KENS 5 Digital Content producers Javi Perez and Cameron Songer talk about their favorite NCAA Tournament stories, share bracket tips and make some predictions.
For me, the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament is the best 4-day stretch on the entire sports calendar every year. Going from 64 teams down to 16 with every game on TV... it's like Christmas for hoops fans. Where does the NCAA tournament rank in your favorite sporting events of the year?
The NCAA Tournament is the one event that has shifted up and down my list of favorite sporting events of the year. I used to get really into it, spending days pouring over brackets and matchups. And I was pretty good at it, winning pools and picking winners.
(Among the reasons is that I actually grew up LIKING Duke, so being a hater has never kept me from picking them, as so many refuse to back the Blue Devils on principle alone.)
It started to feel like work more than fun, so it slid down. But now it's back up thanks to social media and the age of digital coverage and having enough channels at our fingertips that makes us able to enjoy every game as much as possible. And with so many options, a great day of tournament ball is better than any other playoff.
Think about it. Every other major sport spreads out their games so that every individual game gets maximum coverage. The tournament is too big for that up until the last three rounds. So you're bombarded with so much awesomeness that can barely fit into one day. That's my favorite part of it.
And that's where it's best to buy in on storylines. It's like wrestling (EVERYTHING is like wrestling). Championship week is like the Royal Rumble where everyone's trying to punch their ticket to the dance and then it builds up to Wrestlemania or, in this case, the Final Four.
I like the wrestling analogy! The NCAA tournament in that first weekend stands out because of the upsets. It’s already fun to root for an underdog, but when you fill out your bracket and you pick a few 12- or 13-seeds to grab an opening-round win, you feel like a genius when it pans out. On the flip side, you can also see the team you picked to win it all get upset in the first two rounds, and then your bracket is busted. I’ve always been a little less interested in games if it doesn’t feature a team I picked in my bracket. So, there’s also a temptation to play it safe and not pick many upsets when I fill out my bracket. What are some of your strategies when it comes to filling out a bracket?
My favorite part of picking upsets is the legendary 5-12 upset that happens just about every year. Five-seeds know that their spot is cursed so I think it's practically a self-fulfilling prophecy. But sometimes that can backfire.
I covered the 2010 UTEP Miners as a sports guy in El Paso. That team was technically the last team in but they had two legit NBA prospects and were ranked in both major polls during a 16-game winning streak. They were a 12-seed and everyone had them picked to beat No. 5 seed... Butler.
EVERYONE was wrong. Two weeks later, the whole country had heard of the Cinderella Bulldogs led by Gordon Heyward and head coach Brad Stevens.
Bracket Buster Beware.
It’s quite an experience to catch the fever of a hot team when it’s the home team, but people can also be blinded by loyalty to their alma mater or local team when filling out a bracket. Last year, I was working in North Carolina and it seemed like everyone in my office was picking the Tar Heels. I had picked Gonzaga to win it all and would have won the office pool if the championship game went differently. I might still be a little bitter about it. What’s your best bracket story?
I have two favorite bracket stories: One was actually for a Final Four that was played right here in San Antonio.
In 2004, I filled out an important bracket with a sizable prize on the line. I marked UConn to win it all, even though most had lost faith that they could pull it off because Emeka Okafor, their star player (and Texas native!) had gotten hurt and he had to miss championship week. So while people guessed which school in a loaded region would supplant UConn, I rolled with the Huskies and got three of the Final Four right and clinched the win when I watched UConn beat Duke and then Georgia Tech for the title. I actually still have that celebratory polo that I may or may not have bought with winnings that I knew were coming.
The other is the aforementioned 2010 tourney. There are so many Duke haters out there that you can cash in if you pick them to win it all the right year. Even though I only got two of the Final Four right, I had the Blue Devils to win it all... and nobody else did!
Although the win was more relief than ecstasy because Hayward nearly hit the greatest shot in basketball history when a buzzer-beater from halfcourt nearly banked in.
One of my best bracket stories is also my first. I was a kid, maybe seven years old, and I didn’t know too much about college basketball. All I knew was that I could enter my dad’s office pool and that I should usually pick the higher seeded team. I picked Duke, and they went on to win. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much that might have bothered some people – somebody’s kid winning the office pool because he picked Duke. I think it also should be said that I haven’t had that kind of bracket success ever since. Do you remember your first bracket?
I don’t remember filling out my first bracket. All the years sort of run together when you’re an old man like me. Haha.
I do, however, remember putting small bets on the Final Four with friends when it would come around in elementary school. I remember picking Michigan to win it in 1992 and then picking North Carolina to win it in 1993 and being ecstatic when the Tar Heels beat the Fab Five.
Only later when I read Mitch Albom’s Fab Five book did I get a greater appreciation for the group. But when I was a kid, I was a Michael Jordan fan. And where did Michael Jordan go to college? North Carolina. Everyone young person was influenced by Jordan. From that perspective, I’m sure the Fab Five would respect my decision to root for UNC.
After all, Jordan was the reason that they liked wearing baggy shorts.
Okay, last one. Let’s make some predictions before this year’s bracket is even released. It’s time for some takes! Virginia was ranked No. 1 in the week leading up to the tournament. The Cavaliers are known for their stifling defense and low-scoring games. If they win it all, get ready for a bunch of groaning about how the college game is too boring and that a bunch of changes need to get made. I could also see an opponent getting hot and shooting their way to a victory over Virginia. My national champion pick is Gonzaga. They lost in last year’s title game to North Carolina, which lost in the previous title game. My sleeper is Loyola-Chicago. They’re called the Ramblers, and that’s pretty cool.
My father has always loved Tom Izzo and rooting for Michigan State basketball. I’ve been right there with him. They’re usually solid for a deep run into the tournament regardless of the matchups or which region they’re put in.
But what’s proven out year after year is that it’s not necessarily the best team going into the tournament that wins, it’s the hottest. Michigan State, Duke, and even Xavier and Villanova aren’t that hot coming in this year. Virginia is, but they’re not my pick.
I’m going with the Michigan Wolverines.
Michigan has won their last nine games, including winning the Big 10 Tournament. That run includes wins over likely No. 1 seed Michigan State and another high seed in Purdue.
Unlike Virginia, Michigan looks like they’re peaking and not just hot. Everything’s come together for them on both ends of the court. For the first time in a while, the Wolverines aren’t just a great offensive team that goes in trying to outrun everybody, they’re solid defensively as well. They can accommodate to any style.
That’s why I’m convinced that no matter the region to get to San Antonio or the Final Four opponent, the Wolverines will get it done this year.
Besides, we need a reason to get the Fab Five to stop fighting with each other.