Before we get into the nitty gritty here, allow me to say that I’ve never felt less confident about a bracket. I went into this endeavor with zero clue who I was going to pick to win the national title, and once I arrived at my Final Four, I realized that I had serious issues with all four of the options I had left myself with.
And that’s why this bracket is destined to succeed.
Now let me try and justify why I think this is going to be one of the wildest NCAA tournaments in history.
To me, Alabama is easily the safest bet out of all the 1-seeds to advance to at least the Elite Eight. The Crimson Tide are the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, which means they deserve the friendliest draw, and I think they’ve got it here. Arizona isn’t the easiest 2-seed matchup in the world, but a lot can happen between now and the regional final.
We’ve got two double-digit seed upsets here. The last four No. 3 seeds to lose in the first round have all been from the Big 12, and Baylor is about to extend that streak to five. The Bears have lost four out of their last six and face a UCSB team that takes care of the ball and has just enough offense to get the job done. I am a bit concerned that the Gauchos don’t fit the traditional upset mould of being proficient from the outside (only 18 teams in Division-I get a smaller percentage of their points from beyond the arc), but Joe Pasternack is a rising star in the coaching ranks, and I trust him to make this his moment.
I’m even more confident in Furman taking down Virginia. The Paladins have been knocking on the door for the better part of the last decade and are finally in the Big Dance for the first time since 1980. UVA is super experienced, but they don’t have near the natural talent that their best teams under Tony Bennett have had, and they’ve also recently lost one of their most important pieces in Ben Vander Plas. Furman wins, and Jalen Slawson and Mike Bothwell introduce themselves to the world.
Charleston has won 31 games and the Mountain West has been ABYSMAL in the NCAA tournament in recent years, but I still hate this 12/5 matchup for the Cougars. Charleston gets a ton of its offense in transition, and few teams in the country are better at controlling pace and limiting transition opportunities than SDSU. The Aztecs ruin America’s trendy upset pick and take down a Charleston team that is facing a top 50 defense for the first time this season.
I’ve got Creighton in the Elite Eight, and I’m not super confident about them beating NC State. This is a classic matchup of two teams that look like world-beaters when they’re playing well and like teams that have no business even making the NIT when they aren’t. One of them is going to hit their stride and crash the second weekend, and I’m banking it being the Bluejays, who rose to the occasion a year ago and nearly took down eventual national champion Kansas despite playing without two of their best players.
Ultimately, this ends in a ‘Bama-Creighton regional final where the Crimson Tide stake their claim as the Final Four favorite by pulling away late and kicking off a week of debate over morality in college sports.
Pretty much every year there’s a region that completely falls apart and leaves us thinking “I can’t believe one of these teams is going to be in the Final Four” as we get ready for the second weekend. The East is that region in 2023.
Every single one of the favorites in this region has a fatal flaw, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that there are six teams in the West that I would have advancing to the Final Four if they’d been placed in the East.
To start with, there is a lengthy history of unranked preseason teams who greatly overachieved during the regular season falling flat on their face in this tournament. That description fits each of the top three seeds here. Fourth-seeded Tennessee can’t score. Fifth-seeded Duke starts three freshmen, has a 35-year-old first year head coach, and feasted on a historically weak ACC at the end of the season. Sixth-seeded Kentucky has been wildly inconsistent and underachieving, and enters the tournament banged up and coming off a one-and-done performance in the SEC tournament.
The wildest March stat going at the moment is that every single Final Four but one since 2012 has featured at least one team seeded No. 7 or worse. Since 2011, a total of 11 teams seeded seventh or worse have crashed the season’s final weekend. And yet, barely anyone will take a 7-seed or worse to the Final Four in their bracket this month.
It’s happening in the East Region.
Memphis, which probably should have upset Gonzaga in this same spot a year ago, has the talent and experience this season to expose the fact that Purdue’s backcourt is young and simply not good enough.
There isn’t a whole lot that I like about Michigan State, but sometimes you have to look at trends and go against what your eyes have been telling you. Tyson Walker gets hot, Marquette does what overachieving 2-seeds typically do in the first weekend, and the whole “Tom Izzo in March” thing gets some more run.
