Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
March Madness is finally back and it’s time for me to make two confessions. First, I have not watched nearly enough college basketball this year. Second, that won’t stop me from being entirely too pretentious about my bracket. You will read plenty of articles between now and Thursday about who you should put in your Final Four if you want to cash in at the office pool. If that’s the column you want to read, look elsewhere. This column is about who you should put in your Final Four if you want to have the most fun watching the NCAA tournament over the next three weeks. Let’s face it, that is what March Madness is all about anyway, and the reason why I’ve promised myself that I will use two vacation days every year on the first two days of the NCAA tournament if I ever get out of school and get a real job.
So, how do you decide which teams will make for the most exciting Final Four? The criteria can be most simply broken down into three aspects. First, they need to actually have a chance to make it to the Final Four. Why? Because, there is nothing less fun than you’re bracket being completely worthless by 4 P.M. on the first Thursday, that’s why. Second, they need to play a brand of basketball that you actually want to watch for 4+ games, which means that they need to be able to score and have a chance to make your jaw drop at any given point in time with an unreal play or run. Lastly, you can’t pick all one-seeds, Kentucky or Duke. Picking all one-seeds is painfully boring and has only happened one time ever, so it’s also not even smart. As for Kentucky and Duke, what makes pulling for either of those two teams fun is the same thing that makes listening to Nickelback cool, using your social media account as your own personal political platform worthwhile or preferring Twilight to Harry Potter acceptable. In other words, nothing. With that said, let’s go region by region to find our most fun Final Four, with a few bonus fun picks and my actual Final Four picks added.
East Region- SMU Mustangs
The Mustangs’ logo just looks like it would belong to a team that plays wide-open and fires tons of threes right? Wrong. Tim Jankovich’s team won’t wow you with it’s breakneck pace or willingness to let it fly. What they will do is kill you with an efficient offense that makes up for not shooting many threes, by knocking down the ones they do take. SMU is sitting at 40.6% from 3-point range this season, which is tied for 4th in Division I.
SMU also has one of the most interesting paths through the East region. They will receive the winner of USC vs. Providence in the opening round, and should they win, it’s likely they will see Baylor in the second round. This will probably be our only opportunity for a Lone Star State showdown in this year’s tournament, unless Texas Southern can make the ultimate Cinderella run to the NCAA championship game. After that, it’s likely that they would face the overall least fun team in college basketball: Duke. Semi Ojeleye is SMU’s top player. He’s a 6’7″ wing who is shooting 42.8% from 3 and averaging 18.9 points per game. He is also a Duke transfer, and the potential for him to face his former teammates would be a great storyline for this Elite Eight matchup.
The final roadblock between SMU and a ticket to Phoenix would most likely be defending-champion Villanova. This sets up a battle between two champions of conferences stuck in the purgatory between “major” and “mid-major”. When the American Athletic Conference spawned out of the shrapnel from the Big East implosion it landed UConn and Cincinnati, and picked up Memphis from Conference USA, but is also rife with schools that can hardly be considered “major programs”. Speaking of the Big East, Villanova remained in the wreckage and has tried to carry the Big East out of the aftermath of the downfall of what was once the ACC’s biggest threat to being the preeminent basketball conference. All in all, there is a lot to like about an SMU Final Four run, and they are definitely a team worth watching over the next three weeks, assuming they can keep winning.
Bonus Bold Pick- Wisconsin to upset Villanova
Wisconsin is a nominee for this year’s ESPY for “Rodney Dangerfield No Respect Team of the Year“. The Badgers are an 8-seed, despite finishing 3rd in the Big Ten in the regular season and making it to the Big Ten Championship game. They finished ahead of Minnesota (5-seed), Michigan State (9-seed), Northwestern (8-seed), and Michigan (7-seed) in the regular season standings and fell to the Wolverines in the Big Ten title game. It would be nice to see them earn some respect for themselves with an upset in the tournament.
Actual Pick- Villanova
You’ll notice that I’m much more lame when it comes to my own bracket than I’m encouraging you to be, but I’m OK with it. The defending champs are still one of the strongest teams in the field, and as much as I would love to see Wisconsin give the selection committee the double birds or the Mustangs make their first Final Four in 61 years, I can’t bring myself to go against the Wildcats.
West Region- West Virginia Mountaineers
Rumor has it that this scene was loosely based on footage of a West Virginia basketball game. Ok so maybe I made that rumor up and it has no basis in fact, but watch a West Virginia game and tell me I’m wrong. The Mountaineers play balls-to-the-walls, breakneck, full-court press basketball for 40 minutes and are willing to leave any amount of carnage in their wake. There is a reason that West Virginia basketball has come to be known as “Press” Virginia. And here’s the thing: it’s not a gimmick, they are really freaking good.
Fun fact: Bob Huggins, or “Huggy Bear”, is the only coach in this region with a Final Four appearance to his name. Huggins is always a fun watch in the tournament, and even when the Mountaineers are playing ugly basketball on the offensive end, their thrilling defense will keep your adrenaline pumping for the whole game. If West Virginia had swapped places with Purdue or Butler, they would also be in my actual Final Four and I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if they make it anyway.
