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Monday Musings and Mumblings Before The Final Night of Madness

So, here we are a few minutes away from the 2023 NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship Game between Connecticut and San Diego State (CBS, 9:20 EST tip-off), the matchup we all predicted, right?  No?

Me neither, although the teams in the Final shouldn’t be complete surprises to have made it this far. While Ivan Maisel summed up the collective bracketing foibles of this edition of March Madness in saying “Any of us would have done better with a blindfold and four darts”, I suspect this Championship Game in particular will make more sense to most as time marches on.

Favored tonight by around 7-7.5 points at most sports books, Connecticut is now #1 in the Ken Pom ratings, up from #4 entering the NCAAs, and improving their AdjEM by 3.9 pp100p, with those gains coming largely on the defensive end (moving up from #18 in AdjD pre-tournament to #8). As they did before the NCAAs started, the Huskies pass all the Championship test thresholds, and to me was criminally underseeded, as they should have been the last #2 seed instead of Arizona or Marquette and should have been sent somewhere closer to home than the West Regional (although they did benefit from playing in Albany, NY the first two rounds). I had them fourth on my list of Contenders, and while I didn’t pick them to make the Final Four in my bracket, I had them in the Elite Eight, they still haven’t lost to anyone outside of their Big East Conference, and their quality was clear before this dominating run.

Meanwhile, should San Diego State win tonight, the Championship tests would require a major reconsideration. I clearly erred in labeling them a Pretender, although by my definition they became a Darkhorse by making the Sweet 16, and I pretty much nailed their scout in my Tournament Preview:

“… (A)cutely one-dimensional, prioritizing offense over defense (Miami, Kentucky) or vice-versa (San Diego State… )… San Diego State is sort of an outlier here, as they meet the Overall Ratings Test, have good depth across the board and can match athleticism with most teams, yet their offense too often experiences drought conditions.”

That said, while most teams improve their metrics as they keep winning NCAA games, San Diego State’s  overall profile on Ken Pom hasn’t really budged; Before they were ranked #14 overall, and today they are ranked #14, with minor gains defensively, but still below the Test thresholds on offense (dropping from #63 pre-tournament to #68, 111.1 AdjO now, 1.3 pp100p from meeting the AdjO Data test). I will say having watched every game in their run, San Diego State is relentless, and when they have fallen behind in the 2nd half, as they did their last three games against Alabama (9 points), Creighton (7) and Florida Atlantic (14), they up their defensive intensity a few more notches, and break you down offensively one-on-one with a squad of athletic, grown men that rolls nine (9) deep (7 seniors and 2 juniors).

Tonight, I expect the trends from both teams to continue. I just don’t think San Diego State’s offense is good enough for 40 minutes, if they fall behind again by multiple possessions in the 2nd half, I don’t expect San Diego State to come all the way back against a really talented, deep and poised team. Connecticut has run roughshod over their five (5) NCAA opponents by 20.6 ppg, are the better rebounding and free throw shooting team – Which lessens the potential for San Diego State to muck things up, turn this game into a rock fight and keep the game close late, their best strategy for victory tonight (even if, I think Connecticut can win a rock fight) – and look every bit the part of a National Champion. When I see people discuss San Diego State as a potential champion, more than once comparisons to the 1983 North Carolina State Alley-Oop (was it a shot or a pass?) Valvano-running-around-looking-for-someone-to-hug miracle NCAA Champions have been made. Ignore the fact that San Diego State may be the biggest Title Game underdog since the 1999 Duke-Connecticut Final; That as a frame of reference should tell you something.


Contenders and Darkhorses, Dogs and Cats, Mass Hysteria

I’ll cut to the chase and declare that any one of 21 teams can win the 2023 Edition of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship this year. That’s 21 “Contenders” and “Darkhorses” listed below who under the right circumstances and matchups could string six (6) wins together and cut the nets in Houston on the first Monday in April. Put another way, 21 teams either fit the statistical profile of a National Champion or are thiiiiiiiis close (imagine my thumb and forefinger pinching a piece of paper) from elevating their play to a level consistent with title contention.

Well, well, well, how the turn tables …

Seven (7) years ago, in previewing the 2016 NCAA Tournament, I boldly proclaimed “Parity Schmarity” while stating anywhere from 3-7 teams only had the goods to win it all back then. Now, the gap between Contenders and Darkhorses has narrowed to the point where I had a difficult time drawing the line between them. I’m sure ESPN Insider John Gasaway had more difficulty than usual determining the eight (8) teams that have a legitimate chance at the title, although as usual there is plenty of overlap with my Contenders below.

Once the bracket was announced Sunday, Houston was the pre-tournament favorite on BetMGM at 6:1, which are the longest odds for a pre-tournament favorite since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. NCAA NET, Jeff Sagarin’s Ratings, Bart Torvik’s T-Rank Stats and 62 other college basketball rating metrics meanwhile collectively favor Alabama to win it all, having them #1 in 37 different metrics, compared to Houston as #1 in 22 metrics. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight data-driven hoops nerds crunched data for their 2023 March Madness predictions and concluded that after Houston (22%) and Alabama (16%), there were nine (9) more teams have at least a 3% probability of winning the National Championship.

Compare to last season, where Gonzaga was the 3:1 odds-on favorite to win the title, going from Preseason #1 to NCAA Tournament Favorite to bowing out in the Sweet 16, while Kansas, the 4th pre-tournament favorite at 9:1, emerged as the National Champion. This season, the Preseason #1 team was North Carolina, who over the course of the season was met by and succumbed to the march of parity, and not only failed to make the NCAAs (first Preseason #1 to do so since 1985), but took their ball and went home as they apparently decided the NIT was beneath them.

Will a truly “great” team emerge from several “really good” Contenders and Darkhorses over the next three weeks? Or will one just survive like Kansas did last season? Let’s see if my annual macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field has any suggestions. My bracket is here as a matter of transparency, a paper copy of which should be run through the shredder by Sunday morning.

Contenders – All these categories I’ve used over the years are a bit of a shorthand. When I use “Contenders” I mean legitimate challengers for the National Championship, teams that during the course of the season identified and maintained a level of performance consistent with past National Champions well before March goes Mad. Which isn’t to say some teams who don’t play at that level during the season can’t rise to meet it over the course of the tournament, recent examples of such including 2015 Duke and 2018 Villanova who worked their way into Championship form.

As a reminder, here are the four Championship Tests (“Tests”) I used to filter and separate the field into several tiers, comprised of minimum statistical thresholds using 22 seasons of historical data on offensive and defensive efficiency (expressed in points per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent), from Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Ratings that Every National Champion since 2002 (with one exception noted below) meet:

KenPom Efficiency Data Test: Scored ≥ 112.4 (Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, or AdjO) and allowed ≤ 95.4 (AdjD) points per 100 possessions (pp100p);

KenPom Efficiency Rankings Test: Ranked overall ≤ 18th in AdjO and ≤ 49th in AdjD that season (except for 2014 Connecticut, who finished ranked 39th in AdjO, something I’ve referred to in the past as the “UConn Standard”);

KenPom Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) Test: Had an AdjEM (the difference between a team’s AdjO & Adj D) ≥ 22.13 (which was 2014 Connecticut’s Final AdjEM, as every other Champion exceeded that mark); and

KenPom Overall Ratings Test: Ranked in KenPom’s Top 15 (by AdjEM) overall.

Subjecting this year’s field to this collective filter, seven (7) of the eight (8) teams listed below pass all four Tests – At least the UConn Standard in the Rankings Test and all the other the thresholds – and the 8th team (Arizona) is 2.1 pp100p in AdjD from meeting all four tests as well (Arizona does meet the full Rankings Test, but not the AdjD in the Data Test). Eight (8) of the Top 10 overall teams in KenPom’s Ratings are represented below, which clearly isn’t an accident, although there is a #4 seed lurking among the #1 and #2 seeds:

  • Houston
  • Alabama
  • UCLA
  • Connecticut
  • Purdue
  • Texas
  • Arizona
  • Kansas

Darkhorses – The thin margin separating Darkhorses from the Contenders above manifests this year on one side of the ball, as 12 of the 13 teams pass at least one Test (UConn Standard on the Rankings Test for five teams), and meet a threshold on offense or defense in the either the Data or Rankings Test. In other words, these teams only narrowly miss meeting all of the Tests:

  • Marquette
  • Creighton
  • Duke
  • Gonzaga
  • Baylor
  • Xavier
  • St. Mary’s
  • Arkansas
  • Kansas State
  • Texas Christian
  • Texas A&M
  • Memphis
  • Indiana

Of these teams, Marquette, Creighton and Duke pose the most significant threats of reaching the Final Four, as they are within striking distance of working their way into Contender status during a Tournament run and meeting all the thresholds. Marquette, like Arizona, does not meet the AdjD threshold in the Data Test, but unlike Arizona, also doesn’t meet the requisite AdjEM threshold, which is why they are at the top of the Darkhorse list, and not the bottom of the Contender list. Duke in particular has been playing some of the best basketball in the country, winners of their last nine (9) games and coming off an impressive ACC Tournament Title run. Arkansas was almost a “Free-faller” below, 5-6 since the beginning of February, but Freshman guard Nick Smith, Jr., the #1 rated prospect in the Class of 2022, missed 19 games managing a knee injury and has played in the last nine (9) games for the Razorbacks, and their roster overall is talented and dangerous. Gonzaga meanwhile has the #1 offense (AdjO) in the country, while Baylor is #2 and Xavier #8 while also leading the country in Assists per game (19.3). Finally the sheer volume of Contenders and Darkhorses means every one of them has a potential path to the Elite Eight with one or more fellow Contenders and Darkhorses. Not to get Biblical, but iron sharpens iron.

