Matt Vautour: Good luck picking this year’s NCAA bracket

  • Villanova guard Mikal Bridges (25) shoots during the first half of an NCAA college basketball quarterfinal game in the Big East conference tournament, in New York, Thursday, March 8, 2018.(AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Kathy Willens

  • Villanova coach Jay Wright shouts to players at the other end of the court during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Marquette in the Big East men's tournament quarterfinals in New York, Thursday, March 8, 2018. Villanova defeated Marquette 94-70. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Kathy Willens

  • Arizona coach Sean Miller waves the net after the team's NCAA college basketball game against Southern California for the Pac-12 men's tournament championship Saturday, March 10, 2018, in Las Vegas. Arizona won 75-61. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken) Isaac Brekken

  • Arizona's Deandre Ayton dunks against Southern California during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game for the Pac-12 men's tournament championship Saturday, March 10, 2018, in Las Vegas. Arizona won 75-61. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken) Isaac Brekken

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A 20-point loss to Nebraska ... a loss to St. John’s ... a loss to SMU. These are resume lines on three of the four teams I’m picking to go to the Final Four.

I don’t know if that’s reflective of a crazy year in college basketball or I’ve gone off the deep end.

In truth, there’s no team I feel really confident about. Almost everybody has a bad loss to somebody. Most teams are on upset watch in the first round and everybody is by the second round. That makes for difficult brackets, but a potentially really fun tournament.


Can a certain style make a team the best regular-season team in the country, but ill-suited for a deep tournament run? That is the Virginia question. The Cavaliers have been outstanding all year. They’re well deserving of their No. 1 overall seed. But teams that play slow and grind games out defensively aren’t usually great tournament teams. Simply the more possessions there are in a game, the more times a better team has a chance to be superior. Virginia ranks 351 in tempo. So picking the Cavaliers is scary and even scarier with Tuesday’s season-ending injury to De’Andre Hunter. Cincinnati, which is the No. 2 seed in this region, is similar.

Best bets for early upsets: No. 11 Loyola-Chicago over No. 6 Miami. The Ramblers were the best team in the Missouri Valley, which has been a breeding ground for upset artists over the years. This is as good a bet for a double-digit seed moving into the Sweet 16 as there is in the field. Miami is missing point guard Bruce Brown, who is key to all of what they do. If you’re really reaching, No. 15 Georgia State has the shooters to scare No. 2 Cincinnati, but I’m not that bold.

Pick I wrestled with: Anything involving Kentucky. The Wildcats have been all over the map this year. But John Calipari’s younger Kentucky teams have at times taken a while to round into form. The Wildcats have played well down the stretch.

Introducing: Peyton Aldridge and Kellan Grady — We’re exactly 10 years out from Davidson’s magical Steph Curry run. This Wildcats team wouldn’t be in the field without winning the A-10 Tournament. But they are here and can win a couple games largely on the strength of this senior-freshman duo, who’ll be a hard matchup for anyone.

Sweet 16 : Arizona over Virginia; Cincinnati over Loyola-Chicao.

Final Four bound: It wasn’t long ago that it looked like Sean Miller might never coach in college again. Now he’s back on the sidelines and his talented team seems to be energized and unified by the controversy surrounding it. Entering the year, Arizona was among the favorites to win the whole thing. The Wildcats still can.


There are some fascinating unknowns in this region. Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. was a candidate to be the national player of the year and the first pick in the NBA draft before suffering a back injury that sidelined him from the second game of the season to the SEC Tournament, where the Tigers played one game.

If he’s at even 70 percent, Mizzou is scary, especially to No. 1 Xavier in the second round.

Best bet for early upset: No. 12 South Dakota State over No. 5 Ohio State. The Buckeyes were huge overachievers this season and that could continue into the tournament, but the Jackrabbits have the best nickname in the tournament and one of the most unique players (see below).

Pick I wrestled with: Roy Williams might be a hall of famer, but the best coach in this region is Michigan’s John Beilein. A showdown between Carolina and Michigan in the Sweet 16 could be epic as long as everyone keeps track of how many timeouts they have.

Introducing: Not many guys can shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range while averaging a double-double inside. Not many guys are Mike Daum. South Dakota State’s junior forward is 6-foot-9. He’s averaging 23.8 pints and 10.4 rebounds, while making 42 percent of his 3-pointers.

