Your Guide to Winning the Billion Dollar Bracket

Would you like one billion dollars? All you have to do is correctly pick every single game of the NCAA Tournament. The odds of that happening are approximately 80 trillion to 1, so winning $1 billion is actually undervaluing the feat.

kemba uconn
It is, however, a stroke of genius by Warren Buffet and Quicken Loans. They are promising a ridiculous prize that they will never, ever, ever have to give away. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying, as the top 20 point getters will win $100,000. So for about $2 million, how much press are they going to get? Let’s just say it’s better to spend $2 million like that, than on a 15-second Super Bowl ad or Super Bowl campaign that is forgotten in a day.

While I could write for hours about how much I love this contest for its marketing value and viralness, there is the matter of March Madness itself. How can you actually win some money?

We don’t have any brackets yet. There are still plenty of games before the field is revealed. Sure, the college basketball regular season is ultimately meaningless but it gives you the clues you need. Consider this a helpful guide to who you should pick, who you should pick against and who you should be deathly afraid of.

The Favorites
Despite the perceived unpredictability of the NCAA Tournament, the champion will more than likely be one of the teams that is supposed to win – 7 of the last 9 national champions have been #1 seeds. The outliers are the Kemba Walker-led UConn team in 2009 and the under-seeded Florida team in 2006 in a crazy year that saw zero #1 seeds make the Final Four. These teams are likely to be the four #1 seeds and you should probably pick one of them to win it all.

They haven’t lost since Shabazz Napier hit an insane buzzer beater in December. They have steamrolled through an admittedly weak SEC. They roll out senior leaderships and have a coach in Billy Donovan that has proved to be the real deal. The only knock on them is their lack big-time games during conference season. How will they deal with adversity?

Before Brandon Ashley’s injury, I really thought Arizona had a chance to run the table. The most impressive performance I’ve seen from any team this year came in December when Arizona beat Michigan like a drum in Crisler Arena. As a UConn fan, I can remember watching UConn play a game and think, “Holy crap, they can win it all.” That was Arizona against Michigan.

Can they still do it? Absolutely. I can’t see them losing before the Final Four.

Wichita State
Did they make the Final Four last year or did I dream that? There has been way too much discussion about the legitimacy of Wichita State and I really, really don’t get it. The last time to finish the regular season undefeated was a similarly maligned St. Joseph’s team in 2004 that had 2 NBA guards and was a shot away from the Final Four. People are treating the Shockers like they play in the SWAC – the MVC is a better than average mid-major.

And again, they made the Final Four last year – the notion that the moment will somehow be too big for them is absurd. Being undefeated has been a huge help as they have dealt with pressure all year long since Wichita State at 31-0 gets far more coverage than Wichita State at 30-1. The problem for them may be the #2 seed they get…

If Kansas falls to a #2 seed; the sound you’ll hear will be Wichita State fans crying. Kansas has been up and down, despite easily winning yet another Big 12 championship. They have potentially the top 2 picks in the NBA draft with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. The latter’s back problems are definitely a cause for concern but if he’s healthy, there’s no reason why Kansas wouldn’t be a favorite to win it all. It helps that of all the favorites, they played in by far the toughest conference.

The Frauds
It’s really not that hard to spot frauds in college basketball. They share similar characteristics. They have a lot of decent wins – beating those Top 100 RPI teams instead of Top 50 RPI teams. They have a fatal flaw – like a 2-3 zone that is easily defeated. And they have provided a glimpse into the fact their greatness is a mirage.

syracuse sucks
I wish I had posted this last week when this would have been cause of discussion. Now? Not so much. The ACC is a mediocre conference. Syracuse is a mediocre team that would be sixth-best in the Big Ten, AAC or Big 12.  Pretty sure no Final Four team in history has 2 bad home losses like Syracuse does.

Saint Louis
A great story but a total fraud. They lack a great player and they lost to Duquesne at home. The schedule set up perfectly for them, getting to play the other Atlantic 10 contenders at home, until a visit to VCU resulted in an 11-point loss that wasn’t that close. Their best road win is against either St. Joe’s or Dayton – two bubble teams at best.

