Picking an NCAA tournament bracket in 68 seconds


The idea here is to let go of everything you know, every theory that kicks around in your mind, every bit of college basketball knowledge you picked up along the way. The Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett once offered a hitting lesson. He asked a group of us to say a number between one and 5. And while thinking of that number we were to raise one hand and hold up a DIFFERENT number with our fingers. In other words, shout the number 3, but hold up two fingers. Then shout 5 while holding up one finger.

Then do it again. And again. And again. Faster, Faster. No, you can’t repeat the same numbers; you have to keep changing. Faster. Faster. No you are not allowed to use a pattern. Faster. What inevitably happens – and usually very quickly – is that the number you shout and the number of fingers you hold up will match or you will fail to think of a number in time or you will have some other embarrassing mental breakdown.

Follow along: Printable NCAA tournament bracket

Brett’s point: The mind isn’t very good at thinking two contrasting things at once. And so, when hitting, Brett said, the times he was successful were when he could make his mind a complete blank and just react to the moment. If he found himself burdened by different thoughts (Curveball? Fastball? Where are we eating after the game? What’s the score? Can’t believe I missed that throw last inning. I think that guy owes me money!) he would inevitably crumple and fail.

So it goes with our annual “Pick the NCAA Basketball Tournament in 68 seconds.”

It used to be 64 seconds back when there were 64 teams, but there are now those four extra teams in the play-in round, and they give us four valuable seconds.

You may ask: Does this pick-basketball-games-without-thinking system really work?  Well, it depends what you mean by “work.” If by “work” you mean — “is this system successful in picking winners?” well, results are mixed. Last year, this system did pick Louisville as national champ, and one year the system was good enough to win an office pool. In other words: No, the system doesn’t work.

But if by “work” you mean – does this system give you a cheap column you can rehash every single year, then yes, this system has never failed me.

Bracket Challenge: Run the table to win $1 billion

First round (3 seconds): I’m picking Mount St. Mary’s, Xavier, Cal Poly and Iowa while making my annual protest that (1) This is NOT a first round no matter what the NCAA calls it, these are four play-in games; and (2) There should not be four play-in games.

The reason the “first round” naming bothers me is that it inspires the NCAA to call Thursday’s and Friday’ games SECOND ROUND games. And they are most definitely NOT second-round games. They are first-round games. Everybody knows this. The NCAA is most definitely NOT giving 60 teams byes into the second round. That is ridiculous and wrong and gives us yet another reason to despise the NCAA.

The reason I’m opposed to the play-in games at all is that they represent a further watering down of the sport. No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed. Ever. There is no reason to add more teams; we already have reached critical mass.

Second round (31 seconds): I picked the games a little faster this year than I did last year in order to give me some extra time in later rounds.

First thing, I advanced all the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The No. 1 seeds are easy to advance – as mentioned — but every three or four years, a No. 2 seed will lose. Last year, No. 2 Georgetown lost to Florida Gulf Coast, and those Eagles promptly went on a fun, dunky little run that made the first couple of rounds of the tournament more exciting and fulfilling than the last couple of rounds. I’m betting it doesn’t happen again.

We usually have a No. 3 seed that loses – last year, it was Harvard beating No. 3 New Mexico – and I’m picking Western Michigan to beat Syracuse because … I don’t know. I don’t have time to think about reasons. Syracuse seems to be in freefall and it just seems like Jim Boeheim is due for a shocking early round exit.  There you go.

There is usually at least one No. 4 seed that goes down – I’m picking Tulsa to upset UCLA because Tulsa is coached by Danny Manning, who had “and the Miracles” attached to his name when he led Kansas to the 1988 national championship. UCLA is, of course, coached by Steve Alford, who led Indiana to the 1987 national championship. So I’m actually predicting the game goes into quintuple overtime and is then decided by a one-on-one matchup between the two coaches, a game Manning wins decisively.

I suspect a lot of people will go with the New Mexico State over No. 4 San Diego State upset because that just sort of SOUNDS like it should happen. This silly reasoning is … actually excellent. This could happen. But San Diego State is really good from what I can tell, so I’m avoiding it.

The NCAA 5-12 match-up is the best in sports. Every year it provides us with awesome pseudo upsets – in reality the No. 12 seed is really not much worse and often better than the No. 5 seed. Anyway, I love the 5-12, and again, it irritates me that the NCAA is mucking it up with these play-in games. There is nothing good about these play-in games.

Last year the 12 seed won three of four matchups; the 12 seed tends to win one or two ever year. I’m picking just one 12-5 upset this year, Harvard over Cincinnati, though I have to admit that I might regret not taking North Dakota State over Oklahoma.

