The only rule for filling out your March Madness bracket this year: Don’t take it for granted

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March Madness this year comes at a time of great uncertainty in college sports.

In addition to eyeing potential 5-12 upsets and trying to figure out which sleeper to put in the Elite Eight, fans also have to consider more existential questions about college basketball’s future. How will realignment affect the makeup of Division I? How much will football-related decisions affect basketball? How long will the NCAA Tournament stay at 68 teams, and if it changes, what will that mean for the Cinderellas of March?

For now, this event looks pretty much the way it has for a generation. Don’t take it for granted as you fill out your brackets — and if you need some tips, here you go. A Final Four with UConn, Houston, Gonzaga and Michigan State? Let us explain:

First round winners: UConn, Northwestern, San Diego State, Auburn, BYU, Illinois, Drake, Iowa State.

Yale brings 7-footer Danny Wolf and an experienced supporting cast, but drew a tough first-round matchup against fourth-seeded Auburn. The Tigers are ranked No. 4 in the country by Ken Pomeroy.

Second round winners: UConn, Auburn, Illinois, Iowa State.

The Sweet 16 in this region could include the conference tournament champions of the Big East, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12.

Regional semifinal winners: UConn, Iowa State.

UConn is the betting favorite to win a second straight national title. The Huskies are also ranked No. 1 by Pomeroy, and although we’re used to surprises it’s hard to pick them to exit before the Elite Eight.

Regional champion: UConn. Iowa State had a case for a No. 1 seed, but there’s a gap between the Cyclones and the Huskies.

First Four: Colorado over Boise State.

First round winners: Houston, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Duke, Texas Tech, Kentucky, Florida, Marquette.

James Madison over Wisconsin figures to be a popular first-round upset pick — maybe a little too popular. Same with Vermont over Duke. The chalk holds in this region, for this round anyway.

Second round winners: Houston, Duke, Kentucky, Florida.

Kentucky’s defense should be its undoing eventually, but the Wildcats beat Texas Tech in a clash of styles.

Regional semifinal winners: Houston, Kentucky.

The Sweet 16 and Elite Eight in the South are being held in Dallas, so expect the Cougars to have plenty of support.

Regional champion: Houston. The Cougars should be well prepared after joining the Big 12 and facing a power-conference schedule. It’s on to the Final Four for Kelvin Sampson’s team.

First Four: Montana State over Grambling State, Colorado State over Virginia.

First round winners: Purdue, TCU, Gonzaga, Samford, Oregon, Creighton, Texas, Saint Peter’s.

“Dickinson” is the key word in this region. Kansas big man Hunter Dickinson didn’t play in the Big 12 Tournament, and his health has been a concern for the Jayhawks. Top-seeded Purdue, meanwhile, needs to avoid being haunted by last year’s loss to 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson.

The Boilermakers advance. The fourth-seeded Jayhawks go down against Samford.

Second round winners: Purdue, Gonzaga, Creighton, Saint Peter’s.

Three times in the past five tournaments, a No. 15 seed has made the Sweet 16, so don’t be afraid to pick one. And hey, Saint Peter’s has done it before from this same seed line.

Regional semifinal winners: Gonzaga, Creighton.

Purdue will be under plenty of pressure to avoid underachieving in the NCAA Tournament again. The Boilermakers get through the first weekend but fall short of an extended run.

Regional champion: Gonzaga. The Zags get a chance to fly under the radar this year, and with a shaky Kansas team near them in the bracket, there’s a favorable path to the Sweet 16. If Gonzaga can get past Purdue, the Final Four is very much in play.

First Four: Howard over Wagner.

First round winners: North Carolina, Michigan State, Saint Mary’s, Alabama, New Mexico, Baylor, Nevada, Arizona.

Arizona is another team trying to rebound from a first-round loss in 2023, and top-seeded North Carolina returns after missing the tournament entirely last year.

Second round winners: Michigan State, Saint Mary’s, New Mexico, Arizona.

It’s almost a cliche to pick Tom Izzo’s team to overachieve in March, but Michigan State’s Pomeroy rank (18th) suggests the Spartans are dangerous as a No. 9 seed.

Regional semifinal winners: Michigan State, Arizona.

Here’s a question you don’t hear often: Can Michigan State hold its own against Saint Mary’s on the boards? The numbers suggest it would be tough, but the Spartans pull it out with defense.

Regional champion: Michigan State. The Big Ten and SEC aren’t making a lot of friends these days. The Spartans prevent them from getting shut out of the Final Four.

Of the two underdogs in this Final Four, Gonzaga is more likely to advance because it can hurt Houston on the boards, but ultimately UConn and Houston survive to set up a matchup between two former American Athletic Conference teams.

The Huskies are probably the better all-around team, but it’s just too hard to repeat. Houston wins it all.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness

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