There's a moving scene in the first season of "The West Wing" in which Toby convinces President Bartlet to cut from his State of the Union Address a line that reads, "The era of big government is over." Toby admits that it's a catchy slogan that will give Bartlet a bump in the polls, but he's sickened at the thought of disparaging the federal machine solely to score political points. "Government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind," he pleads, and as string music swells to support the truth of his words, Bartlet turns to Josh Lyman and asks him what he thinks. Josh considers briefly, then answers, "I make it a point never to disagree with Toby when he's right."
March Madness, too, is a place where (or at least a time when) people
come together. Pools are illegally filled out, Internet traffic booms,
productivity stalls, and across the nation the conversation turns to
whether Gonzaga really deserved a #1 seed, or whether Bucknell can flip
the script on Butler. But while the era of big government may not be
over, the era of top-tier dominance in college basketball is assuredly
extinct. With the game's most talented players fleeing for the NBA after
a single season, collegiate teams struggle to build any sort of
chemistry, as frustrated coaches ultimately allow scheme and strategy to
yield to on-floor talent. (This also might explain why most close games
are invariably decided by either (a) free-throw shooting, or (b) a
final possession in which the team's best player dribbles for 25
seconds, then heaves up a step-back, off-balance three-pointer.) Setting
aside Gonzaga (a team with its own unique set of question marks), every
legitimate contender for the 2013 title has lost at least five games.
There's just no such thing as an elite team anymore.
But while that's bad news for prognosticators – the increased element of
randomness makes handicapping this year's tourney field even more of a
fool's errand than normal – it's great news for fans of suspenseful,
unpredictable basketball. Plus it functions as a handy protective
mechanism for the Manifesto; in such an anything-can-happen field, what
chance does a mere mortal have against the cruel gods of chaos? My only
recommendation is to ignore the seeds and just pick based on matchups.
Otherwise, all I can promise you is this: There will be many, many
terrible charge calls.
On to this year's picks. Here's a blank bracket so you can follow along.
MIDWEST ("The Warzone")
Overall thoughts: This region is loaded. The three, four, and five seeds all could arguably have been ranked a line higher. Expect carnage.
The top seed: O.K., so Louisville is
hot. The Cardinals have won their last 10 games, eight by double digits,
and they're coming off an absolute second-half thrashing of Syracuse in
the Big East final in which they went on a 27-3 run that came straight
out of the boss level of a videogame. They also play ferocious pressure
defense, ranking second in the country in both forced turnovers and
steals. But they shoot a horrific 33.1% from three (215th in the
nation), and they rely heavily on a pair of guards (Peyton Siva and Russ
Smith) who are decidedly unreliable. If you get suckered into playing
at their tempo, they're unbeatable, but they're vulnerable against
well-coached teams that make open shots and take care of the ball. Such
The mid-major: The Billikens of Saint Louis
aren't sexy, but they have ball-handlers in Jordair Jett and Kwamain
Mitchell, a steady shooter in Mike McCall, a load inside in Dwayne
Evans, and a tantalizing stretch four in Cody Ellis. They showed last
year against Michigan State that they don't crumble against pressure,
and they have the patience to execute and get good shots late in games.
You've been warned.
The one-and-done: Freshman Marcus Smart was the Big 12 Player of the Year and is currently #2 on NBAdraft.net's board, so if Oklahoma State
is going to make a "Uconn in 2011" type of run, Smart's going to have
to be their Kemba Walker. Unfortunately, Smart shoots 29.5% from three
and has a ghastly 1.3 assist/turnover ratio. If the Cowboys can get past
Saint Louis, Smart might rise to the occasion in a high-profile matchup
against Louisville, but expect the Billikens to out-muscle them in the
The yawners: I suppose it's a credit to Tom Izzo that it's difficult to tell his Michigan State
teams apart. This one is like all the rest, steady and well-coached but
lacking in any real difference-making talent, with the possible
exception of Adreian Payne, a freakish 6'10" athlete who has shown
astonishing improvement in his shooting touch during his career (after
making 49% of his free throws as a freshman, he's up to 83% as a junior,
and he's buried 15 of 33 threes as well). Still, the Spartans will
likely live and die with Keith Appling, an overconfident point guard who
jacks up nearly four threes per game despite shooting just 31% from
distance. Izzo's squad fights hard (of their eight losses, seven are by
single digits), but it just doesn't have the horses to make an extended
The terror: Doug McDermott isn't fucking around. Creighton's
well-built superstar is the country's third-leading scorer at 23.2 per
game, and he sports Nashian shooting percentages (56% from the field,
86% from the line, 50% from three). And McDermott isn't a lone weapon;
as a team, the Blue Jays lead the nation in both field-goal percentage
and three-point percentage, and they're third overall in assists. Match
them against a vulnerable defensive team such as Duke, and they could do
some serious damage. I'd rather not think about this.
