March Madness Men’s Bracket predictions, potential upsets, top matchups, more
We officially have a bracket. On what has become a national holiday, Selection Sunday, we kick off our coverage with an instant reaction to the field of 68.
Here are my takeaways from the selection committee’s decisions.
The 1-line makes sense … for the most part.
The surprise from the committee was Houston, which just lost to Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Sunday, landing the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament and being positioned in the Midwest Region. That means the Cougars were selected over Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, and given the potential regional treatment in Kansas City. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, have to go to Las Vegas in a region where UCLA is the No. 2 seed.
Kansas had 10 more Quad 1 wins than Houston in the best conference in college basketball, but the Cougars were No. 1 in the NET rankings. That said, UCLA might not be that threatening with Jaylen Clark done for the season and Adem Bona dealing with an injury. I think Kansas and Alabama were given the most manageable paths, and they could meet in the national championship game.
SEC champion Alabama was deserving of the No. 1 overall seed, and the Crimson Tide could end up having a really clear path to the Final Four. At 29-5, Nate Oats’ group would face Maryland or West Virginia in the Round of 32, two capable teams but neither with the firepower of Alabama.
Looking at Arizona, Baylor and Virginia as the other teams joining them in the region, the Pac-12 tournament champion Wildcats look like the most dangerous team entering the dance, but Tommy Lloyd’s squad does have a backcourt that can be inconsistent. Baylor’s defense is concerning, while Virginia’s offense has a tendency to go ice-cold. The Crimson Tide got the top seed and the best path, in my opinion.
Big Ten champion Purdue has what I would call a manageable pathway, but potentially drawing Memphis in the second round could cause a tight game. Having a red-hot Marquette team, a Kansas State team stacked with a duo in Keyontae Johnson and a Duke team that I think is the most dangerous in the region offers serious challenges. The Boilers more than deserved a 1, their first in 27 years, but I think they have the hardest path to a Final Four, fitting because they were the last 1-seed.
The two-seeds …
Arizona, Texas, Marquette and UCLA were all deserving of their slots, with the Longhorns winning the Big 12 Tournament and earning 14 Quad 1 victories, and the Golden Eagles going 28-6 and sweeping the titles in a five-bid Big East. A storyline to watch on the 2-line: Shaka Smart’s Marquette team would be very comfortable if it advances to the Sweet 16. By being in the East Region, the Golden Eagles could be back at Madison Square Garden in 10 days, where they won their first conference tournament title on Saturday night.
Let’s go to the last four in and the first four out …
First off, it was pretty surprising to see that a North Carolina team that accounted for just one Quad 1 win was only the third team out in the field. The second major takeaway: Nevada completed a big night for the Mountain West. That conference office should be celebrating after earning four bids to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year. Steve Alford’s Wolf Pack lost a pair of Quad 3 games and will take a three-game losing streak into the NCAA Tournament — with all three defeats coming to teams with a NET ranking of 91 or lower.
The Pac-12 should be satisfied as well because the league got the team playing Nevada in the First Four — Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State Sun Devils were among the last four in and will draw the Wolf Pack in Dayton. The other two among the last four in were Mississippi State and Pitt, who were both deserving of slots.
The first four out: Oklahoma State, Rutgers, North Carolina and Clemson. While the two leagues I listed above should be happy, the ACC was penalized for having such a weak bottom. Clemson didn’t belong in the field with two Quad 4 losses and another pair of Quad 3 defeats, but to see a 23-win team out of the conference not make it is still something because that would have been unheard of during a different era.
Why did Rutgers miss the tournament? Home losses to Nebraska and Michigan were rough, and a loss to Minnesota could be viewed as a backbreaker. The Scarlet Knights went 4-7 against Quad 1, and although they owned a road win over Purdue, their losses washed that out. More than anything, this is a situation where a soft non-conference schedule got penalized. Rutgers really didn’t do much to help itself ahead of Big Ten play.
As for the first team out, Oklahoma State, it’s more heartbreak for Mike Boynton’s program, because the Cowboys were left out of the tournament last year. I thought the committee would side with college basketball’s best conference — the Big 12 — especially with the Cowboys having two more Quad 1 wins and one less Quad 3 loss than Nevada. Instead, it’s another Selection Sunday of sadness in Stillwater.
Everybody loves the 5/12 games because it’s a major upset zone, so let’s go there.
In the South Region, the San Diego State/Charleston game is fascinating. There’s a ton of pressure on Brian Dutcher and the Aztecs, with a veteran core, to win a tournament game after collapsing vs. Creighton last year. On the other side, Pat Kelsey’s CAA champion Cougars lead the nation in wins with 31, and have lost just three times. Look for Charleston to pull off an opening-round victory.
The committee gave us a gift with Jeremy Roach facing Max Abmas as Duke takes on Oral Roberts. Abmas and the Eagles went to the Sweet 16 two years ago, so the ACC champion Blue Devils actually get a tougher opening-round test than they will in the second round. The winner of this matchup will go to the Sweet 16.
