Every March, I dream of a perfect bracket. I know that nailing every game in the NCAA Tournament is impossible; I’m talking about correctly picking 15 of the Sweet 16 teams or the entire Final Four. Most years, by the end of the Tourney’s first weekend, I’m hoping I at least get the champion right and finish with a better bracket than my brothers (neither will happen this year).
When March Madness turns to April, I reflect on the field and try to figure out where I went wrong. I look for the missed signs in even the unlikeliest Final Four teams and can usually find something. Last year, with three No. 1 seeds, I only had to dig deep on Michigan State—deep enough to remember Tom Izzo is their coach. The year before, when a 7 seed (UConn) and 8 seed (Kentucky) made the Final Four, I could reflect on my preseason analysis, when I thought both were capable of a deep run. Occasionally, I have to give myself a break, like VCU in 2011.
This year’s Final Four is set, and it’s a rare instance where I can’t punish myself too much. Oklahoma is the only team I picked to reach the Final Four that actually did, but I’m not surprised by Villanova or North Carolina. All three spent time at No. 1 in the polls this season. I’ll admit that Nova’s penchant for losing in the first weekend was on my mind when I picked them to lose to Miami in the Sweet 16, but I thought Miami was similar and better. Of course, the matchup came to fruition, and Villanova dominated. That the Wildcats went on to take down Kansas, the overall favorite and my champion, proved how good they are and that they have a great chance against Oklahoma.
I knew Carolina had the talent to win it all, but I thought their three-point shooting would cost them a game along the way. So far, it hasn’t, mostly because it’s been pretty good. Of their three most prolific outside shooters, two have gotten hot in the Tournament: Marcus Paige is 13 for 27 from deep in Carolina’s four Tourney games and Justin Jackson is 6 for 13 (Joel Berry is 5 for 19). As a team they hit 11 of 20 against Indiana in the Sweet 16.
Then there’s Syracuse, a 10 seed. It would not have been unjust if they didn’t receive an invitation to the Tournament, solely for losing to St. John’s. They entered the Dance with a 19-13 record, having lost five of their last six. But their 2-3 zone stifled Dayton, the Atlantic-10 regular season champs, in the first round, and they caught a huge break when Middle Tennessee State stunned Michigan State. Still, four wins in the NCAA Tournament is difficult, and Syracuse needed a late runs in Chicago to top a red hot Gonzaga squad and No. 1 seed Virginia.
I’ve talked to several Syracuse alums and none of them expected this. Even if you had told me the Michigan State roadblock would be removed, I still wouldn’t have thought they’d get this far. You can’t even look at Syracuse as a regular season underachiever that realized its potential at the right time. Unlike, say, the aforementioned 2014 Kentucky team, which was ranked No. 1 in the preseason and unranked entering the Tournament, Syracuse was not ranked in the preseason poll and picked ninth in the ACC. They were ranked for just one week during the season. Their road to the Tourney was a rocky one.
But here they are. Can they beat Carolina in Houston on Saturday? Some believe their familiarity—Syracuse lost twice to UNC in the regular season—will help them at least keep it close. They did just beat another ACC foe, Virginia, despite losing to them earlier in the year. I’d be stunned if they pulled off the upset, but it’s only one game. Syracuse winning would be less surprising than their appearance in the game. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.