Finally. We’re here. March Madness officially begins this week. Sure, we had a sensational college basketball championship week, but that was nothing more than a warmup to the big dance.
Ok, so we’re looking at the South Region. I’ll start this article by announcing — straight up! — I’m all in on UCLA. No, I don’t think the Bruins will claim the title, but I think they have enough depth, offense and, dare I say it, spunk, to at least reach the Final Four.
While that may sound like I’m revealing the ending of my piece a tad early, rest assured the entertainment lies not with the destination, but the journey.
FIRST ROUND LOCKS
No. 2 KENTUCKY (16-2, 29-5)
No. 15 N KENTUCKY (12-6, 24-10)
Kentucky enters the tourney as a No. 2 seed and gets to take on a Northern Kentucky squad that squeezed by Milwaukee to win the Horizon League championship.
No disrespect, but the Norse don’t have a chance. For starters, this is the team’s first NCAA tournament berth in its first season of eligibility. The term “just happy to be here” seems tailor-made for a school that went above and beyond expectations by conquering its own conference. They played against just one top 50 opponent — West Virginia on Dec. 23 — and got crushed 92-61.
The Wildcats enter the tourney with the fifth best offense in the nation and perhaps the best backcourt duo in the league in Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox.
Yeah, this is March Madness, anything can happen. Not this time. This one’s a lock.
PREDICTION: KENTUCKY by a landslide
No. 3 UCLA (15-3, 29-4)
No. 14 KENT STATE (10-8, 22-13)
Another lock. The Bruins couldn’t overcome Arizona to reach the Pac-12 conference championship, and for that reason I don’t see them losing another game anytime soon. This is Lonzo Ball’s time to step up and prove he’s one of the best players in college basketball, and I’m betting he gets the job done.
On a side: the last time UCLA lost a game (before the Pac-12 tournament) was against USC on Jan. 25. After that shocking defeat, the Bruins went on a 10-game win streak and took down the likes of Oregon, Arizona and got revenge against USC twice.
Remember, this is still the top offense in the nation (90.1 points per game). It’ll take a strong defense or an otherworldly offense to take the Bruins down.
Unfortunately, Kent State is neither and ranks 96th offensively (76.9 points per game) and 182nd in points allowed (72.3). The Golden Flash are another team happily making their first trip to the NCAA tourney since 2008 after winning the Mid-American championship.
PREDICTION: UCLA, duh
No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (14-4, 27-7)
No. 16 TEXAS SOUTHERN (16-2, 23-11)
Um. Well. What to say? The Tigers beat Alcorn State to win the SWAC title … they played UT Arlington close on Nov. 12, and ride into the tourney on a nine-game winning streak.
But … North Carolina. The league leader in rebounds (43.5 per game). Ranked 12th in points (84.9) and second in assists (18.2). Justin Jackson. ACC regular season champ. Yeah, this one’s not gonna be close.
PREDICTION: NORTH CAROLINA, unless an upset of epic proportions occurs
No. 7 DAYTON (15-3, 24-7)
No. 10 WICHITA STATE (17-1, 30-4)
People are complaining about Wichita State receiving a No. 10 seed, which is far too low for a team of this caliber. But, it lines up with the Shockers' season as a whole — a bubble team that lost to top 50 RPI teams Louisville, Oklahoma State and Illinois State, but still managed to win the MVC to earn a trip to the tourney.
Still, a 10-seed is a scary place to stick this team, which is just four years removed from a Final Four run. The Shockers are known for their ability to outplay their rank and this year should be no different.
For starters, they enter the tourney on a 15-game winning streak, and racked up notable wins against Illinois State and Colorado State. The Shockers rank 20th in points per game (82.1), fifth in rebounds (40.8) and 14th in points allowed (62.4). They don’t feature an elite scorer along the lines of Frank Mason or Josh Hart, but they have enough size and versatility to match up with anyone.
In truth, this first-round matchup isn’t fair to Dayton, which won the regular season A-10 conference title, but lost the championship to Davidson. They deserve an easier go in Round 1 than a team many think boast enough talent to knock off the likes of Kentucky.
I suppose this one counts as an upset … but is it really? Consider this: KenPom.com ranks Wichita State at No. 8 overall and Dayton at No. 36. Yikes!
PREDICTION: WICHITA ST.
No. 8 ARKANSAS (12-6, 25-9)
No. 9 SETON HALL (10-8, 21-11)
Call me crazy, but this is one game I think could lead to an upset. The Pirates came within two points of taking down Villanova in the Big East semis, split games against Xavier, Creighton and Butler and dropped South Carolina by three points.
