By Emily Van Buskirk (@emilnem) and Josh Naso (@JoshNaso)
We’re within 48 hours of the start of one of the best sporting events of the year, the NCAA Tournament. From shocking upsets to great individual performances to truly heavyweight matchups, the tournament has something for everyone. With one of the most wide-open fields in some time, this year’s tournament could be epic. TSFJ has you covered with everything you need to know to be an informed viewer and to win your bracket pool.
Naso: Let me start by clarifying that “easiest” doesn’t mean “easy.” As much as we like to give the committee a (sometimes deserved) hard time, they did a nice job of spreading things out, with legitimate title threats in all four regions. Add to that the fact that this year is considered one of the most wide-open fields in recent memory, and there are no unobstructed paths to the Final Four.
With that said, I’m about to do something a bit unconventional. I’m going to attempt to argue that the West is both the easiest and the hardest region. Stick with me.
Being that this section is titled “easiest region,” let me start with the argument that the West is an easy region. While there are metrics that support the claim that Kansas is over-seeded as a one (an argument for another time), the committee slotted in Xavier as the fourth and final top seed. That puts a check in the “easiest” column right off the bat. Three-seed Michigan comes in hot, but also hasn’t played a game since March 4. Fifth-seeded Ohio State stumbled down the stretch, losing three of five to end the season. It’s hard to have confidence in Texas A&M as a seven seed after the Aggies went just 9-11 following an 11-1 start. Missouri at #8 is a wild card with the recent return of Michael Porter Jr. And most prognosticators are looking to other regions for the ever-popular 11 over 6 and 12 over 5 upsets (although South Dakota State has gotten a few mentions).
With no true giant standing out as a clear favorite the West is wide open. There are a handful of teams that were rewarded for early-season success, but have been uninspiring down the stretch. And the one team that was hot and had the look of a squad ready to make a run (Michigan) is coming off an unprecedented layoff. And finally, the teams in the bottom half of the bracket aren’t fear inducing.
(If you told me I wasn’t allowed to pick the same region as easiest and hardest and I elected to stick with the latter, I would slot in the Midwest as the easiest. Yes, that region is stacked at the top with Kansas, Duke and Michigan State. But the rest of the region is littered with pedestrian, 'Jekyll and Hyde' type teams that will likely provide little resistance to the big boys.)
Van Buskirk: The South. Before you tear me to pieces, here me out. Yes, the region is top-heavy, boasting very talented, low-seeded teams. BUT, Cincinnati aside, I firmly believe the other top teams are beatable. Yes, Arizona and Kentucky are peaking at the right time and yes both are coming off Conference championship tournament wins. But Kentucky lost 10 games this season, proving the Wildcats are beatable, particularly when they are forced to shoot bad shots. But because they are big and physical, you won’t beat them on the board so any team they face will need to shoot lights out. Same goes for Arizona, who lost seven games this season to teams like Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Granted, the Wildcats make other teams work extra hard for those wins. Plus, nobody mounts a comeback like Sean Miller. But both Wildcat squads are set up to meet in Round 2, effectively knocking one out. And the other will have to face Virginia. So yeah.
In the lower half of the bracket, you have weaker high-seeds than in other regions and another 2-3 matchup that will be fun but is favorable for Virginia, who will be facing these top teams after they beat up on one another. Tennessee vs. Cincinnati will be extremely fun to watch but other than Creighton vs. Kansas State in the opening round, nothing else really grabs me about the South. It will just be tournament business as usual. Save your upsets for another region.
Naso: Okay, now I’m going to tell you to ignore everything I just said and argue that the West is actually the hardest region. Again, stick with me.
Did you know the West has the most teams currently ranked in the top 10 in the AP Poll with four? It’s true.
Xavier, the Big East regular season champion, is a very good team. Trevon Bluiett might be the best player in the country that no one really talks about. North Carolina is the defending national champion and has a formidable one-two punch in Luke Maye and Joel Berry II. If Michigan can pick up where it left off in the Big Ten tournament, a Final Four run is entirely possible. We’ve been bullish on Gonzaga for a while now, and you can read why here. Ohio State holds wins over Purdue and Michigan State and is led by a star in Keita Bates-Diop. And sixth-seeded Houston is slightly underseeded. The Cougars beat Wichita State twice and Cincinnati once. Oh, and eight-seed Missouri is a wild card with the return of Michael Porter Jr.
