It’s March Madness, and everyone you know is printing out their brackets and filling it out using their own metrics, whether it’s picking the higher seeds, or their favorite mascots, but if this is going to be your year to take home the prize, which most likely will be pride, you need to go no further to know everything about this tournament, than right here.
It’s easy to take the #1 seeds and draw a line right to the final four, and the #2 seeds to the Elite Eight, and so on, but we all it doesn’t end up like that. There will always be upsets, and the best way to win your bracket challenge, is to correctly pick with higher seeds will win in the early rounds. There are a few very important factors when evaluating upset potential, and they are three-point defense, and extra possessions from offensive rebounds. That is how the best teams in the bracket can be beat. Well, that, and foul trouble.
Let’s start with the East, where the reigning champions, Villanova, own the top seed, followed by Duke, Baylor and Florida.
#1 Villanova (31-3) vs. #16 Mt. Saint Mary’s / New Orleans – In the bracket challenge, you don’t need to pick who wins the play in game for the 16th seed to play Villanova, but in case you are bored early in the week and want to play the Vegas lines in preparation for the real event, go with Mt. Saint Mary’s to beat New Orleans. They started the season 1-11 before winning 17 of their final 21 games and dominated the NEC tournament on the way to their crown. New Orleans turns the ball over at a disturbing rate, and they cannot score from long range. Look for New Orleans to get beat as easy as getting a hangover on Bourbon Street.
That doesn’t matter to you, because whoever wins will get railroaded by Villanova, by at least 20 points. These Wildcats are real, and they are my favorite to win the tournament and become the first school since Florida in 2007 to repeat as National Champions. Led by Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart, they play a small lineup with 4 guards, sometimes 5, but they move fast, swing hard and score at will. They have lost just once since February, and oh, by the way, they are better than last year. They smoke Mt. St. Mary’s and cruise all the way to the Final Four. There, I expect them to beat Arizona and eventually down Kentucky in the title game to win their second straight national championship.
#8 Wisconsin (25-9) vs. #9 Virginia Tech (22-10) – Wisconsin were Big-10 favorites most of the season, but failed in the championship game against the red-hot Michigan Wolverines. The Badgers struggled down the stretch, but have more experience than most of the other teams in the tournament, with four players on the roster that have made two Final Four trips. The Badgers need to hope their experience outweighs their lack of recent momentum.
The Hokies have four players averaging over 10 points per game, and these scorers have no problem sharing their shots. They do struggles on the boards, and that could seal their fate early in this contest. The Badgers are the 22nd best rebounding team in the country, while Tech is just 264th. Wisconsin wins the opening round by a basket, but that is all they win as they run in to the Villanova buzz saw 48 hours later.
#5 Virginia (22-10) vs. #12 UNC Wilmington (29-5) – Virginia is always going to be a threat from downtown, but they also have a weak post game and cannot rebound offensively, so that means they better make more 3’s than they miss for them to avoid being that annual 5th seed that loses in the opener. All it could take in this game is a stretch of 3 or 4 possessions with one-and-done misses for the Cavaliers for UNC Wilmington to go on a run and put Virginia behind early.
UNC Wilmington have the least turnovers per possession in the country. They can move the ball well and they score in transition, which for a team like Virginia that struggles rebounding, spells trouble. The Seahawks however have gone through long spans where their defense is almost non-existent, and on the season allowed an average of 75 points. They are better this year, then last year’s team that almost knocked off the Blue Devils in the tournament’s opening round.
I see UNC Wilmington getting a solid run in the second half that forces Virginia to play catch up the rest of the way. They win this one, but don’t expect them to be this year’s Cinderella. They will take down Virginia and then Florida, but fall against Villanova in the Sweet-16. Still not a bad run for a #12 seed.
#4 Florida (24-8) vs. #13 East Tennessee (27-7) – Florida finished the regular season in 2nd place in the SEC and had nice a win over Miami, but they also lost important contests to Gonzaga, Florida State, Duke and split with Kentucky. They beat up on everyone else they played, and those contests generally were not close. They don’t have an elite scorer, but they have three players who do average between 10 and 14 points. They are middle of the pack in points scored and allowed, and they rebound within the top 100 in the country. Not a ringing endorsement to select a #4 team, is it?
Eastern Tennessee is aggressive and solid on defense. With that intensity, forces turnovers, for both teams. They will force the Gators into making mistakes, but they also have the tendency to give the ball right back. Led by Senior guard T.J. Cromer and his 19 points per game, the Buccaneers are a fun team to watch and will give Gators’ fans some moments of discomfort. He is a great player, but against bad teams. When they played the elite of their schedule, he failed to show up, such as the night he scored 4 points against Dayton, or his 4 for 13 shooting night against Tennessee, so expect Florida to key in on this match up and shut Cromer down for a round 1 victory. A short celebration however, as Florida exits after their second-round meeting with UNC Wilmington.
#6 SMU (30-4) vs. #11 Providence/USC - SMU is the real deal. They are monsters pulling in offensive rebounds, and overall secured 57% of all possible boards this season. That was 3rd best in the country. They won the American Conference regular season and tournament championship and head into the big dance with plenty of confidence and momentum. With a balanced attack of four players averaging over 11 points per game, and a fifth at 9.9, the Mustangs can score throughout their entire line-up.
SMU is going to play either USC or Providence, whoever wins the play-in game. Look for the Friars to win the opening round and send the Trojans home before the real dance. USC finished 24-9 on the season, with all 9 losses coming to the Pac-12 elite. Providence is a solid team in a deep conference. They can score, and when they do, they can beat anyone. Unlike USC who failed every time they faced an elite team, the Friars had big wins over Creighton, Butler, Seton Hall and Marquette twice. They can rise to the occasion, and will do so, but for this one game only.
Look for SMU to win a close game against Providence, beat Baylor by a handful in the second round and eventually drop to Duke in the Sweet-16.
#3 Baylor (25-7) vs. #14 New Mexico (28-5) – Baylor’s Jonathan Motley averages nearly a double-double with 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per contest. When they have needed their star to show up in big moments, he has, like in their wins against Oregon, West Virginia and Iowa State. He leads a defense that does not allow many second-chance opportunities, and is 16th in the country in points allowed. They finished at 12th in AP poll, and for good reason. These Bears can ball.
New Mexico struggled at the end of the season, dropping 4 of their last 5, with that one win being against the Mountain West’s 6th ranked San Diego State. They played 5 tournament teams and got blown away in all of them, except a one-point overtime loss to Nevada. They do cover the 3-point arc well, actually only 3 teams in the country do it better, but that wasn’t against competition like the Bears. Motley and crew should win this one handedly and roll into the second round where they will get shut down by SMU.
#7 South Carolina (22-10) vs. #10 Marquette (19-12) - Sindarius Thornwell, the 6’5”, 211lb Senior guard for the Gamecocks is a stud, scoring 21 points and pulling in 7.2 rebounds per game. As a team, South Carolina lost in the first round of the SEC tournament, and dropped 6 of the last 9 games. Thornwell was the lone star in that span, scoring over 20 points seven times, including a 44-point effort against Alabama.
Marquette is the best 3-point shooting teams in the country, connecting on 43%, and the Gamecocks can’t even come close to matching that production. The Golden Eagles score on 57% of their overall shots, which is third best in the country. Markus Howard is a stud, scoring on 55% of his three-pointers. His team can score in bunches, and put a game out of reach fast.
In a close game like this, I’ll take Marquette and their ability to make 3-point shots. If this game turns in to a shootout, South Carolina cannot keep up. Three points is more than 2 points, and back-to-back possessions make it 6 points to 4 points, and so on. Sure, the math is easier than making the shots, but the Golden Eagles do make it look that easy. Look for them to swish into the round of 32 before dropping game-2 to Duke.
#2 Duke (27-8) vs. #15 Troy (22-14) – Coach K has had a dramatic season, led by Grayson Allen’s multiple sagas that made national attention for all the wrong reasons. His Blue Devils program has been no stranger to this type of negative coverage, such as the years with. JJ Reddick and Christian Laettner. This year’s Duke team has won four straight games and captured the ACC title in dramatic fashion by beating North Carolina and Notre Dame. Allen is the headline stealer, but Jayson Tatum is the real stud, scoring 88 points in 4 days during the ACC Tournament.
Troy finished 10-8 in the Sun Belt and will be enjoying this tournament for what it is, four quarters of nationally televised basketball. They stand as much chance in this game as a defender avoiding a Grayson Allen elbow. Troy will drop this one to Duke by double digits, and it won’t be pretty. Look for the Blue Devils to then go on and beat Baylor and then SMU, before meeting Villanova in the East finals, where their miracle run comes to an end.
