You once could fill out your NCAA Tournament pool without knowing a team’s NET Ranking or Quad 1 record.
You didn’t need to know the difference between KenPom or a pompom or whether a bubble team from a Power 5 conference had a better chance of advancing than an automatic qualifier from a midmajor.
Anyone with a casual knowledge of college basketball knew the higher seeds tended to move on, and the usual suspects such as Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State were always a solid bet to get to at least the Elite Eight. Then you just made an educated guess of which powerhouse would win it all.
Everyone had a chance at winning the office pool, from the secretary making random picks to the sports geek who stayed up until midnight every weekday watching Mountain West games.
But that all has changed. Not only must you conduct thorough research on the internet to fill out your brackets, you might not even have an office to go to in the pandemic era.
So go to your laptop, study the NET rankings, read the bracketologists and make your selections based on the best available criteria. Or else just read on and use this Cliffs Notes guide to March Madness to pretend you know what you’re talking about.
Oh, for the good old days when Gonzaga was everyone’s favorite Cinderella pick before it became a national power. The Zags lost to Baylor in last year’s title game and enter the 2022 tournament as consensus favorites. Drew Timme’s mustache gets more publicity than most college players, and 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren is projected as a top pick in the NBA draft.
Along with Gonzaga, the other top seeds are Arizona, Kansas and Baylor. Arizona, the Pac-12 champ, has a first-year coach in Tommy Lloyd, a longtime assistant at Gonzaga. Kansas is Kansas: You either love the Jayhawks or hate them. Baylor can’t possibly win because no one has won back-to-back titles since Billy Donovan’s Florida teams in 2006 and ‘07. Or can it?
Murray State (30-2) isn’t your typical Cinderella. The Ohio Valley champs have won 20 straight since a loss to Auburn, and the Racers are No. 21 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) Rankings. Ja Morant’s alma mater, now led by KJ Williams, will be a darling on many pool sheets.
Loyola is back for the third time in five years after a Final Four run in 2018 and a Sweet 16 appearance last year, which means 102-year-old team chaplain Jean Dolores Schmidt, aka Sister Jean, gets another star turn. The Ramblers have a tough first-round battle against Ohio State on Friday in Pittsburgh, but remember, they’re still on a “Mission from God.”
Mike Woodson’s Indiana team lost seven of its final nine games in conference play before the Hoosiers shocked Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. Now they’ll try to advance as a play-in team against Wyoming in the East Region. Yale didn’t even play in 2020-21 after the Ivy League canceled the season because of the pandemic, but sharpshooter Azar Swain and the Bulldogs held off Princeton on Sunday to give them a shot against Big Ten power Purdue.
Stories to watch
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is retiring. Or maybe he already has retired. It’s hard to know because they’ve been celebrating “Coach K” on ESPN for months. Everyone fans still despises Duke, which is his enduring legacy after winning five NCAA titles and giving the world Christian Laettner and Grayson Allen. Former Wisconsin assistant Lamont Paris saw his Chattanooga Mocs earn a bid on a miracle overtime buzzer-beater from well behind the 3-point line by David Jean-Baptiste in the Southern Conference Tournament title game. Can lightning strike twice against Illinois?
Purdue has a proud basketball history but only two Final Four appearances, in 1969 and ‘80, and no championships. Jaden Ivey, one of the most entertaining players around, could change that.
Players to watch
Ochai Agbaji of Kansas had a slam on an inbounds lob in the Jayhawks’ Big 12 Tournament semifinal game that fans are still buzzing about. Bryant University (no relation to Kris) is led by Peter Kiss, the nation’s leading scorer and a prime-time hot dog who sometimes wears a T-shirt during warmups of the 1970s band Kiss. Unfortunately, Kiss probably won’t be around long enough for veteran analyst Bill Raftery to call at least one of his games and use his catchphrase, ‘A little kiss.” Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon, who turns 25 in June and is playing in his sixth season, banked a winning 3-pointer against Indiana in a Big Ten semifinal. Bohannon is so remarkable he once missed a free throw on purpose so he would only tie the school record for consecutive free throws with Chris Street, a player whose streak ended years earlier when he died in an auto accident. “Obviously that’s not my record to have,” Bohannon said. Illinois’ 7-footer Kofi Cockburn is the only player to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. He returned after considering the NBA draft and then the transfer portal. Gonzaga 7-foot freshman Holmgren looks thinner than a No. 2 pencil but is a 41.2% shooter from 3-point range.
Coaches to watch
Coach K (see above). Illinois’s Brad Underwood resembles Chris Farley’s “Saturday Night Live” character that “lives in a van down by the river” during his frequent in-game rants.
Tom Izzo of Michigan State could very well be a graduate of the Lee Strasburg School of Method Grimacing. Michigan’s Juwan Howard was suspended for five games for striking a Wisconsin assistant coach in the handshake line, where the idea is, you know, to shake hands. Loyola’s Drew Valentine is the youngest tournament coach at age 30, or only six years older than Bohannon. Bill Self has a lifetime contract that includes $240,000 per year for personal private jet travel, which is one more reason to hate Kansas.
Journalists to watch
Loyola graduate student Lucas Williamson not only is one of the nation’s best defensive players but also has a journalism degree and co-wrote and narrated “The Loyola Project,” a documentary on the 1963 Ramblers team that broke racial barriers en route to a national title. ESPN’s Dick Vitale, 82, won’t be calling games, but the legendary analyst battling health issue made an appearance at the SEC tournament Saturday that was simply “awesome, baby!” Hopefully Dickie V gets a curtain call at the Final Four in New Orleans.
Regionals to watch
Chicago (Midwest) is one of the four regional sites, along with Philadelphia (East), San Antonio (South) and San Francisco (West). The United Center will be rocking with Keegan Murray and Iowa, Johnny Davis and Wisconsin and Kansas as potential teams.
Channels to watch
The same four networks will televise the tournament: CBS, TNT, TBS and Tru-TV (the one you can’t find because you don’t typically watch bad sitcoms). Jim Nantz will get the big games, including the title game in New Orleans, because he’s as good as it gets.
Terms to remember
“My bracket is (bleeping) busted.” “The officials aren’t letting us play.” “CBS wants Duke to win.”