The NCAA Tournament will kick off in earnest Thursday afternoon and for one glorious weekend, college basketball will be the center of the universe.

We know this because studies and human experience tell us. What other sporting event allows the unassuming girl from accounting with the librarian glasses from accounting to win $1,000 in an office pool with men who spend lunches in the break room bloviating about how they know better? What other sporting event spurs Wall Street Journal studies about the devastating impact of the first weekend of March Madness on office productivity? And yes — there’s a counter-study about how hoops makes people happy and a happier office is a more productive office.

The stretch of sports from the opening weekend of March Madness through the final round of the Masters is the best non-football month sports has to offer, and it all starts Thursday.

Bracket in hand, I’ve pored over the data, made copious notes, and accumulated enough information to ward off the hot take hordes like Jon Snow in the Battle of the Bastards. I’ve done all this so you, the reader, can laugh at my toil in the comments section while Becky from Accounting takes home the office pool. It’s a true labor of love.

To help you defeat your own personal version of Becky, wherever she may be, here are my picks for every single game in the NCAA Tournament, beginning with the Round of 64. Fans can bet on these games by signing up with one Saturday Down South’s recommended sports betting apps prior to tipoff!


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East Region

(1) UConn 92, (16) Stetson 69: UConn is the best team in the sport, built on a foundation of selflessness and sensational offense. Tristan Newton is a triple-double threat every time out, while the frontcourt tandem of Samson Johnson and Donovan Klingan are a dominant big man tandem. Cam Spencer makes the shots, Stephon Castle brings scoring punch and the type of NBA athleticism most rosters lack. The Huskies have the best offense in the country, per KenPom, and their defense has gotten better as the season goes on. They will roll Stetson, who is a well-coached outfit led by Donnie Jones, who interestingly was an assistant coach on the last back-to-back national champion, Florida in 2007.

(8) Florida Atlantic 78, (9) Northwestern 75: The Owls were ranked in the top 15 most the season and return all 5 starters from last year’s Cinderella Final Four team. Managing expectations has been difficult, but FAU has wins over tournament teams Arizona, Texas A&M and Charleston in the nonconference and finished second in a strong American conference. They share the ball better than almost anyone in the country and are better offensively than last season’s Final Four group. Northwestern will be without Ty Berry, a key to their offense, and Boo Buie, one of the best guards in the Big 10, is not as problematic a matchup for FAU’s excellent guards as he might be for another first round opponent. The Wildcats will hang tough, but fall late.

(5) San Diego State 79, (12) UAB 70: UAB is hot, stealing the American auto-bid from South Florida in a tough conference tournament last weekend. In a different matchup, I’d love the Blazers to advance. But like FAU, San Diego State is a Final Four program and while they don’t return 5 starters from last year’s group, they can really guard and are battle-tested coming out of a 6 bid Mountain West. Give me Jaedon LeDee exploding against a leaky Blazers defense and a comfortable first round win for the Aztecs against one of the NCAA Tournament’s many bid thieves.

(4) Auburn 71, (13) Yale 60: No one in the country plays harder than Auburn, Bruce Pearl’s behemoth that is the lone team in the country ranked in the top 10 nationally in both KenPom offensive and defensive efficiency. Yale is capable of winning a game and maybe more in the NCAA Tournament, but by mis-seeding Auburn, who rolled through the SEC Tournament, the committee cheated Yale, too. Danny Wolf, a 7 footer who led the Elis in points per game (14.5), rebounds (9.7), and blocks (1.3) , will matchup well with Johni Broome but Auburn’s depth and length will overwhelm the Elis late. Auburn marches on.

(11) Duquesne 66, (6) BYU 64: Duquesne head coach Keith Dambrot, who was the high school coach of LeBron James, is coaching his final games before retirement, after the Dukes stole a bid after winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn last week. The Dukes have won 8 consecutive games entering the tournament and they really guard, limiting teams 31.7% from beyond the arc and 48% inside the 3-point line. The Dukes are also a solid offensive rebounding team, and they’ll be able to compete with one of BYU’s usual advantages — the glass. The Cougars are a better team — they’re favored by 9.5 points at ESPN BET — and Trevin Knell and Jason Robinson can score in a bunch of different ways, but Duquesne is hot and playing its final games for a beloved coach. Give me the Dukes in a 6-11 upset.

