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

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So far, this has been one of the more dramatic men’s NCAA Tournaments in recent memory. Half the No. 1 seeds are already gone, with one of them, Purdue, going down to a No. 16 seed for only the second time in tourney history. (That unlikely winner would be Fairleigh Dickinson, the weird commuter school you may have seen signs for while driving over the George Washington Bridge.) There’s also the odd spectacle of Princeton as a scrappy underdog — which makes sense in a college-basketball context, but is still weird. And looming over the proceedings is Alabama and the grossest story of the whole tourney, which may become much more prominent in the coming days.

The first weekend provided the requisite thrills, crazy plot twists, and endless commercial breaks, during which you may have wondered, Wait, Jim Nantz, Jennifer Garner, and Spike Lee actually had a conversation? Together? This tournament always delivers. Still, unless you’re an alumnus of one of the remaining 16 schools or possess gambling-related loyalties, it’s not easy to figure out where you should direct your affections. (Rooting against Duke is a no-brainer, but they’ve already been eliminated.) So, as is tradition, 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 for the men’s tournament; the women’s Sweet 16 will be set by Tuesday morning and I’ll put my picks in the comments of this post on Wednesday. Free content!)

1. Gonzaga

Forever the bridesmaid at the NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga is the best college program that has never won a title. Going into the season, this team had been considered one of the strongest in school history, thanks largely to mustachioed star Drew Timme. Despite losing only five games, they’ve been considered a disappointment against those high expectations, netting a 3 seed in the tournament as opposed to top seeds the last couple of years. Still, they looked very solid last weekend, and with No. 1 Kansas gone from their section of the draw, they’re in decent position for a Final Four run. Gonzaga’s success in recent years should not make you think of the school as anything other than a massive underdog. They’re a small Jesuit college in the Pacific Northwest, and they’re regularly one of the top ten teams in basketball. One of these years they’re going to get a title. Might as well be this year, no?

Notable alumnus: Bing Crosby.

2. San Diego State

Everybody loved Michigan’s Fab Five, the last truly famous college basketball team to cross over to mainstream culture. Well, San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher, now 63 years old but back then a Michigan assistant, is widely credited with being the lead recruiter who got Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, & Co. to Ann Arbor. It may be a thin connection, but consider this your ’90s throwback team. More importantly, San Diego State is up against Alabama next, and there are only four more cracks to stop that team from winning the title and turning this whole tournament into a blight on sports. Go Aztecs.

Notable alumnus: Raquel Welch.

3. Kansas State

Do you remember back in November 2020, when college basketball was awkwardly attempting a pre-vaccine return to play, and a star player for the University of Florida collapsed at the beginning of a game?

That man’s name was Keyontae Johnson, and he spent three days in a coma afterward. He didn’t play basketball again until this year, when he transferred from Florida to Kansas State and turned out to be one of the best players in the sport. That story is part of a total turnaround for Kansas State, and makes it the sort of team you can’t help but cheer for. The only downside? Every Kansas State victory makes the BTK killer happy.

Notable alumnus: Erin Brockovich.

4. Texas

The Longhorns were considered one of the best teams in basketball coming into the season, but nearly fell apart in the middle of it, when then-coach Chris Beard was arrested on domestic-violence charges against his wife. (The details are harrowing.) It took Texas a month to fire Beard, which sounds bad — but then again, after the charges were dropped, Mississippi hired Beard and gave him nearly $20 million, so Texas almost seems proactive in retrospect. Interim coach Rodney Terry is beloved by his players, and is coaching to keep his job. Also, you know what we haven’t seen in a long time? A full-on Matthew McConaughey get-the-kids-at-Texas-pumped-up speech. (He actually holds a very cool-sounding title at Texas: “Minister of Culture.”) If McConaughey’s not going to run for Senate, this is the next-best thing.

Notable alumnus: Janis Joplin.

5. Houston

Kelvin Sampson coached at Indiana and Oklahoma before being run out of college basketball for violations that are now so commonplace that punishing someone for them seems downright quaint. When he took over Houston in 2014, the school had not won an NCAA Tournament game since the Phi Slamma Jamma days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Sampson has turned the program around entirely; the team is now trying to make its third straight Elite Eight and its second Final Four in three years. They are also the most likely to stop Alabama from winning the whole thing, which, again, is enough of a reason to cheer for anyone.

Notable alumnus: Randy Quaid.

6. Princeton

Of all No. 15 seeds to make a run, why did it have to be them? It could have been Colgate, or UNC Asheville, or Vermont … man, Vermont would have been so fun! Alas, it’s the scrappy, never-had-a-chance underdogs of Princeton. If you can feel comfortable rooting for an Ivy — and I’m writing this for New York Magazine! This thing is probably being copyedited by someone from an Ivy! — the Tigers are actually a pretty likable team. The coach, Mitch Henderson, was actually a star player on the last Princeton team to win a game in the tournament, way back in 1998. This year’s squad is led by Ivy League Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan, a U.K. native who only started playing organized basketball when he was 15. He wears pink shoes every game to honor his mother, who died of breast cancer in 2012. Okay, fine: So now I’m rooting for an Ivy. And, I suspect, so are you.

Notable alumnus: Ted Cruz.

