The NCAA selection committee has released its men’s March Madness bracket, and it’s hard to get a grasp on the field right away. But brackets need to be filled out by Thursday, so we have to try. The Ringer’s Rodger Sherman goes region by region to break down the teams that could make the Final Four, the double-digit seeds that have interesting stories, and the biggest questions entering the event.
My Final Four Pick: Gonzaga
I promise to continue picking Gonzaga to make the Final Four until it wins this damn thing. The NCAA will crumble, the 4-point line will be added to all basketball courts, large swaths of Washington will fall into the Pacific Ocean, but I will hold the line on the Zags, as long as it takes.
You probably didn’t hear too much hype about the Zags this year. They normally enter the NCAA tournament with a record like 34-1, get the overall no. 1 seed, are called a fraud by every bracket analyst online except for me, and then lose in the Sweet 16. But things went differently for this year’s Bulldogs, who were ranked no. 2 in November before suffering blowout losses to Texas and Purdue. But they also put up 100 points in a win over Alabama—the team who would go on to be, as it turns out, the overall no. 1 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament. Gonzaga closed strong with a pair of comfortable wins over the second-best team in the WCC, Saint Mary’s, which happens to be the 5-seed in this region. The Bulldogs have the most efficient offense in college basketball yet again, and are the only team of the top 11 seeds in the West regional which actually won its conference tourney, so it’s the only team in this part of the bracket that closed strong.
Perhaps the Bulldogs are peaking now because they’ve got experience you rarely see from a legit title contender in the one-and-done era of college hoops: Their top five leading scorers are all juniors or seniors, and none of their rotation players are freshmen. Remember Drew Timme, the big guy with the big mustache from Gonzaga’s run to the 2021 title game? He’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists in his final college season. He reportedly plans on going pro instead of using his fifth season of eligibility in 2023-24, although it’s not clear where—he’s not one of the 40 players listed in The Ringer’s 2023 NBA Draft Guide. This is all Drew Timme has: If anybody is going to will Gonzaga to its long-awaited title, it’s our mustachioed hero. And if he can’t pull it off, I’ll pick the Zags next year anyway.
Best Subplot: Rick Pitino’s Career Revival
An interesting subplot of any NCAA tournament is which up-and-coming coaches from mid-major programs can turn a tourney run into a job with a big-name school, a trope that will get a fun twist this year as schools train their sights on the coach who has Iona playing in its second NCAA tourney in three years: Rick Pitino.
Yes, that Rick Pitino. Pitino might legitimately be the most famous person involved with the NCAA tournament (it’s not Coach K anymore!) but lately he’s been coaching at Iona, one of the least famous schools in the tourney. The two-time national champion—who’s just a one-time champ, if you ask the NCAA—went to the basketball hinterlands after Louisville fired him in 2017 for his involvement in yet another scandal. Except it turns out it wasn’t really that big of a scandal, and he wasn’t really that deeply involved in it, and look, who cares, the point is now schools think it’s OK to have Rick Pitino as their head coach again. That’s how the college basketball coaching carousel broadly works, and Pitino is spinning the right way again.
And he’s still damn good at coaching. After Pitino was hired by Iona in 2020, he instantly got the tiny Catholic school just outside of New York City into the NCAA tournament in his first season, but they lost as a 15-seed in the tourney. The Gaels won the MAAC regular-season title last year, but lost to Saint Peter’s in the conference tourney, and we all remember what happened next for the Peacocks. This year, Iona put everything together, going 17-3 in MAAC play and landing a 13-seed. There are reports that a Big East school like St. John’s or Georgetown will pay up to get the coaching legend—a run for Iona, whose tournament starts against 4-seed UConn, could drive up those salary offers.
Biggest Question: Is UCLA OK?
UCLA had the most efficient defense in college basketball this season, an accomplishment achieved thanks to the stellar play of Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark and top-tier shot-blocking presence Adem Bona. The Bruins might be without both of them in the tournament: Clark is out for the season after suffering an Achilles injury ahead of the conference tournament, while Bona went down with a shoulder injury in the semis and has an unclear road back to playing.
It stands to reason that a defense-first team without two defensive stars might quickly fall apart. But UCLA played Arizona to the brink in the Pac-12 title game despite relying on a slew of bench players, and nearly won on a buzzer-beating 3 that just clanged off the rim. We still don’t really know what this team will look like on defense without Clark—but if the Bruins are good enough to nearly beat a very good Arizona team without Clark or Bona, they might be good enough to make a March run in this region.
My Final Four Pick: Houston
Houston is the best team in college basketball and the NCAA selection committee didn’t recognize it. They’re the top-ranked team in Kenpom, T-Rank, and the NET ratings, and tied for the best record in college hoops at 31-3. None of those three losses are particularly troublesome—they lost by one point to Temple, lost to top overall seed Alabama in December, and lost the AAC tournament final to Memphis on Sunday without their best player, senior guard Marcus Sasser. It almost feels like that loss to Bama three months ago is the only piece of evidence the committee used to put the Tide over the Cougars.
