Mar 9, 2021; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Jalen Suggs (1) and head coach Mark Few (R) react during the second half of the West Coast Conference Tournament championship game against the BYU Cougars at Orleans Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The greatest time of the year for basketball fans has arrived and I’ve already spent an unnecessary amount of time diving into matchups for the NCAA Tournament.
That’s why today I have 16 thoughts on the bracket for you to chew on prior to Thursday’s First Four and Friday’s opening round games in the state of Indiana. We’ll finish up with a few thoughts on other (mostly Iowa State) things.
1 — When it comes to picking a national champion, I’m not going to overthink it.
That’s why I’ve pegged Gonzaga as the team I’ll be picking to hoist the trophy three weeks from today after beating Baylor in the title game in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. History is not on the Bulldogs’ side, but I think Mark Few’s team is just too good and too complete to not end up as the first team to finish a season undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
With All-American Drew Timme as the centerpiece and superstar freshman Jalen Suggs as the floor general, this team checks every box. Nobody can match Gonzaga’s ability and cohesiveness in nearly every phase of the game.
2 — My first-glance run through of picking a bracket elicited a boring Elite Eight with all of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds advancing to the tournament’s quarterfinal round.
My Final Four in addition to Gonzaga and Baylor: Alabama and Illinois.
3 — A Bears vs. Fighting Illini matchup in the Final Four would be an absolute dandy. The Bears won rather comfortably the first time these two teams played, but that was way back on Dec. 2.
Illinois is a much better team now than they were then. Baylor remains a bit of a mystery after their prolonged COVID-19 pause late in the regular season, but I think playing teams outside of the Big 12 will be good for them in getting their dominant mojo back.
Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell make up perhaps the best backcourt in the country. Ayo Dosunmu is playing as well as or better than any guard in the country right now. His sidekick, big man Kofi Cockburn, might have been my favorite player to watch over the last several weeks.
A Scott Drew vs. Brad Underwood coaching chess match.
Sign. Me. Up.
That game would be appointment television with potential classic written all over it.
4 — There might not be a college basketball team more fun to watch right now than Nate Oats’ Crimson Tide.
Not only does Alabama play a fun style offensively built around firing 3-pointers and scoring near the rim, but they’re also one of the best defensive teams in the country, entering the tournament ranked No. 4 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.
The team is anchored by SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Herbert Jones. He’s the third player in the league’s history to win both of those awards in the same season, joining former Kentucky stars Anthony Davis and Tyler Ulis.
While watching the Crimson Tide’s win over LSU to clinch the SEC Tournament championship on Sunday, I could not help but think that this is how Fred Hoiberg’s teams at Iowa State would have looked if they’d been elite defensively in addition to their offensive prowess.
5 — If you’re looking for double-digit seeds capable of making a run to the second weekend, look no further than the West Region.
UC-Santa Barbara drew a favorable matchup as far as 12 seeds go in Creighton. The Blue Jays still seem to be reeling a little bit after the controversy surrounding Greg McDermott in the regular season’s final weeks and were smashed by Georgetown in the Big East title game.
Ohio is currently slated to play a Virginia team that is in COVID-19 isolation as we speak. The Cavaliers aren’t able to practice until Thursday at the earliest before traveling to Indianapolis on Friday and playing on Saturday.
Even then, in a best case scenario for Virginia, we don’t know which or how many players will actually be available for Tony Bennett’s team.
If UVA isn’t able to play (which we’ll know at 5 p.m. CST on Tuesday) then they’ll be replaced by the first team out of the field — Louisville.
I’m taking UCSB and Ohio to win each of their first round matchups regardless, setting up one of them to advance to the Sweet 16 and likely matchup with Gonzaga.
6 — Hoya Paranoia is back.
How cool is the story of Patrick Ewing’s team winning the Big East Tournament for the first time since 2007 and advancing to their first NCAA Tournament in more than half a decade?
All after the death of the legendary John Thompson last summer.
I thought Gus Johnson’s call of the final seconds of the win over Creighton was absolutely perfect (3:57 mark in the video below). You know Big John has a towel slung over his shoulder and is looking down on his former protege with immense pride, especially after the way Ewing’s team played on the defensive end while winning four games in four days at Madison Square Garden.
7 — Speaking of Georgetown, their first-round matchup with Colorado is one of the games I have circled as a must-watch during the tournament’s first few days.
The Buffaloes are led by 6-foot-tall, do-it-all point guard McKinley Wright, who is the first player in Pac-12 history with more than 1,600 points, 600 assists and 600 rebounds. Few players do more for their teams on a nightly basis than the North Robbinsdale, Minn. native.
There’s an alternate universe in which Wright becomes a star at Iowa State, but that’s a story for a different day…
He’s had an amazing collegiate career in Boulder and it will be fun to watch how the Hoyas try to limit his production in the round of 68.
8 — The Big 8 is back.
At least for one day when old rivals Oklahoma and Missouri do battle in the West Region’s eight-versus-nine game. If only Billy Tubbs and Norm Stewart could be stalking the sidelines…
9 — HOW ABOUT THEM BULLDOGS?!
Darian DeVries has Drake back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 and it comes with a matchup against a familiar old foe in the tournament’s First Four — former Missouri Valley Conference rival Wichita State.
That game is as close to a toss-up as you’re going to find in the bracket at this point, but I’ll give the Bulldogs a slight edge if leading scorer and athletic freak Tank Hemphill plays. He’s a game changer.
I think Des Moines’ Hometown Team could have given USC and future NBA lottery pick Evan Mobley a run for their money if it weren’t for starting point guard Roman Penn’s season-ending injury as well.