(3) Illinois 81, (14) Morehead State 74: This is a YOLO pick if you just want to see the world burn. Riley Minix, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, is playing his first season of D1 basketball after scoring 2,000 points in NAIA. He’s the “Cody Schrader” of college hoops — and the Eagles have two great guards in Drew Thelwell and Kalil Thomas who complement him. They’ll push Illinois — an 11.5-point favorite at ESPN BET, who has All B1G star Terrence Shannon Jr. (23 ppg) who can score and Coleman Hawkins, a versatile big on NBA radars, to match up with Minix. Illinois won’t be more athletic than Morehead State, but the X-factor might be Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask (16.4 ppg), who is a hard to guard forward that can eat you alive in the midrange.

(10) Drake 74, (7) Washington State 66: The Bulldogs nearly ended Miami’s Final Four run in the first round a season ago, leading by 8 at the final media timeout before the Hurricanes finished the game on a 16-2 run to steal the victory. Darian DeVries remembers, and so does his son Tucker, the best player in the Missouri Valley Conference and Drake’s leader in points, rebounds and steals.

Kyle Smith did a tremendous job at Washington State this season and the Cougars will not beat themselves, but Drake has marvelous guards and runs some of the best offense in the country. They’ll pull away late.

(2) Iowa State 86, (15) South Dakota State 60: The Summit League champion Jackrabbits are no pushover, and Zeke Mayo is one of the smoothest shooters in the NCAA Tournament, with 77 threes made this season. They might have a shot in a different spot, but Iowa State is a defensive monster who turns you over and guards the arc brilliantly (31.5% three point percentage against). Ranked first in the country in defensive efficiency in KenPom, the Cyclones offense has improved all year, thanks to the development of European stretch big Milan Momcilovic and Curtis Jones as complementary scorers to lead guard Keshon Gilbert. Iowa State rolls.

Second Round

(1) UConn 81, (8) Florida Atlantic 76: The Owls aren’t bidding the basketball world adieu without a fight, and this will be a tough ask of UConn, which only loses when it fails to guard the 3 (see, Creighton, February). But no amount of great Dusty May offense overcomes UConn’s balance, and Vlad Goldin will wear down late battling with UConn’s talented frontcourt of Clingan, Alex Karaban and Johnson.

(4) Auburn 65, (5) San Diego State 56: The Tigers will march on thanks to their ball pressure defense, which could rattle an Aztecs team that struggles to initiate offense in the halfcourt at times and was turnover prone in Mountain West play. Auburn advances to another Sweet 16 under Bruce Pearl.

(3) Illinois 82, (11) Duquesne 68: The Dukes will fight hard for their coach, but Illinois is masterful at controlling tempo (57th in KenPom) and in a higher possession game, the talent disparity matters more. Illinois advances to its first Sweet 16 since 2005.

(10) Drake 73, (2) Iowa State 69: Drake felled some quality teams in the nonconference (including NCAA Tournament teams Oakland, Akron and Nevada) with crisp offense and timely 3-point shooting. Iowa States’ lone defensive weakness is that they can give up the 3 too often, from time to time, as in an early season neutral floor loss to Virginia Tech. The other X-factor? Drake also doesn’t give up offensive rebounds (1st in the country at limiting opponent second chances). That’s a matchup that could favor the team from Des Moines, Iowa over the one from Ames, Iowa, as long as the Bulldogs hit shots.

Sweet 16

(1) UConn 79, (4) Auburn 73: A game more suited to the Elite 8, the committee put Auburn in UConn’s path a round earlier, giving Bruce Pearl a week to prepare for all of UConn’s actions. Johni Broome is a special player, and along with Jaylin Williams, they’ll contain UConn’s frontcourt. But here’s where Auburn’s lack of elite guards will catch up to them, and UConn, led by the brilliant Newton and Spencer, will make enough plays in isolation to help UConn survive.

(3) Illinois 81, (10) Drake 71: Drake’s magical run ends in the Sweet 16 thanks to Illinois’ versatility offensively in what will be a fun game.

