I’ve managed to wait 48 hours after the field was announced for this year’s March Madness, formally known as the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, but I could have written this about five minutes afterward. Not even the passage of a little time has changed my mind about this – it’s the worst bracket in the history of the world.
Let’s start close to home in the Midwest Regional. It’s loaded – for everyone except top-seeded and undefeated Kentucky, that is. The only remotely tough game I see for the Wildcats is the Sweet 16 game against Maryland, coached by Hayden and KU grad Mark Turgeon. Assuming they get past the Terps, they breeze to the Final Four. The rest of that bracket will be beating up on each other. The Big 12 has three teams in that region, including Kansas, the only one that has a chance of winning a game. The Hawks didn’t get the easiest draw with New Mexico State, a team that can match them with size up front, but they should find a way to get by. KU got a break with an early start time – my feeling is if the Hawks had to play after Wichita State and if the Shockers won, they might gag away a first rounder to “unintentionally” avoid WSU – something Kentucky did a number of years ago to avoid in-state rival Louisville. (Since then the Kentucky legislature passed a statute commanding the schools to play each other, and they have ever since.) But such conspiracy theories can be avoided, as the pressure will be on WSU after Kansas’ assumed victory. The Shockers should beat Indiana, a team which is in the tournament because they are Indiana (same for Texas and UCLA) but you never know when a school with a bad team but a big name can rise up and defend itself, and the Shocks can’t take it for granted. If Kansas and Wichita State meet, all hell breaks loose in the Sunflower State. I happened to be staying in Lawrence in 1981 when WSU beat Kansas in a second round NCAA game, and the teams haven’t played since. The whole place was like a morgue – it usually is after any KU loss, but this was especially hard. I don’t think I need to go much further right now – if the Shocks get the Hawks again, that will be an interesting column all by itself.
On to the rest of the field. The NCAA can’t hide its desire to have a Kentucky-Duke final. I’m sure they assume every fan in America wants to see Coach K have the final shot at denying mighty UK an undefeated season and the national title. They did it back in 1992 against UNLV’s defending national champion and undefeated team in the semi-finals. CBS is probably salivating for that game as well. There is a decent chance it will happen, but nothing is guaranteed. If the top seeds hold in the Midwest and West, Kentucky would have to play Wisconsin, a team most analysts feel is best equipped to beat Big Blue. Wisconsin – as well as the other top seeds Duke and Villanova (Villanova? That surprised me at first but a little digging helped to realize why) don’t have the overall depth in their regions that Kentucky has. Not to say Wisconsin in the West has a gimme – North Carolina, which is hot, and Arizona could be trouble. Baylor is also in that region, seeded third – and don’t forget Scott Drew has taken two Baylor teams to regional finals, though I don’t think this Bear team has enough to do that this time. Duke and Villanova both have made a habit in recent years of gagging games before the regional finals, or even before the second weekend, so they are not infallible. But the Blue Devils don’t have much to face until maybe Utah in the 16’s, and they should beat anyone in a regional final. The East is a mess, loaded with mediocrity from top to bottom. If the Midwest is so loaded, the East is pretty unloaded, even with Villanova at the top at 32-2.
That regional imbalance is one of the reasons why this overall bracket is the worst I’ve ever seen. The biggest, though, is one I have already mentioned. The NCAA no longer hides its intentions of what it wants – no mid-majors for one, and only the bluest of bloods to meet in the finals. Kentucky vs. Duke for a title does not interest me in the slightest – I am not a fan of either team and would love to see them knocked off. And even though it would slight the Big 12, Texas should not have been in the field. Murray State and Colorado State should have, though there are some legitimate reasons why they were not picked. Many analysts didn’t have UCLA in the tournament, either, but here they are. Power Five leagues have so many built-in advantages, but those should be taken into consideration and neutralized by the committee as it goes over the information available to it. Eventually, though, the NCAA will almost certainly let the Power Five have their own tournament – I can see it within 20 years, with the rest of the mid-majors relegated to a I-AA event. What a shame if it comes about. Though at least there will be more than a few brackets busted by some of them this year, mine included (though I am waiting until the last minute to fill mine out – I think there will be a First Four winner headed to the third round again). And if you’re a Big 12 fan, don’t look for a lot of teams from the supposed best conference in the country to be in the Sweet 16 – Iowa State is the most likely, Baylor has a shot and the Jayhawks do too, but only if they are on top of their game. If they aren’t they will lose to someone in Omaha. The other four teams are guaranteed one-and-done. You heard it here first.
So let the madness begin – it will prove again why it is called Madness in the first place. As much as they would like to, the NCAA hasn’t yet totally destroyed that.