There's a great throwaway scene in Major League when the immortal Bob Uecker is growing increasingly frustrated by the combination of the Indians' poor play and the city's utter disinterest in the team. He's doing his solo radio show, and he knows nobody's listening anyway, so when he struggles to locate the sponsor he's supposed to be plugging, he just gives up: "Christ, I can't find it. To hell with it!"
Well, that's pretty much how I feel analyzing this year's March Madness
bracket. I didn't watch quite as much college basketball in 2013–14 as
in years past—which is to say that the number of hours I spent glued in
front of my television dipped from "coma-inducing" to "merely socially
unacceptable"—but I'd like to think I'm fairly knowledgeable about a
fair number of the 68 teams competing for the national title. Yet at no
point during this season did I watch a team and think to myself, "That
squad is definitely making the Final Four." Well, that isn't strictly
true, but the one team that did inspire those thoughts recently lost its
second-best player—who has been repeatedly compared to Hakeem Olajuwon—to
something called a "spinal stress fracture". Thanks a lot, Joel Embiid;
you just robbed the Manifesto of its one surefire Final Four pick.
But to hell with it. The Manifesto soldiers on. As I've mentioned in the
past, increased parity in college basketball may wreak havoc on
predictions—don't be surprised if, by Thursday afternoon, your precious
bracket resembles the defunct distillery that Beth and Daryl torched on a
recent episode of The Walking Dead—but it sure makes for an entertaining two weeks of hoops. On to the picks (here's a blank bracket for reference).
SOUTH ("The Open Road")
The bottom half of this region features some intriguing matchups. The top half, not so much.
The top seed: In case you haven't noticed, Florida
hasn't lost in awhile. Since a one-point loss at Uconn on December 2,
the Gators have won 26 games in a row, including a one-point nail-biter
against Kentucky to win the SEC Tournament. The Gators clearly pass the
so-called "eye test"; they're a balanced team led by three seniors in
point guard Scottie Wilbekin (SEC Player of the Year), slashing forward
Casey Prather (shooting a ridiculous 62% from the floor), and low-post
bruiser Patric Young. They also have one of the best three-point
marksmen in the country in Michael Frazier (currently drilling 45% from
deep). And while they don't block many shots, they play good team
defense and force a ton of turnovers, which is why they're 11th in the
nation in defensive efficiency. Offensively, though, the Gators are good
but not great. They don't shoot the three that well aside from Frazier
(37%, 78th in the country), they're turnover-prone (Wilbekin's
assist/turnover ratio is a middling 2.1), and they're a horrible
free-throw shooting team (Frazier and Wilbekin are the only regulars
above 68%), which could bite them in close games (and nearly did today
against Kentucky). Still, the Gators' record speaks for itself, and
they've proven they can win close games. Whether that's skill more than
luck remains to be seen. If the basketball gods are good, they'll get a
sweet 16 matchup with ...
The high flyers: This VCU team can be
fun to watch. They're sixth in the country in defensive efficiency, and
unlike their in-state counterparts in Charlottesville, they don't do it
with patience and discipline. There's a reason Shaka Smart's defense is
called "Havoc"; VCU wins by speeding up the game, and they lead the
country in both steals and forced turnovers. They're loaded across the
board with long, aggressive athletes, most notably Rondo-esque point
guard Briante Weber (leading the nation with a ridiculous 3.5 steals per
game). But if you can slow them down, wow do they struggle to score.
The Rams rank 162nd in offensive efficiency, and while they rebound at a
decent rate, they're absolutely dreadful shooters, both from the floor
and the line (270th and 256th in those percentages, respectively). That
could make things interesting when they face ...
The unflappables: It's difficult to judge Stephen F. Austin
based on their numbers, given that they didn't exactly play the
toughest schedule in the world (281st). But the Lumberjacks have won 28
straight games, and they've done it through patience and ball movement
on offense and ball-hawking tenacity on defense. If VCU rattles them,
they're in trouble, but if they can keep their composure, slow down the
pace, and force the Rams to make jumpshots, they're making noise.
