Welcome back to the Starting 5. The Starting 5 is written multiple times per week by Adam Spencer to keep you up-to-date on all the news and events in the world of college hoops. You can follow Adam on Twitter at @AdamSpencer4 and @SDSBasketball.

1. The Opening Tip

It’s tournament time! That’s right, after not having an NCAA Tournament last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the brackets are set this year. The tournament starts with the First Four on Thursday, but the real bracket begins on Friday.

So, when it comes to filling out your bracket, what strategy should you take? Should you go upset-crazy and root for chaos? Sure, that’s fun, but it’s not a good strategy if you actually want to win.

The best teams in the country have remained the best teams all year, particularly Gonzaga and Baylor. So, don’t overthink things. Have those 2 teams in your Final Four if you want to win your bracket pools.

I also picked Illinois to make the Final Four before the season and now the Illini are playing some great basketball:

Just ignore that Kentucky pick, please and thank you. Still, 3 out of 4 1-seeds isn’t bad for a preseason prediction!

So, if you want to pick upsets, pick them in the first 2 rounds. By the time you reach the Elite Eight, you want to have your bracket filled with top seeds. My current Final Four projections are:

  • 1-seed Gonzaga
  • 1-seed Baylor
  • 1-seed Illinois
  • 2-seed Alabama

The best teams are the best teams for a reason. In a year like this (barring anything COVID-related), I expect the best teams to show out in March Madness. In football, Alabama cruised to a national championship with an undefeated season. Why? Because it had the best system in place and plenty of leaders on and off the field.

Well, all 4 of the teams I am picking to make my Final Four are led by veterans and have great coaches. During a pandemic season, expect that to matter more than normal during tournament play.

As for upset picks, though, don’t sleep on a First Four team making some noise. In 2018, Syracuse went from the First Four to the Sweet 16. In the 3 years prior to that, a team from the First Four advanced to the Round of 32. I’m riding Michigan State to make the Sweet 16 this year, knocking off UCLA on Thursday before beating BYU in Round 1 and Texas in Round 2.

But, don’t put the Spartans all the way to the Final Four. Don’t be afraid of chalk if you want to win your pools!

Now, let’s take a look at some SEC storylines entering the NCAA Tournament.

2. Home-court advantage

The Alabama Crimson Tide lost 6 games this year en route to winning both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles. For a number of teams that beat the Tide, their seasons went off the rails quickly thereafter.

Stanford and Western Kentucky both beat Alabama in nonconference play. Neither made the NCAA Tournament. Western Kentucky is a 3-seed in the NIT. Stanford didn’t even make it that far. The Cardinal’s season is done. Clemson also beat Alabama in nonconference play, but then immediately lost to Virginia Tech in its ACC opener. Yes, the Tigers are a 7-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but they struggled their way through ACC action.

Arkansas is the only school that beat Alabama and didn’t have any adverse effects. The Hogs are a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but still, they came up just short of a third game against Alabama, losing to LSU in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

That leaves us to the 2 biggest cases of the Alabama curse. Interestingly enough, they play each other in Round 1 of the tourney — 8-seed Oklahoma and 9-seed Mizzou.

Mizzou beat Alabama the day before the Super Bowl (Feb. 6). Since then, the Tigers have lost 6 of their 9 games. They went from a potential 4-seed (per the first NCAA Tournament seeding show) all the way down to a No. 9 seed. Meanwhile, Oklahoma beat Alabama on Jan. 30 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Then, the Sooners’ run of 3-straight wins over ranked teams came to an end in their next game against Texas Tech. They enter the NCAA Tournament having lost 5 of their last 6 games.

And, in even worse news, the “winner” of the Oklahoma-Mizzou game gets a Round 2 date with Gonzaga — the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. Ouch. Maybe things would have been different if the Sooners and Tigers just lost to Alabama like 24 other teams this year. Who knows?

Now, let’s move on to some other SEC stories:

  • Which SEC team will go the farthest in this tournament? I’ll probably get criticized for going “chalk” again, but it worked with my SEC Tournament title prediction, so I’m going to keep riding the Alabama Crimson Tide. Herb Jones looks healthier than he has in weeks. When he’s driving like this, Alabama is tough to stop:

  • Then, there’s Jahvon Quinerly, who won SEC Tournament MVP honors. He is showing how dangerous he is in the open court:

