NCAA tourney 2018: Our writers fill out brackets and give their upset picks, Final Four and title winners

The Dagger

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The NCAA tourney tipped off in earnest on Tuesday.

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Of course, we all have our own opinions as to which team will cut down the nets in San Antonio, and our college basketball crew is never afraid to share their takes.

We asked our experts to fill out their bracket and explain their biggest upset picks, Final Four teams and who they think will win it all. They were keen on one of two teams to take the cake. One of them is a recent March mainstay. The other pick will not likely be a popular one among readers.

On to the predictions…

Note: All picks made before the news that Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter would miss the entire tournament with a broken wrist.

Pat Forde

Upsets: I have at least one double-digit seed winning a game in every region, and two double-digit seeds advancing to the Sweet 16. I have Loyola Chicago taking down Miami and Tennessee in the South before running aground against Cincinnati. And I have New Mexico State advancing through a bracket collapse in the Midwest. The Aggies will upset Clemson, then be gifted with a round-of-32 game against fellow Cinderella College of Charleston, which they will win before being taken out by Kansas.

Final Four: Villanova has the easiest path, with no serious test until an East region final against Purdue — which the Wildcats will win. The other three regions all feature titanic games before the regional final: Arizona-Kentucky in the South region second round, then an Arizona-Virginia game, with Arizona advancing; Michigan-North Carolina and Xavier-Gonzaga in the West region semifinals, with a Michigan-Xavier final and the Wolverines advancing; and a Michigan State-Duke showdown in the Midwest region Sweet 16, with the Spartans winning that and then beating Kansas to reach San Antonio.

National champion: I’m going with Villanova on the basis on four things. One, fewest land mines along the way to San Antonio. Two, the most efficient offense in college basketball. Three, a pair of pros who can get buckets when they’re hardest to come by in Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges. And four, a coach who has been there and done that and knows what he’s doing in Jay Wright. Two titles in three years, let the ‘Nova dynasty commence.

Pat Forde’s Tourney Pick’em bracket
Pat Forde’s Tourney Pick’em bracket

Pete Thamel

Upsets: The world is flat in college basketball, as some of the upsets don’t feel all that unpredictable. We’ll go with No. 11 Loyola, No. 9 Florida State, No. 10 Providence, No. 11 St. Bonaventure (over Florida), No. 10 Butler, No. 12 New Mexico State, No. 13 Charleston and No. 11 Syracuse (over TCU). The two double-digit seeds to pick to reach the Sweet 16? Take Loyola and New Mexico State.

Final Four: Virginia, Purdue, Michigan State and North Carolina. For a team that’s reached back-to-back Monday nights, UNC has been oddly overlooked by a lot of pundits. Look for Joel Berry to get his crew to the Final Four for a third-straight year. Michigan State will survive the Hall of Fame gauntlet in the Midwest. Purdue and Virginia will get the Final Four breakthroughs that Matt Painter and Tony Bennett have waited their entire careers for.

National champion: This is a year where the talented teams aren’t that great and the great teams aren’t that talented. That’s why the teams with the one-and-done prototypes – Duke, Arizona and Kentucky – won’t last all the way through this NCAA gauntlet. This is going to be the year of the breakthrough, and Virginia’s Tony Bennett will bust through to Monday night, one slow suffocation of an opponent at a time. This Virginia team has been consistent enough offensively – No. 21 in Kenpom’s adjusted efficiency – to string together six wins and cut down the net.

Pete Thamel’s bracket
Pete Thamel’s bracket

Jeff Eisenberg

Upsets: Two of the most vulnerable top-five seeds happen to be in the same section of the Midwest bracket. Fourth-seeded Auburn has dropped four of six entering the NCAA tournament and hasn’t looked the same since losing standout shot blocker Anthony McLemore to a season-ending injury on Feb. 17. Clemson also has dropped five of eight and has been more vulnerable since second-leading scorer Donte Grantham went down to injury. Twelfth-seeded New Mexico State will be a tough team to beat for both Clemson and Auburn. The WAC champion Aggies (28-5) defeated Miami and Illinois this season, swept a pair of games from in-state rival New Mexico and nearly added a win over USC as well. If you’re looking for a double-digit seed to advance to the Sweet 16, New Mexico State is the best pick.

