How to win your March Madness pool

The ultimate guide to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament


Story by Nick Erickson, staff writer

“The ball is tipped, and there you are. You’re running for your life; you’re a shooting star … .”

Ah, “One Shining Moment.” It’s that time of year where the late Luther Vandross’s legendary song takes over for three weeks as 68 college basketball teams try to complete the dream of winning a national championship.

No longer do the strength of schedules, RPI ratings, preseason rankings or quality wins matter. It’s March Madness, and once you’re in, anything can happen. So before the first non-play-in games tip off Thursday morning, here are things to know if you want to complete your own dream and win a bracket challenge.

Can Kentucky be beaten? Yes. It’s hard to argue at this point that this year’s Wildcats are one of the best college basketball teams of all time. They attempt to be the first undefeated team since Bob Knight’s Indiana squad in 1976. But they are beatable.

I look at two teams in particular that can slow the Wildcats down: Notre Dame and Wisconsin. The Fighting Irish wouldn’t see the them until the Elite Eight, but their ability to shoot from the outside could keep them within striking distance of UK. When Ole Miss almost knocked off the Wildcats in January, it shot 53 percent from the 3-point line. Kentucky has been vulnerable out there, and the Irish just ran rough shot through the ACC tournament by shooting the longball.

If Kentucky gets by Notre Dame, a potential Final Four rematch with Wisconsin awaits. The way the Badgers can slow a game down could frustrate the high-flying Wildcats. Defensively, the Badgers lead the country in fewest fouls per game, and Kentucky depends on getting to the free-throw line for a lot of its offense. Taking that away could lead to Frank Kaminsky and Co. dancing all the way to the title game.

But if you’re a first-time picker, Kentucky is definitely a safe bet for your national champion.

Which No. 1 seeds will fall before the Final Four? Villanova and Duke. The Wildcats of Villanova have a sensational record of 33-2, but the Big East isn’t what it used to be. They can score, but they’ll run into some defensive-oriented teams on their path to Indianapolis. In the regular season, Georgetown, historically one of the more dominating defensive programs in college basketball, beat Villanova by 20. The Wildcats will have to get through what could be defensive player of the year Montrezl Harrell and Louisville in the Sweet 16. I look for the Cardinals to grind out a low-scoring affair in that one.

On any given night, Duke can be the best team in the country, and that includes being better than Kentucky. The talent is there with a stealthy guard combination of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook, and of course, the force down low that is Jahlil Okafor. But Okafor’s inability to shoot free throws will haunt the Blue Devils before the Final Four, especially against a veteran team like Iowa State, which is a potential Elite Eight matchup. Okafor only shoots 51 percent from the line, and Coach K will be forced to make that decision whether to sub out Okafor in a close game or keep him in there and risk missed free-throw shots. I look for the Cyclones to exploit this and punch their ticket to college basketball’s biggest stage.

The Final Four sleepers: Iowa State and Louisville. See above.

This year’s Cinderella: Eastern Washington. The No. 13 seed in the South Region will reach the Sweet 16, and here’s why: Tyler Harvey. In all honesty, this team reminds a lot of the 2008 Davidson team that went to the Elite Eight, which Steph Curry pioneered. Apparently, he’s doing pretty well in the NBA, or so I hear. Harvey definitely has similarities with the probable NBA MVP. The Eastern Washington guard led the nation in scoring at 22.9 points per contest, and he made 122 3-pointers on the season, which also led the country.

The Eagles are playing Georgetown, a team susceptible to early-round upsets (Ohio, Florida Gulf Coast, Curry’s Davidson, just to name a few), so that could be a big factor. I also think Stephen F. Austin is fully capable of beating Utah in the first round, and that is who Eastern Washington would play in the Round of 32. Look for the Eagles to fly into the second weekend and Harvey to become this year’s darling boy of the tournament.

Pick a 12 over a 5: Every year since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, a No. 12 seed has won over a No. 5 seed. This year, expect no different. I really like Buffalo over West Virginia in the Midwest Region, although all of them could be justified. I saw the Bulls play in Madison this December, and if it weren’t for a sensational individual performance by Frank Kaminsky, they definitely walked away from the Kohl Center with a win. Their defense is terrific, and it’s no wonder why when they are coached by former Duke guard and defensive guru Bobby Hurley. West Virginia doesn’t have a huge home run threat offensively, and don’t be surprised if Buffalo exploits that and makes the Mountaineers strike out.

Other things to look out for: Tom Izzo will have his men ready to play, as he always does, in March. It’s truly remarkable that the Michigan State coach has his squad peaking and playing its best at this time every single year, but that’s the case once again. In a fairly weak East bracket, expect the Spartans to make some noise.

UCLA will win a game. The Bruins have received so much scrutiny for making the tournament at just a 20-13 mark, but expect sensational freshman Kevon Looney to rise the occasion and pull of a first-round upset. This is UCLA we’re talking about, after all, home of college basketball’s longest ever winning streak at 88 games back in the early ‘70s.

Virginia lacks an offensive presence so much that will haunt them. I love the Cavaliers, I really do. They play team ball, swarm you defensively and execute down the stretch, sort of the way basketball should be played. But truth be told, they just don’t enough offense to make a serious run at things. The injury status of Justin Anderson really hurts them, as well.

My Final Four: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Iowa State and Louisville, and ultimately, I’ve got Kaminsky and crew cutting down the nets after a win against the Cyclones on Championship Monday.

Happy pickings to all, and most importantly, have fun with the most exciting three-week stretch of spring!