Regional previews: South | East | Midwest | West

On the 6-11 line, I spend an extra second or two pondering the mystery that is Roy Williams’ North Carolina team. I have never seen such a baffling team. There are times that team looks like a legitimate national championship contender. And there are times that it seems you could get four others from your local YMCA and beat the Tar Heels by 20. North Carolina absolutely, positively, unquestionably could lose to Providence in the first round. Or North Carolina could make a long run. I’ll move the Tar Heels into the next round and pick it up from there.

I am picking No. 11 Dayton to beat Ohio State in the “You didn’t recruit me” revenge game, and I’m also picking No. 11 Nebraska to upset Baylor because I really want to see that Nebraska-Creighton match-up in the next round. This was a mistake, by the way; you should never look ahead when making picks. But my time was running out and I panicked.

Nothing after the 6-11 line is really an upset. The lower seeds I picked are: No. 10 Stanford over New Mexico, No. 10 St. Joe’s over Connecticut, No. 10 BYU over Oregon, No. 9 George Washington over Memphis, No. 9 Oklahoma State over Gonzaga and No. 9 Kansas State over Kentucky.

MORE: Must-watch games from the round of 64

The last of these reminds me: When John Calipari won his national championship at Kentucky two years ago, there were a lot of people who believed he would build a one-and-done dynasty there by bringing in the best recruits year after year and leading them to title after title. Since then, Kentucky missed the tournament entirely and now is a No. 8 seed. Calipari did not seem happy at all with the seeding … and I can’t help that this is the sort of fragile team that already has No. 1 Wichita State in their plans. And that’s how they lose to a gritty Kansas State team.

* * *

Second round … oh, wait, I mean third round (18 seconds): To me, this is always the toughest round to pick. Sometimes a No. 1 seed loses (last year, Gonzaga lost to Wichita State) and on average you will usually have at least one No. 2 seed lose.

I’m guessing a lot of brackets will have Kentucky beating Wichita State, but since I didn’t even pick Kentucky to win the first round, that will not be my choice. Anyway, I think Wichita State is really, really good. I don’t want to offer any spoilers, but I really do think that Wichita State, small conference and all, might be the best team in America.

More: How to run the perfect NCAA tourney pool

The one game that troubles me is Oklahoma State against No. 1 Arizona. That upset sounds really good to me. But if I pick it, then I lose Arizona, and Arizona is REALLY good. I could get burned. Trouble is, when you have 18 seconds to pick 16 games, you don’t really get to think too much about the consequences. I instinctively write down Oklahoma State and will live with it. All the other No. 1s get through.

My No. 2 line upset – St. Joe’s over Villanova in the second installment of the “you didn’t recruit me” revenge game.

Other lower seed picks: No. 14 Western Michigan over Dayton (the Broncos ride on!); No. 6 North Carolina over Iowa State (I just know these Tar Heels are going to blow my entire bracket); No. 5 Oklahoma over San Diego State (setting up the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game that may blow up the Sooner State).

* * *

Sweet 16 (5 seconds): No time to look back on what is clearly a terrible bracket I have to just keep going.

Oklahoma State over Oklahoma and Wisconsin over Creighton in the West.

Wichita State over Louisville and Duke over Michigan in the Midwest.

More: The eight best crunch-time players in the tourney

VCU over Florida (Shaka Smart upset!) and Kansas over Western Michigan in the South. Bill Self quietly getting his team healthy and dangerous.

Michigan State over Virginia (upset!) and North Carolina over St. Joe’s in the East.

I thoroughly loathe my bracket.

* * *

Elite 8 (4 seconds): The Duke-Wichita State game is one worth pondering. But there’s no time for that, so I’m taking the Shockers to knock off Duke and go to their second consecutive Final Four.

My other Final Four choices: Wisconsin (after holding Oklahoma State to, like, 13 points), Kansas (barely preventing Shaka Smart from his second Final Four at VCU) and Michigan State (pounding a North Carolina team that I had no business sending all the way to the Elite Eight in the first place).

* * *

Final Four (3 seconds): I have given myself an extra second to ponder this. It is not impossible that I have set up my entire bracket just to get the Kansas-Wichita State final that I really want to see. For one thing, this would be the greatest thing to happen to Kansas in forever, and I love the state of Kansas. Two, this would make my in-laws —who have lived in Kansas all their lives and who love both teams — extremely happy and conflicted. This also would greatly please my friend Bill James, who loves Kansas basketball about as much as he loves piercing through baseball idiocy.

So, what the heck, the momentum is too strong. Kansas against Wichita State in the final.

* * *

Championship game (1 second): Every NBA mock draft I have seen has Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embid going in the first three picks. Many have them as the Top 2. In NBA Draft history, the top two picks have been from the same team only 1 time.

