If you were the sort of person prone to clucking your tongue at the cabal of midwestern executives calling themselves “the NCAA,” who make millions of dollars a year off the free labor of teenagers putting their bodies on the line for the amusement of degenerate gamblers and angry Applebee’s dads, the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament provided ample grist for plenty of righteous diatribes. A (millionaire, old, white) coach essentially assaulted a (young, unpaid, Black) player right there on national television. A team, VCU, was booted from the tournament because of a COVID-19 outbreak that may have started because the team’s league forced them to stay at a crowded hotel that couldn’t get its guests to wear masks. And most notoriously, there was the gender disparity. Women’s basketball players, bubbled up in their own tournament in San Antonio as the men played in Indianapolis, pointed out the many ways in which their athletes were treated unfavorably compared to the men, from ridiculously meager sets of workout equipment to, even more alarming, less-accurate COVID tests provided only because they were cheaper. One of the few positive things you can say about the NCAA is that it’s committed to paying women and men the same amount. (Which is to say: zero.)
You’d be right to mock the NCAA for all that — I just had an awfully fun time doing it myself — but as gross as the organization is, there’s a reason it still gets away with it all these years later. The NCAA Tournament remains the most truly joyous — unpredictable, surreal, downright giddy — sporting event in this country, and after two full years without it, it was impossible not to be swept up in the excitement. The whole thing has been a gas. This is partly because March Madness feels like a true post-COVID moment. Not because it’s free of COVID, obviously; ask poor VCU about that. But the Tournament is the first sporting event I’ve watched that hasn’t been dominated by the pandemic. The Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the World Series; you could never really let yourself go and truly enjoy them in the moment — the question whether we should even be doing this at all lingered over each. That question is still relevant now, but I dunno: Maybe it’s the plummeting case rates across the country, maybe it’s the fast vaccine rollout, maybe the pandemic just turned everyone into one of those degenerate gamblers, but this whole tournament has felt like the first time since last March that we’ve all felt comfortable actually enjoying sports. It felt like everyone was finally having a little fun. It’s OK to have fun. It was probably time.
The initial 68 teams have been whittled down to 16, with the Sweet 16 round beginning on Saturday, and if you are not an alumnus of any of those 16 schools, you may be wondering where you should direct your affections. So in the spirit of that fun, here is your totally harmless, just-playing-around — please do not sic your school’s Reddits after me — ranking of the teams and schools by likability, a hopefully helpful Guide to the Otherwise Unaffiliated.
(Note: This is only for the men’s tournament, since we know the 16 teams that have advanced there. The women’s Sweet 16 will be set by Thursday morning; I’ll put my 16 in the comments of this post on Friday. Free content!)
1) Loyola of Chicago. One of the lovable underdogs of this tournament, it wiped out national-championship contender (and my alma mater, if you were wondering why this paragraph was wet with tears) Illinois in the second round and have a chance to reach its second Final Four in the last three tournaments. But the team is less famous for its players than for its lovable, wheelchair mascot/inspirational nun Sister Jean, the 101-year-old superfan who has been the team chaplain since 1994 and delivered an oddly specific prayer before the Illinois game, which included phrases like, “We have a great opportunity to convert rebounds as this team makes about 50 percent of layups and 30 percent of its three-points.” Don’t worry, she’s been vaccinated, so she’ll be there throughout the rest of the tournament. Also, Loyola has a center who looks like a plumber. Notable celebrity alumnus: Bob Newhart.
2) Gonzaga. The last men’s college basketball team to finish an entire season undefeated, including an NCAA championship, was Bob Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. The world, thankfully, has moved on from that tyrant, and he will end up being just as well-known for being a violent bully and rabid Trump supporter as for his coaching acumen. And someone needs to put the stake in Knight’s final lasting legacy — that undefeated team — by making it all the way through. Gonzaga, a modest Jesuit school in a beautiful part of Washington state, has an overwhelmingly talented team with future NBA players everywhere, many of whom look like headband-sporting, lumberjack-goateed rec-league dudes. They’re as lovable a bet as you’ll find. Get it done, Zags. Make the bad man finally go away. Notable celebrity alumnus: Bing Crosby.
3) Villanova. The rare team that’s always good and still always feels like an underdog, Villanova lost its star point guard to injury just before the tournament began but have advanced regardless. They have won two of the last four tournaments, including a delirious final in 2016 that ended with the greatest buzzer-beater imaginable.
Villanova is also considered one of the classier, restrained, more humble college basketball juggernauts, which is particularly notable considering it’s located in Philadelphia. Notable celebrity alumnus: Jill Biden.
4) Syracuse. As has become habit in recent years, Jim Boeheim’s team had a middling regular season but got hot in the tournament, blasting both Clemson and West Virginia en route to the Sweet 16. Boeheim, who also played for Syracuse, has coached the team since 1976 and has been involved with the university for nearly 60 years. The best player on this year’s squad is Buddy Boeheim, born when dad Jim was 55. If you are wondering why you, a non-sports fan, are aware of all this information already, it is because Syracuse’s journalism school is one of the most consistent nationwide producers of the Media Elite. Some alum, somewhere, sneaked Syracuse basketball facts into a story about immigration or tax policy or the Oscar nominations. Notable celebrity alumnus: Lou Reed.
5) Arkansas. Okay, so fine, it’s Arkansas, and if you can’t get by the gaggle of Huckabees the state name immediately conjures, I cannot blame you. But! This is a likable team with a grand history, including the ’90s teams, coached by Nolan Richardson, which had the greatest nickname imaginable: “40 Minutes of Hell.” I want that to be my nickname. They’re in the Sweet 16 for the first time in 22 years, and you can terrify your neighbors by occasionally yelling “woo pig sooie!” outside your window. Notable celebrity alumnus: Jim Walton.
6) Michigan. The surprise co-champion of the Big Ten, Michigan is the final representative of that conference, which was widely considered the best league during the regular season before collapsing in the Tournament. The Wolverines are a scrappy, likable bunch, coached by former Fab Five star Juwan Howard (though they’re missing Isaiah Livers, their best player, who broke his foot in the Big Ten Tournament). It’d be a fine team to cheer for were it not for its alumni, who are so oppressively insane about their team — alternately fatalistic and braggadocious, they’re like the Mets fans of college sports — that talking to them about sports is like getting cornered at a party by someone who won’t stop promoting bitcoin. If you see that big yellow “M” on someone’s shirt walking toward you, trust me, you need to run like hell. Notable celebrity alumnus: Jack Kevorkian.
7) Alabama. One of the most exciting teams in the tournament, Alabama and head coach Nate Oats have embraced the analytical revolution. Which is to say, they just launch three-pointers all the time. They play fast and score a ton of points; they are more likely than any team on this list to play an absolute all-timer of a game against somebody. The downside to cheering for Alabama is, well, it’s Alabama. They’re an underdog in basketball, but they’re the Empire in football, and represented by Tommy Tuberville more generally. It’d be so much better if they weren’t Alabama. But, alas, they are. Notable celebrity alumnus: Roy Moore.
8) Oregon State. A surprise entrant who stole a bid by winning the Pac-12 Tournament, the Beavers were having a pedestrian season before winning five in a row to land them a spot against Loyola. (Along the way, they eliminated Oklahoma State and Cade Cunningham, who is about to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.) They are coached by a man named Wayne Tinkle, which is objectively funny. Tinkle actually took over for Craig Robinson in 2014, who was fired after six middling years as coach. That would be an insignificant fact to you, average New York reader, but for the fact that Craig Robinson isn’t just a basketball coach: He’s Michelle Obama’s brother. Oregon State fired Michelle Obama’s brother! For a guy named Tinkle. Notable celebrity alumnus: Linus Pauling.
9) Southern Cal. One of my favorite things to do is call the University of Southern California “Southern Cal.” It drives them crazy. Southern Cal is coached by Andy Enfield, who came to prominence with that old Florida Gulf Coast “Dunk City” team from 2013, the one that upset Georgetown and was pure pleasure to watch. Enfield’s wife, Amanda, is a former supermodel — wait: If you are once a supermodel, are you always a supermodel? Is there such a thing as “former?” — whom you can expect to see constant sideline cutaway shots of on the broadcast. Southern Cal’s best player is center Evan Mobley, who will be a top-three pick in the NBA draft next year. You should know that every game Southern Cal wins makes O.J. Simpson a little bit happier. (The Juice got his second shot, by the way, in case you were worried.) Notable celebrity alumnus: Flea.
