It became clear at some point in mid-January that no one was ever going to know anything for sure this college basketball season. We were going to think that we knew some things, and then those notions were going to be blown to little bits shortly after the apparent revelations.
That dose of reality, led to this:
Your NCAA Tournament bracket is going to suck— Mike Rutherford (@CardChronicle) January 13, 2016
Now, here I am, making public selections and attempting to justify them for you. Am I confident in what you're about to see? Absolutely not. Is it going to happen anyway? Let's go ...
Maryland-Cal is a super attractive potential second-round matchup of the two biggest "if they can ever play to their full potential" teams of the 2015-16 season. Shockingly, teams that have underachieved with superior talent for the previous four months almost never seem to have that magical light bulb moment in the tournament, regardless of how trendy a Final Four pick they are. Assuming a sexy matchup is going to happen rarely ends well, which means there's about a 97% chance that one of these teams loses their opening round game.
South Dakota State got the worst possible five seed draw with Maryland, so let's go with Cal, which looked fantastic in the Pac-12 Tournament before losing to Utah in a hard luck semifinal, which is kind of the trend the Bears have established all year. The Rainbow Warriors pull the first major upset of March Madness and drinks are on Robert Kekaula.
Villanova may not have gotten a No. 1 seed, but the Wildcats got just about the best draw possible when it comes to exorcising some demons and making it out of the first weekend of the dance. It would be shocking to see them fall to either uninspiring Temple or free-falling Iowa. That sets up a potential Sweet 16 showdown with Miami in a game that would feature fantastic guard play.
Kansas could have a tricky Sweet 16 game with Maryland, but even though the Terps actually might be the more talented overall team, the Jayhawks have been the most consistent team in college basketball since the start of conference play. The Jayhawks handle business there and in the regional final, and are appropriately battle tested when they arrive in Houston for the season's final weekend.
The West Region seems like it could wind up being both the weakest and the most entertaining group of 16 (or 17 ... whatever) in the tournament. There are a handful of really offensively gifted teams here that aren't nearly as committed to getting the job done on the other end of the floor, which is always the March recipe for exciting games and crazy results.
Let's start with the defending national champions, Duke, who seem to be in a never-ending cycle of either going as deep as possible in the big dance or losing to a double-digit seed on opening weekend. It's the latter phenomenon's turn, and the thin bench of the Blue Devils bites them against Kevin Keatts and UNC-Wilmington.
Northern Iowa/Texas seems like a trendy upset pick, and I've never been above following trends when they make sense. The Panthers have the experience of having won a game in this tournament a season ago, and while it's been an overachieving season for Shaka Smart's Longhorns, they have looked atrocious in two of their last three games.
Phil Martelli's St. Joseph's squad has not resembled a regional finalist at really any point this season, but they have the right draw and the right momentum after their run in the A-10 Tournament to capture the hearts of Philadelphia like it's 2004 again. DeAndre Bembry becomes the household name he should have been all season, and the Hawks come within a game of crashing the Final Four.
Before the brackets were released, I was already 99 percent committed to taking Oklahoma to the Final Four. They have experience, they have a March-tested coach, they have the best scorer (and I think the best player) in college basketball, and they're entering the tournament coming off the best motivational loss I can imagine. This draw just made it that much easier to pencil the Sooners all the way to Houston.
Potential Cinderella: Northern Iowa is cruising after remarkable turnaround
A controversial at-large selection makes it out of the First Four and wins at least one game in the main draw every year, so let's take Michigan to take care of Tulsa (Tulsa seriously made the tournament, it still makes no sense) and then put an end to a disappointing season for Notre Dame. The Wolverines then fall to a West Virginia team that I have incorrectly picked against all season, and which (full disclosure) I originally had losing to Stephen F. Austin before I remembered how many times they've made me feel foolish.
The top half of the draw is immensely more interesting than the bottom half, so let's focus on that.
The first thing that hits you is the potential second-round matchup between Kentucky and Indiana. The regional rivals played each other annually up until the 2011-12 season. You'll get a different answer as to why the series ended depending on which side you're speaking with, but suffice it to say, there's no love lost there, which would make for an extremely entertaining round of 32 viewing experience.
The bad news for both those teams is that North Carolina and its massive frontcourt advantage is likely waiting for them in the Sweet 16. So long as the Tar Heels don't revert to their "look like they'd rather be doing other things besides playing basketball" ways, it's hard for me to see them being taken out by any team in this region. Their shooting woes disappeared for the most part in the ACC Tournament, and they played with the level of intensity that should have made them the best team in the country for the past five months.
Let's start with this: Little Rock is beating Purdue. Tell your spouses, tell your kids, tell your co-workers, tell whoever. It's happening. I'm sorry, Hammer and Rails.
The primary storyline in this region, of course, is the potential for Michigan State vs. Virginia Part III. The Spartans have upset the Cavaliers in the round of 32 and the Sweet 16 the past two years, and now they're looking to add a regional final to the figurative trophy case. Like with the Cal-Maryland game, this is one of those deals where it seems so likely to happen that you know somebody is going to spoil it.
That somebody is going to be Iowa State. The Cyclones have a really tough opening round draw in Iona, but they also have a core group of stars who remember the feeling of being bounced in the first round a year ago and won't let it happen again ... even if it's extremely dicey down the stretch. While Steve Prohm's team has been disappointingly inconsistent this year, they have the perfect recipe to pull an upset against Virginia's Pack Line: one of the best point guards in the country (Monte Morris), and one of the best decision-making big men in the country (Georges Niang). They make everyone in Charlottesville sad for another summer before being handled by Michigan State.
This region also features my favorite first-round matchup of the entire tournament: Seton Hall vs. Gonzaga. The Pirates are absolutely rolling into the tournament thanks to a loaded sophomore class headlined by certified star Isaiah Whitehead. Gonzaga has disappointed, but their guards, namely Eric McClellan, really stepped up in the WCC Tournament, and they still have a first-round pick in Domas Sabonis and a preseason All-American in Kyle Wiltjer. Whichever team wins this game is headed to the Sweet 16, even if Fresno State doesn't upset Utah.
As much as we all love (and are expecting) an insane tournament, I don't think anyone would complain if these wind up being the final four teams standing.
First, we get Oklahoma vs. Kansas, a matchup which gave us two of the best games of the regular season. The Jayhawks' win in Norman was the one that established them as the likely No. 1 overall seed in this tournament, while the first meeting proved to everyone that the Sooners, even in defeat, were for real. KU would have an obvious mental edge against a team they've beaten twice that also plays in the conference the Jayhawks have dominated since before SB Nation existed. Still, Buddy Hield is the coolest and he will dance until the first Monday in April.
The other semifinal would be a rematch of the 2009 national championship game. It would also feature the potential national Player of the Year in Denzel Valentine, going up against a North Carolina team that I would guess would be favored to win the whole thing should the tournament play out this way. The Tar Heels win a classic as Brice Johnson continues his reign of postseaosn terror.
If we get Oklahoma vs. North Carolina on April 4, then the world should brace itself for one of the most entertaining viewing experiences in national championship game history. Both teams would run, both teams would score, and both teams have stars who would put on a show. Ultimately, it's the Tar Heels who finish the season in the exact same spot they started it.