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The NCAA Tournament was to start in earnest Thursday; here’s how we think it would have played out

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune).

I do not go to the Salt Lake Tribune offices every day, but I do like to go in at least a few times per month and have a face-to-face conversation with my boss. It’s more effective than talking on the phone, and I hate talking on the phone.

The last time I was in was about two weeks ago, at which time we discussed plans for Selection Sunday. The long and short of it was, assuming the University of Utah didn’t make some miraculous run through the Pac-12 Tournament, I would be the point man on Selection Sunday coverage. Take the four regions, break them down, make some picks, etc.

I was excited. One, I was being trusted with this. Two, this is in the middle of my wheelhouse, so I was gung-ho. My boss later called me a “college basketball gearhead.” We both laughed, I didn’t argue his point.

Last Thursday came, everything under the sun got cancelled, including the NCAA Tournament, and here we are, left with a bunch of what-ifs, and a giant void in our basketball-loving hearts.

Instead of analyzing the NCAA Tournament bracket, of which there isn’t one, I am going to offer my take on what would have happened had the NCAA Tournament gotten played. A few notes before we begin.

• I toyed around with how to do this, being there was no bracket release on Sunday. I could have created my own bracket, had Cinderella win conference tournaments and slide into the field, etc. I don’t love hypotheticals to begin with, so here’s what we’re going to do. BracketMatrix.com rates and ranks almost 200 amateur and professional Bracketologists. The site takes ‘bracket veterans,’ those with three or more years on Bracket Matrix, and ranks them all based on a five-year average. The five-year average leader is @BracketguyDave. For the purposes of this exercise, I used his most-updated projection, which came last Thursday morning when everything got cancelled.

• For Dave’s four First Four matchups in Dayton (two 16 vs. 16, two 11 vs. 11), I simply penciled in a winner and moved forward to the first round. The First Four has always been an early-week money grab, so I don’t feel the need to dive in.

• For what it’s worth (probably nothing because he is really good at this and does not need my approval), I agree with Dave having six Pac-12 teams in through last Thursday. Stanford, squarely on the bubble, laid a gigantic egg in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament Tournament against Cal last Wednesday. The Cardinal were NIT-bound.

• The big Pac-12 what-if is UCLA. The Bruins lost at USC in their regular-season finale, and seemingly needed at least one, even two wins at the Pac-12 Tournament to secure an at-large bid, but Dave had them in through last Wednesday. UCLA would have played Cal in a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal.

WHAT ABOUT BYU AND USU?


• BYU, No. 5 seed, Midwest Region: A loss in the WCC Tournament semifinals to Saint Mary’s left the Cougars with an intriguing draw at the top of the bracket. They survive in the first round against another mid-major contender, 28-win Southland power Stephen F. Austin, but run into yet another formidable mid-major, 13th-seeded Vermont, which emerges as this year’s Cinderella with a run to the Sweet 16.


• Utah State, No. 10 seed, Midwest Region: The Aggies as a 10-seed indicates they very well may have been left out entirely had they not won the Mountain West Tournament. A first-round win over Illinois comes as no surprise, but a second-round win over Big East tri-champion Creighton does after Sam Merrill goes nuts. Utah State meets its demise in a regional semifinal against Kentucky, two games from the Final Four.

MIDWEST REGION

First round

(1) Kansas over (16) Robert Morris: UMBC over Virginia in 2018 taught us to at least think about 1 vs. 16 matchups before picking……...OK, I thought about it.

(8) Saint Mary’s over (9) Houston: It feels like the Gaels are a tough out every year, whether it be the WCC Tournament, NIT or NCAA Tournament. BYU will attest to that.

(5) BYU over (12) Stephen F. Austin: Speaking of the Cougars, they’re older and they can win a shootout. That’s a dangerous combination.

(13) Vermont over (4) Louisville: John Becker is a wildly-underrated mid-major head coach and two-time America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb is a legitimate NBA prospect.

(6) Iowa over (11) Texas: Since taking VCU to the Final Four in 2011, Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart is 2-6 in the NCAA Tournament.

(3) Kentucky over (14) Bradley: At the time of cancelation, the Wildcats were a legitimate title contender, resembling nothing like the team that lost to Utah in December in Las Vegas.

(10) Utah State over (7) Illinois: Sam Merrill ended the season on a tear, Neemias Queta vs. Illini freshman star Kofi Cockburn is a fun matchup.

