By Josh Naso & Emily Van Buskirk
The start of the NCAA Tournament is rapidly approaching, and here at The Sports Fan Journal we have you covered with everything you need to make those last minute adjustments to your bracket. Who has the toughest road to the Final Four? What are the most intriguing matchups? Who is on upset alert? Find all of that plus our picks for the Elite 8 and Final Four in our NCAA Tournament Primer.
Degree of Difficulty: High. Looking at the East, you see a bracket that doesn’t seem befitting of the No. 1 overall seed. Defending champ Villanova holds that honor, but the road to the Final Four could be a rocky one. Second-seeded Duke is hot and seems to be putting it all together, reminding everyone why they were a preseason favorite to win the title. No. 5 seed Virginia is the best defensive team in the country. No. 6 seed SMU is under-seeded, and has one of the best players in the tournament you haven’t heard of. Wisconsin is under-seeded as well at No 8. The Badgers had preseason Final Four aspirations. Everyone is dreaming of an epic Villanova-Duke matchup in Madison Square Garden with a trip to the Final Four on the line, but neither team can afford to look ahead that far.
Team to win it all: Villanova. The sexy pick here is Duke. But the Blue Devils’ stellar play in the ACC Tournament doesn’t erase their eight losses. When things are clicking, Duke can beat anyone in the country. But among the pieces for Duke there exists a lot of volatility. Grayson Allen has been up and down, and freshmen are always a question mark in the tournament. Meanwhile 'Nova leans on three seniors who happen to have won the title a year ago. Josh Hart has been a rock, while Jalen Brunson has had a breakout sophomore season. The role players compliment their teammates perfectly.
Don’t allow yourself to be blinded by the shine of Duke’s ACC title. The Wildcats have been steady all season. They won both the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. Villanova will be the team heading to Phoenix out of the East.
Intriguing Matchups: The East is rife with potential matchups down the road. SMU vs. Baylor, SMU vs. Duke, Villanova vs. Wisconsin, Villanova vs. Virginia, and of course Villanova vs. Duke. But two from the opening round jump out. Virginia vs. UNC Wilmington and Marquette vs. South Carolina. Virginia and UNC Wilmington present a fascinating contrast of styles. It pits Virginia’s top-ranked defense (55.6 PPG) against Wilmington’s tenth-ranked offense (85.2 PPG). It will be interesting to see which team can control the pace of play. Similarly, South Carolina will bring its defense, the third-most efficient in the tournament, to try to slow the best three-point shooting team in the tournament in Marquette.
Upsets: #13 East Tennessee State over #4 Florida. We’ve had a 13 over 4 upset in six of the last eight tournaments, and this is the one that jumps out at you right away. ETSU is one of the most experienced teams in the country. They have a go-to guy in leading scorer T.J. Cromer (19.1 PPG). There was a time, during a nine-game winning streak, that the Gators looked like a Final Four sleeper. A season-ending injury to John Egbunu put a damper on those expectations and Florida is on upset alert. In addition, Virginia could be in for a long day if they get into a track meet with UNC Wilmington.
Degree of Difficulty: Low. The West is the easiest region in the tournament. Top seed Gonzaga had a great season and has built a tradition of excellence, but they remain unproven in the postseason. No. 2 seed Arizona also had an impressive regular season, but rely on underclassmen, and the team doesn’t wow you statistically. Third-seeded Florida State has studs in the form of Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac, but own losses to Temple, Georgia Tech and Pitt. West Virginia can cause havoc with the press, but have suffered some baffling losses. Notre Dame has the potential to make some noise in the West from the 5-seed. The rest of the region is filled out with teams like first-time dancer Northwestern, 15-loss Vanderbilt, stumbling Xavier and Maryland and 2013 tournament darlings Florida Gulf Coast. Comparatively, the West lacks the pop of the other regions.
Team to win it all: Arizona. Gonzaga is in “prove it” territory, despite having a regular season win over Arizona. I’m not even sure that Gonzaga makes it to a rematch with the Wildcats, as West Virginia or Notre Dame could take them down before the Elite 8. The return of Allonzo Trier was a huge boost for Arizona. The Wildcats have six players averaging at least nine points per game. They will take advantage of their position and emerge from the West.
Intriguing Matchups: In case you haven’t noticed, it may be hard to get enthused with this region. A potential second round matchup between West Virginia and Notre Dame is interesting. In the opening round, let's go with Northwestern vs. Vanderbilt where both teams will be playing with something to prove. Northwestern wants to show that they aren’t satisfied just to be here while Vanderbilt looks to show they belong in the field despite having lost 15 games. The losing team will have that respective narrative attached to their season all summer long.
