Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we follow sports? More accurately, why do we obsess over sports? We spend inordinate amounts of time, energy, money, and brain space watching sports, attending sporting events, or, hell, just daydreaming about our favorite teams and players. College sports are particularly egregious where we pull our hair out, break our TVs and do irreparable damage to our blood vessels based on the mercurial play of teenagers and twenty-year-olds. Just to be clear, this isn’t some judgmental high horse, I’m preaching to the mirror as much as anyone. The answer, fortunately, isn’t to be cool or have something to talk about at work other than work. The answer is because, unless you are a fumble-prone running back playing for Herman Boone, sports are unbelievably fun. In homage to that, I’m bringing back “The Most Fun Final Four” column. You’ll be happy to know that this column includes no gambling advice. For all of you entering an office pool and looking for the bracket you can have the most fun rooting for, this column’s for you. You endured enough bad gambling advice from me during football season.
Going back to my 2017 column, there are three criteria for picking a fun bracket, that I, surprisingly, still agree with (odds on that were +450). For starters, your picks must be conceivable. As I so elegantly said six years ago, “there is nothing less fun than your bracket being completely worthless by 4 P.M. on the first Thursday.” That holds up. Second, style of play matters. Tony Bennett is a great guy and Virginia helped me win a pool not that long ago, but watching vice-grip halfcourt defenses and brickfests is zero fun, sir. Then, most importantly, you don’t get to be a bore and pick four one seeds, Kentucky, or Duke.
South Region: Arizona Wildcats
Arizona’s aesthetic has thankfully returned to the Lute Olson era design, but don’t be fooled. These aren’t Lute Olson’s Cats. Tommy Lloyd brought a quicker style of play from Gonzaga, and Arizona has been both fast and efficient. The Wildcats are third in the country in points per game, led by Azoulas Tubelis. Another Lithuanian stretch four who averages just a hair shy of 20 points and 10 boards per game. He is surrounded by strong guard play from Courtney Ramey and Kerr Kriisa, who is named after Steve Kerr. For those who don’t know or remember, Steve Kerr was an Arizona Wildcat before playing for Jordan’s Bulls and coaching the Golden State Warriors. If that’s not a fun rooting quirk, then what is?
Here’s how we arrived at Arizona over the other teams in the region. Alabama is already the Darth Vader of college sports thanks to the football dynasty, but additionally the off-the-court situation surrounding the tragic murder of Jamea Harris and subsequent poor comments and actions make it even messier to support Alabama. As an Alabama fan, I feel conflicted about this, so I can’t imagine someone who wasn’t previously an Alabama fan trying to hop on the bandwagon now, or it being fun to do so. Baylor is a ho-hum three seed and plays like a worse version of Alabama. Keyonte George is exciting and will be a lottery pick, but other than that the Bears don’t bring much to the table. I addressed Virginia in the opener. Outside of the Charleston Cougars, no higher seed has the “fun” factor or the chops for a deep run. If you want to get “upset-y” with things, Charleston can fill it up and would be my second “fun” pick…until Virginia puts a stick in their craw for 40 minutes.
East Region: Marquette Golden Eagles
Speaking of teams with great aesthetics. Marquette’s navy, powder blue and gold color palette is one of the cleanest in college basketball and they finally have the team to let it fully pop. Furthermore, after a disappointing stint at Texas, Shaka Smart is back where he belongs: getting a strong mid-major to fulfill its highest potential. Plus, we all should remember how fun Smart was at VCU. Here’s a clip if you don’t. The Golden Eagles play fast, second in the country in fastbreak points, and spread the ball around to an array of scorers instead of centering on one offensive star.
Purdue is flat-out boring and they always falter in the tournament. Kansas State won’t make it to the second weekend of the tournament. Tennessee, my actual final four pick, would be another intriguing option here but stylistically they aren’t as fun as Marquette is and they are dealing with the loss of Zakai Zeigler to a torn ACL. Duke and Kentucky violate the third criterion. Memphis would also be a fun pick and has a real shot to beat Purdue…if they can beat a stellar Florida Atlantic team. Those two cancel each other out…if only you could pick them as a package and just take whoever wins like a First Four game.
Midwest Region: Houston Cougars
Right now you are thinking something along the lines of: two two-seeds and a one-seed isn’t exactly the gutsiest final four. That also wasn’t the title of this column. We are trying to pick some winners that we can also feel good about rooting for and enjoy the best parts of this beautiful sport. Houston embodies that the most from the Midwest, plus, even if they are the one seed seeing them stick it to Texas, who acts like the state’s big brother in all things, still feels like an underdog story. Plus, they have a real opportunity to play a Final Four game in their hometown since Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward led Butler to the 2010 national championship game in Indianapolis. Marcus Sasser’s groin injury is the major looming question mark for the Coogs heading into the Big Dance, but the good news is they probably won’t need him to get out of the first weekend with title hopes still intact.
Texas could arguably be thrown into the Kentucky and Duke camp based on how the program carries itself, but what they have done with an interim coach has been impressive. The rest of this region is full of teams that always find their way into the NCAA tournament, but always let down those of us foolish enough to trust them in March. What’s up Miami, Indiana, and Iowa?
West Region: Arkansas Razorbacks
Now we’re talking! You didn’t think I would get too “chalk-y” for a “most fun” final four did you? Arkansas, stylistically, is very different from our other three selections relying on a top-20 defense and playing predominantly inside the 3-point arc offensively. However, you know what else is fun about March Madness? Watching future NBA stars light it up on the grandest college stage. Thanks to the rise of G-league Ignite and overseas options for players wanting to make some cash before going pro, we are seeing fewer and fewer NBA lottery picks in the NCAA tournament. Arkansas is the only team in the field that features two soon-to-be lottery picks, Anthony Black and Nick Smith, Jr. Black is a tall, smooth facilitator who reminds me of Ben Simmons with better hair, a much better attitude and a much much much better jumpshot. Smith is a Bradley Beal-type scorer who has the potential to take over a game or half and he’s finally healthy. Those two paired with Eric Musselman’s coaching, which always seems to get the most out of his teams in March, give Arkansas a chance to make another deep playoff run.
Kansas had their fun last year and is a vulnerable one seed. Vulnerable one seeds are one of the least fun things about March. It’s never fun to see one of your Final Four picks get exposed by a 16-seed as they gut out a 6-point victory and portend your bracket going up in flames 48 hours later. We can’t pick two Pac-12 teams, plus UCLA’s best player (Jaime Jacquez) looks like Tom Sandoval, who just outted himself as a mega-douche, so by association Jacquez and the Bruins are out. The novelty of picking Gonzaga to go to the Final Four has worn off. One last fun subplot from this region is the potential for a “Gael-off”! If St. Mary’s beats VCU and Iona upsets UConn, we will get the first all-Gaelic NCAA tournament matchup. Where else do we get quirks like that? Strap in and let’s have a fun three weeks.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Mitchell Layton/Getty Images