The revolutionary: Overall, I'm not a huge fan of this UCLA
team. They're sloppy on defense, they have no rim protection, and
they're wildly undisciplined (future lottery pick Zach LaVine will make
2-3 spectacular plays per game, then immediately follow those up with
horrific decisions). But if you like basketball, you're going to want to
watch Kyle Anderson play the game. He's a pure, pass-first point guard
(6.6 assists per game, 6th in the country), but he's also a dead-eye
shooter (48% from three). That's all fine, but he also pulls down 8.8
rebounds per game (fifth in the country in defensive boards per
contest). Oh, and he leads the team in blocked shots, just for fun. How
does he do that? Because he's six-foot-nine, that's how. They
don't make basketball players like Kyle Anderson anymore. The Magic
Johnson comparisons are crazy, but they're also sort of apt. Watch him
The fraud: Look, Aaron Craft is a great defensive player, and Ohio State
is a great defensive team. But the Buckeyes are just painful to watch
on offense. They shoot a putrid 33% from three (256th), and their
free-throw shooting isn't much better (69%, 209th). Plus, it's not as
though they create many second opportunities, as they rank 214th in
offensive rebound percentage. Put simply, this team can't score. I
desperately want to pick Dayton to beat them, but I don't think Dayton
is very good. But there's no way they're getting past ...
The sandbagger: O.K., Syracuse had a
rough past month, losing five of their last seven games. But it's
crucial to remember that Jerami Grant was injured for most of those
games, and if there's one thing Jim Boeheim has never cared to do, it's
to develop his bench. Grant, however, looked healthy against NC State,
and if the perpetually exhausted C.J. Fair (37.9 minutes per game) can
start making some of his floaters again, the Orange will be a tough out.
Even when they struggle to score, they still rebound (9th in offensive
rebound rate), they force turnovers (fifth in steals), and they take
excellent care of the ball (fourth in turnovers per game, thanks to the
imperturbable Tyler Ennis, who may actually be an alien). And they're
also lucky because ...
The crippled contender: As I suggested earlier, if Joel Embiid were healthy, Kansas
would be my pick to win the title. (For the record, they're my pick
most years, including last year (when they lost to eventual runner-up
Michigan in overtime), 2011 (when they lost to VCU during its Cinderella
run to the Final Four), 2010 (when Northern Iowa, wait, what?), and
2008 (when they actually won). They recruit well, and Bill Self is a
good coach. Moving on.) But Joel Embiid is not healthy. Technically, he
hasn't been ruled out for the entire tournament yet, but if I just
turned 20 and were projected to be the top overall pick in the NBA
Draft, I'm not rushing back from something called a spinal stress
fracture. Andrew Wiggins has been absolutely possessed lately, but he
isn't polished enough just yet to take over games consistently, and I
can't trust a team that just lost its defensive identity and is also
playing Naadir Tharpe 30 minutes per game. Which means we need to keep
our eye on ...
The big guy: Don't worry, he's not exactly hard to miss.
But seriously, New Mexico is an intriguing team. The
awesomely gigantic Alex Kirk is, obviously, a presence in the middle,
but Aussie frontcourt mate Cameron Bairstow is the real threat, a
multi-talented 6'9" forward who impacts the game on both ends. I don't
know if they have the horses to beat Kansas—I can definitely see Kirk
and Bairstow both picking up two fouls within the game's first three
minutes—but if Wiggins has one of his cold nights and the mercurial
Wayne Selden follows suit, the Jayhawks could be looking at an early exit.
Play-in game: Albany over Mt. St. Mary's.
Sweet 16: Florida over Pitt, UCLA over Stephen F. Austin, Syracuse over Ohio State, New Mexico over Kansas.
Regional final: FLORIDA over Syracuse.
WEST ("The coin flip")
Why do I feel like this region comes down to one matchup involving the #9 seed? Intrigue awaits.
The top seed: This just in: Arizona is
not as good without Brandon Ashley. The 6'8" forward gave them another
athletic forward who could knock down mid-range shots, run the floor,
and bang inside. But they're still a good team—their four losses (all
after Ashley got hurt) came by a combined 16 points—with a loaded
roster, including a freakshow freshman forward (Aaron Gordon, somehow
shooting 48% from the field and 44% from the line), an imposing center
(Kaleb Tarczewski, somehow averaging less than one blocked shot per
game), a steady point guard (T.J. McConnell, averaging 5.5 assists to
just 1.8 turnovers), and a spectacularly untrustworthy shooting guard
(Nick Johnson, yuck). They're well-coached, they're athletic, they
rebound (third in defensive rebound rate), and they're the best
defensive team in the country in terms of points allowed per possession.
