Picking an NCAA tournament bracket in 68 seconds

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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.

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.

Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.

IN THE HOUSE

Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

No. 8 Kansas avenges earlier loss to No. 7 Kansas State, 90-78

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jalen Wilson had 20 points, Kevin McCullar Jr. added 16 points and 13 rebounds, and No. 8 Kansas avenged a loss to Kansas State just a couple of weeks ago with a 90-78 victory over the seventh-ranked Wildcats.

Dajuan Harris Jr. scored 18 for the Jayhawks (18-4, 6-3 Big 12), who built a 12-point halftime lead before coasting to their 17th straight home win over the Wildcats in the 10th matchup of top-10 teams in series history.

Kansas has rebounded nicely from a rare three-game skid that included the overtime loss to Kansas State, and made sure to avoid taking back-to-back losses in its storied home for the first time since the 1988-89 season.

Markquis Nowell scored 23 points and Keyontae Johnson had 22 to lead the Wildcats (18-4, 6-3), who were trying for their first regular-season sweep of their biggest rival in four decades. Nae’Qwan Tomlin added 11 points and David N’Guessan had 10.

In their first meeting on Jan. 17, the Wildcats raced to a big early lead and controlled the game until late in the second half, when the Jayhawks forced overtime — only for Kansas State to win on Johnson’s alley-oop dunk.

It was the Jayhawks who controlled the rematch.

They used a 16-7 run in the first half that included a technical foul on Kansas State coach Jerome Tang to build a 32-19 lead. And when Johnson answered with eight straight points for the Wildcats, and the lead was eventually trimmed to four, the reigning national champs pulled away again down the stretch.

It was 37-32 when Wilson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and Zach Clemence added one of his own. And by the time Wilson made two foul shots with about 10 seconds left, Kansas had built a 49-37 lead that it took to the break.

The Wildcats briefly got within six in the second half before the Jayhawks stretched their lead to as many as 16.

OFFICIATING OOPS

Johnson had to sit with two fouls just 2 1/2 minutes into the game. Only problem? The crew of John Higgins, Kip Kissinger and Marques Pettigrew gave one to the wrong player. By the time they corrected their mistake, the Wildcats’ leading scorer had unnecessarily ridden the bench for several minutes.

SELLOUT … AND THEN SOME

For the first time in more than 15 years, more Kansas students redeemed tickets than there was space available inside Allen Fieldhouse. The overflow had to watch the game on screens in the adjacent Horejsi Family Athletics Center, where the Jayhawks play volleyball games. Those students also got refunds and concessions vouchers.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State’s three losses in league play have been to ranked teams on the road: TCU, Iowa State and Kansas. And with a more forgiving second half to the Big 12 schedule, the Wildcats remain firmly in the conference title hunt.

Kansas got its mojo back with its win over Kentucky last weekend. This victory over another bunch of Wildcats was crucial because the road doesn’t get any easier for the Jayhawks, who are in the midst of three straight games against teams ranked 13th or better.

UP NEXT

Kansas State returns home for another top-10 showdown Saturday against No. 10 Texas.

Kansas hits the road for the third time in four games against No. 13 Iowa State on Saturday.