Pretenders – These teams are the true “Feast or Famine” teams, quintessential high ceiling/low floor teams that are in many ways the natural third tier of teams vying for a deep run, in that making the Sweet 16 would automatically elevate these teams to Darkhorse status:

  • Maryland
  • Michigan State
  • Miami (Fla.)
  • Kentucky
  • San Diego State
  • Northwestern
  • Virginia

All of them are seeded between #3-8, and are either acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing offense over defense (Miami, Kentucky) or vice-versa (San Diego State, Northwestern, Virginia), or because they are “jack of all trades/master of none” teams (Maryland, Michigan State) that don’t do anything at an elite level. All of these teams also have some sort of roster weakness, whether it’s an overreliance on one (Paging Oscar Tshiebwe … Kentucly Blue Courtesy Phone for Oscar Tshiebwe …) or two (Boo Buie, with one of the best names in the tournament, along with Chase Audige produce approximately 46% of Northwestern’s offense between them) players, and/or a lack of positional depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition. Miami for instance is guard-heavy, and their one true big, Norchad Omier is still recovering from an ankle sprain suffered at the ACC Tournament. San Diego State is sort of an outlier here, as they meet the Overall Ratings Test, have good depth across the board and can match athleticism with most teams, yet their offense too often experiences drought conditions. As usual there are multiple Big 10 teams here as well. For my money, Miami is the most dangerous team on this tier, especially if Omier can play and be effective as they were and Elite Eight team last year and can score in bunches.

Cinderellas – The magic of the NCAA Tournament can be summed up in the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. These teams are the Belles of the Ball, the potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four teams from mid-major or low-major conferences that fly below the radar until they send a favorite or two home early and become media darlings, like St. Peter’s Elite Eight Run last season or Loyola of Chicago’s 2018 Final Four run:

  • Florida Atlantic
  • Utah State
  • Oral Roberts
  • Boise State
  • Virginia Commonwealth
  • Drake
  • Charleston

Usually these are upperclassmen-laden teams with underappreciated stars. Hoop heads remember Max Abmas (pronounced “ACE-miss”) of Oral Roberts from their Sweet 16 run in the 2021 Bubble Tourney as a #15 seed, but he’s back and better than ever. Utah State has Taylor Funk whose name undoubtedly will spawn bad puns over the weekend, yet he is but one of five (5) Aggie starters who, like fellow Mountain West team Boise State’s starting five, average double figures in points. Only Houston can match the 31-3 overall record of Florida Atlantic and Charleston.

Stepsisters – In contrast to the Cinderellas, these are the underachieving or underseeded teams capable of stringing together several wins, AKA, the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, hearkening to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#10) and 1987 (#11) Tigers that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession:

  • USC
  • Iowa
  • West Virginia
  • Penn State
  • Pittsburgh
  • Arizona State

Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, these six (6) teams are a.) From Power 5 conferences, b.) Seeded No. 8 or worse, c.) In double digits in the Loss column, d.) Victors over one or more teams that have a Top 4 seed in this Tournament, and e.) Talented with difference-makers that can lead their teams to wins despite these teams also lacking cohesion or suffering extended stretches of losing. The majority of these teams will be returning home this weekend, but one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can pick it, your bracket could have a big edge on your competition, as they will likely have to beat a Top 3 seed to make the Sweet 16. Put another way, these teams are basically lower-seeded Pretenders that were never good enough during the season to convince anyone they could have been Contenders. If I had to pick one team to win a few rounds here, I’d go with either USC, as they have softer targets (Michigan State, then likely Marquette) than the rest of their colleagues here, or Pittsburgh since they are the only team above I have in my bracket notching a win.

Free-fallers – There are an unusual number of teams who, in the spirit of Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”, are trending downward due to inconsistency, injury, or a notable down-shift in performance from earlier in the season:

  • Tennessee
  • Auburn
  • Iowa State
  • Illinois

Through January Tennessee was a bona fide Contender for the National Championship, but has dipped since (more on that below), while Auburn and Iowa State have both lost nine (9) of their last 13 games. Illinois hasn’t been much better over that time span (4-6 since February 1) either, even as 11 of their 12 losses this season were to NCAA Tournament invitees. I actually think Auburn is playing decent basketball, and Tennessee and Iowa State remain tough outs, but I don’t see any of these teams playing beyond Sunday.

Enigmas – Despite my best efforts at watching them within the last month, to get a better idea of what they are about, these are the three (3) teams I truly don’t have much of a grasp on, and am still somewhat confused about how they go about the business of winning games:

  • Missouri
  • Providence
  • North Carolina State 

Oddly, two of these teams (Providence, NC State) are the two #11 seeds that did not have to play in the First Four” play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday, and these would normally be Stepsisters, and maybe they should be, but I’m not fully convinced of their upside. Providence in particular doesn’t seem to be the usually guard-strong Ed Cooley team, overly reliant on Kentucky transfer power forward Bryce Hopkins, while North Carolina State seems to be the opposite with excellent guard play and an average frontcourt beyond D.J. Burns. Missouri is undersized, and even though their “big man”, 6’7” forward Kobe Brown looks like a future pro, they are shockingly poor on defense, with the 7th-worst AdjD in the field. Plus, it’s tough to trust the success Missouri has had, as they are the 3rd “luckiest” (whereby “Luck” is a measure of the contrast between expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies and their actual results) team in the field of 64 according to KenPom. Almost no result would surprise me with any of these teams, although I have them all losing in the First Round.

More Likely Upsets – Seed upsets tend to occur when roster turnover and attrition lower the ceiling (and thus the seed) of high-major conference teams, who end up facing mid-majors with upperclassmen-laden rosters. Previously, the #12 vs. #5 seed matchup used to be the threshold for what can actually be considered an “upset” – #5 seeds have a .594 winning percentage (38-26) the last 16 tournaments, while the #6-11 matchup are a 50/50 proposition (32-32) over that same time span – but this year all of the #12 seeds are in the Cinderella tier as all the #5 seeds are vulnerable due to either a reliance on youth (St. Mary’s, Duke) or an imbalance at one end of the floor (San Diego State, Miami), so the “upset” threshold has shifted. The question here is, which of the #13-16 seeds are more likely to win a game or two, and which are not?:

  • Iona
  • Kent State
  • Louisiana
  • Furman
  • UC Santa Barbara
  • Montana State
  • Colgate
  • Grand Canyon

All of the teams above are veteran squads who have made good use of the transfer portal to grab one or more starters (except Furman, all but one of their 10-man rotation are home-grown), are Top-75 in efficiency on one end of the floor, and only UC Santa Barbara has a scoring margin of less than 7.0 ppg (barely, at 6.6 ppg). They also have potentially winnable matchups; I picked two of these teams to win in my bracket, and even an unlikely victor like Colgate may well put a scare into Texas.

Less Likely Upsets – Your yearly reminder: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will. All of these teams have unfavorable matchups and should play to their seed (i.e., lose):

  • Princeton
  • Vermont
  • Kennesaw State
  • UNC Asheville
  • Northern Kentucky
  • Texas A&M Corpus-Christi
  • Howard
  • Fairleigh Dickinson

Only one No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, and I don’t see that happening this year. Don’t like most of the #15 seeds either, although Princeton could back door any team to death, and Vermont is in a word, frisky, as Catamounts can be, but neither team is a vintage version of these programs that have achieved past NCAA glories. UNC-Asheville has a terrible matchup as their weaknesses in rebounding and taking care of the ball are UCLA’s defensive strengths. Kennesaw State gives me “happy to be there” vibes, which, when facing Xavier and their coach Sean Miller who at times never seems happy to be anywhere, isn’t promising.

And Now … Four Fearless Quick Hitting Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” or “UCLA” and Make a Final Four … If I absolutely had to choose, I would go with Pittsburgh, as they finished 1 game behind 1st place in the ACC Regular Season. I actually think they beat Iowa State, but I have a hard time seeing them get past Xavier. Last year Notre Dame won their First Four and First Round games before losing to Texas Tech in the Round of 32. As the other First Four #11 seed to make it through, Arizona State is actually the type of athletic, frenetic, boom-or-bust team that fits this traditional archetype, but I think TCU rolls them Friday night. Going forward, even in an age of parity, it will likely be exceedingly difficult for teams to duplicate what VCU and UCLA accomplished.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Tennessee. Heading into February the Vols were 18-3 and ranked 2nd in both polls and holding steady atop the KenPom rankings. It’s easy to cite losing PG Zakai Zeigler to an ACL injury on February 28 for dim NCAA Tournament prospects, but Tennessee’s issues began weeks before, with five (5) losses already in February entering that game against Arkansas, which they won, then lost two of their final three games before Selection Sunday. Any team that loses their lead playmaker will suffer diminishing returns, but something’s been off about the Vols for a while, that I for one can’t put my finger on, especially since they beat Alabama in that same stretch, are still #5 overall in KenPom, and still meet three (3) of the four (4) Championship Tests. Listed among the Free-fallers above, going 5-7 in your last 12 games before the NCAAs, including bad losses to non-Tournament teams in Vanderbilt and Florida is hardly a recipe for success, and for a team that has trouble scoring points, losing Zeigler only compounds all of that. I would be more than mildly surprised to see them playing next weekend.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … A coin flip between Baylor and Virginia, two of the last three National Champions, who are relative shadows of their Championship selves on defense. Only Gonzaga has a more efficient offense than Baylor in the country according to the KenPom rankings, but that only masks a defense that is shockingly ineffective. Virginia still meets the KenPom thresholds for defensive efficiency, but their offensive is mediocre (75th in KenPom AdjO) for an NCAA Tournament team. I really should just name Virginia here as I have them in the Pretenders tier (while Baylor is a Darkhorse on their day), but I have both gone before the Sweet 16. Indiana and Kansas State are on my personal Upset Alert as well, based on their particular matchups and subpar season-long 6.5 ppg scoring margins. Purdue also merits mention here due to their underwhelming guard play. Imagine where Purdue would be if probable Consensus National Player of the Year Zach Edey had chosen baseball over basketball five years ago?

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Break out the 8-clap because it’s U *clap-clap-clap* C *clap-clap-clap* L *clap-clap-clap* A *clap-clap-clap*! Every bracket show on ESPN and CBS talked about stacked the West Region is, and most of the predictions I’ve seen have Kansas, Gonzaga or UConn making it to Houston. Yes, UCLA will be without Jaylen Clark, ostensibly their third-best player and someone who did a little bit of everything for the Bruins. However, UCLA will likely get Adem Bona back in the first weekend, and they have the best 1-2 punch in all of College Basketball with point guard-extraordinaire Tyger Campbell and newly crowned Pac-12 POY do-everything forward Jaime Jaquez. Their first two games pose less of a challenge than the other high seeds in their region, and with the West’s second weekend in Las Vegas, do not be surprised if it’s UCLA with the best hand on the river.

