(CBS Minnesota/CBS Local) — The tournament kicks off next week, and fans across the country are beginning to watch teams in earnest to decide who they will pick as champion in office pools this year. While many will go with the blue-blood names like Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky, others will be searching for a team that, if they cut down the nets, could seal a victory in the pool.
To help with that question, we asked Turner Sports studio host Ernie Johnson who he thinks is a dark horse in the tournament. Johnson, along with Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Clark Kellogg, will once again be the studio crew for games this year. While the team he suggests may not be a “dark horse” in the literal sense, the program has never made the Final Four.
“In terms of dark horses, I don’t know if you would call Tennessee a dark horse, because they have played so well this year in the SEC,” said Johnson at CBS and Turner Sports NCAA Tournament Media Day. “But, I think when people are thinking about who is going to win the tournament, they are thinking about Duke, if Zion plays, Gonzaga, with all of their experience, maybe UVA. Michigan State is also up there because of Tom Izzo, who loves this time of year. Those are the ones that everybody is going to pick. So, if I had to go dark horse, which is really not that dark, I would go with Tennessee.”
While the Volunteers are his dark-horse pick, when Johnson thinks about who he will pick as this year’s champion, he falls back to a familiar name. One that, last year, didn’t quite have the tournament it expected to.
“It’s going to have to happen one of these years, UVA is going to win one of these years,” said Johnson. “I have always liked Tony Bennett, and the job he has done there. They have always been more of a defensive-minded team, but they can score now. I’m going to stick with UVA this year, even though I had them winning it last year also, and that didn’t last.”
While who cuts down the nets at the end of the month-long tournament is certainly important, much of the entertainment comes from the Cinderella teams we don’t expect. In that regard, Johnson has a few favorites. And he believes those moments are what makes the tournament the must-watch event that it is year in and year out.
“Florida Gulf Coast was a great run. It didn’t last real long, but it just captivated everybody,” said Johnson. “Of course, there was UMBC last year ,where people were saying, ‘I don’t even know what the initials stand for and how did a 16 finally beat a one?’ Those kinds of things are the ones that stand out. Then you think about the championships and the Villanova last-second win, those moments. That is the great thing to me about the tournament. It brings together so many sports fans who may not even consider themselves sports fans, because maybe they suddenly find themselves in an office pool and they are rooting hard for Gardner-Webb. That is what is great. Anything that we can get that makes the world a little smaller and gets everybody together is a good thing.”