Everyone has a bracket, but not everyone gets to (or has to) present the reasons behind their picks. Below are my quickest, easiest to digest, last-minute thoughts on what teams will win and lose on Thursday and Friday.
I will be calling the Salt Lake City region, games you can watch Thursday on TNT. Hit me up on Twitter @gottliebshow as the games are played, but most of all, enjoy the madness.
Louisville vs. North Carolina A&T
Missouri is better in so many different ways. The Tigers are better at the point, especially as Dorian Green returns from a sprained ankle for CSU. They are more experienced, with Alex Oriakhi having won a national title as a starter. Flip Pressey and Laurence Bowers have both played well and deep into the dance. But CSU's Green makes huge jumpers, Colton Iverson is a load inside and CSU starts five seniors who play hard and well together. I will take the Rams.
Marcus Smart is awesome. Oklahoma State is a dynamic offensive team and Oregon crashes the glass, can press and turn them over and is an older group. I'm going to take Dana Altman's club over Travis Ford's even though I would contend that Ford's club has more talent. If OSU recognizes the defensive changes, then the Cowboys can win. Oregon uses a mixture of presses that are designed to keep you out of transition, and I think Altman will zone OSU a bunch.
If NMSU had Tyrone Watson, then maybe. Sim Bhullar is 7-foot-5 -- I said 7-foot-5. Bhullar is fairly athletic, can really block shots, but he runs just OK and St. Louis will run him. Bandja Sy is a terrific slasher, but he just doesn't shoot it all that well from 3, and I think the Billikens' defense will make NMSU make shots it's not comfortable taking. Marvin Menzies is back in the tournament and the former Rick Pitino assistant will fall to the age, experience and toughness of St. Louis. Look out for Cody Ellis as a face-up four, the Billikens' depth and watch also for Jordair Jett off the bench -- he didn't play well in the A-10 tournament and they still won.
Memphis has played very well late in the season and much of that is the competitiveness of Joe Jackson. Jackson may have missed clinching a free throw vs. Southern Miss, but he also got several big steals, assists and buckets to win the game for Memphis. His matchup vs. Matthew Dellavedova is a unique one. Delly has size, experience and patience in using ball screens, while Jackson is just lightning-in-a bottle explosive. With Jorden Page out with an injury, I just do not think SMC has the weapons to beat Memphis. Tigers will roll.
The way to beat Michigan State in my opinion is with quick guards who can frustrate Keith Appling or zone the Spartans. Valpo does one of those two -- my guess would be that Bryce Drew will zone Sparty a good deal and make Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Denzel Valentine hit jumpers while shading Appling and Travis Trice. I think Michigan State wins, but I'm not convinced it will be a blowout.
Offense vs. defense. It isn't that UC can't score, well OK ... it is that the Bearcats cannot consistently score. Sean Kilpatrick has a terrific all-around scoring game and when healthy Cashmere Wright is a good second option as a deep jump shooter, but the Bearcats went to a small lineup mid-year last year and their "power forwards" haven't been as good this year. Creighton has Doug McDermott and does not have a great point guard. I think UC smothers McDermott and wins a game in the 50s. Yes, I know that goes against my bracket -- it is just what I am feeling.
Duke lost as a 2 seed last year but will not lose this year. This Duke team executes its offense quite well, unlike last year's team. Still, Rasheed Sulaimon is a freshman and Quinn Cook has overachieved much of the year, so let's not make Duke into some juggernaut. This Duke team is more like Coach K's early Duke teams, better as one than individually. Duke beats Albany.
The Zags are in for a difficult game on offense as Southern can really defend. GU won't lose, but the Jaguars are long and very well coached defensively. Malcolm Miller averages 15.5 ppg and he only plays 26 minutes a game. Derick Beltran is SU's go-to guy and Gonzaga has struggled with big scoring guards in the past. Take GU, but it may not be the 40-point romp you would expect.
Pitt will look in the mirror and see a smaller version of itself. Neither is a great scoring team, but both can really defend and compete. Talib Zanna and Steven Adams are just so massive and athletic, I don't see the Shockers scoring a bunch in the lane. Pitt has Tray Woodall and if the Panthers can get him some looks, they win a very tight game in the 50s.
While there is a ton of attention paid to Marshall Henderson, Murphy Holloway is the bigger key for Ole Miss. Holloway was fantastic vs. Florida and will have to be again vs. Wisconsin. Rebounding is the biggest key for Wisconsin as Henderson is a high-volume, low-percentage shooter, and I think Wisconsin's pace will bother Ole Miss. I do believe this is a very close game, one Ole Miss will have an opportunity to win, but Wisconsin's Jared Berggren is a tough cover and likely will get Ole Miss in some foul trouble. Take Bucky.
