The NCAA tournament is set to tip off in earnest on Tuesday and anybody who’s anybody is filling out a Yahoo Sports Tourney Pick-em bracket.
Of course, we all have our own opinions as to which team will cut down the nets in Glendale, Ariz., and our Dagger college basketball crew is never afraid to share their takes.
We asked four of our writers to fill out their bracket and explain their biggest upset picks, Final Four teams and who they think will win it all. A consensus emerged regarding which team will take the cake, and the pick will not likely be a popular one among readers.
On to the picks…
Upsets: There is a lot to like on the 12- and 13-seed lines, but in many cases, upset potency was snuffed out by matchups. Virginia isn’t susceptible to Wilmington. Notre Dame isn’t vulnerable against Princeton. Nevada is hot, but Iowa State is hotter. And the weak No. 3s, Florida State and Baylor, got kind draws. The one 12-5 upset I love is Middle Tennessee State over Minnesota (and Butler). I’m hesitantly going with East Tennessee State over Florida too. And I considered Vermont over Purdue, but didn’t have the guts. In the second round, I love Vandy over Gonzaga, and think Wichita State could take down mighty Kentucky.
Final Four: In the East, Villanova vs. Duke would be epic; the Blue Devils just have a tad more firepower. In the Midwest, both Michigan and Louisville could give Kansas a run, but the home crowd will be a factor. In the South, North Carolina-UCLA is a toss-up, but I’m intrigued by the possibility of UCLA turning up its intensity on defense. The West is the most difficult region to predict; I think Notre Dame gets on a roll and makes it all the way to Phoenix.
National Champion: It is so, so difficult to go against Duke at the moment, but if there’s one team that can neutralize Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and the rest of Coach K’s arsenal, it’s Kansas. I can see Frank Mason III propelling the Jayhawks on a legacy-defining run and outdueling Duke in the title game.
Upsets: Let me start with a popular upset pick I don’t see happening. UNC Wilmington is really good, but slow-paced, fundamentally-sound Virginia is a nightmare matchup for a team that wants to force turnovers and get out in transition. If the Cavs are kryptonite for Louisville, what will they be for former Rick Pitino assistant Kevin Keatts’ team? Middle Tennessee over Minnesota is the 12-5 upset pick I believe in most, but I’ll throw out another one since Henry is already all over that. Creighton isn’t the same without injured point guard Maurice Watson and Oregon is a bit vulnerable without forward Chris Boucher. Surging Rhode Island has a good chance to win a game and an outside shot to win two.
Final Four: Wisconsin and SMU are the teams most capable of derailing a potential Villanova-Duke showdown in the East, but don’t count on that happening. I’ll take the Blue Devils to win a classic pitting two of the five best teams in the field. In the West, Arizona is peaking at the right time with Allonzo Trier back and Lauri Markkanen heating up. This isn’t Sean Miller’s best team but it might be his best chance at a Final Four. North Carolina has to be the pick in the East if only because its draw to the Elite Eight is so much more favorable than UCLA’s or Kentucky’s. To me, the Midwest is the region with the potential for the most carnage. Kansas and Louisville both have difficult second-round games and Nevada and Vermont are live underdogs. Consider this a tentative vote of confidence for Kansas.
National Champion: Could we have the first-ever North Carolina-Duke title game? Yup. The Tar Heels hold up their end of the bargain bludgeoning guard-heavy Kansas in the paint and the Blue Devils lean heavily on Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard to barely survive Trier, Markkanen and a heavily pro-Arizona crowd. That sets up a classic title game that ends with Duke finally validating its preseason hype and delivering Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth national title.
Upsets: No. 11 Xavier has the potential to overpower No. 6 Maryland – especially on the defensive end. The Terps have struggled with defensive boards while the Musketeers have proven to be a good rebounding team. The Terps have lost six out of their last 10 games, so unless they can get hot early and stay hot, Xavier could take that one easily.
Final Four: Gonzaga beat Arizona once already this season, and with a strong smackdown over Saint Mary’s in the WCC finals en route to a 31-1 regular season. I should disclose that my younger sister is a student there, so I may have some bias. But I believe that Nigel Williams Goss’ hot hand and Przemek Karnowski will give the Zags what they need to make their first Final Four appearance in program history.
National Champion: Once again, Coach K’s army has proven itself to be almost unstoppable. Yes, they have had some bumps along the way but have started to get back to their dominant Blue Devil ways with March wins over North Carolina (twice), Clemson, Louisville and Notre Dame. If they keep up, nothing stands in Duke’s way.
Upsets: It is all the more tempting to pick a Cinderella in a season like this one, with no true dominant team. Alas, it seems as if even the susceptible high seeds received rather favorable draws. I have little faith in Baylor but just can’t see the Bears losing to No. 14 New Mexico State. Likewise with No. 3 Florida State (vs. No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast). As far as the first round goes, the lowest-ranked teams I have advancing are No. 11 Xavier over No. 6 Maryland (and over No. 3 FSU in the ensuing round), and No. 10 Wichita State over No. 7 Dayton, because let’s face it, no one believes the Shockers are really a 10-seed. (While Dayton has left a lot to be desired in falling behind big in two losses entering the tourney.) The real fun comes in the Sweet 16, where No. 5 Virginia gets revenge on No. 1 Villanova after letting one slip away in Philly in January. The pressure seems to have died down a bit on Tony Bennett’s program, for a change, and I just think the Wildcats’ tight rotation will at some point catch up to them.
Final Four: The West region is the most fascinating because it contains arguably the three-best coaches to never make a Final Four: Mike Brey, Mark Few and Sean Miller. All three have a great chance to make it to Phoenix but I ultimately go with Miller’s Arizona team, given the easier road it will likely have to navigate. I think Duke gets a scare from underrated SMU in the Sweet 16 but eventually survives the East by overwhelming Virginia. UCLA and Kansas are the best teams in the South and Midwest, respectively, although my heart still aches for Oregon, which I had been wanting to pick all season long before Chris Boucher tore his ACL this past weekend.
National Champion: Duke wins it, if for no other reason than because I’ll be kicking myself if the Blue Devils win and I don’t pick them. They have the best coach and ultimately the best players, a great mix of young and old that reminds me of their 2015 title team. (Which, I should add, I correctly picked to win it all that year. … Over Wisconsin, no less.) UCLA is unstoppable when firing on all cylinders, but that’s asking more of the defensively-challenged Bruins over a six-game span than it is of Duke. The Blue Devils win their sixth natty, and America becomes even more divisive. Good times.
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