The West is home to four legitimate Final Four contenders and two more teams that wouldn’t be completely shocking to see reach San Antonio. You say that’s because it’s the easiest region? I say it makes it the hardest.
(If you told me I wasn’t allowed to pick the same region as easiest and hardest and I elected to stick with the former, I would slot in the South as the hardest. The South has the two best defensive teams in the country in top-overall seed Virginia and under the radar Cincinnati. It also as scary talented Arizona team that may be figuring things out just in time and a Kentucky team that has a history of high expectations followed by growing pains followed by “surprise” March runs. Whoever wins the South will certainly have earned it.)
Van Buskirk: This is easy: the East. I bet you thought I was going to say the Midwest didn’t you? No chance. I am a realistic Kansas fan after all. The East region houses the toughest teams top-to-bottom, starting with the No. 1 seed Villanova, who will most likely make it to the championship game and ending with a scrappy Cal-State Fullerton squad. You have a solid Alabama team lead by arguably the best player in the nation Collin Sexton, who is being touted as the next Russell Westbrook. Sexton is averaging 19 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists, shooting 44 percent from the field and 34 percent from beyond the arc. The Tide drew a good first game in Virginia Tech, a beatable No. 8 seed.
The great thing about the East is every matchup presents a game you want to watch. From Marshall attempting to upset Wichita State to Arkansas taking on a very underseeded Butler squad to an exciting underdog CSU Fullerton-Purdue matchup and my personal favorite: Texas Tech vs. the always dangerous Stephen F. Austin. Every win is going to have to be earned in the East, and Villanova will have worked hard for that championship spot, for sure. But don’t bank on a 1-2 Elite Eight – watch out for 10-seed Butler, ninth-seeded Alabama and even the third-seeded Red Raiders. Plus, when we averaged the KenPom rankings of the top-10 teams in each region, the East came out with an average of 22, the best of the four regions. And we all know numbers don’t lie.
Double-digit Seeds to Watch
Naso: In the South, #11 Loyola-Chicago has emerged as a trendy pick to upset sixth-seeded Miami, and with good reason. The Ramblers are impressive defensively, allowing a mere 62.2 points per game and ranking 25th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. While they don’t light up the scoreboard, they are a capable offensive bunch that shoots 50.7% from the floor and just a tick under 40% from three. And they’ve already proven they can compete with power conference teams, earning a road win against Florida, who was ranked fifth in the country at the time. Bonus points for the dope uniforms.
The Midwest's #12 seed New Mexico State has a similar profile to Loyola-Chicago. The Aggies are tough on the defensive end, ranked 15th in defensive efficiency and conceding 63.8 points per game. They are also very good on the glass, ranking fourth in the country with 41.5 rebounds per game. New Mexico State has also proven it can hang with the big boys, notching wins over Illinois, Davidson, and then-No. 6 Miami while playing USC close in a five-point loss. An upset could be brewing against a Clemson team that stumbled to a 3-5 finish and that is mediocre on the glass.
South Region #12 Davidson and #13 Buffalo, East Region #13 Murray State and West Region #12 South Dakota State are also worth a look, although their matchups aren’t quite as ripe as the ones discussed above. Take a look at each of these teams and pick a couple to advance.
Van Buskirk: There are a few teams that should make some noise despite their double-digit seeding. Teams like East Region #13 Marshall and #14 Stephen F. Austin as well as Midwest #10 Oklahoma. I would love to put East #15 Cal State Fullerton in this mix, but they just haven’t seen the likes of Purdue in quite some time and are ill-equipped to handle the Boilermakers' height and strength. But as my friend Jerry Palm always tells me, he can’t always rely on his alma mater to win games they are supposed to.
Marshall has been a fun story to watch, holding off Western Kentucky by one-point to clinch Conference USA’s automatic bid. Fun fact: Marshall is the only team in the country that features two players who average more than 20 points a game – Jon Elmore (22.6 PPG, 7.0 APG, 6.1 RPG) and C.J. Burks (21 PPG, 4.2 RPG). That productivity should prove useful in upsetting Wichita State.
