It’s that time of the year folks, time to fill out your brackets based on your college basketball knowledge, your favorite mascot, your favorite team color, or however you make your selections. Usually I like to use my knowledge of the field which I consider to be pretty high, but I came near the bottom of my pool last year, so you can take my preview of the tourney with a grain of salt (meanwhile my parents came in 1st and 2nd in my pool of 40 people).
The South Region is led by the number one overall seed, Virginia Cavaliers. UVA has been the best team in the country from start to finish this season. They’re the best defensive team in the nation, they don’t turn the ball over, can light it up from 3, hit their free throws, and never seem to lose their composure no matter if they’re up 10 or down 10. Unfortunately breaking news just came down that De’Andre Hunter, the 6th Man of the Year in the ACC has a broken wrist and will miss the NCAA Tournament. This is crippling news to UVA’s national championship aspirations.
The news of Hunter’s wrist injury could open up the door for two teams in the top half of the South Region. This would be the #5 seed Kentucky Wildcats and the #4 Arizona Wildcats. These two teams look likely to meet in the second round in Boise, ID on Saturday. Both teams are filled with NBA potential players and won their conference tournaments, which show they’re peaking at the right time. I already thought their athleticism could be a potential issue for UVA in a Sweet 16 match-up with DeAndre Hunter. Now without Hunter I think UVA is looking at a potential Sweet 16 exit at the hands of Arizona.
In terms of the bottom of this region, it doesn’t have many teams that would strike fear in me if I’m UVA, Kentucky, or Arizona. This is definitely the best team Mick Cronin has ever coached at Cincinnati and they feature many similarities to UVA such as toughness, defense, composure, etc., but I believe UVA is the better team (despite the loss of Hunter). As a matter of fact I think SEC Player of the Year, Grant Williams and Tennessee end up advancing to the Elite 8 over Cincinnati. If you haven’t seen this kid play, you’ll fall in love with his game quickly. He’s 6’7 but plays like he’s 7 feet, with his strength and post game down low on the blocks.
Looking back again at UVA and Arizona, I was on record as saying that the winner of this game would win the national title before the Hunter injury. I think Arizona’s athleticism and the combo of DeAndre Ayton and Alonzo Trier will orchestrate the upset over UVA. Let’s not forget this team was #3 in the Pre-Season AP Top 25. It’s been a very controversial season but it looks like they’ve put all the drama behind them and are coming together at the perfect time. I’m not doubting the fact that even without Hunter, I may be eating these words big time in a week and a half. Senior, Isaiah Wilkins of UVA won Defensive Player of The Year in the ACC and could be the guy who neutralizes the red-hot DeAndre Ayton.
Player to Watch: DeAndre Ayton; Arizona
Sleepers: Kentucky and Arizona
Best potential match-up: Arizona vs. UVA in the Sweet 16
Winner of East Region: Arizona Wildcats
The West might be the most wide open region. Personally I have never been a huge believer in the #1 seeded Xavier Musketeers. There’s no doubt they are a great team and if you haven’t seen Trevon Bluiett play, you’re in for a treat because this senior guard can flat out ball. What’s most telling for me,when it comes to Xavier, is they were run out of the gym in their 2 biggest games of the year. The games were a 24 point road loss and a 16 point home loss, both to Villanova. I could give them a pass on one of those, but for it to happen twice leads me to believe they’re ripe for an upset and not truly one of the best teams in the country. Keep an eye on their potential second round match-up against Missouri.
Mizzouri’s top five ranked freshman recruit, Michael Porter Jr., is back from what appeared to be a season ending injury earlier this year. Although he looked rusty against Georgia last week, he still took 17 shots which shows he’s healthy and confident. Missouri has suspended one of their starters for the first round game with Kansas St. and there is now a very good chance Michael Porter Jr. joins the starting lineup. Porter Jr. will most likely be a top 10 pick in June’s NBA Draft.
The 3 most dangerous teams in this region are UNC, Michigan, and Gonzaga. There’s no denying the fact that the Tar Heels are a major threat to get back to the Final 4, but I think it is an extremely daunting feat to make the Final 4 for three consecutive years.
Michigan is everybody’s “darkhorse” right now. In fairness, they are undoubtedly one of the hottest teams in the country. My biggest argument against Michigan is the fact that I believe the Big Ten was very overrated this year. The middle to bottom of the conference was very weak compared to the ACC or Big 12. I will go on record now saying Michigan loses to the winner of the Houston vs. San Diego St game. Houston has been one of the best kept secrets in the country. Meanwhile, San Diego St., while having a down regular season compared to their preseason expectations, is another team peaking at the right time with nine wins in a row. This includes two wins over Nevada, who has been ranked for most of the year and is a 7 seed in the tournament. San Diego St. was up by as many as 37 points against Nevada in their semi-final conference tournament match-up last Friday night!
Last but not least, the Zags feel like they could be ready to make another run to a Final 4. We know head coach Mark Few is one of the best coaches in the country and they have a handful of guys back from last year’s team which lost in the National Championship to UNC. They are also riding the nation’s longest win streak at 14 games. They check off all the boxes that equate to success at this time of the year… coaching, current form, experience, and talent.
Player to Watch: Michael Porter Jr; Missouri
Sleepers: Houston and San Diego St
Best potential match-up: Gonzaga vs. UNC in the Elite 8. This would be a rematch of last year’s national title game.
Winner of West Region: Gonzaga Bulldogs
First, for those of you who live in the Boston area, the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games will be played at the TD Garden. The games will be played on Friday, March 23rd and Sunday March 25th.
I think the East is the weakest region of the four. You obviously never know what can happen in March Madness but I would be very surprised if Villanova doesn’t make it out of this region. They are led by Big East Player of the Year, Jalen Brunson. A potential match-up against red hot Colin Sexton of Alabama in the second round could be fun, but I don’t see Bama’ slowing Nova’ down. I think we end up seeing a Villanova vs. West Virginia match-up in the Sweet 16. West Virginia is all about full court press… and Nova’s guard play is among the strongest in the nation, so that shouldn’t be a major concern.
Looking at the bottom half of the region, I see Purdue advancing to the Elite 8. I’m on record as being a huge doubter of the Big Ten, but Purdue got a great draw. A potential matchup with Texas Tech and one of the underrated players in the country, Keenan Evans, could be a toss up, but Texas Tech is coming into the tournament a little banged up with lingering injuries and losing 5 of their last 7 games.
I do see two potential sleepers in this region, but only one of them will be playing come the Round of 64 since they play each other in the First 4 game. The teams, St. Bonaventure and UCLA both have tremendous guard play in Jaylen Adams and Aaron Holiday respectively. I think both of these guards could carry either of their teams to the Sweet 16 and maybe even the Elite 8.
Player to Watch: Colin Sexton; Alabama
Sleepers: St. Bonnies and UCLA
Best potential match-up: Villanova vs. West Virginia in the Sweet 16
Winner of West Region: Villanova Wildcats
Last but not least is the region of death, aka the Mid-West Region. This should be a fun one. Bill Self of Kansas, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, and Tom Izzo of Michigan State are Hall of Fame coaches. They also lead the top 3 seeds in this region. You can make a strong case for any of the three to advance to the Final 4.
I see Kansas having no issue rolling to the Sweet 16 where I think they will meet this year’s Cinderella, #12 seeded New Mexico St. New Mexico St. comes into the tourney with a 28-5 record and have beat some good teams this year in Miami and Davidson, both of whom made the field of 68. I believe their run will come to an end against KU.
The bottom of the region could be very interesting. First let’s talk about my Rhode Island Rams. Rhody’s stock was clearly on the downswing toward the end of the season. This was highlighted by a 30 point loss at home to a very mediocre St. Joes team. Most sports books have Rhody as a 1 or 2 point favorite against the Oklahoma Sooners and Trae Young. The Sooners have been exposed the last month and a half, losing 11 of their last 15 games. I think this is a great match-up for Rhody. They can have A-10 All Defensive First Team defender Stan Robinson chase Trae Young all game. Robinson’s length and athleticism could help to neutralize Young. Also, Oklahoma is a horrible defensive team and that should play in favor of Rhody who can hopefully take care of the ball better than they did in the A-10 Title game against Davidson. I think Rhody should be able to take care of the Sooners and comfortably cover a small spread of 1 or 2 points.
If Rhody can advance they’d most likely face the Duke Blue Devils and unfortunately I think that’s where their run would end. I’ve said for months that the 3 teams the Rams would match up with the worst are Duke, Arizona, and Michigan State. Odds are if Rhody wants any chance to make a deep run they’d have to get through Michigan St. and Duke in their region. The Rams would just not match up well with Freshmen stud forwards Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter. Wendell Carter has become my favorite player in the country. The big fella is overshadowed by Marvin Bagley and for good reason, since Bagley has been phenomenal this year and is the better NBA prospect. With that said, Carter simply excels on the court. He can play in the post, constantly runs the floor, rebounds the ball well, and is a strong shot blocker on the defensive end. The size and athleticism of Duke would cause Rhody many issues and I think Duke would win pretty comfortably. Of course I hope I’m wrong and only time will tell.
Getting back to the overall preview of this region, I think the winner of a potential Duke vs. Michigan State game in the Sweet 16, will go on to the Final 4. I know Michigan State is becoming the “sexy” pick to advance to the Final 4, but I don’t see them getting past Duke. Michigan State has had far too many games this year where they sleep walk through the first half or first 10 minutes of a game. Ultimately that usually comes back to “bite a team” come tourney time, no matter how good they are (see Michigan State two years ago against Middle Tennessee State).
A Duke vs. Kansas Elite 8 would have major story lines. The Blue Devils will prevail though if it goes down. Kansas has had a great season, but they’ve overachieved compared to their talent and I think Duke’s 4 ultra talented froshies along with Grayson Allen will prove to be too much for Miles Bridges and his squad.
Player to Watch: Wendell Carter; Duke
Sleeper: New Mexico St.
Best potential match-up: Duke vs. Michigan State in the Sweet 16
Winner of Mid-West Region: Duke Blue Devils
In closing, as I said in my preview of the South Region, I think Arizona will be cutting down the nets as National Champions. They will take down Villanova. DeAndre Ayton is a man on a mission. This is the best team Sean Miller has had in his tenure at Arizona. He’s had many near trips to the Final 4 over the last several seasons and I believe this is FINALLY his year. Now let’s just hope the NCAA doesn’t vacate the title from Zona’ in a few years amid all the allegations they’ve faced this year….
National Title Game: Arizona over Villanova