Hello, college basketball/Big Ten fans!
So it's time for me to show my college basketball knowledge (or lack of) and give you another annual Schmolik feature, Schmolik Bracket Analysis. I basically do what many other college basketball "experts" do, just pick who I think will win the NCAA basketball championship.
I traditionally begin with the my alma mater, the Illinois Fighting Illini, is in, the West Regional. The Illini made the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season although they had a lower seed each time. This year they are the #9 seed in the Midwest Regional and playing Arkansas in the 1st round. Arkansas should be a tough opponent, they made last year's Elite Eight, upsetting Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. It's the second straight year Arkansas has made the Elite Eight. Meanwhile, Illinois hasn't made the Sweet 16 since 2005 although they have won four consecutive first round games (2011, 2013, 2021, 2022). Should Illinois make it past Arkansas, Illinois plays top seed Kansas. Illinois has lost five consecutive Round of 32 games including to Kansas in 2011.
Also in this section of the draw is St. Mary's vs. Atlantic 10 champion Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) in the ever popular 5-12 matchup. Last year, two #12 seeds upset #5 seeds in the first round of the NCAA men's tournament and in the 2019 tournament three did. St. Mary's was stomped on by Gonzaga in the WCC final and, unlike most years when the #4 and #5 seeds usually wind up in the West, this game will be in Albany, New York. St. Mary's will have to make a cross country trip East, very unusual for a top seeded Western team. They will be playing a VCU team making a much shorter trip from Richmond (still a plane ride but at least it will be in the same time zone). They also have a 2pm ET tip off which will be 11am PT. This game screams upset waiting to happen. UConn plays Iona and coach Rick Pitino in the 4-13 matchup. UConn has lost in the 1st round in its last two NCAA Tournament appearances, last year as a #5 seed. But if UConn gets through, who wouldn't want to see Kansas/UConn in the Sweet 16 (other than fans of other teams in the bracket of course?)
Over on the bottom half of the West we have both UCLA and Gonzaga with both teams playing in Western sites, UCLA in Sacramento and Gonzaga in Denver (this is part of the reason why St. Mary's couldn't stay west). UCLA will either play our Big Ten's own Northwestern, who has only made the NCAA Tournament once, or Boise State, who is 0-8 all time in the NCAA Tournament, including two First Four games. One team to possibly watch out in this half is TCU. TCU blew out Kansas at Kansas and probably would have been seeded higher if it weren't for a key injury. Playing in Denver will help Gonzaga and after the WCC final it seems like Gonzaga is peaking at the right time. We likely will be heading for another Gonzaga/UCLA semifinal like we had in 2006 which was a thriller.
Kansas has 17 Quad 1 wins this season coming out of the Big 12 and people forget they are the defending national champions. The West probably is the toughest regional (the NCAA overall seeds say so and the names scream out it is). The West Regional (and NCAA Tournament overall) heads to Las Vegas for the first time I believe and if they get the top four seeds (Kansas, UCLA, Gonzaga, and UConn) they will be thrilled.
West Regional Pick: Kansas over Gonzaga
I'm going to the Midwest. It turns out in addition to my degree from Illinois which I usually brag about during basketball season I also have a master's from Penn State. Since Penn State doesn't make the NCAA Tournament very often (2001, 2011, and 2023 this millennium), I don't usually talk about it much during basketball season. But because they are in this year I can proudly talk about it! It didn't look like they were going to make it most of the season but they did come on strong at the end. They wound up as the #10 in the Midwest and their opponent is Texas A&M in Des Moines. When you haven't made the NCAA Tournament in twelve years, you're happy to go to Boise if you have to, Des Moines is a lot closer. Just like Penn State, Texas A&M also made it to their conference championship game last Sunday. The SEC doesn't seem as strong as the Big Ten but Texas A&M was the 2nd seed in the conference while PSU was the 10th seed. This will be Micah Shrewsberry's first ever NCAA Tournament game. Texas A&M's Buzz Williams hasn't made the NCAA Tournament at A&M but has made appearances at both Marquette and Virginia Tech, making the Elite Eight at Marquette and the Sweet 16 at Virginia Tech (if you can make the Sweet 16 at Virginia Tech you can coach). If Penn State wins, they will play Texas who won the Big 12 Tournament title over Kansas but is being led by an interim coach after Chris Beard was fired. Conspiracy theory says the NCAA wanted Texas to play Texas A&M in the second round, I hope Texas (or Colgate!!) is playing Penn State in the 2nd round! I don't think it's going to happen but Colgate has made the last three NCAA Tournaments in a row, all by the same coach coaching Colgate now. The last two years a #2 has lost in the first round. You have an interim head coach who only coached in one NCAA Tournament game (at Fresno State) vs. an experienced head coach. If you're ever going to have an upset, this is probably the best chance it's going to happen. Texas also lost in 2021 as a #3 seed. The Big East's Xavier is the #3 seed. They are playing the only NCAA Tournament team making its first ever NCAA appearance, Kennesaw State. I usually feel "rookies" are the worst upset pick of all.