Elite 8

(1) UConn 84, (3) Illinois 74: UConn has the guards to match Illinois and they aren’t prone to the defensive lapses that have plagued the Illini this season. If Illinois has a hot shooting night, things could get interesting, but the frontcourt advantage for UConn sends the Huskies back to the Final Four.

West Region

(1) North Carolina 80, (16) Wagner 53: The Tar Heels’ Redemption Tour has already claimed an ACC regular season championship, and RJ Davis and Armando Bacot aren’t losing to a 16 seed in Charlotte in Round 1. Wagner’s 7-man squad includes multiple guys who play 40 minutes, and fatigue will be a reason this gets out of hand late.

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(8) Mississippi State 69, (9) Michigan State 66: It’s been a disappointing year for the Spartans, who began the season in the top 10 but lost on opening night to James Madison and never seemed to steady themselves and play to their potential afterwards. The Spartans really guard you, but they don’t rebound great, and that’s a bad thing against Chris Jans’ Mississippi State team, which can beat you up on the glass (21st in rebounding percentage) and then when you help — shoot over the top of you with super freshman Josh Hubbard (17.1 ppg). A rare opening round loss for Tom Izzo.

(5) Saint Mary’s 68, (12) Grand Canyon 64: This smells like a classic 5-12 trap, but look deeper and you’ll see this Saint Mary’s team, which finally wrestled the WCC away from Gonzaga, is 23-2 after a 3-5 start and they do it by controlling tempo and protecting the rim (5th nationally in 2-point field goal defense). Bryce Drew’s Grand Canyon team won 29 games, and Tyon Grant-Foster (19.7 ppg, 6 rebounds) might be the best player on either team. But the Lopes don’t hit the 3 at a high clip, and the Gaels’ interior defense and scoring balance (5 players average double figure points) will win the day.

(4) Alabama 93, (13) Charleston 74: The Crimson Tide won just 2 of their past 6 games, but a brutally difficult schedule and impressive computer metrics helped them earn a 4 seed. Pat Kelsey’s Cougars are precisely the type of team Alabama dominates — the Cougars don’t guard (171st in 3-point defense) and while they shoot a ton of 3s (14th most in volume), they don’t always make many (34% as a team). The Tide will roll into the second round.

(11) New Mexico 77, (6) Clemson 71: The Tigers received a favorable seed from the committee given the number of bad losses Brad Brownell’s team took this season, but a tough draw when they landed Richard Pitino’s Lobos, who are one of the more inappropriately seeded teams in the field. The Lobos won 26 games with suffocating defense (22nd nationally), especially in how they chase you off the arc and limit open threes (30.6% three point defense). That’s a recipe for success against Clemson, and while PJ Hall will be the best player on the floor, this is a “styles make fights” matchup that heavily favors New Mexico.

(3) Baylor 81, (14) Colgate 72: Colgate is a really good team, and their ability to both shoot (36%) and guard (29% against) the 3-point line would make them dangerous against most teams in the field. But Baylor is a great passing team and a top 5 offense, and even if Ja’Kobe Walter, Jalen Bridges, Jayden Nunn, and RayJ Dennis miss shots, the Bears clean up 35% of their misses on the glass. They’ll be too much for Matt Langel’s 4th straight tournament team, but a breakthrough is coming for Colgate.

(7) Dayton 75, (10) Nevada 71: Dayton All-American JaRon Holmes II does it all for Anthony Grant, scoring 20 points and grabbing 8 rebounds a game for the Flyers. The Flyers have lost only 1 game by double digits (Houston) and when Kolby Brea (48% from 3) hits shots, they are hard to beat. Nevada is solid in every aspect, led by All-Mountain West selections Kenan Blackshear, Jarod Lucas, and Nick Davidson. In an evenly matched game, give me the team with an All-American. Dayton survives.

(2) Arizona 91, (15) Long Beach State 80: Tommy Lloyd’s team lost a game to a 15 seed a year ago when Princeton’s methodical tempo and offense produced a high variance, low possession game. Long Beach State, which doesn’t shoot well and prefers to play fast and crash the glass, does not fit the “upset Arizona” bill. Wildcats in a romp.

