The 27th annual edition of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco begins with a sigh. Had Georgia State not wasted an 11-point lead over the final 5:10 of regulation Sunday, I’d be picking them to beat Creighton in the NCAA tournament. That’s assuming the Panthers would have been placed where Louisiana-Lafayette, to whom they fell in an excruciating overtime, landed in the bracket.
Oh, and about that bracket: It’s terrible. To use a phrase in vogue this time of year, it doesn’t pass the eye test. Of the 12 teams seeded Nos. 1-3, how many would be favored over No. 4 Louisville on a neutral floor? Four? Two? Anybody except Florida?
It’s nice that Wichita State was rewarded with a No. 1 seed after going undefeated. But here’s the path the Shockers could face: A second-game matchup against Kentucky, which was the preseason No. 1 and which seemed to find itself in the SEC tournament; a third-round pairing with Louisville, the reigning NCAA champ, and an Elite Eight date with Michigan, the 2014 runner-up, or Duke, four times a national champ under Mike Krzyzewski. The Midwest is the most difficult regional by three miles.
The East, by way of contrast, looks peaked at the top. Virginia won both the ACC’s regular season and tournament, but it’s still a weak No. 1. It lost to Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee (by 35 points!) in December. A year ago, a better Miami team that was likewise an across-the-board ACC champ was seeded No. 2 in the East. This year’s No. 2 in the East is Villanova, which lost twice to Creighton by an aggregate 51 points and was beaten in the Big East tournament by sub-.500 Seton Hall.
The two best teams in the East are the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds. Iowa State finally got past Kansas and won the Big 12 tournament, and that’s no small thing: The Big 12 was the nation’s best league. Michigan State finally got healthy and won the Big 10 tournament, and we learned long ago never to bet against Tom Izzo in March. But I’m going to do it this once. I’m picking the Cyclones of Fred (The Mayor) Hoiberg to reach the Final Four.
The West is so unimpressive that Arizona will win by default. Part of me wants to take San Diego State over the Wildcats in the Sweet 16, but the Aztecs were playing better at the regular season’s start than at its finish, and back in November they lost to Arizona 69-60. In the bottom half of the West bracket, I don’t like anybody — which is why I’m picking Oregon, the No. 7 seed, to beat No. 2 Wisconsin and No. 3 Creighton.
The South Regional will turn on one question: Will Kansas last long enough for Joel Embiid, the big man with a bad back, to get healthy? If so, the Jayhawks should reach the regional final, and they’re one of the two or three teams I’d give a real shot against Florida. But I’m thinking Kansas goes down, without Embiid, in the round of 32 against New Mexico, which is coached by the former Georgia Tech guard Craig Neal and which is woefully underseeded at No. 7.
That will clear the track to Arlington, Texas, for the Gators, who don’t need much help. They play the best defense of any team anywhere. Two things about Florida trouble me, though: Apart from point guard Scottie Wilbekin, they don’t have a guy who can go get them the basket they absolutely have to have, and for such a splendid team the Gators are wretched foul shooters. (Their free-throw percentage, a devilish .666, ranks 275th in the nation.)
Back to the Midwest. Wichita State could lose to Kentucky, but the Shockers have been working in harmony for two years, which trumps the three SEC tournament games in which the young Wildcats found similar bliss. But Louisville, which rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit to oust Wichita State in the semis at the Georgia Dome last year, is another matter.
The Cardinals are largely a different team – forward Chane Behanan was dismissed from the team, and guard Kevin Ware of Rockdale County wound up redshirting after his famous broken leg – but they play harder than anyone else, and Rick Pitino is capable of driving this team to another national title, which would be his third. I like Duke over Michigan in the Sweet 16, but I like Louisville over everybody in the Midwest.
So that’s my Final Four: Florida against Iowa State, Arizona against Louisville. As much as I admire the Mayor and his men, I like the Gators more, and over the past 10 days I’ve come to believe the Cardinals are no worse than the second-best team in the land. The temptation is great to pick a Pitino double, but the team his former disciple – Billy Donovan was Providence’s point guard when Pitino made his first Final Four run in 1987– has cultivated is a team in the fullest sense.
Broken into pieces, the Gators are nothing extraordinary. Taken as a whole, they’re a beautiful assemblage. They’re a lot like Louisville was last season – smart, daring, relentless – and they’ll prove just a hair better than the Louisville of 2014.
But that’s just my opinion, and I’m almost always wrong. As I’ve done every March since 1988, I invite you to enter the Bracket Fiasco, and I note that this year’s winner will, in addition to the traditional Final Four sweatshirt, receive a Samsung Galaxy S4 smart phone and accessories valued at $950 from our sponsor Verizon. The NCAA committee might have turned out a bad bracket, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have yourself a fabulous Fiasco.