<
>

Gonzaga is going to win it all, and other big, bold NCAA tournament predictions

play
Cards aligned for Gonzaga to reach title game (1:05)

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi sees the Bulldogs not just reaching the Final Four, but cutting down the nets in April. (1:05)

I know what you're thinking. Why do you keep doing this? Is this the same guy who predicted national runner-up North Carolina would fail to reach the Sweet 16 last season? Yep. The same dude who missed most of his bold picks three years ago. That's me.

And I'm back for more.

Check out another round of Bold Predictions. I dare you to question the logic.

1. Gonzaga will win the national championship

The same folks who doubt Gonzaga's postseason potential probably thought Syracuse deserved an at-large berth. Why? Because they're enamored with the Power 5 allure that draws cheers for a lackluster Cuse squad but generates hollow, unfounded criticism of Mark Few's greatest defensive team and most diverse offensive crew.

The Bulldogs will win the national championship because they're the best team in the field. In the West Region, the top squad blocking their path to the Final Four is an Arizona team Gonzaga defeated by seven points on Dec. 3. Myron, that was months ago! Allonzo Trier didn't play! With 15:09 to go in that game, however, Gonzaga led by 16 points. The Bulldogs didn't beat Arizona. They smacked Arizona. Iowa State, Florida and Saint Mary's (three times), too.

The Zags go nine deep with minimal drop-off when they substitute. And they're led by Nigel Williams-Goss (16.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.8 SPG), one of America's best players. They're also ranked second in adjusted defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament. Johnathan Williams, an agile 6-foot-9 forward, can guard any position, which means Gonzaga can adjust to and disrupt Villanova or Duke or Notre Dame by playing smaller when necessary. How about going big? Think about this potential lineup: 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski at center, 7-footer Zach Collins at power forward and Williams at small forward.

But they've never been to the Final Four. Well, Northwestern had never reached the NCAA tournament, and here it is. Why can't an improved Gonzaga team that made a run to the Sweet 16 last season without Karnowski -- and had a late lead over Final Four-bound Syracuse -- get more love? The Bulldogs will when they win the whole thing.

2. Northwestern's first NCAA tournament experience lasts one game

Yeah, the program made history. But Northwestern (5-7 over its past 12 games) will struggle against Vanderbilt. Luke Kornet is a 7-footer who made 38 percent of his 3-pointers in league play. Plus, Vandy has won seven of its last nine. This is a team that had a 19-point lead over Kentucky two weeks ago in Rupp Arena and beat Florida twice in six days. The Commodores are soaring. Northwestern will not enter the NCAA tournament with the same momentum. One-and-done.

3. No Big Ten schools advance to the second weekend

Northwestern is not alone. Slumping Wisconsin, still a victim of its own offensive droughts, will lose to Virginia Tech (wins over Duke, Michigan, Miami, Virginia) in the first round. Also in the first round, an experienced Xavier team will win a close game over a Maryland squad that needs major contributions from multiple freshmen making their first NCAA tournament appearances. Without injured guard Akeem Springs (9.5 PPG, 38 percent from the 3-point line), Minnesota won't find enough offense in a tight, opening-round loss to a Middle Tennessee squad that rarely commits turnovers and connects on 37 percent of its 3-pointers.

Those excited about Michigan's shooting in the Big Ten tournament might not realize Oklahoma State is ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency. Jawun Evans and the Cowboys will win that opening-round shootout. Short-handed Michigan State will fall against Bruce Brown (11.9 PPG) and Miami in the first round, too. In the second round, Iowa State, led by point guard Monte Morris (16.3 PPG, 6.1 APG, 1.1 TPG), will employ the same guard-focused style that befuddled Purdue in losses to Villanova, Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan (twice), while minimizing the impact of the Boilermakers' size advantage.

4. Oregon goes to the Final Four without Chris Boucher

Losing Boucher (11.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.5 BPG) to an ACL tear hurts the Ducks. They can't spread the floor the same way without him and his 3-point shooting (36 percent in Pac-12 play). Plus, the loss damages their depth and interior defense. But the Ducks nearly knocked off Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament championship without him.

