The NCAA basketball tournament is many wonderful things. But if you want to win your office pool, you must focus on what it is not.
It is not a Cinderella story.
Despite all the highlights of buzzer-beating tears, obscure dancing mascots and little fellas leaping off the ends of benches, this is not a tournament for lower seeds and long shots.
Since the seeding began in 1979, the top four seeds have made the Sweet 16 more than all the other seeds combined. At least two top seeds have made the Final Four the majority of the time. The worst-ranked team to win a national title was seeded eighth. And, oh yeah, a 16-seed has yet to beat a one-seed in their 132 first-round matchups. Don’t even think about it.
We know you’re dying to pick the 11th-seeded San Diego State or Loyola-Chicago to pull a couple of upsets. Don’t.
It is not a star search.
The nation’s greatest players rarely lead their teams to a national title. The college game just isn’t built that way anymore. A team with a one-and-done NBA lottery pick can often be neutralized by a team with a handful of good college players who have played together long enough to figure out how to stop him.
Check out the last five Final Four most outstanding players, a list bereft of any future NBA All-Stars: Joel Berry II, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyus Jones, Shabazz Napier and Luke Hancock.
Only five of the 33 Wooden Award winners played for national champions. Remember when Kevin Durant played for Texas in the spring of 2007? He didn’t even make it to the Sweet 16. Despite his 30 points and nine rebounds, his team was beaten in the second round by USC.
Ignore this spring’s big stars that populate teams like Duke and Arizona and Kansas; pick the team that acts most like a team.
It is not an NBA Saturday night.
The best dunkers don’t win this. The best shooters don’t win this. The best dribblers often don’t win this. It is quite the opposite of all of that.
The best defense usually wins this. In four of the last seven national title games, one of the teams scored less than 60 points. Only two of the teams scored more than 70 points.
The best teams will be the ones that can make the big stops. The best teams are the most boring teams.
Spoiler alert: This tournament’s dullest team is also its No. 1 team.
It is not for kids
If you’re stuck on a matchup, let the roster break the tie. Pick the team that has the most junior or senior impact players.
Two upperclassmen in the starting lineup are golden. If two of those are guards, even better.
Berry and Kennedy Meeks led North Carolina in scoring and rebounding in last year’s title game. Both were juniors.
Two seasons ago, Villanova MOP Arcidiacono was a senior, rebound leader Josh Hart was a junior, and the game-winning shot came from junior Kris Jenkins.
Yes, of course, there have been freshman stars who have led their teams to titles, most recently Duke’s Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow in 2015. But that same Duke team was also grounded in the effort of seniors Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson.
When in doubt, stick with the programs with the guys who have stuck around.
All these rules are a way of introducing my pick to be the 2018 national champions.
It’s going to be Virginia. It can’t be anybody else. It’s not just that the Cavaliers are a No. 1 seed, and eight of the last 11 champions have been a No. 1 seed. It’s that their roster and style of play fit all the championship guidelines.
They play the best defense in the country, doing things like holding North Carolina to 49 points, holding Clemson to 36 points, and allowing only two of their final 11 opponents to score more than 60 points.
They have two seniors playing big minutes in guard Devon Hall and forward Isaiah Wilkins. They have three tough guards with at least a year’s experience in Hall and sophomores Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. They don’t have any stars, yet all of them play together like stars.
They will beat UMBC in the first round because, well, see the rule above.
They will beat Creighton in the second round because the Blue Jays, who average 84 points a game, aren’t used to being slowed down like this.
They will beat Arizona in the Sweet 16 because, no, no, I’ve been suckered by Arizona before, but not this time, even with Deandre Ayton. He’s the country’s greatest player, but see the rule above. After the Cavaliers focus on stopping him, Arizona will be toothless.
They will face their toughest opponent in the Elite Eight, a Cincinnati team that mirrors their approach, with one difference. The Cavaliers’ offensive execution, for the first time in several years, is as crisp as their defensive routine. Virginia can score, Cincinnati cannot.
Virginia will meet surprise Michigan in the national semifinals, the Wolverines entering the tournament having won nine straight games and playing well enough to upset weary North Carolina and vulnerable Xavier. But, like many others, Michigan just doesn’t have enough weapons to handle the defensive battle forced by Virginia, and the Cavaliers will advance the finals.
Once there, they will play Michigan State, a gifted team that lacks the experience for this test. They have two lottery picks in freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and sophomore guard Miles Bridges, but, again, see the guidelines above. They just haven’t played together enough in crunch time to finish the job.
On April 2 in San Antonio, Virginia will be excessively slow, infuriatingly boring, and national champions.
It’s the rules.