The Big East is a mid-major conference. It’s time for everyone to accept that. For Villanova, their computer numbers are inflated thanks to November wins over Iowa and Kansas. Does anyone think Villanova would beat either of those teams if they played tomorrow? Pretty sure if you lose by 40 at home – to anybody – you’re not that good. The fact Creighton backed that up with another 20+ beatdown of Villanova is all you need to know about ‘Nova, and the Big East.

San Diego State
Different year, same story – San Diego State is not good enough offensively to make a deep run.

The Kemba Walker/Danny Manning Division
In 2011, Kemba Walker put UConn on his back and led them to a title. In 1988, Danny Manning did the same for Kansas. You can never, ever underestimate the power of a great player to get hot and change things in the NCAA Tournament. See Steph Curry, Davidson, 2008. These teams could win it all – or disappear by the first weekend. Just remember them.

This may be the first time in history that Duke falls into this category, but they are Jabari Parker and…well, that’s pretty much it. And that’s okay. No one seems to realize the ACC sucks this year – or they are blinded by ESPN’s nauseating promotion of the league – so Duke could very easily be headed to another Lehigh-bashing on the tournament’s first Friday. Or Parker could get hot, and lead them to JerryWorld. I have no idea what to make of this team.

Doug McDermott. Do I need to say anything else? I just watched them lose to a brutal Georgetown team, so I don’t know how much the McDermott factor will come into play. But if they get a #3 seed and avoid the favorites until the Elite Eight, you could definitely envision the Blue Jays making the Final Four.

Cincinnati is either a really, really bad good team, or a really, really good bad team. They play ugly as sin basketball but it works for them, because Sean Kilpatrick is by far the best player you probably haven’t heard of. The poorly officiated game against Louisville gave a glimpse into his importance as his awful first half contributed to a 19-point total for the Bearcats, but he came alive in the second and they almost won.

If Shabazz Napier is on, UConn can beat anyone in the country – just ask Florida. If he’s off, they lose to anyone in the country – just ask Houston.

The 2004 UConn Division
On the final day of the 2003-04 college basketball season, my Dad and I traveled to the Carrier Dome for Syracuse/UConn. To our horror, not only did UConn lose, but Emeka Okafor spent a good part of the game getting his back worked on. It was not a fun ride home. But our fears were misguided as the Huskies turned it on in New York, won the Big East and then steamrolled through the NCAA Tournament with only one close game.

The lesson? Don’t underestimate talent and don’t discount really good teams rounding into form – or teams that could round into form.

Are they peaking too early? They have been probably the hottest team in the land over the past couple of weeks, but will they keep it up through April? If they win the Big Ten tournament, you may have to slide them into the Favorites division.

Michigan State
Like Syracuse, they started extremely hot at 17-1. Like Syracuse, they lost their last home game to a subpar team. So why are they different? For one, Illinois is miles better than Boston College or Georgia Tech. For two, they have been dealing with injuries that could heal by tournament. For three, Tom Izzo knows how to get teams ready for March a whole helluva lot better than Jim Boeheim.

North Carolina
Maybe the loss to Belmont and going to overtime against Davidson wasn’t that bad? The home loss to Texas seems a lot more forgivable now that Texas is a possible Top 4 seed. And they’ve beaten Duke, Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky. Like Tom Izzo, Roy Williams has an incredible track record in March.

I’m not saying the will get their act together – I’m just saying they could get their act together and the talent is second to none. If they make some noise in the SEC Tournament, watch out. If they don’t, you can probably move them to the frauds.

The Brad Stevens Division
Coaching can never be underestimated in March. The 2011 Butler team was, well, not that good. Yet they played for a National Title. Why? Brad Stevens.

Iowa State
I’ve watched Iowa State a few times this year and I still don’t know how they’re a Top 20 team. They’re good, but they shouldn’t be that good, ya know? All hail, Fred Hoiberg. Seriously, watching him coach against someone inept like Travis Ford or Rick Barnes is simply not fair. Iowa State will make the Sweet 16, provided it doesn’t get a bracket of doom, thanks to the Mayor.

shaka smart
I’ve watched VCU a few times this year and there is no team in the country that wants to see VCU on their side of the bracket. In particular, I watched them lose a tight game on the road against St. Louis where they scratched and clawed and fought all the way to the end in a game that had no business even being close – they had played so terribly in the first half. VCU is a great tournament team because you cannot prepare for them because there is no one like them. Don’t mess with Shaka Smart’s defense.

