Danville, Kentucky -- March: a month that begins with wanton consumption of Shamrock Shakes and Irish Whiskey. March: a month that ends with several straight weeks spent at my local Buffalo Wild Wings watching college basketball. It's a thing of beauty. With golden foamy beer on my right and shiny sauced-drenched boneless chicken wings on my left, I feel at one with the universe as the drama of college basketball plays out before my eyes on multiple high-definition big screen TVs. From this perfect vantage point, I can see seniors scrap for survival while mid-major underdogs prove to the world that they truly belong amongst the world's top collegiate athletes. More importantly, the stirring story-lines of the NCAA tournament offer a brief respite from the banal drudgery of my middle-aged, divorced existence.
Lots of nerds will offer lots of hot takes about the tournament. They'll cite Kenpom, eFG%, PER and all manor of statistics as they offer advice on how to fill out your bracket. What these number-crunchers don't understand is that the glorious March tradition of cannot be explained or predicted by looking at a team's Pythagorean win/loss record. March Madness is like the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome: statistics mean nothing when a scrappy Cinderella team like 2012 Norfolk State is determined to defy the odds in stunning fashion.
Don't trust the metrics. Trust your own eyes. Here are my thoughts on March Madness. Fill out your brackets accordingly.
Don't Sleep on Bakersfield
Bakersfield is not like the rest of California. A solitary bulwark of working class values in an otherwise irredeemably blue state, Bakersfield has been at the receiving end of the gut-punch that is globalization and unfettered free trade. It's Bakersfield that bears the brunt of Los Angeles' profligate air pollution, boasting the worst air-quality in the country. Bakersfield is one of America's top energy producing cities, where many folks' economic well-being lives or dies on the oil rig. The recent crash in gasoline prices has hit these good folks hard; the only thing they are holding on to is the dream of the Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners making a run at March Madness glory.
And let me tell you, the people of Bakersfield are good people. My Uncle Truman, named after the last president truly tough enough to win a war, has lived there his whole life. Bakersfield is a hard-working city, where people go to premier watering-holes like Goose Loonies Tavern after a long day at the oil rig. Bakersfield is one of the few cities to stand up against the forces of globalization that are holding back American ingenuity and innovation. In 1993, Donald Trump spoke out against NAFTA at the Cal State Bakersfield campus. In 2016, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield endorsed Trump as the candidate most likely to energize the Republican Party. Bakersfield is ground zero for NAFTA's devastation, but this city is also where NAFTA will meet its final defeat.
The proletarian grit of the Bakersfield Roadrunners doesn't show up on a Kenpom spreadsheet. Oklahoma (2) versus CSU Bakersfield (15) has major upset potential, for those of you at home filling out brackets. Oklahoma's recent defeat in the Big 12 tournament at the hands of the scrappy full-court pressing West Virginia Moutaineers bodes ill for the Sooners' chances against the similarly feisty Roadrunners. If Bakersfield pulls a page from genius coach Bob Huggins' playbook, it could be a long night for OU, a team that shoots way too many threes. Bakersfield, fresh off a clutch buzzer-beating win in the WAC championship game, has all the momentum. The Roadrunners play a high-intensity, physical brand of defense that could very well thwart jump-shot reliant players like Buddy Hield. Don't bet against the Roadrunners.
Baylor Bears: Young, Scrappy, Hungry
The Baylor Bears have TWTW. Taurean Prince was once a commit to LIU-Brooklyn. I'm not sure what LIU stands for, but Prince stands for winning. He now projects to be a first round NBA draft pick? How did he do it? By spending his summer in the gym instead of playing Xbox One Live.
Then they have Rico Gathers. He's planning to play in the NFL. Baylor has a pro day for the NFL. Lots of kids skip class to go to parties. Rico is skipping pro day to go play in the tournament. What a player - he cares more about the team he's committed to than having "measurables" for Roger Goodell. With a matchup against Yale nerds in the first round, don't bet against the Bears.
Wichita State Seniors: Experience Counts
The Shockers are a team so good I can't believe Kenpom likes them. There's a lot to like about the Shockers: they have senior veteran leadership, tons of tournament experience, and great chemistry. Evan Wessel, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are not only top tier talents, but best friends. They've been to the big dance before. Most important of all, the Shockers will be playing with a chip on their shoulder after being disrespected by the selection committee with an 11 seed. On paper, Wichita State probably wasn't as good as the Kansas Jayhawks team they beat in the 3rd round of the tournament last year. But Wichita State had something that doesn't show up on paper: hustle and friendship. I like this team to make a deep run.
Greg Marshall even turned down job offers to coach this team. Coach Marshall knew he could head to Alabama or some other state that also has great seafood. Instead, he realized you can still get great seafood in Kansas if you just know where the right Red Lobster is located. Marshall knows where the right wins are in the tournament. Take them to advance.
KU: A Team in Need of 2's
The Kansas Jayhawks are another team that is difficult to pick against. They have Shocker-esque chemistry and camaraderie.
My buddy in Lawrence just saw Devonte Graham and Tyler Self at @BWWings. The team that wings together wins together. #MarchMadness— The Will To Win (@TWTWsports) March 14, 2016
They've also got a ton of momentum on their side, coming fresh off an authoritative romp through the Big 12 tournament. Yet, I have my reservations about this team. Long story short, they shoot too many 3's. The folks calling for KU to take more threes, Five Thirty Eight included, are dead wrong. Unfortunately, Bill Self seems to have listened to them. I've never understood the second-guessing nerds who think they can design a better offense than 12-time Big 12 champion Bill Self. There's a reason Bill Self is the coach, and there's a reason his critics are mostly bloggers. The KU three-pointer debate is often framed as a forced choice between chucking up threes and feeding the ball to Perry Ellis down low. Folks, I know the perfect middle ground: KU needs to stop being afraid of taking mid-range two-pointers.
I think there is big upset potential if KU has to face Connecticut. Connecticut is angry they were left out of a major conference. It's why they won the tournament in 2013 despite having nowhere near the best players - that team needed overtime in the round of 64 to beat St. Joe's before winning the whole ship.
The House Tom Izzo Built: This is (March) Madness
Folks, nobody does more with less than Tom Izzo. His recruits aren't as flashy or beloved by metrics as some other schools, but his great in-game managing ensures that the Spartans get the most out of the roster that they have. The "snub factor" I described with Wichita State is also at play here with MSU -- Izzo and his boys know they're a #1 seed, and will be pumped up as they attempt to prove the selection committee wrong. This could be the year Izzo gets Michigan State a second NCAA Championship.
You could spend hours creating a bracket by analyzing luck ratings, home/road splits, and strength of schedule numbers. Or you can go with your gut. The NCAA tournament is predictably unpredictable. But there is one thing I can confidently predict: narrative matters.