One reason I love March Madness so much is the sheer unpredictability. No one knows what’s going to happen. I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read over the years that “claim” to have all the answers for your bracket. No matter how much research you do, no matter how much you think you know about college basketball, you won’t get a perfect bracket. Sorry.
I’m not going to claim to have any definite answers here; I’ve been making brackets since age seven, and I can’t even tell you how many years someone who has no knowledge of basketball has beaten me. What I do aim to do, however, is to break down each region, and at least tell you what to look for in the incredible time that is March Madness.
With the Sweet 16 set to begin on Thursday, March 22, my reasoning for not having any “definite answers” should speak for itself. Man, UMBC!? Who would have have ever thought? Not to mention the other upsets that have taken place within this past week.
Update: Like many of my fellow March Madness viewers, my bracket is busted. All I can say is wow. Just one of my Final Four picks from below remains. With that being said, welcome to March Sadness.
Anyways, without further ado … here was my take heading into the start of the NCAA Tournament. Is there anyway I can get a redo?
No defense can stop Villanova. They lead the nation in points per game, coming into the tournament averaging a cool 87.1 ppg– and that’s in the Big East, by no means a weak conference this year. Their offense runs through veteran Jaelin Brunson, who played a key role in ‘Nova’s championship two years ago. One of the most efficient players in the nation, Brunson averages 19 points a game on only 13 shots a game, and has 2.5:1 turnover to assist ratio. Junior wing Mikal Bridges helps shoulder some of the load as well, scoring 18 points a game for a team that shoots almost 40 percent from the three point line. In fact, the Wildcats have scored at least 71 points in every game this season.
Pinch me if you’ve heard this one before: Stephen F. Austin. As a 14 seed, picking them has a chance to backfire in my face very, very hard. But the Lumberjacks are 28-6 on the season, and it was just two years ago that they knocked off VCU in an overtime thriller. SFA has the ability to disrupt a team’s offense, leading the NCAA in turnovers created per game, and take on a Texas Tech team that seems to have peaked too early in the season. There’s the potential Keenan Evans goes off for the Red Raiders, but I’d bet on the Lumberjacks here.
I think the two potential dark horses in this bracket come from the top half: 8th seeded Virginia Tech and 4th seeded Wichita State. Purdue should run through the bottom half of this bracket, given their size advantage over the other teams. If Virginia Tech can get past Collin Sexton and Alabama in the first game, they have the chance to make some noise against ‘Nova. Virginia Tech has already beaten Virginia, UNC, and Duke this season,and while they struggled at times against inferior competition, they could give the Wildcats a run for their money.
If Wichita State can navigate past “Press Virginia”, they could also find themselves in a heated battle with Villanova. One of the most efficient teams in the nation, they are led by Point Guard Landry Shamet, who is averaging five assists per game and shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc. Gregg Marshall has proven in the past that the Shockers aren’t scared of any opponent, and with their balanced offensive attack (83 ppg), they’re one of the few teams in the field that can keep up with ‘Nova.
Despite the hurdles of Wichita State and Virginia Tech, I think Villanova just has too much firepower. Purdue has a size advantage, but the Wildcats will be too quick and explosive.
In my opinion, the West is far and away the weakest region, led by the worst number one seed, Xavier. Guard Trevon Bluiett is a bonafide star, averaging nearly 20 points per game, and has a balanced attack behind him in which seven other players average at least seven points a game. Xavier only lost five games all season in a tough Big East, and two of those losses came at the hands of Villanova. They can score, and they can score in bunches. What worries me the most about Xavier is their subpar defense– they give up almost 75 points a game, quite a bit for a team on the one line.
Sure, I’m biased, but don’t be surprised if San Diego State makes a run in the tournament. The Aztecs have won nine games in a row, and just throttled a ranked Nevada team in the Mountain West tournament. While they lack a true star, Senior Guard Trey Kell has played outstanding of late, and San Diego State’s depth at the guard position allows them to not turn the ball over late. In addition, this team has proved they can play with anyone, beating Gonzaga earlier in the year. Don’t be surprised if they beat Houston in the first round, and give Michigan a run for their money in the second round.
Speaking of the ‘Zags, don’t be surprised if they make yet another push late into March Madness. The key to this team is their balanced attack: at least five players average double digits. Senior forward Johnathan Williams can defend almost any position, and this team brings a heavy dose of experience to the table following their run last year. Averaging 84.5 points per game, don’t be surprised if this team knocks off Xavier.
One team that we haven’t talked about yet is last year’s national champion: North Carolina. Powered by senior guard Joel Berry and junior forward Luke Maye, the Tar Heels are an experienced bunch that can easily make a deep run, despite their ten losses this season. Maye has been outstanding this season, averaging a double-double, and the experience of Berry means that UNC will be able to withstand close games. I’m not entirely infatuated with them– they ranked ninth in the ACC in three point percentage, and lack depth beyond their two stars. But in this weak region, I think they’ll advance.