Up in the top half of the Midwest, we see another Big Ten team, Indiana, playing Kent State in the 4-13 game. They met in the 2002 South Regional final with Indiana ending Kent State's dream run to the Elite Eight. If Indiana wins, The 5-12 game is co-ACC regular season champion Miami playing Missouri Valley champion Drake. Miami lost a home game in February to a very bad Florida State team and Drake looks dangerous.
Another Big Ten team, Iowa, is the #8 seed. They play Auburn in the first round but in Birmingham which is really unfortunate for the Hawkeyes. The top seed is Houston and could have to play Auburn in Birmingham as well. Unforunately for Houston, Birmingham was the closest 1st/2nd round site to them and Auburn just happened to be in the range for Birmingham. Iowa was also in the 8 seeds and someone had to play there.
I will say even if Houston does make it to the Midwest Regional in Kansas City, the other three teams to make it there will be glad it's not Kansas playing there for home crowd reasons. Still Houston is also a very good team. I'd be worried about Texas which is also a very talented team, especially after taking out Kansas in Kansas City in the Big 12 final. But if it comes down to Texas vs. Houston in the Midwest Final, it's an interim head coach vs. Kelvin Sampson and I'll go with Sampson. Speaking of Sampson, we have a potential Sampson vs. Indiana storyline in the Sweet 16.
Midwest Regional Final: Houston over Texas
We move to the South Regional, led by the #1 overall seed Alabama. On the court, Alabama is having a dream season, having won the SEC regular season and conference tournament titles for the second consecutive season as well as having clinched the #1 overall seed. Off the court, Darius Miles was indicted in a murder case. Brandon Miller was allegedly involved but there were never charges filed against him. Alabama has continued to win despite this and like Auburn has the 1st/2nd round home court advantage in Birmingham. Before you get too bent out of shape about Birmingham, the last time they hosted the NCAA Tournament was 2008. Many other NCAA teams have gotten home court advantages before, Alabama/Auburn weren't the first and they won't be the last. The Big Ten's Maryland is also assigned to Birmingham. They will at least have a "neutral" game vs. West Virginia before likely having to play Alabama in the 2nd round (Alabama gets play in game Texas A&M Corpus Christi in the 1st round. It's one thing for a 16 seed to beat a 1, it's another for a play in game winner, teams the NCAA said were the worst teams to begin with, to beat a 1 seed). The 5-12 game is another West Coast team, San DIego State, traveling East (Orlando) vs. Charleston. Could be a decent upset pick. Virginia is the #4 seed playing Furman, who last made it in 1980. I would not say this is a good upset pick. In the bottom half, we have #2 Arizona who beat UCLA in two of three games this season and #3 Baylor. Baylor won the national championship in 2021 but lost in the 2nd round to eventual runner-up North Carolina last year.
I think regional placement is underrated when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. If Alabama and Arizona played in the West Regional, I'd pick Arizona. But this game is in the South Regional in Louisville and Arizona is going to make a long trip. I wouldn't be surprised if Baylor beat them although Louisville is a long trip for them as well. It's clear that Alabama is the favorite hear. Arizona IMO should have been in the West. Ironically had they and UCLA switched, Arizona still would have had to play Gonzaga and Kansas and that might not have been easier. I probably would have picked Kansas over Arizona, even in Las Vegas. But if it were Houston vs. Arizona (or UCLA) in the West, I go with the Pac 12.