If Houston gets out of its region, it’ll be the first team to play the Final Four in its home city since Butler in 2010. Hopefully the Coogs don’t look too far ahead.
Biggest Question: What Can an Interim Coach Do?
College basketball fetishizes its coaches. The person with the most airtime in last year’s NCAA tournament was not future no. 1 NBA draft pick Paolo Banchero, but his retiring head coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, as if the old man sitting on the sideline was more interesting than the actual games. When Texas Tech made the NCAA championship game in 2019, the stories were generally about head coach Chris Beard rather than the players on his team (including my story!). Beard was hired away by Texas last year, and his Longhorns quickly started performing better than they ever did under predecessor Shaka Smart.
So you’d think the Longhorns’ tournament hopes would have been doomed when Beard was fired in January after an arrest on a domestic violence charge. The interim job went to Rodney Terry, who had a lackluster head-coaching career at Fresno State and UTEP. But the Longhorns have done just as well with Terry in charge as they could have expected to do under Beard. They took second place in the ridiculously difficult Big 12 in the regular season and won the league’s tournament for just the second time in school history, beating Kansas by 20—evidence that not all interim coaches thrive in these settings.
The Longhorns can and should be considered a Final Four threat, which would make Terry the first interim coach to reach the Final Four since Steve Fisher won the 1989 national championship at Michigan. Because college basketball obsesses over its coaches, Beard is already on to the next gig (the felony domestic violence charge was dismissed last month)—he seems likely to become the next head coach at Ole Miss—but Terry should be under consideration for Texas’s full-time coaching gig. If not, at least he’ll be leaving with some hardware—The Sporting News named him national coach of the year.
Worst Break: Iowa
Sometimes it feels like the NCAA tournament selection committee intentionally tries to avoid placing teams at first-round sites near their home. That seems to be the case for the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, which is hosting the tourney for the third time in seven years. In 2016, Iowa, Iowa State, and Northern Iowa all qualified for the tournament and were all sent elsewhere; in 2019, Iowa and ISU were again placed sent out of the Hawkeye State; and this year, Iowa, ISU, and Drake are all packing their bags and heading to other parts of the country. It would make sense. These are supposed to be neutral-site games—wouldn’t it be unfair if a team had a de facto home game?
But the committee actually doesn’t try to send teams away from home—as evidenced by Iowa’s first-round draw. The Hawkeyes are playing Auburn in Birmingham, Alabama. Not only is Iowa playing in its opponent’s home state, it’s also an 8-seed playing a 9-seed that ranks higher in both Kenpom and NET rankings. Essentially, Iowa’s neutral-site NCAA tournament matchup is a road game against a better team. Iowa has one hope: That Alabama fans stick around after their game in the same arena to cheer against Auburn.
My Final Four Pick: Marquette
The selection committee sent Purdue to bracket hell. This isn’t the toughest region, but it’s certainly the funniest, as the 1-seed Boilermakers will have to run through a gauntlet while 2-seed Marquette won’t have to play any of the six toughest teams in the region before the Elite Eight.
Purdue should get past the winner of the Texas Southern–Fairleigh Dickenson First Four matchup. But next up is the winner of a poorly seeded 8-9 death brawl between 31-3 Florida Atlantic and Memphis, which just beat Houston to win the American Athletic Conference tournament. Then it’d have to play either a Duke team which just won the ACC tournament or Tennessee, which ranks higher than Purdue on Kenpom and in the NET rankings.
Meanwhile, Marquette is on a nine-game winning streak after taking the Big East regular season and tourney titles. With a fast-paced offense and turnover-hungry defense, this Marquette team looks more like the VCU squads that made Shaka Smart a coaching star than any of his teams at Texas ever did.
Story Line to Watch: An Awkward Ex Encounter
It’s hard to avoid running into your ex in today’s college basketball world. With the transfer portal as easy to operate as Tinder, finding a new partner is easy. Take the story of Providence’s Bryce Hopkins: Just a few weeks after getting a dreaded DNP in Kentucky’s humiliating loss to Saint Peter’s in last year’s NCAA tournament, Hopkins, who was the top 50 recruit, had already announced his transfer and committed to Providence. Hopkins has thrived for the Friars in a way he never did in Lexington, leading his new team in scoring and rebounding and earning a spot on the all-Big East first team. He’s sounded a bit spicy about his departure from UK, telling The Athletic that John Calipari “only wanted me to do certain things” but Providence coach Ed Cooley “is allowing me to do whatever I want.”
Now Hopkins can make Kentucky regret letting him walk away. Any matchup between a player and his former team would be fun to talk about, but this one between no. 6 Kentucky and no. 11 Providence feels especially loaded: Calipari is one of the biggest names in coaching, but is under increased scrutiny as he hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2019 despite a lifetime contract at one of the most prestigious programs in the sport. Now he’s facing a team whose star says that Calipari doesn’t know how to use the blue-chip players he recruits. If Kentucky gets beaten again by a guy Coach Cal let walk away, it’s gonna get loud in Lexington.