My Final Four and Champion

After all this talk of parity, so many teams that can vie for the National Championship, and after going through several bracket variations to arrive at my one, not-so-perfect bracket, my Final Four is rather chalky. Playing in their hometown, the Houston Cougars are the best, most balanced and most dangerous team I’ve watched all season, and they are my pick to hoist the trophy on April 3. But not before reprising the 1968 “Game of the Century” in the Semifinals with a rematch of the 1968 NCAA Semifinals against the UCLA Bruins, who will survive the toughest Regional of the four (West), only to leave the Las Vegas frying pan for the Houston fire. If only the Astrodome could host it. In the other Semifinal, I have the Alabama Crimson Tide outlasting the blue-hot Duke Blue Devils (I can hear the groans already) to reprise another matchup for the Final, this one a rematch of the game earlier this season between Alabama and Houston that Alabama won on Houston’s home floor 71-65. NRG Stadium, however, can fit 64,000 more fans than the Cougars’ home court Fertitta Center, the majority of whom will likely be rooting for the hometown team to complete their Cosmic Revenge Tour. Three Contenders, and a Darkhorse in Duke that has played like a Contender the last six (6) weeks. Like dogs and cats living together, I’m ready for the mass hysteria.

What is This Madness?

Indeed. Saving deeper analysis for my Tournament Preview Wednesday evening, I’ll just say that I have never seen a prospective NCAA Tournament Field this wide open. There are several really good teams, but no great teams have revealed themselves yet, and I can see any of 15-20 teams winning it all under the right matchups and pathways, with another 10-15 capable of making the Final Four. Parity has never been more widespread, and it should make for an unpredictable and volatile Tournament full of “upsets”, most of which will be in seed name only. Despite that, I actually think the bubble itself is rather small, as we’ll see below.

My canned prologue: College Basketball’s Christmas Eve is upon us, a prelude to “12 Days of Basketball Christmas” a.k.a. March (and April) Madness where at 5:00pm EST on CBS today, the field, seeding, and opening matchups for the 2022 NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship will be revealed. What follows is my educated guess at the 68 teams in the field, and specifically the 36 at-large invites (I leave predictions of seedings, locations, and matchups to others so inclined).

Here’s what I know, what I think I know, what I think I think I know, what I think that I know of what I don’t know, and my informed conjecture about whose hearts will be glowing when tournament games are near (check once again in the mail to Andy Williams’ estate) and who receives NIT coal in their stocking from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee. All 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments, and half of the 32 Conference Tournament No. 1 seeds (16 teams that were the regular season champion or leader) won their conference tournament (marked with a ^), while only 7 schools repeated as auto-bid conference tournament winners (marked with a *) from last season:

American Athletic – Memphis
America East – Vermont*^
ACC – Duke
Atlantic Sun – Kennesaw State^
Atlantic-10 – Virginia Commonwealth^
Big East – Marquette^
Big Sky – Montana State*
Big South – UNC Asheville^
Big Ten – Purdue^
Big 12 – Texas
Big West – UC Santa Barbara
Colonial – Charleston
Conference USA – Florida Atlantic^
Horizon – Northern Kentucky
Ivy – Princeton^
Metro Atlantic – Iona^
Mid-American – Kent State
Mid-Eastern – Howard^
Missouri Valley – Drake
Mountain West – San Diego State^
Northeast – Farleigh Dickinson#
Ohio Valley – Southeast Missouri State
Pac-12 – Arizona*
Patriot – Colgate*^
SEC – Alabama^
Southern – Furman^
Southland – Texas A&M-Corpus Christi*^
Southwestern Athletic – Texas Southern*
Summit League – Oral Roberts^
Sun Belt – Louisiana
WAC – Grand Canyon
West Coast – Gonzaga*

This leaves 36 at-large bids to be decided. Taking a gander at several metrics, including the NCAA NET Rankings, Ken Pomeroy’s data, The Bracket Matrix, Bracket Research, and a myriad of amateur and professional bracketology sites, in addition to logging countless hours of college basketball this season, here are the teams that should be “Locks”, listed by conference (number of teams in parentheses)

American Athletic (1) – Houston

ACC (2) – Miami, Virginia

Big 12 (5) – Kansas, Baylor, Kansas State, TCU, Iowa State

Big East (3) – Xavier, Creighton, Connecticut

Big Ten (7) – Indiana, Northwestern, Penn State, Michigan State, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland

Mountain West (2) – Utah State, Boise State

Pac-12 (2) – UCLA, USC

SEC (6) – Tennessee, Texas A&M, Missouri, Auburn, Kentucky, Arkansas

West Coast (1) – St. Mary’s

That’s a grand total of 29 teams, that by my estimation, should be safe, which leaves seven (7) at-large spots. Here’s who I think are the “Bubble” teams competing for these spots, again listed by conference:

ACC (4) – Pittsburgh, Clemson, North Carolina State, North Carolina

Big 12 (2) –  West Virginia, Oklahoma State

Big East (1) – Providence

Big Ten (3) – Rutgers, Wisconsin, Michigan

Mountain West (1) – Nevada

Pac-12 (1) – Arizona State

SEC (2) – Mississippi State, Vanderbilt

That’s only 14 teams (and that’s being charitable) competing for the last seven (7) spots. Drawing straws and playing Rock-Paper-Scissors with my dog Mona Lisa (I always win), below is my best guess as to the The Less-Than-Magnificent Seven, in order from safest to least safe:

West Virginia


North Carolina State



Mississippi State

Arizona State

No mid-major Cinderellas above, and a bit Eastern Time Zone-heavy. My “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, would be Nevada, Clemson, Oklahoma State and North Carolina, but aside from Nevada and Clemson, the arguments for inclusion are relatively weak. A few seconds away, the NCAA Selection Show awaits with what’s sure to be some curious decisions, enigmas and further questions. As always, Happy March Madness Eve!

EDIT: Once again, 67/68 teams correct, with Nevada (my First Team Out) getting the nod over a 9th team from the Big 10, Rutgers (for which, as a part-time West Coast Honk, I am grateful). My other six (6) bubble teams got invites. According to the NCAA Selection Committee, Oklahoma State, Rutgers, North Carolina, and Clemson were the First Four Teams Out, in order. All my locks were comfortably in the field, with #10 seed Utah State at 40th on the overall NCAA Bracket seed list as the lowest “lock”, while #9 seed West Virginia at 34th was most comfortably in the field among my bubble teams. No complaints from me about who made the field and who did not, but some of the seedings and regional placements deserve further scrutiny. For instance, UCLA (5th overall on the seed list) being ahead of Arizona (7th) and staying in the West Region is questionable, considering Arizona beat UCLA two of three times head-to-head, including the Pac-12 Conference Tournament Final – Same for Kansas (3rd) being ahead of Texas (6th), who beat Kansas, two of three times head-to-head, including the Big 12 Conference Tournament Final – which tells me the Top 4 seeds were basically set by Friday, and that Conference Tournament Finals in conferences earning multiple bids just don’t matter for NCAA Tournament placement, except for bragging rights. Biggest surprise for me is that neither Kansas (#1 West) nor Kansas State (#3 East) were placed in the Midwest Regional hosted by Kansas City. Texas, Houston, and Indiana should all travel well to Kansas City if they make it, but that seems like a missed opportunity to put more butts in the seats. The Road to Houston starts with the “First Four” games on Tuesday and Wednesday, buckle up!

A Final Four For The Ages

Making this space about me more than I usually do for a minute, I must confess that I wasn’t looking forward to this Final Four of the 2022 NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship once it was set. Kansas, Villanova, North Carolina and Duke elicited slight nausea as rich got richer, and each team’s route to New Orleans left a slightly bitter taste. How is that you ask? Four all-time programs in a Final Four with a combined 60 Final Fours and now 18 National Championships among them, with historic matchups everywhere you looked didn’t do it for me, you say with incredulity?

Well, no. Not really. For one, Villanova was going into the Final Four down their second-best player Justin Moore, who had ruptured his Achilles tendon with 30 seconds left in their Elite Eight win over Houston, a team that had vanquished my Arizona Wildcats two nights earlier yet couldn’t hit water form a boat against Villanova, shooting 1-20 from three-point land. I never thought Villanova had a chance against Kansas, and unsurprisingly they never led that game. As for Kansas, they suddenly were the favorite, the last #1 seed remaining (and the only Final Four team I not only correctly picked, but presaged they were being a bit undersold), and while no one would ever accuse me of being a fan of Bill Self, unless you are a Jayhawk fan or have money on them (neither of which applied to me), there isn’t much joy in rooting for Goliath.

North Carolina in some sense was the surprise of the tournament, a #8 seed that was discounted for their rocky 12-6 start to the season and apparent growing pains of first-year coach Hubert Davis. They also got to face the darlings of the tournament, St. Peter’s who was the #15 seed (justifiably, I might add) in their regional, for a berth in the Final Four, a path sure to elicit envy from other top seeds now watching at home. In retrospect, were they under-seeded, and did the Tournament Selection Committee do a poor job setting the East Regional? Quite possibly, for me it’s hard to escape those ideas when the #8 & #15 seeds face off in the Elite Eight. Is that sour grapes? Maybe.

And then there was Duke. The New York Yankees of Modern College Basketball. Of all the reasons for college basketball fans to hate Duke or their coach Mike Krzyzewski, many of which were well expressed but Drew Magary in a column for SF Gate, it was the fact that for all intents and purposes Coach K had a “Floating Goodbye Tour” this season that for me was the most galling. It unnecessarily made this season all about him and his efforts to preserve his fiefdom by pointing the Gran Dedado at his former player and current assistant Jon Scheyer to carry on his “legacy”, despite there being several more qualified inside and outside candidates. So many other schools have moved on from legendary coaches without similar pomp and circumstance; John Wooden didn’t announce he was retiring until 48 hours before his last game as a head coach in the 1976 National Title Game, and one need only go nine (9) miles to Chapel Hill to see how differently the retirements of two legends were handled, as both Dean Smith and Roy Williams waited until after their seasons were over to announce they were leaving. All this despite the fact that his team was as talented as any in College Basketball this season, full of future NBA players including two likely NBA Draft lottery picks come this July in Paolo Banchero and A.J. Griffin, I just feel some of the shine was taken away from his players, and too much of the blame awaited any other result than a National Title.