Second round

(1) North Carolina 78, (8) Mississippi State 72: It’s tempting to pick the Bulldogs because Chris Jans has a team that can really guard and rebound and Tolu Smith will match up well with Bacot in the post. It’s just hard to see RJ Davis losing this game in Charlotte, though, and I think he and Carolina glue guy Harrison Ingram are the difference in a tight affair.

(4) Alabama 77, (5) Saint Mary’s 71: The Gaels commitment to slow tempo (359th in length of possession) and their one-two punch of Augustas Marciulionis, the WCC Player of the Year, and Aiden Mahaney (79 3-pointers made) will present challenges for Alabama’s fast style and loose defense. But the last 4 teams to have offensive efficiency numbers like Alabama all made the Final Four, and the Crimson Tide will survive a classic NCAA Tournament contrast of styles.

(11) New Mexico 79, (3) Baylor 74: The Lobos guard and don’t turn the ball over, and while Baylor’s talent gets rightful attention, Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Jaelen House are both future pros, and JT Toppin could develop into a first-round pick by next season. The Lobos are hot and boast one of the nation’s best 3-point defenses. There’s only 8 spots separating these teams in KenPom despite an 8 seed separation by the committee. New Mexico will show why the committee erred in this win.

(2) Arizona 82, (7) Dayton 70- The Wildcats have the ability to guard Holmes, and the shot makers and creators in North Carolina transfer Caleb Love and Kylan Boswell to overcome Dayton’s stout defense. The Wildcats move on here.

Sweet 16

(1) North Carolina 98, (4) Alabama 86:  Alabama’s struggles on defene will be the Tide’s doom against North Carolina, which has consistently punished poor defensive teams this season. Elliot Cadeau and RJ Davis have the ability to exploit Alabama’s defense in the gaps, and while the Tide will compete with North Carolina on the glass, the Tar Heels’ defense will get enough stops to make this a comfortable win for Carolina.

(2) Arizona 85, (11) New Mexico 75: The Wildcats are just 2-3 when held under 80 points this season, but the Lobos style is to play fast and aggressively on both ends. Caleb Love’s All-American campaign in Tucson continues with a rematch with his old team in the Elite 8. I’m sure the committee didn’t seed that storyline, right?

Elite 8

(2) Arizona 87, (1) North Carolina 85: Caleb Love’s transfer worked out well for all parties. Both Love and his former backcourt mate, RJ Davis, became All-Americans and won their respective conference Player of the Year award. Arizona found a playmaker to anchor a Final Four run, and the Tar Heels went from a team that declined an NIT invite to one that became a 1 seed. In a classic duel, Arizona wins — on a Love 3.

South Region

(1) Houston 73, (16) Longwood 50: Houston spent much of the season ranked 1st or 2nd in KenPom, thanks to a suffocating defense and a ruthlessly efficient offense that does not turn the ball over and crushes opponents on the offensive glass. Jamal Shead’s nearly 40% assist rate is why he’s one of the nation’s most efficient offensive players, and outside of Virginia’s Reece Beekman, there isn’t a better on-ball defender in the sport. Houston doesn’t shoot great, and if you can rebound, you have a chance, but Longwood is small and won’t be able to keep Ja’Vier Francis or J’Wan Roberts off the glass. Houston rolls.


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(9) Texas A&M 71, (8) Nebraska 66: Nebraska’s Keisei Tominaga and Texas A&M’s Wade Taylor IV are two of the best guards in a region full of great ones. They do it differently, as Tominaga hits on about 38% of his threes while Taylor IV can bludgeon you to death as a straight line driver who draws 5 fouls a game. The difference in this game will be rebounding, where the Aggies collect a nation-best 42% of their misses. After getting whipped in round 1 a season ago, Buzz Williams and the Aggies will be highly motivated and move on in a great 8-9 game.

(12) James Madison 77, (5) Wisconsin 72: TJ Bickerstaff, whose uncle coaches the Cavaliers in the NBA, is a marvelous scorer in the paint, and he does it at well, scoring 79% of his 13.4 points per game at the rim for the Dukes, who won 31 games this season, tied with UConn for most in the field. Wisconsin played like a 1 seed through January only to drop 9 of its final 15 contests. The Badgers, who are favored by 5.5 points via ESPN BET, have a highly efficient offense and can own the glass against lesser opponents, but JMU rebounds the ball well and they use multiple wings to force you into uncomfortable switches on defense. That’s advantage, Dukes — and why this NCAA Tournament will have a 5-12 upset.

