We’ve gotten the initial reactions from Selection Sunday out of the way, and now it’s time to get serious and start filling out our brackets. I’m going to break down each of the four regions, previewing the first round matchups and potential games down the road, naming some of the teams and players to watch out for. Which teams are in the best shape to advance to the Final Four, and who are the roadblocks and Cinderellas standing in their way? It’s time to find out. To help you follow along, here‘s a printable PDF of the tournament bracket from NCAA.com.
On their quest to become the first team to win back-to-back championships since the 2006 and 2007 Florida Gators, Villanova (31-3) enters this year’s Big Dance as the field’s #1 overall seed. Despite both Ryan Arcidiacano and Daniel Ochefu graduating following last year’s title run, the Wildcats still have one of the country’s best backcourts in Jalen Brunson and Wooden Award finalist and do-it-all guard Josh Hart, plus Kris Jenkins, who hit the game-winner against North Carolina in the National Championship game.
Leading the nation in RPI and boasting top-15 offensive and defensive efficiency according to KenPom, Villanova should be poised to make another deep run, although they’re in far from a cakewalk region. As soon as the second round, Nova could face Wisconsin, another team with plenty of NCAA tournament experience, who most agree was underrated by the committee at just a #8 seed. The top half of the region also contains a pair of potentially scary double-digit seeds in #12 UNC Wilmington and #13 East Tennessee State.
The Seahawks from UNC Wilmington take on the 5-seed Virginia Cavaliers in a battle of two conflicting styles. Wilmington is a highly-efficient offensive team that loves to shoot threes and then pound it down low with DeVontae Cacok, who led the nation by shooting 79.9% from the field. On the other hand, Virginia is KenPom’s #1 rated defensive team in the country. While this seems to match up well for the Cavaliers, they also play at the slowest pace of any team in the country, and fewer possessions mean more variance and a greater chance for upsets.
Florida went on a tear during the middle of conference play but finished the season just 3-3 after losing center John Egbunu to a torn ACL. However, the #4 seed Gators’ defense and depth, highlighted by SEC Sixth Man of the Year Canyon Barry, should be enough to earn a win or two in the tournament.
Duke won more games against RPI top-50 than any other team in the nation and picked up three huge victories over Louisville, North Carolina, and Notre Dame to win the ACC tournament and the East Region’s 2-seed. The controversial Grayson Allen entered the season as the leader of the team but has recently had greater success off the bench while sharpshooter Luke Kennard (20.1ppg) has become the Blue Devils’ leading scorer. Recently, it’s been Jayson Tatum (16.9ppg, 7.3rpg) who’s emerged as one of the most talented young players in the country, and perhaps the bracket’s scariest isolation scorer.
There shouldn’t be much trouble for Duke on the way to the Sweet 16, who’ll face either #7 South Carolina (another great defensive team that has struggled late, dropping six of nine) or #10 Marquette, who leads the country in three-point shooting but can’t do much else. Things will get interesting in the second week of the tournament, with either #3 Baylor or #6 SMU, both of which should have no problems meeting one another in the round of 32.
The SMU Mustangs dominated the American conference as they have in recent years. Currently riding a 16-game win streak, they do just about everything well from a numbers standpoint, shooting over 40% from three, as well as rebounding, assisting, and defending at a high level. You get the feeling they’d be seeded higher if they’d played in a different conference. Baylor, who at one point January was the nation’s #1 team, look similar to SMU on paper. However, despite being the higher seed, it’s unclear how they’ll react to losing four of their last seven. In the past two seasons, Baylor has fallen victim to upsets by #14 and #12 seeds in the opening round. At their best, Baylor can beat anyone, but can they find their A-game?
As it should be, the likeliest Elite 8 scenario sees top seeds Villanova and Duke battle it out for a spot in the Final Four. Still, don’t doubt teams such as Baylor, Virginia, and SMU, who are all capable of making runs.
Well, it should be a first for someone. Mark Few has never missed the NCAA Tournament in his 18 years as head coach of Gonzaga, but despite all the regular season success, his Bulldogs have never made a Final Four and have only reached one Elite Eight. Gonzaga (32-1), led by junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss and fifth-year senior center Przemek, will be aiming to do much better than 2013, the Zags’ only other year as a 1-seed, where they fell in the round of 32. A Final Four appearance and a title are the only things missing on Coach Few’s resume, but he isn’t the only one looking to get over the hump.
#2 Arizona has reached the Elite Eight three times in the past six seasons but has also failed to come out of their region. #5 Notre Dame is coming off back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, still searching for their breakthrough. #3 Florida State, on the other hand, hasn’t made it past the Sweet 16 since 1993, and haven’t made a Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
“No Final Four Appearances? Big deal,” says #8 Northwestern, who until this year, was the only team from a major conference to have never made the Big Dance in its nearly 80-year history. They match up in the first round against Vanderbilt, the first team to earn an at-large bid with 15 losses. What a region this is.
Notre Dame takes on #12 Princeton in the first match of the opening round, Thursday at 12:15 pm ET. Both teams enter hot, as the Fighting Irish reached the ACC Championship Game before falling in a close game to Duke, and the Tigers went undefeated through the Ivy League regular season and tournament. Harvard and Yale have pulled March Madness upsets in recent years, and while Princeton is capable of the same, Notre Dame should be favored to meet West Virginia in the second round, who will use their aggressive, trapping defense to wreak havoc on Bucknell. It should be a great 4/5 matchup, with the victor likely to be chosen by many to give Gonzaga a run for their money, possibly advancing to the Elite Eight and beyond.
The Maryland Terrapins are an interesting team, who have gone 11-3 away from home, but just 12-5 on their home court. As a 6-seed, they’ll face Xavier, whose season went off a cliff following the loss of Edmond Sumner for the season. The Musketeers dropped six straight at one point but stayed in the tournament field thanks to a couple wins against DePaul and an upset over Butler in the Big East tournament. Expect the Terps to advance, although unless star guard Melo Trimble catches fire, their run likely ends to #3 Florida State, one of the deepest teams in the country, in the second round.
Florida State could pose problems to Arizona, although the Wildcats aren’t even guaranteed to make it that far. 7-seed Saint Mary’s (28-4) comes out of the West Coast Conference, where Gonzaga dealt them three of their four losses on the season. I’m not saying the Gaels will get a fourth crack at their rivals in the Elite Eight, but they’ll certainly be a tough out. With Jock Landale manhandling people down low, and Emmett Naar running the show at the point, this methodical offense ranks 15th nationally in assists despite playing with the nation’s second-slowest tempo, which on the other end allows just 56.5 points per game, once again second to Virginia.
Of course, Arizona is far from a weak #2 seed. The Wildcats made it through both UCLA and Oregon on their way to capturing the Pac-12 tournament title. They enter the tournament a 30-win team that hasn’t lost to any team lower than a #4 seed in the bracket. One of those did come to Gonzaga, which would make a great Elite Eight rematch. However, in that game, Arizona was without leading scorer Allonzo Trier, who missed the year’s first 19-games with a suspension. The player to watch here is seven-foot Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen, who can shoot it from anywhere. In a big-man heavy region, much will depend on Markkanen’s ability to win matchups on both ends of the floor.
Gonzaga never seems to live up to expectations, but this might be Few’s greatest team yet, and it’s their region to lose. Don’t look down on them for playing in a mid-major conference. The Bulldogs picked up some big nonconference victories, have beaten Saint Mary’s three times, and have just a single loss to BYU on the year.
Bill Self has done it once again. Kansas (28-4) captured their 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title this year and earned their seventh #1 seed over the span. Even compared to the sport’s other heavyweights such as North Carolina, Duke, and Kentucky, the Jayhawks’ sustained excellence is unmatched. Led by Wooden Award favorite Frank Mason III (20.8ppg, 5.1apg) and Josh Jackson, Kansas spent all but one week inside the AP top five. However, with Jackson sidelined for the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks fell to TCU, raising concerns about their depth.
Interestingly, I think some of the most difficult matchups for the sharpshooters from Lawrence could come in the Sweet 16. Their likeliest opponents are #4 Purdue, the regular season Big Ten champs who could cause problems down low with Caleb Swanigan, perhaps the best center in the country, and #5 Iowa State. The Cyclones already beat Kansas earlier in the year and played some of their best basketball recently on the way to the Big Ten tournament title.
However, before either of those teams starts licking their chops with the possibility of playing Kansas, they have to get out of the first round. Easier said than done – they play two of the more intriguing tournament mid-majors.
#12 Nevada finished atop the Mountain West and ran through the conference tournament to earn their auto-bid. Senior guard Marcus Marshall averages nearly 20 points per game on a team that rarely turns the ball over. The 13-seed Vermont Catamounts are riding the nation’s longest win streak at 21 games and went undefeated through America East play. Sure, they haven’t really beaten anyone, but any streak that long warrants attention.
Of course, you can’t discount the 2 and 3-seeds. #2 Louisville holds their opponents to just 39.6% shooting from the field and 30.9% from deep. Offensively, the Cardinals have a balanced attack led by sophomore Donovan Mitchell. This is a battle-tested team that finished second in strength of schedule and didn’t drop a single game to an opponent with an RPI worse than 40. They should be the team to stop #7 Michigan’s ridiculous run. As the Big Ten tournament’s 8-seed, the Wolverines won four games despite only arriving hours before their first game.
As the Big Ten tournament’s 8-seed, the Wolverines won four games despite only arriving hours before their first game. The team suffered a scare when their plane slid off the runway forcing them to make alternative travel arrangements. They were then forced to play Illinois wearing their practice jerseys. Still, the team prevailed, and significantly improved their tournament seed. They’ll play the Oklahoma State Cowboys, who are one of the most exciting teams to watch in the country, both scoring and giving up a ton of points.