South Regional Pick: Alabama over Arizona
We go to the East. The Big Ten's Purdue is the #1 seed, their first #1 seed since 1996. Unfortunately that season Purdue lost in the 2nd round. Hopefully Purdue lasts longer this time around. I'm still not happy with Purdue for last season when they choked in the Sweet 16 to St. Peter's. Purdue has not made the Final Four since the NCAA field expanded to 64 teams. I don't want to jinx Purdue and they proved last year they can lose to anyone but they play the winner of one of the First Four game between the two worst teams in the NCAA Tournament according to the NCAA Selection Committee, one of them that lost 20 games this year. But Purdue's second game is vs. either Florida Atlantic who has lost just 3 games all season or Memphis who just beat Houston to win the AAC Championship. One team that is in Purdue's path that any Boilermaker fan can't be happy to see is Duke. The Blue Devils made the Final Four last year in Coach Mike Krzyzewski's last season and come in having won the ACC Tournament and nine games in a row.
In the bottom half of the East, we have our own Michigan State and Coach Tom Izzo coaching in his 25th consecutive NCAA Tournament. The Spartans play USC in Columbus in the first round, a big advantage for MSU geographically playing in a Big Ten city vs. a long trip for the Trojans (although USC better get used to the long travel:) If Michigan State survives, they will likely play Marquette in the 2nd round (although Vermont won't be easy, they like Colgate are another team with NCAA Tournament experience, making the 2019 and 2022 NCAA Tournaments). Marquette under Shaka Smart has had a dream season, winning both the Big East regular season and tournament championships. But since Virginia Commonwealth's miracle 2011 Final Four run, Shaka hasn't made it to the Sweet 16 between VCU and Texas and last won an NCAA Tournament game in 2013! One of those losses was in 2021 as a #3 seed to Abilene Christian. I wouldn't be surprised if Izzo gets the best of Shaka in the 2nd round here. When I did the Schmolik 64, I put Texas in Denver instead of Des Moines so Marquette got to go to Des Moines which is closer to them. The fact that Marquette has to travel a little further to Columbus might make them more vulnerable to an upset. The #3 seed is Kansas State which had a great year in the Big 12 beating both Kansas and Texas but their head coach is in his first year. They are also playing pretty far away in Greensboro and their potential 2nd round opponent is Kentucky. Now last year Kentucky blew it in the 1st round to St. Peter's but I'll take John Calipari over a rookie head coach and Kentucky has been playing better recently.
I don't like Purdue's chances against Duke, especially in New York where Duke seems to feel very comfortable playing in. I picked three #1's to get to the Final Four but I like Duke here.
East Regional Final: Duke over Marquette
Final Four: Assuming Houston gets this far, the Final Four is in Houston. I don't think Houston is the best team among these teams but it is in Houston, Houston made the 2021 Final Four, and I think it's their destiny her.
Championship: Houston over Duke
Disclaimer: I am not responsible for any losses you incur from following these picks but if you win any money I expect some of the profits:)
Before you spend your life savings on these, consider my past track record. Click on the years for the articles.
