One of the best days of the year in sport has greeted us! I have had to do a lot of front end work knowing that I would be away from home! I am currently sitting with close friends in the middle of a ski trip in Colorado!
I can’t believe this is already my third year walking through each of the matchups and sharing my predictions. I read through last years write up I did and found a couple things I want to grow in. Here are a couple changes this year that you will see. First, I will give more background on the teams body of work. You can expect to see the recency of a team is on for their last 8 games coming into the tournament. This includes how they fared in their respective conference tournaments.
After the First Four matchups and Round of 64 games, I will give my thoughts on who will win each matchup based on statistical trends, what I’ve observed through watching teams play, and my gut. I’ve always done this, but I’m expanding my scope of (hopefully) valuable information to consider. 2 years ago, I was 40-23. I did not select a single Final Four team nor champion correctly. Last year, I didn’t fare as well, going 38-25. (That does not include correctly picking three of the four play-in games). However, I did pick two Final Four teams and one team, Gonzaga, that made it to the National Championship. Overall, that puts me at 78-48 (62%) for the last two NCAA tournaments.
We have finally arrived at a favorite time of the year for myself and other college basketball fans. The bracket has been revealed and now it’s time to get the ink and project the results for the field of 68! Just as I did last year, I will walk through my predictions of who will win matchups every round. I will also include possible matchups that would be a lot of fun to watch. So, are there any sleepers in this field? Who has the easiest path? Hopefully this helps you when you sit down to fill out your bracket! My record predicting each game last year was 40-23 where I incorrectly guessed the entire Final Four and Championship games. Take my insight with a grain of salt, I guess, but it’s always fun to attempt to predict the unpredictable!
Before listing my decisions for each matchup, I will review some helpful tips when selecting your bracket.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 19 of the 32 champions have been a 1 seed. I’m not sure how much influence this actually has, but 7 of the last 10 have come from the top seed line. Of course we love the upsets. They make the tournament exciting and surprising. However, a 1 seed has never lost to a 16 seed. It’s rare for all four 1 seeds to reach the final four though. It has happened once, in 2008. On five occasions, 3 number 1 seeds have made it to the final weekend.
Take into account the more recent games (usually the last 8-10 games played). A team can get better or worse over the course of a season. Recency is a factor in helping predict how a team will play in the NCAA tournament. Vermont had a 15 game winning streak snapped in mid-February.
Pay attention to how many times a coach has been to the tournament and their results.
Here’s something to consider. Previous winners have had a Kenpom defensive efficiency at or below 90.9. Only 7 teams possess that going into the tournament. One of the teams, Georgia Tech, is playing in the NIT. The other 6 teams are: Virginia, Gonzaga, Florida, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Louisville. Historically, teams have a top 3 offensive efficiency. None of the 6 teams listed have that. The closest is Gonzaga, which may be inflated due to their conference opponents being quite weak for the most part.
A note about seeding because I was surprised by where some teams fell. What caught my eye was how Big East teams were seeded. Due to the number of times teams meet during the season, rules or expectations have been put in place so those two opponents don’t meet again until a certain point in the bracket if they both continue to win. For example, Butler and Villanova are in the region of the bracket. They’ve already played each other three times this season, twice during conference play and the third coming during the Big East Tournament. Because of those 3 meetings, they would not be allowed to play each other until the Elite 8. Butler was slotted to be a 9 seed, yet found themselves a line lower. The same goes for Providence, the Big East Tournament runner-up. Due to them being in the same region as Xavier, the Friars who were to be a 9 seed were dropped a line to the 10. If teams played each other twice, they could meet in the Sweet Sixteen; once, they would meet as early as the Round of 32 (that makes sense because Butler could potentially play Purdue in Detroit if both teams win their opening game).
Tuesday, March 13th
Game 1: LIU-Brooklyn vs. Radford – LIU Brooklyn experienced an average year and put together a nice run through their conference tournament, beating number 1 seed and favorite Wagner to reach the First Four games in Dayton. They have 6 losses by 6 or fewer points. 3 guys make up a majority of the minutes played. Radford went 0-3 this season against teams already in the tournament. They are my pick to win this game and move on to play Villanova.