Arkansas is no slouch, with wins over UT Arlington, Vanderbilt and South Carolina, but got blown out by Kentucky in the SEC title game.
There’s also this: Kenpom.com ranks Arkansas No. 38 overall, and Seton Hall No. 53. Yeah, I’m going with a gut feeling on this one, stats be damned.
I’m a fan of Angel Delgado, who leads the league in rebounds (13.1 per game), and feel his presence alone will give Arkansas’ ho hum defense a lot of trouble.
PREDICTION: SETON HALL in a not-so-shocking shocker
FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE
No. 6 CINCINNATI (16-2, 29-5)
No. 11 KANSAS STATE/WAKE FOREST
This matchup — no matter which team it’s against — should be closer than you think for Cincinnati. The Bearcats are solid defensively and rank No. 4 in the nation in points allowed (60.5), but average just 75 points per contest offensively.
Wake Forest boasts a strong enough offense (82.7 points per game) to win the matchup against Kansas State, but will struggle to make shots against a Bearcats defense that held top teams such as SMU and Iowa State below 65 points.
In any event, the winner here presumably gets a date with UCLA. Congrats?
I’ve seen quite a few brackets that expect Winthrop to topple Butler … and I can’t understand why. The Bulldogs had their struggles this season, notably against Creighton and its last two matchups against Seton Hall and Xavier (in the Big South tournament, no less), but that assuage anyone from believing Kelan Martin and co. are going to struggle against a team that got blown out in its two meetings against top 50 RPI teams, Florida State and Dayton.
This is still the same Butler team that took down Arizona and Villanova. I don’t see a magical Final Four run, but I don’t see a quick out either.
No. 5 MINNESOTA (11-7, 24-9)
No. 12 MID TENNESSEE (17-1, 30-4)
This is another matchup you'll hear a lot about as a trendy upset pick, though it'll mostly be based on last season. Middle Tennessee knocked off No. 2 Michigan State last season (and destroyed my bracket as a result) so everyone assumes they’ll do the same to Minnesota, a team that hasn't been seeded higher than No. 8 since 1999.
Here’s the thing: last year was last year. And you can bet the Golden Gophers are well aware of Middle Tennessee’s storied success. Also, consider this: after Mid Tennessee beat Michigan State (to earn its first tournament victory in 27 years), they went on to lose to Syracuse 75-50.
As for this season, the Blue Raiders won two huge games against top 50 RPI squads, namely UNC Wilmington and Vanderbilt, and lost by three points to VCU. They’re also riding in on an 11-1 record in their last 12 outings.
The Golden Gophers lost to Michigan in the Big 10 final, but boast considerably more wins against top 50 opponents than their opponent, including victories over UT Arlington, Vanderbilt, Michigan and Maryland.
I value experience over anything, and feel like Minnesota has enough pedigree to walk away triumphant here, though, admittedly, the Blue Raiders 21st ranked defense makes me a little nervous.
South Region DARK HORSE: WICHITA STATE
I know, I know, how can I cry upset and not include Butler? I think the Bulldogs can make some noise this year, but the true dark horse contender is Wichita State. I have them upsetting Dayton in the first round, shocking Kentucky in round two and falling to UCLA in the Sweet 16, but this is a team that could, conceivably, go the distance. As in Final Four appearance, as it did back in 2013.
I’m not alone. Kenpom.com ranks them as the No. 8 team in the nation, ahead of Florida, Kansas, SMU, Duke, Baylor and even UCLA. And though I typically only agree with such rankings when they help bolster my argument, in this case I think the Shockers will do a lot of, er, shocking this year mainly because they are a complete team in terms of offense (No. 20 overall with 82.1 ppg) and defense (No. 14 overall with 62.4 points allowed per game). They also rank fourth in the nation in rebounds (40.8 per game), which is huge in these one-and-done deals.
This is the type of team built for the NCAA tournament, and I wholeheartedly expect them to take full advantage.
[Disclaimer: now that I’ve chosen Wichita as my dark horse, expect them to fall flat on their face due to the Ames Curse. It’s my cross to bear.]
LONG-TERM PREDICTION: UCLA
Ok, so you have my first-round predictions. What about the rest? As stated early, I’m all in on UCLA. I’m a fan of Lonzo Ball, TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and that offense. No, they can’t play defense, which will hurt them in the long run, but the Bruins are powerful enough to make it out of the South Region, assuming it beats Wichita State/Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
And really, with the amount of talent featured on this team, anything short of a Final Four appearance would be a huge disappointment and could potentially spell the end of the Steve Alford era.