It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The after Selection Sunday is utter madness and insanity. Pundits are declaring their final four picks and fans are frantically researching to try to find that one sleeper team that is poised for a run. Now I’m not saying I am an expert or anything, simply an average Joe who nailed three of the Final Four teams, the title game match-up and the champion last season.
What I am saying is if you want to know the ins and outs of each region and the eventual regional champ, keep reading below. Let’s get to it!
The South region starts and ends with the most dominant team in college basketball this season: Virginia. The two-loss Cavaliers steamrolled their way to an ACC regular season and tournament championship. Coach Tony Bennett’s crew, buoyed by their impenetrable pack line defense, led the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Virginia forces opponents into contested looks better than anyone in the nation and rarely gives up transition buckets.
With that being said, Bennett will not have a cake walk to San Antonio this season. Assuming Virginia can make it into the Sweet Sixteen, they will most likely draw either No. 4 Arizona or No. 5 Kentucky. Both teams are peaking at the right moment as they each won their respective conference tournament championships.
Arizona seems to be a trendy pick in this region. Anchored by DeAndre Ayton, who is arguably the nation’s best player at the moment, the Wildcats dismantled opponents in the second half during the PAC-12 Tournament. Ayton scored 32 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in Arizona’s 75-61 victory over USC in the PAC-12 title game. Ayton is nearly unguardable when he receives the ball in the post and Coach Sean Miller will look to exploit this advantage nearly every possession.
The bottom half of the bracket features more defensive teams in Cincinnati, Tennessee, Miami and Texas. A potential upset pick could be Loyola-Chicago over Miami. Miami will be without Bruce Brown Jr. for the length of the Tournament after sustaining a foot injury. Brown’s injury weakens Miami’s offensive consistency as he averaged 11.4 points per game, one of only three players to do so for the Hurricanes.
Cincinnati has ranked highly on basically every metric available, but has played relatively weak teams throughout the season. The Bearcats nonconference schedule featured numerous mid-major teams aside from Xavier and Florida (both of whom defeated Cincinnati). Cincinnati is a great defensive team, but is prone to stagnation on the offensive end.
When it is all said and done, I believe the Sweet Sixteen match-up between Arizona and Virginia will decide who comes out of this region. Arizona was a preseason favorite to reach San Antonio and compete for a national title, but they have failed to live up to expectations. That game will feature a battle of the pack line defenses (Arizona plays this style as well) and while the Wildcats have more talent, I’m riding with the team whose defense has not been solved yet.
Add in the fact that people are riding Arizona based on the fact that they won the PAC-12 in a season where only three teams reached the big dance (and the other two needed a play-in game to make it). Arizona’s defense is shaky and their guards struggle to consistenty feature Ayton in the offense. Give me a Cavalier team that dismantled the ACC this season.
Here is where things get tricky. Xavier, the fourth number one seed in the Tournament this season, is by far the weakest top seed in the Tournament this season. According to KenPom, the Musketeers were the ninth luckiest team in the nation this season. Pundits make Trevon Blueitt out to be the next coming of Kemba Walker, but Blueitt has been prone to shooting slumps throughout the season.
Blueitt has averaged 19.5 points per game this season on 44.2 percent shooting from the field and 42.3 percent from three. However, in Xavier’s 75-72 Big East semifinal overtime loss to Providence, Blueitt was limited to 13 points on 14 percent shooting from the field. Xavier has the offensive firepower to survive the first weekend if Blueitt has an off-game, but after that, the Musketeers need Blueitt to be on to make it to San Antonio.
With that being said, watch out for the No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs. This Gonzaga team may not have the hype of last year’s squad that lost to UNC in the national title, but these Bulldogs have even more versatility than that team. This team is long, athletic and well-rounded. Johnathan Williams lead the Zags with 13.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, but sophomore Rui Hachimura is the key for the Zags this year. If Hachimura can provide consistent low-post scoring and rebounding, the Zags will be a tough out.
The bottom half of this region has explosive potential. Headlined by the defending national champion North Carolina and scorching hot Michigan. North Carolina looked shaky throughout the year, but behind the offensive development of Theo Pinson, the Tar Heels look poised to make some noise once again.
