There isn’t a better time of year than March Madness.
The NCAA Tournament brings out the beauty of sports — upsets, drama, traditional powers, underdogs, stars either rising to the occasion or becoming scapegoats.
This year should be no different in the department of unpredictability. But it doesn’t hurt to try to predict the madness, does it?
East Region (New York)
Top seed: Villanova. The Wildcats won an epic championship game a year ago, and are seeking to become the first back-to-back winners since Florida in 2006-07. Villanova doesn’t have any NBA-bound superstars, although senior Josh Hart (averaging 18.9 points a game) is a future pro. But this is a well-coached and experienced team under Jay Wright that is deserving of the top overall seed and favorites to reach a second straight Final Four.
Best first-round matchup: South Carolina vs. Marquette. The Gamecocks are in the tournament for the first time since 2004, as Frank Martin has taken them to the Big Dance in his fifth season. And they have talent led by guards Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC player of the year, and PJ Dozier. Marquette, meanwhile, is back in the tournament for the first time since 2013 and have five players averaging double-digits in points.
Please give us: SMU-Baylor. This would be a great battle of Texas schools for a spot in the Sweet 16. SMU hasn’t lost a step with Tim Jankovich taking over for Larry Brown, as the Mustangs won 30 games. Baylor put together another solid season and will ride forward Johnathan Motley as far as it can.
Cinderella: UNC Wilmington. The Seahawks almost pulled off an upset of Duke in last year’s tournament, and will get it done this year against Virginia. The Cavaliers are a 10-loss team that lost six of eight at one point this season, and are prone to an early exit.
Our pick: Duke. The Blue Devils are peaking at the right time by winning the ACC tournament and are loaded with talent. Freshman forward Jayson Tatum is a possible top-five pick in the NBA Draft, and forward Harry Giles and guard Luke Kennard are first-round talents. The only thing that could slow them down is another intentional trip by prickly guard Grayson Allen.
Midwest Region (Kansas City)
Top seed: Kansas. The Jayhawks were upset victims in the Big 12 tournament, falling to TCU. But they were without one of their top players, freshman star Josh Jackson, and it should have served as a wake-up call. KU has as much talent as anyone in the country, led by player of the year candidate Frank Mason.
Best first-round matchup: Michigan-Oklahoma State. These are two teams from power conferences with talent. Michigan had an impressive run to win the Big Ten tournament, while Oklahoma State is reeling with three straight losses. But anything can happen in this tournament. Not to mention this has one of the best matchups to watch early on between point guards Derrick Walton Jr. (Michigan) and Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State).
Please give us: Kansas-Michigan State. Two of the best basketball programs in the country led by two of the best coaches. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo has given Kansas’ Bill Self fits throughout the years, and this is poised to be an intriguing early-round game. The storylines go on from there, too, with two possible lottery picks in Kansas’ Josh Jackson, who is from Detroit, and Michigan State’s Miles Bridges.
Cinderella: Rhode Island enters as one of the hottest teams after winning the Atlantic 10 tournament. The Rams are in the tournament for the first time since 1999, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them reach the Sweet 16. Creighton, the first-round opponent, suffered a devastating blow when it lost guard Maurice Watson Jr. to an ACL injury. And three-seed Oregon is dealing with its own injury issue as senior forward Chris Boucher is done for the year with a torn ACL.
Our pick: Kansas. This tournament always seems to reward teams with talented and experienced backcourts, and no one has a better one than the Jayhawks. Mason is averaging more than 20 points, knocking down 49 percent of his threes, and Devonte’ Graham is dependable. Plus, KU has size down low in Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg Jr.
West Region (San Jose)
Top seed: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs lost their bid for a perfect season with a 79-71 loss to BYU on Feb. 25. But they responded by dominating the West Coast Conference tournament, outscoring their three opponents 233-174. Gonzaga has the makings of a national championship team, too, with a great inside-outside duo in point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and forward Zach Collins.
Best first-round matchup: Northwestern-Vanderbilt. Northwestern is making its first NCAA appearance, snapping a 78-year drought. The Wildcats are coming off a 28-point drubbing by Wisconsin, but they have proven themselves throughout the year with wins over tournament-bound teams such as Dayton, Wake Forest and Michigan. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, finished the season strong, winning seven of its final nine games. Whoever wins this game won’t be scared of facing Gonzaga in the round of 32.
Please give us: Arizona-Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s has a tough first-round draw against VCU, but has proven itself all season. And if the Gaels get the desired matchup against Arizona, they won’t be afraid. The Gaels know they’re good and will give the Wildcats a run for their money. Arizona, meanwhile, has star power with possible lottery pick Lauri Markkanen and another NBA talent in Allonzo Trier.
Cinderella: Florida Gulf Coast. The Eagles are in the tournament for the third time in 15 years of existence, and already played the Cinderella role by making the Sweet 16 in 2013. They could do it again this year, going into the tournament on a seven-game winning streak and having played tournament-bound schools such as Michigan State and Baylor tough early on. Coach Joe Dooley will have his squad ready for third-seeded Florida State — making its first appearance in four years — in what should be a wild game between two Florida schools in Orlando.
Our pick: Gonzaga. Coach Mark Few is one of the best in the country and finally drops the dreaded “never been to a Final Four” label. The ’Zags have a terrific backcourt leader in Williams-Goss and Collins is a possible NBA lottery pick who is a mismatch for just about everyone.
South Region (Memphis)
Top seed: North Carolina. The Tar Heels are the worst 1-seed in the tournament, but are the reigning runner-ups and have one of the best frontcourts in the country. Junior forward Justin Jackson and senior forward Isaiah Hicks are NBA talents. In the backcourt, Joel Berry II is an experienced guard and is playing well down the stretch. And it’s hard to find a coach with more experience than Roy Williams.
Best first-round matchup: Kansas State-Wake Forest. Talk about a marquee play-in game. Wake Forest coach Danny Manning is familiar with K-State as the standout Kansas player who later served as an assistant. K-State coach Bruce Weber saved his job by making the tournament, and the Wildcats will be a tough out. Don’t be surprised if the winner of this game gets the best of Cincinnati in the round of 64.
Please give us: Wichita State-Kentucky. The Shockers may be the most under-seeded team in the tournament. Some believe Wichita State is a top-10 team. But this has the makings of a karma-filled matchup. An under-seeded Kentucky team knocked off a top-seeded Wichita State team in 2014, and the script could flip this time around.
Cinderella: Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders have won 10 straight games, and played the spoiler role a season ago by upsetting Michigan State. They could do it to another Big Ten team this year, Minnesota. The Gophers received a generous five-seed, and expect Vegas to make this a smaller-than-usual spread for a 12-5 matchup.
Our pick: UCLA. There isn’t a more potent offense in the country than the Bruins. They have the ability to score at will, and that will carry them on a deep run in the tournament. Point guard Lonzo Ball is going to be a top pick in the NBA draft and he’ll become an even bigger star this month. Fellow freshman T.J. Leaf is expected to be ready to go from an injury scare, too, giving UCLA a strong inside presence.