The favorite in this region, and frankly the entire tournament,is Virginia. The Cavaliers play by far the best defense in the tournament, giving up less than 54 points per game. They are also efficient, if unspectacular, on the offensive end, putting up about 68 points per game. This UVA team is 31-2, and is able to control the pace of the game, slowing it down and making their defense the focal point of the game. A potential concern, however, is their lack of a true number one scoring option. Guard Kyle Guy averages about 13 points per game, and they don’t have someone who can truly take over the game if they need to get a basket at the end of the game.
While it wouldn’t shock me if Davidson knocks off Kentucky, my cinderella in this region is a Loyola-Illinois team that has been absolutely dominant the entire season. Coming in at 28-5, including a shocking victory over a very solid Florida team, the Ramblers have the make of a team that could make waves in the tournament. They have one of the top defenses in college basketball, giving up only about 62 points per game. On offense, they have four players that average over 10 points a game, and they each shoot greater than 50 percent from the floor. This efficient team will give fits to Miami in the first round, who will be without their star guard Bruce Brown. Look for the Ramblers to rumble on to the second round.
It feels wrong to call such a celebrated program a dark horse, but, on the four line this season, my pick is the Arizona Wildcats. ‘Zona is led by freshman phenom Deandre Ayton, widely projected to be the top pick in this years NBA draft. In the pac-12 tournament, Ayton hammered his opponents, combining for 64 points and 32 rebounds in the last two games. No, that was not a typo. The program had to deal with the adversity of the FBI findings earlier in the year, but that seemed to actually bring the team together, given how well they performed in the tournament. An explosive offensive team, Arizona can beat anybody.
Building on that, I think Arizona will pull off the upset here and knock off both Virginia and Cincinnati. As I mentioned before, Virginia and Cincinnati are both plodding teams that control the tempo of the game and lock down their opponents. I think Arizona will speed up the game through sophomore guard Alonzo Trier, and will force both teams to score. In the end, their offenses will let them down, and in his (likely) last year at Arizona, Sean Miller will finally make the final four.
It’s hard to pick a favorite in such a top-heavy region, but on paper at least, the favorite is Kansas. Kansas is led by Senior guard Devonte Graham, who averages more than 17 points per game. That being said, this Jayhawk team has more cracks than most Bill Self teams. They’ve lost multiple times at Allen Fieldhouse this season– unheard of for a Kansas team, and how far they go depends on the health of their sophomore center, Udona Azubuike. He is expected to be ready for their tournament opener, but he will need to be at full health for the Jayhawks to make a run.
One of the more popular upset picks this year is 12 seed New Mexico State, and for good reason. Historically, 12 seeds have the best chance of upsets– in the past five years, 10 different 12 seeds have won their first round game. But this Aggie team in general spells danger for Clemson, and even potentially Auburn. Senior guard Zach Lofton averages nearly 20 points a game, and could be a starter for most major programs. NMSU is 28-5 on the season, and their 38 ranking in BPI proves they can hang with anyone in the country. Clemson has struggled of late, going 6-5 since their star senior Donte Grantham went down with a torn ACL. And if they can get past the Tigers, Auburn has lost four of their last six games.
Also, while I don’t expect them to win, Penn is rated as one of the best 16 seeds of all time. They went 24-8 in the Ivy League, and shoot a high percentage from behind the arc. Of course, a 16 seed has never beaten a one, but they hold the best chance of anyone in the field to do so.
There’s no real dark horse in this incredibly top-heavy group. Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State all feature balanced and extremely talented teams, but all of the other top seeds in this region are inherently flawed (see above for Clemson and Auburn). TCU has struggled after being ranked in the top ten earlier in the year, and both Rhode Island and Oklahoma have played incredibly mediocre basketball of late. No matter how much Trae Young does, it won’t matter unless the team looks like they want to play. That wasn’t the case in the Big 12 tournament, and it’s unlikely to be the case now.
This region is really a coinflip for me. This Kansas team isn’t as good as Kansas teams of the recent past, especially last year’s team with Frank Mason. Marvin Bagley could easily put Duke on his back, but they will only go as far as senior leader Grayson Allen will take them. He has been too inconsistent this year to trust him this year against both Michigan State and Kansas. When all is said and done, I think the Spartans will advance out of the region. Sophomore Miles Bridges plays with an IQ well beyond his age, and averages 17 points a game to lead the team. Freshman standout Jaren Jackson Jr., a likely lottery pick, has been able to dominate down low at times this year. And point guard Cassius Winston provides a steady hand at the point guard position, averaging seven assists a game compared to just over 2 turnovers a game. Ultimately, Tom Izzo will find a way to guide MSU to the final four.