In the West, it’s a terrific backcourt matchup as Aidan Mahaney and Saint Mary’s meet Ace Baldwin and VCU. Give me the Gaels. And then in the Midwest, a rather experienced Drake team that has a stud in Tucker DeVries could give Miami a handful of issues. With the status of big man Norchad Omier up in the air for the Hurricanes due to an ankle injury, the Bulldogs really have a shot to advance. I am calling for multiple 12s to win.
Best opening matchup?
My favorite is clear: No. 4 seed UConn vs. No. 13 seed Iona. For a northeast basketball fan, it’s a dream. For a coaching matchup, it’s two characters on the sidelines, and perhaps Rick Pitino’s rumored return to the Big East is arriving with an early taste of the conference. In Year 5 at the helm, Dan Hurley led the Huskies to a 14-0 start and a 25-7 campaign, but Connecticut has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game under this coaching staff. That’s the next step, and Friday is critical, but Pitino is one of the best coaches in the country. His Gaels will be ready.
Other first-round games that you should circle on your bracket:
How about Maryland meeting West Virginia in the 8/9 game with the winner likely getting Alabama? Bob Huggins has had a bounce-back year with a Mountaineers team that has a top-15 KenPom offense led by veteran guard Erik Stevenson. Kevin Willard is ahead of schedule in College Park with a stout defensive squad and a big-time guard in Jahmir Young. The lead-up press conferences for this game will be worthy of popcorn. Neither coach holds back.
Top coach matchups
Speaking of fiery coaches, how about Fran McCaffrey vs. Bruce Pearl when a tremendous Iowa offense meets a high-level Auburn defense? That matchup comes down to whether the Tigers can disrupt the Hawkeyes and generate pace.
Then, there’s the Bryce Hopkins Bowl when Kentucky meets Providence in Greensboro on Friday. Hopkins transferred out from Lexington and ended up in Ed Cooley’s hands with the Friars, who enter the NCAA Tournament having lost three straight. Meanwhile, nobody has more pressure on themselves entering a big dance outside of John Calipari. After two letdown seasons, Oscar Tshiebwe and the Wildcats have to impose their will.
Sleepers, long-shots and teams that could surprise
A potential long-shot upset? Keep an eye on 14th-seeded UC Santa Barbara when the Gauchos meet Baylor. UCSB has a top-75 offense but can go about it with a slower tempo. If they can get the Bears to that liking of a game, don’t be shocked if that’s a ballgame. Another to monitor? Matt Langel and Colgate as a 15-seed taking on Texas. While the Longhorns ride a major high, the Raiders are really sound offensively, and they’re another team that can give the Horns some issues.
The 8-seed that I’m bullish on? Penny Hardaway and Memphis, which could get Purdue in the second round. The Tigers are physical and Kendric Davis would be the best guard on the court. If Memphis can beat Dusty May and FAU, look out.
Look out for Gonzaga to make a deep NCAA Tournament run. The Zags are certainly going to get past Grand Canyon and potentially TCU — although that will be tough — to the second weekend. A Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA is on the table, but the Bruins are a bit banged up and that’s more doable than one would assume. Could Drew Timme have a run up his sleeve?
Don’t sleep on Tom Izzo and Michigan State just yet. Sure, the Spartans have had an odd season, but with Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard, 7th-seeded Sparty gets a manageable 10-seed in USC and potentially a Marquette team, that at the end of the day is still the third-youngest in college basketball. The Golden Eagles would be favored in that game, but they don’t have a traditional center, something that has given Sparty some issues.
Indiana drew MAC champion Kent State, and the Hoosiers should be on high alert for that one. The 28-6 Flashes challenged themselves in non-conference play, coming close to knocking off Gonzaga. Redshirt senior guard Sincere Carry is someone who looks poised to make his mark on March, averaging more than 17 points per game. The Hoosiers need Jalen Hood-Schifino to lead them in the backcourt and step up.
The under-the-radar matchup in the first round: 7th-seeded Texas A&M vs. 10th-seeded Penn State. Wade Taylor IV vs. Jalen Pickett? Sign me up. These are two teams that, on their best day, are more dangerous than their seed line and a reflection of the country in general. The Aggies deserved a better seed.
The 13-seed to look out for: Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns are a dangerous squad with a stud in Jordan Brown (19 PPG) and they get Tennessee, which can fall into offensive ruts and is shorthanded with Zakai Zeigler out for the season.
The first four team that could emerge in the tournament? Pitt. Jeff Capel has put together one of the best turnaround stories in college hoops. The Panthers have a dynamic duo in Blake Hinson and Jamarius Burton, and will draw Mississippi State in Dayton. As good as the Bulldogs are defensively, they really struggle to score. Pitt is not a high-turnover team and has different sources of scoring.
My first gut Final Four …
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