By Matt Norlander
I've gotta say it: I hate my bracket.
I know that's a popular lament for many poor pundits that are asked to hand over their picks for public consumption. But actually, in most years, I'm pretty OK with my choices. This time, it was a miserable experience picking 67 games. OH, THE HORROR! But you get what I mean.
What I love about the bracket? The newness of it. Every year. Each is unique. There will never be two the same, and that makes it awesome. (This sounds corny, but this is March and part of this experience is about earnest appreciation. It's March!) I love that clean sheet of possibility. You can talk yourself into a lot of terrible decisions, and I'm sure you already have. Or will. And then will out-think yourself again.
I think Florida's ... not a gimme at all. And I think it's been interesting to see a lot of people agree with that. The upset there I think few are willing to take (me included): UCLA over the Gators in the Sweet 16. That VCU-Stephen F. Austin game is my favorite of the Round of 64. Kansas is my pick because I think the Jayhawks will get to the Sweet 16 by winning their first two games by a combined 30 points or so.
I will say this: Steve Fisher, San Diego State's head coach, recently told me he thought Kansas' bigs weren't as good as New Mexico's. I'll keep an eye on that, should the Lobos get Kansas in the Round of 32. I think Joel Embiid will be back for the Sweet 16, and it's why I'm taking KU to win the region. Great coach, great talent, great athletes, battle-tested team.
I think the East is the toughest to forecast because the bracket can snake away into so many different directions. To be more clear, I like UConn to beat Villanova, but I like Saint Joe's to beat UConn. I like Michigan State to beat Virginia but would take the Cavaliers against any other team. I like North Carolina Central to put a scare into Iowa State, and I think Cincinnati would have a really good shot at making the Elite Eight if it had Wichita State as a one and/or UCLA as the four. But it got a bad break. I'll take Sparty to get out of this region because Tom Izzo's never had a recruiting class fail to reach a Final Four.
Let's zip directly across the bracket to discuss the Midwest. The BRACKET OF DOOM. Hunger Games up in here, only nobody wants to offer themselves as tribute. But that's what UMass, Saint Louis, Texas and Kentucky probably are going to be, because Wichita State, Louisville, Duke and Michigan are a very powerful foursome. I'm not buying Wichita State-Kentucky, by the way. I think K-State ends that before it begins. Then Wichita State breaks through to the Sweet 16. I really wanted to take the Shockers to get out of the region, but something tells me Jabari Parker is going to be ascending to a rare level here, and there's going to be a hope Parker and Nick Wiggins can face off in the title game (I've got both in the Final Four).
Arizona is the No. 1 that almost nobody will be willing to pick to lose before the Elite Eight. That's when we really get surprised and the tournament gets fun. There are upsets just staring us in the face, but we can't see them. Like refusing to acknowledge that UL Lafayette over Creighton could actually happen. Nobody's picking that! And neither am I. I love Creighton's offense, so I took the Bluejays to win out in this region and make the Final Four. Wisconsin is really, quite quietly sitting there at the two spot, by the way. That'll happen when you fail to make noise consistently in the NCAAs. Bo Ryan could really use three or more wins this time around.
As for the ultimate stage, the Final Four, I go Kansas over Michigan State and Creighton over Duke because I want to see the two most entertaining teams in college basketball face off against each other. The most talented team against the most gifted offensive team. Embiid returns, Wiggins has an amazing tournament, and Bill Self becomes a legend when he gets his second title.
Now comes the fun part. Gleefully watching everything burn to ash and enjoying the tournament for what it's supposed to be about: allowing for surprise and watching a bracket unfold in a way that's never happened before, and never will again.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is obsessed equally with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.