  • If he can keep playing like that, Alabama is just too dangerous. Jones, Quinerly, Jaden Shackelford, John Petty Jr., even Keon Ellis came on strong in the last couple of games. Plus, the Tide share a region with the most-vulnerable No. 1 seed in Michigan. The Wolverines don’t have Isaiah Livers indefinitely, and it’s highly unlikely they won’t get him back for a couple more weeks. Florida State might be the team the Tide have to look out for in this region. But, I think Alabama gets to the Final Four before bowing out against top-seeded Gonzaga.
  • I actually like Tennessee’s draw a lot. I know Oregon State just went on an impressive run to win the Pac-12 Tournament, but the Beavers were the No. 5 seed in that weak league. Yes, they got hot last week, but the Vols should easily handle them in Round 1. Then, a showdown against either 4-seed Oklahoma State or 13-seed Liberty. If they face the Cowboys, Cade Cunningham looms large. He’s a first-team All-American and the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. But, Yves Pons is also an otherworldly defender. If he can shut down Cunningham, the Cowboys are ripe for an upset. Then, Illinois would be the likely opponent in the Sweet 16. I think that’s where the Vols’ run ends, as they don’t have anyone who can hang with Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn. Still, a Sweet 16 run from this up-and-down squad would be something to celebrate!
  • If I hear one more national analyst predict that Colgate is going to beat Arkansas in Round 1, I’m going to lose it. Yes, Colgate is No. 9 in the NET rankings, but that is insane. The Raiders are 0-0 in Quadrant I games, which are supposed to factor heavily into the NET rankings. Guess they’re ignoring that for Colgate. KenPom.com, on the other hand, has Colgate at No. 84 in the country. The Raiders went 14-1 in 2020-21, but when you dive into that record, it’s … well, it’s not good. Four of those wins were against Holy Cross. Five (yes, 5!) were against Boston University. There’s 9 wins right there. They went 3-1 against Army. The other 2 wins were against Bucknell and Loyola-Maryland in the Patriot League Tournament. So please, stop it. Yes, Colgate plays a fast, up-tempo style. So does Arkansas. And Arkansas did it against real opponents this year. The Razorbacks are going to roll!
  • I mentioned Michigan being vulnerable earlier, and I think LSU can take advantage of the Wolverines being without one of their best players. My prediction? LSU pulls off the 8-1 upset in Round 2. But, it’s not going to be easy. Michigan is still a really good team. The Tigers are going to need to have the Trendon Watford who showed up against Alabama. He’s really comfortable with the ball in his hands. Look at him dribble more than most big men while creating and making this shot:

  • He had 30 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals against Alabama in the loss. With him going strong, the Tigers are even more dangerous than normal. They can’t sleep on St. Bonaventure in Round 1, but win that game, and I think the Sweet 16 (and possibly beyond) is possible for this squad.

Next, let’s move on to some stories from around the rest of the college basketball landscape.

3. Road trip

Indiana has moved on from coach Archie Miller. He went 67-58 in his 4 years at the helm of the program, never making the NCAA Tournament (though the tourney was canceled last year when Indiana was 20-12 and on the bubble).

What’s interesting to me is that this program was in better shape when now-Georgia coach Tom Crean was at the helm. The Hoosiers made 4 NCAA Tournaments in Crean’s 9 years in Bloomington, going to the Sweet 16 3 of those 4 times.

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If you want to just judge Crean by his last 4 years at Indiana, here’s how he stacks up against Miller:

  • 82-53 overall record
  • 2 NCAA Tournaments (2015 and 2016)
  • 1 Sweet 16 (2016)
  • 1 Big Ten regular-season title (2015-16)

Yes, he went 18-16 with a first-round exit in the NIT in 2016-17, but perhaps the Hoosiers would be in a better situation if Crean was still around.

After all, this search is already shaping up to be a huge letdown for Hoosier fans. Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens is who many fans want, but he said he’s not leaving the Celtics:

OK, so what about Rick Pitino? Well, he says he’s out, too:

He did suggest that the Hoosiers go after … well, Brad Stevens:

See what I mean? Alabama coach Nate Oats is also staying put:

The favorite, according to CBS Sportsline, is former Michigan coach John Beilein:

Beilein is 68 years old. He’s a heck of a coach, but is he really going to be around Indiana for the long haul? I also don’t see Eric Musselman leaving Arkansas for Indiana. Or Scott Drew leaving Baylor.

This is going to be a long search for the Hoosiers. And, if they don’t hire 1 of the guys I’ve mentioned in this section, are fans going to be happy? I don’t think so.

