Who You Should Root For in March Madness (Not Duke)

How can you not root for St. Peter’s? Photo: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the first one to include full-capacity arenas since 2019, shaved its 68 teams down to 16 last weekend in the uniquely thrilling fashion we’ve grown to expect. Sure, college basketball is still a grotesque sport with an exploitative business model, but March Madness itself remains undefeated, full of irresistible underdog stories, exaggerated laments of broken brackets, and mustachioed guys from New Jersey named Doug. It has been a blast. It always is.

Still, unless you’re an alumnus of one of the remaining 16 schools or possess gambling-related loyalties, it’s not always easy to figure out where you should direct your affections. (Except rooting against Duke. That part’s easy.) So, as I did last year, I’ve put together a harmless, just-playing-around — please do not sic your school’s Reddits on 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 Tuesday morning; I’ll put my 16 in the comments of this post on Wednesday. Free content!)

1) St. Peter’s. Yes! St. Peter’s! The Peacocks! As a refresher, this is what peacocks sound like:

The 15th-seeded team — only the third 15th seed ever to reach the Sweet 16 — has become the best story of the tournament, a completely unheralded squad from Jersey City (Jersey City!) that upset Kentucky and Murray State and has somehow bum-rushed its way into the stratosphere. Look how happy these Jersey kids are!

Its coach, Shaheen Holloway, has been brilliant all tournament, brilliance he’s about to parlay into a job with his alma mater, Seton Hall. But the star of the whole tournament, and an example of why so many people love it, is guard Doug Edert, who looks like a low-budget-’70s-porn star some casting director pulled out of a Trans Am. It is completely absurd that he, or St. Peter’s, would be here — the sort of story that could only happen in this crazy tournament. How do you not root for these guys? CAW! CAW!

Notable alumnus: Senator Bob Menendez.

2) Providence. The NCAA Tournament is a billion-dollar event, but with Providence, St. Peter’s, and powerhouse Gonzaga, small Catholic schools are more than holding their own. Providence came out of nowhere this year to win the Big East for the first time ever and reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1997, thanks largely to lovable head coach (and City of Providence institution) Ed Cooley. This is a super-fun team to root for, as long as you can get past the mascot. Definitely make sure not to look it in the eye:

Notable alumna: Sports announcer Doris Burke.

3) Gonzaga. Last year, the Bulldogs came close to finishing the first undefeated season in men’s college basketball since Bob Knight’s 1976 team, before losing an uncompetitive national championship game to Baylor. (Baylor’s loss to North Carolina on Saturday guaranteed that we will not have a repeat champion for the 15th consecutive season; no one has done it since Florida in 2006–07.) This Gonzaga team isn’t undefeated but may in fact be better than last year’s version, thanks in large part to NBA prospect Chet Holmgren and mustachioed big man Drew Timme. Accordingly, Gonzaga is the odds-on favorite to take the tournament. Another point in its favor: Earlier this year, it banned NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, the greatest and most famous player in the school’s history, from attending games because he refused to wear a mask. (Stockton has claimed that millions of people, including more than 10 professional athletes, have died as a result of COVID vaccines.) Good decision, Gonzaga! Also, it’d be nice to have a champion from the Pacific Northwest, wouldn’t it?

Notable alumnus: Bing Crosby.

4) Arkansas. This longtime college basketball powerhouse had fallen on hard times before a recent resurgence; this is now its second Sweet 16 appearance in a row. The team’s most high-profile fan is Bill Clinton, who in 1994 became the first sitting president to attend a Final Four as the Razorbacks won a national title behind legendary coach Nolan Richardson. (Clinton even celebrated with the team in the locker room afterward.) Sadly, Joe Biden’s Delaware Blue Hens were knocked out in the first round this year.

Notable alumnus: Jerry Jones.

5) Villanova. A perpetually likable team that has historically punched above its weight at the tournament, Villanova (another Catholic school!) is led by Jay Wright, widely considered one of the greatest coaches of all time yet somehow not widely hated. (In college basketball, this is almost impossible.) The only demerit here is that the Wildcats have already won two of the past five championships and should maybe spread the wealth a bit. That said: The shot that clinched the first of those remains the most incredible sports moment I’ve ever seen in person:

Notable alumna: Jill Biden.

6) Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have had perhaps the easiest path to the Sweet 16, breezing past 14-seeded Montana State and 11th-seeded Notre Dame. They lost the best coach in their history, Chris Beard, in the offseason to hated rival Texas, and they’re clearly never going to get over it: The hatred fans showed to Beard in their one contest in Lubbock this year was Biblical in its intensity:

That might seem like a bit much, but hey, that’s college basketball. In any case, Texas Tech is America’s team right now for one reason and one reason only: It’s next in line for a chance to end Coach K’s career.

Notable alumus: John Denver.