The chance: O.K., this Duke team has
its flaws. Their interior defense is weak, they have limited depth, and
they're absolutely atrocious on the glass (225th and 234th in defensive
and offensive rebounding percentage, respectively). But they can score.
The return of Ryan Kelly allows them to space the floor around center
Mason Plumlee with four elite shooters (assuming Krzyzewski comes to his
sense and leaves Tyler Thornton on the bench); Kelly shoots an
eye-popping 49% from three, and Seth Curry and Quinn Cook also exceed
42%. If they go cold from the outside (as they did against Maryland in
the ACC tournament), they're in trouble, especially since they rarely
force turnovers to generate easy baskets. But they actually defend the
three well (29% against, 10th in the nation), and between Plumlee,
Kelly, Curry (who has the ability to take over a game), and mercurial
freshman Rasheed Sulaimon (who has the same ability, provided he doesn't
disappear entirely), they have sufficient firepower both to blow teams
out and to come back from deficits. It's not a perfect team – remember,
there's no such thing anymore in college basketball – but with a healthy
Kelly, it's a team with a chance.
Play-in games: North Carolina A&T over Liberty, Saint Mary's over Middle Tennessee State.
Sweet 16: Louisville over Colorado State, Saint Louis over Oklahoma State, Michigan State over Saint Mary's, Duke over Creighton.
Regional final: DUKE over Saint Louis.
SOUTH ("The Broken Seesaw")
Overall thoughts: The top half of this region is
stacked, with a #8 seed that could challenge for the Final Four if they
didn't have a horrible matchup waiting for them in the second round. The
bottom half is pathetic, with a #2 seed that could lose in the second
round if they didn't have a cakewalk to the Sweet 16.
The top seed: I'll confess that Kansas
has been the Manifesto's top-ranked team in the country for most of the
season. Yes, they had that bizarre three-game skid in early February,
but they've won 10 of 11 games since, and they looked
borderline-invincible during the Big 12 tournament. They play defense,
leading the country in field goal percentage defense (36% against) and
also ranking third in blocks (thanks largely to Jeff Withey's 3.8 per
game). They also play offense, led by future #1 pick in freshman Ben
McLemore, a silky-smooth swingman who seems to combine Klay Thompson's
shooting touch (he shoots 51% from the field and 44% from three) with
Paul George's athleticism (witness this).
They are very good, and only an Elijah Johnson meltdown will prevent
them from reaching the Final Four. (Wait, Johnson shoots 39% from the
field and has an assist/turnover ratio of 1.5? Shh.)
The cursed: Poor North Carolina. Last
year, they were set up for an Elite Eight showdown against future
runner-up Kansas, only star point guard Kendall Marshall got hurt. This
year, they turned a dreadful start to the season around thanks to a
smaller lineup and a shockingly adept Marcus Paige, so the basketball
gods decided to injure shooter P.J. Hairston's hand; when that wasn't
enough, they abandoned subtlety altogether and cruelly stuck them in a
second-round matchup against the country's best team. It's just unfair. I
mean, I feel terrible. I'm really broken up about this.
The enigma: Is there a more perplexing team than Michigan?
They have a frighteningly talented backcourt in Trey Burke and Tim
Hardaway, Jr., a lights-out shooter in Nik Stauskas, an intriguing
leaper in Glenn Robinson, III, and a pair of bruisers in Jordan Morgan
and Mitch "I Should Have Gone to Duke" McGary. They shoot the ball well
(48%, 12th in the nation), never turn it over (9.2 per game, 1st), and
never put other teams on the line (12.9 opponents' free-throw attempts
per game, also 1st). So how come every Michigan fan needs to watch their
team with a defibrillator nearby? I have no idea what to make of them.
They could make Kansas or sweat, or they could lose to ...
The hero: March Madness is made for guys like Nate Wolters. South Dakota State's
best player (if you're wondering, it's not close), he's fifth in the
country in scoring but also somehow averages 5.8 assists and 1.8 steals.
