Hating the ACC in the spring is the equivalent of hating the SEC in autumn. For all those who insist the biggest league isn’t all that great, the reality is that most Januarys see an SEC team playing for the football national championship and most Aprils wind up with at least one ACC team in the Final Four. We begin the 32nd edition of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco with a telegraphed punch: Two ACC teams will play for the title in Minneapolis, and they’re the two you’d guess.
Meaning: not Virginia.
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Credit where it’s due: The NCAA committee gave a nod to Belmont, a superb mid-major that lost in its conference tournament. The Bruins should reward that faith by winning not one, not two, but three games — taking down Temple in the First Four, then upsetting Maryland in the first full round, then upsetting the upsetter Yale, which will unhorse coach-less LSU. Belmont in the Sweet 16? Yessir.
More locally, Georgia State didn’t have to sweat. It rode its defense through the Sun Belt tournament and knew it was dancing two hours before the pairings were revealed. The 14th-seeded Panthers will face No. 3 Houston, which was just beaten by Cincinnati in the American final, in Tulsa on Friday. That’s a more winnable game that Ron Hunter’s men were handed last year, when they were paired against No. 2 Cincy.
The Cougars are coached by Kelvin Sampson, who left Oklahoma and Indiana on NCAA probation but somehow keeps getting hired. It’s hard to know how good Houston is: It beat Oregon and LSU before Christmas and has lost only three games, but the second-highest-seeded American team to make the field of 68 is Cincinnati, which is a No. 7. So what the heck: I’m taking GSU.
The Midwest, Georgia State’s regional, is one of three that figure to have marquee Elite Eight games. North Carolina and Kentucky, who hate one another from afar, played an epic regional final that essentially decided the 2017 national championship. Carolina won on Luke Maye’s transition jumper at the end. Maye is still around, and he’s one of many gifted Tar Heels. The Midwest will come down to Big Blue against Baby Blue, and Carolina would appear to be just a shade finer.
The South has Virginia as its No. 1 seed, and we all know what happened last March. Instead of UMBC, which fell to Vermont in the American East final, the Cavaliers will face Gardner-Webb. They won’t be felled by a 16th seed again — if they are, they might as well drop basketball — and should reach the regional final without strain.
The key South game will be Sweet 16 match between No. 6 Villanova, which has won the whole shebang two of the past three seasons, and Tennessee, last seen getting run off the floor by Auburn. That was by far the Volunteers’ worst showing of the season, and it might serve as a tonic. They play enough defense to throw Villanova’s famous offense off-kilter, and they’re strong enough to outslug Virginia in a classic grit-on-grit final.
The West is where the fun stuff will happen. Gonzaga got its No. 1 seed but was handed an especially rocky road. The guess here is that the Zags will be the latest high-profile victim of the Syracuse zone, but even if they survive the Orange they could face Florida State, which is even bigger and deeper than they are, and then Michigan in the regional final.
Michigan demonstrably was not the Big Ten’s best team. It lost to Michigan State three times, each game following the same track. The Wolverines would get ahead, and the Spartans would wear them down. The third Wolverines-Spartans clash ended not 15 minutes before the start of the CBS selection show — which in its simplicity was light years better than the monstrosity TBS loosed on the world last March — and Michigan’s reward for losing yet again was to get shipped to a regional it can and will win. Life’s funny sometimes.
By way of contrast, Michigan State was handed the No. 2 seed in the East, which qualifies as the booby prize. The East is Mike Krzyzewski’s regional, Zion Williamson’s regional. The East belongs to Duke, which has lost one game this season – to Gonzaga by two points in Maui the day before Thanksgiving — at full strength. Perhaps you’re as sick of hearing about Coach K and his fabulous freshmen as some are of Saban and Tua and the Tide, but this NCAA tournament will go as the past few installments of the College Football Playoff have gone: It will take a mighty effort by a mighty team to unseat the presumptive favorite.
Here we stipulate that, twice in three years, Clemson — of the, ahem, ACC — has beaten Alabama in January, and basketball is a sport far more given to upsets. Houston lost to N.C. State. Georgetown lost to Villanova. Wisconsin beat unbeatable Kentucky. Stuff happens in the Big Dance, which is why we watch it. That said, it would take a lot of stuff happening for any team but Duke to win.
Carolina seems the team most apt to stop its hated rival, but what we just saw in the ACC semis figures to happen again on April 8. (Fun fact: These two have never met in the NCAA tournament.) The Heels will get ahead, and then the great Krzyzewski will think of something, and then the great Zion will win it at the end. The contrarian in me would love to pick against the overwhelming favorite, but this is one case where the favorite is ... well, overwhelming.
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