This is the 32nd edition of Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco, as sponsored by Kroger. Like the NCAA Tournament itself, our little contest is back after a year’s hiatus. By now, you know that this Big Dance will be staged in its entirely in Indiana, the bulk of it in Indianapolis. You know that’s because of COVID. You know there can be forfeits between now and April 5. You know this tournament will be different from all others.
Our contest remains the same. Go to AJC.com. Pick your bracket. Hit “send.” That’s it.
As ever, we try to offer a pre-picking primer for you. Feel free to disagree. Heck, you’d be well advised to disagree. I’m not the world’s greatest picker. Except — heh, heh — when it comes to Georgia Tech.
Yellow Jackets' recent history in the NCAA Tournament.
I like the Yellow Jackets to win the Midwest Regional, which happens to be the toughest regional. What can I say? Tech is playing as well as anybody, and — given that it has the ACC’s player of the year, the ACC tournament’s MVP and the ACC’s defensive player of the year — we can’t say that Josh Pastner’s team is without talent. The Yellow Jackets will face Loyola Chicago in the first round, and the Ramblers, as we learned in 2018, are no easy out.
Beyond that, it gets only tougher. A lot of people will pick Illinois to win it all. The Jackets would face the Illini in Round 2. That’s the peril of being a No. 9 seed, which Tech was awarded off the strength of its ACC title. But Tech is way better than a No. 9 seed, just as the 1990 Jackets were better than their assigned No. 4. (Lest we forget, those Jackets had to overcome LSU and Shaquille O’Neal in Round 2. They managed.)
We saw in Greensboro how difficult a matchup Tech can be. The Jackets are fast and fearless, and they can really defend. In the Sweet 16, they’ll face Oklahoma State, which has the nation’s most gifted player in freshman Cade Cunningham. In the Elite Eight, Tech will face Houston, a team as tough as it is, but I’m not sure the Cougars have a Jose Alvarado. I’m not sure anybody else has a Jose Alvarado.
Gonzaga should win the West, the softest regional. I’m not sure the Zags are good enough to stay undefeated – more on that in a bit – but I don’t see a real challenger arising until the Final Four. Virginia is not the team it was two years ago. Kansas isn’t the team it usually is. Iowa is the most overblown of the Big Ten’s many high seeds.
Another of those Big Ten representatives — Ohio State — will win the South. Baylor is the No. 1 seed here, but the Bears haven’t been as dominant since they returned from a COVID-induced stoppage. Due to injury, Villanova is without point guard Collin Gillespie. Ohio State just faced Purdue, Michigan and Illinois in the Big Ten tournament, losing only to the latter in overtime. The Buckeyes will beat Baylor in the regional final.
That leaves the East. (Remember, all these “regionals” will be played in Indiana.) Michigan is the top seed, but the Wolverines, who lost once before March, have since lost three of five. The hot team here is Alabama, which went 16-2 in the SEC regular season and then won the league tournament. Texas, the Big 12 tournament winner, is the only team capable of blocking a Michigan-Alabama regional final, but the Crimson Tide under Nate Oats has become a whirlwind. And Bama, for all its basketball success, has never reached the Final Four. That ends this year.
That’s my Final Four: Unbeaten Gonzaga, two No. 2 seeds and Georgia Tech. The guess is that the Jackets, having won a regional that’s essentially a Final Four until itself, will be vulnerable against Ohio State on semifinal Saturday. (For the record, I didn’t pick Tech to win the national title in 1990 or 2004, so again I’m hewing to Fiasco tradition.)
The guess is also that Alabama will flash past Gonzaga in the other semi, thereby rendering the NCAA championship a replay of the College Football Playoff title tilt. The Tide against the Buckeyes, this time without DeVonta Smith and Justin Fields, this time with Ohio State prevailing.
We say again: With COVID still an issue, this Dance could go sideways in a hurry. Sixty-eight teams are bound for Indiana; 67 will lose (or forfeit). And how many No. 9 seeds, you’re asking, have reached the Final Four? The answer’s one — Wichita State in 2013. Georgia Tech will be the second.