He shoots 39% from three while taking over five per game. He's
six-foot-four but gets to the line seven times per night. He's a lot
like Creighton's Doug McDermott, only where McDermott has a group of
functional teammates at his disposal, Wolters has to do everything
himself. Could he drop 35 against a leaky Michigan defense and somehow
turn the crowd in Auburn Hills to his side the way Rocky Balboa swung
the Russians in Rocky IV? Isn't this why we watch March Madness?
The sequel: Two years ago, VCU beat
Kansas in the Elite Eight. This year, it's possible they'll play Kansas
in the Sweet 16. I'm not guaranteeing this will happen, but if it does, I
promise you this: Kansas will win by 30. At least.
The fraud: I gave the same label to Georgetown
last year, and nothing has changed my mind over the past 12 months.
This year's Hoya squad has one above-average player (the phenomenal Otto
Porter, possibly the most complete player in the Big East since Carmelo
Anthony), one decent shooter (Markel Starks), and a bunch of other guys
whose job is to rebound, defend, and make layups. They win by playing
solid defense (fourth in the nation in opponents' field goal percentage)
and by lulling teams to sleep, sometimes literally (or maybe that's
just their viewers). One mediocre game from Porter, and they're toast.
Sweet 16: Kansas over North Carolina, VCU over South Dakota State, Florida over Minnesota, San Diego State over Georgetown.
Regional final: KANSAS over Florida.
EAST ("The Cakewalk")
Overall thoughts: We should probably just fast-forward to the regional final now and save ourselves time.
The top seed: I've never liked Indiana,
but this team is mean. They can score both inside and out (they're
second in the country in three-point percentage and third in free-throw
attempts per game), they're one of the few teams in the field with two
elite talents in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo (both of whom shoot over
57%), they have two lights-out shooters in Jordan Hulls and Christian
Watford (46% and 49% from three, respectively, and yes, I'm as surprised
by Watford's number as you are), and they have a speedy point guard in
Yogi Ferrell who recognizes the talent surrounding him and doesn't try
to do too much. You can't just take away one weapon and neutralize the
entire team. They're tough.
The obligation: I have to mention Syracuse
here, or my Dad might forbid me from invading his house and
monopolizing his quad-tuner DVR for 96 hours straight during the
tournament's opening weekend. But there isn't much to say. They play the
most effective zone in the country, leading to an impressive defense
that ranks fifth in opponents' field goal percentage, fifth in blocks,
and 17th in steals. But they just can't score; they shoot a dreadful 33%
from three (anchored by their starting backcourt of Brandon Triche and
Michael Carter-Williams, both of whom shoot below 29%) and an even worse
68% from the free-throw line. Unless they get out in transition,
they're forced to rely on sharpshooter James Southerland (even though
they should really be running more plays for C.J. Fair). They can win in
a dogfight but not against a disciplined team that can make threes.
The bafflement: Technically, if you're a three seed, it means you're one of the 12 best teams in the country. Let's see, Marquette
ranks 117th in the nation in points per game, 61st in victory margin,
62nd in opponents' shooting percentage, 234th in defensive rebound
percentage, 207th in turnovers, 149th in steals, 169th in blocks, and
318th in three-point percentage. Call me crazy, but they don't quite
seem like a top-12 team to me. They do, however, rank first in "hustle
plays", as well as number of times announcers have gushed about how they
"play hard". When I was 10, I won the "Best Camper" award at a weeklong
basketball camp because I played hard. I didn't make the Sweet 16
The test: I like this Miami team, and
not just because they're a bunch of 23-year-olds. It's because they have
clearly defined roles for all their players. There's the leader (Shane
Larkin, a dual-threat point guard), the slasher (Durand Scott, a
questionable decision-maker who's nevertheless capable of taking over a
game), the shooter (Trey McKinney Jones, who at 37% from three isn't
quite as good a shooter as everyone thinks), the space-eater (292-pound
Reggie Johnson, who's been weirdly marginalized this year), the brawler
(Julian Gamble, whose job is to set screens and not drop any of Larkin's
bullet passes), and the wildcard (Kenny Kadji, who is, well, a bit of a
wildcard). The problem is that Larkin is really the only elite player
in the group, and if Scott or Kadji get into a funk, then the onus is on
Larkin to save the Hurricanes. Still, he's probably good enough to lead
Miami into the Elite Eight, assuming they can hold off ...