(2) Creighton over (15) UC-Irvine: A lot of people thought Creighton could never win in the Big East. That got shot down when the Bluejays shared the Big East regular-season title with Seton Hall and Villanova this season.

Second round

(1) Kansas over (8) Saint Mary’s: Jayhawks had a solid case as the best team in the country this season.

(13) Vermont over (5) BYU: Fun mid-major matchup between battle-tested cores for the right to go to the Midwest Regional. To be clear, I really wish this one was actually happening.

(3) Kentucky over (6) Iowa: Wildcats contain Big Ten Player of the Year and All-America candidate Luka Garza in a barnburner.

(10) Utah State over (2) Creighton: Seriously, Merrill can really play.

Sweet 16

(1) Kansas over (13) Vermont: Catamounts meet their demise in a regional rightfully billed as bluebloods vs. upstarts.

(3) Kentucky over (10) Utah State: Closer than Joe Average Fan expects, Merrill goes out with a flurry. Next stop, if Coronavirus allows it, the NBA Draft workout circuit.

Elite Eight

(3) Kentucky over (1) Kansas: Full disclosure, I don’t want Cinderella playing beyond the first weekend. With Final Four trips at stake, I want the heavyweights going 15 rounds.

FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2020, file photo, Kentucky forward Nick Richards dunks during an NCAA college basketball game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La. Richards was selected to the Associated Press All-SEC first team announced Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Bill Feig)

EAST REGION

First round

(1) Dayton over (16) Winthrop: National Player of the Year candidate Obi Toppin had a special season. The Atlantic 10 got a gem there.

(8) LSU over (9) Arizona State: Honest toss-up here. I’d feel better about the Sun Devils if they’d finished the regular season better.

(12) Liberty over (5) Butler: The Flames won 30 games, including the Atlantic Sun Tournament, while the Bulldogs didn’t offer a ton of optimism down the stretch.

(4) Maryland over (13) Yale: I am intrigued by how much Maryland alums and fans hate head coach Mark Turgeon, but he’ll avoid an upset here.

(6) West Virginia over (11) UCLA: If you like points, skip this one. If you like defense, settle in.

(3) Duke over (14) Hofstra: The Pride’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2001 is a short one, although this could be interesting given Hofstra can score.

(10) Florida over (7) Michigan: Florida is one of the bigger disappointments in the country given its talent and preseason ranking, but Michigan isn’t exactly Goliath.

(2) Villanova over (15) Northern Kentucky: Might as well be picking a 1-16 here. Next.

Second round

(1) Dayton over (8) LSU: Obi Toppin in the best player on the floor between these two teams.

(12) Liberty over (4) Maryland: Again, Terrapin fans hate Mark Turgeon

(3) Duke over (6) West Virginia: Physical, low-scoring game between Hall of Fame head coaches.

(2) Villanova over (10) Florida: Jay Wright is presiding over Camelot along the Main Line. If he ever leaves for the NBA, it means he’s bored.

Sweet 16

(1) Dayton over (12) Liberty: Remember above where I said I don’t want to see anyone but Power Conference teams beyond the first weekend?

(3) Duke over (2) Villanova: Not Mike Krzyzewski’s best team, but he has more than Jay Wright in another matchup of Hall of Famers.

Elite Eight

(3) Duke over (1) Dayton: Blue Devils emerge from the bottom half of the bracket, but have to go through Toppin to get to the Final Four.

FILE - In this Feb. 8, 2020, file photo, Duke guard Tre Jones drives to the basket against North Carolina guard Leaky Black (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C. Tre Jones was selected to the Associated Press All-ACC team selected Tuesday, March 10, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

WEST REGION

First round

(1) Gonzaga over (16) Prairie View A&M: SWAC teams generally play physical, if not tough. Well, so does Gonzaga.

(9) Oklahoma over (8) Colorado: Buffaloes are one of the Pac-12’s real disappointments.

(5) Ohio State over (12) Akron: The Buckeyes were at one time 11-1 and ranked No. 2 in the country. That didn’t last long.

(4) Oregon over (13) New Mexico State: Juicy first-round matchup between the class of the Pac-12 and the unbeaten-in-conference-play WAC champion. Ducks are older, have been through some stuff.

(6) Virginia over (11) East Tennessee State: If the opponent was anybody but Virginia, give me East Tennessee State and coach Steve Forbes, who high-majors should be lining up to hire.

(3) Michigan State over (14) Little Rock: Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A Tom Izzo-coached team is peaking in mid-March.