John Calipari also seems poised for at least a mini redemption arc. The man was major upset proof for his first seven seasons in Lexington, but lately everything has changed and Big Blue Nation has never been more critical. He quiets his doubters with a nice run thanks to a nice draw and gets back to a regional final for the first time since 2018.
Unfortunately for Cal, this run ends the way that one did: With an upset loss. The team doing that upsetting will be Oral Roberts, which becomes the first 12-seed in history to make the Final Four. The Golden Eagles are the only team in the country that ran the table in their conference this season, and all four of their losses came on the road against quality opponents. Max Abmas becomes a March immortal over the next two weeks.
Or they lose to Duke handily in the first round ... but probably all that other stuff.
We’ve got more double-digit upsets here with Drake taking down Miami and Kent State beating Indiana. I actually like both the Hoosiers and Hurricanes a solid amount coming into this tournament, but I hate the matchups for them here. Miami’s reluctance to defend ultimately costs them a return trip to the second weekend, while IU simply runs into a Golden Flashes team that plays well enough to beat virtually anyone in the field.
I’m going against one of my bracket rules and not taking a team from the First Four to win a game in the main draw this year. Iowa State is limping into the tournament, but they take care of a gritty, if not super talented, Pitt team and ruin the potential Sean Miller Bowl in the second round.
Full disclosure: I have Texas winning this region, and I initially had them losing in the first round to Colgate. The Raiders check every box necessary for a monster March upset: They’re experienced, they dominated their conference, and they’re the best three-point shooting team in the entire country. They’ll put the fear of God into the Longhorns (and they would have beaten Marquette if they’d gotten a luckier draw), but ultimately UT survives and finds its stride.
An under-seeded Texas A&M team grits out a win over Penn State in one of the best games of the first round, and then Buzz Williams takes some not-so-thinly veiled shots at the Selection Committee afterward. The Aggies push Texas for a bit before the Longhorns play their best half of the season to advance.
Top-seeded Houston nearly loses to Auburn in the second round, but then restores confidence from the public by blasting Drake into oblivion in the Sweet 16. Houston-Texas gives us the best matchup of the Elite Eight and maybe the best game of the tournament, but the Longhorns’ superior backcourt depth and talent ultimately wins out. Rodney Terry becomes one of the focuses of the sports world.
Pretty much every team that I’ve crushed on during this season is in this region. It is absolutely this year’s region of death.
Disclaimer: If UCLA had a healthy Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona, I’d be picking them to win this region and probably the national title Clark won’t play at all and Bona will at the very least be limited, so I’m not. The Bruins get the sexy 2006 rematch with Gonzaga and get their hearts broken this time because Bona and company aren’t healthy enough to control Drew Timme, who goes nuts.
VCU over Saint Mary’s is the upset pick that I have the most confidence in throughout this whole bracket. The Gaels and their talented backcourt couldn’t handle Gonzaga’s pressure at all in the WCC tournament final, and it’ll be more of the same against a VCU team that creates as much defensive havoc as any in the field. This is a nightmare matchup for Randy Bennett’s team.
Kansas has been the team that I’ve thought I was going to pick to win the national title for a while now, but the Bill Self thing is a curveball, Kevin McCullar’s health is still an issue, and the Jayhawks looked wildly inferior in both of their March losses to Texas. Arkansas knocking off KU in the second round has become something of a trendy pick, but underachieving teams loaded with next-level talent rarely have the lightbulb moment in March that everyone wants them to. The Razorbacks will make it interesting, but Kansas isn’t losing before the Sweet 16.
UConn sends Rick Pitino to St. John’s sooner than Gaels fans would like, and then destroys VCU in the second round to set up the Sweet 16 showdown with Kansas. The Husky offense kicks into high-gear against KU, and then Dan Hurley’s team is too physical and tough down the stretch in a thrilling regional final win over Gonzaga.
Alabama has little trouble ending the Cinderella run of Oral Roberts, which plays the way a double-digit seed typically plays in the Final Four: Not well. UConn then puts the clamps on Marcus Carr and company in the second semifinal and ends Terry’s dream run with the Longhorns.
I’m going with Connecticut to win the national title for one reason and one reason alone: This is going to be a weird tournament, and the Huskies THRIVE in weird tournaments. The two strangest national champions of the last 15 years have probably both been Connecticut teams (2011 and 2014). Let’s get wild again, Storrs.