Upsets: #14 Florida Gulf Coast over #3 Florida State. Intrastate games in the NCAA Tournament are never a picnic for the favorite. And this is actually a decent matchup for FGCU. Both teams prefer offense and the Eagles have the firepower to stick with the Seminoles in a shootout. Should FGCU get past Florida State, the ensuing matchup with either Xavier or Maryland has to look promising to them as well. A run to the Sweet 16 is not out of the question.
Degree of Difficulty: Mild. Yes, the one-seed is tough, but the rest of the field is meh. A Chris Boucher-less Oregon squad, a Louisville team that keeps Rick Pitino up at night with its inconsistency and a relatively obscure Purdue program comprise the region. Early round games should shake out fairly straightforward and then the regional rounds will be fun to watch.
Team to win it all: Kansas. The Jayhawks are strong this year. Don’t let the Big 12 Tournament fool you – Frank Mason is a fighter as is Devonte Graham, plus the return of Josh Jackson spells trouble for everyone else in the Midwest. Kansas has what is essentially a home-court advantage with the first and second round game in Tulsa, Oklahoma -- a breezy four-hour drive from Lawrence, Kansas. Also, it’s worth nothing that the Jayhawks are good in tight spaces: Kansas is 9-1 in games decided by three points or less.
Intriguing Matchups: Anyone vs. Michigan. The Wolverines are the story of the moment, the media darlings who captured America’s hearts when they survived a scary plane mishap, which sent them into the Big Ten Tournament with a renewed sense of vigor and purpose. Playing in their practice uniforms against Illinois, another team who needed to get its NCAA mojo back, it became clear that Michigan had found its magic. Winning the Big Ten Championship was one thing – but can the Wolverines keep that momentum rolling into the tournament? It sure will be fun to watch.
Upsets: #12 Nevada over #5 Iowa State. This has been a popular upset theory already, and it will be glorious when it inevitably comes to pass. Iowa State should not have won the Big 12 Tournament. This a classic 5-vs-12 upset: the Wolfpack features a high-octane offense that averages 80 points per game, led by senior point guard Marcus Marshall's 19.8 PPG. Winner of the Mountain West, nine-straight game winning streak -- Nevada will be too much momentum for the Cyclones to handle.
Degree of Difficulty: Moderate. Slightly more challenging than the Midwest, but not even close to as tough as the other side of the bracket. The inevitable North Carolina-Kentucky Elite Eight matchup is the most exciting thing about this region. But this group does pack a lot of pedigree: No. 1 seed North Carolina, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 UCLA have combined to win 24 national championships and make 54 trips to the Final Four. Plus there are some fun Cinderella squads in the making in the South.
Team to win it all: Kentucky. This was a tough call, given that it could very well be North Carolina who makes it through. But the 'Cats are coming off an incredibly dominant SEC Tournament win and possess freshman guard Malik Monk, who averages 20.5 points per game. And he will need every one of them against UNC’s top-25 defense.
Intriguing Matchups: UCLA vs. Kentucky. A possible rematch of these two talented teams in the Sweet Sixteen round would be very fun to watch. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92 at Rupp Arena back in December. The Bruins will have to get by the winner of Cincinnati vs. (Kansas State/Wake Forest) after likely beating Kent State in their opener. Playing tough game after tough game is not a strength in the West, but between Bryce Alford’s shooting and Lonzo Ball’s passing, UCLA stands a solid chance.
Upsets: #12 Middle Tennessee vs. #5 Minnesota. Another upset those who follow college hoops have already pronounced written in the stars. The Blue Raiders, who boast an impressive 30-4 record, stunned No. 2 Michigan State last year as a five-seed. This year they have experience, something the Gophers lack as this will be head coach Richard Pitino’s (yes, son of Rick) first NCAA Tournament. MTSU also has players like Giddy Potts, who can score 30 points a game, senior leader Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams, who averages 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Another possible upset that we're going to throw out there is Wake Forest beating Kansas State and then upsetting Cincinnati in that less popular 6-vs-11 upset. The Demon Deacons boast the nation's eighth-ranked offense, according to KenPom’s efficiency ratings and their head coach is Danny Manning.
Emily’s Elite Eight: Villanova vs. Duke, Arizona vs. Notre Dame, Kansas vs. Oregon, North Carolina vs. Kentucky
Emily’s Final Four: Villanova vs. Arizona, Kansas vs. Kentucky
Josh’s Elite Eight: Villanova vs. Duke, Arizona vs. Notre Dame, Kansas vs. Louisville, North Carolina vs. UCLA
Josh’s Final Four: Villanova vs. Arizona, Kansas vs. North Carolina
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.