March Madness is finally here. As an SMU fan, I feel displaced.
For a university with a fantastic basketball program, having nothing to do in March feels strange. It feels empty. With SMU banned from the postseason, fans on The Hilltop and around the country were robbed of seeing a legitimate contender compete.
The American Conference was also robbed. While the AAC does have four teams in the field, a record for the conference’s short history, the league’s best is sitting on couches in Dallas. Without SMU, the AAC has no contender in the national championship picture. Neither Cincinnati, UConn, nor Temple have a good chance of reaching the Sweet 16, roadblocked by 1 seeded Oregon, 1 seeded Kansas, and 2 seeded Villanova respectively. Tulsa, who plays Michigan Thursday as part of the First Four, shouldn’t be in the field.
After drawing a disappointing 6 seed in last year’s tournament, SMU was paired with UCLA in the first round. UCLA, who many expected to be NIT-bound, snuck into the field. We all know what happened from there. Some sloppy play from SMU and one controversial goaltending call later, the Mustangs were sent home early.
Many analysts believe that SMU could have earned a 3 or 4 seed this year with a good showing in the AAC Tournament. The Mustangs would have been dancing regardless, but wins over top-half AAC teams in Orlando could have given SMU a very comfortable spot in the field of 68.
Brackets and breathing seem like the only important things this time of year. We’re obsessed with March Madness, especially when our school makes the cut. It’s fun to fill in your favorite school’s name all the way to the national championship. Doing so can feel euphoric, ecstatic, and maybe even a little diabolical. Even I had SMU going all the way in one of my brackets.
But I fill out many brackets. Sometimes 7-10 a year. Other than the bracket where I had the Mustangs as champion, I had SMU as far as the Sweet 16 last season. SMU would have needed to play perfect in the second round against a talented Iowa State team, but it was plausible.
Then UAB had to go and make things interesting. Alabama-Birmingham upset Iowa State in dramatic fashion, meaning SMU would have faced the Blazers, not the Cyclones as most had predicted. Though UAB had a fantastic year and did upset 3 seeded Iowa State, it’s unlikely the Blazers would have beaten a better team twice in a row. If goaltending isn’t called on UCLA’s final possession, SMU may have walked to the Sweet 16 last year.
The past is the past. SMU isn’t in the NCAA Tournament. Call it unjust if you please, I will stay objective for now. It’s our reality either way.
But now you’re probably stuck wondering what to do with your bracket. If you would have had SMU all the way this year (and be honest, if you’re a fan as big as I, you know you would have made this happen in at least one bracket), now your hands are tied. So, you have two options:
Option 1: Forget you have self-respect and damn the torpedoes!
Or, the much more reasonable…
Option 2: Not take your SMU fandom too seriously and quench your sorrows by filling out a bracket anyway.
I like that one better, and I’m here to help. Here’s my seven tips on how to fill out the perfect SMU-less bracket.
Number 1) Accept that you know nothing and that failure is inevitable.
Anyone able to predict a perfect bracket should be lucky they don’t live in 17th century Salem, because picking a perfect bracket is witchcraft territory. I may have picked the correct national champion last year, but my bracket was busted in the first hours. Don’t aim to pick a perfect bracket. Strategize your picks so that you get the most correct and try your best to pick the champion.
Number 2) The higher seeds are higher seeds for a reason.
Look, with SMU not in the field, you may be tempted to go all willy-nilly and have a CSU Bakersfield/Stony Brook final. Yeah, don’t do that. If you want a legitimate shot at picking a winner and making correct picks, err to the seeds. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s the truth. As much fun as it can be to pick upsets, if you have any team lower than a 6 seed beyond your Sweet 16, you should be concerned for the health of your bracket. That being said…
Number 3) Pick a Cinderella. A logical Cinderella.
I’m not going to tell you to not pick upsets, because there will be some. Potentially a lot of them. For example, I have 14th seeded Fresno State over 3 seeded Utah. I also have 12 seeded Chattanooga over 5 seeded Indiana. While I’m not carrying either Fresno State or Chattanooga into the 3rd round, these are interesting picks because of the match ups. Do some research, find some mismatches, and determine one or two upsets. If you’re wrong, you’ll only be losing points in the first round.
You should also pick an entertaining yet logical lower seed to make a deep run. This year, my Cinderella is 13 seeded Hawai’i. I have the Rainbow Warriors advancing to a Sweet 16 match up with 1 seeded Kansas. Hawai’i isn’t the best 13th seed in the field, and I would even go as far to say a few teams seeded lower are on the same level as them. So why Hawai’i?
Number 4) It’s all about the match ups, and it’s all about the path.
Hawai’i’s placement in the bracket gives them a favorable path to the Sweet 16. The Warriors play a talented but young California team in the first round. The Bears allow lots of turnovers and are poor offensive rebounders. Number of possessions means a lot in the postseason, and a Hawai’i team who scores can grab a win here. Maryland brings the same flaws as the Bears and have looked completely asleep in some games this year. Also, Hawai’i is banned from next year’s postseason, so they have extra motivation. I’m not saying Hawai’i will have an easy time, but the door is open.
That’s what you should look for: open doors. Duke was one of the best teams in the field last year, but I picked them as my champion because their path to the Final Four was free of major obstacles. Robert Morris, San Diego State, Utah and Gonzaga. Other than Gonzaga, Duke’s opponents weren’t overwhelming. Cinderella or not, look for teams with debris-free paths. This year, Hawai’i, Oklahoma, Miami, and Xavier have paths of low resistance until at least the Elite 8.
Number 5) Pick teams entering the tournament with momentum.
Kansas and Kentucky enter as two of the hottest teams in the field. They’re in my final. North Carolina is also red hot, and I see them clashing with Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Seton Hall caught wind by upsetting Villanova in the Big East Tournament and I see them going over Gonzaga and Utah/Fresno State. Colorado/UConn is an interesting pairing, and though the Buffaloes may be the better team, UConn got to the AAC finals with a miracle 3/4 court shot and won the tournament. I like the Huskies.
Number 6) Consider everything.
Like location. 1 seeded North Carolina will face a tough as nails Florida Gulf Coast team in the first round and most likely a battle tested Providence team if they get to day 2. But I have them over both because the games are in Raleigh. I would not be putting Yale over Baylor if the game was being played anywhere but Rhode Island, which is practically Yale’s backyard. Oregon has the luxery of playing the first two rounds in Spokane as well.
Then there’s the tiny things. West Virginia Head Coach Bob Huggins has a bad case of the flu. Will he get better? When? Will his players catch it? Who knows?
Number 7) Root for the match ups you want to see.
If you still feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, pick based on some match ups you would like to see. Part of the reason I have Yale over Baylor is because I want to see the Bulldogs play Duke. I want to see Cincinnati’s stifling defense against Oregon’s explosive offense. Seton Hall/Michigan State would be really fun and I’d love to see Kentucky try to contain a pesky Chattanooga team. Kansas/UConn would be great and Kentucky/North Carolina could be the best game of the tournament if it happens. If you don’t have a favorite, just pull for some good basketball.
If you follow these tips, you may find success. I don’t claim to know anything. Then again, I have watched almost nothing but basketball since November. The only thing I know is that this year’s SMU team could have gone far. Until then, I’ll bide my time filling out some brackets. Next season can’t come soon enough.
My Bracket (by region):
*Note: If Michigan defeats Tulsa in the First Four, I have the Wolverines advancing to the 2nd Round against West Virginia. If Tulsa wins, Notre Dame advances.
Final Four and Championship Game: