Finally, we’ve reached the three most exciting weeks of the year as Selection Sunday has passed and the NCAA Tournament is set to tip-off on Thursday. Well, I guess it is technically Tuesday, but the First Four sucks and I’m not counting it in this article. If you disagree with that, you probably suck, too — or you’re a fan of Kansas State, USC, Providence, Wake Forest or the other four small schools involved in the festivities in Dayton in which case, I’m sorry that, for one, you guys have to go to Dayton, and two, I’m leaving you out of the rest of this article completely. No hard feelings, right? Okay, good.
Without much further ado, here’s my break down of this year’s NCAA Tournament bracket.
Toughest Region: Midwest
Looking at the bracket it is hard to say the one culminating in Kansas City isn’t the strongest. Kansas had a strong case to be the overall No. 1 seed until its loss to TCU in the Big 12 Tournament and there’s a handful of other teams fully capable of making a deep run.
Oregon was in the No. 1 seed conversation until losing Chris Boucher to a torn ACL and dropping the Pac-12 title game to Arizona. Iowa State is coming off a Big 12 Tournament championship and has won nine of its last 10.
Purdue was the Big 10’s regular season champion and Louisville is always a tough out in March. Throw in Tom Izzo’s young Michigan State squad then two of the nation’s hottest team’s down the stretch, Michigan and Oklahoma State, and you get a region that is an absolute gauntlet.
Plus, Nevada, Vermont and Rhode Island all have some serious Cinderella potential. All four regions will be fun, but this one has potential to be spectacular.
Weakest Region: West
The region with the last No. 1 seed shapes up to be the weakest of the four. There’s a couple solid teams in the group, but I think Gonzaga and Arizona are on a collision course to do battle in San Jose for a trip to the Final Four.
West Virginia is capable of playing with pretty much anyone in the country. But, the Mountaineers’ tournament success can be a crapshoot because of their style of play.
Notre Dame has the offensive firepower to make a run but I don’t feel confident picking them to get past the Zags. Northwestern will be a fun story to follow in its first tournament, but I feel the same way about them.
There’s simply not as many teams I can get excited about in this region. I don’t see many scenarios in which we don’t get a rematch between the Wildcats and Bulldogs with a trip to Phoenix on the line.
1. Middle Tennessee State – 12-seed in South
Few teams across the country have run through their schedule with the same level of success as the Blue Raiders. After upsetting Michigan State and advancing to the round of 32 last year, Kermit Davis’ squad compiled a 30-4 record, including a win over Vanderbilt and a three-point loss to VCU, both of which are tournament teams.
Conference USA Player of the Year JaCorey Williams (17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game) has solidified himself as one of the best players you’ve likely never heard of after transferring from Arkansas and sitting out last season. Williams, along with guards Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw, will make the Blue Raiders a trendy pick for the 12-over-5 upset over Minnesota.
2. Vermont – 13-seed in Midwest
The Catamounts got all they could handle from Albany in the America East title game, but they’ll enter the tournament riding a 21-game winning streak. Their last loss came on Dec. 21 against Butler and a very tough test looms in the first round in the shape of No. 4 seed Purdue and Big 10 Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan.
Vermont’s offense isn’t going to blow you away, but they’re holding teams to just 61.6 points per game. They’ll play a slow deliberate style and Little Rock proved that’s a formula that can have success against the Boilermakers during last year’s dance.
3. South Dakota State – 16-seed in West
The Jackrabbits’ record isn’t overly impressive at just 18-16. But, if anybody is going to pull the 16-over-1 upset this year, I’d put my money on TJ Otzelberger’s squad.
Led by Summit League Player of the Year Mike Daum (25.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game), South Dakota State plays similarly to the wide-open style employed by former Iowa State, and current Chicago Bulls, head coach Fred Hoiberg. Obviously, toppling Gonzaga is a tall task, but if the Jackrabbits get hot there’s no doubt they can hang around for 40 minutes.
Five Must Watch First Round Games
1. (7) Michigan vs. (10) Oklahoma State
Two of the most efficient offenses, per KenPom, and a battle between two of the best point guards in the country, Michigan’s Derrick Walton, Jr. and Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans? Sign me up.
2. (5) Virginia vs. (12) UNC-Wilmington
The Seahawks gave Duke a run for its money in the first round of last year’s tournament and I expect they’ll do the same to the Cavaliers. I’m not sure there’s a matchup of teams with more contrasting styles than this one. If UNC-Wilmington’s press can speed up Tony Bennett’s squad, this one will be very interesting.
3. (7) Dayton vs. (10) Wichita State
There’s potential for this to be Archie Miller’s last game as the Flyers’ head coach. Wichita State enters the tournament with a serious chip on its shoulder after being under-seeded by the committee. This one is full of storylines and has the potential to be full of fun.
4. (5) Iowa State vs. (12) Nevada
A battle between two teams chalk full of shooters that play a very similar style. Iowa State’s Monte Morris is playing with a chip on his shoulder after being left off the final list for the Bob Cousy Award, but the Wolf Pack will be a trendy upset pick. There’s likely to be few first round games with more scoring than this one.
5. (4) Florida vs. (13) East Tennessee State
The Gators haven’t been quite the same since losing center John Egbunu to a torn ACL in February. The Buccaneers’ rotation includes bigs that stand 6-7, 6-8 and 6-9. ETSU guard T.J. Croner dropped 41 in the team’s SoCon semi-final win over Samford and can really fill it up. If there’s an upset in play on the 4/13-line, this might be it.
Juicy Later Round Matchup Possibilities
1. (1) Villanova vs. (2) Duke in Elite Eight
The defending national champs and many people’s preseason pick to win it all this season at Madison Square Garden. This game could be a ton of fun with a trip to Phoenix on the line.
2. (2) Kentucky vs. (3) UCLA in Sweet 16
Two of the most prestigious programs in college basketball history. Multiple super-talented freshmen. This game could have the potential for some fireworks.
3. (1) Kansas vs. (5) Iowa State in Sweet 16
A battle between two of the best point guards in college basketball. Conference rivals that split the season series. Oh, and it would be in both teams’ backyard. Yeah, this one could be electric.
4. (3) Oregon vs. (6) Creighton in Round Two
Dana Altman leading the program he’s resurrected up against the one he resurrected and built into a mid-major power. A couple guards in Dylan Brooks and Marcus Foster that can really fill it up. Plus, Justin Patton and Jordan Bell are both future NBA Draft picks. This could make for a fun round two matchup.
5. (1) Gonzaga vs. (4) West Virginia in Sweet 16
Gonzaga’s talented guards squaring off against Press Virginia. I’d say this would be Gonzaga’s toughest test before a possible matchup with Arizona in the Elite Eight.
Final Four Picks
4. North Carolina