(AP) — If you’re like most of the country, you probably didn’t count on a No. 8 seed reaching the national title game last year — or a No. 15 seed making it to the Elite Eight.
Thank you North Carolina and Saint Peter’s, who made sure there’s nowhere to go but up trying to pick a winning bracket in 2023.
This season, of course, picking the March Madness bracket comes with its own set of potential pitfalls. How do you account for injuries at Houston and UCLA? Can defending champ Kansas make another run after losing handily in the Big 12 Tournament final? Is this the year you can trust the Big Ten?
Here’s one way to go with the bracket:
First Four: Texas A&M Corpus Christi over Southeast Missouri State.
First round winners: Alabama, West Virginia, San Diego State, Virginia, Creighton, Baylor, Utah State and Arizona.
Maryland was terrific at home this season and not very good on the road. At a neutral site, the Terrapins get a tough first-round matchup against a West Virginia team ranked 17th by Ken Pomeroy.
Second round winners: Alabama, Virginia, Baylor, Arizona.
The seeds hold in round two. Bob Huggins could have some tricks up his sleeve against the Crimson Tide, but Alabama should have an advantage playing in Birmingham.
Regional semifinal winners: Alabama, Baylor.
Tony Bennett’s Virginia team seems like the ideal group to slow down a run-and-gun team like Alabama, but first the Cavaliers have to get past the first round, which is never a certainty. Time to hedge a bit by putting Virginia in the Sweet 16 but having the Crimson Tide advance.
Regional champion: Alabama.
The Crimson Tide play fast and shoot a lot of 3s, and they’re also one of the top defensive teams in the country. Turnovers could be an issue, but they have enough different ways to win that they’ll do something their football team couldn’t this year — reach the Final Four.
First Four: Texas Southern over Fairleigh Dickinson.
First round winners: Purdue, Memphis, Duke, Tennessee, Providence, Kansas State, Southern California, Marquette.
At times this season the Big Ten felt like Purdue and about 11 bubble teams. That holds true in the first round of this region, with the Boilermakers advancing but Michigan State bowing out early against USC.
Second round winners: Purdue, Tennessee, Kansas State, Marquette.
Tennessee-Duke is a marquee second-round matchup between two of the better offensive rebounding teams around. As well as the Blue Devils have played recently, the Volunteers are ranked in the top five by Pomeroy and No. 8 in the country at ShotQuality.com.
Regional semifinal winners: Tennessee, Marquette.
Zakai Zeigler’s injury will catch up with the Volunteers eventually, but first they oust Purdue, avenging their overtime loss to the Boilermakers in the 2019 Sweet 16. (A refresher: Carsen Edwards was fouled on a 3-pointer in the final seconds and made two free throws to force OT.)
Regional champion: Marquette.
What a season for Shaka Smart, who coached Marquette to regular-season and tournament titles in the Big East. The Golden Eagles will force turnovers, and unlike some of Smart’s teams in the past, this is an efficient group offensively.
First Four: Mississippi State over Pittsburgh.
First round winners: Houston, Iowa, Drake, Kent State, Mississippi State, Xavier, Texas A&M, Texas.
Yes, that matchup between Texas and Texas A&M in the second round is happening. Also, Drake will be a popular upset pick after rolling through the Missouri Valley Tournament.
Second round winners: Houston, Drake, Mississippi State, Texas.
Texas is trying to follow in the footsteps of Steve Fisher’s 1989 Michigan team, which won the national title under an interim coach. It’ll be less of a surprise if the Longhorns pull it off, since we’ve already seen them win the Big 12 Tournament under Rodney Terry.
Regional semifinal winners: Houston, Mississippi State.
Yes, if this comes to fruition, Houston could make the Final Four by beating three double-digit seeds in four games.
Regional champion: Houston.
Obviously, the groin injury to Marcus Sasser is a big concern, but the Cougars should be able to make it through the first weekend even if he’s not at full strength, and assuming he returns before too long, Houston is the best team in this region.
First Four: Nevada over Arizona State.
First round winners: Kansas, Illinois, Saint Mary’s, UConn, TCU, Gonzaga, Northwestern, UCLA.
Rick Pitino vs. UConn certainly brings back some Big East memories. It’s a tough draw for 13th-seeded Iona.
Second round winners: Illinois, Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga, Northwestern.
The Big Ten always seems like a polarizing league in this event, so here’s a prediction: Zero Big Ten teams reach the Elite Eight, but Illinois and Northwestern take out the top two seeds in the West. Let the hot takes fly.
Regional semifinal winners: Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga.
The West Coast Conference’s moment of glory.
Regional champion: Gonzaga.
The Zags come into this tournament on a roll and without the huge expectations of seasons past. Pencil them in for yet another Sweet 16 — and a Final Four as well.
Semifinal winners: Alabama, Houston.
If Alabama makes it this far, the scrutiny may be even more intense for a program that’s been in the news for a lot of the wrong reasons lately. Former Alabama player Darius Miles and another man have been indicted on capital murder charges for the January shooting death of 23-year-old Jamea Harris. A police investigator testified last month that Miles texted Crimson Tide star Brandon Miller to bring him his gun that night. Miller has not been charged and has continued to play.
Houston-Gonzaga would be a fascinating matchup, but the Zags still aren’t great defensively. The Cougars are the more well-rounded team.
So that would set up an Alabama-Houston title game, with the Crimson Tide happy to push the tempo and the Cougars perfectly comfortable in a rock fight.
The Cougars are good enough defensively to beat the Crimson Tide, and 40 years after Phi Slama Jama’s heartbreaking loss to N.C. State in the title game, Houston wins it all.
Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister