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You’re Nuts: Your favorite to win the NCAA Tournament after the opening weekend

Who has caught our eye over the tourney’s first four days?

Northwestern v UCLA Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Your favorite to win the NCAA Tournament after the opening weekend

Josh’s Take

As if often the case, the opening weekend-plus of NCAA March Madness produced (excitement, entertainment, tears, jeers, etc.) at an elite level. Which is why if we’re talking sports events/weekends in general, the early-round combo of both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament(s) deserves an automatic 1-seed every single year. Because it is absolutely unmatched in my opinion

On the men’s side of things, we saw another 16-seed take down a 1-seed, as well as a 15-seed reaching the Sweet 16 for a third consecutive season. Not to mention something called a “Furman” knocking off Tony Bennett’s Virginia squad, although given the coach’s all-or-nothing tourney track record, maybe we should have seen that one coming.

But the chaos and the madness (pun intended) of it all is what makes this batsh*t crazy tournament so fun to watch. It is unlike any other sporting event I can think of, and that is why it will always hold a special place in my heart... It would hold a larger place in my heart if I could win a damn bet, but that is neither here no there. Just know that my first two rounds were a minor setback for a major comeback.

Sticking again to the men’s side, Gene and I decided to re-assess our favorites now that the early-round dust has settled. Whether or not our brackets have been busted is irrelevant, this is just us making a few observations based on the 84 or so hours of basketball we have watched since Thursday. For the record, my pick is still alive, but I’m not here to brag. Especially since, unlike my bracket, my bank account is very much on its deathbed.

Of the teams that are left, I really like Houston to win this thing. I was initially (very) concerned about Marcus Sasser’s injury, but his game and especially his second half against Auburn showed me that he might just be back, back. And his team’s comeback and subsequent thumping of the Tigers gave me all the confidence I need to continue this ride with the Cougars.

If it wasn’t for Sasser filling it up against Auburn, I would probably not pick his team to win another game. Because as much as I like the totality of their starting lineup, they do not get a ton from their bench, and said lineup is not remotely the same without its star. But Saturday’s performance tells me that Kelvin Sampson was probably protecting Sasser when the latter played sparingly in the Round of 64. He now appears to be at least 80-90% and that, combined with the players/pieces around him, is enough for me to once again consider Houston the favorite.

In addition to Sasser, every other starter for the Cougs averages double digits. Most of them shoot the three at an acceptable level. The only who does not, J’Wan Roberts, shoots 61% from the field and rarely goes outside of his comfort zone. They are all smart, they all rebound, they share the ball unselfishly, and most importantly, they play intense, suffocating team defense. Houston is No. 2 nationally in points per game allowed, and put Auburn in an absolute torture chamber during the second half of Saturday’s game. All of the above make Sampson’s team incredibly dangerous, especially in a region without a perceived equal.

Outside of Texas, I don’t see anybody giving Houston a scare in the Midwest. If they make it past the Longhorns, I do like UCLA, but the latter is not the same team due to recent injuries — including the one suffered by David Singleton on Saturday night. So a Final Four matchup between the Cougars and the Bears could see one team getting healthier while the other is trying to plug holes in their rotation.

In the end, I just feel like Houston is the most complete team left in this tournament. They do not rely on one player the way Alabama sometimes does, they are certainly “less combustible” than the Crimson Tide, and I think their athletes can shut down stars on their side of the bracket, such as Isaiah Wong (Miami), Marcus Carr (Texas), and/or Jaime Jacquez Jr. (UCLA).

Gene’s Take

I was surprised to learn while making my NCAA Tournament bracket that Houston was actually the betting favorite in this year’s edition of March Madness. Admittedly I did not watch a ton of college basketball this season after Ohio State began its slide of despair, so I was not privy to Mr. Sampsons squad. I was familiar with Marcus Sasser, and I actually did wind up picking the Cougars to win it all this year simply because I hated all the other No. 1 seeds.

I made a good chunk of change last year with my pre-conference tournament bet of Kansas to win it all and Ochai Agbaji to win MVP — both of which cashed — but Agbaji is gone now, and it is far too hard to repeat as champions for me to have sided with the Jayhawks again. Purdue was the best team in a horrible Big Ten this year, and I never trust that conference to perform in the postseason, although I didn’t think it would be THAT bad. Alabama has far too many off-court issues, and I don’t think karma will let them win. So, Houston it was.

That being said, I have since changed my mind, and if I were to put in a new future bet at this point, which I may or may not have done after the first round of games, my money would be on UCLA to hoist the trophy at the end of the tournament.

Last year’s star Johnny Juzang is gone, but Jaime Jacquez returned to lead this team to the tune of 17.5 points per game. The Bruins also returned Tyger Campbell, who in addition to having one of the best names and best hairdos in the entire field, also averages an impressive 13.4 points and 4.9 assists per game.

Both Jacquez and Campbell were on last year’s UCLA squad that earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, knocking off Akron and St. Mary’s before falling to eventual runner-up UNC. Experience is important, and a combination of talent and experience is exactly what you want to have on your roster heading into the college basketball postseason.

UCLA dominated UNC Asheville 86-53 in the first round, and had a little bit of a tough time against Northwestern on Saturday before ultimately earning a 68-63 win. Next up on the docket will be Gonzaga/TCU, and then the winner of Arkansas vs. UConn to get to the Final Four. It’s not exactly an ‘easy’ stretch by any means, but nothing in March comes easy, and UCLA has the dogs to get the job done.

Plus, do we get to claim a win for the Big Ten if the Bruins get it done? (I’m joking, partially).