So why do I desperately want to pick them to lose in the second round
The wildcard: I'm dying to pick Oklahoma State
to make the Final Four. They have the talent, as they've surrounded
star Marcus Smart with a legit second option (Markel Brown, good for two
eye-popping players per game), a post presence (LeBryan Nash, accepting
third-banana status), a sharpshooter (Phil Forte, 45% from three and
87% from the line), and a rim protector (Kamari Murphy). They also have
swagger; Smart is a tenacious two-way player, and his energy is
infectious. But they also have Travis Ford, and I don't think he has any
control over this team. They just make too many dumb plays, and their
offensive execution never seems to maximize their considerable talent.
The Cowboys are the ultimate "can beat anyone, can lose to anyone" team.
That makes them a legit threat to Arizona, but it also makes them a
dicey Final Four proposition.
The temptation: I picked Wisconsin to make the Final Four last year as a five seed, and that didn't go so well.
They're a two seed this year, but overall, not much has changed. They
still take excellent care of the ball (second in turnover rate), they
pass and cut beautifully, they never foul (second-fewest fouls per
game), and they still have the sneakily talented but weirdly underused
Sam Dekker. They aren't going to beat themselves. But they also aren't
going to blow teams out, partly because of their lack of athleticism but
also because they're actually a mediocre three-point shooting team
(37%, 57th). Besides, why pick a bunch of farm boys from Wisconsin when
you can pick a bunch of farm boys from ...
The great white hope: Creighton! The
Wisconsin of Nebraska, the Bluejays led the country in offensive
efficiency, and you probably know why. Doug McDermott's NBA future is an
open question, but his collegiate excellence is not. The senior dropped
27 points per game this season while putting up insane shooting
percentages of 53/87/45, and it's not as though he flew under the radar;
teams schemed to stop this guy, and it didn't matter. Still, the
Bluejays aren't a one-man band. Ethan Wragge is one of the best-shooting
big men in the country (47% from three!), while 6'5" Grant Gibbs
actually shoots the three-ball a tick better. In fact, as a team,
Creighton shoots a preposterous 42.2% from three, easily the best mark
in the country. Sure, they're a mediocre defensive club, and they might
lack the athletes to keep pace with a frisky team like Baylor, much less
Arizona. But if McDermott gets hot, there's no stopping him. There's a
reason—besides alliteration—that they call it March Madness.
Sweet 16: Arizona over Oklahoma State, San Diego State over North Dakota State, Creighton over Baylor, Wisconsin over Oregon.
Regional final: CREIGHTON over Arizona.
(Note: This is where predicting 67 games in advance can get weird. If
Arizona actually plays Creighton in the Elite Eight, I think Arizona
will win, because the Wildcats are just too athletic for the Bluejays.
But I'm less sold on Arizona's chances of making it to the Elite
Eight, since they'll first have to muscle past not just Oklahoma State
but also a relentless San Diego State squad. Creighton, on the other
hand, has an easier road, and if 'Zona gets upset early, I don't see
anyone else stopping Creighton. Glad we cleared that up.)
MIDWEST ("The slugfest")
This region is flat-out mean. Going into selection Sunday, roughly 10
teams were bandied about for potential number one seeds. Four of them
are in this region. Be afraid.
The top seed: Yes, Wichita State
hasn't played the toughest schedule (111th), but it's not as though the
Shockers have been squeaking by. They beat teams up, which is why
they're one of only two teams to rank in the top 15 in both offensive
and defensive efficiency (more on the other team in a moment). They
aren't flashy, and they don't shoot the three all that well (35%,
154th), but they're ferocious on the backboards (2nd in defensive
rebound rate), and they have one of the country's most dynamic point
guards in Fred VanVleet (putting up some McDermott-esque shooting
percentages of 50/82/45 while doing most of the ball-handling). They
seem destined for a Final Four rematch with ...