Sure they still could, but, man, I wish this team was at full strength entering the tournament. That could have been a lot of fun, especially with the fact a Drake run to the second weekend would likely mean a matchup with… Iowa.
10 — I would be shocked if the Hawkeyes don’t absolutely smash first-round opponent Grand Canyon (coached by Bryce Drew). The Antelopes play a style that makes them a favorable matchup for Fran McCaffery’s team.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Oregon give Iowa a solid challenge for part of a second-round game, but I don’t think the Ducks can match what Iowa’s capable of offensively.
That puts Iowa into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1999 where I have them playing against the aforementioned USC Trojans and Mobley. The 7-foot freshman squaring off with Luka Garza would be all sorts of fun.
11 — Kudos to the NCAA for doing the right thing and including Oklahoma State in the tournament field while they await the results of their sanctions appeal, but how in the world did the Cowboys end up as a four-seed?
Mike Boynton’s team is playing fantastic basketball over the last several weeks, including a pair of wins over West Virginia, and advanced the Big 12 Tournament title game. Somehow the Mountaineers were still seeded higher than them on Sunday!
That does not make sense.
Regardless, I’m not going to complain about getting at least one (and probably a few) more chances to watch Cade Cunningham at the collegiate level. He’s been absolute joy to see play this season before he goes on to NBA stardom.
The potential for a Cunningham vs. Dosunmu matchup in the Sweet 16 has me feeling some type of way…
12 — Probably the biggest thing standing in the way of that matchup is the Loyola Chicago Ramblers and their potential matchup with Illinois in the second round.
Congrats on your Big Ten Tournament title Illinois. Your reward is playing potentially the scariest mid-major in the field on this side of Spokane, Wash.
Porter Moser’s team this season is every bit as good as (or maybe even better than) the one that made a Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018. It even includes one of the key pieces of that run in Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Cameron Krutwig.
I nearly felt obligated to move Loyola into the second weekend based on my connection with Krutwig as big goofy white guys with bad mustaches, but Illinois is just playing too well right now for anything like that to cloud my judgement.
13 — As I’m sure you were able to gather before, I have Kansas as one of only two Big 12 teams not advancing past the first weekend (the other being Oklahoma).
There’s just too many questions in my mind with the Jayhawks right now, including whether or not they’ll have David McCormack for a second round game against USC.
Better yet — whether or not they’ll actually be able to play at all after having to bow out of last week’s Big 12 Tournament due to COVID-19 cases inside the program.
14 — I have Texas Tech upsetting Arkansas in the second round to advance to another Sweet 16 under Chris Beard’s watch.
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my time covering the Big 12 it is to never bet or pick against Chris Beard — so I won’t do that here.
15 — I still don’t know what to make of Texas.
They were helped on their run to the Big 12 Tournament title by Kansas’ pause in activities immediately before their semifinal matchup on Friday. Props to them for putting things together to beat Cunningham and the Cowboys in the championship game.
I really like what they’ve been doing recently with Jericho Simms. Shaka Smart’s team just continues to feel like a wild card to me.
I’ve got them winning their first two games in the tournament based purely on having superior talent. Hard to imagine them getting past Alabama, though.
16 — Juwan Howard and Michigan are the most vulnerable one-seed.
The Wolverines will most likely be without star forward Isaiah Livers (at least for the first weekend) and struggled down the stretch losing three of their last five.
Two weeks ago, I would have put them up there with Gonzaga to win the national title. Honestly, I think I would have picked them to win the whole thing.
I can’t do that if they don’t have Livers, though.
*** I would be making a mistake if I didn’t mention anything about Juwan Howard and Maryland’s Mark Turgeon’s trash-talking induced shouting match during Friday’s Big Ten quarterfinal.
I have no idea what instigated it, but, if Turgeon said what’s been alleged about Howard and hanging banners in Ann Arbor, then that is some absolute savagery. Points first for it being such a trash talk deep cut with historical implications towards the school, but anybody would know that’s going to cut deep on a personal level for Howard.
If that’s what Turgeon did then it’s clear he woke up feeling some type of way on Friday morning. I can’t blame Howard at all for his profanity-laced tirade towards Turgeon if that was really what took place.
You have to be feeling a little bit crazy to go at Howard with something like that. Of all the coaches in college basketball to talk crazy to, I’m not sure Howard is the one you want to put in your crosshairs.
More coach vs. coach trash talk, please.
*** Iowa State football pro day has been scheduled for next Tuesday, March 23.
That will be an especially big day for JaQuan Bailey, Kene Nwangwu, Landen Akers and Lawrence White considering they did not receive invites to the NFL Combine. It will be a big day for Dylan Soehner, too, but his biggest days are coming next month at that event.
What’s the over/under set at on Nwangwu’s 40-yard-dash time?
Whatever it is, give me the under.
*** Today is Selection Monday for women’s basketball and it looks like Bill Fennelly’s team is likely to draw somewhere around a seven-seed based on the latest bracketology.
All I’ll say on that is good luck to whatever two-seed they could potentially face in the second round. I have a feeling Ashley Joens, Lexi Donarski and crew are going to make some noise over the next several weeks.
*** The wait for clarity on the future of Iowa State men’s basketball continues.
We know Steve Prohm said he’ll meet with Jamie Pollard this week after his team’s loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Tournament. Well, this week has arrived and we haven’t heard anything new.
Could the meeting be happening today? That feels like the most likely scenario, but Iowa State’s cross country teams, including Pollard’s son, Thomas, are competing today in the NCAA Championships down in Stillwater.
I suppose that could delay a meeting to this evening or even until tomorrow. That’s purely speculation, though.
I’m guessing we’ll know sooner rather than later… this week at the latest.