Sharpen the pencil. Make sure the eraser is ready. Time to fill out the much-awaited NCAA Tournament bracket.
Here’s one man’s opinion of who is going to advance through the regionals and find a way to Houston for the Final Four.
I haven’t been wrong since I started doing this in 1987 — and I owe all to that eraser.
SOUTH: Kansas, the overall No. 1 seed, is the easy choice to reach the Final Four and beyond. The reason I went with Miami over Arizona is the old reasoning that a team going across the country west to east has a hard time adjusting to the change, and the Wildcats have to take the Tucson-to-Providence shuttle. There’s a delicious second-round matchup in Temple vs. Villanova with the Wildcats winning the Cheesesteak Cup. Villanova’s run will stop one round further, which is one round further than it has gone in recent years.
WEST: Saint Joseph’s is one of the best sleeper teams in the field because they had one of the best road records in Division I and the Hawks are definitely away from home playing in Spokane. I think the Hawks are good enough to knock off top-seeded Oregon in the second round before falling to the depth of Baylor. The bottom of the bracket starts with an upset with Northern Iowa, which beat then-No. 1 North Carolina early in the season, topping Texas. But it’s that other Texas school — Texas A&M — which marches through, knocking off Oklahoma and then Baylor to get to the Final Four in their home state.
EAST: My pencil just started writing in Carolina blue as I began the bracket. One early upset will have Michigan, which has to beat Tulsa in the First Four, adding another win in the first round, this one over Notre Dame. The Tar Heels, who will face Providence in the second round on the West Coast-East Coast theory with a win over USC, are a confident bunch right now and even a matchup with Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen won’t faze their transition game. West Virginia has struggled with its shooting lately and the Mountaineers just won’t be able to score with the Tar Heels in the regional final.
MIDWEST: This is a tough region because it all comes down to how mad are the Michigan State Spartans over being a No. 2 seed? Coach Tom Izzo is a great motivator and can’t you just hear the pregame speech when they face Virginia, one of the teams picked as a No. 1 seed instead of them, in the regional final? There will be some upsets in the early rounds and Iona has a chance to become a national favorite as the Gaels run by — and they will literally run by — Iowa State and Arkansas-Little Rock before running into the defensive wall set up by Virginia. I’m banking on Izzo and Denzel Valentine getting to Houston for yet another Final Four appearance.
FINAL FOUR: These picks were tough. Kansas will prevail over Texas A&M in what should be a very entertaining semifinal and Michigan State carries the chip on its shoulder for one more game, beating North Carolina in a game of contrasting styles.
Kansas turns the revenge tables on Michigan State to win it all. The Spartans beat the Jayhawks in an early season game in Chicago, but the result will be different in Houston.
I’m standing by these picks until the games start — and then I’ll be the guy holding the big eraser.
O’Connell, a Hall of Fame basketball writer, has covered every Final Four for The Associated Press since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson faced each other in 1979.