Here’s my NCAA men’s tournament bracket and five tips for yours

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament begins its first round Friday. Georgia Tech is the only local entry, but those of us without a rooting interest in the tournament (hand raised) still can fill out a bracket for potential profit or just fun.

Here are my NCAA Tournament picks, plus some things I (maybe) learned over about 35 years of filling out the bracket ...

1. Don’t get carried away with Tech

The Yellow Jackets are back in the men’s NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. That’s great for Tech fans who long for the days of Bobby Cremins (or can’t remember them). It’s good for me because I wrote that Pastner was a good hire for Tech in 2016 and, finally, here’s some evidence of that. It’s not so good for the people in Memphis who were happy to see Pastner go and haven’t seen their Tigers back in the tourney since.

Anyway, Tech backers excited to have their team back in the tourney may be tempted to move the ninth-seeded Jackets far in Midwest bracket. Go ahead if the goal is to dream big and have some fun. If you are in a place that takes wagers, you can cash in with 150-1 odds for the Jackets to win the region. But pump the brakes on Tech if winning a bracket contest is the goal.

Tech’s first-round opponent, Loyola Chicago, is favored by three points. The Ramblers are ranked No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency (adjusted by opponent). Center Cameron Krutwig, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, has about 20 pounds on Tech counterpart Moses Wright. Krutwig helped the Ramblers reach the 2018 Final Four as an 11 seed.

The Jackets are in trouble if they end up playing a slow, half-court game against Loyola. If the Jackets win, their run will end against No. 1-seed Illinois in the second round. The Illini have won 14 of their past 15 games, with the last defeat Feb. 23. They finished second in the Big Ten, the nation’s best conference, behind fellow No. 1-seed Michigan. The Illini beat the Wolverines head-to-head March 2 without their best player (Ayo Dosunmu) before going on to win the conference tourney.

You can probably guess that Illinois is my pick to win the championship. The Illini meet one important criteria, and you also should ...

2. Pick a KenPom “dual qualifier” to win it all

Pomeroy’s data goes back to the 2002 season. Among 18 national champions since, 14 had rankings of 15th or higher in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The list includes the champs of five consecutive NCAA Tournaments and eight of the past 10. The three dual-qualifiers in this tournament are No. 1-seeds Illinois, Gonzaga (West) and Michigan (East).

There’s reason to be skeptical of the other No. 1-seed, Baylor. The Bears rank No. 3 in offensive efficiency. It’s true that good offense has been more important than good defense for past champions. Only three champs of the KenPom era ranked outside of the top 10 in offensive efficiency. Six were worse than 10th in defensive efficiency, including Villanova (2018), North Carolina (2017) and Duke (2015).

But Baylor ranks 44th in defensive efficiency. All 18 champions of the KenPom era were 18th or better. Baylor’s two losses were to the best defensive teams in the Big 12, Kansas and Oklahoma State. Two teams on Baylor’s side of the South region bracket, Purdue and Wisconsin, can score and play defense.

Another reason why I like Illinois to come out of the Midwest region is that I don’t have to ...

3. Watch out for underdogs with good tourney coaches

Michigan State will have to beat UCLA in Thursday’s play-in game to be part of the main field. North Carolina had to go on a late-season run to earn an at-large big with a No. 8 seed. But beware of dismissing The Tar Heels and Spartans because they don’t seem be as strong as usual. Instead, give them the benefit of the doubt because of their coaches.

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and North Carolina’s Roy Williams routinely overperform their seed in the NCAA tournament. Izzo ranks No. 1 among active coaches in the performance against seed expectation metric. Williams is No. 3. Both coaches are capable of messing up your bracket with a surprise run.

Texas Tech is another team that’s coached by a tournament overachiever. Chris Beard ranks sixth among active coaches in performance against seed expectations. His Red Raiders teams were No. 3 seeds when they advanced to the regional final in 2018 and again when they lost to Virginia in overtime of the last national championship game.

Now Texas Tech is the No. 6 seed in the South region and could play Arkansas in the second round. That’s the only serious threat I can see to my plan to pick the Razorbacks and ...

4. Ride the clutch NBA prospect

Neither of the Connecticut teams that busted the KenPom formula was anything special before the tournament. But both squads had something in common: a clutch-time performer with NBA potential. In 2011 it was junior point guard Kemba Walker leading the third-seeded Huskies to the title. In 2014 it was Shabazz Napier, a freshman on the 2011 team, starring for No. 7-seed UConn.

This year Arkansas, the No. 3 seed in the South, is a pedestrian offensive team with a special talent who makes winning plays. Arkansas freshman Moses Moody is projected to be a top-10 pick in the next NBA draft. Before that, Moody leads the Hogs to their first Final Four since 1995.

The clutch NBA prospect angle is a reason that I also like Oklahoma State’s chances in the Midwest region. Freshman Cade Cunningham could be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. He’s made multiple clutch plays this season. Cunningham (no relation) is a reason why the Cowboys are getting the second-shortest odds to win the Midwest despite being seeded fourth behind Illinois, Houston and West Virginia.

The dual pull of KenPom dual-qualifier Illinois and Cunningham’s Cowboys is a reason why I’m tempted to ...

5. Ignore everything above

Predicting the bracket is difficult in normal times. The farcical COVID-19 season makes it even harder. I’ve offered some sound advice based on statistics, history and trends. Two other strategies make sense: pick at least one 12 seed to win and automatically advance all No. 1 seeds to the fourth round (Baylor is my exception to the latter).

This might be the year not to worry so much about all that stuff and take more chances. I can’t do that because I always end up swimming in data even when I don’t want to dive in. When I came up for air, my Final Four included Illinois, Florida State, Arkansas and Gonzaga. Illinois beats Gonzaga for the national championship.