Oklahoma vs. Rhode Island is going to be a fun game to watch as well, but here at TSFJ, jinxing URI is a very real thing (right, Naso?) so I believe the Sooners will survive and advance, at least until they meet Michigan State. Also, it’s hard to bet against the clutchness of Trae Young despite the slump the Sooners have been in. I also like No. 14 Stephen F. Austin playing a Big 12 team because they beat LSU and dropped close games to Mississippi State and Missouri this year. So Texas Tech’s pedigree will not faze them in the least. Plus, the Lumberjacks head coach Kyle Keller spent time as an assistant at Oklahoma State and Kansas, so he’s ready for the motion offense. The Jacks boast a suffocating, physical defense that creates a lot of turnovers, which will prove problematic for the Red Raiders.
Fun Fact: SFA’s leading scorer comes off the bench for the Jacks. Guard Shannon Bogues plays 24 minutes per game as a reserve and puts up 15.4 points per game.
Teams Not Seeded 1 or 2 That Can Make a Final Four Run
Naso: South 4-seed Arizona. I’ve got five words for you. Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier. Ayton has played his way into the likely No. 1 overall pick in June by putting up 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds. Trier adds 18.4 points and the pair gives the Wildcats the epitome of a dynamic duo.
Arizona started the season ranked second in the nation for a reason. An 0-3 trip to the Bahamas in November sent the ‘Cats tumbling out of the rankings and the national title conversation. But they have righted the ship and may be peaking at the right time. The talent is scary and is more than enough to carry them all the way to San Antonio.
With South 5-seed Kentucky, the breakdown is simple: look at its history. Coach Cal’s mastery of the one-and-done era has produced a pattern. Start the season with a No. 1 or 2 ranked recruiting class and a ton of hype. Suffer growing pains and watch everyone jump off the bandwagon. Enter the tournament with a middling seed. And then make a deep March run that reminds everyone what Kentucky does. So far this season has followed the script.
As mentioned above, I’ve been a believer in Gonzaga for a while now. People remember the losses to Florida and Villanova, but forget the wins over Texas, Ohio State and Creighton. The ‘Zags have won 14 in a row. Oh, and 6’10” sophomore Killian Tillie has been in the zone of all zones. He averaged 24 points per game in the WCC Tournament, and since February 15th, he has shot 22-26 from three. That’s 85%! From three! So yeah, the Bulldogs are a real threat in the West.
Van Buskirk: This year, I like both Michigan (West #3) and Michigan State (Midwest #3) to make Final Four runs as three seeds. The Spartans are being particularly undervalued as a team poised to make a run. Maybe it’s the recent scandal MSU has seen. Whatever the issue people have with Tom Izzo’s squad, they need to understand that his talented team is tight. And I don’t mean tight in the bad, frozen kind of way. I mean they exude a closeness you want to see in a team full of talent – they don’t fight over shot selection and they play selfless basketball. They even pray together. In fact, that’s often been Izzo’s main grip about this year’s group – that there isn’t really a street-fighter among them.
KenPom indicates that the NCAA champion will appear in the top-20 of offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency. Michigan State ranks ninth in both. Michigan is fourth in defensive efficiency, but only 29th when it comes to offense. Both teams have future NBA players and both teams have point guards that can take over games. But both Michigan and Michigan State have difficult paths to the show – MSU has to get through Duke and then possibly Kansas, and UM has potential pitfalls in North Carolina and Xavier.
But in this year’s field, it may not be the best teams that win. Instead, we might see a battle of the teams that can make the fewest mistakes and, in that case, I think Michigan State has the strongest chance.
Final Four and National Champion Predictions
- Final Four - Virginia over North Carolina; Villanova over Duke
- National Champion: Villanova over Virginia
Emily Van Buskirk:
- Final Four - Virginia over Michigan; Villanova over Michigan State
- National Champion: Virginia over Villanova
(Note that Virginia has lost ACC Sixth Man of the Year De’Andre Hunter and his 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds for the tournament with a broken wrist suffered in the ACC tournament. Both of us still believe the Cavaliers are title contenders, but take that into consideration before penciling them all the way to San Antonio.)
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.