The sniper: There's beauty, there's poetry, and then there's Butler's
Rotnei Clarke shooting a basketball. The guy's slingshot jumper is
simply lethal (he shoots 41% from three on a staggering 8.5 attempts per
game). Of course, this Butler team isn't all that good and hasn't been
playing particularly well over the past month, losing by 32 to VCU
before getting thoroughly outplayed by Saint Louis in the A-10
tournament. Then again, this is still the same team that beat Indiana
and Gonzaga earlier this year, and Brad Stevens seems to take pleasure
in keeping his Bulldogs under the radar, so don't be surprised if Kellen
Dunham buries nine threes against Bucknell.
Play-in game: Long Island over James Madison.
Sweet 16: Indiana over Temple, UNLV over Syracuse, Butler over Davidson, Miami over Colorado.
Regional final: INDIANA over Miami.
WEST ("The Wasteland")
Overall thoughts: Please. This region isn't worth my time.
The top seed: I acknowledge the complaints that Gonzaga's
schedule was weak, though they did play out-of-conference games against
five tournament teams (Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas State, Oklahoma
State, and Butler). But I'm disinclined to penalize the Bulldogs simply
because they don't have a huge number of quality wins – I'd rather judge
them by what they have done than what they haven't. And they can play.
Kelly Olynyk is a force inside, Kevin Pangos has game-changing ability,
and Elias Harris and Gary Bell don't stand out but invariably make big
plays at key moments. Would they have lost a few more games had they
played in a power conference? Probably, but they're still a bona fide
Final Four contender. It's just that they have a potential matchup
looming against ...
The question mark: More than any other team (except maybe Michigan), Wisconsin
epitomizes the difficulty handicapping March Madness in the new era of
mediocrity. They play fundamentally sound defense, they never turn the
ball over, and they feature a number of heady players (most notably
versatile forward Jared Berggren and freshman Sam Dekker) who pass and
cut well so that they seem to convert at least a half-dozen wide-open
layups per game. But they play at a glacial pace, and they don't shoot
very well (particularly from the foul line, where they make just 64%,
322nd in the country), making it almost impossible for them to make up a
large deficit. They could absolutely make the Final Four, and they
could absolutely lose to Mississippi in the first round. You know that scene at the end of Men in Black,
where the camera pulls back and reveals that the entire solar system is
actually just a marble being toyed with by enormous intergalactic
beings? That's how I feel trying to predict the success of a team like
Wisconsin. They're just a fucking marble. Let's move on.
The unknown: I'll wager that, compared to most adult
men, I watch significantly more college basketball. Unfortunately, my
first glimpse of New Mexico came yesterday, so I'm not
entirely sure what to think of this supposed Final Four contender. I
know that Tony Snell is a damn good shooter, but the numbers suggest his
usage rate isn't all that high, so I don't think he can be trusted to
carry the load. I know that they hold opponents to just 39% shooting.
And I know that the Pit (their home arena) is apparently a very tough
place to play, which isn't exactly useful information, given that the
tournament is played at neutral sites. So that's not much to go on. Then again, while I don't know much about New Mexico, I know plenty about ...
The phony: I acknowledge that Ohio State
just won the Big Ten tournament and that they won a bunch of games this
year against a bunch of good teams. Whatever. They have one
double-figure scorer (DeShaun Thomas, living the dream of hoisting 16
shots per game). To say they lack balance is a severe understatement.
Aaron Craft is a great defensive player, but he can't ball-hawk his way
to the Final Four.
The rest: Wait, do I really have to pick a team to come
out of the bottom half of this region? Let's see, Arizona can't defend
the three (36% against, 274th), so they'll probably lose to Belmont
(fourth-best shooting team in the nation), who will probably struggle
against New Mexico in Salt Lake City, and meanwhile Notre Dame and Iowa
State are apparently in this region, so ... oh the hell with it.
Play-in game: LaSalle over Boise State.
Sweet 16: Gonzaga over Wichita State, Wisconsin over Kansas State, New Mexico over Belmont, Iowa State over Ohio State.
Regional final: WISCONSIN over New Mexico.
Semifinal #1 (Duke vs. Wisconsin): Honestly, the team I'm most worried about for Duke
in the Midwest is Creighton. If they can get past the Blue Jays, no
reason they can't power past a team as lacking in firepower as the
Semifinal #2 (Kansas vs. Indiana): And this is why it's good to be on the left side of this year's bracket. In the game of the tournament, I'll take Kansas in overtime over the Hoosiers.
Championship (Duke vs. Kansas): A rematch of the 1991
title game, only this time, Duke doesn't have Christian Laettner. Meet
your 2013 national champions, the Kansas Jayhawks.
That's the Manifesto's bracket. What's yours?