The fear factor: Remember how I said Wichita State was
one of two teams that ranks in the top 15 in offensive and defensive
efficiency. The other is Louisville, only the Cardinals don't just rank in the top 15 in both categories; they rank in the top three
(third in offense, second in defense). Now, part of that is probably
because Rick Pitino has no compunction about running up the score
against the likes of Rutgers and South Florida, but still, this team is
scary. They're second in the nation in steals, they take surprisingly
good care of the ball (11th in turnover rate), and they simply don't let
opponents make threes (fourth in the country at 29%). Russ Smith is as
electric as ever, but he's also improved his decision-making and shot
selection (he's shooting a shocking 48% from the floor, up from 41% last
year and 35% the year before), while Montrezl Harrell has transformed
from a pure brawler into legitimate offensive threat who also terrorizes
opponents on the glass. Oh, and they're coached by one of the greatest
collegiate basketball minds of all-time. A matchup of Louisville's
violent aggression against Wichita State's more contained tenacity would
be thrilling. We should root for this. Of course, that would mean ...
The enigma: Before Wichita State faces Louisville in the Sweet 16, it may first have to handle Kentucky,
as the selection committee apparently enjoys placing legitimately
dangerous teams in the 8-9 matchup so #1 seeds don't have too easy a
route. And look, Kentucky has talent. They get to the line a ton
(second-most free-throw attempts per game), they devour the offensive
glass (best in the nation in offensive rebound rate), and they protect
the rim (6th in blocked shots). But they're horrific when it comes to
taking care of the ball, and the Harrison twins seem prone to selfish
play, while would-be superstar Julius Randle doesn't get nearly as many
touches as he should. This is a dangerous team, but it's also a young,
sloppy, and inconsistent team, one that's likely to fold when facing a
disciplined, veteran Wichita State squad. Besides, there's another
freshman in the region who's more deserving of the public's attention
The passion of the freshman: Mike Krzyzewski's teams have been slipping on defense ever since Shelden Williams graduated, but this year's Duke
squad is an alarming case. The Blue Devils rank 110th in defensive
efficiency, largely because they don't block shots (3.1 per game, 219th)
and get killed on the glass (218th in defensive rebound rate). That's
partly an intentional tradeoff, of course, since Duke is the second-best
offensive team in the nation by points per possession, and they
sacrifice size and strength for range shooters (11th in three-point
percentage) and smart passers (ninth in turnover rate). Still, if Duke
is going to win the title, it's going to be because Jabari Parker wills
them to it. The freshman phenom is a below-average interior defensive
player at this point in his career, but he's a once-in-a-generation
talent on offense, someone who can score from anywhere on the floor and
combines explosive athleticism with great touch and a brilliant overall
feel for the game. Rodney Hood is a terrific second banana, and Rasheed
Sulaimon is growing more confident, even though Quinn Cook is
inexplicably ceding time to Tyler Thornton (he's averaging 26 minutes
over the last 12 games, which leads me to believe he has incriminating
photos of Steve Wojciechowski). Still, this is Parker's team. As a
player, he's been compared to Carmelo Anthony, who memorably led
Syracuse to the title in 2003. I can't think of a better way to make
those comparisons stick.
The rematch: Duke killed Michigan at
Cameron in December, stifling Nik Stauskas (who didn't make a shot from
the floor) and generally making the Wolverines miserable. But Duke's
defense has slipped since then, while Michigan has honed its offensive
system, one that features a lot of off-ball cutting and more passing
than dribbling. In fact, Michigan plays a lot like Duke: They shoot the
three well (39%, 13th) and they rarely turn the ball over (19th in
turnover rate), but they're an atrocious shot-blocking team (293rd), and
they seem legitimately afraid of hitting the offensive glass (261st in
offensive rebound rate). They also seem to be trying to eliminate the
free throw from the game; they foul less than any other team in the
country, but they also rank 301st in free throw attempts per game. With
Michigan, it all comes down to shooting, which means it really all comes
down to Stauskas. The Big Ten Player of the Year is a creative
offensive player and a terrific passer in the pick-and-roll game, but
he's also prone to droughts. Caris LeVert is a fine complementary
player, but Glenn Robinson III has shied from the spotlight, so if
Stauskas is misfiring, the Wolverines are in trouble.