Game 2: St. Bonaventure vs. UCLA – The Bonnies have a tough ask playing against UCLA in an opening game. Fortunately, they have one of the most experienced units in college basketball, something that can push them to move onto the second round. UCLA likes to move the ball quickly, getting easy baskets in transition. If they want to win this game, they are going to have to make shots. Their youth has led to an up and down year, losing to Colorado a couple times during the regular season. I’m going Bonnies here.
Wednesday, March 14th
Game 3: Texas Southern vs. North Carolina Central – After losing their first 13 games of the season, the former IU and UAB coach, Mike Davis, has his Tigers back in one of the First Four games for the second consecutive season. They will play against North Carolina Central, a team that also made it back to back years in playing a First Four game. My choice is Texas Southern, however, they are prone to a lot of turnovers. If that happens, that could spell trouble.
Game 4: Syracuse vs. Arizona State – After a hot start to the season and a top 5 ranking, Arizona State fell off in a major way. Bobby Hurley’s squad has the chops to knock off Syracuse, a team that probably should not have made the tournament. The Orange are an abysmal shooting team. Their length and zone are typically what keeps them in games. The Sun Devils win this one, but it’s much closer because of Syracuse’s defense.
Round of 64
1 vs. 16 – Virginia vs. UMBC – The Retrievers make an appearance in the NCAA tournament only to be matched with the superior Cavaliers. Virginia, a heavy favorite, will force turnovers and play a slow game. I won’t be surprised if they break 70 points in this game though, something they did infrequently during the season.
8 vs. 9 – Creighton vs. Kansas State – Creighton, when they move the ball well, can beat any team in the country. Their ball movement opens up passing lanes and has earned them the fourth best 2-point percentage in the country according to Kenpom. Kansas State has an average interior defense and are awful from the 3-point line, the only thing that will make this a game. Bluejays move on.
5 vs. 12 – Kentucky vs. Davidson – The Wildcats have a tough date with Davidson, a team that upset A10 favorites and stole a bid in the process of making the tournament. Kentucky’s ability to guard the 3-point line well spells trouble for the Wildcats. Davidson does not attempt many free throws per game nor do they gather many offensive rebounds. The one thing on their side is their ability to score in an efficient way. Because they shoot the ball so well, they have a great opportunity to stun what some consider a heavy favored Kentucky team. I’m going with the uset and picking Davidson.
4 vs. 13 – Arizona vs. Buffalo – Buffalo is one of the fastest teams in the country, spending less than half the time with the ball on offense. Because of this, they are able to put up a lot of shots and a lot of points. Arizona will be a tough out, however, because of Deandre Ayton and Allonzo Trier. With Arizona’s odd spotlight in the FBI probe, can they push out the noise and focus on winning games? Once a team that was a heavy favorite to win the title, the Wildcats will have a tough road ahead if they’d like to see that expectation come to fruition. I’m going with Arizona in this game.
6 vs. 11- Miami (FL.) vs. Loyola Chicago – Porter Moser has finally done it. He has put together an impressive roster that is made up of a wide spectrum of players’ experience. The Ramblers demonstrated how the transfer market can be a benefit to a team. Marques Townes (Fairleigh Dickinson) and Clayton Custer (Iowa State) have helped lead Loyola to their first NCAA tournament appearance in decades. Loyola moves the ball so well and they shoot 40% from the 3-point line. They are riding a 10 game winning streak into the match-up against Miami. The Hurricanes are average 3-point shooters and take care of the ball well. They are a slower paced team which plays in their favor if they are finding good shots. They lack experience though and I see Loyola taking this game.
3 vs. 14 – Tennessee vs. Wright State – The Volunteers only play a 7 man rotation, something to consider when fouls become important. The Volunteers boast a strong offense and defense, with their focus on defense being their calling card. Their 2-point shooting is not great, mainly because they don’t have a tall line up. That means they settle for jump shots or runners rather than layups. Wright State is going to have a difficult time with this Volunteer team. The Raiders are turnover prone and not great shooting the ball. This game shouldn’t be close – Tennessee moves on.
7 vs. 10 – Nevada vs. Texas – Texas has subscribed to a slow, grind-out games this season and it hasn’t really paid off in their favor. Essentially alternating wins and losses for a majority of the season, the Longhorns enter the tournament looking for a win against a strong and efficient Nevada Wolfpack team. Nevada’s defense can be iffy from time to time, but teams need offense to put up points and win games. Nevada is a strong 7-seed and I see them moving on past the Longhorns.