2012: Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

More: The eight teams that can win it all

Of course, that Kentucky team rolled to the national title. My sense is that this Kansas team is the most talented in the country. When healthy – and Embid has not been healthy – it might be the most talented team Bill Self has ever coached. They have been wildly inconsistent, often frustrating and confusing and sometimes dreadful. The Jayhawks have also for stretches been about as good as any team I’ve seen. The Jayhawks might be the team that makes or breaks your ballot – pick them to keep winning and they could lose in the first round, pick them to lose early and they might win it all.

That’s what I’m going with. I’m picking Kansas to beat Wichita State in the national championship game. And while this will never happen, I do have three seconds to spare on the clock.

Saturday’s NCAA Tournament Recap: An evening full of buzzer-beaters and monster performances

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No. 5-seed Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 with a win over No. 13-seed Buffalo, and the star of the show was the guy that’s been Kentucky’s best player for three months: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He finished with 27 points, six boards, six assists and a pair of steals on 10-for-12 shooting while making both of his threes and 5-of-7 free throws.

That’s a ridiculous line, one that makes me wonder whether or not we were premature in saying that this Kentucky team does not have a superstar that can take a game over.


  • ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga: Two days after hitting a game-winning shot against No. 13-seed UNC Greensboro, Norvell went for 28 points, 12 boards, four assists and two steals — sidenote: !!!!! — as the Zags beat No. 5-seed Ohio State.
  • ANGEL DELGADO, Seton Hall: 24 points, 23 boards, five assists, career over. Salute, sir. It’s been a pleasure.
  • KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: Evans finished with 22 points on 8-for-14 shooting to lead the Red Raiders to the Sweet 16 with a win over Florida.


You make the call here.

Was it Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beating three for No. 3-seed Michigan:

Or Clayton Custer hitting Loyola-Chicago’s second game-winner in the span of three days?:


The buzzer-beater that didn’t matter … did.

Myles Powell, with Seton Hall down 83-76, hit this running three at the buzzer. It meant that the final score was 83-79, meaning that Seton Hall covered the 4.5 points that Kansas was favored by. It also meant that the Pirates covered the second half line (Kansas -1.5) and Seton Hall’s wild last minute rally meant that this game also hit the over:

Bad beats everywhere.


No. 1-seed Kansas was +21 in the 22 minutes that Udoka Azubuike played on Saturday. They were -17 in the 18 minutes he didn’t play.

No. 1-seed Villanova shot 17-for-41 from three in an 81-58 win over Alabama to get to the Sweet 16.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter overwhelmed No. 7-seed Rhode Island as No. 2-seed Duke is now a Sweet 16 team.

VIDEO: Jordan Poole’s last-second three sends No. 3-seed Michigan into the Sweet 16

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For the first time in this NCAA tournament, we have a buzzer-beater.

After Devin Davis missed a pair of free throws with 3.6 seconds left, No. 3-seed Michigan went the length of the court and Jordan Poole, a freshman who was scoreless on the night, buried a three as time expired to send the Wolverines into the Sweet 16 with a 64-63 win:

When asked after the game how a freshman was able to make that shot, Michigan head coach John Beilein said he has “an overdose of swag.”

Poole’s three bailed out Michigan in what was an otherwise ugly performance.

John Beilein’s club shot 35.6 percent from the floor, 8-for-30 from three and looked stagnant and bogged down offensively for 39 minutes and 56.4 seconds before Poole saved their season.

No. 6-seed Houston got 23 points from Rob Gray, who was again sensational and certainly deserved a chance to extend his career for another game. He had 39 points in a win over No. 11 San Diego State in the opener and was the best player in the West Region for the first weekend of the tournament.

No. 3 Texas Tech moves on to Sweet 16 after topping No. 6 Florida

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Texas Tech’s defense is good enough to keep them in any game. Keenan Evans is clutch enough to do the rest.

The Red Raiders’ senior star had another superlative second half, capped by throwing a game-sealing lob with 30 seconds left, as No. 3 Texas Tech took care of business against Florida, 69-66, to make just the fourth Sweet 16 appearance in program history.

Texas Tech had to survive a final flurry by Florida after the Red Raiders turned the ball over with under 20 seconds, and the Gators got two solid looks from 3-point range that would have forced overtime but both missed the mark to preserve the Texas Tech win.

It also preserved Evans’ performance.

The all-Big 12 guard had 22 points, with 14 coming in the second half. In two NCAA tournament second-halves, Evans 11 of 14 from the field and averaging 16.5 points.

The guy is just getting it done, and maybe his best play of the game was a pass.

Clinging to a three-point lead and the clock running under 30 seconds, Evans slipped through the defense, got into the paint and flipped a pass above the rim to freshman and dunker-extrodnaire Zhaire Smith for an alley-oop that put Tech up five.

Clutch alley-oops are the best alley-oops.