#3 Oregon gets Iona in the opening round, where the Ducks should get back on track following a close loss to Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game. Forward Chris Boucher, third on the team in scoring and second in rebounding, tore his ACL during the Pac-12 semifinals, but they still have Dillon Brooks. He’ll never live down the worst flop ever, but Brooks has hit a number of big shots, including the buzzer-beater to beat UCLA earlier in the year. The Ducks are Pac-12 regular season champs for a reason – they can play.
One of the more intriguing first-round matchups is between #6 Creighton and #11 Rhode Island, a bubble team who won the Atlantic 10 tournament to guarantee their spot in the Big Dance. The Creighton Bluejays started the year 18-1, but are just 7-8 without Maurice Watson Jr., who is currently facing sexual assault charges. Greg McDermott’s team still have their other guard, leading scorer Marcus Foster (18.3ppg) leading the way. Neither team is an easy out.
Kansas has been one of the country’s top teams all year, but there are a number of teams that could challenge in what could become a very interesting region.
Always save the best for last. It’s the most stacked region of the four, full of future NBA talent, powerhouse programs, title contenders, and possible Cinderellas. The teams have a combined 26 National Championships. Every game feels like a must-watch game. Let’s get right into it.
Like offense? Good. The top three teams in the South all rank in the top 12 nationally in points scored, and leading off the group is 1-seed North Carolina (27-7), who won the ACC regular-season title by two games. Justin Jackson is the ACC player of the Year. Joel Berry is a sharpshooting point guard who’s the glue guy of the offense. Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks are beasts in the paint and can feel nearly unstoppable at times. This team can beat you in multiple ways and have an underrated defense.
#2 Kentucky isn’t a team you want to face either. The NBA factory is back at it again this year with guards De’Aaron Fox (16.1ppg, 4.8apg) and Malik Monk (20.4ppg). Fox is agile and crafty, a player great at creating his own shot and one who has improved greatly as a passer over the course of the year. He reminds me of John Wall. Monk is a big shot taker that can catch fire in big games. He dropped 47 in a victory over North Carolina earlier in the year and scored 30 in the second half to comeback against Florida. The Wildcats haven’t lost since Feb. 4, giving them the longest winning streak in the nation among major conference teams.
And then there’s UCLA. Just a year ago, the Bruins finished just 15-17. Now, they’re a #3 seed, National Championship contenders, and owners of the highest scoring offense in the game, at just over 90 points per. Six players on the team average double figures. You may have heard of one of them; his name is Lonzo Ball. The Ball family has taken the world by storm, and Lonzo, the first of three brothers who will all attend UCLA, is a great two-way player and stat-sheet stuffer supreme. He leads the country with 7.7 assists per game and adds 14.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 steals for good measure. He’s not the only piece, though. Fellow freshman T.J. Leaf is as efficient a player as you’ll find, and leads the team with 16.2 points per game. Coach’s kid Bryce Alford is a senior sharpshooter that knocks 43.5% of long balls, one of four players above 40% on the team. Then there’s Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday (brother of Jrue and Justin), and Thomas Welsh. The defense isn’t great, but they’re awfully fun to watch.
These three teams might be stealing all the spotlight (and rightfully so), but they’re far from all the South has to offer. #4 Butler defied preseason polls and swept their regular season series against Villanova, proof they can beat anyone. #5 Minnesota is having one of their best seasons in school history and lead the NCAA in blocks. #6 Cincinnati has won 29 games and are great at controlling tempo and taking care of the basketball.
At the #10 seed, Wichita State was almost criminally underrated by the committee. Despite a lacking strength of schedule, the Shockers have proven time and time again over the years that they are a top program. At 30-4, this year’s team is no different. Advanced metrics love Gregg Marshall’s team, as KenPom ranks them the eighth-best team in the country and Sagarin has them 11th. Atlantic 10 champs Dayton are no slouches either, but can’t be fans of their draw. Vegas sees Wichita State as the favorites here.
Speaking of higher seeds that might be favored, #12 Middle Tennessee State is the most popular 5/12 upset this year. I’d like to think that at 30-4, the Conference USA champs would have gotten an at-large bid regardless, but you can never be sure. Either way, they’re a dangerous team with many of the same pieces that pulled off one of March Madness’ greatest upsets last season, beating 2-seed Michigan State as a #15. While we’re at it, sophomore forward John Collins of #11 Wake Forest is the ACC’s Most Improved Player of the Year, and averages roughly 19 and 10 while playing just 26 minutes a game.
Who comes out of the South? Your guess is as good as mine. There are tons of great teams, with the top three seeds headlining the show. There’ll be great basketball, and more than likely a few upsets along the way.
Well, there you have it – all four regions. Breaking it down is the easiest part. Actually making the picks is another animal altogether. I’ll release my bracket tomorrow. Until then, good luck.