2 vs. 15 – Cincinnati vs. Georgia State – Slow, laborious, tactful. The Cincinnati Bearcats boast an impressive defense-minded team. They create turnovers and force teams into taking contested shots. This Georgia State team is not the same one that upset Baylor a few years ago. Take Cincinnati in this game.
Round of 32
1 vs. 8 – Virginia vs. Creighton – Slow vs. fast pace. Virginia plays the slow tempo in the land and Creighton plays one of the fastest. The Cavaliers are deadly from beyond the arc, yet average from two. Creighton crashes the boards on defense, making it difficult for teams to grab offensive rebounds. The Bluejays losing Martin Krampelj really hurt the teams multidimensional offensive attack. I think Creighton has a great chance to upset Virginia early. They have to speed up Virginia to make it happen, and I think it will. Bluejays stun Virginia and move on.
5 vs. 4 – Kentucky vs. Arizona – This will be a great match up if it does end up happening. Kentucky is stringing wins together and Arizona boasts coachable talent. As good as Arizona is, they have questionable losses and Deandre Ayton can fall away quietly in a game. If he isn’t involved, the Wildcats become more one dimensional. I think Kentucky has the ability to make that happen. Wildcats move on.
11 vs. 3 – Loyola Chicago vs. Tennessee – Tennessee plays a 7 man rotation, something that can spell trouble if fouls begin to pile up. Loyola will look to continue moving the ball to get open threes which they hit at a high clip. I’m picking the Ramblers to ramble on (I really wanted to say that).
7 vs. 2 – Nevada vs. Cincinnati – Nevada’s solid shooting against Cincinnati’s sound defense should be a great game. One thing that the Bearcats have lacked in other years is the ability to score. They have that this year, but not at as an efficient rate as Nevada. I have the Wolfpack in this game.
8 vs. 5 – Creighton vs. Kentucky – They Wildcats are making a great run at the right time and I fear Creighton will get into a race up and down the floor, something they are generally good at. This Kentucky team is good at that too and I foresee the Wildcats winning that race – UK moves on.
11 vs. 7 – Loyola Chicago vs. Nevada – What a fun mid-major matchup if it happens! I think the Rambler’s have a great shot at winning this game if these two teams do meet. The Wolfpack can put up points, but they aren’t stellar on defense. I do think Nevada moves on though.
5 vs. 7 – Kentucky vs. Nevada – Kentucky should handle Nevada easily in this game. There is a large mismatch on the defensive end that the Wolfpack can’t overcome. Wildcats move on.
Round of 64
1 vs. 16 – Xavier vs. Texas Southern – The Musketeers have put together a strong season, getting quality play from every player. It seems like the identity of playing with a chip on their shoulder continues to be their calling card. They play an emotional style of basketball, getting in the heads of their opponents. Xavier won’t have a difficult time with their opponent and moves on.
8 vs. 9 – Missouri vs. Florida State – Missouri, after having lost future NBA pick Michael Porter Jr. for most of the season, had their best player ready to go in the SEC tournament. He fared well, but what’s more impressive is what Missouri did this season without Porter. Florida State casts a shadow upon itself with lazy play from time to time which leaves them susceptible to turnovers, poor defense, and game mismanagement. Look for the Missouri Tigers to move on.
5 vs. 12 – Ohio State vs. South Dakota State – After a less than stellar start, Chris Holtmann and his Buckeyes bring an unexpected and impressive season into the NCAA tournament. They have a difficult opponent in South Dakota State, however. Most people that follow college basketball will look to Mike Daum, a stellar basketball player in his own right who averages more than 20 points per game. One who gets overlooked is his freshman guard teammate, David Jenkins. The Jackrabbits shoot the three ball well, and they shoot it frequently. If they hit double-digit threes in this game, I smell upset. I do think Ohio State gameplans well and sees them to the next round.
4 vs. 13 – Gonzaga vs. UNC-Greensboro – Gonzaga has quietly put together a strong season again under Mark Few. Thanks should go out to St. Mary’s for drawing most of the attention for a very solid Gonzaga team. History is on their side having a few players back from their run to the NCAA championship last year before falling to the North Carolina Tar Heels.