10) Houston. A school that hasn’t been good at basketball since the days of Hakeem Olajuwon now has a defensive-minded team that dominated Conference USA this year. The most famous fact about this group, though, is that, according to its coach, every single one of its players has already contracted, and already recovered from, COVID-19. That’s what passes for a human-interest story in sports this year. With the protocols in place for the tournament, which bounce a team from the bracket if they have an outbreak (like VCU), their previous exposure actually gives the Cougars a considerable competitive advantage. Strange year. Notable celebrity alumnus: Elizabeth Warren.
11) Creighton. Remember that quirky little Nebraska congressional district that went for Biden in the presidential election? (Remember the presidential election?) That’s Omaha, and that’s where Creighton is. So thank those students! Creighton is traditionally good at basketball, thanks in large part to longtime coach Greg McDermott, whose best player ever was his son Doug, a former Knick and current Indiana Pacer. McDermott Sr. got in some hot water this year when, in a locker-room speech, he said players needed to “stay on the plantation. I can’t have anybody leave the plantation,” a racially offensive (and very weird) metaphor that got him suspended for a few games. He was apologetic afterward, and his players appear to have embraced him, but if Creighton keeps advancing, you can expect to hear a lot more about this, probably from news outlets and cable channels that do not usually discuss basketball. Notable celebrity alumnus: Bob Gibson.
12) Oregon. Yep, lots of Oregon this year. The Ducks automatically advanced after VCU’s COVID mess, but they justified their spot by knocking out Iowa, considered one of the tournament favorites. Oregon won the first NCAA Tournament ever in 1939, and in recent years has been largely funded by Phil Knight, who ran track there in the late ’50s and invented Nike shortly thereafter. The school has since turned into an athletic factory — much like an actual Nike factory, the laborers are grossly underpaid — but it still has not won a championship, despite Knight’s best efforts. So know that if you are rooting for Oregon, you are rooting for a billionaire to get the thing he wants most, the thing that has forever eluded him. Notable celebrity alumnus: Phil Knight.
13) UCLA. The blue blood of all blue-blood college basketball schools, UCLA is the school of John Wooden, of Lew Alcindor, of Bill Walton. It’s won 11 titles, the most ever, though it hasn’t triumphed since 1995, and that came after a 20-year gap. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this UCLA team, but it is fair to be of the belief that it used up all its good fortune during the Wooden era and now have to sit back and let the rest of basketball spend the next century catching up. Notable celebrity alumnus: Jackie Robinson.
14) Oral Roberts. There is a temptation to pour all your emotional energy into Oral Roberts, unquestionably the most surprising entrant in the Sweet 16. After all, the Cinderella-story 15-seed team beat former national champions Ohio State and Florida. And they have, in Max Abmas, the sort of light-’em-up scorer who is undersized (six-foot-one, 165 pounds) and still unstoppable, a type of player that could only exist in college basketball. But then you remember that Oral Roberts was founded by that Oral Roberts, the televangelist who, in 1987, famously requested his parishioners raise $8 million or “the Lord will take me home.” He got the money, though that didn’t save him from dying in 2009. Oral Roberts, the school, bans gay people from its school and promotes conversion therapy. It also bans “social dancing” on campus. It’s much more fun to cheer for heathens, to be honest. Notable celebrity alumnus: Joel Osteen.
15) Florida State. Generally underrated as a terrible fanbase, Florida State boosters have been quiet in recent years as their football team has faded from relevance, or even mediocrity. But it must not be forgotten what monsters these people were when Jameis Winston was the quarterback of the team and credibly accused by multiple women of rape. (Slate’s Josh Levin called FSU fans “the new Gamergate.”) The basketball team is more likable than that — how could you not be? — thanks to coach Leonard Hamilton, but it plays an ugly brand of basketball and, frankly, I’m not over 2014 yet and you shouldn’t be either. Notable celebrity alumnus: Richard Simmons.
16) Baylor. The best team in the history of this Baptist university in Waco, Texas, the Bears have also been one of the best two teams in college basketball all year. They have a likable coach and play an exciting brand of basketball. But it is still difficult to cheer for a school that has been at the center of a couple of the worst scandals college sports has ever seen. Former football coach Art Briles was fired in 2016 in the wake of widespread sexual assault incidents involving his players. And in 2003, basketball coach Dave Bliss was banished from the industry after one of his players was killed by a teammate, and Bliss instructed his team to claim that the murdered player was a drug dealer — in order to cover up illicit payments Bliss had given him. So yeah, go ahead and cheer for these guys if you want. Notable celebrity alumnus: Rand Paul.