Krzyzewski’s accomplishments are undeniable, and I have zero doubt that all the winning has as much to do with the “hate” as anything else in the big picture, but Saturday night’s loss to North Carolina, to his most-hated rival in his very last game as a head coach, was delicious, and I make no apologies for feeling that way. But I digress.

Now we have a Title Game for what would be a 10th national title between the two schools, a rematch of their 1957 triple-overtime National Final, and the 34th Anniversary of the 1988 “Danny & The Mircales” Jayhawks squad.  North Carolina is the hottest team in the country, winning 17 of their last 20 games with arguably what has become the best starting five in college basketball. The best backcourt in a tournament usually decided by guard play, Tar Heel guards Caleb Love and Davis take turns playing the hero, while the coolest name in this year’s tournament Leaky Black slows down the opponent’s best players and hits clutch shots when needed. Brady “Manek! At The Disco” and double-double machine Armando Bacot stress opposing defenses on every possession, and will be heavily relied upon again.

Kansas however brings a little bit of everything to the table, from experience, athleticism, size, length to perimeter quickness, will run deeper than North Carolina’s six-man rotation, and can match North Carolina at every position. North Carolina also has to bounce back from what had to be an emotionally draining win over their hated rival, and Bacot will be playing through a right-ankle sprain and has to be less than 100 percent. In the final analysis, I think Kansas outlasts North Carolina in what should be a close, up and down, back and forth, high scoring affair.

Not that it’s the result I am rooting for though; Pardon another biblical reference but North Carolina has more than just a stone and a sling.

Sweet Sixteen Return of the Ramblings

Musings from a frenetic first weekend of The Dance as the music starts again tonight …

West Regional – Gonzaga passed their first test of the tournament in coming back from a 10-point deficit to outlast Memphis in the Second Round. Just when I had written off Drew Timme after he was held to four (4) points in the First Half against Memphis’ frontline of future professionals, he almost single-handedly brought the Zags back with 11 straight points to start the Second Half, and 21 of his 25, all of which led to one of the funniest post-game exercises of self-restraint I’ve ever seen … Gonzaga will face Arkansas today (4:09 p.m. PT, CBS), who on Saturday was never going to let New Mexico State’s Teddy “Buckets” Allen go off like he did against Connecticut. Amazing that it was a game for all 40 minutes, the Razorbacks needing the shortest player in the tournament field, Chris Lykes to hit four (4) free throws in the last 10 seconds to stave off the Aggies. I would expect Arkansas to concentrate on slowing Gonzaga’s Timme and point guard Andrew Nembhard down and dare Chet Holmgren to beat them from the perimeter. Methinks Arkansas has more than a puncher’s chance tonight.  … As for the Coach K Floating Retirement Party (6:39 p.m. PT, CBS), I think it continues to the weekend, even as Texas Tech #1 ranted defense (KenPom AdjD of 84.4) is a mighty speed bump for the Blue Devil Party Bus (like one of those traffic calming speed tables). Will Coach K leave his heart in San Francisco?  (Sorry, couldn’t resist).

South Regional – While the Baylor-Carolina game was legendary (more below), for my money, the most exciting game of the first four days was Arizona’s wild slugfest victory over Texas Christian, 85-80 in overtime. It was the very definition of pugilism in a non-boxing sense; So many times, one team looked dusted, then they would come back and put the other team on the ropes, only to recover with a run to grab back the lead. The difference in the game for Arizona was one of their eight international players, Bennedict Mathurin, who not only had a game-high 30 points, but made every single offensive play the Wildcats needed, from a late three-pointer to tie the game in regulation to two offensive rebounds put-backs in overtime, as well as a dunk that almost took TCU center Eddie Lampkin Jr.’s soul … Arizona’s game against the Houston Cougars tonight (6:59 p.m. PT, TBS) in front of what will surely be a pro-Houston crowd in San Antonio might be an ever stiffer test. An epic contrast of styles, Fast (Arizona has the fastest tempo left in the field according to KenPom) versus Slow (Houston is the second-lowest team left in the same metric), Houston does a lot of what TCU does at both ends of the floor, only faster and more efficiently, especially on the offensive boards (#1 in the country in offensive rebound percentage at 37.8 ORB%) which has been a bugaboo for Arizona lately. If Arizona can hit threes, limit turnovers, and resist the urge to leak out early in transition and fight on the offensive boards, I like their chances tonight, and subsequently on Saturday … Villanova and Michigan battle in the first game in San Antonio (4:29 p.m. PT, TBS), a rematch of the 2018 NCAA National Championship game on the same court from four years ago. Yet unlike that display of Villanova’s basketball excellence, this game promises to be a “first team to 60 points wins” affair in light of Villanova being having the slowest AdjT left, and neither survivor would surprise me.

Midwest Regional – The regional where chaos reigned (as one regional always does), Kansas has a relative cakewalk compared to the other #1 seeds still in the tournament. Their game against a very game #4-seed Providence squad (Friday, 4:29 p.m. PT, TBS) that by seed was expected to be here, even as they were a trendy First Round upset pick, should be a de facto Elite Eight game. Winner here will face the winner of #10-seed Miami and #11-seed Iowa State (Friday, 6:59 p.m. PT, TBS), both of whom were impressive over the weekend – Miami beating #7-seed USC and running #2-seed Auburn out of the building while Iowa State allowed #6-seed LSU to concentrate on their coaching search and sent #3-seed Wisconsin on their 50-mile bus trip home back to Madison – but both of whom would be in tall cotton against the Kansas-Providence winner. I would be shocked if we see anyone else besides Kansas awaiting the South Regional Winner in New Orleans.

East Regional – The Baylor-North Carolina game was the craziest comeback I’ve ever seen where the comeback team eventually lost. Baylor ran out of steam, outscoring the Tar Heels 38-13 in the last 10 minutes to get to overtime, only to miss 10/11 field goal attempts and two free throws in the extra period. I had thought North Carolina ran out of silver bullets against Baylor’s werewolves, unable to break a simple press or make their free throws, until the Bears’ Matthew Meyer fouled out, and James Akinjo and Adam Flagler took turns playing heroball. Those two were a combined 16/45 from the floor, and ultimately that’s why Baylor lost. Meanwhile, even though they won, I think Brady “Manek! At the Disco” and his teammates at North Carolina learned that You Don’t Mess With The Sochan! (Apologies to Adam Sandler). … I will be curious to see how the Tar Heels handle UCLA’s grinding pace at both ends of the floor (Friday, 6:39 p.m. PT, CBS) as I think the winner of this game wins the next one in the Elite Eight and gets to The Big Easy next week. UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez sounds like he’s a game-time decision with a re-aggravated ankle injury, and that could be the “X-factor” for this game. … Before this tournament, I had seen exactly zero minutes and zero seconds of St. Peter’s games. To own the state of Kentucky basketball like they did last weekend is the archetype of madness for which March basketball is known. While I’m not sure where Kentucky goes from here, and while I think Purdue ends their party on Friday night (Friday, 4:09 p.m. PT, CBS), the proud Peacocks, only the third #15 seed in history to make the Men’s Sweet 16, keep the Cinderella mythology alive for another season, and we are better off for it.

Finally, a couple of breakdowns for further perspective.  Enjoy the Dance!

Sweet 16 by Conference:

Big 12 (3/6 teams left, 9-3 record so far as a conference) – Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State

ACC (3/5, 8-2) – Duke, North Carolina, Miami

Big Ten (2/9, 9-7) – Purdue, Michigan

Big East (2/6, 5-4) – Villanova, Providence

Pac-12 (2/3, 4-1) – Arizona, UCLA

SEC (1/6, 4-5) – Arkansas

American (1/2, 3-1) – Houston

WCC (1/3, 3-2) – Gonzaga

MAAC (1/1, 2-0) – St. Peter’s

Sweet 16 by Bobby True Preview Categories:

Contenders (6): Gonzaga, Arizona, Houston, Kansas, UCLA, Villanova – I still expect the Champion to come from this now group of six. Baylor defended their title valiantly. Kentucky we hardly knew ye!

Darkhorses (3): Texas Tech, Duke, Arkansas: One of these is guaranteed to get to the Elite Eight with Texas Tech and Duke facing off, fulfilling that prophecy.

Pretenders (3): Purdue, Providence, North Carolina – Would not surprise me if Purdue or North Carolina is in the Final Four out of the East Regional.

Cinderellas (0): Bit of a surprise, although other teams below now fit this category. Stepsisters (2): Michigan, Iowa State – The #11 seeds were frisky as expected.

Free Fallers (0): Yup. Although Ohio State did surprise with their take-down of Loyola Chicago, only to return to form against Villanova.

Enigmas (1): Miami – I clearly did not see this coming, and frankly still don’t fully understand it, although their athleticism, length and quickness were on full display in their trouncing of Auburn. I think they beat Iowa State.

More Likely Upsets (0): Most of these teams represented well, as New Mexico State and Richmond actually punched their ticket to the Second Round in their respective 5/12 matchups.

Less Likely Upsets (1): St. Peter’s – Oops. Goes to show that just when you think you know what you need to know about who should advance out of the first weekend, time and again you don’t.

Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Although I’m not fully intending a Meat Loaf reference, I thought the headline above was an apt metaphor for the 2022 Edition of the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship. Allow me to explain.

Gonzaga started the regular season ranked #1 in the polls, then ended the regular season as the #1 team in the country, in not only the polls but the NCAA NET, Jeff Sagarin’s Ratings, Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Ratings, and 42 other college basketball rating metrics. Although they weren’t #1 wire-to-wire, Gonzaga was the top team in college basketball for the majority of the season. The Zags are so far ahead of the next team in the KenPom Ratings – 5.71 points in Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) ahead of #2 Arizona as of March 16, 2022 – that their statistical performance is not only heads and shoulders above the rest of the country this season, it is a margin larger than in any other season-ending ratings between #1 and #2 since 2002, which is the earliest KenPom’s data tracks back. As such, last year’s National Finalist is the overwhelming favorite to win the title in New Orleans come the first weekend of April.

Still skeptical about that? Not convinced because Gonzaga has lost two of the last four National Title games (which seems more like an argument in favor to me, but whatever)? Or that they come from a non-Power conference like the West Coast Conference (WCC), and don’t allegedly get tested in conference play? Never mind that the WCC is the 9th-rated conference out of 32 according to the Jeff Sagarin Ratings, or that two other WCC teams, St. Mary’s and San Francisco, are at-large invites to the Field of 68.

