We are less than 30 minutes from the NCAA Tournament beginning. I can’t believe it’s already that time of year again. Being a sports writer, you’d think I would have a pulse on what teams to pick in the tournament.
But my luck has been less than good over the years. I seem to always pick the wrong teams and I rarely hit on any upsets. My bracket is usually worse than my dad’s.
With that being said, I am going to cautiously give some of my favorites that I like to advance or surprise in the tournament.
The Gopher in the room
Let’s start with the obvious: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
A lot of people have been picking Middle Tennessee State to upset Minnesota in this 5-12 matchup. While the season-ending injury to Akeem Springs might hamper this team, the Gophers have one of the toughest defenses in the country. Reggie Lynch is a game-changer down low with his ability to block shots and Jordan Murphy is one of the better rebounders in the Big Ten. Nate Mason is one of the best point guards in the conference and one of the most underrated in the country.
It might be because I’m a hometown guy, but I am picking the Gophers to win two games before bowing out to North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
Staying in the Big Ten, another team I like to make a run is Michigan. Good guard play will take a team far in March, and Derrick Walton Jr. has been playing the best basketball of his life, and I think that will continue for a few more games.
Southern Methodist University (SMU) is led by Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye. He has had a fantastic year. After sitting out last season, Ojeleye is averaging 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game for the Mustangs. Despite playing against weaker competition in the American Athletic Conference, I think SMU can win two games in this tournament. If so, Ojeleye might have the opportunity to play against his former team in the Sweet 16. For him, there would be nothing better than sticking it to the Dukies.
Another AAC team I like is the Cincinnati Bearcats. Head coach Mick Cronin has always recruited mentally and physically tough players in his time at Cincy, but this season he has added some players who can knock down three-pointers. The Bearcats hit 248 shots from beyond the arc, good for 7.3 per game. But this team really hinges on its defensive ability. Cincinnati allowed 60.4 points per game, fourth-best in the country, and it averages 7.2 steals per contest. I like Cincinnati to upset the University of California-Los Angeles in the second round.
Quack, quack, quack
My darkhorse for the tournament is Oregon. Led by Dillon Brooks, I think the Ducks are a dangerous team. They are the No. 3 seed in the Midwest bracket, but if they can get past Louisville or Michigan in the Sweet 16, I could see this team going to the Final Four. Five players average double-figures in points and seven play at least 21 minutes per game. I like the Ducks.
West Coast teams have had difficulty winning the tournament, but I am going with Arizona this season. The Wildcats are led by Allonzo Trier, Lauri Markkanen and Kadeem Allen. Arizona shoots 40 percent from three and hits free throws at a 76 percent clip, with Trier and Markkanen eclisping 80 percent. Head coach Sean Miller is far from the best coach in the field, but I think Arizona has elite talent that can carry it to a title.