Final Four: There’s no need to overthink the East region. Villanova is the best team. If the Wildcats can avoid falling victim to their second-round jinx against dangerous Alabama, they should advance to their second Final Four in three years. The winner of a potential Duke-Michigan State Sweet 16 clash is my pick to come out of the Midwest. I’ll take the Blue Devils mostly because it scares me to pick against the most talented team in the field that early. I trust Virginia to emerge from the South despite a potentially terrifying Sweet 16 game against either Arizona or Kentucky. Meanwhile, the top four seeds in the West all have Final Four potential. Give me the Zags in a regional final pitting the two teams who battled for the national title last April.

National champion: Many didn’t believe in Villanova until it won the 2016 national title. Many didn’t believe in Gonzaga until it reached the championship game last year. Now it’s Virginia’s turn to break through. Thanks to a combination of elite defense and efficient offense, Virginia won the ACC by four games this season and backed that up with a conference tournament title. I’m a little wary because the Cavaliers’ slow pace has the ability to keep lesser opponents within striking distance, but ultimately in a wide-open season when every college basketball team is flawed, Virginia is the team I trust the most.

Jeff Eisenberg’s bracket
Jeff Eisenberg’s bracket

Henry Bushnell

Upsets: Matchups have squelched most upset possibilities. Davidson, the best 12-seed, drew the best 5-seed. Auburn, the most vulnerable team on the top four seed lines, avoided the three dangerous 13-seeds. Greensboro, the best of those three, got the strongest 4-seed. I do like Loyola, and I’ll go with New Mexico State and South Dakota State, but I don’t feel great about either.

Final Four: The easy calls for me are Villanova and Virginia. The tough ones are in the West and Midwest. I’ll take North Carolina to flex its interior muscle against Michigan and/or Gonzaga, but any of those three could emerge. I’ll also back Sparty to neutralize Duke’s frontcourt, then to beat Kansas in a classic. But similarly, any of those three is a defensible selection.

National champion: Are we picking names and track records here? Or are we picking teams? It’s tempting to make decisions based on the former. But Villanova and Virginia have been the best teams in the country for months now. That doesn’t mean they’ll win five games, but they’re the best bets to do so. And if they do, the sixth would be a toss-up.

Henry Bushnell’s bracket
Henry Bushnell’s bracket

Zach Pereles

Upsets: The two double-digit seeds I’m all-in on are St. Bonaventure and New Mexico State, both of which I have in the Sweet 16. But I’ll focus on St. Bonaventure, a team I really like. The Bonnies have to make it past UCLA in the First Four, but if they do, their guard play will carry them past both Florida and then Texas Tech. Jaylen Adams is one of the best and most under-appreciated guards in the nation, and Matt Mobley is terrific as well. Guard play wins in March, and the Bonnies have plenty of it.

Final Four: This is the year that Tony Bennett finally breaks through to the Final Four after several years of near misses and March disappointment. This isn’t Bennett’s best team in terms of next-level talent, but it is his most together group and an absolute force defensively. Having three guards who can create their own shot is something that previous teams were missing. Led by Joel Berry, North Carolina will emerge out of an underwhelming West region. In the East, Villanova finally fell from its perch atop the regular season Big East standings, but the Wildcats regained form during their conference tournament title run. In the Midwest, I’m worried about Duke’s zone scheme, but Marvin Bagley has the ability to take over games, and he’ll propel a dangerous Blue Devils squad to San Antonio.

National champion: Virginia and Villanova have met twice in the past three seasons. In 2015-2016, the Cavaliers toppled the Wildcats in Charlottesville 86-75 behind a 53-point second half. Last year, Jay Wright welcomed Tony Bennett to Philadelphia and walked out a 61-59 winner after a tip-in from Donte DiVincenzo at the buzzer. Both games were played at a really high level between two of the nation’s best teams. Expect another terrific game with great guard play on both sides. But with Jalen Brunson steering the ship, ‘Nova gets some key buckets down the stretch to capture its second championship in three years.

Zach Pereles’ bracket
Zach Pereles’ bracket

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More NCAA tournament on Yahoo Sports:
March Madness bracket: Tournament field of 68 revealed
Printable bracket: Start making your picks
Selection Sunday winners and losers: Kentucky, Duke get rough roads
Five biggest tournament snubs
Everything you need to know before filling out a bracket
For beginners: Tips and tricks to filling out a bracket
Non-traditional ways to spice up your bracket pool

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