Michigan roared its way to back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles behind its defense. This is easily the best defensive team of the John Beilein era and the Wolverines are looking to take care of unfinished business this year. Avoiding foul trouble and free throw shooting are weaknesses for Michigan though. Star center Moe Wagner is prone to early fouls. If opponents can force him onto the bench early, Michigan will lose a serious offensive weapon.
Both Michigan and UNC should draw difficult Round of 32 opponents. UNC could be dealing with a dangerous Providence team that knocked off Xavier and pushed Villanova to overtime in the Big East Tournament. Michigan will either play a Houston team that defeated Wichita State and lost to Cincinnati by one point in the AAC title game or a streaking San Diego State.
When it’s all said and done, expect the top four seed to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. In a rematch of last year’s Western Regional Elite Eight, Gonzaga will eliminate Xavier behind strong performances from Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell and Williams. Michigan’s defensive pressure will force UNC out of its comfort zone on offense and Wagner will outduel Luke Maye to send the Wolverines to the Elite Eight.
I like Gonzaga to sneak by Michigan in the Elite Eight behind a strong game from Killian Tillie, who will force Wagner into foul trouble. Gonzaga has the length to handle ball screens and switching assignments. Tillie is versatile enough to check Wagner on the perimeter as well. The Zags will ride him back to the Final Four.
Villanova has run college basketball for the past three seasons. Coach Jay Wright’s player development is nothing short of extraordinary, as he has turned Jalen Brunson into the frontrunner for the Wooden Award and Mikal Bridges into a lottery pick candidate.
This Wildcat team has the capability to run you off the court. They are relentless and disciplined and force you to play the full 40 minutes if you want to send them home with a loss. If Villanova has one weakness, it is that they are heavily reliant on the three ball. Six players on this team shoot over 38 percent from three, but this style of play lacks consistency at times.
When Villanova’s three pointers are not falling, this team can be beaten. In Villanova’s 76-71 loss to Providence in the regular season, the Wildcats only shot 15 percent from three. In their 89-83 overtime loss to Creighton, Villanova took 39 three pointers and only made 12. If Villanova struggles from behind the arc against any of the top teams in this region, watch out.
West Virginia is Villanova’s biggest threat in the top half of this region. The Mountaineers have looked dominant at times this season behind the play of senior guard Jevon Carter. West Virginia’s press defense can be difficult to prepare for in short notice and in single elimination tournaments. Press Virginia feasts on tired legs.
However, West Virginia’s defense can be susceptible to transition buckets if the opposing to team looks to score while breaking the press. That’s a big reason West Virginia struggled to contain Kansas in their three meetings. Villanova has the offensive capability to capitalize on offense after beating the press.
The bottom of the bracket is headlined by Texas Tech and Purdue. Purdue has had an extra week off after the Big Ten Tournament and was one of the hottest teams in the nation for most of the season. Purdue, much like Villanova, feasts off the three ball with the likes of Carsen Edwards and Vincent Edwards.
Texas Tech suffocates teams with their half court defense. Their versatility allows them to switch through ball screens and guard multiple positions. Keenan Evans appears to be returning to normalcy after his turf toe injury later in the season. Tech’s offense can stagnate at times and relies on Evans’s play-making ability to bail them out. If the Red Raiders want to make some noise, they will need Zhaire Smith, Jared Culver and Tommy Hamilton to step up on offense.
A darkhorse in this region could be the Arkansas Razorbacks. Arkansas rolls out two incredibly talented guards in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. Barford and Macon average 18 and 16.9 points per game respectively while each shooting 43 percent from three. Daniel Gafford, who stands a 6-foot-11, can go toe-to-toe with Purdue’s Isaac Haas if they end up squaring off in the Round of 32.
When it comes down to it, I expect mostly chalk as Villanova will square off against West Virginia and Purdue will take on Texas Tech. Villanova-West Virginia is set up to be an absolute war as Press Virginia will have some early success against the Wildcats. I was tempted to go with the Mountaineers, but the big question is whether they can get enough offense to catapult them into the next round. I don’t think so.
Purdue-Texas Tech is clash of styles. Tech is a defensive juggernaut and Purdue can score with the best of them. Purdue’s biggest weakness is defending the pick and roll, as Haas struggles with lateral quickness on the perimeter. Look for Tech to utilize high ball screens to scramble Purdue’s defense and have some success. Tech will advance in a nail-biter.
