NCAA Tournament Preview
The most exciting and chaotic time of the year in sports is upon us. The NCAA Tournament field has officially been set, and once again there should be no shortage of immediate mayhem beginning this Thursday. Each of the 68 teams has followed its own course to the field, but now there are clean slates for everyone. No team has higher than a 15 percent chance to win the tournament, according to FiveThirtyEight, so plenty of open doors are available. Here is breakdown of each region, including the favorites, possible Cinderella teams and trendy upset picks.
Starting in the East Region, the defending champion Villanova Wildcats are the top overall seed in the tournament. If you think Villanova doesn’t have the ability to replicate its incredible run to the crown last season, think again. Josh Hart might be the best player in college basketball, and Jalen Brunson is a budding star at the point guard spot. Villanova’s tournament success will be contingent on their accuracy from the perimeter, but they are a scrappy bunch and excellent defensively as well. However, the path to their Final Four will be no easy task as they will most likely play the winner of No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech. Neither should be a huge threat, but Wisconsin is another great defensive team with a lot of experience that could challenge them.
The competition could then elevate quickly with a potential Sweet 16 matchup between 4-seed Florida or 5-seed Virginia. On the other hand, both of these teams are on upset alert in the first-round as Virginia will take on a potent 12-seeded UNC-Wilmington out of the Colonial Athletic Association, while Florida will take on 13-seeded East Tennessee State. This upset is less likely, but ETSU’s T.J. Cromer is an absolute stud and is capable of taking over any given game.
The bottom half of the bracket will run through the No. 2 Duke Blue Devils, which had a strong case for a No. 1 seed of its own after it dominated a loaded ACC tournament. Duke is the most talented team in the country and are finally at full strength. Now that they are beginning to play to their potential, the rest of the field may be in big trouble.
Although, do not sleep on either No. 6 SMU or No. 3 Baylor, to potentially match up with the Devils in the Sweet 16. Baylor has been up and down all year, but the Bears have one of the most experienced teams in the country and an absolute beast in Jonathan Motley. Many would argue that SMU was slightly under-seeded. The Mustangs lack depth but are a top 10 defensive team in the nation and have plenty enough offense to make a deep run.
Villanova and Duke are the clear favorites, but with Duke fully healthy and their advantages in size and depth over the Wildcats, the Devils will come out of East region and have a chance to earn Coach K his 6th national title in Glendale.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are the No. 1 seed in the West, and they might be the best team that Mark Few has inherited in his tenure. The last time the Zags were a top seed, they were upset by Wichita State in the second round. Make no mistake though; this team is legit. They are talented, deep and better on both offense and defense than their last top seeded team. The Zags play in a less than stellar West Coast Conference, but they have rolled through conference rival St. Mary’s three times, and they have also beaten Arizona, Florida, and Iowa State this season.
As good as the Zags are, they might have the most difficult road to Glendale out of any one seed. No. 4 West Virginia could be particularly dangerous if it can overcome an upset minded Patriot League champion Bucknell in the first round. No. 5 Notre Dame would also be a difficult matchup. The Irish are not as good offensively as they’ve been in past years, but they are better on defense, rarely commit turnovers, and are an excellent shooting team.
The other side of the bracket also contains its share of quality teams. No. 11 Xavier will actually be favored over No. 6 Maryland, and No. 10 VCU could easily steal one from No. 7 St. Mary’s. No. 2 Arizona and No. 3 Florida State have the best chances of emerging from them the bottom half of the West, but No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast has the potential to make some noise with another big early upset over the Seminoles.
Arizona will be the biggest threat. The Wildcats are young, but they have a lot of talent starting with first team All-Pac-12 duo Lauri Markkanen and Allonzo Trier. Gonzaga has drawn some polarizing opinions on how deep they can advance in the tournament. Many believe this could finally be the year they break through and have a real opportunity to cut down the nets. However, Arizona might be the hottest team in the country going into the tournament, and the talent and depth they possess will lead Sean Miller to his first Final Four.
As expected, Kansas got the Midwest region’s No. 1 seed. Bill Self and company have been in this situation before, but they have been notorious for being underwhelming in the tournament in recent years. The Midwest might be the deepest bracket in the field with seven teams in the final AP poll, including No. 10 Oklahoma State, the most efficient offensive team in the country; No. 7 Michigan, the fifth ranked offensive team, and one of the hottest teams the past month in the nation; and No. 5 Iowa State, the lone team to win at Kansas this year and a team that closed the regular season with nine wins in 10 games. The Midwest might boast the best perimeter shooting, too, as six of its teams — Purdue, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Creighton, Iona and Kansas — rank in the top 20 nationally in 3-point percentage.
Still, Kansas is the team most-favored to make it out of the region. Frank Mason III, the favorite to win the Wooden Award, and DeVonte Graham form arguably the best backcourt in college basketball, while freshman superstar Josh Jackson will be a potential top three pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Being placed in a scoring-heavy region could cause issues for Kansas though: The Jayhawks went 23-0 in games this season when holding opponents under 80 points. They were just 5-4 in matchups in which they allowed 80 or more.
That said, Kansas could benefit from Oregon falling to a No. 3 seed, and one of their top interior players, Chris Boucher, suffering a season-ending ACL tear. However, the Ducks still have potential to make a run being led by Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks.
No. 11 Rhode Island over No. 6 Creighton seems like a probable upset. The Rams are fresh off of an Atlantic-10 conference tournament victory and are capable of being a sleeper in this region. Creighton seemed primed for a great run until it lost their point guard Maurice Watson Jr. to an injury and finished the regular season just 5-7 without him.
No. 2 Louisville will be a legitimate threat to the Jayhawks, but they will have to go through either Michigan or Oklahoma State and then potentially Oregon for that Elite 8 matchup to occur. When locked in, Louisville is a nightmare to score against, but they are not a consistent perimeter shooting team. Guards and experience carry teams a long way in the tournament, and no team in this region has a better combination of those two areas than Kansas.
North Carolina held onto its No. 1 seed despite losing two of its last four games. The Tar Heels benefit from a much easier top half of the bracket than the lower half. Arkansas and Seton Hall should pose little threats as the No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, while No. 4 Butler is arguably a little over-seeded. A sneaky dangerous team in the region may be No. 12 Middle Tennessee State, which upset Michigan State as a No. 15 seed in last year’s tournament and are a trendy pick against a depleted No. 5 Minnesota team.
Two blue-blood programs in No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 UCLA headline the other half of the region. Kentucky freshman guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are super talented players and have the ability to take this team a long way. UCLA is by far the best offensive team in the country and has six guys who score in double figures. With freshman point guard Lonzo Ball leading the charge, the Bruins ceiling is limitless. If they can be even decent defensively, they have a great chance to win it all.
The wild card in this region could be No. 10 Wichita State, which was very under-seeded to many. The Shockers are no stranger to tournament success, and while they are young, this might be Gregg Marshall’s best team yet. They will face No. 7 Dayton in the first round, setting up a potential date with Kentucky in the second round.
No. 6 Cincinnati has struggled down the stretch and will play the winner of No. 11 Kansas State or Wake Forest. The possible turns this region could take are endless, but with Kentucky’s youth and occasional over-dependence on Malik Monk to provide offense, as well as UCLA’s spotty defense make UNC the clear favorite. Without a glaring weakness, the Tar Heels might be the best team in the nation when they are on their game. They also have the deepest frontcourt of any team in the tourney with an experienced duo of ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson and All-ACC point guard Joel Berry leading the way.
Prediction: North Carolina
A potential Final Four of college basketball powerhouses could be in the making with matchups between Arizona vs. Duke and Kansas vs. North Carolina. Duke has four players that can spread the floor, attack off of the dribble and kick to open shooters. Duke freshman Jayson Tatum is a superstar playing with so much confidence, complemented by the likes of Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen. Arizona has two stars in Allonzo Trier and Lauri Markkanen, but Duke has more talent, with as many McDonald's All-Americans as any team has ever had. Duke is healthy now and as dangerous as ever, and Duke wins to advance to the title game.
North Carolina and Kansas will provide a great point guard matchup in Berry vs. Mason, but the difference will be North Carolina’s advantage in the frontcourt over Kansas. UNC’s front line is more skilled than Kansas’ and has a lot more depth, which will set up a highly anticipated UNC-Duke championship game. If Duke dominates the three-point line, they will have a great chance. Carolina will pound the ball inside and control the glass. Joel Berry II must stay out of foul trouble, but if he does, North Carolina will win the game. When North Carolina plays its best, they are the best team. Carolina has been here before, and fell just short a year ago against Villanova. That will not happen this time. This year, North Carolina will win the national championship.
National Champion Prediction: North Carolina
Will Desautelle is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Junior / Broadcast Journalism and Political Science