East Bracket Summary – Villanova will cruise to the finals, and defeat Duke in the Elite Eight. SMU will be a big threat after beating Providence and Baylor, but will lose in the Sweet-16. UNC Wilmington will have a fun story, winning a pair of games, while Wisconsin, Florida and South Carolina will all secure one victory.
Villanova will represent the East in the Final Four, where they will defeat Arizona, move on to the finals, beat North Carolina, and add more cut-down nets to their trophy case on campus.
In the West Bracket, we have one-loss Gonzaga as the top seed, with Arizona, Florida St. and West Virginia rounding out the top four teams.
#1 Gonzaga (32-1) vs. #16 South Dakota St. (18-16) – It doesn’t matter who Gonzaga plays in the early rounds, the Zags will steamroll right through the completion. They have big wins over Florida, Iowa State, Arizona and St. Mary’s on their resume. They are led by All-American point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who averages 17 points per contest. Yes, Gonzaga played a soft schedule based on their conference, but when they played the elite, they rose to the occasion with either potent offense, or stout defense.
South Dakota State is led by Mike Daum and his 25 points and 8 rebounds per game. He came up huge in the final 6 games, all wins for State, including scoring outputs of 30, 33 and 51 points. He is a good story, and will score his 25 points for the Jackrabbits, however that is the only bright spot for the 18-16 Summit Conference Champions in this one. They will drop this game to Gonzaga by double digits. It will be close in the first half, but the Zags open up the flood gates after the break.
Gonzaga moves on to take out Northwestern in the next round before dropping out in the Sweet-16 as the first #1 seed to lose in the tournament.
#8 Northwestern (23-11) vs. #9 Vanderbilt (19-15) – It’s your typical 8-9 match up where both teams have severe strengths and weaknesses. For Northwestern, this is their first ever trip to NCAA tournament, having recorded a University-best 23 wins during the season. The playoffs are all about star power, which the Wildcats do not have, but they are balanced enough to make up for it, for round one at least. They share the ball efficiently and have nothing to lose in their first ever appearance.
Vanderbilt is the first at-large team to ever earn a tournament spot with 15 losses. Yes, 15 losses. As in 14 more loses than Gonzaga, who the winner of this match-up takes on in the next round. So why are they in the tournament? Well, they beat Florida three times and had an impressive home win against Iowa State. They finished the season winning 6 of their final 7 regular season games, with that lone loss was on the road to Kentucky by 6. How do they score? Well, they take a lot of 3-pointers, and they need to because they turn the ball over a lot too. They are 290th in the country in that category, compared to Northwestern who is 75th.
I like the Wildcats and the storyline here. So, this fairytale may only last 48 hours until they play the Zags, but they will win a tournament game and then their all-time school NCAA Tournament record will be .500 (1-1), which is good enough for the alumni and boosters to celebrate all summer long.
#5 Notre Dame (25-9) vs. #12 Princeton (23-6) – Fighting Irish faithful are shaking, and no it’s not their firsts in anger of losing the ACC Conference Championship to Duke when they had it in their grasp, but in feat of the red-hot Princeton Tigers who own a 19-game winning streak. Did I mention this is a 5-12 match up?
Notre Dame finished with 25 wins in another successful season in South Bend. They split their seasons series with Virginia, Florida State and Louisville, but came up short to North Carolina and then twice to Duke. Look for Bonzie Colson to be a big name in this match-up, as he has all season long against the big-men of the ACC. At 6’5” he has given up size in the paint all season long, but when he goes toe-to-toe with the Tigers’ Steven Cook, they will be the exact same height. Colson can use his experience to out-rebound, out-hustle and out-score his opposition.
Princeton is a scary match for Notre Dame. They were perfect through the Ivy League schedule this year and won the first ever Conference championship. They can rebound, shoot well from 3 and they don’t turn the ball over. It sounds like a pun, but Princeton does not make stupid mistakes. Where they will run in to trouble, is if Notre Dame pushes the pace of the action. This isn’t Harvard and Yale they are going up against, the teams that allow Princeton to set up their half-court offense and work the perimeter for their shot. The Irish are run-and-gun, which could tame the Tigers.
Notre Dame wins this by more than 7, and while it could be close for a half, it won’t be in the end. The Irish eyes are smiling, and they will be through St. Patrick’s Day weekend with this win, however, those smiles turn to frowns in the second round when the West Virginia Mountaineers stall their celebration.
#4 West Virginia (26-8) vs. #13 Bucknell (26-8) – Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers are known as “Press Virginia” for a reason, because their aggressive defense forces the most turnovers in the country. They attack the ball as soon as it is inbounded, and it will take a pair of smart and athletic guards to get the ball across mid-court. They held their opponents, through a tough Big-12 Conference, to just 66 points per game. They can score too, with Jevon Carter leading the way with 13 points per game.
Bucknell is getting 15 points from Vegas in this, and they will need it. They average 76 points per game, but they haven’t played a defense like Huggins’ yet. They might be a good 13-seed, but not good enough to win this one. The Patriot League Player of the Year, Nana Foulland has been lights out this season, landing 62.8% of his shots, and he will keep this game close enough for you to take the points, if you feel like beating Vegas. Your bracket, however, doesn’t deal with spreads, just wins, so take West Virginia to win this by a handful.
Huggins’ leads his team to wins over Notre Dame and then Gonzaga in the following two rounds before running into the Arizona buzz saw in the Elite Eight.
#6 Maryland (24-8) vs. #11 Xavier (21-13) – One of the most exciting players in the country, Melo Trimble, brings his Terps into this 6-11 match up. Expect him to see a steady dose of double coverage, but still find a way to score. And when he can’t get his own shot off, he can find Justin Jackson and Anthony Cowan who are more than capable of making their own. They were in the hunt for the Big-Ten title, but a 2-4 stretch run faded that dream.
Xavier is riding the confidence train after their conference tournament win over Butler, but they are also hobbling into the tournament, missing their best player Edmond Sumner to a late season ending injury. As a team, they score 75 points per game, and in much part due to the second chance opportunities they create with their plus-7 rebounding margin, which is 18th best in the country.
If he plays at his elite level, Tremble has the ability to be the player everyone in the country talks about in this tournament. If he hits a cold streak early on however, he also has the potential to be the player no one remembers. Expect him to be the former, at least in round 1. The Terps win this one by a bucket, or two and the fun keeps rolling as they move on to take out Florida State in round two before losing to Arizona in the Sweet-16.
#3 Florida St. (25-8) vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7) – It’s Dunk City, baby! The FGCU Eagles are back in the dance, looking to make as many headlines, if not more, than they did in 2013. This team may be just as athletic, if not more, than the team that had everyone watching SportsCenter for their high-flying dunking attack that they landed on the tournament 4 years ago. Led by transfer Brandon Goodwin and his 18 points per game, the Eagles have nothing to lose in this in-state tournament match-up with the Seminoles.
Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon and Terrance Mann will need to have a big game protecting the rim, showing they are just as athletic as the Eagles. They lead a very deep bench and could really go on a tear in this tournament if they play disciplined. At one point in the season, they beat Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville in a 6-game run with their only loss in that time being on the road against UNC. They could take this tournament and run with it, but they will need to say out of foul trouble. They take a lot of them, and against a good charity stripe team, they could spell their own fate (see Maryland above).
The Seminoles struggle from the line themselves, hitting just 70%, but it won’t matter in this one. I expect FSU to win by double digits against the Eagles before getting shell-shocked by the Terps in round 2.
#7 Saint Mary’s (28-4) vs. #10 VCU (26-8) – Jock Landale, is not just the best name in the tournament, but he is one of the best players on this side of the bracket. The 6’11”, 255lb center averages just under 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. He will lead a creative offense that will need to be just that in order to make a run here. They beat Nevada and Dayton this season, but dropped three games to Gonzaga.
VCU is a pesky defensive bunch and boasts one of the country’s best turnover margins, 8.6. They force a ton of them and they use a deep bench to keep the energy high. They have ten players who get double digit minutes this season, but that also means there are less shots per player. Their leading scorer, JeQuan Lewis, averages just 14 points in over 31 minutes per game.
Look for St. Mary’s to roll with this win before getting demolished by Arizona 48 hours later.
#2 Arizona (30-4) vs. #15 North Dakota (22-9) – Arizona has beef, and they should. They won the Pac-12 tournament, beating Oregon and UCLA in the process, but still missed out on a #1 seed. The Wildcats can’t focus on their bracket placement however, as last year they were a one-and-done, bounced in the first round. Expect a very focused and determined team this March Madness, just as they showed in the Conference tournament. Allonzo Trier is everything, if not more, than advertised. Teaming him up with 7-foot freshman Lauri Markkanen, and his 43% 3-point percentage, is almost unfair.
North Dakota is in the dance for the first time ever, and this trip will last exactly 4-quarters. The Big Sky Champions averaged 80 points per game, but they have trouble rebounding at times, which could really spell disaster early on in this contest. The Wildcats take this one easily, by 20 or more points and then continue their domination through the bracket by beating St. Mary’s, Maryland and Gonzaga to make the Final Four in Phoenix. There they will meet Villanova, and the winner of that game (not Arizona), will cut down the nets on April 3rd.
West Bracket Summary – Arizona wins all four games here and defeats West Virginian in the finals. Gonzaga and Maryland win a pair of games themselves, and Northwestern, Florida State, Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s all bow out in the second round.
Here we find Kansas as the top seed, followed by Louisville, Oregon and Purdue. Interesting fact about this side of the bracket, they are the only one of the four regions without a conference tournament winner in the top-4 seeds.
#1 Kansas (28-4) vs. #16 NC Central/UC Davis – Kansas won their 13th straight regular season Big-12 title but faltered in the tournament before reaching the title game. Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson are one of the country’s top duos both in production, and entertainment. Mason averages 20.8 points and 5 assists per game, while Jackson gives the Jayhawks 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds on a nightly basis. In general, they play good defense, but sometimes can struggle against a really good 3-point shooting team, allowing 35% of those shots to land. They also hit just 66% of their free throws, which could cost them down the road in the tournament.
North Carolina Central’s opponents shot less than 30% from long range, which is 3rd worst in Division-1. Granted they play in the MEAC. If they beat UC Davis in the play-in game, Kansas will need to proceed with caution from the arc. They won the Conference tournament by going 3-0, and winning by an average of almost 24 points per game. The UC Davis Aggies on the other hand, went 11-5 in the Big West, but won the Conference title with a 50-47 win against UC Irvine. This will be a blow out as NC Central will roll onto their opening round game against one of the country’s best teams.
Kansas beats NC Central by double digits, and moves on to the next round, where they will find a tough test in Michigan State. They pass that exam and move on to a huge Big-12 showdown with Iowa St. in the Sweet-16. The Cyclones are a strong team, and take the Jayhawks out in an upset.
#8 Miami (21-11) vs. #9 Michigan St. (19-14) – Tom Izzo, as 9-seed? Uh oh, this could be the bracket buster you need. One of the best college coaches when it comes to tournament time, Izzo has been there, done that, time and time again, but usually not as lower seed. He brings a young team to the tournament that is not great defensively, but offensively have Miles Bridges, who should be the Big-Ten Freshman of the year with his 16.6 points and 8.3 rebounding averages.
Miami holds an 8-8 lifetime tournament record, and needs to win just one-game to keep their record above even. They finished 21-11, which was 7th in the ACC, but had big wins against North Carolina and Duke. Their 11 losses however were all against good teams. Their guards Bruce Brown and Davon Reed are fun to watch and can take over the game at any point.
The Hurricanes have good guards, but so does Michigan State, and Miles Bridges is going to take this game over. Look for Tom Izzo to put together an impressive game plan to have Spartans’ fans believing they can upset Kansas after they handle business here against Miami. It won’t happen, but that second-round game should be close. I say “won’t happen,” but then again, it’s Izzo and the Spartans, and it wouldn’t surprise me.
#5 Iowa St. (23-10) vs. #12 Nevada (28-6) – Looking for a 5-seed to fall in round one, this probably isn’t the region to look at upsets. Not when that 5-seed is led by Monte Morris, a great ball handler who averages 5 assists to just 1 turnover in 35 minutes per game. You need a player like that to advance in the tournament, and that is exactly what they will do. The Big-12 Conference Tournament champions run a four-guard startling line up, rounded out by 6’8” Solmon Young who can be a monster on the boards.
Nevada won the Mountain West Conference thanks to their balanced offensive attack, having five players who score double digits nightly, led by Marcus Marshall and his 19.7 points per game. Where they get in to bad situations, is when they get in foul trouble. They have a very small bench, and against a smart, aggressive team, like the Cyclones, they could find themselves out of this game early.
Iowa State does not turn the ball over, in fact only 3 teams in the country have a better turnover margin, and they shoot lights out from long range. Expect them to sleep walk through round one by 15 points or more, then go on to nail Purdue by double digits and then Kansas in the Sweet-16. They will eventually lose in the Elite Eight to Louisville, but it will be a very close and low-scoring contest.
#4 Purdue (25-7) vs. #13 Vermont (29-5) – Caleb Swanigan had 26 double-doubles this season and averages 19 and 12. He could be the national player of the year and he plays like it in big moments. As a whole, the defense, however, is iffy. They don’t force a lot of turnovers, and they allow a lot of made baskets.
The Catamounts have win 21 games in a row, which is the country’s best winning streak. They shoot just under 50% from the field and allow just 61.6 points per game, which is 9th best in Division-1. They play at a very slow paced tempo, but they make half of their shots. If they can pull in some offensive rebounds, they could be serious trouble for Purdue.
This game features the 12th and 13th best teams in the country in scoring margin, so it should be close for a while. Expect Purdue to pull away late with their rebounding and 3-point shooting though. They move on to face Iowa State in round two, where they also find the bus back to campus.
#6 Creighton (25-9) vs. #11 Rhode Island (24-9) – What bubble? URI made sure to burst any talks of that on the selection show by winning the Atlantic-10 tournament. They average 110 points per 100 possessions and held their opponents to the 9thlowest field goal efficiency in the country. Where they will succeed in this game, is their defense along the arc. They limited opponents this season to just 29% from long range, 18th best in the country, which will be key against a Creighton team that rely heavily on that shot.
Creighton is led by junior guard Marcus Foster, who on the season averages 18 points per game. When hot, this team can shoot lights out, but Foster will need help from teammates Khyri Thomas and Justin Patton to do so. They stumbled into the conference tournament, winning just 5 of their final 12 games however.
URI is playing better ball lately. They are better at rebounding, they turn the ball over less, and have stronger momentum. The Rhody Rams win this one and move on to face Oregon in the next round. They won’t beat the Ducks, but a 1-1 postseason for URI, along with a conference title is going to be considered a successful season.
#3 Oregon (29-5) vs. #14 Iona (22-12) – The talk of Oregon’s tournament run will be about Chris Boucher, but not for the right reasons. The 6’10” senior Duck tore his ACL in Friday’s Pac-12 Semi-final game and will miss the remainder of the season. Oregon is one of the best shot blocking teams in the country, but will miss Boucher’s team best 2.5 per game. Dillon Brooks is a strong scorer and one who wants the ball with the game on the line. They aren’t a big rebounding team, but they should win at least two rounds on athleticism alone.
Iona will counter with Jordan Washington; their star forward who averages 18 points per game and pulls in 7.5 rebounds. He will need to play big-boy basketball and be physical in the paint against the Ducks. The Gaels average 80 points per game, but they also give up 76.4.
Oregon wins this decisively, and continues right past URI in the second round. Their season ends against Louisville in the Elite Eight.
#7 Michigan (24-11) vs. #10 Oklahoma St. (20-12) – Their plain slides off the runway before take-off? No problem. The game jerseys did not arrive to arena on time for tip off? So what! The Michigan Wolverines faced plenty of opposition, before the games even started, but that didn’t stop them from winning the Big-Ten Conference Tournament. Led by Derrick Walton Jr. and D.J. Wilson, this bunch doesn’t feel pressure. They take a lot of 3-point shots, but lately, they have made a lot of them. The Wolverines led the conference with 25 attempts per game. If they are hot, look out. If they are cold, good night.
Oklahoma State finished their stretch by winning 5 games in a row before falling to Iowa State and Kansas by a combined 8 points. They have three players averaging over 13 points per game, and 10 who average double digit minutes. They are a team who scores a lot, but they also give up a lot too. They lead the country with 125 points per 100 possessions, but they also allow 102 in that same frame.
In what could be the best game of the opening round, Michigan rides the momentum for 4 more quarters. They might give Louisville a scare in the second round, but at some point, a more athletic team, like the Cardinals, can quiet that mojo. Still, 1-1 in tournament play is not bad for a team that had 11 losses and finished 5th in the Big Ten.
#2 Louisville (24-8) vs. #15 Jacksonville St. (20-14) – It is as automatic as I’ve ever seen a bracket. You see Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, and you draw a straight line to the Sweet-16. It doesn’t matter who they are playing, you just do it. Pitino has brought the school to that round 4 straight seasons. In 2013, they cut down the nets, and in 2012 they made it to the Final Four. Of course, that was a different roster with different players, but the same man was holding the clipboard. They may have lost 8 games this season, but their star Donovan Mitchell doesn’t play like it. The all-ACC First Team guard leads the team with averages of 32 minutes, 15.7 points and 2.1 steals. Defensively, the Cardinals are tough, allowing just 65 points per game.
Jacksonville State made the big dance for the first time in school history and are led by seniors Greg Tucker and Erik Durham. They are negative in their turnover margin and will have a horrific number in the stat sheet in this match up against this Louisville defense.
Pitino and company smash Jax by 20 or so, run by Michigan and Oregon and take out Iowa State in the Elite Eight. They will take on UNC in the final four and miss out on an appearance in the finals by just a few points.
Midwest Region Summary – Louisville goes to the Final Four after beating a tough Iowa State team in the Elite Eight. Kansas and Oregon win a pair of games and Michigan State and Michigan all advance to the second round for their exit.
Here we find UNC as the top seed, followed by Kentucky, UCLA and Butler.
#1 North Carolina (27-7) vs, #16 Texas Southern (23-11) – ACC regular season champions, the North Carolina Tarheels, enter the tournament knowing that ‘the roof is their ceiling.’ Whether that makes sense or not to Michael Jordan, this line-up UNC puts on the floor makes all the sense in the world. Stud Justin Jackson is a stat sheet monster and can score any way he wants to. Joel Berry II shoots daggers from beyond the arc and Kennedy Meeks is a strong option in the post. There really isn’t much to exploit against this team, but the only way to try and beat them is playing zone defense. That is what Miami and Georgia Tech did when they defeated the ‘Heels.
Texas Southern enters on a 9-game winning streak and champions of the SWAC. The team struggles from long range, 29%, but that won’t stop them from trying. Led by Zach Lofton, the Tigers have four players that average double digits per game.
This one is already over and the ref hasn’t thrown the tip ball. UNC wins by however many points they decide, and not just in this one, but in the second round against Arkansas and the third round against Butler as well. Their first real test comes in the Elite Eight against Kentucky, in what could be the game of the tournament so far. They win in a final second fashion and march on to the finals to meet the eventual champion, Villanova.
#8 Arkansas (25-9) vs. #9 Seton Hall (21-11) – Arkansas was a mediocre SEC team and Seton Hall was a mediocre Big East squad. The Razor backs will attempt to flex their conference muscles with size and power. Throughout the season, they have played some very good teams, but lost to them all, except for Vanderbilt who they beat once in the regular season and again in the SEC tournament. They average 80 points per game and can score a number of ways, but their weakness is on the glass, as evidence by their 0.8 rebounding margin.
Seton Hall finished with 7 wins in their final 9 games in the Big East. Angel Delgado is salivating over rebounds in their opening match up, as the junior leads the country with 13.1 rebounds per game. His 25 double-doubles are tied for the most in Division-1, and when Khadeen Carrington can shoulder some of the load with Delgado, they are a very good team.
Arkansas can’t rebound, but they can shoot. That makes the difference for this one, and only one game, as the Razorbacks sink the Pirates.
#5 Minnesota (24-9) vs. #12 Middle Tennessee (30-4) – Tom Izzo will be the first person to tell you that you cannot take Middle Tennessee lightly, as they defeated his Spartans as the #15 seed in last year’s opening round. They return Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts to a team that won 30 games and the Conference USA championship. They are even better than last year, and can outscore anyone inside the paint if they are on their game and out of foul trouble. They are the fourth most successful team in the country at scoring in transition and Potts does not turn the ball over often.
The Golden Gophers can score all throughout their lineup, whether it’s Dupree McBryer on the wing, or Amir Coffey in the lane, and if you are a Middle Tennessee interior defender, you need to keep a body on Reggie Lynch, the 260lb junior big man. They are mediocre at rebounding and can hit on 35% of their 3’s, but that will not be enough to beat the Blue Raiders, who come up with their second straight first round upset in the NCAA Tournament.
#4 Butler (23-8) vs. #13 Winthrop (26-6) – Gordan Hayward is not walking through that door. And Brad Stevens isn’t walking through that door. Luckily for Bulldog fans though, Kelan Martin is walking through that door. The 6’7” forward has been a key cog for Butler this season. When he plays well, they can beat any team in the country. They struggle on the boards as a team however, and that could hurt in the post season.