How about Vegas and the online sportsbooks, who are in consensus agreement, listing only four (4) teams with shorter than 10:1 odds to win it all? BetMGM has Gonzaga at 3:1, followed by Arizona (6:1), Kentucky (8:1) and Kansas (9:1) as most likely to cut the nets.

What about the data-driven hoop nerds? Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight crew crunched data for their 2022 March Madness predictions and determined that these same four (4) teams have a combined probability just over 51.5% of winning the NCAA Title, with Gonzaga at roughly a 27% probability, followed by Kansas (~9%), Kentucky (~9%), and Arizona (~7%), which together is greater collective odds than the rest of the field. ESPN Insider John Gasaway recently published his yearly “The 350 men’s college basketball teams that won’t win 2022 March Madness”, suggesting every year that eight (8) teams (and only 8) have a legitimate chance at the title. You can click the link if you have ESPN+ to see those teams, or keep reading as my Contenders will have quite a bit of overlap, but trust that Gonzaga made that list as well.

If not Gonzaga, then who? By my count, 15 other teams either fit the statistical profile of a National Champion or are thiiiiiiiiis close (imagine my thumb and forefinger barely apart) from elevating their performance into a level consistent with title contention. By my count, that’s a large contingent of teams trying to run Gonzaga down.

Put another way, as the great Satchel Paige once said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

Without further ado, I present my macro-level look at the NCAA Tournament field. My bracket is here as a matter of disclosure, a paper copy of which should be crumpled up in the wastebasket by Saturday afternoon.

Contenders – Saying you have to be really good to win an NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Championship is a bit of a “Duh!” statement. But, exactly how good do you have to be, compared to your peers over an entire season, to be the last team standing in April? At what statistical level does a team have to perform on offense and defense, to be good enough to win a Title?

In previews past, I used what I referred to as three “Championship Tests”, first identified and written about by a gent named Peter Tiernan on the now defunct, who has since gone on to better things. Using both statistical data kept by KenPom dating back to the 2002 season, and a historical examination of the individual and team performance characteristics of every National Champion since 2000, Tiernan had done the research to identify what National Championship Teams had in common (for a detailed breakdown of each of those Championship Tests, refer to my 2015 NCAA Tournament Preview). Establishing a set of minimum statistical thresholds that all Champions meet, to act as a filter to help identify future potential National Champions while a season is ongoing, or in this case on the eve of the Tournament’s First Round, to me is a both a worthwhile and prescient exercise.

In the interim between the last time I did this preview in 2019 and now, I decided to narrow my scope and rely on KenPom’s 21 seasons of historical data on offensive and defensive efficiency (expressed in points per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent), and the relative rankings of each team’s data that season to simplify the filter. I kept the two KenPom tests Tiernan identified and replaced Tiernan’s Criteria with two more KenPom Tests. Every National Champion since 2002 (with one exception noted below) has met the following statistical criteria:

KenPom Efficiency Data Test: Scored ≥ 112.4 (Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, or AdjO) and allowed ≤ 95.4 (AdjD) points per 100 possessions;

KenPom Efficiency Rankings Test: Ranked overall ≤ 18th in AdjO and ≤ 49th in AdjD that season (except for 2014 Connecticut, who finished ranked 39th in AdjO, something I’ve referred to in the past as the “UConn Standard”);

KenPom Adjusted Efficiency Margin (AdjEM) Test: Had an AdjEM (the difference between a team’s AdjO & Adj D) ≥ 22.13; and

KenPom Overall Ratings Test: Ranked in KenPom’s Top 15 (by AdjEM) overall.

Subjecting this year’s field to this filter, eight (8 – there’s that number again) meet all four Tests. Not so coincidentally, these happen to be eight (8) of the Top 11 overall teams in KenPom’s Ratings. Another non-coincidence, seven (7) of Gasaway’s eight teams are listed below (the only difference to be revealed in the “Darkhorses” section below). Finally, in the era of the Super Senior, that extra season of eligibility the NCAA granted on account of the COVID-19 Pandemic, it’s also no coincidence that all of last year’s Final Four participants are listed below. If any team is going to prevent Gonzaga from finally having that One Shining Moment, it will be one of these seven teams listed below them:

  • Gonzaga
  • Arizona
  • Kentucky
  • Baylor
  • Houston
  • Kansas
  • UCLA
  • Villanova

Darkhorses – That thin margin separating Darkhorses from the Contenders above manifests itself on one side of the ball, whether lacking in reliable offense, or inconsistent team defense. Nevertheless, these teams have all proven they not only can compete at an elite level, but at the very least meet the UConn Standard for the KenPom Rankings Test. Auburn is the only team here with a path clear of Contenders or Darkhorses before the Elite Eight, and they are six (6) AdjO ranking spots away from meeting all four tests, so they are at the top of the list. Tennessee and Texas Tech both have Top 3 defenses (AdjD) according to KenPom, and if they were a few points more efficient offensively, they along with Auburn would be Contenders. As would Duke if they were 0.2 pp100 possessions better on defense – The Blue Devils made Gasaway’s Eight as it is, and I basically have UCLA in their place as they passed all the thresholds. Texas and Arkansas are a little further afield than Tennessee from an AdjEM standpoint, but have similar profiles, while Illinois and Connecticut are within striking distance of working their way into Contender status during a Tournament run.

  • Auburn
  • Tennessee
  • Texas Tech
  • Duke
  • Texas
  • Illinois
  • Connecticut
  • Arkansas

Pretenders – These teams are what I previously referred to as “Feast or Famine” teams, quintessential high ceiling/low floor teams that are in many ways the next level down from Darkhorse status, in that two wins in the first weekend would automatically elevate them to that status. All of them are seeded between Nos. 3-8, and are either acutely one-dimensional, prioritizing offense over defense (Purdue, Iowa, Alabama, North Carolina) or vice-versa (Seton Hall), or because they are “jack of all trades/master of none” teams (Wisconsin, Providence, Michigan State) that don’t do anything at an elite level. Roster composition factors can further explain this stasis, such as an over-reliance on one player, and/or a lack of depth or roster balance due to injury or attrition, all increasing the difficulty of stringing together tournament wins compared to Darkhorses or even Stepsisters.

Providence is not only the “luckiest” team in the country according to KenPom, (whereby “Luck” is a measure of the contrast between expectations based on the team’s actual efficiencies and their actual results), they are the 3rd “luckiest” team in the last 21 seasons. Wisconsin is the 6th-luckiest team this season for that matter.  You’ll also notice half of the remaining eight (8) Big 10 teams here. For my money, Purdue, Alabama and North Carolina are the most dangerous among these for their propensity to score in bunches:

  • Purdue
  • Wisconsin
  • Providence
  • Iowa
  • Alabama
  • Michigan State
  • North Carolina
  • Seton Hall

Cinderellas – These are the Belles of the Ball, the ones the media fawns over after the first weekend of the Dance, the potential Sweet 16/Elite 8/Final Four teams from mid-major or low-major conferences that fly below the radar until they send a favorite or two home early. The NCAA Tournament still thrives on the notion that the glass slipper might fit anyone. Many of these teams have under-the-radar stars waiting to become basketball household names, whether it’s Memphis’ Jalen Duren, Colorado State’s David Roddy, San Diego State’s Matt Bradley, or San Francisco’s Jamaree Bouyea (Booyah!). St. Mary’s is a #5 seed who was one of three (3) teams to beat Gonzaga so far, which seems hardly fair to call them a “Cinderella”, but they have a tough path to the second weekend, starting with a frisky Indiana team that has momentum from winning their First Four game, then a potential matchup with UCLA. Murray State is 30-2, and only Arizona has more wins this season. One of them has Sister Jean on the sideline. I don’t think any of them will duplicate the feats of “2006 George Mason” or “2018 Loyola Chicago” (not even 2022 Loyola Chicago) and make the Final Four, but the beauty of this tourney is, one never truly knows until it happens:

  • St. Mary’s
  • Colorado State
  • Memphis
  • San Diego State
  • Loyola Chicago
  • Murray State
  • San Francisco
  • Boise State
  • Davidson

Stepsisters – In contrast to the Cinderellas, these are the underachieving or underseeded teams capable of stringing several wins together, AKA, the “Memorial LSU 1986/1987 Underdogs”, hearkening to Dale Brown’s double-digit seeded 1986 (#10) and 1987 (#11) Tigers that reached the Final Four and Elite Eight in succession. Like those LSU underdogs from 30 years ago, these eight (8) teams a.) Come from a high-major conference, b.) Are seeded No. 8 or worse (except coincidentally for this group’s namesake, #6 seed LSU), c.) Have double digit losses, d.) Have beaten or pushed multiple highly ranked teams to the limit this season, and e.) Despite lacking cohesion or suffering extended stretches of losing, are talented with difference-makers that can heat up and win games. The majority of these teams will be returning home this weekend, but one usually makes it to the second weekend, and if you can pick it, your bracket could have a big edge on your competitor as all these Stepsisters will very likely have to knock off a either a #1 or #3 seed to make the Sweet 16. LSU was almost a Darkhorse, as they have a similar profile to Texas, and probably should be a Pretender, but they just fired their coach. All four #11 seeds are here as well, and all of them have a decent chance to beat their #6 seeded opponent:

  • LSU
  • Virginia Tech
  • Michigan
  • TCU
  • Notre Dame
  • Iowa State
  • Marquette
  • Creighton

Free-fallers – With a nod to Tom Petty’s “Free Falling”, these teams are trending downward due to inconsistency or a notable down-shift in performance from earlier in the season – USC has lost three of their last four games, and Ohio State four of their last five – and with better results leading up to the tournament would have been Stepsisters or Pretenders instead, as well as being seeded higher than #7. Heck, I had Ohio State out of my projected Tournament field. Michigan State was close to being placed here instead (another #7 seed), for reasons I’ll explain later. TCU could also have been here, having lost three of their last four, but two of those losses were to Kansas, and as they had beat Kansas earlier this month as well, earn some benefit of the doubt that I am unwilling to extend here:

