It is officially the time of year when my friends and family ask me for bracket advice. And why not? They know someone who follows this stuff year-round, and could possibly give them an advantage in the office pool, and I am happy to provide whatever information and advice I can.
But I always lead with a disclaimer: You probably shouldn't listen to me.
It's a hoary old trope, the one about the novice picking the winning bracket, and it's not like some level of expertise won't help you pick a better bracket. But the core nature of the unpredictable NCAA tournament is such that expertise only goes so far. I've had good brackets. I've had meh brackets. And I've had brackets that required Don Draper to visit me in the bracket ward, give me a steely glare, and say "This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened."
Which is why I am always terrified to give my Final Four picks on Selection Sunday, and why I wait until the last possible moment to fill out the bracket myself. And it's also why this little ditty -- a look at the best potential bracket matchups -- is one of my favorite things to write. It doesn't require a prediction! It's so ... liberating!
These may not be the matchups you have in your bracket, and they may not be the upset specials we all crave this time of year, but they are some of the 10 best potential late-round games in the bracket. Let's roll.
Indiana-Louisville, national championship game. A lot can happen on the road to Atlanta, and the odds we see this national title are no doubt slimmer than our 2012 dream matchup, Kentucky-North Carolina. But there is no better matchup in the field, no more exciting possible way to end the 2012-13 season, than pitting the best defense (Louisville) and offense (Indiana) in the country against each other with the national title on the line. Louisville is a turnover-tweaking, amorphous beast; Indiana is a fluid, fast-paced scoring show. They are two most watchable teams in the country, and also the best.
Duke-Michigan State, Midwest Region, Sweet 16. Rick Pitino had to be slightly horrified when he saw the stacked Midwest bracket Sunday afternoon. But there is one bright side: He doesn't have to play Michigan State and Duke. Just one or the other. If seeds hold, the Spartans and Blue Devils will meet in the Sweet 16, which means we'd get to see an athletic and defensive Spartans team take on Duke's balanced floor-spacing offense, which means we'd get to see Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski -- coaches of two of the sport's marquee programs, and often the first two men listed when people ask for the best coach in the sport -- play basketball chess. These types of matchups are typically reserved for the Final Four.
Kansas-VCU, South Region, Sweet 16. Both teams would have to win two of the more intriguing second-round games in the bracket (Kansas over UNC or Villanova, VCU over Michigan and Trey Burke), neither of which (obviously) are guarantees. But if they do, it sets up a game that has the two things that make NCAA tournament games great: A storyline, and fascinating basketball tactics. On the storyline side, these two teams would be a rematch of the 2011 Elite Eight matchup -- when VCU won on its magical ride from the First Four to the Final Four. On the basketball side, VCU would be unleashing its ball-pressure defense. Darius Theus and Briante Weber, two of the nation's best defenders, look to force as many turnovers as possible. Kansas, for all its strengths, turns the ball over on 19.9 percent of its possessions, and it's not hard to imagine Ben McLemore, Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe feeling flustered. Were VCU to win, everyone will crow about Kansas being upset yet again, but you'll have seen it coming.
VCU-Michigan, South Region, Round of 32. As I just wrote, VCU has to get past Michigan in the second round to meet Kansas. Maybe a better way to put it is Michigan has to get past VCU. It's a fascinating contrast of styles. The Rams force the most turnovers per possession in the country, while Michigan, thanks in large part to the peerless excellence of Burke, coughs it up less than anyone else. Just the thought of the Rams swarming and reaching and slapping the floor as Burke catches a baseline inbounds and turns to navigate his way downcourt gives me what I believe nice, old Southern women call "the vapors."
Indiana-Butler, East Region, Elite Eight. Indiana is the marquee team in the state, but Butler is the recent Final Four participant (twice over) with the young coach who could have just any job in the country but hasn't taken any of them and who, wait for it, grew up an Indiana fan. Meanwhile the Bulldogs are rapidly rising as a program; in three years they've gone from the Horizon League to the Atlantic-10 to a likely spot in the new Big East. This rivalry could be — should be — personal and public, local and national, and how better than playing for a Final Four spot to kick the whole thing off?
Florida-Georgetown, South Region, Sweet Sixteen. These Gators are a real threat to make the Final Four, but to do so they'll almost certainly have to get through No. 2-seeded Georgetown. When the Gators are good, they're really good, and they're really good because they're setting a million picks and hitting jumpers from everywhere. Georgetown plays zone, and Georgetown guards jump shooters as well as any team in the country. But do the Hoyas have enough on the offensive end? How far can Otto Porter Jr. carry them?
Gonzaga-Wisconsin, West Region, Sweet Sixteen. Gonzaga fans are sick of hearing how few games their No. 1-seeded Zags would have won in the Big Ten. They are tired of the self-same criticism about schedule and wins and the fact that Illinois beat them in their own building. If Wisconsin advances to the Sweet Sixteen -- and that's never a guarantee, but I think they will -- Gonzaga will have the perfect chance to quiet everyone down. And if they don't? Bulldogs fans might just want to leave the Internet for a while.
New Mexico-Ohio State, West Region, Sweet 16. The aesthetes won't be thrilled with this selection, and frankly I'm not sure I'd be all that thrilled to watch it either. But I do want to see what happens when these utterly ruthless defenses try to grind each other into a fine paste. Could we have this season's first mid-20s scoreline? Let's give it a shot!
Kansas-North Carolina, South Region, Round of 32. Are you already a little tired of the storyline? I am. I guarantee Roy Williams is. But it is here to stay, at least until one of the two teams loses, preferably to each other. This weekend, Williams and his Tar Heels will return to Kansas City to take on Villanova. If they win, they'll face Kansas, and you can expect every Jayhawks fan in attendance to loudly voice their distaste. Maybe Williams can placate them with a Kansas sticker? Wait, he already tried that. Shoot. Oh, I’ve got it: What if he puts on the Big Jay mascot costume and makes a Harlem Shake video? Are we at least getting warmer?