Can Gonzaga make a return trip to the Final Four? Following the First Four, the NCAA tournament begins Thursday.

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The secret to correctly picking the NCAA tournament is understanding there is no secret. But there are secrets.

Three of them, in fact:

  1. Good guards are essential; great guards are even better.
  2. Elite offense beats elite defense.
  3. Talent wins 90 percent of the time.

For insight into that last item, consider the AP preseason poll. It’s speculative, of course, but also rooted in the very ingredients that fuel championship runs: Experience and/or NBA-level talent.

The long season causes drifting. Players get bored; they get hurt; they slump. And then they locked back in when the Madness begins.

The top 10 teams (in order) from the AP preseason poll:

  1. Duke
  2. Michigan State
  3. Arizona
  4. Kansas
  5. Kentucky
  6. Villanova
  7. Wichita State
  8. Florida
  9. North Carolina
  10. USC

Here we go, starting in the upper left of the brackets …

SOUTH

First round: Virginia over UMBC, Creighton over Kansas State, Kentucky over Davidson, Arizona over Buffalo, Miami over Loyola-Chicago, Wright State over Tennessee, Texas over Nevada, Cincinnati over Georgia State

Second round: Virginia over Creighton, Arizona over Kentucky, Miami over Wright State, Texas over Cincinnati

Sweet 16: Arizona over Virginia, Miami over Texas

Elite Eight: Arizona over Miami

WEST

First round: Xavier over Texas Southern, Florida State over Missouri, Ohio State over South Dakota State, Gonzaga over UNC Greensboro, Houston over San Diego State, Michigan over Montana, Texas A&M over Providence, North Carolina over Lipscomb

Second round: Xavier over Florida State, Gonzaga over Ohio State, Michigan over Houston, North Carolina over Texas A&M

Sweet 16: Gonzaga over Xavier, North Carolina over Michigan

Elite Eight: North Carolina over Gonzaga

EAST

First round: Villanova over Radford, Alabama over Virginia Tech, West Virginia over Murray State, Wichita State over Marshall, Florida over St. Bonaventure, Texas Tech over Stephen F Austin, Butler over Arkansas, Purdue over CSU-Fullerton

Second round: Villanova over Alabama, Wichita State over West Virginia, Florida over Texas Tech, Butler over Purdue

Sweet 16: Villanova over Wichita State, Florida over Butler

Elite Eight: Villanova over Florida

MIDWEST

First round: Kansas over Penn, N.C. State over Seton Hall, New Mexico State over Clemson, Auburn over Charleston, TCU over Syracuse, Michigan State over Bucknell, Oklahoma over Rhode Island, Duke over Iona

Second round: Kansas over N.C. State, Auburn over New Mexico State, Michigan State over TCU, Duke over Oklahoma

Sweet 16: Auburn over Kansas, Duke over Michigan State

Elite Eight: Duke over Auburn

FINAL FOUR

Semifinals: Duke over Villanova and Arizona over North Carolina

Championship: Duke over Arizona. Score: 78-69

Thank me later, or forget you ever read this.

2018 NCAA tournament bracket. (Rich Boudet / The Seattle Times)
2018 NCAA tournament bracket. (Rich Boudet / The Seattle Times)