  • Ohio State
  • USC

Enigmas – Every year there are some teams I truly don’t know what to make of, despite attempts to watch and analyze their play, often leaving me with either confusion or ennui. In this instance, it’s a sense wanting “more” from Indiana and Miami despite not being exactly clear on what that “more” would be. I actually thought I would be talking about Wyoming as a potential Cinderella instead of not talking much about Indiana here. Both teams also have difficult First Round matchups that I think they will lose, but who knows:

  • Indiana
  • Miami

More Likely Upsets – Seed upsets tend to occur when roster turnover and attrition lower the ceiling (and thus the seed) of high-major conference teams, who end up facing mid-majors with upperclassmen-laden rosters. The #12 vs. #5 seed matchup seems to be the minimum threshold for what can actually be considered an “upset”, as #5 seeds have a .600 winning percentage (36-24) the last 15 tournaments, while the #6-11 matchup is just about a 50/50 proposition (31-29) over that same time span. Although only one of the #12 seeds beat a #5 seed last year (Oregon State, who beat Tennessee in the First Round and advanced to the Elite Eight), all the #5 seeds this year seem a little vulnerable. While the most difficult aspect of filling out a bracket is assessing the deeper seeds for upset potential, I leaned on the wiseguys a little and looked at matchups that had single-digit point spreads; Of the teams listed below, only Richmond (+10.5 against Iowa) is a 10-plus point underdog, and that line could move before tipoff. I even picked two of these teams in my bracket:

  • Vermont
  • UAB
  • New Mexico State
  • Richmond
  • South Dakota State
  • Chattanooga
  • Colgate

Less Likely Upsets – As I’ve often said in this space: Just because a team could beat higher seeded opponents in the Round of 64 or beyond, doesn’t mean they actually will. Only one No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament field expanded to 64 in 1985, so the No. 16 seeds here are only included by reference, as I can’t see any of them winning a game. Once again, I’m not buying any of the #15 seeds this year, although Delaware may be a little frisky against Villanova, and I really want to think Longwood has a puncher’s chance at Tennessee, but Tennessee’s defense is just nasty. Seeing as most have unfavorable matchups, these teams should play to their seed (i.e., lose):

  • Akron
  • Longwood
  • Montana State
  • Yale
  • Delaware
  • St. Peter’s
  • Jacksonville State
  • Cal-State Fullerton

And Now … Five Fearless Quick Hitting Archetypal Predictions …

“First Four” Team Most Likely to “VCU” and Make a Final Four … Last year it was UCLA, coming out of the First Four as a #11 seed and not only making the Final Four, but pushing Gonzaga to the limit, This year, I don’t see either Notre Dame or Indiana making it out of the first weekend, mainly due to potential matchups awaiting each team should they survive their first round game – Likely Texas Tech for Notre Dame, and UCLA for Indiana. If I had to pick one though, I’d go with Notre Dame. Again though, I thought I would be talking about Wyoming here when the brackets were announced.

This Year’s “Texas Longhorns 2010 Memorial Shambles Team” is … Michigan State. As I mentioned above, they were almost listed among the Free-fallers, having lost eight (8) of their last 13, but it was the quality of their wins over two Top 3 seeds (Wisconsin and Purdue) in that stretch that kept them from that categorization. Still, they were ranked in the Top 10 as recently as the January 24, 2022 AP Poll. I can never count out a team coached by Tom Izzo, but this is as close as I’ve come in the last 20 years.

This Year’s “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” is … a tough call between Auburn and Wisconsin. I don’t have either team as Contenders, and while Auburn is a Darkhorse that was extremely close to being a Contender, they have lost four of their last nine games since being voted the #1 team in the February 7, 2022 AP Poll, including a first round loss in the SEC Tournament. Although Auburn Head Coach Bruce Pearl is what some would call “wily”, who else besides future Top 2 pick Jabari Smith and likely Defensive POY Walker Kessler will step up this first weekend? As for Wisconsin, a Pretender if I ever saw one, the co-Big 10 Regular Season Champion earned a #3 seed despite being ranked #24 overall in the NCAA Net Rankings and #33 overall in KenPom. They should benefit by playing 50 miles away from home in Milwaukee, but their 1st-Team All American Johnny Davis is playing through an ankle injury. Can I say “Both?” I will go ahead and pick Auburn, as I think they will play USC in the Second Round and I know that despite their recent travails, USC can match up with Auburn’s height and length, and won’t be intimidated by Auburn’s talent having beaten UCLA earlier this season.  If USC loses to Miami, the Hurricanes won’t be an easy out for Auburn either.

Juggernaut No One Is Predicting Much For … Kansas. I should just rename this one “This Year’s Kansas”, having picked them for this spot in 2012, 2014, and 2015, and rename the “Kansas Jayhawk Memorial Round of 32 Upset Departure Team” something else, but then I’d have to come up with another team here. Many of the Midwest Regional predictions I saw on television and online had several other teams making the Final Four besides the #1 seed Kansas, from Auburn, to Wisconsin, to Iowa. While I do think the Midwest Region has the most potential for bracket chaos, Kansas with their experience both on the floor (five upperclassmen in their 8-man rotation) and manning their sideline (Bill Self with his ninth #1 seed in the last 18 seasons), and a 1st_Team All-American in Ochai Agbaji leading the way, should find themselves in the Big Easy.

My Final Four and Champion … Despite my efforts here to show there are several other teams that can win the title, I believe the Gonzaga Bulldogs will make their third trip to the NCAA Championship Game the charm. In a story that almost writes itself, Mark Few and his talented charges will overcome his protégé Tommy Lloyd and his Arizona Wildcats in the Final, Mentor versus Mentee, West Coast Giant versus West Coast Giant, speed versus speed, and size versus size. Gonzaga’s third National Final in five seasons, versus Arizona seeking their second National Title 25 years after their first, achieved under Lute Olson, a coach and program that Mark Few and company emulated in building their own program. Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren would be the most talented player on the floor in that game, and Gonzaga’s Drew Timme might be the best college player on that floor. While Arizona’s best is as good as anyone’s best this season, for a team so talented I have yet to see them put 40 good-to-great minutes together (although judging by their Pac-12 Title Game win over UCLA, they are getting closer). As I’m not often one to argue much with Vegas and Hoop Nerds, I will round out my Final Four picks with the Kentucky Wildcats, ending a seven-year absence from the Final Four for John Calipari, and the Kansas Jayhawks. Over 3,400 words and I haven’t even discussed The Last Ride of Coach K, or Baylor’s efforts to defend their 2021 National Title. In the end, the field should be close, yet still far away from the eventual Champions from a small school in Spokane. Quite a thing, really. Or, as they say in the Final Four host city of New Orleans, Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler!

P.S. – Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Let Us Resume The Madness

Here’s to dusting off Ye Ol’ Blog to restart what had been a yearly tradition, until El Pandemico hit. True confession, I’m feeling a bit rusty, and my Crystal Ball is cloudier than ever; Not only was the 2020 NCAA Tournament cancelled, last year’s single-city, off-schedule, fan-less 2021 NCAA Tournament (although a badly needed distraction from the gloom and melancholy of the last two years) was something for which I had no analytical feel. So, I put down my “hoop nerd” hat, sat out prognostication last year, and just watched as the best two teams going in, Baylor and Gonzaga, mowed their way through the bracket while insanity ruled the day everywhere else in the field, and met in the Final. Go figure.

Yet, tradition is back, and it’s time to hop back in the saddle, as Selection Sunday is upon us; College Basketball’s Christmas Eve, a prelude to “12 Days of Basketball Christmas” a.k.a. March (and April) Madness where at 6:00pm EST on CBS today, the field, seeding, and opening matchups for the 2022 NCAA® Division I Men’s Basketball Championship will be revealed. What follows is my educated guess at the 68 teams in the field, and specifically the 36 at-large invites (I leave predictions of seedings, locations, and matchups to those with the inclination and/or compensation to do so).

Here’s what we know, what I know, what I think I know, what I think I think I know, what I think that I know of what I know, and my informed conjecture about whose hearts will be glowing when tournament games are near (check once again in the mail to Andy Williams’ estate) and who receives NIT coal in their stocking from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee. We know that all 32 automatic bids have been decided, as determined by conference tournaments, and 15 of the 32 Conference Tournament No. 1 seeds (indicative of the regular season champion or leader) won their conference tournament (marked with a ^), but unlike previous years I won’t indicate which repeated from last season (maybe next year):

American Athletic – Houston^
America East – Vermont^
ACC – Virginia Tech
Atlantic Sun – Jacksonville State*
Atlantic-10 – Richmond
Big East – Villanova
Big Sky – Montana State^
Big South – Longwood^
Big Ten – Iowa
Big 12 – Kansas^
Big West – Cal-State Fullerton
Colonial – Delaware
Conference USA – Alabama-Birmingham
Horizon – Wright State
Ivy – Yale
Metro Atlantic – Saint Peter’s
Mid-American – Akron
Mid-Eastern – Norfolk State^
Missouri Valley – Loyola-Chicago
Mountain West – Boise State^
Northeast – Bryant^
Ohio Valley – Murray State^
Pac-12 – Arizona^

Patriot – Colgate^
SEC – Tennessee
Southern – Chattanooga^
Southland – Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Southwestern Athletic – Texas Southern
Summit League – South Dakota State^
Sun Belt – Georgia State
WAC – New Mexico State^
West Coast – Gonzaga^

* – In the Atlantic Sun, Bellarmine won the conference tournament, but as they are in the second year of a four-year transition period from Division II to Division I, they were not eligible for the NCAA Tournament (which, begs for another question about why they were allowed to play in the conference tournament, but whatever), so the conference’s Regular Season Champion Jacksonville State (who lost in the conference tournament semifinals) will receive the automatic bid, and not Jacksonville, who Bellarmine defeated in the Atlantic Sun Tournament Final. Confused still? So am I.