Are you going to go against Larry Brown? The rise of the American is due in large part to adding a fifth Top 25 team. And remember, this is the year before SMU was supposed to be good. SMU may prove to be a home-court wonder – it has only a road win over UConn on the resume – but they would loom as an extremely dangerous 8/9 or 7/19 seed.

Ohio State
I don’t think Ohio State is good this year. But Thad Matta has a history of pulling NCAA Tournament games out of his you-know-what. The entire 2007 run with Greg Oden was one miracle after another. Right now, they could be looking at a 6 seed and that would spell trouble for at least one region’s bracket bottom.

Upset Bait
How do you pick an NCAA Tournament upset? You can either identify a mid-major that you think has potential – and you usually end up weeping that Thursday afternoon when the trendy Cinderella goes down. Or you can pick a top team that you think is vulnerable. The frauds above are all good possibilities but their high seeds may delay the upset until Round 2, ugh 3.

Last year, I correctly picked Florida Gulf Coast to beat Georgetown. Was I the first member on the Dunk City bandwagon? Hell no – I hadn’t seen a second of FGCU basketball. I had, though, seen way too much Georgetown basketball and knew they were ripe for an upset because they were way too up and down. And by Monday in the office, people were questioning why I only picked Dunk City to win one game.

I am just not feeling them this year. Peyton Siva was the reason they made back-to-back Final Fours and won it all last year. Now, Russ Smith is running the show and they are way too unpredictable. I’m not saying they will bow out in the Round of 64, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Virginia is exactly like Georgetown last year and I look forward to watching them lose. They have won 13 games in a row (as I write this) so they must be good. But in that stretch, they have beaten only 2 ranked teams, one of which is a crumbling Syracuse team. That’s how bad the ACC is – Virginia can play 13 ACC conference games and 11 opponents aren’t even ranked.

Virginia has lost by 35 to Tennessee, scored only 38 points against Wisconsin, couldn’t beat VCU at home and lost to Green Bay. Like Georgetown, they are benefitting from a ridiculously soft, unbalanced conference schedule. Virginia is not good.

Depending on how these teams finish, they may not be “upset bait” and just “Round of 64 losers” but it should be fun – they both play up-tempo basketball and are wildly inconsistent. In a perfect world, this is an 8/9 game with an over/under of 205. Either way, they won’t be playing in the Sweet 16.

Cinderella Potential
So about what I wrote above? Well, sometimes that trendy upset-minded mid-major pans out. Let’s see if we can figure it out…

Green Bay
Beat Virginia. Lost to Wisconsin by only 3. This is actually a potential bubble team if they fall in their conference tournament. The favorite to be this year’s 12vs5 trendy pick.

Beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Was beating Kentucky in Rupp at halftime. Played VCU tough and close for about 35 minutes. They’ve done it before. And the non-conference looks a bit worse because they played zero home games between Dec. 1 and Jan. 2. They will not back down from anybody.

Stephen F. Austin
They haven’t lost a game since November and in their only game against a top opponent, they were tied with Texas with 2 minutes to go in Austin. Of course, the “this year’s Dunk City!” stories have already started, which is the death knell for any Cinderella.

In back-to-back road games in December, Davidson took North Carolina to overtime and Wichita State to the final minute. They scheduled outrageously, with five current Top 25 teams in the non-conference, but it worked since they won the Southern Conference championship by 3 games and haven’t lost in six weeks. They lack a Steph Curry but they are not a team you want to deal with. 

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  1. Why do you hate Louisville so much??? Still butthurt about the ACC picking them?

  2. I would be very wary of picking Arizona to go all the way. Depending on the brackets, I'll probably go with Florida or Kansas.

    Could you imagine if Kansas is a #2 seed? That would seem to be unfair.

    I think it's funny you didn't even mention Wisconsin and they are a potential #1 seed.


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