Like the rest of the world, I talked myself into the fact I had a great bracket after the first round of March Madness this past weekend. I was wrong. Everything came crashing down in a hellacious storm of chaos in round two and now my bracket looks like New York City at the end of “The Avengers.”
But failure breeds success, success I can only hope to achieve next year. I have learned my lessons from this first weekend and in about 355 days I will put them into motion. Let’s recap.
Picking Villanova: Fool me once, shame on you…
Excluding 2012, head coach Jay Wright has led Villanova to the tournament every year since 2005. Over that period, the Wildcats failed to advance past the first weekend six times and they only went to the Final Four twice.
The notable exception, of course, is last season, when I picked them to make it to the title game and they ended up winning the whole thing with a memorable buzzer-beater. This year, they nabbed the No. 1 overall seed and I picked them to win the whole thing again.
Villanova’s season ended Saturday with a 65-62 loss to No. 8 Wisconsin in the second round. Although the Badgers were a wildly under seeded opponent that the Wildcats probably didn’t deserve to meet this early, Saturday’s game still represented a return to form for Wright’s squad. They will be back next year, but I will be wary.
Roll with the hot conference tourney winner (if they have an elite guard)
No. 7 Michigan came rollicking into the tournament after winning the Big Ten tournament with four wins in four days, becoming a hot pick to make a run in the process. It’s a popular storyline every March: the overlooked team taking home their conference title in an unlikely way and carrying that momentum into the Madness. UConn is perhaps the gold standard for this type of narrative, winning five games in five days at the 2011 Big East Tournament before winning the national title as a No. 3 seed.
That UConn team was powered by the unrelenting engine, Kemba Walker. Great guard play is hugely important in March and the Wolverines have their own dominant guard in Derrick Walton Jr., who murdered Oklahoma State from behind the arc in round one before hitting some key shots to upset No. 2 Louisville on Sunday. Walton Jr. scored 15.4 points per game this season on 42 percent shooting from deep this season and averaged 25.5 points in his last two wins in the Big Ten tournament.
Is Walton Jr. as good as Walker was? No, but over the last two weekends he has been arguably the best scoring guard in the country. That alone is a vital ingredient in making a surprise run and, when he’s hot, the Wolverines are unbeatable. Picking Oklahoma State was a major mistake.
Don’t overrate the conference you know the best
I covered UConn men’s basketball this season, so I saw the American Athletic Conference in action often. When No. 6 SMU came to Hartford I was astounded by their versatility, poise and the scoring ability of Conference Player of the Year Semi Ojeleye.
By the time the Mustangs dominated No. 6 Cincinnati in the American tournament final, I had already talked myself into an Elite Eight run. When they received a No. 6 seed in the East region, it was the ultimate confirmation bias: SMU had been overlooked all season and this low seed was an emphatic slap in the face to the American.
As it turns out, SMU’s best non-conference win was… Stanford? TCU? Pittsburgh? The Mustangs fell to No. 11 USC in their toughest non-conference road test during the regular season and fell again to USC in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Maybe their seed placement was right all along.
The Mustangs had dominated the American but there exists a new and dangerous world outside that conference.
If all else fails, root for chaos
If your bracket explodes, forget it. Pretend it doesn’t exist. Delete whatever bracket app you were opening every ten seconds. This is a weight off your shoulders. Root for the Madness and root for nihilism.
After a disappointing first round, there was a lot to like as a neutral fan and it’s only going to get better next weekend. Villanova, Louisville and Duke aside, the country’s best teams remain alive and the loss of those three has provided us with Wisconsin and Michigan. We’re in for a fun ride.