7. Michigan State

The Big Ten might be the most powerful conference in college sports, with its massive television contracts, huge brand names like Ohio State and Michigan, and vast alumni network. (There’s a reason Southern California and UCLA were desperate to get in, even though none of the other schools are remotely close to California.) But in recent years, the conference has fallen on its face in men’s college basketball, a sport it once dominated. No Big Ten team has won a national championship in the 21st century. This Michigan State squad, coached by Tom Izzo (the guy who won that title), is the only Big Ten team from the conference still remaining. Plus, Michigan State is a heartwarming story this year: The team (and specifically Izzo) has served as a point of healing for a campus that suffered a horrible mass shooter incident earlier this year.

Notable alumnus: Gretchen Whitmer.

8. Miami

Miami certainly sounds like it’d be a really fun team. They’re Miami, after all! The Cocaine Cowboys! The U! 2 Live Crew! But from a basketball perspective, in the year 2023, they’re led by a 73-year-old man named Jim from Rhode Island who looks like this. (He’s actually most famous for being the guy who somehow got George Mason to the Final Four nearly 20 years ago.) By the way, this team’s mascot isn’t a hurricane; it’s an ibis. Though it’s very difficult to personify a weather event with a furry costume, so the bird is probably the right call.

Notable alumnus: Dwayne Johnson.

9. Arkansas

The rare team that’s of interest to both NBA and college-basketball obsessives, the Razorbacks have two pending top-ten draft picks in Nick Smith and Anthony Black. What’s wild is that neither one of them is Arkansas’ best player: That would be Ricky Council IV, who is vastly less athletically blessed, but possesses all-important college-basketball experience. (Remember, Kevin Durant never made it out of the first round of the tournament.) Arkansas was a disappointing team in the regular season, but they may be putting it all together at the right time. So why are they so low on this list? Because their coach, Eric Musselman, is a 58-year-old maniac who takes his shirt off for the crowd after every win, which, even if he looks pretty great for his age, is really a bit much.

Notable alumnus: Jim Walton.

10. Creighton

Remember the quirky little Nebraska congressional district that went for Biden in the presidential election in 2020? That’s Omaha, which is where Creighton is. So thank these students! Creighton is coached by a man named Greg McDermott, who, somewhat surprisingly, survived a locker room speech he made two years ago, in which he said, “Guys, we need to stick together … We need both feet in. I need everybody to stay on the plantation. I can’t have anybody leave the plantation.” His phrasing, which isn’t just offensive but incredibly weird, landed him a four-game suspension, but he kept his job and has his team one game away from its first Elite Eight appearance since 1941.

Notable alumnus: Bob Gibson.

11. Florida Atlantic

One of the best mid-major teams in the tournament this year, Florida Atlantic took advantage of Purdue’s face-plant, beating Fairleigh Dickinson to advance to their first-ever Sweet 16. This is one of those schools that might feel like an underdog until you realize it’s a massive university, and, more to the point, a public one, which means, given what’s happening in Florida, that all books may be banned at the place by now. If that sounds unfair to Florida Atlantic University, let me take this moment to inform you that Carrot Top went to school there. Close your eyes and try to think of what a school that graduated Carrot Top would look like. That’s Florida Atlantic.

Notable alumnus: Carrot Top.

12. Tennessee

A tough-minded, physical defensive team, the Volunteers are led by former Texas coach Rick Barne. He’s an intelligent leader with the look of a fringe conservative Christian presidential candidate who never gets to speak during debates. At this time of year, NBA fans love to mock college basketball for its lack of athleticism and its old-school, aesthetically ugly style of play, and Tennessee is Exhibit A in that case. If they make the Final Four, well, good for them. They’ll lose and in two years you’ll never remember they were there.

Notable alumnus: Cormac McCarthy.

13. Xavier

Xavier’s coach is a man named Sean Miller, who built his career coaching there a decade ago before leaving for Arizona, one of the best jobs in college sports. But shortly after Miller arrived, he was caught on a federal wiretap promising money to then-recruit Deandre Ayton. That ended up costing him his job, though at least he didn’t end up in prison, like his assistant. Miller merely had to head back to Xavier, tail between his legs, but only temporarily; he’s now in the Sweet 16 and likely a candidate for a bigger job again. Particularly if he wins another game this week.

Notable alumnus: John Boehner.

14. Connecticut

The once-dominant women’s team has fallen off, much to the relief of the rest of women’s college basketball. The men’s team has returned to its previous glories, though, and is trying to win its fifth title in the last 25 years. I have decided — just now — that five is too many and that Connecticut needs to spread the wealth. Looking at you too here, UCLA.

Notable alumnus: Katherine Hepburn

15. UCLA

UCLA is a very likable team. Two years ago, with some of these same players. they, and came this close to making the national championship game, despite barely making the tournament at all. They have charismatic personalities like Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell, their jerseys are classic and eternal, and they play a fun style that scales incredibly well in the NCAA Tournament. The problem is that they’re UCLA: They’ve already won 11 titles, three more than any other school. Yes, all but one of those came in the 1960s and ’70s, but still: Give someone else a chance, Bruins.

Notable alumnus: Carol Burnett

16. Alabama

 I’ve made my case on this one: Alabama winning the tournament is the only scenario that would feel like a victory for the bad guys. Anyone but them, please.

Notable alumnus: Harper Lee.

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