La Salle shot the eyes out of it on Wednesday night in Dayton and will have to do the same in Kansas City on Friday night. Obviously, there will be a ton of purple in the stands and K-State matches up well to the four-guard look of La Salle, since they went to Shane Southwell at the four a couple of months ago. Rodney McGruder is really good and he can post up some in this game. I'll take fresh legs over tired legs; K-State pulls away late.
Arizona has a unique toughness about it. Mark Lyons exudes competitiveness and fire as he is back in the NCAA tournament with a different team in successive years. Solomon Hill seems much more comfortable at the face-up 4 than at the 3, but Belmont is not affected by Zona's small lineup. Ian Clark is a flat-out, dead-eye 3-point shooter and Kerron Johnson leads incredibly well. My biggest question is who does Kaleb Tarczewski or Brandon Ashley guard? Trevor Noack as a face-up 5 is a hard cover for the Zona bigs. I think Zona wins, but it will be a barnburner. Look for Lyons to win it late in a mano-a-mano showdown with Johnson.
Harvard was supposed to be down this year as its top two returners missed the season amid a university-wide cheating scandal. Wesley Saunders is having an outstanding year as a sophomore helped in large part by freshman point guard Siyani Chambers. Chambers is a very good penetrate-and-pitch point guard, and Harvard will look to use Saunders and Laurent Rivard from three early and at the end of the shot clock. New Mexico may have to go back to its smaller lineup with Chad Adams at the 4 as Cameron Bairstow is more of an interior defender. I think Saunders has a hard time with the length of Tony Snell, and Harvard struggles with Alex Kirk popping jumpers off ball screens. New Mexico by around 10.
Notre Dame must contain Tyrus McGee off the bench and keep Will Clyburn out of transition. It will be interesting to see ND match up with the shooting of Iowa State. Georges Niang can play post defense and hit 3s as an undersized 5 man for the Cyclones. Notre Dame has a terrific backcourt that let one get away last year in the tourney. I think ND wins on the backs of Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins. Jack Cooley will be forced to move his feet out on the floor, and I do believe that ISU can win if it gets ahead early, but I am going to take ND. My biggest concern for ND is who guards Clyburn. The Irish by 2.
Iona's Momo Jones is going to go right at Aaron Craft, and Sean Armand is an unreal shooter. But Iona plays fast and Ohio State will be able to use its smaller lineup against the Gaels. Shannon Scott has brought a ton to the table for Ohio State playing alongside Craft, and Sam Thompson can be terrific as a pogo stick 4 man in their first game. Buckeyes. Easy.
KU has had its issues in the past, and WKU does not present enough of them. In KC take KU, easy. While I believe a 16 will eventually upset a one seed, I also bet it will be the best team from a bad conference. WKU is simply not close to being the best from the Sun Belt.
UNC has gone small for the last couple of months, and it seems to have energized the Tar Heels. Villanova will press you and smack at you and get the ball to JayVaughn Pinkston, who has been better off taking fewer 3s. Also of interest is the matchup of frosh point guards Ryan Arcidiacono and Marcus Paige. Paige is a far better passer, but Arcidiacono has scored better. I'll take UNC and James Michael McAdoo.
If Alex Abreu was playing, this would be a fantastic match-up. Instead, Akron has to do its best without the suspended point guard and hope it can manage against VCU's "Havoc" defense. This is a great draw for VCU. Rams big.
Premiere matchup at point guard. Trey Burke is a freak off the high and side ball screen. Michigan loves to run and can pummel you in transition with deep 3s and the transition scoring game of Tim Hardaway Jr. South Dakota State spaces the floor well off of Nate Wolters' penetration and kick-outs for 3. The Jackrabbits are seventh nationally in 3-point percentage and ninth in 3-point makes -- a scary combination. I think this favors Michigan, which loves to shoot 3s and play fast, but I do not know that for sure. Let's take Michigan, but cautiously.
Larry Drew has had a turnaround season, Shabazz Muhammad has shown his ability to score in the post and from 3, and Travis Wear is a tough matchup as a face-up five man. On the other hand, Jordan Adams is out for the year and UCLA simply does not have enough shooting without him. Minnesota has lost 11 of its last 16 games. That said, this is a bad matchup for the Bruins with poor mojo and the cloud of Ben Howland still fighting for his job even with a league championship.
Florida defends with pure unbridled aggression. All the Gators' losses but one have been in single digits this year, but this won't be added to that group against the nation's highest-scoring team. Chomp. Chomp. Chomp.
SDSU struggles against two-post teams, which Oklahoma is. On the other hand, Lon Kruger is 5-13 vs. SDSU from his UNLV days. The Aztecs weren't healthy much of the conference season, but when healthy they have big shot-makers like Chase Tapley, and Jamaal Franklin is a really tough cover. San Diego State is living a bit on reputation, but its actual substance is much better than OU's of late. SDSU wins a close game on the back of Tapley and Xavier Thames.