6 vs. 11 -Houston vs. San Diego State – Houston plays a great brand of basetball…most of the time. If they continue to move the ball well against a just better than average San Diego State team, Houston should wind up playing a game this weekend. Houston moves on.
3 vs. 14 – Michigan vs. Montana – It’s going to be a tall task for the Grizz to out Michigan of the tournament. The Wolverines won the Big Ten Conference Tournament Championship and should continue a deep run in NCAA’s. I expect a hard fought game by Montana, but Michigan pulls away in the end.
7 vs. 10 – Texas A&M vs. Providence – Texas A&M had a great start but fell off quickly through the season. Providence, the Big East tournament runner up that pushed Villanova to overtime is laden with seniors, a calling card to a deep tournament run. I’m going with the Friars in this game.
2 vs. 15 – North Carolina vs. Lipscomb – North Carolina begins its defense of last year’s National Championship with an easy opening game. The Tar Heels should win by double-digits.
Round of 32
1 vs. 8 – Xavier vs. Missouri – The Musketeers will hand the Tigers well. Xavier’s weakness is their inability to put games away against inferior opponents. Xavier moves on.
5 vs. 4 – Ohio State vs. Gonzaga – Ohio State’s overachieving season comes to an end as they play against Gonzaga. The Bulldogs quietly obtained a 4 seed and with Mark Few at the helm, Gonzaga should move on.
6 vs. 3 – Houston vs. Michigan – Michigan matches up well against Houston. I think Mo Wagner’s ability to spread the floor and shoot from distance helps Michigan move on.
10 vs. 2 – Providence vs. North Carolina – Although Providence can shoot well, they can go cold quickly and force unnecessary shots. North Carolina’s length will cause trouble for Providence. UNC moves on.
1 vs. 4 – Xavier vs. Gonzaga – I think Gonzaga actually has a better front court this year than last year. Xavier is a weak 1 seed, ranking 14th in kenpom’s ratings. Their defense is not elite which is why I have the Bulldogs moving on.
3 vs. 2 – Michigan vs. North Carolina – This will be a fun game as both teams can put up points and shoot the ball well. I think Michigan continues to make shots down the stretch that ultimately sees them through to the next round.
4 vs. 3 – Gonzaga vs. Michigan – Michigan’s defense will keep them in this game. They will need to share the ball to get open looks and crash the boards against a Gonzaga team that is well grounded in the fundamentals of the game. My take is Michigan in this game.
Round of 64
1 vs. 16 -Villanova vs. Radford – Villanova is dangerous. Having both Phil Booth and Eric Paschall back playing are key for the Wildcats to have a deep tournament run. Jalen Brunson helps guide Villanova with an unbelievable feel for the game. This game will not be close. Villanova moves on.
8 vs. 9 – Virginia Tech vs. Alabama – Funny enough, Virginia Tech went up one seed line in the same exact portion of the bracket from last year. They run into a hot Alabama team coming off a small flurry of a run in the SEC tournament. I believe Alabama has one more win in them before being squelched in the next round.
5 vs. 12 – West Virginia vs. Murray State – With two time Big 12 defensive player of the year, West Virginia seems to matchup nicely with Murray State. The Hokies finished second to Kansas in the Big 12 Conference tournament.
4 vs. 13 – Wichita State vs. Marshall – It looks as if the Shockers move to the AAC has paid off as they were appropriately seeded for the first time in the last three years. Wichita State should hand Marshall easily and move on to play against West Virginia.
6 vs. 11 – Florida vs. St. Bonaventure – Florida has had an up and down season. Losing at home to Loyola Chicago early in the season was a wake up call for the Gators. I think the sporadic play of missing a lot of shots dooms the Gators and sees the Bonnies move on.
3 vs. 14 – Texas Tech vs. Stephen F. Austin – The Red Raiders have a great defense to go along with a pretty good offense. I think Stephen F. Austin is in trouble unless they shoot better than 60% from 3, with an emphasis on making a lot of 3s. Red Raiders move on.
7 vs. 10 – Arkansas vs. Butler – This game pits two teams that are lackluster in consistency. Arkansas can string wins together, but they can also go cold quickly. They shoot the ball very well from the 3-point line, just over a 40% clip. The Razorbacks will have to make 3’s to keep this one close. They give up a lot of offensive rebounds, something the Bulldogs will have to take advantage of. Arkansas is an older team, led by seniors. That usually spells success for a team that makes a deep tournament run.
2 vs. 15 – Purdue vs. CSFullerton – The Boilermakers have had a successful and odd year. After a string of 2 losses early, they rattled off 19 consecutive wins before dropping 3 straight. The Boilermakers have all the pieces to make a run, now it’s up to the coach to prepare them well to allow them to.
Round of 32
1 vs. 9 – Villanova vs. Alabama – As electifying as Collin Sexton is with the ball for Alabama, the Crimson Tide lack experience. Villanova may be challenged for the first 25-30 minutes, but should pull away from a young Alabama team that is going to be good next year if everyone they expect to return, does.
5 vs. 4 – West Virginia vs. Wichita State – In what should be a great game, the Shockers and Mountaineers will play a passionate, smash-mouth style of basketball. Wichita State plays the inside-out game well and can be difficult to guard. West Virginia’s Jevon Carter is a two time Big 12 defensive player of the year. I think the way his attitude goes is the way the Mountaineers go. They played a close game with the Jayhawks in the Big 12 Tournament title game until eventually losing by double-digits. I think the Shockers move on.
11 vs. 3 – St. Bonaventure vs. Texas Tech – This is the end of the line for the Bonnies. Although both teams have decent offenses, Texas Tech’s defense is much better. The Red Raiders are my pick in this game.
10 vs. 2 – Butler vs. Purdue – Butler is a dangerous 10 seed. These two teams will be familiar with each other as they played earlier this season in mid-December. Purdue won that game convincingly by 15. Purdue looks like a team that has all of the parts for a deep run. They will need to make sure that Carsen Edwards, Isaac Haas, and Matt Haarms are playing at a high level to see that deep run through. Butler plays a closer game, but ultimately loses. I think their kryptonite is their ball movement. The Bulldogs, in their great wins, moved the ball well. Even if their typical personnel ended up shooting the ball, they didn’t have to create space. Purdue moves on.
1 vs. 4 -Villanova vs. Wichita State – The Wildcats will have a tough match-up against the Shockers, a team that resembles Villanova’s style of play in some ways. Both teams don’t get too rattled and are confident in their game plan. I think Villanova makes more shots than Wichita State which sees them move on.
3 vs. 2 – Texas Tech vs. Purdue – Purdue is one of the most complete teams in the country which is why I think they won’t have too difficult of a time getting to this point in the tournament. The one thing that can spell trouble is if they go cold from the 3-point line. Texas Tech, when they play well, can compete with any team in the country. They’re lack of consistency has me wary of them though. Boilermakers move on.
1 vs. 2 – Villanova vs. Purdue – Two very complete teams, if this game should happen, it will be highly competitive. I think Purdue’s ability to utilize their bigs down low and spread the floor will allow for the Boilermakers to take and make some open looks from 3. I have the Boilermakers moving on.
Round of 64
1 vs. 16 – Kansas vs. Penn – Kansas was on the ropes this season, having lost multiple times at home, a rare occurrence under Bill Self. Now having won 13 straight Big 12 titles, Kansas has another opportunity to make a deep run. They have been historically weak in the NCAA which causes concern for people wanting to pick Kansas to make a run through to second or third weekend. To this point, if a 16 seed ever had a chance to beat a 1 seed, it’s this game. Penn has a slow, efficient team that has a good chance to scare Kansas. I still think the Jayhawks win this game.
8 vs. 9 – Seton Hall vs. NC State – Seton Hall, a roster filled with seniority, has not performed in the way I thought they would. They are a strong team, but their seeding supports the idea that they can play well or poorly in a given game. With the Wolfpack as an opening opponent, the Pirate’s must like their chances to secure an opportunity to play Kansas. NC State has had great wins and questionable losses, making them a difficult team to project.
5 vs. 12 – Clemson vs. New Mexico State – The Tigers have had a stellar season and enter the tournament against a very strong New Mexico State team. Clemson will be without a key player though which puts them on upset watch. My analytical mind tells me to go with New Mexico State, yet my gut says Clemson. Tigers move on.