Bonus Bold Pick- Dunk City Baby!!
For those who don’t know, Florida Gulf Coast became the first 15-seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen back in 2013 and earned the nickname “Dunk City” in the process. Could Dunk City be returning to a Sweet Sixteen near you soon? It’s an uphill battle, but it could happen and it would definitely be a fun fan experience. Also, “Dunk City” is ten trillion times cooler than “Lob City“.
Actual Pick- Gonzaga
I actually have the Zags winning the whole thing. I know that they supposedly “always choke”, but the truth is that they usually don’t. In the past, with the exception of the loss to Nevada in 2004, they have lost to teams that were better than them. This year, Gonzaga has two dominant forces down low with Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, in addition to the exceptional guard play they typically bring to the table, led this year by Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss.
Midwest Region- Kansas Jayhawks
So, I know going with the number one seed in the region doesn’t sound like the “fun” pick, but hear me out. You know what is even less fun than picking a 1-seed? Having a terrible bracket. Do you know what leads to a terrible bracket? Having all of your Final Four teams lose on opening weekend. By itself, going with a one-seed may not be the most fun, but for the sake of your long-term fun with this thing you need to do it at least once. At least one 1-seed has made the tournament every year since 2011, and only three times since the tournament started seeding in 1979 has there been a Final Four completely devoid of 1-seeds.
Kansas was ultimately the choice here because their region is incredibly boring anyway. If there was a best bet for a region to go straight chalk, then it would be the Midwest. Purdue and Iowa State have been prone to early losses in the tournament in the past, but I expect both to continue playing through opening weekend. Michigan and Oklahoma State are fun teams to watch, and Michigan is coming into the tournament red hot after winning the Big Ten tournament. But, Louisville is one of the best defensive teams in the country and can score enough themselves that I don’t think either Michigan or Oklahoma State can simply outscore them.
Bonus Bold Pick- Michigan to the Elite Eight
Even given what I just said about Louisville, a Michigan Elite 8 run has the upside of being both possible and highly entertaining. If, capital “I” capital “F”, Michigan can get past Oklahoma State and Louisville then I think they would beat Oregon, Creighton or Rhode Island in the Sweet Sixteen. Riding the hot hand is a fun way to fill out a bracket, but it doesn’t alway pay dividends. This year’s “hot hand” pick is Michigan.
Actual Pick- Louisville
Like I said, Louisville’s defense is strong and they can score enough that they aren’t deficient on that end of the floor. The Cardinals aren’t necessarily a fun pick, but they are a consistent team that is solid on both ends of the floor. Both are qualities of a typical Final Four team. Hopefully, Rick Pitino can spice things up by verbally assaulting a fan again. Last thought, I deserve major props for not making a single prostitution comment during this section.
South Region- UCLA Bruins
The UCLA Bruins scream fun from the mountain tops louder than any other team in college basketball, and it starts with star player Lonzo Ball. For starters, Ball is a bonafide superstar and is almost a lock to be one of the first two players taken in the upcoming NBA draft. Also, his dad is like a dad we have all known at one point or another growing up who thinks that his son has come to this earth to be the patron saint of athletic prowess. Lavar Ball has already declared that Lonzo is better than Steph Curry, and if a Final Four run is in the cards then those proclamations might become even more ridiculous.
With Ball leading the way, the Bruins also play a very appealing brand of basketball. They score in bunches and launch threes from all over the court. UCLA’s high pace of play also means that they are packing as many possessions into a 40-minute game as they can, which will sure to have you sweating on your couch. If West Virginia compares to “Mad Max: Fury Road” (see above), then UCLA is like a salsa dance that is equal parts frenzied and graceful.
Bonus Bold Pick- Wichita State to the Final Four
A double-digit seed has made the Final Four four times in NCAA tournament history, and three have happened since 2006. None have made it to the national title game. If you are dead set on putting a double-digit seed in the Final Four, then Wichita State is the pick. The Shockers (perfect nickname amirite?) are the best 10+ seed in the tournament, and if they had Arizona or Duke waiting for them instead of Kentucky, then I would probably pick them to make it past the first weekend. As it stands, #BigBlueNation looks to be playing its best ball of the season and I think they will survive a tough contest against Wichita State.
Actual Pick- North Carolina
Three one-seeds is a pretty lame Final Four, which is partially what inspired me to write this, but sometimes it’s not about being cool. Sometimes it’s about putting yourself in the best position to win, and I think this does that. I’ll almost definitely be wrong and, with the exception of Louisville, I have changed my Final Four picks from each of the regions dozens of times in the last 24 hours. The Tar Heels have a clear path to the Elite Eight, and if they can reach their peak against a Kentucky team that I expect to be battle-tested in the second round and Sweet Sixteen, then I think a return to the Final Four and national title game are in the works.