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What to expect this March Madness

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Hey, have you finished your March Madness bracket yet? Well, time's almost up. The NCAA basketball tournament starts tomorrow. It's estimated that more than 50 million people will try to predict the winning teams. Yesterday, the selection committee picked the men's and women's college basketball teams that will compete. Justin Williams is a staff writer at The Athletic, and he's here to tell us what to look out for. Hi there.

JUSTIN WILLIAMS: How are you doing?

SHAPIRO: All right, thanks. Did anything surprise you about the teams that were chosen?

WILLIAMS: I think the biggest thing that stood out was the Big East only got three teams in, which wasn't a huge surprise. But, you know, that's one of the best conferences in the country, and there were a bunch of teams on the bubble. It seemed like maybe one or two of them would get in. And kind of none of those Big East bubble teams - St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall, Villanova - none of them got in. And so at the end of the day, it was kind of, you know, the Mountain West did well but maybe not as well as people had expected going in, in terms of where they'd be ranked, and for the Big East, just kind of a tough outcome with only three teams getting into the field.

SHAPIRO: Well, what are the matchups that you're most looking forward to?

WILLIAMS: I think there's some really interesting matchups of teams that are ranked a little bit closely - Saint Mary's-Grand Canyon, I think that'll be a good one. You know, Gonzaga-McNeese, I think there'll be a lot of people picking that as an upset. And then another, you know, possible upset Clemson versus New Mexico. Clemson really kind of struggled towards the end of the year. New Mexico goes on a run and wins the Mountain West. And so I think that's a 6-11 matchup where a lot of people will be picking the 11 seed New Mexico to advance.

SHAPIRO: Any breakout stars you're keeping an eye on?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, everyone who follows college basketball knows about Zach Edey at Purdue. But, you know, he's going to be definitely a big storyline there with them being one of the top teams. I think RJ Davis at North Carolina - and then, you know, Houston's been really good all year then kind of struggled with some depth and injuries, but Jamal Shead, the point guard there, I think he's one of the best players in the country. And I think if Houston is able to make a big run, he'll be a big part of that, and I think people will see him kind of break out.

SHAPIRO: And what about the women?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, I mean, look, it's obvious Caitlin Clark - but, you know, she's going to be the big, dominant storyline of the NCAA tournament. And there are some other really good teams in there - South Carolina, you know, obviously being one of them, the top overall seed. But it's going to be all Caitlin Clark all the time and - because of how dominant this season in college basketball, it totally makes sense.

SHAPIRO: So do you have an obvious pick for winner on the men's or women's side?

WILLIAMS: I think there'd be a lot of people on the women's side that are hoping Iowa at least makes it to the final four to kind of keep the Caitlin Clark attention and frenzy going. But I just - I think South Carolina's a really good and talented team. I'd be surprised if they're not the one standing at the end. And on the men's side, it's a little bit similar in the sense that, you know, UConn and Purdue I think are the two best teams. They're certainly, you know, two of those that have been at the top all season. UConn won last year. I think they're the most balanced and best team overall. But if you're looking for somebody outside of that UConn, Purdue or even Houston grouping, I think the talent and experience at North Carolina could lead them to a national championship as well.

SHAPIRO: Any other insider tips for people who are still putting together their brackets?

WILLIAMS: I - every year I tell people this, spend as little time as possible filling out your bracket. The more you stare at it and try and kind of figure out the angles and advantages, I think you just screw yourself up. I think the best possible way to have the best possible bracket is to fill it out in about 60 seconds.

SHAPIRO: Do you think it compromises your journalistic objectivity to have one (laughter)?

WILLIAMS: No, I definitely don't think so because it's a little bit humbling, actually. I follow and report on the sport all season, then I fill out a bracket and get everything wrong. It kind of just remember - reminds me that there's a lot more I have left to learn about it.

SHAPIRO: Well, this year will be different. This year you'll win.

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Justin Williams, staff writer at The Athletic, thanks a lot.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. Appreciate you having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.