4 vs. 13 – Auburn vs. Charleston – Bruce Pearl, after having lost 2 players and an assistant coach to the FBI probe that broke before the season began, has led his team to a surprising seeding. Their opportunistic style of play makes them fun to watch. Charleston, making the tournament for the first time in years, has a difficult match up. I think Auburn wins this game and moves on even without one of their best players.
6 vs. 11 – TCU vs. Arizona State – The Horned Frogs had consistently been in the top 25 for an early portion of the season. A few losses here and there saw Jamie Dixon’s team fall out of the national spotlight, but they haven’t fallen too far. The conundrum that is Arizona State is their ability to shoot the ball well in this one. Dixon generally has sound defensive teams.
3 vs. 14 – Michigan State vs. Bucknell – The Spartans begin their tournament run against the Patriot league champions, Bucknell. Michigan State’s coach, Tom Izzo, was surprised by the return of a projected NBA pick last season. The Spartans should have little trouble handling Bucknell.
7 vs. 10 – Rhode Island vs. Oklahoma – Rhode Island, after a strong conference showing, lost to Davidson in the A10 title game. For the past two years, the Rams have been an under the radar team to keep tabs on. Their opponent, Oklahoma, is the first team to make the tournament after finishing the season on a 2-8 record over 10 games leading up to the tournament. Oklahoma is electrifying when Trae Young is on, but beyond Young’s small supporting cast, the Sooners aren’t much of an opponent. If young takes a high volume of shots, I expect Rhode Island to move on without question. Hopefully the committee doesn’t make a similar mistake next year by allowing an undeserving team into the tournament.
2 vs. 15 – Duke vs. Iona – The Blue Devils, riddled with talent and a coach that has vast amounts of experience in the NCAA tournament begin with a difficult opponent in Iona. Ultimately, I think Duke pulls away and wins big, but the continued development of the Blue Devil’s defense will see their season end abruptly or soldier on to the second weekend.
Round of 32
1 vs. 8 – Kansas vs. Seton Hall – I think Delgado and company don’t have what it takes to hang with Kansas in this so the Jayhawks move on. It should be close early, but the Pirates are susceptible to poor shot selection.
5 vs. 4 – Clemson vs. Auburn – If both teams get here, it will be more impressive because they are both missing key players. I think Auburn continues its run to the next round.
11 vs. 3 – Syracuse vs. Michigan State – Michigan State has only beat two opponents that are in the field this season. Syracuse, by virtue of winning in the First Four and taking out an overseeded TCU team matchups up well, but the Spartans ability to stretch the zone defense sees them win. Sparty moves on.
7 vs. 2 – Rhode Island vs. Duke – Unfortunately the Rams drew on the side of Duke and if they get past them, they meet Michigan State. This is a difficult region to come out of on top. It’s likely that whoever wins this region ends up as champion. The Blue Devils, once abysmal on defense, especially in transition, grew over the season and have been become a stout defensive team. Blue Devils move on.
1 vs. 4 – Kansas vs. Auburn – Auburn’s run is cut short by a weak one-seeded Kansas team. This will probably be the Jayhawks last win of the season in my opinion.
3 vs. 2 – Michigan State vs. Duke – In what should be a great game, I see Duke pulling away at the end, namely because of the ability to make shots.
1 vs. 2 – Kansas vs. Duke – Kansas’s defense is weaker than Duke’s. The Jayhawks are also not as efficient and don’t share the ball as well. Blue Devil’s move on.
5 vs. 3 – Kentucky vs. Michigan – With Kentucky’s great run to the Final Four, Michigan looks to maintain it’s hot winning streak that sees them through to the championship game.
2 vs. 2 – Purdue vs. Duke – If this game happens, it will be a fun one because of the matchups of the bigs. I think Duke’s bigs are more athletic and will draw out Purdue’s bigs. Blue Devils move on.
3 vs. 2 Michigan vs. Duke – Again, a fun game that looms in the distance. With the bigs of both teams and Michigan’s guards being able to draw multiple defenders and find the open man, there is a complimentary style of play that will provide for a lot of points. I’m going with Duke as national champion this season.