(4) Duke 77, (13) Vermont 60: Like Auburn, Duke is beloved by computers (8th in KenPom) but didn’t get much love from the committee, despite a strong finish to the season that saw the Blue Devils win 8 of their final 10 before the ACC Tournament loss to eventual champ NC State. Duke is balanced, ranking in the top 10 nationally in offense and the top 25 nationally in defense, and with an emerging star in Jared McCain to complement one of the nation’s best big men in Kyle Filipowski, the Blue Devils will be too much for the Catamounts, who play smart but lack the athleticism to keep up with Duke.

(6) Texas Tech 77, (11) NC State 64: It’s hard no to repeat NC State’s “Why not us?” mantra  after the Pack’s glorious run to the ACC Championship in DC last week, but Texas Tech has balance (5 starters in double figure scoring) and a mismatch nightmare in wing Darrion Williams that will make life hard on NC State. The NCAA did NC State a huge injustice by having them play Thursday after 5 games in 5 days, and that– and Texas Tech’s ability to make shots (36.5% from 3) should be the difference.

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(3) Kentucky 81, (14) Oakland 76: The Golden Grizzlies won 25 games and avoided bid thievery in the Horizon League tournament. They have a future pro in Horizon League player of the year Trey Townsend, who led the team in scoring, rebounding, offensive rebounding, assists and steals. They also play a funky zone defense that will force Kentucky to make shots and keep Rob Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, and Antonio Reeves from blowing by man defenders in the paint. In other words, this is a testy matchup for Kentucky. But the Wildcats are too talented and well, there’s no way John Calipari loses to a zone team from a low major in Round 1, right?

(7) Florida 84, (10) Boise State/Colorado 79: The Gators will be without Micah Handlogten, the nation’s third best offensive rebounder who suffered a catastrophic ankle injury in the SEC Tournament Championship. While both Colorado and Boise State can test the Gators, who can be disengaged at times defensively, Florida has an outstanding backcourt in All-SEC guards Zyon Pullin and Walter Clayton Jr. who should help Florida weather either challenge.

(2) Marquette 87, (15) Western Kentucky 79: All eyes here are on Marquette stars Tyler Kolek (oblique) and Oso Ighodaro (knee). Both are expected to play, but how healthy will they be? The Hilltoppers are the best of the 15 seeds in the field, and they play at a frenetic pace (1st nationally in tempo) and attack the basket relentlessly. This will be a fun game — but Marquette will survive.

Second round

(9) Texas A&M 67, (1) Houston 64: These teams played earlier this year in the Toyota Center, but A&M’s leading scorer down the stretch this season, Boots Radford, did not play. Wade Taylor IV won the day against Shead, scoring 34 points, and the Aggies grabbed 17 offensive rebounds in nearly erasing a 21 point second half deficit. With Radford, along with the emergence of Manny Obaseki, who played just 9 minutes in the first game but has become a starter since, the Aggies odds improve markedly — enough for me to take Buzz Williams and the boys to the Sweet 16. The Cougars, who have the 2nd-best odds on DraftKings to win the NCAA Tournament, fail to reach the Sweet 16.

(4) Duke 83, (12) James Madison 71: Duke marches on behind the steady play of senior point guard Jeremy Roach, the final holdover from the Coach K era. Jon Scheyer’s  second team does what his first could not a season ago and reaches the Sweet 16.

(3) Kentucky 90, (6) Texas Tech 78: Kentucky’s guards are too good here, and they’ll overwhelm a Red Raiders team that while steady has not shown the kind of firepower to beat a team of Kentucky’s caliber outside the state of Texas.

(7) Florida 84, (2) Marquette 78: Considered a trendy second weekend team most of February and March, it is interesting to see how Florida’s perception changed after the Handlogten injury. While losing Handlogten hurts the Gators on the glass, it actually helps Florida everywhere else.

Florida’s healthy guards matchup well against Kolek, and as long as Marquette sharpshooter Kam Jones doesn’t explode for 30 (he can do that!) — Florida outscores the Eagles and plays in the Sweet 16.