Sweet 16 : Gonzaga over Xavier; Michigan over North Carolina.

Final Four bound: The Wolverines are a trendy pick to go to the Final Four, but it’s with good reason. Beilein’s teams are hard to prepare for, especially on short notice. Michigan will knock off both of last year’s championship game participants en route to San Antonio.


Not that long ago, picking Villanova to get bounced before the second weekend was a pretty safe move. From 2010-2015 it was out in the first or second round. Then in 2016, they wiped that reputation away with a national championship. But last year the Wildcats were upset by Wisconsin in the second round. So has Jay Wright become a good tournament coach or was 2016 an anomaly.

This feels like a championship roster. But there’s pressure on Villanova to make a run.

Best bet for early upset: Stephen F. Austin over Texas Tech. It’s unusual for me to take all higher seeds in a first round in any region, but I don’t love any of the lower seeds in this one. If I’m forced to choose, the Lumberjacks could end the Red Raiders’ dream season early.

Pick I wrestled with: No. 5 West Virginia vs. No. 4 Wichita State. Since I started writing this, I’ve changed my mind three times ... nope four times now. These are two terrific teams with good guards and great coaches and that combination wins tournament games.

Don’t be fooled into: Picking a deep run for Butler. The Bulldogs have memorable tournament history and they beat Villanova this year. But the ‘Nova game was at home and this doesn’t feel like a deep-running Butler squad.

Introducing: Collin Sexton. If you’re taking Villanova to win it all (spoiler alert, I am), Alabama’s freshman point guard is terrifying. The soon-to-be lottery pick can control a game and could put a scare into Villanova in the second round.

Sweet 16: Villanova over West Virginia; Purdue over Florida.

Final Four bound: I’ve got the Wildcats winning the whole thing, so beating Purdue is just a step along the way.


This bracket could feature a battle of double-digit seeds in the second round, a showdown between two of the more controversial players in the sport and battles between hall of famers.

Best bet for early upsets: No. 5 Clemson and No. 4 Auburn both suffered key injuries down the stretch and both are vulnerable. At least one and maybe both are good guesses to be upset, meaning No. 12 New Mexico State and No. 13 Charleston could be playing each other for a trip to the Sweet 16. There’s a part of me that wants to take No. 16 Penn to upset No. 1 Kansas. The Quakers are underseeded and shoot 3-pointers very well. Plus, they guard the perimeter well and Kansas needs to make 3-pointers to win. But I’m not ready to make that pick.

Pick I wrestled with: Duke vs. Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Duke potentially has the highest ceiling of anyone, but the Blue Devils have only approached that ceiling occasionally this season.

Don’t be fooled into: Predicting a deep run for Oklahoma and freshman star Trae Young. The Sooners have faded badly after a terrific start and playing in the first game of the tournament, they’ll likely be out well before the server brings me my lunch check.

Introducing: Seton Hall big man Angel Delgado could present a problem for an undersized Kansas team in the second round. Delgado is 6-foot-10 and averaged 13.3 points and 11.6 rebounds. If the Jayhawks don’t shoot well, they could be in trouble.

Sweet 16: Kansas over New Mexico State; Michigan State over Duke.

Final Four bound: I don’t know if I’m feeling burned by picking the Spartans to win it all in 2016 when they lost in the first round, but I feel pretty shaky about this one. Still, MSU has the pieces to go deep and of everyone in the field, they’ve stumbled the least.

Final Four

This Arizona run might eventually get vacated depending on what comes out of the FBI’s investigation, but as of now, the Wildcats will advance past Michigan.

The battle of the Bridges could be fun as Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Villanova’s Mikal Bridges (no relation) are both outstanding. In the end, the Wildcats point guard play provides the difference.

Arizona vs. Villanova has the makings of a terrific game as the game’s best big man, Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton, goes up against it’s best guard, Jalen Brunson.

Ayton, the likely No. 1 overall draft pick, will have the better long-term future, but the short-term future belongs to Brunson, who’ll cut down the nets.

For a link to join the “Smarter than Matt Vautour” NCAA Bracket group, visit my Twitter page at: https://twitter.com/MattVautourDHG

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage