Who wins, who’s overrated and what’s the best game? I’m here to help.
Here’s a regional breakdown and team capsules for the Southeast. Enjoy.
Underrated: Utah State
The Aggies got a 12 seed despite a sweep of the WAC regular-season and conference tournament titles, 30 wins, an RPI of 16 and a kenpom.com rating of 16. That is far from a 12 seed. This isn’t anything new for Utah State, which received a 12 seed after winning 27 games last season.
Their reward? Facing a physical Kansas State squad that played its best basketball late in the season after underperforming amid Final Four expectations. The Wildcats are talented and tough. Too bad for Utah State.
The Gators have a gaudy profile — 26 wins, 8th in the RPI, an SEC regular-season title — but play more like a 4 seed. They don’t shoot well and can be soft inside on defense. With either UCLA or Michigan State awaiting in the second round, Florida might be exposed.
Most likely first-round upset
Poor St. John’s. Back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2003, but senior forward D.J. Kennedy won’t be available because of an ACL injury. That opens the door for Gonzaga to pull off the 6-11 upset.
The Zags (24-9) will have some trouble checking powerful guard Dwight Hardy, but that’s about it. Besides, Mark Few’s team is due for a little March magic.
Best matchup: No. 4 Wisconsin vs. No. 13 Belmont
There aren’t two more different teams in matched up in the field. The Badgers play slow, work every possession and rely on their two stars, Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer, to do most of the scoring. The Bruins use a fleet of players — five in, five out — and force teams to play fast, and force them into mistakes.
Which style wins? Wisconsin was overwhelmed in its first-round matchup vs. Cornell last season, but that was because the Big Red got smoking hot from outside. But it’s foolish to overlook Belmont, which has won 30 games and boasts impressive tempo-free numbers. This one’s beyond compelling, it’s must-see
Hmm. Tough call. There’s Taylor, Leuer, Hardy, Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas, Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen and Utah State’s Tai Wesley, but there’s really only one choice.
BYU’s senior guard leads the nation in scoring, jaw-dropping shots and almost carried the Cougars to the Mountain West tournament title by scoring 52 vs. New Mexico and 30 against San Diego State. For BYU to reach the second weekend — let alone the Final Four — Fredette will have to be spectacular. And defenses know it. Should be memorable.
The region’s top seed benefits greatly by having the weakest 2 seed (Florida), the most vulnerable 3 seed (BYU) and a plodding 4 seed (Wisconsin). That sets up Jamie Dixon’s team for a breakthrough run to the Final Four, a first for the coach and the school’s first since 1941.
Pitt (27-5) will have some detractors because it lost its opening Big East tournament game, but remain a team with an elite offense and an underrated defense. Scorers? Rebounders? Floor leaders? The Panthers have it all.
No. 1 Pittsburgh Panthers
Conference: Big East
Coach: Jamie Dixon
Pre-tournament record: 27-5, 15-3
Best wins: Texas, Syracuse, (twice), West Virginia (twice)
Surprising losses:Tennessee (at home)
Key players: Senior guard Brad Wanamaker, junior guard Ashton Gibbs, senior forward Gilbert Brown, senior center Gary McGhee.
Strengths: Rebounding, shooting, ball-handling, help defense.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, free-throw shooting.
Outlook: Forget the Pitt clichés of tough defense and an offense that relies on gritty guards. This is the nation’s best offense. (The defense isn’t bad either, but we’ll get to that.) The Panthers run superb offensive sets to create shots for Gibbs and Wanamaker (who may be the most underrated player in D-I). If they miss, guys like McGhee, Brown and Dante Taylor grab the rebound and score. If that’s not enough, Pitt rarely turns the ball over on offense. Anyone who says Pitt doesn’t score enough points to win the national title doesn’t know what they’re talking about. If there’s a concern for the Panthers, it’s that they don’t have a lockdown defender who’s able to take an opposing scorer out of the game. Their help-defense is good, but can be burned at times (ask Ben Hansbrough). Still, things are lining up for Pitt to reach the Final Four for the first time since ’41. They’ll rarely have a better path.
No. 2 Florida Gators
Location: Gainesville, Fla.
Coach: Billy Donovan
Pre-tournament record: 26-7, 13-3
Best wins: Kentucky, Florida State, Xavier, Vanderbilt (twice)
Surprising losses: Jacksonville, Central Florida, South Carolina
Key players: Sophomore guard Kenny Boynton, senior forward Chandler Parsons, junior guard Erving Walker.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, perimeter defense.
Weaknesses: Free-throw shooting, ball-handling, 3-point shooting.
Outlook: It’s tempting to say Florida worked out the kinks from a rough non-conference schedule that included some odd losses (Jacksonville at home?) and blowouts (Ohio State). So go ahead and take that leap. They have the conference player of the year in Parsons, two quick, athletic guards in Walker and Boynton and a pair of hardworking forwards in Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. The Gators were mighty good during SEC play, matching Kentucky for the lead in efficiency margin. That’s impressive given how poorly they shoot from outside and that they don’t get to the free-throw line very often. It’s good to be cautious, but this team has performed well enough time and time again that the Sweet 16 seems inevitable. But any further than that and you’re getting greedy.
No. 3 BYU Cougars
Location: Provo, Utah
Conference: Mountain West
Coach: Dave Rose
Pre-tournament record: 30-4, 14-2
Best wins: San Diego State (twice), Arizona
Surprising losses: New Mexico (twice)
Key players: Senior guard Jimmer Fredette, senior guard Jackson Emery, junior forward Noah Hartsock .
Strengths: Shooting, ball-handling.
Weaknesses: Offensive rebounding, forcing turnovers.
Outlook: BYU has the nation’s leading scorer in Fredette, excellent spot-up shooters in Emery and Abouo and a skilled forward in Hartsock. They shoot 37 percent from beyond the arc and get more than 30 percent of their points from 3s. But with the dismissal of center Brandon Davies – their most reliable post player and leading rebounder – they’ve become one-dimensional and unable to rebound. That means Fredette is being asked to do more, the other shooters have defenders paying closer attention and if nobody is hitting, BYU is in trouble. Can Fredette shoot them into the Sweet 16?
No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers
Location: Madison, Wis.
Conference: Big Ten
Coach: Bo Ryan
Pre-tournament record: 23-8, 13-5
Best wins: Ohio State, Purdue, Illinois
Surprising losses: Penn State (twice)
Key players: Senior forward Jon Leuer, junior guard Jordan Taylor
Strengths: Shooting, defensive rebounding, not committing turnovers.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, perimeter defense.
Outlook: Wisconsin hasn’t missed the NCAA tournament in 10 seasons under Ryan. Yet the Badgers have made the Sweet 16 only once. Why? Look at it two ways: They’ve either hit hot teams (Cornell, Xavier and Davidson) or they’ve underperformed all those years. It’s probably a little of both, mixed in with their style of play. When Wisconsin’s ball-control offense is on, it’s deadly. All-Big Ten players Leuer and Taylor are great shooters and key an attack that prizes ball movement, precise passing and screens to work for good shots. The Badgers rarely push the pace, mostly because they’re focused on squeezing every possible possession for as many points as possible. And on defense, foes usually get one shot. However, the slow pace allows opponents to stay in games and if Wisconsin’s not hitting shots, it doesn’t have the defensive firepower to create turnovers. It’s a great team, but one that doesn’t have any margin for error in a tournament.
No. 5 Kansas State Wildcats
Location: Manhattan, Kan.
Conference: Big 12
Coach: Frank Martin
Pre-tournament record: 22-10, 10-6
Best wins: Kansas, Texas, Gonzaga
Surprising losses: Oklahoma State, Colorado (twice)
Key players: Senior guard Jacob Pullen, senior forward Curtis Kelly, sophomore guard Rodney McGruber.
Strengths: Offensive rebounding, 3-point shooting, interior defense.
Weaknesses: Sloppy play, fouling, free-throw shooting.
Outlook: Here’s a puzzling team. Kansas State entered the season as a Final Four contender, hit a stretch where it was 2-5 in Big 12 play, then won seven of its last eight games to close the regular season. Then it lost to Colorado in the Big 12 tournament. Who knows what awaits the Wildcats? They’ve had two forwards leave the team, dealt with tantrums from Pullen and Kelly, only to jell in February. They’re a brutal team to play. Few teams are more physical on defense, or crash the offensive boards more. When Pullen’s shot is falling, they’re worthy of the Elite Eight. But if he’s off a step, they’ll be gone by Sunday.
No. 6 St. John’s Red Storm
Location: Queens, N.Y.
Conference: Big East
Coach: Steve Lavin
Pre-tournament record: 21-11, 12-6
Best wins: Duke, Pitt, Notre Dame
Surprising losses: St. Bonaventure, Fordham
Key players: Senior guard Dwight Hardy, senior forward Justin Brownlee, senior forward D.J. Kennedy.
Strengths: Defensive pressure, ball-handling.
Weaknesses: Perimeter defense, 3-point shooting, fouls.
Outlook: The Red Storm are back in the Big Dance for the first time since 2002. Serendipitously, that also was the last time coach Steve Lavin was in the NCAA tournament. UCLA fired Lavin in ’03, he spent the years in-between in TV, then returned in time to lead senior-laden St. John’s to a stupendous season. That’s kismet. Question is, can St. John’s keep it rolling? Few teams can boast of such highs – Duke, Pitt and Notre Dame – and lows. There’s little doubt the Red Storm possess the talent to reach the Sweet 16, especially when Hardy’s on a roll. But when the defense becomes too aggressive and players get into foul trouble, or when their shots aren’t falling, they’re vulnerable. Be wary of being too confident in St. John’s.
No. 7 UCLA Bruins
Location: Los Angeles
Coach: Ben Howland
Pre-tournament record: 22-10, 13-6
Best wins: BYU, St. John’s, Arizona
Surprising losses: Montana, VCU
Key players: Freshman center Josh Smith, sophomore wing Tyler Honeycutt, junior guard Malcolm Lee, sophomore forward Reeves Nelson.
Strengths: Interior defense, offensive rebounding.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, ball-handling, 3-point shooting.
Outlook: UCLA has run the gamut this season. It opened 3-4, beat BYU shortly after that, stumbled to start Pac-10 play, went on a tear, then lost two of its last three. The Bruins have decent talent and play hard, but lack the defensive nastiness of Howland’s Final Four teams from a few years ago. They don’t have any good on-ball defenders and are OK on the boards, but make up for it by being physical inside. Smith is big, Nelson is tough and Honeycutt leads the Pac-10 in blocks. Everything on offense depends on Smith. When he’s on, he’s impossible to stop – ask Kansas – but he’s often plagued by foul trouble and dumb plays. Honeycutt can score, but is inconsistent, which speaks to the Bruins’ issues at scoring from anywhere besides the key. If UCLA reaches the Sweet 16, it’ll be because they outhustled two opponents.
No. 8 Butler Bulldogs
Conference: Horizon League
Coach: Brad Stevens
Pre-tournament record: 23-9, 13-5
Best wins: Florida State, Washington State
Surprising losses: Evansville, Youngstown State
Key players: Senior forward Matt Howard, junior guard Ronald Nored, junior guard Shelvin Mack.
Strengths: Defensive rebounding, ball control, 3-point shooting.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, fouling, interior defense.
Outlook: This isn’t the same Bulldogs team that made a run to last year’s title game. Sure, they play the same way – deliberate, with an emphasis on high-percentage shots or 3-pointers and preventing opponents from getting second-chance points – but don’t have a standout talent like Gordon Hayward anymore. The odds of them reaching the second weekend? Slim. That said, Butler will be a tough, tough opponent. Howard’s an efficient scorer, sophomore center Andrew Smith is an improving talent, while Mack and Nored are gamers. Butler will keep the game close and be in it at the end.
No. 9 Old Dominion Monarchs
Location: Norfolk, Va.
Conference: Colonial Athletic
Coach: Blaine Taylor
Pre-tournament record: 27-6, 14-4
Best wins: Xavier, George Mason
Surprising loss: Delaware
Key players: Senior forward Frank Hassel, junior swingman Kent Bazemore, senior guard Ben Finney.
Strengths: Rebounding, shot blocking and rebounding. Also, rebounding.
Weaknesses: Turnovers, perimeter shooting and defense.
Outlook: The Monarchs aren’t great shooters, but it doesn’t really matter. They lead the nation in offensive rebounding, grabbing 45 percent of their misses. Hassell and Finney are the guys who do most of the work, along with junior forward Chris Cooper. They also snare three of every four missed shots by opponents. Combine that proficiency with their deliberate style and it’s little wonder ODU’s a formidable team. Last year, they stunned Notre Dame in the first round as an 11 seed. This season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Monarchs in the Sweet 16, but that would take more than just great rebouding against a team like Pitt. ODU would need to catch fire from outside.
No. 10 Michigan State Spartans
Location: East Lansing, Mich.
Conference: Big Ten
Coach: Tom Izzo
Pre-tournament record: 19-14, 9-9
Best wins: Purdue, Wisconsin, Washington
Surprising losses: Iowa, Michigan (twice)
Key players: Senior guard Kalin Lucas, junior forward Draymond Green, freshman guard Keith Appling, junior forward Delvon Roe.
Strengths: Defensive rebounding, interior defense.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, perimeter defense, shooting.
Outlook: Three weeks ago, it didn’t look like the preseason No. 2 would get in. But then Lucas took over on offense, the defense picked up and the schedule allowed for some confidence-building games. A win over Purdue in the Big Ten quarterfinals? Didn’t see that coming. But before anyone starts thinking about Izzo’s team pulling off a third-straight run to the Final Four, consider this: It’s not the typical Spartans team that grabs every rebound and scores when it needs to. It’s good on the defensive glass, average on the offensive and can hardly shoot. Part of that is related to inconsistency from Summers and a dearth of perimeter players. Lucas thrives as a high-possession, mid-range scorer, while Appling’s still finding his niche in an increased role. Green’s a great all-around player but is limited in his offensive ability. That said, their draw (UCLA and probably Florida) makes a Sweet 16 run a strong possibility.
No. 11 Gonzaga Bulldogs
Location: Spokane, Wash.
Conference: West Coast
Coach: Mark Few
Pre-tournament record: 24-9, 12-3
Best wins: Marquette, Xavier
Surprising losses: at San Francisco, at Santa Clara
Key players: Senior guard Steven Gray, senior center Robert Sacre, sophomore forward Elias Harris.
Strengths: Rebounding, interior defense.
Weaknesses: Perimeter defense, sloppy play.
Outlook: These Zags play defense. And sometimes, they play offense, too. Behind the 7-footer Sacre, the Bulldogs allow opponents to make just 42.8 percent of their 2-pointers, far below the D-I average. Sacre and Harris also are behind their solid offensive shooting, though both tend to struggle against foes of similar size and skill. Gray is the playmaker, but his inconsistent shooting prevents him from being a reliable offensive threat. The wild card is freshman David Stockton, who’s played more and more as the season closed. He’s small, but an effective offensive leader and has a knack for making big plays.
No. 12 Utah State Aggies
Location: Logan, Utah
Conference: Western Athletic
Coach: Stew Morrill
Pre-tournament record: 30-3, 15-1
Best wins: St. Mary’s, Long Beach State
Surprising loss: Idaho
Key players: Senior forward Tai Wesley, junior guard Brockeith Pane, senior guard Brian Green.
Strengths: Defensive rebounding, challenging shots, shooting.
Weaknesses: Forcing turnovers, athletic teams.
Outlook: The Aggies have crushed WAC foes the last three seasons, racked up 87 wins and always feature an efficient defense or offense. (This year, it’s the defense.) So will this be the season they finally win a tournament game? It will depend on the matchup. Both BYU and Georgetown beat Utah State, but the Aggies ripped Long Beach State, the Big Sky champs. Much depends on how effective the 6-7, 240-pound Wesley is inside. He’s their go-to guy on offense and a good rebounder and shot-blocker to boot. He’s flanked by experienced guards who take care of the ball, but also don’t force many turnovers. Keeping a team like Kansas State off the boards will be tough, but ensuring their guards can handle the Wildcats’ pressure will be even tougher. This is a rough go for a team with 30 wins.
No. 13 Belmont Bruins
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Conference: Atlantic Sun
Coach: Rick Byrd
Pre-tournament record: 30-4, 19-1
Best win: East Tennessee State (twice)
Key players: Sophomore guard Ian Clark, junior forward Mick Hedgepeth, senior guard Jordan Campbell.
Strengths: Shooting, offensive rebounding, depth, pressure defense.
Weaknesses: Occasional sloppy play, foul prone.
Outlook: Belmont’s sure to be a popular pick to pull off an upset or two, and with good reason. Any time a team wins 30 games and sweeps its conference’s regular-season and conference tournament titles by an average of 16.4 points per game, it must be awfully good. The Bruins do it by playing a ton of guys in their up-tempo, pressure scheme that uses five-man platoons. When the starters get tired, Byrd replaces them with five fresh guys. As a result, they force more turnovers than all but one D-I team and get good looks at the basket (they make 52.4 percent of their 2s). When they do miss, they grab 40 percent of their misses. Belmont has size (Hedgepeth and junior Scott Sanders are both 6-9), so they won’t be overmatched against most NCAA tournament teams. Don’t be surprised to see them in the Sweet 16.
No. 14 Wofford Terriers
Location: Spartanburg, S.C..
Coach: Mike Young
Pre-tournament record: 21-12, 14-4
Best win: George Mason
Surprising loss: Cornell
Key players: Senior forward Noah Dahlman, senior guard Cameron Rundles, senior guard Jamar Diggs.
Strengths: 3-point shooting, offensive rebounding, ball-handling.
Outlook: When the Terriers made the NCAA tournament last season for the first time, it was because of their defense. This year, credit the offense. They don’t play any faster, but have the effective combination of Dahlman inside – the team’s leading scorer is also one of the nation’s most efficient at it – and a brigade of 3-point shooters outside. Rundles, junior Brad Loesing and junior Kevin Giltner all make at least 41 percent of their attempts beyond the arc, while Diggs can hit from pretty much anywhere. But before you go picking Wofford to pull off an upset, consider the defense. It struggles in essentially every area and is the main reason why a host of non-conference foes like Minnesota, Clemson, Xavier and South Carolina beat Wofford this season.
No. 15 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
Location: Santa Barbara, Calif.
Conference: Big West
Coach: Bob Williams
Pre-tournament record: 18-13, 8-8
Best wins: UNLV, Long Beach State
Surprising losses: Cal St. Fullerton, Cal St. Northridge (twice)
Key players: Junior guard Orlando Johnson, junior guard James Nunnally.
Strengths: Shooting, interior defense.
Weaknesses: Ball-handling, rebounding, perimeter defense.
Outlook: If you’ve seen the Gauchos play, you’re probably wondering: How did these guys lose so many games with Johnson and Nunnally? Join the club. They’re two of the conference’s top players, guys who can create their own shot, finish when needed and shoulder the offensive load. Well, for whatever reason, it never quite clicked. UCSB lost by double digits twice to Big West regular-season champ Long Beach State before Johnson went off for 28 in the conference title game and the Gauchos won. Now they’re back in the tournament for the second straight year. Last season, they were throttled as a 15 seed by Ohio State. Expect more of the same this time around. UCSB’s hot streak isn’t going to last.
No. 16 Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
Location: Little Rock, Ark.
Conference: Sun Belt
Coach: Steve Shields
Pre-tournament record: 19-16, 7-9
Best win: South Alabama
Surprising loss: Tulsa
Key players: Senior guard Solomon Bozeman, senior guard Alex Garcia-Mendoza, freshman guard Daylon Guy.
Strengths: Ball-handling, 3-point shooting.
Weaknesses: Rebounding, defense.
Outlook: The Trojans pulled off a surprising run in the Sun Belt title tournament for the automatic berth. Behind Bozeman’s heroics – he averaged 22 points in the tournament, including the game-winner vs. North Texas — they’re off to the Big Dance for the first time in 21 years. They won’t be around long to enjoy it, though. Little Rock can hit the 3 and has good guards, but doesn’t have the defense to make enough stops against a top seed.
No. 16 UNC Asheville Bulldogs
Location: Asheville, N.C.
Conference: Big South
Coach: Eddie Biedenbach
Pre-tournament record: 19-13, 11-7
Best win:Coastal Carolina (twice)
Surprising losses:South Carolina Upstate, High Point
Key players: Junior guard J.P Primm, junior guard Matt Dickey, junior guard Chris Stephenson.
Strengths: Forcing turnovers, blocking shots, getting to the free-throw line.
Weaknesses: 3-point shooting, defensive rebounding, turnovers.
Outlook: A surprise out of the Big South, Asheville got hot late and beat regular-season champ Coastal Carolina twice in a week. The Bulldogs heavily rely on Primm and Dickey for a chunk of minutes and outside shooting, though neither is particularly deadly from beyond the arc. When Asheville’s defense is clicking, forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets as a result, they’re a pesky team to beat. But don’t expect miracles in the NCAA tournament. This is a team that lost to Ohio State by 47 points earlier this season.
You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.