Youmans: My pick to win the NCAA Tournament

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What was supposed to be a relatively simple task recently took a complicated turn. All signs were pointing to UCLA as my pick to win the NCAA championship. The mathematical formula fit, the eye test was passed and there was a clear vision of coach Mick Cronin climbing high on a ladder to cut down the nets.

 

Remember when Clark Griswold packed up the family truckster for a cross-country adventure from Chicago to Los Angeles? When the Griswold family arrived at Walley World, it was stunningly closed for repairs.

An optimistic plan sometimes goes wrong. Amusement parks close. Injuries happen. In this case, the Bruins were hit by some bad injury news last week and it was time to reconsider my plan. UCLA still has its two primary stars, seniors Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez, but the loss of elite defensive guard Jaylen Clark seems too much to overcome for a team that already lacked depth.

So it’s time to fill out the NCAA tournament bracket and pick a different winner. Alabama, Houston, Kansas and Purdue are the No. 1 seeds, and there are several more attractive options.

“I love it when it’s wide open, and I don’t think it has ever been more wide open,” said Fox Sports broadcaster Tim Brando, who estimated 30 teams have a “legit” shot at the Final Four and 15 teams could win the title.

The 68-team field is never truly a wide-open tournament. About half of the teams are just hoping to win one game. Kennesaw State, Northern Kentucky and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi are a few of the many teams that have no title shot.

The 10 most likely Cinderella candidates in this tournament — Charleston, Colgate, Drake, Florida Atlantic, Furman, Iona, Kent State, Oral Roberts, UNC-Asheville and Vermont — could win a game or two before going home with great memories. Last year, No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s pulled off three upsets before getting crushed by North Carolina.

The road to the Final Four is wide open only among the top 30 or so teams in the field. After the madness of early-round upsets, the chalk almost always advances.

Bracket contests are one type of handicapping in March, and everyone loves upsets as long as the favorites that go down don’t bust your bracket. Betting individual games against the spread is a different type of handicapping.

I hate broccoli and also avoid eating chalk, so most of my best bets for the first round will be on underdogs. However, my bracket is dominated by favorites the deeper it gets, and this Rubik’s Cube of a bracket was full of tough decisions. Winding up with two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four was a frustrating result because I want to pick more long shots.

The top-seeded teams I eliminated early were Kansas (losing to Arkansas in the second round) and Purdue (losing to Duke in the Sweet 16). The Jayhawks are missing a big man—David McCormack was a huge reason they won the title last year—and are stuck in a loaded West Region with UCLA, Gonzaga and Connecticut. The Boilermakers have a big man—7-foot-4 Zach Edey gives them a chance to win every game—but they are fading after peaking in November and December.

The Sunday night tournament selection shows on CBS and ESPN were useful for different reasons. (The VSiN shows were far more informative for bettors.) The instant reactions are entertaining, and the expert picks are interesting.

Analyzing the first-round games in the West, former Villanova coach Jay Wright said, “I like Arkansas against Illinois, and Arkansas can give Kansas a problem in the second round.”

I agree with Wright on that point. But it’s a mystery what his CBS colleague, Clark Kellogg, was talking about when apparently eyeing Texas Christian as the No. 6 seed in the West.

“Keep an eye on those Texas Froghorns; they are a terrific team,” Kellogg said. “Remember, they blew out Kansas in Lawrence early in the season.” Did the Texas Longhorns and TCU Horned Frogs join forces to form an all-star team? And if they did, could that team win it all?

Blunders and jokes aside, No. 2 seed Texas is a big threat to Houston in the Midwest.

On ESPN, all five analysts advanced Duke, the No. 5 seed in the East, past Purdue to the Final Four. I hate to agree with that consensus pick and prefer to be contrarian, but I do see upside in the Blue Devils.

“For the most part, I thought the brackets were OK,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said. “Duke and Texas A&M are seeded too low. Otherwise, there’s really nothing too bad.”

The Blue Devils are playing at the level of a No. 2 seed and current form means a lot. My bracket shows Duke facing Alabama in the Final Four. I wanted to fade the Crimson Tide, but they have a future NBA star in Brandon Miller and soft competition to contend with in the South.

The mathematical formula referenced is all about the Kenpom.com ratings, which show Houston No. 1 and UCLA No. 2. Only teams that rank in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency fit the formula for a championship, based on history. The eight teams that qualify, based on Kenpom numbers, are Houston, UCLA, Alabama, Connecticut, Texas, Purdue, Kansas and Creighton.

My bracket shows the Bruins facing the Cougars in the other half of the Final Four. In that matchup, I’m pivoting from UCLA to Houston, the hometown favorite led by star guard Marcus Sasser and elite defensive coach Kelvin Sampson.

A year ago, North Carolina coach Hubert Davis stepped in for a legend and led the Tar Heels to a title-game loss to Kansas, which was my pick to win it. This time, it’s Duke coach Jon Scheyer stepping in for a legend and leading the Blue Devils to a title-game loss to Houston.

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