One of the best sporting events of the year is finally here, as the NCAA Tournament will tip off tonight with the First Four in Dayton before the action really picks up on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with the first weekend of the tournament. We’re previewing the 68-tournament before giving Final Four and national champion predictions.
The number one overall seed Virginia is the favorite in the South Region, and for good reason. They went 31-2 during the season and ACC tournament, claiming both the regular season and postseason conference title, and their defense is simply suffocating. Also, the Cavaliers have a nation-low 8.6 turnovers per game, so they won’t beat themselves.
Despite the strength and experience of Virginia, there are teams with a ton of upside in their bracket. As we know, very low seeds can make a run in March, but the teams that probably have the best shot at taking down Virginia in particular are No. 2 seed Cincinnati, No. 4 seed Arizona, and No. 5 seed Kentucky. Those three teams won their conference tournaments and are coming into the tournament hot, and their athleticism and upside is undeniable.
Arizona in particular could be an issue because of freshman sensation Deandre Ayton, who might just be too much for whatever team he faces. Focusing on Cincinnati, the Bearcats were second in the country in scoring margin (17.3 points per game), which tops Virginia’s 14.2 mark—albeit in a lighter conference. And John Calipari and Kentucky obviously shouldn’t be couldn’t out during this time of year.
Looking at the East Region, Villanova and Purdue could be on a collision course—the Boilermakers in particular might have the best road to the Elite Eight for a No. 2 seed. Villanova has a potentially tough 8/9 matchup with Virginia Tech or Alabama, especially if the Crimson Tide’s Collin Sexton can carry the team; but Mikal Bridges and company should be able to limit the talented freshman.
For Nova, if they get past the first weekend, they could face either the turnover-forcing, full-court press of No. 5 seed West Virginia, or the appropriately-seeded No. 4 Wichita State. The Shockers are clearly capable of a deep tournament run, as Gregg Marshall has shown in the past; led by six experienced seniors including Shaquille Morris and Conner Frankamp, the high-scoring Wichita State team has some similarities to the Wisconsin squad that toppled Jay Wright’s team in the second round last year.
No. 6 Florida, who can get hot from deep, and No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin, who led the nation in turnovers forced (by far—nearly 2.0 more turnovers forced per game than the second team), are a couple of other teams to look out for in the East.
Mostly everyone looks at the top three seeds in the Midwest Region and realizes this is a stacked bracket: No. 1 seed Kansas, No. 2 seed Duke, and No. 3 seed Michigan State, so it might be a surprise if one of them weren’t representing in San Antonio for the Final Four on March 31. However, all three blue-blood schools have had their share of early exits in the tournament as of late, which could create an opening for some other school.
No. 4 seed Auburn is having its best season in about 20 years and forced over 15 turnovers per game during the year. Also, they shoot free throws at a clip over 78%, which could be huge in March games that typically come down to the wire. There would be more optimism around No. 5 Clemson if they didn’t go 6-5 down the stretch after star senior Donte Grantham unfortunately tore his ACL in January, but they could rally and make a deep run.
As for the lower seeds, Syracuse and Arizona State have a play-in game for the No. 11 seed, and Jim Boeheim leading his team to a victory and carrying the momentum while making a few upsets wouldn’t surprise anyone—they just did it as a No. 10 seed a couple years ago. A trip to the Final Four will likely come down to one of the top three seeds, though, as they are led by superb senior leaders Devonte Graham (Kansas), Grayson Allen (Duke), and Tum Tum Nairn (Michigan State).
Xavier is the only No. 1 seed that didn’t win their conference tournament, but they are still 13-2 in their last 15 games and have three experienced seniors in Trevon Bluiett, Karem Kanster, and J.P. Macura leading the way. However, it’s hard not to like both No. 2 seed North Carolina and No. 3 seed Michigan at the bottom of the bracket.
Michigan won the Big Ten title for the second straight year, and they are seemingly somehow always under-the-radar. And the Tarheels nearly put themselves in a position for the last No. 1 seed when they made a run all the way to the ACC title game, but ultimately fell to No. 1 overall seed Virginia. Michigan senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and North Carolina senior Joel Berry II both have the capacity to hit big-time shots for their teams down the stretch, which will almost certainly come into play during the tournament.
Unsurprisingly, No. 4 seed Gonzaga racked up 30 wins during the regular season and are a real threat in March, and they might be forgotten a bit with so many people liking Michigan and North Carolina in the bracket. A potential second-round matchup with Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop and No. 5 seed Ohio State should be a lot of fun. No. 8 Mizzou might be a popular pick to get far in the tournament with future NBA lottery selection Michael Porter Jr. back in the mix, but starting forward Jordan Barnett is suspended for the opening round after a DWI arrest, so they are in an uphill battle to get past No. 9 seed Florida State.
Final Four Predictions (national champions in bold)
Jim Clarkson: Virginia, Villanova, Michigan State, North Carolina
David Chappine: Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, Michigan
Dylan Chappine: Arizona, Villanova, Duke, Michigan
Kevin Davis: Cincinnati, Villanova, Duke, Michigan