Per hooplens.com, Oregon's offensive efficiency (1.17 points per possession without Boucher, 1.13 PPP with him) has suffered minimal, if any, setbacks with Boucher on the bench this season. Same with its defensive efficiency (.03 PPP difference without Boucher on the court). Yes, he matters. Oregon is strong enough, however, to fight through the Midwest Region and punch its ticket to Glendale, Arizona, without Boucher.

5. Iowa State beats Kansas (again) to reach the Elite Eight

In its past 12 games, Iowa State finished 10-2, a tally that included a road win over Kansas. If the Cyclones can beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, they can do the same at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, a town Iowa State fans swallowed as they cheered their squad to a Big 12 tournament championship over the weekend. They'll come strong again when the Cyclones face the Jayhawks -- an elite team that squeezed by an abundance of opponents in games decided by five points or less -- in the Sweet 16. This will be another thriller, but Iowa State will limit its turnovers and advance.

6. Virginia is gone in the first round

UNC Wilmington will send Virginia home Thursday. Virginia lacks an offensive catalyst beyond London Perrantes, which is one of the reasons the Cavaliers failed to finish multiple games they led at halftime this season. They're an aggressive defensive team, but Kevin Keatts' squad doesn't commit many turnovers (second nationally in turnover rate, per KenPom.com) and the Seahawks have made 56.1 percent of their shots inside the arc. They'll keep this game close and finish Virginia in the final minute.

7. All Florida schools out before the second weekend

At least you have great weather, because you won't have much success in the NCAA tournament. Miami may escape Michigan State, but the Hurricanes can't handle Kansas in the second round with their unreliable, turnover-prone offense. Florida State will eliminate Florida Gulf Coast in the opening round, but an FSU squad that finished below .500 outside Tallahassee can't be trusted to beat the Xavier/Maryland winner in the next round.

I liked Florida far more before shot-blocker John Egbunu's season-ending knee injury. The Gators are 3-3 over their past six games without him. They'll lack the depth to overcome a hot-shooting UNC Wilmington or efficient Virginia in the second round.

8. SMU will spoil that dream Villanova-Duke Elite Eight matchup

And you can thank Duke transfer and SMU star Semi Ojeleye for that. Yeah, Duke's messy season complicates projections about this up-and-down crew. But if you're a Duke fan, you know you have the pieces to make a run and earn a slot in a prime-time matchup against Villanova in the Elite Eight. But the SMU squad the Blue Devils will meet in the Sweet 16 should worry all Duke fans who know the Mustangs' star all too well.

Ojeleye (19.0 PPG, 78 percent from the free throw line, 43 percent from beyond the arc) is a 6-7 enigma surrounded by a squad that has connected on 40.6 percent of its 3-pointers this season. SMU is also top 30 in adjusted defensive efficiency. It is here to ruin that coveted Duke-Villanova affair a year after an academic scandal barred the Mustang from the postseason.

9. Middle Tennessee to the Sweet 16

Don't say you never saw it coming when Giddy Potts (15.8 PPG, 1.4 SPG, 39 percent from the 3-point line) leads his experienced (only three underclassmen on the MTSU roster), feisty (top-50 defense), aggressive (the Blue Raiders grab 75 percent of their opponents' misses, limiting second-chance opportunities) squad over talented Minnesota and Butler teams to reach the Sweet 16.

10. Xavier, too

Yes, Xavier finished 3-7 over its past 10 games. But the win over Butler and its battle with Creighton in the Big East tournament reminded all of the Musketeers' potential.

Maryland committed turnovers on nearly one-fifth of its possessions this season. Carelessness will cost the Terps in a loss to Xavier in the opening round. And Florida State has star power with Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac. Outside Tallahassee, however, FSU has been a more docile group. Trevon Bluiett (18.1 PPG) will lead Xavier to the Sweet 16 with a win over an FSU squad that makes just 69 percent of its free throw attempts.