Sullivan: Madness Preview
March Madness is here and it’s expected that over 7 million people in the country will fill out their brackets in hopes of winning their office pool and bragging rights. Whether you’ve watched closely all season or haven’t tuned in once, there is some studying required to pick the perfect bracket. It is part history and part luck, but regardless of which way you pick the field, it’s important to choose wisely. There are 64 teams to look at and luckily for you, we have broken down the field to help pick a winning bracket.
Before sizing up the four regions, let’s review some important numbers. Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova and Duke are the #1 seeds this March. Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the top seeds have won 15 of 24 titles while 10 teams have been the Championship runner up. The average amount of #1 seeds to make the Final Four every year is 1.8, so don’t blindly pick all top seeds to hit the semi-finals. Only once have all four #1’s made the Final Four, which was in 2008.
The Favorite: The Kentucky Wildcats finished their season 34-0 winning the SEC championship and earning the overall top seed in the tournament. A flawless campaign led by consistent scoring and a deeper bench than anyone else in the nation, the Wildcats should coast through the first few rounds on their way to winning this division and a spot in the Final Four. We have seen teams finish undefeated and head into March as a top seed, just to bust brackets everywhere in the second or third round, so what makes Kentucky different than the Witchita State team last year who also finished the regular season 34-0? Kentucky comes from a major conference, being challenged every time they step on the court. They are battle tested and have come out on top. The #1 overall seed has won the NCAA Championship three times since 2005, including Kentucky three years ago. This seed has reached that game 6 of the past 10 years.
Other Favorites: Kansas, Notre Dame and Maryland round out the rest of the top four Midwest Region seeds. Kansas lost in the Big 12 title game but had a good season up until that game. Their downfall in the bracket comes with their inconsistent play as a unit. They need to have all five starters play well at the same time, which hasn’t happened often. They should get to the Sweet 16 however, where they will meet Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are a feisty group, but with their defense sitting at 146th in the nation, and their inability to rebound, 111th defensively and 250th offensively, it won’t matter how much they score in the tournament, they won’t be able to make the stops or pull down the key rebounds to seal a victory past the third round, if they get that far. The Maryland Terrapins are one of the more interesting teams in this region with their 27-6 record. They play well at the end of games and are 11-1 in close games. Led by the headstrong Dez Wells, expect some big-time finishes from this team. The Terrapins pose the biggest threat to the Wildcats in this bracket.
Cinderella: It’s tough to call a 6th seed a Cinderella, but only one time has this seed ever made the Final Four since 1985. There aren’t many other teams in this region that could spoil the Wildcats party but sitting in the bottom half of the region Butler is a strong six. They play the 11th seeded University of Texas in the first round and likely would play Notre Dame in the round of 32. They can win this game and go head to head with Kansas in the Sweet 16. They could make a run and reward anyone brave enough to take the Bulldogs in the first three rounds.
Prediction: Kentucky wins this region easily and heads into the Final Four 38-0.
The Favorite: The Wisconsin Badgers are the top seed in this region and rightfully so. Their Big-10 championship victory proved to the nation just how solid this team really is. Trailing by more than 10 points with minutes to play, Coach Bo Ryan’s team took the contest to overtime and raised the trophy, outscoring their opponent 11-0 in the extra frame. They know how to close games out and aren’t afraid to take big shots to do so. There really is not a challenge for this team until the Elite 8. They are a safe bet to win at least their first three games.
Other Favorites: Arizona, Baylor and North Carolina are the remaining top four seeds. Baylor needs to take a lot of shots to score points and they turn the ball over a lot. North Carolina had a big playoff win against Virginia on Saturday, but aside from that, their last big win came in early January. After losing to Notre Dame back on January 5th, they have gone 10-5 before the ACC Tournament. They resume lacks wins against elite teams for them to be a favorite in this region. The Arizona Wildcats, led by Stanley Johnson, pose a major threat to the Badgers. With their stingy interior defense, no team in the country allows fewer second-chance opportunities. They should sprint by Texas Southern and either VCU or OSU in the Round of 32 before meeting Baylor in the Sweet 16. They should win that game too and meet Wisconsin in the Elite 8.
Cinderella: The Sun Belt Conference Champions, Georgia State Panthers are as tough of a 14 seed as you’ll find this year. Former Louisville Cardinal Kevin Ware has been waiting for his comeback moment, and he gets it this week against Baylor. The 47th ranked offense averages 73 points per game and creates a lot of turnovers. Baylor is 6-4 in their last ten games and is ripe for an upset. The Bears strengths is their offensive rebounding, but if the Panthers get gritty and aggressive, they could steal a win and then meet the winner of Xavier and BYU in the second round. It’s not wild to imagine the Panthers meeting Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Prediction: Arizona edges out Wisconsin and punches their ticket to the final four.
The Favorite: Villanova sits a top the region and has one of the more favorable paths to the Elite 8. Their biggest challenge to get there could potentially be Northern Iowa, which that alone should give you confidence to give them a straight path through the first 3 games. They don’t have any sure fire NBA stars on their roster and they shoot a lot of three pointers, but they also have not lost since January 19th. They make the most of their time with the ball, averaging 1.28 points per possession, which is best in the nation.
Other Favorites: Michigan State should have been a number five seed. Tom Izzo has always had tough tournament teams and a second round match up with the other East Region favorite Virginia, could be the best game in the second round. The Spartans are consistent in rebounding on both sides of the court and create open opportunities with 17 assists per game. Virginia started the season 19-0 and only lost two games the rest of the way. The nation’s top defense has served the team well, keeping critics from pointing out their 225th ranked offense. If healthy, they are as solid as any team in the post season, but that could be a big “if.” Junior Justin Anderson, the team’s second leading scorer, missed important time leading up to the ACC tournament. There he played only 26 minutes and missed all six of his shots. The Cavaliers need him to play. Oklahoma is the #3 seed in this region, but their inability to rebound or get to the line are causes for concern. Selecting them in this bracket should come with caution, especially in their second round game against Providence if both teams advance.
Cinderella: Michigan State at a 7 seed is a candidate and has a great chance to advance in the bracket, but their reputation and history with Coach Izzo make it tough to consider them ever an underdog. The best bet for a Cinderella comes from Wyoming in the 12th seed. Every year when the brackets come out, experts look at the four 5-12 match-ups for an upset. There have been 44 number twelve seeds to win their first round match up, and this year the Wyoming Cowboys have the best chance. They just knocked off Boise State and San Diego State on the way to winning the Mountain West title. Northern Iowa is a tough first round match up, but if they can get by them, Louisville might be the easiest of the #4 seeds to meet in the second round.
Prediction: Michigan State and Villanova meet in the Elite Eight in this division and the Cavaliers take their #2 seed in the Final Four.
The Favorite: The Duke Blue Devils have possibly the best freshman in ACC history in Jahill Okafor. Combine him with big shot Tyus Jones, and this team is made for the NCAA Tournament. They average a Nation’s best 80.6 points per game and are third with a .502 Field Goal percentage. They can rebound and create turnovers, which is a big reason why they still secured a top seed in the region even though they didn’t win the ACC. Duke has two losses to Notre Dame as the only blemishes in the past two months. They have wins over Virginia, North Carolina (twice), Michigan State, Wisconsin and Louisville. The Blue Devils should advance well in this region.
Other Favorites: Gonzaga, Iowa State and Georgetown complete the top four seeds. This Gonzaga team may be Coach Mark Few’s best chance to reach the semifinals, but not advancing past the second round in the past five seasons leave doubts about their ability to win big games with a short turnaround. Georgetown is in the same situation, having only advanced to the second round twice in the past four years. The favorite, aside from Duke, in this region is the third ranked Iowa State Cyclones. They shoot well, have big men that can move and shoot, and they don’t get rattled when they get down late in games. In their last five contests, they have trailed by a combined 75 points. They did however came back to win them all. With big wins over Kansas and Oklahoma on their way to the Big 12 Championship, the Cyclones have opened a lot of eyes as a potential Final Four candidate. A first round match against UAB should be a double-digit victory, and a second round game with SMU should be the same fate. It won’t be until the Sweet 16 when they are really tested. There they meet either Davidson or Gonzaga, both of which I like their chances against. I expect them to meet Duke in the Elite Eight,
Cinderella: The South Region holds the Cinderella story. There are some solid teams in this bracket with potential to bust up predictions. Davidson at the 10 seed, SF Austin at 12 and Eastern Washington at 13 all have the ability to win multiple games in this region. It isn’t far fetched to look at a 12-13 second round game between SF Austin and Eastern Washington. Davidson scores a lot of buckets from long range and they rarely turn the ball over. That is the recipe for an upset in the NCAA Tournament They should beat Georgia and have a real chance of beating Gonzaga in the round of 32 to set up a Sweet 16 match-up with Iowa State. At the top of the bracket SF Austin and Eastern Washington will battle it out in the second round for the right to play Duke in the Sweet 16. The more likely team of the three Cinderella candidates to win its first three games and reach the Elite 8 is Davidson.
Prediction: Duke and Iowa State will slug it out in the best quarterfinal game on the schedule. Two teams with clutch shooting leave this contest up for grabs, but I see the Cyclones pulling down the boards and heading to the Final Four.
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