The Biggest Question: Is Jon Scheyer Better Than Coach K?
Last year’s Final Four featured first-year North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis defeating legendary Duke god-king Mike Krzyzewski in the first-ever NCAA tournament matchup between the two schools. I’ve been told that Kansas won the championship game after this, but I honestly don’t think most people noticed after that epic semifinal between the sport’s biggest rivals. In addition to permanently ending the concept of the UNC-Duke rivalry, Davis’s W over Coach K proved that coaching experience is overrated and that coaches over 70 should be forced into retirement. Duke learned the lesson, starting the post-K era under 35-year-old former Duke star Jon Scheyer, who had spent the past few years as one of Krzyzewski’s lead assistants. It’s roughly the same thing UNC did in hiring Davis after decades of Roy Williams, a comparison I’m sure Duke fans will appreciate.
And Year 1 of the Scheyer era has been … pretty good! Scheyer landed three of the top four recruits in the class of 2022 and won the ACC tournament. Duke didn’t do that last year under Coach K! With their talent and current hot streak, the Blue Devils feel under ranked as a 5-seed. Duke can’t specifically take revenge on UNC, which smartly chose to miss the NCAA tournament entirely, like a salmon which completed its lifelong task of reaching its spawning grounds and instantly died. But it feels like Duke’s best revenge will be living well in March under Scheyer. Its first task will be getting past Oral Roberts, the giant-killers of the 2021 tournament, who went 18-0 in conference play this year.
My Final Four Pick: Arizona
Arizona has an all-world offense—literally. The Wildcats’ top five scorers come from Lithuania, Mali, Estonia, Sweden, and, uh, St. Louis. Some of these players would have wound up in Tucson regardless—the Estonian point guard, Kerr Kriisa, apparently chose Arizona because his hooping dad named him after Steve Kerr—but the team wouldn’t look like this if not for head coach Tommy Lloyd, who was hired by Arizona in 2021. Lloyd previously was a longtime Gonzaga assistant who was widely credited with spearheading the Zags’ impressive international recruiting. Arizona’s playing style is a lot like Gonzaga’s as well—Gonzaga scores the most points per game, Arizona is fourth—except the Wildcats did it in a power conference. In Year 1 under Lloyd, Arizona won the Pac-12 tournament and made the Sweet 16; in Year 2 they won the Pac-12 tournament and will hopefully tack on a couple of extra games and make a deeper run.
Biggest Question: Can Alabama Keep It Together?
At their peak, the Crimson Tide look like a championship team. They just dominated the SEC tournament, winning all three of their games by double digits. They have a ridiculously exciting style of play, an up-tempo, 3-point-heavy attack which head coach Nate Oats used to win multiple NCAA tournament games at the University of Buffalo. And they have the best NBA prospect in college basketball, SEC player of the year Brandon Miller. But they also tend to have brutal off nights. They have three double-digit losses, including a 24-point blowout loss to Oklahoma, which finished last in Big 12 play. It’s been seven years since we had an NCAA champion with a 20-point loss on its résumé (Villanova’s 23-point loss to a much better Oklahoma team in December 2015).
And perhaps some of that inconsistency stems from off-court turmoil: One of Alabama’s (now former) players, Darius Miles, has been charged with capital murder after the shooting death of Jamea Harris, a 23-year-old mother, after an altercation in downtown Tuscaloosa in January. Police said Miller brought the gun to Miles and was at the scene. Even with the most generous possible read of what happened that night—Tuscaloosa police have said they cannot charge Miller with any crime, and Oats maintains that Miller didn’t know what was going on, didn’t break any laws, and was merely a witness to a tragic killing—it has to be tough to keep playing basketball.
And Oats has insisted that Miller should keep playing basketball. Many people involved have handled the situation poorly, including Oats, who said Miller was in the “wrong spot at the wrong time” (something which seems quite callous to say about a witness to a crime that left a woman dead) and Miller himself, who continued doing a “pat down”–themed intro for weeks after the incident.
The scrutiny will only get louder the deeper Alabama goes in the tournament. Schools can keep press away from players during conference play, but Alabama’s players will have to answer questions and sit in locker rooms open to the media during the tournament. It feels crass to consider the death of a young woman a subplot in a basketball team’s performance, but that’s the choice Alabama seems to have made for itself.
Worst Seeding: Utah State–Mizzou
They should let Las Vegas seed the NCAA tournament. The athletic directors on the NCAA selection committee won’t lose their suits and ties if they screw things up, but sportsbooks have to be right. And Vegas seems to think that the selection committee not only mis-seeded one matchup, but also outright flipped the odds: 10-seed Utah State is a 2.5-point favorite over 7-seed Missouri.
Kenpom has the Aggies as the 18th-best team in the country, by far the highest of any double-digit seed, while Missouri is 51st—not only below all the other 7-seeds, but lower than every 8-, 9-, and 10-seed, as well. These are two of the worst seedings in the entire field—and they’re in the same matchup, overselling one squad and underselling the other.
An earlier version of this piece referred to Bryce Hopkins as Perkins.