Florida got 23 points from Jalen Hudson, 12 form Egor Koulechov and 11 from Chris Chiozza. The Gators, though, made just 6 of 22 (27.3 percent) from 3-point range and surrendered 13 offensive rebounds. Texas Tech’s defense tightened in the second half, holding Florida to just 33.3 percent shooting overall and 19.2 percent from beyond the arc.

That defense for Tech is the foundation of what they do. It is one of the best in the country without an obvious, exploitable weakness. They’re good at every spot.

It’s keeping offenses off-kilter that lets Evans shine. When you’ve got a player as productive and clutch as he is, a close game isn’t something to fear. It’s something to welcome as you can probably count on him to get you through it.

Evans is under-appreciated nationally thanks to playing in the Big 12 outpost of Lubbock, Kansas owning every headline in that league and the toe injury that sapped him of his productivity late in the year. His emergence now on the national stage isn’t surprising so much as it is overdue. Simply, he’s been one of the tournament’s stars, and there are still games to play for Texas Tech.

Zach Norvell, Rui Hachimura lead No. 4 Gonzaga past No. 5 Ohio State

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Gonzaga’s veteran guards were no where to be found on Saturday night.

Johnathan Williams? He spent most of the night in foul trouble, while Killian Tillie looked like a shell of the player that had made Las Vegas his playground during the WCC tournament.

Those four players — the stars of this Gonzaga team, the veteran leaders that were supposed to carry this iteration of the Zags as far as they will go — combined for just 34 points against No. 5-seed Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but the Zags still managed to hold off the Buckeyes and advance to the Sweet 16 with a 90-84 win. They led by as many as 15 points in the first half and blew a 13-point half time lead before a late 13-0 run earned them the win.

And it is all thanks to Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell.

Hachimura is the highlight reel. He finished with 25 points and five boards despite the fact that he shot missed six from the free throw on Saturday night, but the shots — and plays — that he made down the stretch were massive. There was the three with just under four minutes left at the end of the shot clock to push Gonzaga’s lead back to six points after they had completely blown a 13-point halftime advantage. There was the block on Ohio State star Keita Bates-Diop a couple of possessions, when it looked like he was going to score at the rim on a bucket that would have ended a Gonzaga run. He even helped break Ohio State’s press in the final minutes, as the Buckeyes were trying to rally in the final minutes.

But Norvell was the star, and it started early. The redshirt freshman from Chicago got hot early, hitting a couple of threes as the Zags jumped out to a 13-0 lead that they maintained for much of the first 20 minutes. The shot that everyone will remember, however, was a step-back three from deep in the corner with less than two minutes left on the clock that put the Zags up seven and lets the partisan Boise crowd breathe a sign of relief after a tense, strenuous second half.

And with that, the Zags were back in the Sweet 16 a season after they reached their first Final Four and national title game.

Rui Hachimura (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Frankly, I think that the way that this season has played out says more about the strength of the Gonzaga program than last year’s run to the final weekend did.

We’ve known for years just how good Gonzaga is. They were a No. 1 seed before. They’ve been the No. 1 team in the country heading into the NCAA tournament. They’ve been on the national radar for two decades. They send players to the NBA. Just because they hadn’t been able to find a way to win four games in an event as fluky and exciting as the NCAA tournament doesn’t tell me anything beyond the fact that they got unlucky a couple of times when they were good enough to do it.

As the saying goes — and as Tony Bennett, Sean Miller and Chris Mack can attest — you’re only the best to never do it until you do it, and then you’re just ‘the best’.

But this group was without two key seniors from last year’s team. They also last two players that could have been all-americans to early entry when freshman Zach Collins and junior Nigel Williams-Goss both declared for the NBA Draft.

It takes a special kind of a program to withstand an unexpected hit like that and still field a roster capable of being a top four seed and getting to the Sweet 16.

And don’t, for a second, think that they are done.

We’ve seen what this team can get out of Hachimura and Norvell.

We know what Perkins, and Melson, and Tillie and Williams are capable of.

A trip to San Antonio could be in the cards.

Some might tell you they’re the favorite to get there out of the West.

But even if they don’t, just remember what this team was able to accomplish after what they lost.

It tells you all you need to know about Gonzaga basketball.

Sister Jean the star of Loyola’s Cinderella run

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Yeah, Loyola beating Tennessee to gain a spot in the Sweet 16 is a great basketball story, but the best news about their Cinderella run is something else entirely.

America gets another week with Sister Jean.

The Ramblers’ 98-year-old team chaplain has captured the hearts of the March Madness public, with her pre-game prayers and post-game celebrations. Clayton Custer’s game-winner was fine, but Sister Jean’s been great.

Loyola, though, will now have to try to defy Sister Jean. She picked against the Ramblers in the Sweet 16 in her bracket.