(10) Marquette over (7) Arizona: Marquette faded late in the regular season, Arizona was inconsistent with its three best players being freshmen. Give me Markus Howard to go nuts on the freshmen.

(2) San Diego State over (15) Eastern Washington: The Aztecs are another older, seasoned team capable of doing some real damage.

Second round

(1) Gonzaga over (9) Oklahoma: Mark Few has not won less than 26 games in a season in a decade. That is ridiculous.

(4) Oregon over (5) Ohio State: This one will not be particularly close.

(3) Michigan State over (6) Virginia: This is Cassius Winston’s time. He leads the Spartans in a dethroning of last season’s national champion.

(2) San Diego State over (10) Marquette: Aztecs overcome one last enormous shooting display from Markus Howard.

Sweet 16

(4) Oregon over (1) Gonzaga: A matchup of two of the West Coast’s three preeminent programs, the other being Arizona. To me, the Ducks have checked off a lot of boxes of a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations. My thinking has not changed.

(3) Michigan State over (2) San Diego State: The Aztecs, who were one of the four or five best teams in the country for most of the season, finally run into a real roadblock. No shame in this loss.

Elite Eight

(3) Michigan State over (4) Oregon: Yes, I think Oregon has legit Final Four-type stuff, but the Spartans are tough to deal with at this time of year. Tom Izzo teams are 8-2 in regional finals all-time.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, left, talks with Rocket Watts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Ohio State, Sunday, March 8, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

SOUTH REGION

First round

(1) Baylor over (16) Boston University: I’m not sure people appreciate the job done by Scott Drew, who took over an impossible situation at Baylor in 2003.

(8) USC over (9) Indiana: I stared at this matchup for 10 minutes before shrugging my shoulders.

(5) Auburn over (12) Cincinnati: Bruce Pearl is one of the great shucking-and-jiving head coaches of this generation.

(4) Wisconsin over (13) North Texas: Greg Gard’s Big Ten Coach of the Year nod was well-earned, as the Badgers were 13-10 overall and 6-6 in the Big Ten on Feb. 5, then ripped off eight straight wins to close the regular-season to share the league’s regular-season title.

(11) Texas Tech over (6) Penn State: A year after the Red Raiders advanced to the national championship game, they’re going to win a first-round game against the Nittany Lions, who lost five of six to close the regular season.

(3) Seton Hall over (14) Belmont: As soon as Myles Powell announced he was returning for his senior season last spring, Seton Hall’s ceiling became the Final Four.

(10) Rutgers over (7) Providence: A really intriguing first-round game. I don’t trust Rutgers to win away from home, but I’ll take a chance here.

(2) Florida State over (15) North Dakota State: The Seminoles are having quite a few years here, highlighted by winning the ACC regular-season title this season.

Second round

(1) Baylor over (8) USC: I think the Trojans would get absolutely trucked here, but we’ll never know.

(4) Wisconsin over (5) Auburn: Feels like a tossup, but give me the hotter team at this point, which would be the Badgers.

(3) Seton Hall over (11) Texas Tech: Pirates will have to tough this one out, but they have the older guys to get it done.

(2) Florida State over (10) Rutgers: Scarlet Knights have had a tremendous season, getting to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991, but it ends painfully here.

Sweet 16

(1) Baylor over (4) Wisconsin: Bears have been to a regional final twice under Scott Drew (2010, 2012), but have not been to a Final Four since 1950.

(3) Seton Hall over (2) Florida State: If this were the actual draw, the Pirates would have had to dig deep just to get to Florida State with a trip to a regional final at stake. You cannot overstate how important experience is at this time of year.

Elite Eight

(3) Seton Hall over (1) Baylor: Myles Powell fulfills his destiny, gets the Pirates to the Final Four for the first time since 1989, when they went to the national-title game.

Seton Hall's Myles Powell reacts after scoring during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Villanova, Wednesday, March 4, 2020, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

FINAL FOUR

Duke over Seton Hall: In the week between the regionals and the Final Four, this matchup will hit a lot of nostalgic tones. I’d expect Seton Hall to be there at the end, but can’t get over the hump.

Kentucky over Michigan State: A real blueblood, knockdown brawl to reach Monday night.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Kentucky over Duke: This is my mock NCAA Tournament exercise, so yeah, I manipulated it so we have to name-brand monsters playing for the national title, so what?

I miss you, basketball. Come back soon.

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