Final Four: North Carolina (South #1), Pittsburgh (East #1), Louisville (Midwest #1), Memphis (West #2)
Championship: Louisville over North Carolina
Final Four Correct: 1 (North Carolina)
Final Four: Kansas (Midwest #1), Syracuse (West #1), Kentucky (East #1), Texas A&M (South #5)
Championhip: Kansas over Kentucky
Final Four Correct: 0
Final Four: Louisville (Southwest #4), Pittsburgh (Southeast #1), Duke (West #1), Ohio State (East #1)
Championship: Duke over Pittsburgh
Final Four Correct: 0
Final Four: Kentucky (South #1), Michigan State (West #1), Florida State (East #3), North Carolina (Midwest #1)
Championship: Kentucky over North Carolina
Final Four Correct: 1 (Kentucky), Correct Champion
Final Four: Louisville (Midwest #1), Georgetown (South #2), Indiana (East #1), Ohio State (West #2)
Championship: Indiana over Louisville
Final Four Correct: 1 (Louisville)
Final Four: Florida (South #1), Michigan State (East #4), Arizona (West #1), Louisville (Midwest #4)
Championship: Michigan State over Florida
Final Four Correct: 1 (Florida)
Championship: Kentucky over Villanova
Final Four Correct: 2 (Kentucky, Wisconsin)
Final Four: North Carolina (East #1), Michigan State (Midwest #2), Kansas (South #1), Oklahoma (West #2)
Championship: Michigan State over Oklahoma
Final Four Correct: 2 (North Carolina, Oklahoma)
Note: First year since at least 2008 that I picked a non #1 to make the Final Four and they did. All my other correct Final Four picks have been #1 seeds.
Final Four: Duke (East #2), Gonzaga (West #1), Louisville (Midwest #2), North Carolina (South #1)
Championship: Duke over North Carolina
Final Four Correct: 2 (North Carolina, Gonzaga)
Final Four: Virginia (South #1), Villanova (East #1), Michigan State (Midwest #3), North Carolina (West #2)
Championship: Virginia over Villanova
Final Four Correct: 1 (Villanova)
Final Four: Duke (East #1), Michigan (West #2), Villanova (South #6), North Carolina (Midwest #1)
Championship: Duke over North Carolina
Final Four Correct: 0
Final Four: Gonzaga (West #1), Illinois (Midwest #1), Ohio State (South #2), Texas (East #3)
Championship: Gonzaga over Illinois
Final Four Correct: 1 (Gonzaga)
Final Four: Kentucky (East #2), Kansas (Midwest #1), Villanova (South #2), Gonzaga (West #1)
Championship: Kentucky over Kansas
Final Four Correct: 2 (Kansas, Villanova)
On one hand, last year I correctly predicted two Final Four teams and I have only done that four times since 2009. I also picked Villanova to make the Final Four and it was the only time I correctly predicted a non #1 seed to make the Final Four, all other correct Final Four teams were #1 seeds. One of my Final Four teams, Kansas, did win it all. Since 2009, that is the sixth time that has happened. On the other hand, Kentucky, my pick to win it all, lost in the first round. It's the third time since 2016 that has happened (Michigan State 2016 and Virginia 2018 were the others). Only once (2012 Kentucky) has my championship pick actually won it all. Your best bet is to pick the team I picked to lose the championship game, I picked eventual champions 2009 North Carolina, 2013 Louisville, 2017 North Carolina, 2018 Villanova, and 2022 Kansas to lose in the final. But the problem with Duke is they aren't a #1 or #2, I have never picked a team seeded below #2 to make the Final Four correctly. I have picked 31 #1 seeds, 12 #2 seeds, 4 #3 seeds, 3 #4 seeds, 1 #5 seed, and 1 #6 seed. I have only correctly picked two #2 seeds to make the Final Four. Of the 31 #1's I picked to make the Final Four, 12 of them did (about 39%). In that span, 18 #1 seeds made the Final Four (out of 52 total #1 seeds, or about 35%).
This is the 4th time I picked Duke to make the Final Four. I also picked Duke to make the Final Four in 2011, 2017, and 2019. They didn't make the Final Four any of the years I picked them and made the Final Four in 2010, 2015, and 2022, winning the National Championship in 2010 and 2015. Duke probably prefers I don't pick them but I don't really like Duke and I prefer to help Purdue out:)
This is also the 4th time I picked Kansas to make the Final Four. Last year it worked out pretty well but in 2010 they got dumped in the 2nd round and in 2016 they lost in the regional final. I have never picked Houston or Alabama to make the Final Four before.
Edit: I forgot to post my Schmolik Women's Bracket Analysis this year. My Final Four picks are South Carolina, Indiana, Connecticut, and Iowa. I mentioned in my Women's Schmolik 64 that I thought these should have been the four #1 seeds. In the end, I think Connecticut will have the edge over Indiana based on experience and talent but this year no one is beating South Carolina, who will repeat as national champion.