Winthrop counters with Keon Johnson and his 40% range from the arc, as well as Xavier Cooks, who accounts for 16 points per game. The Eagles could end up being a be very tough team to beat if they get hot, but that is a major “if.”
Neither team is solid on the boards, and both can shoot the long-ball, and in the end, I think Butler is just a little too good inside the paint and they take this one by a handful against Winthrop. They then go on to beat Middle Tennessee, before getting tarred by North Carolina.
#6 Cincinnati (29-4) vs. Kansas St./Wake Forest – Kansas State beat Baylor on the road in a tough environment, so they are no stranger to big moments. They have won three in a row, and lost by just a point in the conference semifinals. Wake Forest has an iffy defense, but John Collins is the real deal, scoring 20 points in 10 consecutive games. He has good guards around him to help with the scoring and in this play-in game, look for him to be the difference maker and take the Demon Deacons to this opening round game against Cincinnati.
Cincinnati is good on defense and is solid at pulling down rebounds. They are the fourth best defensive team, allowing just 60 points per contest. They have four players who average double digits, and they all played well down the stretch, right up to the American Conference title game. They lost to SMU on February 13th and then went on a 7-1 tear, blowing all the competition away.
Cincy takes the Deacons out in this one early and moves past UCLA in round two. The season ends for the Bearcats against Kentucky in round three.
#3 UCLA (29-4) vs. Kent St. (22-13) - UCLA Freshman guard Lonzo Ball needs to have a Steph Curry like post season to earn the comparison that his father made, but with averages like 72% from the field and 41% from 3, he is on his way. He leads an up-tempo offense that pushes the pace at an alarming rate. There are, however, the 11th worst team at getting to the line and they are not good against the 3, allowing opposing shooters to score 36% of the time. What does that mean? Somewhere in this tournament they will get into a shoot-out and if they are giving up long shots and not getting to the charity stripe, they are going to have a tough time closing out games.
Kent State had 3 wins in 3 days to win the MAC, and beat a 26-win Akron to earn the conference crown. In that game, they shot 53% and turned the ball over just 6 times. All of that is great, but for a team allowing 73 points per game in the MAC, they are about to get torched by UCLA. Expect them to lose, and lose big. UCLA will then go on to lose a nail bitter vs Cincinnati where free throws missed could be the difference.
#7 Dayton (24-7) vs. #10 Wichita St. (30-4) – The Shockers give Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp free range to take their shots, and being two of the country’s best 3-point shooters, it works well in their favor. As a team, they are the 3rd best in the land from long range, which is deadly for this tournament. They lost to Louisville, Michigan State and Oklahoma St. on the season, but Dayton isn’t as good as those teams. They are the firth best rebounding bunch in the country, and can cause a head ache to any team who needs to rely on second chance scoring.
Dayton has a very balanced offensive rhythm, assisting on over 60% of their makes. Scoochie Smith doesn’t just have a classic tournament name, but he has a strong running mate in Charles Cooke who combine for a solid backcourt for the Flyers. They can score and they rarely turn the ball over, but their issues come with free throw shooting, which is going to be painful in a close game.
This game comes down to rebounding, and Wichita State will win that battle. They could go on a quick run where they make a few long-range shots and force Dayton to one-and-done trips, and that could be the ball game. Wichita State wins this, but get shocked by Kentucky in round two.
#2 Kentucky (29-5) vs. Northern Kentucky (24-10) – John Calipari with a young team? That can play defense? And can run and score? Sound familiar? Move them to the Sweet-16 without hesitation. Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox are fun to watch, and a headache to guard. They combine for 36.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. Aside from a 6-point loss to Kansas, their other 4 losses were by only 4 points or less.
Northern Kentucky? Well, the Norse have Drew McDonald who leads the team in scoring and rebounding, and helped the team win the Horizon League Championship. They can rebound, but they can’t score from the line.
Kentucky steamrolls by the Norse, scoring triple-digits in doing so. They then move on to take out Wichita St. and Cincinnati before losing to UNC in the Elite Eight.
South Region Summary – UNC heads to Phoenix for the Final Four by beating Kentucky. Butler and Cincinnati win a pair of games, and Arkansas, Middle Tennessee, UCLA and Wichita State each win one.
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