Now, let’s move on to some other stories from around the country:

  • Ayo Dosunmu went 5-for-17 from the floor against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament title game. But, Illinois still won in overtime, 91-88. Dosunmu still accounted for 16 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists, but he also had 5 turnovers. Dosunmu is a superstar who I think will have great games in the NCAA Tournament, but as my friend Robert continues to point out to me, Andre Curbelo is the key to a potential Final Four run for the Illini. Just look at what he did against Iowa in the B1G Tournament semifinals:

  • He’s a special player who provides a ton of energy off the bench. He had 16 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists against the Buckeyes in the championship game. He also went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line and they were in clutch situations. Keep your eyes on him when he’s on the floor. He’s a game-changer.
  • Richard Pitino wasted no time moving on from Minnesota. The Gophers fired Richard Pitino, and within 12 hours, he had a new job coaching New Mexico:

  • The Gophers continue to search for his replacement, which is understandable, since they fired him less than 48 hours ago. I haven’t heard anything in the rumor mill, I’m just going to say that if Porter Moser is ready to leave Loyola-Chicago, he could be a good fit at Minnesota (assuming Indiana doesn’t end up going that route). He coaches great defensive teams and can have the Gophers competitive every couple of years. That’s better than many other coaches have done at Minnesota.
  • Utah has parted ways with coach Larry Krystkowiak. The “other Coach K” spent 10 years in Salt Lake City, but only led the Utes to 2 NCAA Tournaments (in 2015 and 2016). The reason the Utes had to move on is that other programs in the state are on the rise. BYU made the NCAA Tournament this year as a 6-seed, and would have made it last year if March Madness wasn’t canceled. Utah State made it this year and also in 2019. Even Weber State made the tourney in 2016. Utah fans expect more, especially after the Runnin’ Utes made a Final Four run in 1998 before losing to Kentucky in the title game. The fanbase expects more. As long as the Utes don’t expect Pitino or Brad Stevens or Nate Oats or anyone else like that to come to Salt Lake City, there’s no reason this squad can’t turn into a team that gets into the NCAA Tournament more often than not. We’ll see where they turn!

Next, let’s dive into some of the First Four matchups taking place on Thursday.

4. Outlet pass

Since the NCAA Tournament doesn’t start until Friday, I’m going to do something a little different for this section today. I’m going to rank the First Four matchups by my interest level in them. So, here are the First Four games, ranked from most-exciting to least-exciting:

  1. 11-seed Michigan State vs. 11-seed UCLA (Thursday at 9:57 p.m. ET on TBS) — What a late start for such an exciting game! I mentioned in the first section that I think Michigan State is talented enough to make a Sweet 16 run. But, before the Spartans can do that, they have to get by a tough UCLA squad. This is going to be a fun matchup!
  2. 11-seed Drake vs. 11-seed Wichita State (Thursday at 6:27 p.m. ET on TBS) — I like Drake a lot. I briefly considered going there before deciding I was all-in on Mizzou. Plus, this Bulldogs team is good! They had a better overall record than Loyola-Chicago (25-4 to 24-4) and only had 1 more loss in Missouri Valley Conference play. It seems to me the Bulldogs are flying under the radar while everyone heaps praise on the Ramblers.
  3. 16-seed Appalachian State vs. 16-seed Norfolk State (Thursday at 8:40 p.m. ET on TruTV) — I still haven’t forgiven Norfolk State for beating Mizzou when Mizzou was a 2-seed and Norfolk State was a 15-seed. Plus, the Tigers got a heck of a football coach in Eli Drinkwitz via Appalachian State. Thus, I’ll be rooting hard for the Mountaineers.
  4. 16-seed Texas Southern vs. 16-seed Mount St. Mary’s (Thursday at 5:10 p.m. ET on TruTV) — Other than this being the first game of the tournament, it doesn’t hold much interest for me. Mount St. Mary’s is only 12-10 overall this year. But, of course, that means it will probably win and advance to play Michigan.

These games all have a certain amount of intrigue. But, the real fun starts Friday! I can’t wait! Enjoy these appetizers, though, because every basketball game played is a good basketball game.

5. Buzzer beaters

Now, let’s answer a couple of random questions before we get out of here for the day:

Enough NCAA Tournament talk. Let’s discuss what really matters. Who wins the NIT this year?

The NIT is a tough thing to project because you have to weigh whether the teams involved even want to be there or not. And, this year, it isn’t even being held at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The tournament will be held in Frisco, Texas. But, my best guess? I really like this Saint Louis team (yes, that’s right, my homerism extends beyond Mizzou to cover the whole state of Missouri). The Billikens beat LSU during nonconference play before COVID really took a toll on them. I think they can string together 4-straight wins in Texas to earn a trophy.

Which team do you think was the most-egregiously mis-seeded team in the bracket this year?

I think Colorado is way overseeded as a No. 5 seed. The Pac-12 was weak this year. Heck, the Buffaloes lost to Oregon State in the Pac-12 title game. Oregon State! The Beavers were given a 12-seed as an automatic qualifier, but the Buffaloes were put on the 5 line? No way. The Buffs draw red-hot Georgetown in Round 1 and could be a team ripe for a 12-5 upset.

Enjoy the Starting 5? Have a question? Want to yell at me about something? Follow me on Twitter @AdamSpencer4 or email me at ASpencer@SaturdayDownSouth.com.