Sweet 16

(4) Duke 74, (9) Texas A&M 60- The preseason SEC favorites, things didn’t go as planned for the Aggies this year, as they finished 7th in an outstanding SEC. The Aggies have the guards to hang with Duke, but their frontcourt will be overwhelmed by Filipowski’s skill and Mark Mitchell’s physicality. Duke outlasts the Aggies to advance to the Elite 8.

(3) Kentucky 93, (7) Florida 89: The winningest 2 programs in the SEC this century, these squads played 2 games decided by a total of 5 points in the regular season. Kentucky won in Gainesville, while Florida won at Rupp Arena. A third edition will be a thriller too, but Reed Sheppard, Antonio Reeves and Rob Dillingham will make one more play than Florida’s guards and send Kentucky to an Elite 8 against fellow blue-blood Duke.

Elite 8

(4) Duke 92, (3) Kentucky 88: Duke is an excellent offensive team, and they can score with Kentucky, even if the Wildcats push the tempo. The difference in another Kentucky-Duke classic will be on the defensive end, where Tyrese Proctor, one of the best defenders on the ball in the sport, should be able to contain Reeves. If it comes down to who makes one more stop — Duke is the team that has shown it can do that consistently the most this season.

Midwest Region

(1) Purdue 88, (16) Montana State/Grambling 59: No Cinderella this season. The Boilermakers, and 2-time national player of the year Zach Edey, will roll into Round 2 over the winner of the play-in game between Montana State and Grambling on Wednesday night.

(8) Utah State 78, (9) TCU 67: The Aggies won 27 games and the outright Mountain West crown, an incredible season for first-year head coach Danny Sprinkle. Great Osobor has the most fun name in college hoops and it will become a household name this March. He leads the Aggies in scoring, rebounding, offensive rebounding, and blocks. Darius Brown II is the point guard, and he’s among the best in America in assist to turnover ratio (3-1). The Aggies are too good for a TCU team that has lost 5 of 8 down the stretch and received a charitable seed given their paucity of out of league wins.

(5) Gonzaga 73, (12) McNeese State 68: Will Wade’s strong ass team won 30 games, thanks to a suffocating, complex defense that turns you over on 23% of possessions. The Zags are overseeded, with the resume of a 7 or 8 but the brand of a 3 or 4. But the two things Gonzaga does not do are the two things McNeese needs them to do to win: settle for 3s and turn the ball over. Gonzaga won’t beat itself or let McNeese thrive in transition, which means the Zags advance. Matchups make tournament games, and Will Wade’s team has been waiting to ambush a high seed for 3 months. They just ran into the wrong draw.

(13) Samford 79, (4) Kansas 75: With Kansas star guard Kevin McCullar out for the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks don’t just lose their floor general, they lose their best perimeter defender, too. That’s a problem against a Samford team that can really gun it — the Bulldogs shot 39.3% from deep, 8th best in the country this season. Achor Achor, a 6-9 mismatch nightmare from Australia, leads the Bulldogs in scoring, field goal percentage, and free-throw percentage, giving their offense versatility. Kansas bows out in round 1 without its on-court leader.

(11) Oregon 68, (6) South Carolina 66: The Ducks stole a bid by winning the Pac-12 Tournament, and now that they are in, they have the best player in this game in N’Faly Dante, who averages 16.2 and 8.8 rebounds per game. Dante had a double-double (14, 10) in the Ducks’ win over Arizona in the Pac-12 semifinals and poured in 25 to beat Colorado in the title game. Lamont Paris should have won national coach of the year, and the Gamecocks won’t beat themselves, but they don’t have Oregon’s talent, which is the tiebreaker in a coin flip game.

(3) Creighton 80, (14) Akron 67: The Zips are old and good, as they guard and rebound. Creighton, though, is the best 3 seed, loaded with three stars in Trey Alexander, Ryan Kalkbrenner, and the most versatile player in the entire Midwest Region, Baylor Scheierman. This game will be close for a while, but the Bluejays will move on.

(10) Colorado State 74, (7) Texas 70: The Rams aren’t seeded as high as Texas, but they won 6 Quad 1 games to Texas’ 5 and have a budding star in Joel Scott, who dropped 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in their rout of Virginia in the First Four. Max Abmas isn’t going to go down without a fight in his final game, but give me Niko Medved’s funky offense and the Rams in appointment television.