7) Purdue. Purdue is a perfectly likable team with a future NBA star in Jaden Ivey who is supplemented by massive center Zach Edey — at seven-foot-four, the tallest player in the history of the Big Ten. We’d totally be onboard with Purdue, except Purdue is playing our St. Peter’s Peacocks and therefore must go down.

Notable alumnus: Neil Armstrong.

8) Iowa State. One of the wildest turnarounds in college-basketball history. Iowa State went 2-22 last year, fired its coach, hired a man named T.J. Otzelberger, and now, somehow, finds itself in the Sweet 16. Feel free to jump on the bandwagon, but only if you can locate Ames on a blank map of the state.

Notable alumnus: George Washington Carver.

9) Miami (Florida). Miami’s basketball team has never had quite the same swagger as its Luther Campbell–infused football team, and when you look at successful but milquetoast head coach Jim Larranaga, it’s not difficult to see why:

Honestly, I’m surprised he’s even allowed in Miami.

Notable alumnus: The Rock.

10) UCLA. The Bruins nearly won their 12th title last year, falling just short to Gonzaga in the Final Four, and they’ve returned nearly the same team this year. UCLA hasn’t won a championship since 1995, but it remains the bluest of blue bloods in college basketball thanks to all those titles in the Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton days back in the 1960s and 1970s. Its then-coach, John Wooden, remains the oracle of the sport to an often-absurd degree; The New York Times Magazine once called him “as close to an embodiment of Jesus Christ as anyone on the current sporting scene,” which, uh, might be a bit much.

Notable alumnus: Jackie Robinson.

11) Michigan. It’s always a little exhausting when a University of Michigan team is successful, mostly because of the school’s vast alumni base. I can’t put this better than I did last year: “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 alumnus: Jack Kevorkian

12) Arizona. The Wildcats, a perennial contender for much of the past quarter-century (they won a championship in 1997 and made a title game in 2001), had been sliding lately. Then they hired a new coach from Gonzaga and instantly turned themselves into Desert Gonzaga, playing an exciting up-tempo style that has made them one of the favorites to win the tournament. (Coach Tommy Lloyd would become the first coach to win a title in his first year since Steve Fisher at Michigan, who was an interim coach, in 1989.) The team is fun to watch, but it’s worth remembering that Lloyd is only in charge because the previous coach, Sean Miller, was run out of town after years of scandal. (He of course already has a new job at Xavier.) Arizona winning a title the very next year feels unfair somehow.

Notable alumnus: Geraldo Rivera.

13) Houston. An underrated, underappreciated team out of the small American Conference, Houston made it to the Final Four last year — and continues to succeed this year — by playings a ferocious, suffocating defense that is hell to try to score against and even more miserable, as a fan, to watch. More importantly, it just beat my beloved Illinois Fighting Illini, so looking at its uniforms, thinking about the state of Texas, or even watching Apollo 13 is unbearable for me at this exact moment. This team is fine, but I hate it and will surely continue to do so forever.

Notable alumna: Lizzo. 

14) Kansas. Did you enjoy the Atlanta Braves baseball teams of the 1990s, who always made the playoffs in sort of boring fashion, only won a single World Series, and felt like they were kind of in the way the whole time? Then you might like Kansas, a team that is always good — they won back in 2008 — and never exciting: Somehow, coach Bill Self figured out a way to make even Joel Embiid dull. But the Jayhawks are back here again, and you’ll do a deep, Okay, fine sigh every time you turn on a game and realize they’re playing.

Notable alumnus: Mandy Patinkin.

15) North Carolina. This weekend, the Tar Heels upset Baylor, the only top-ranked team to be ousted from the tourney so far. It was a legitimately impressive win. The problem, of course, is that North Carolina, six-time winners of the national championship, is college-basketball royalty, the exact opposite of some sort of plucky underdog. This is actually sort of a fun team — it has a guy whose name is literally Leaky Black — but every time North Carolina does something positive, I am legally obligated to remind you that John Edwards, who went to law school there, once built an entire Tar Heels–themed basketball court in his mansion.

Notable alumnus: Michael Jordan.

16) Duke. Ah, Duke: The most hated program in college sports and still one of the most successful. As you may have heard, this is Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final year. He’s the winningest college-basketball coach of all time, with five titles under his belt, and a man who, despite being 75 years old, somehow maintains a full thick head of jet-black hair. Every game you watch could be Coach K’s last: He came awfully close to ending his career against Michigan State in the Round of 32. Coach K will either leave a champion or, more likely (and more deliciously), leave the court growling and cursing somebody because he just lost. Duke and Coach K have dominated nearly every college basketball conversation for nearly 40 years. That era is, mercifully, almost over.

Notable alumnus: Stephen Miller.

Who You Should Root For in March Madness (Not Duke)