Tech will look to slow down the pace against Villanova in the Elite Eight, work their defense through off-ball screens and run the Wildcats off of the three point line. However, Tech’s offense will stall during the final ten minutes of the game and Mikal “Big Shot” Bridges will send the Wildcats to the Final Four with his clutch play down the stretch.
The Midwest is most certainly the region of death. At the one spot, we have Kansas led by Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham. Graham’s development has been nothing short of breathtaking. Graham has anchored this Jayhawk unit by scoring 17.3 points and dishing out 7.5 assists per game. Graham has the ability to lead Coach Bill Self past the Elite Eight this season.
There are two big factors for this Kansas squad. The first lies in the health of Udoka Azubuike. Azubuike sprained his left MCL in practice before the Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike has been a dominant force in the paint for the Jayhawks, averaging 13.7 points on 77.4 percent shooting and grabbing 7.1 rebounds. Silvio De Sousa, Azubuike’s replacement, showed Self that he can provide strong rebounding and post scoring off of the bench. De Sousa torched West Virginia in the Big 12 title game with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman’s offensive consistency is critical as well. Newman lit the lamp throughout the Big 12 Tournament from beyond the arc, relieving Svi Mykhailiuk and Graham of some of the offensive burden. Newman averaged 24 points throughout the Big 12 Tournament. If Newman continues this hotstreak, watch out.
Duke and Michigan State appear to be on a crash course for a Sweet Sixteen clash. Michigan State has been the most popular pick to emerge out of this region. Michigan State is a deep team that has a dangerous front court in Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward. Miles Bridges runs the show in East Lansing, averaging 16.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Bridges is an incredible athlete, but struggles to create off of the dribble against press defense and falls in love with his jump shot from time to time.
Duke’s season turned around ever since Coach K implemented the 2-3 zone. According to KenPom, Duke is ranked seventh in the nation in defensive efficiency, a stunning turnaround for a team that was putrid on the defensive end early on. Duke can score with any team in the nation most nights. Duke’s frontcourt, featuring ACC Player of the Year Marvin Bagley and lottery pick Wendell Carter, is a fearsome duo that can be difficult to slow down. Grayson Allen is a marksman from deep, too.
Duke bowed out of the ACC Tournament with an ugly loss to UNC 74-69. Many people expected Duke to storm past an inferior Tar Heel team (including myself). Theo Pinson and Luke Maye shredded Duke’s 2-3 zone by finding the soft spot in the middle. If Duke runs into a team that solves the 2-3, they could be going home early.
The team most susceptible to an upset in this region is Auburn. Auburn squares off against an underrated Charleston team. Auburn got outclassed by Collin Sexton and Alabama in the SEC quarterfinals. The Tigers got outscored by 28 points in the second half and looked atrocious on defense. If Auburn’s three pointers are not falling, don’t be surprised if they bow out early.
My Sweet Sixteen consists of Kansas-Clemson and Duke-MSU. Kansas will squeak by a tough match-up against either NC State or Seton Hall (I have NC State in my bracket) and then breeze through an outmatched Clemson to Self’s third straight Elite Eight.
Duke-Michigan State could be one of the best games of the Tournament and will have a Final Four atmosphere to it. Fun fact: Tom Izzo is a mere 1-11 against Coach K during his career. This game feels like a toss-up, but I’m sending Duke to the Elite Eight. Duke has faced superior competition all year and has more talent. Michigan State will look to attack the 2-3 utilizing Jaren Jackson, so look out for him to have a big game. Duke will get hot from three and ride Bagley to the Elite Eight.
The ride will end their for the Blue Devils. It seems that pundits across America have implicitly agreed to send the winner of Duke-MSU to the Final Four. Kansas has the tools to shred Duke’s 2-3 zone. Look for Self to work the zone inside-out with either Legerald Vick or Mykhailiuk manning the high post. Newman, Graham and Mykhailiuk are three point assassins and could light Duke up from beyond the arc. De Sousa will be the X-factor and will contain Bagley enough to send Self to an unlikely Final Four.
“From Our Haus to Yours”