Navigating March Madness Brackets

Host Audie Cornish talks with Tom Goldman about this year's NCAA basketball tournament brackets.

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March Madness is here. It's the time of year when we bet on brackets and talk about the big blue and the orange and who might be the Cinderella team we never heard of, the team that messes up the bracket we spend so long filling out. College basketball's big tournaments start this week. And for a preview and some help with those brackets, we're joined by NPR's Tom Goldman. Hey there, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Did you say help with the brackets?


GOLDMAN: I'm not sure I can guarantee that.


CORNISH: Well, let's start with the men's side. A lot of people are filling out their office pool brackets with Kentucky going all the way. And, of course, the Wildcats are the overall top seed in the tournament, but they took a misstep yesterday and lost in the finals of their conference tournament. So is this cause for concern?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, Audie, I think it's actually good that Kentucky's 24-game winning streak came to an end, and Kentucky head coach John Calipari basically said that afterwards. He is a master motivator, and he has to be considering he's dealing with a lot of freshmen on his team. And he's probably using this loss to Vanderbilt in the championship game as a great teaching moment for these young guys. He was quoted as saying, "Maybe now everybody realizes we're not invincible. We're going to have to execute, play hard and with some aggressiveness and intensity or we will get beat."

And really, it is better than riding into the tournament on the wake of a 25-game win streak. That can become a burden and kind of play with young players' minds in pressure moments. We also saw Syracuse and North Carolina losing over the weekend but still getting number one seeds. So in these cases, these conference tournament results didn't really matter.

CORNISH: But is that always the case? I mean, I would assume a strong performance in the conference championship helps a team going into the NCAA tournament.

GOLDMAN: Well, good point. And yes, it did. In some cases, it did. Michigan State won the Big 10 championship, beating Ohio State by four points. And Michigan State got a number one seed largely as a result of that. Florida State is one to look at. They ended up beating North Carolina and Duke in the conference tournament and won the title. That gives the Seminoles a great amount of confidence, great momentum going into the big dance.

CORNISH: Of course, the madness part of this comes from the upsets, right? The little guys who come out of nowhere and shock a heavily favored team. Now, last year, it was the unheralded VCU getting into the Final Four. So who are the fun little guys that I can root for his year?


GOLDMAN: There are lots: Belmont, Detroit, LIU Brooklyn, South Dakota State. Personally, I'm looking forward to Virginia Commonwealth, VCU, who you mentioned, versus Wichita State in a first round game. I'll be at that game. And Wichita State is this year's projected Cinderella story. So we're going to have last year's Cinderella going versus the projected Cinderella for this year. That's a lot of Cinderella, Audie. I hope I can handle it.

CORNISH: Yeah. No. I appreciate that you give me lots to root for there. And, of course, I'm glad we left plenty of time to talk about the women's tournaments. It starts on Saturday. Last year, a lot of surprises. We had Texas A&M won the title. And then the perennial powers, UConn and Stanford, got out earlier than expected. So what should we expect this year?

GOLDMAN: You know, you could probably - going in, you can expect another team from Texas to dominate. Baylor is 34-0. Brittney Griner, the 6-8 center, is the force in women's college basketball. The other strong teams you mentioned are there - UConn, Stanford - although UConn had a little bit of a down year. And I think the most interesting story outside the traditional powers and maybe the most interesting story anywhere is Delaware star, junior player Elena Delle Donne. She has led the Blue Hens into the tournament.

They're looking for their first NCAA victory. She's a fascinating story. She had signed or committed to Connecticut, stayed there about 48 hours, turned around, left, went home. It turned out she has this tremendous tie to her sister who is severely disabled - an older sister - and she wanted to be close to her. So Elena Delle Donne went back home. She quit basketball for about half a year, played volleyball. Then she came back, and she and Delaware will be a great story to watch.

CORNISH: That's exciting story. Looking forward to seeing that in the tournament. Thanks so much, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You bet.

CORNISH: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

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