Simple math leaves 36 at-large bids to be decided. This year, getting back on the horse, I also viewed several other metrics besides the NCAA’s, including Ken Pomeroy’s data, The Bracket Matrix, Bracket Research, and a myriad of amateur and professional bracketology sites, as well as ESPN’s and CBS’s handy “Bubble Watch” running features, in addition to watching hours of college basketball this season. Here are the teams that should be “Locks”, listed by conference (number of teams in parentheses):

American Athletic (1) – Memphis

ACC (3) – Duke, UNC, Miami

Atlantic-10 (1) – Davidson

Big 12 (4) – Baylor, Texas Tech, Texas, TCU

Big East (4) – Creighton, Providence, Connecticut, Seton Hall

Big Ten (4) – Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue, Michigan State

Mountain West (3) – San Diego State, Wyoming, Colorado State

Pac-12 (2) – UCLA, USC

SEC (5) – Auburn, Kentucky, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama

West Coast (2) – St. Mary’s, San Francisco

That’s a grand total of 29 teams, that by my estimation, should be safe, which leaves seven (7) at-large spots. Here’s who I think are the “Bubble” teams competing for these spots, again listed by conference:

American Athletic (1) – SMU

ACC (2) – Notre Dame, Wake Forest

Atlantic-10 (3) – Dayton, Saint Louis, VCU

Big 12 (2) – Iowa State, Oklahoma

Big East (2) – Marquette, Xavier

Big Ten (4) – Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan, Ohio State

Conference USA (1) – North Texas

Pac-12 (1) – Colorado

SEC (2) – Texas A&M, Florida

Southern (1) – Furman

West Coast (1) – BYU

That’s 20 teams (and probably more I haven’t accounted for) competing for the last seven (7) spots. Drawing straws and playing Rock-Paper-Scissors with my dog Mona Lisa (I always win), below is my best guess as to the The Less-Than-Magnificent Seven, in order from safest to least safe:

Notre Dame

Iowa State




Wake Forest


No Cinderellas above, and a bit Midwestern-heavy. My “First Four Out”, or the top teams not selected, would be Texas A&M, Furman, BYU, and SMU. Xavier, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Dayton have arguments as the proverbial “Next Four Out” and potential complaints as well, but I don’t want to hear it from any Big 10 Bubble team that does not make it. I’m a Champion for the “little guy”, although over the years the NCAA Selection Committee is not, hence what I forecast above.

Mere minutes away, the NCAA Selection Show beckons with what’s sure to be some head-scratchers, poor decisions, enigmas and further questions. As always, Happy March Madness Eve!

EDIT: So, 67/68 teams correct, as Wake Forest was left out, and my other six (6) bubble teams got invites. I had Ohio State on the outside looking in, and they ended up well inside the field as a #7 seed. Okaaaaaaaaaayyyy … Dayton, Oklahoma, SMU and Texas A&M were the Last Four Out, in order, and will serve as potential COVID replacement teams for the First Four Games and the Round of 64. I had Wyoming as a lock, and they were the last team in, just behind Indiana, Notre Dame and Rutgers. Surprised overall that the Big 10 got nine (9) teams in, and that Xavier and BYU weren’t even in the Last Four Out. Overall though, one of the better jobs of seeding and placement in several years by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. New Orleans, here we come!

Soccer Gratification Only A Year Delayed, Not Denied

BLOGGER’S NOTE: We are firing up the ole Blog again, and while this post is about one of my sporting passions, soccer, or “football” to some, we will be expanding this blog to other cultural topics of my interest besides sports, to include food, travel, cinema, and more. So please check back every so often for new and hopefully readable content. Thanks! – Bobby True

Only one game remains at the 2020 UEFA European Championships – Italy faces England in the Final tomorrow (Sunday, July 11, 2021, 12:00pm PST), in front of a “75% capacity crowd” at 90,000-seat Wembley – and I’ve watched every minute and all 140 goals of every match.

This isn’t to brag, or a source of pride for that matter.  Despite how swimmingly my lifestyle fit with pandemic realities, and the volumes of sporting television that thankfully followed, this happenstance was truly a function of relative unfamiliarity with the teams going into this tournament, their rosters, and the formations and tactics they would employ. Although I had watched plenty of European and North American club soccer, international soccer had fallen thorough the pandemic cracks in both reality and my sporting attention span, so I needed to actually see these teams in unfriendly action before I formed an opinion on them.

Also, the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup is a mere 16 months away, so chances are at least half of the squads here will a.) Ultimately qualify for the World Cup (Currently, 8/10 Group leaders in the UEFA World Cup Qualification standings made the Knockout Stage), and b.) Be comprised of largely the same rosters, which does not always happen with the usual 2-year cycle in between.

Let’s call this a “Simultaneous Preview and Review” of the 2020 (Err.. 2021) Euros. With 3-6 games seen from each team, I finally have a sense of how good and/or bad these teams are, and how those who later qualify for the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup should be projected. What follows is a ranking of the Euros participants in reverse order (Tournament Finish in parentheses), not wholly determined by where each team finished, along with observations and analysis.  


24.) Turkey (4th Place, Group A) – They really should not be here, they have several topflight talents playing across the English Premier League (EPL), Serie A, and Ligue 1, as well as the top clubs in Turkey that often make the Champions League, but they were definitively the worst side of this tournament. Most goals allowed and worst goal differential in the Group Stage, and were often completely disorganized, then later discouraged. They even lead UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group G currently, so we may still get to see them in Qatar despite the soccer malfeasance they displayed; Here’s hoping for better to come from The Turks.

23.) North Macedonia (4th, Group C) – You just gotta love evergreen Goran Pandev, the 38-year-young striker who has spent his 20 year professional career largely in Italy’s Serie A, and who not only Captained the side for the Country Formerly Known as Macedonia at their Euros debut, he scored the very goal that qualified them, and factored into both goals North Macedonia scored here, netting one and drawing the penalty that led to the other. Under-talented for the most part beyond Pandev, North Macedonia were organized, tactically sound, and cohesive, which may serve them well in the UEFA World Cup Qualifiers to come (currently 2nd place in Group J), as their biggest win of the year was not in the Euros, but in a 2-1 victory over Germany in Germany (!), in a World Cup Qualifier at the end of March.

22.) Scotland (4th, Group D) – I really wanted to list them at #24, as I believe they are the least talented team in the tournament.  Their two best players – Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney – are left fullbacks by trade, so they have to play Tierney in the midfield and have them overlap on runs down the flanks, which did not really work. Their third-best player is arguably Scott McTominay, another defensive-minded midfielder who struggles to get a regular spot with his club Manchester United.  Although I cannot fault their effort, I won’t be holding my breath on the Scots’ qualification for Qatar, in the same group as Denmark, Austria and Israel, it’s just not an inspiring roster nor a winning formula.

21.) Russia (4th, Group B) – A mere shadow of the host side that made the Quarterfinals of the 2018 World Cup, even as they played two of their three Euros matches in St. Petersburg. Only reason they are not rated lower is because they beat Finland, and yet they still finished behind the Fins on goal differential. Unsure if a last hurrah from an aging roster will be enough to get to Qatar, much less what they could do in a major tournament away from friendlier confines.


20.) Slovakia (3rd, Group E) – A perception problem I have is I always refer to them as “the other half of a united Czechoslovakia”, or in more recent times, “the team with that dude with the Mohawk” (Marek Hamšík, who had an illustrious 15-year career in Italy for Brescia and Napoli and currently plays for Trabzonspor in Turkey). A red card against Poland aided their sole win, only to lack answers against Sweden and come completely undone in the heat of Sevilla, a 5-0 loss to Spain where they conceded the worst own goal I’ve ever seen … at least until five days later. Nevertheless, there is quality beyond Hamšík, such as Inter Milan’s Milan Škriniar and FCC Cologne’s Ondrej Duda, that leads me to believe they continue to factor in Europe during the next few cycles.

19.) Finland (3rd, Group B) – The other European Championships debutantes, early on they showed some “Iceland 2016” potential and deserve more credit for their 1-0 victory over Denmark in spite of those particular circumstances.  Losing out to Ukraine on a berth in the knockouts on goal differential (Ukraine -1 to the Fins’ -2) was a sobering end for a squad that was difficult for two of the better sides at this tournament (Denmark, Belgium) to break down, and showed heart and grit if not overwhelming physical talent. Plus, they had three MLS players on their roster, which I applaud.

18.) Poland (4th, Group E) – Unluckiest team in the tournament – four (4) shots hit the goal frame in three (3) games – or just The Best Striker In the World and the 10 Dwarves?  You decide, but Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski almost single footedly got Poland into the knockouts with three (3) outstanding goals against Spain and Sweden.


17.) Wales (2nd, Group A, Round of 16) – At first glance, the Welsh have a few real pros, and a bunch of dudes who could be confused for Sunday pub-leaguers. Dig further, Wales has two World-Class footballers (Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey), and several first-tier talents (among them Joe Rodon, Neco Williams, Ben Davies, and Daniel James) who could ply their trade lucratively anywhere. Silver lining for The Dragons is that while they could not replicate their 2016 Euros Semifinals run, 15/26 roster members were 25 or younger, all of whom play in England’s Top two tiers, so the future could be bright.

16.) Ukraine (3rd, Group C, Quarterfinals) – I am liking what Manager and legendary striker Andriy Shevchenko has brewing in the breadbasket of Eastern Europe. He has an attack centered on three outstanding talents in Olek Zinchenko, Andriy Yarmolenko, and Roman Yaremchuk, backed by a resolute defense willing to absorb pressure to launch forward when the opportunity presents, as fully demonstrated in the waning moments of their Round of 16 win over Sweden. While the margin among these “plucky interlopers” is razor thin, squads like Wales and Ukraine are not as deep as those listed below.

15.) Austria (2nd, Group C, Round of 16) – Although I was impressed with Austria’s discipline, cohesion, and positive play, pushing Italy to extra time in the Round of 16 before bowing out, all I really want to add is I really enjoy watching jack-of-all-trades David Alaba play soccer, and hope the twilight of his career at Real Madrid is successful.

14.) Hungary (4th, Group F) – By far the best team not to make the knockouts, and what really made the “Group of Death” live up to that hype. Held Portugal at bay for 82 minutes (until Portugal stopped messing around, sent on Renato Sanches, and scored 3 goals), then went toe-to-toe with the reigning World Champions in front of a thunderous home crowd, and should have beaten Germany. This, despite having the least amount of possession in the Group Stage (34.7%, as much a function as playing three ball-dominant teams as anything). I have little doubt they would have qualified for the Knockouts from any other group, and the fact they were not an easy out definitely factored into the other 3 Group F teams’ performances in the Round of 16.

