipo, who does things that no one on Temple has an answer for.
Syracuse (4) vs. UNLV (5)
Rationale: Two teams that everyone wants to be be better than they are. Both teams will have less than 20 points at the under four timeout in the first half. Write that down on a post-it and put said post-it on the wall above your bed until this game is played.
Bucknell (11) vs. Davidson (14)
Rationale: America falls in love with the same team it fell in love with five years ago.
Miami (2) vs. Colorado (10)
Rationale The Canes survive a scare and everyone starts calling them a pretender. Jim Larranaga cusses those people out in his mind but says the right things publicly. Reggie Johnson eats a sandwich.
Indiana (1) vs. Syracuse (4)
Rationale: The Hoosiers win by 20, spawning a hoard of meaningless "are they now the favorite?" conversations.
Miami (2) vs. Davidson (14)
Rationale: In a cruel twist of fate, Davidson misses a three at the buzzer just like they did in '08.
Indiana (1) vs. Miami (2)
Rationale: Jordan Hulls goes crazy from the outside and the nation again falls into a meaningless debate over whether or not the Hooisers are the favorites as they head to Atlanta.
Louisville (1) vs. Ohio State (2)
Rationale: Aaron Craft going up Louisville's duo of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith will be the main attraction, but the Cards out-tough the Buckeyes in the paint to seal the deal in the game's final minutes. Montrezl Harrell dunks and screams multiple times.
Indiana (1) vs. Florida (3)
Rationale: Five thousand Louisville/Indiana previews are dragged into the trash can icon as the Gators go berserk from beyond the arc.
National Championship Game
Louisville (1) vs. Florida (3)
Rationale: Rick Pitino claims his second national title by beating his protege, Billy Donovan. Former two-star recruit Russ Smith is named Final Four MVP and every major scouting service instantly bursts into Internet flames.