By Aaron Jackson,
March Madness is here, and it is truly the greatest time of the year. The passion, energy, and just overall feel of tournament games cannot be beat. You better believe I’ve got multiple TV’s set up and ready to go, and will be glued to them all weekend long. As far as a bracket, I’ve already got one filled out with my “gut reactions,” which I will adjust come Thursday morning. Everyone has their strategy, and that’s mine. It gets filled out Monday morning, and then I let it simmer for a few days before picking it up again. I also limit myself to a maximum of five changes because I’ve found too much second guessing leads me to failure. So I have to be pretty confident to change a pick. This strategy has led me to win every bracket pool I’ve been in for two years running, including the Townsquare radio pool, which is nationwide. Not saying I’m an expert or anything, but I like to think I know a thing or two. Of course, when it comes to the tournament, I like to always go back to one of my favorite philosophical quotes from Socrates: “True knowledge is knowing that you know nothing.” Or, as Jon Snow was once told in Game of Thrones: “You know nothing Jon Snow.” So while I’m pretty confident in my picks, I know that one of these years I’m going to finish near the bottom of the pile, so readers beware. That said, here are my five sleeper picks, with a bonus final four and national champion at the end. Keep in mind a “sleeper” to me is anyone that is a double digit seed. I’m not about to call someone like Gonzaga a sleeper because that is just absurd.
1. Wright State: I know people love the SEC every year, and sometimes that is justified. This year teams from the conference just seem mediocre at best. Tennessee, who fell in the conference championship vs. Kentucky, is one of those teams that I just don’t trust. They come in as a weak three seed in my mind. Enter Wright State. They won the Horizon league tournament in order to get to the Big Dance, and are led by their defense, which is one of the best in the country. The offense struggles to put points on the board, which doesn’t bode well for their long term success, but they have a ton of size up front compared to the Volunteers which don’t have any. I like the Rowdy Raiders to win a game.
2. South Dakota State: While my Wright State pick is really one of convenience and mediocre competition, this pick is for real. I LOVE the Jackrabbits. They have a great first round matchup against 5th seeded Ohio State in the first round, and I actually like their chances against a Gonzaga team that doesn’t have nearly as much talent as they did last year. South Dakota is led by Mike Daum, who goes by the nickname “The Dauminator”, and that’s all you really need to know. What, you want more? Fine. The 6’9” forward averages 24 and 11, and he leads a defensive rebounding group that is second in the country. And have I mentioned they also boast the lowest turnover rate in the country? Expect to see them in the sweet 16 if not the Elite 8.
3. San Diego State: Kawhi Leonard isn’t walking through that door, but the Aztec Warriors should be just fine without him. This team is red hot entering the tournament, having won nine in a row including two against Nevada, who is a popular team to make a run. Did I also mention they beat Gonzaga earlier this year? Their record doesn’t show it overall, but this team is deep and talented. Don’t be shocked when they take out Houston in the first round.
4. New Mexico State: I always love mid majors that have been hanging around for a while, and the Aggies fit that mold perfectly. They’ve made the tournament five of the last six years, but have been knocked out in the first round every time. It changes this year. Ranking 14th in the country defensively, they’re tenacious and don’t give up any easy shots. They also rebound as well as any team in the country, led by senior Jemerrio Jones at 13 a game, and are full of experience. This is a senior laden team with one last chance to make a name for themselves after years of tournament disappointment. That recipe smells like victory to me.
5. Loyola Chicago: I just love teams nicknamed Ramblers that have a wolf as their mascot. I also love teams that shoot 40 percent from three and have an effective field goal percentage of 58. Those are good things too. The play a fast pace and struggle to rebound, but Miami isn’t a team that can take advantage of that weakness. I actually think this team can win two games in the tournament and make it to the second weekend. Heck, they haven’t made the Big Dance since 1985 so better make the most of it.
Final Four: UNC, Villanova, Arizona, Kansas.
Championship Game: UNC vs. Kansas
National Champion: Kansas – I love their veteran depth and leadership. This pick is contingent on Udoka Azuibuke staying healthy, but I think they’re by far the best team in the tournament.
Aaron Jackson (@AaronRJackson on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.