If you’re a basketball fan, it doesn’t get any better than this week.
The NCAA Tournament is here, and the next six days might be the most perfect stretch of the entire sporting calendar. I love, love, love the opening weekend of the tourney more than just about anything this side of my family.
Florida Gulf Coast and Fairleigh Dickinson tip off this evening in the first of the four play-in games, but those are just an appetizer. Thursday and Friday are the main course — two days of wall-to-wall basketball, mostly four games at a time, running from noon until after midnight.
By the time we get to bed on Sunday night, the field will have been whittled from 68 teams to 16. In honor of that wonderful process, here are 16 predictions for this year’s tournament:
1. Michigan State will be the lone Big Ten team in the Sweet 16. Maryland and Iowa have been playing like teams that want to go home early, Michigan is just too undermanned, and the other conference teams with a decent chance for success — Indiana, Purdue and Wisconsin — were given less-than-generous draws. As has become customary, Sparty will have to shoulder the burden for the league.
2. Wichita State will come pretty close to matching VCU’s magical 2011 run from the First Four to the Final Four. The Shockers, the No. 12 team in the country according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, were wildly underseeded and stuck with a play-in game tonight against Vanderbilt. The winner of that contest becomes the ultimate wild card, capable of knocking off just about anyone in the field.
3. Kentucky will somehow get just as far as it did last year. Though nobody will mistake this version of the Wildcats for the group that went into the Final Four unbeaten last year, John Calipari’s latest group of hired guns is peaking at the right time. Having been given a relatively weak regional, Kentucky will take advantage, sneaking past Stony Brook (barely), Indiana, North Carolina and Xavier to make another Final Four trip.
4. Yale will win its first-round game. Sorry, Baylor — it’s happening to you again.
5. Stephen F. Austin, the No. 14 seed in the East, will make the Sweet 16. Like their first-round foe, West Virginia, the Lumberjacks create a ton of turnovers. Look for them to take care of the Mountaineers and then topple Notre Dame to get through the opening weekend.
6. I usually loathe to roll with Gonzaga — once America’s favorite Cinderella pick, the Zags have become more known for getting high seeds and exiting early. This year, the glass slipper is back on, and the draw is soft.
7. Buddy Hield has been on a tear this year, and the Oklahoma guard isn’t done yet. With his Sooners having been put in an incredibly weak West Regional, Hield will march all the way to the Final Four.
8. It’s been a chaotic season where no team has been safe, and it’s not going to become more predictable now. This will be the year that a No. 16 seed finally knocks off a No. 1 seed.
9. Providence guard Kris Dunn will go out swinging in a second-round loss against North Carolina, notching a triple-double.
10. Michigan State will make more 3-pointers than it misses during this tournament. Bryn Forbes and Denzel Valentine are arguably the nation’s most lethal long-range combo, and they’ll be on their game.
11. Teams that have trouble scoring usually have trouble winning games in March, but keep an eye on Cincinnati.
12. First-round upsets I’m afraid to pick but wouldn’t be surprised to see happen: Chattanooga over Indiana, South Dakota State over Maryland, Iona over Iowa State, Stony Brook over Kentucky.
13. Another first-round upset I’m afraid to pick but I’m picking it anyway: Arkansas-Little Rock over Purdue.
14. Butler will win its first-round game and scare the pants off of top-seeded Virginia in the second round before going home, leaving the state of Indiana without any teams still standing.
15. Your Final Four teams: Kansas, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Michigan State.
16. Kansas will win the national championship, beating Michigan State in the final. The Jayhawks are the closest thing this season has seen to a dominant team, particularly over the past month or two. It’s hard to imagine anyone beating them now.
Which, of course, means someone probably will.