The obligation: A few years ago, Wofford
made the tournament, but I declined to mention the Terriers in my
analysis. (They lost to Jimmer Fredette's BYU squad in the first round.)
This angered my friend Brent, a devoted Wofford alum who's also one of
the Manifesto's most loyal readers. This year, Wofford faces Michigan in
the first round as a 15 seed. They rank 174th in offensive efficiency,
224th in shooting efficiency, 324th in free-throw attempts, 214th in
opponents' shooting percentage, and 347th in blocked shots (out of 351
qualifying teams). They also put up all of those numbers while playing
in the robust Southern Conference, leading to a strength of schedule of
270. I don't like their chances.
Play-in games: Texas Southern over Cal Poly, NC State over Xavier, Iowa over Tennessee.
Sweet 16: Wichita State over Kentucky, Louisville over Saint Louis, Duke over Iowa, Michigan over Arizona State.
Regional final: WICHITA STATE over Duke.
EAST ("The junk pile")
What a dump.
The top seed: I'll say this for Virginia:
They defend. The Cavaliers are fourth in the nation in defensive
efficiency, and while they don't force many turnovers (123rd in forced
turnover rate), they make scoring very, very difficult, plus they finish
off their possessions with a rebound (5th in defensive rebound rate).
Akil Mitchell is a load inside, and Malcolm Brogdon is a pest on the
perimeter who also happens to be their only playmaker on offense, unless
you count the wildly overrated Joe Harris. Basically, Virginia tries to
make the game as unpleasant as possible, which is why they rank 346th
in possessions per game. It's a smart strategy, given the team's lack of
firepower, but it's a dicey proposition against high-level competition.
Like, you know ...
The hidden juggernaut: Much uproar ensued when Louisville was handed a four seed, but at least the Cardinals lost their games at full strength. Michigan State
was racked by injuries for most of the year, but they still managed to
finish 12-6 in a competitive conference. Now, they're healthy, and
they're looking unstoppable. Gary Harris has been spotty from deep this
year (36%), but he's still a silky-smooth shooting guard, while Branden
Dawson does the dirty work and Adreian Payne is that rare breed: a
difference-making athlete who can shoot the three. I still can't fully
trust point guard Keith-Not-Luke Appling, but he's settled down a bit in
his senior year, and he's a competent offensive player, though the
Spartans are still better when running things through Payne and Denzel
Valentine. I've underestimated Tom Izzo's teams in the past (and at my
peril), and this one is hardly flawless, particularly given their
terrible free-throw shooting (how does Appling shoot 66% from the
line?). Still, other than perhaps Florida, this is as complete a team as
I can find in the field.
The rest: I want nothing to do with the bottom half of
this bracket. Villanova is the two seed, and they haven't beaten a
ranked team since November. Uconn is frisky, but if Appling is
untrustworthy, Shabazz Napier is the stuff of nightmares. North Carolina
has two above-average players in Marcus Paige (who weirdly sleepwalks
through first halves) and James Michael McAdoo (who can't stay out of
foul trouble). St. Joseph's doesn't rank in the top 80 in either
offensive or defensive efficiency. The only team I sort of like is Iowa
State because they have some horses in Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane.
Still, if you're looking for a team to come out of this bracket, stick
to the top half.
Sweet 16: Virginia over Memphis, Michigan State over Harvard, Iowa State over North Carolina, Uconn over Villanova.
Regional final: MICHIGAN STATE over Iowa State.
Semifinal #1 (Florida vs. Michigan State): Florida has been strong all year, but Michigan State is peaking at the right time. I'll take the Spartans.
Semifinal #2 (Creighton vs. Wichita State): First of
all, CBS will do everything possible to ensure this game doesn't
actually take place, including hiring Jeff Gillooly to break Doug
McDermott's leg if necessary. Anyway, too much defense here from Wichita State.
Championship (Michigan State vs. Wichita State): I'm tempted to take the Shockers here, but I don't think they match up well with the Spartans' size and quickness. Michigan State is your 2014 national champion.
Or, you know, not. Now's when the fun starts. Enjoy the madness.