13.) Czech Republic (2nd, Group D, Quarterfinals) – Casual observers might think of the Czechs as gritty upstarts, but they enjoy a long history of success in major tournaments, mostly as “Czechoslovakia” when they were 1934 and 1962 World Cup Finalists and the 1976 European Champions, and as the current Czech Republic when they were the 1996 Euro Finalists the last time the Euros Final was held at Wembley in 1996. Bayer Leverkusen striker Patrik Schick has been a revelation, at least for me, tying Cristiano Ronaldo for goals scored in the tournament with five (5), one of which was the goal of the tournament so far. Even though a boneheaded red card abetted their win over the Netherlands, the cagey Czechs were relatively even with the Dutch up to that point, and overall exceeded pre-Euro expectations.

12.) Sweden (1st, Group E, Round of 16) – After their last-gasp exit to Ukraine, a match they should have won in normal time, and upon further reflection, how “good” was Sweden actually? Sure, Clockwork Yellow won a group that included Spain, but was too much stock put into their 0-0 draw with La Furia Roja where they ceded 85% of the possession? Did their 3-2 win over Poland flatter to deceive, considering they ranked 24th (i.e., last) in Passing Accuracy and 23rd in Possession % during this tournament? Were they too dependent on RB Leipzig winger Emil Forsberg, whose powerful right foot scored four of their five goals? Maybe so on all counts, but I did watch a Sweden side that was well-organized, methodical, and resolute, and that beat the teams they were supposed to beat … at least in Group play.


11.) Switzerland (3rd, Group A, Quarterfinals) – Gutty, organized, tough, patient, will make you earn it, ever poised for a clinical counterattack, and a bit of magic in the boots of their talisman Xhedran Shaqiri.  Ultimately, their margin for error was too thin, as they lived (France) and died (Spain) by the sword of Kicks from The Mark. They will always have that barnstorming comeback against the World Champions to look back upon with fondness.

10.) Croatia (2nd, Group D, Round of 16) – Squint, and you can still see the visage of the 2018 World Cup Finalists; I don’t need to tell you about the class of Luka Modrić and Ivan Perišić. The issue for this side, is that Father Time is undefeated.  Curious to see if they qualify for Qatar (currently leading UEFA World Cup Qualifying Group H), and if so, who shows up, as 12 from the current roster will be 30 or older by then.

9.) Germany (2nd, Group F, Round of 16) – I cannot remember a time when I thought Germany was 9th-Best in Europe at anything, but here we are, at a crossroads for Die Mannschaft after their second consecutive disappointing major tournament result. As long-time manager Joachim Löw rides into the sunset, it’s abundantly clear they are in need of fresh ideas. The attacking talent is undeniable, and Manuel Neuer is still one of the best netminders in the world at 35, but that back line needs a revamp, and tactically new manager Hansi Flick must put burgeoning talents like Kai Havertz, Joshua Kimmich, Timo Werner, Jamal Musiala, and Serge Gnabry in better positions to exploit their abilities.

8.) Denmark (2nd, Group B, Semifinals) – These Great Danes are the obvious feel-good story of these Euros. Although it is hard to ignore what happened to their talisman Christian Eriksen 10 minutes into their first match against Finland – I won’t mince words, everyone watching that match saw a man die on the pitch before being brought back to life – put that aside for a moment.  Denmark had one of the best offenses of the tournament, Top 4 across the board in goals, shots on goal, assists, chances created, total attacks, touches in the Attacking 3rd, and corners taken, both per game as well as totals. And while they were clearly galvanized by the continuing recovery of their best player, this is a team full of quality players who populate top European clubs such as Inter Milan, AC Milan, Atalanta, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Tottenham, Leicester City, Chelsea, and Barcelona, among others. They outplayed Belgium for most of their match, and dominated Russia, Wales, and (except for a 4-minute blitz to begin the 2nd half) the Czechs thereafter, before pushing England to the brink in a true road game. Truly, no one should be surprised Denmark made the semis; They certainly had a decent opportunity to do so playing with Eriksen, so it’s little wonder FIFA’s #10 ranked side did so playing for Eriksen.

7.) Portugal (3rd, Group F, Round of 16) – I rate them this high on talent alone, and many observers opined before the Euros started that this was the most-talented roster the Seleção had assembled in support of their superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. An interesting assertion considering they are the Defending European Champions for another day. Their performance was truly less than the sum of their talented parts, despite (or due to, you choose) Ronaldo being the leader in the clubhouse for the Euro 2020 Golden Boot, possibly emblematic of a generational clash between Ronaldo’s mid-30s contemporaries and 16 players on the roster younger than 28. Much of that young supporting cast – Renato Sanches, Ruben Dias, Raphaël Guerreiro, Bernardo Silva, Ruben Fernandes, Diogo Jota, João Félix, all of whom should help Portugal contend for the next two World Cups – was not deployed in a coherent manner, and strangely became the only 3rd Place team who qualified for the Knockouts that did not win their Round of 16 match, falling meekly to Belgium. At least they are still the reigning 2019 UEFA Nations League Champions, whatever that is.


6.) Spain (2nd, Group E, Semifinals) – End of the day, an exit in the Semifinals feels about right. According to UEFA statistics Spain has the top offense in this tournament, largely on the strength of two 5-goal games. Talented and deep, they will possess the ball like they own it against any team in the world, yet lack a cutting edge on that finishing touch, especially when oft-maligned Alvaro Morata – Whose slander must stop, even with his spot kick misses – is not in the game. I’ll go a step further: Spain goes as Morata goes. I for one hope he can fix whatever is going on between the ears, because when he is “on”, Spain is as good as anyone. Fun fact: Spain’s National Anthem “Marcha Real” has no official lyrics. The 17 Autonomous Regions of Spain could never agree on any version of lyrics, so once Generalissimo Francisco Franco died (and he’s still dead), his version and all others were abandoned. Amazing they unite for anything really.

5.) England (1st, Group D, Finals) – Far be it from me to suggest that “Football’s Coming Home”, but England has their best chance at a major trophy in 55 years, playing 6/7 total matches in this tournament at their national stadium and soccer cathedral, Wembley. Shout out to Raheem Sterling, who was pilloried in this very space for his wasteful performances at the 2018 World Cup but has come correct for The Three Lions with gusto and opportune incision. Nice to see Harry Kane come to the fore in the knockout stage as well. For me, Luke Shaw has been their most important player, overlapping for runs down the flanks and providing accurate crossing and set piece delivery to the tune of three (3) assists so far. I also think England are best when Jack Grealish is on the pitch, even if they are a touch more methodical. If they are courageous as they should be buoyed by a raucous home crowd, they will have a puncher’s chance to lift that trophy.

4.) Netherlands (1st, Group C, Round of 16) – As much young talent as they have – I think they could become one of the favorites for Qatar 2022 if they can find one more striker, and Virgil Van Dijk can fully recover and return to his pre-ACL injury form – Clockwork Oranje really should have done better than getting bounced by the Czechs in the Round of 16. I fancied them making the Final from that draw, but an ill-timed red card was too big a thread to not unravel that Oranje sweater; If Matthijs De Ligt wanted to dribble with his hands, he should have played basketball instead.

3.) Belgium (1st, Group B, Quarterfinals) – Ranked #1 in the mysterious FIFA World Rankings, the sun began setting on the Red Devils’ “Golden Generation” in Munich, with no gold to show for their longevity and servitude. Didn’t help that they were handicapped in attack between Kevin DeBruyne’s broken face (who then played through their Quarterfinal loss to Italy with torn ligaments in his ankle) and Eden Hazard’s ongoing hamstring issues.  Most of this side will likely get one last chance at glory in Qatar, and the Best Non-Lewandowski Striker In The World, Romelu Lukaku, was in prime form, but the back line is already old, and Belgium must hope the rest of their core doesn’t age in dog years before then.

2.) Italy (1st, Group A, Finals) – Converse to Portugal, Italy is the “Whole Is Greater Than The Sum of The Parts” team of the 2022 Euros. Only a fading Giorgio Chiellini and the rising Gianluigi Donnarumma would ever be considered superstars outside of Italy, but from what I can tell there is no drop off at the bottom of the roster. The World’s Best Counterpunchers fought their way to the Final0, displaying a vertical threat that prior versions of the Forza Azzuri and their catenaccio tactics lacked. A name to remember: Federico Chiesa. He has “it”, whatever “it” is in soccer mysticism, exemplified by his goal against Spain, a perfectly placed part strike/volley into the opposite corner of the net. Win on Sunday as I expect, and they have to be one of the three (3) favorites to win the Cup in Qatar, along with Brazil (see below), and the one team I’ve yet to mention. By the way, “Il Canto degli Italiani” is my favorite National Anthem from a musical perspective, so jaunty, I feel Italian when I hear it, and I have zero Italian ancestry.

1.) France (1st, Group F, Round of 16) – Yes, like you I watched the reigning World Champions bow out unceremoniously against the Swiss in the Round of 16. Choose your automotive metaphor, they played this entire tournament stuck in a low gear, full of swagger and panache yet lacking fortitude, save for 17 exquisite minutes in the 2nd half against the Swiss when they showed their class and fury. I also saw Kylian Mbappe have a subpar tournament throughout and up to his final penalty miss against the Swiss, but I cannot blame France’s overall performance on just that. Nor will I blame it on rumored potential chemistry problems caused by the return of Karim Benzema after an almost six-year absence, who showed flashes of brilliance scoring four goals in their last two matches. Where Les Bleus go from here, is anyone’s guess, and we’ve seen their disappearing act before (South Africa 2010 anyone?), but what is undeniable is that they are have one of the two deepest talent pools in World Football (along with a stacked Brazil), seemingly able to field a completely different 26-man squad than the one sent to this tournament and still likely contend for the trophy. I’m still going to ride with that assuming they make it to Qatar.

P.S. – The Copa America has been ongoing concurrently, and while I have not watched every single one of those games – because, you know, I like sleep – I have seen every one of the 10 teams play at least once and watched every game in the knockouts so far. The seemingly premeditated Final, another Brazil vs. Argentina Superclásico, is later today (Saturday, July 10, 2021, 5:00pm PST, FS1) in the famed Maracanã in Rio, and I just get the nagging sense that Lionel Messi is about to become 0/10 in major tournaments, playing the role of Charlie Brown to Neymar’s Lucy-with-the-football and all that comes with Brazil being the progenitors of the Jogo Bonito. Heck of a weekend to be a soccer fan.

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