(2) Tennessee 77, (15) Saint Peter’s 58: There will be no Peacocks strutting in this NCAA Tournament. There won’t be Rick Barnes jokes, either, because despite 2 losses to close the regular season, this Volunteers team has the one thing all of the Barnes teams that have failed in March before them hasn’t — a superstar. Dalton Knecht is as special a scorer as there is in the sport, and he gives Barnes the “dude” to give the ball when they need a bucket. Combine that with Zakai Ziegler’s magnificent ability to guard the perimeter, the selflessness of Santiago Vescovi, and underrated big Jonas Aidoo, and Tennessee is Final Four good, even if, judging from the Twitter meltdown after the SEC quarterfinal exit, their fans don’t believe it anymore. The Peacocks are a good story, and Danny Hurley mentee Bashir Mason has a bright future in the industry, but they won’t be able to score against a top 10 Tennessee defense.

Second round

(1) Purdue 79, (8) Utah State 66: The focus will be on whether Utah State’s solid frontcourt can contain Edey, but this year, the Boilers are more than just Edey. Davidson transfer Fletcher Loyer is a walking bucket, and shoots 44% from beyond the arc because defenses can’t key on him the way they did at Davidson. Mason Gillis is also a capable complementary pieces. Finally, there might not be a more improved guy in the sport than Braeden Smith, who shoots 45% from deep and has improved his assist to turnover ratio from 2 to 1 to nearly 4 to 1 this season. Throw in jack of all trades wing Lance Jones, and you have a balanced team that is largely upset proof early in the tournament.

(5) Gonzaga 86, (13) Samford 68: A battle of Bulldogs sees the Zags go to a Sweet 16 again, a feat that Mark Few will likely find incredibly rewarding considering this was a bubble team until late February.

(3) Creighton 83, (11) Oregon 70: Kalkbrenner and Scheierman are just the type of 1-2 punch that can corral Dante, and that will be enough to send the Bluejays to a second consecutive Sweet 16.

(2) Tennessee 74, (10) Colorado State 65: The Vols advance to a second consecutive Sweet 16 because Knecht gives them the guy to pull away from a quality team that doesn’t beat itself late.

Sweet 16

(1) Purdue 75, (5) Gonzaga 69: They played in Maui, and Gonzaga stormed to an early 9-point lead before Edey took over. Both teams are improved since, and Gonzaga struggled to contain Jones, who had 13 points to ease the pressure on Edey and Smith. Give me the Boilermakers again — in a closer game.

(2) Tennessee 82, (3) Creighton 80: Dalton Knecht makes a triple at the buzzer to send the Volunteers to just their second Elite 8 in school history.

Elite 8

(1) Purdue 74, (2) Tennessee 69: Another Maui rematch — seriously, how good was Maui and how bad do you feel for people who don’t watch “Feast Week?” The Boilermakers once again rallied from a first-half deficit, and they did it behind Edey and sharpshooting Fletcher Loyer, who poured in 27 points. The biggest difference, though, was Jones, who frustrated Knecht enough to where Matt Painter simply stopped switching off the ball late in the game — letting his versatile, athletic wing chase Knecht around to close the game. It worked once — and Barnes, a master at game-planning, will adjust. But Purdue is on a mission after last year’s 16 seed embarrassment. They’ll escape and advance to the Final Four.

Final Four

(1) UConn 84, (2) Arizona 70: The Huskies have the frontcourt depth to battle Arizona inside and the defensive nous to slow Love. Arizona will have the crowd, but the Huskies won’t give them a chance to make that matter.

(1) Purdue 79, (4) Duke 70: Duke has talent inside, but Edey will move Filipowski and Ryan Young around in the post and while Duke’s guards are better than Purdue’s, it won’t matter if Purdue eats inside. The Boilermakers will advance, and earn the chance to do what Virginia did in the season after it lost to a 16 seed.


(1) UConn 78, (1) Purdue 70: Boring? Maybe. But the best team all year has been UConn, and the Huskies will join Duke and Florida as the lone programs to go back-to-back in college basketball’s modern era.




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