There is a lot of love for Georgetown, but I'm not ready to go all in on the Hoyas. Their hand-checking will get them in foul trouble and their lack of scoring may be their downfall. FGCU has a terrific ball-handling point guard Brett Comer. The Eagles won't win, but don't expect a pasting either. Otto Porter has been better when he tries to take over games, and he will have to take over this one.
JMU was impressive, especially considering the suspension for the first half of leading scorer Rayshawn Goins. Indiana is a team you must keep out of transition, and though its halfcourt offense has become more focused on getting Cody Zeller the ball, it is still something the Hoosiers can do more of. JMU pushes Indiana early as playing a game loosens you up in tournament play, but IU finds its form and wins handily.
NC State likes to play fast, really fast. Temple, not so much. Last year it just felt like NCSU was jelling and so its seed was irrelevant; this year, it's hard to figure. When the Owls walk on the floor you would swear Temple has no chance, which is exactly why they will win. Like the VCU game, Temple will not be rushed and its defense will make NC State make jumpers. I'm going to predict the Wolfpack don't make enough. Take Temple.
UNLV already beat Cal at Cal, but both teams are very different than in their first meeting. In the game, one in which Mike Moser had been hurt earlier in the game (dislocated elbow), UNLV won at the buzzer on an offensive rebound. Since then Cal has changed its offense to a dribble-drive motion, something Mike Montgomery has never previously done. UNLV has shrunk its bench and is not trying to play Moser at the 3; instead Dave Rice is rotating Moser, Khem Birch and Anthony Bennett for two spots while doing the same at the guards with only Justin Hawkins getting most of the burn off the bench. The Bears' new offense makes Tyrone Wallace and Cal's big men more effective, and it will cause UNLV to switch on the perimeter and Cal should be able to get better looks. Based on talent and improvement, UNLV should win. Bennett, Birch, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt are all playing better individually, but Cal can win if it gets into the UNLV defense. I'll take the Rebels in a hard-fought win.
Montana's Will Cherry -- a Nor Cal kid who played for the Oakland Soldiers AAU team -- can get into the lane and make shots. Kareem Jamar is not as good of a shooter as Cherry, but he handles the ball just as much for the Griz. Montana lost leading scorer Mathias Ward to a foot injury, but Cherry is the Grizzlies' best player. Jamar being from Los Angeles, Cherry being from Oakland, one would expect the Grizzlies to play above their level in a San Jose homecoming. But Montana plays fast and you cannot play fast against Syracuse unless you press. Additionally Cuse's zone is long and I would expect the Orange to pressure all jump shooters. Syracuse has the 17th-best 3-point field-goal percentage defense in the country. Syracuse wins handily.
Mike Muscala is a stud, part of a veteran Bucknell group that starts three seniors and two juniors. Muscala is good enough to play essentially anywhere and will collect a nice check next year, stateside or abroad. Butler is here, but quietly had a slightly disappointing season in its conference. Losing three times to St. Louis and badly at VCU shows some of the deficiencies with a team that is one of two in this field to beat two one seeds (Indiana, Gonzaga). The challenge is whether or not Rotnei Clarke can shoot a high percentage and if Andrew Smith can come to play and not get into foul trouble. You can either turn Butler over or just try to bully them -- neither is the strength of Bucknell. A moderately close win for Butler.
Marquette was crazily overseeded as a 3 seed and Davidson was underseeded as a 14. Davidson was sped up last year but seems better with dual ball handlers this year. JP Kuhlman struggled at times early this season, but that was due to a sprained ankle. Now with Kuhlman and Nik Cochran, combined with Southern Conference player of the year Jake Cohen, I think they are ready for Marquette's pressure. Take Davidson.
Illinois is the other team in this field, along with Butler, that beat both Indiana and Gonzaga. Illinois beat GU on the road, and Butler beat the Zags without Rotnei Clarke at home. Illinois is a tough team to guard as it spreads you way out and attacks with guards. Colorado has two terrific players many have not heard of in Spencer Dinwiddie, who might have the best mustache in the tourney, and Andre Roberson, the best rebounder in the country. Roberson can guard Tyler Griffey on the perimeter as he is a dynamic athlete. Brandon Paul can flat out win a game on his own, but I'm guessing he will not. Take CU.
Pacific is no walk in the park. The Tigers have been together for two years and are mostly junior college transfers on what will be retiring coach Bob Thomason's last team. Miami is terrific, but this group has never won a tournament game together. Pacific will make the Hurricanes grind. This one should be close for a half or three quarters of the game. Miami by 10-15.