If you’re a program that is built on identifying under the radar prospects, developing those prospects over four years and then taking a dozen of them and turning them into a team capable of winning titles, the South is for you.
That’s where Virginia resides as the No. 1 seed.
That’s where Tennessee takes up residence as the No. 2 seed.
Purdue is the No. 3 seed, and they’ll likely get No. 6 seed Villanova in the second round. Wisconsin is in this region. I don’t know if Cincinnati and Kansas State truly belong in this conversation, but they are in the South as well.
The South is where you go to get old, it seems.
Let’s dive into the breakdown.
- VIRGINIA IS A NO. 1 SEED AGAIN … : It was a year ago that Virginia humiliated themselves and became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wahoos are not the No. 1 overall seed this season, but they are a No. 1 seed again. I do not see Gardner-Webb getting it done this year, but I do wonder just how much this is going to play into the heads of this Wahoo team. Can they avoid the distractions that are going to come with the indignity they suffered last season? Because with De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy on the roster, this is the best team that Tony Bennett has ever had.
- THIS IS THE LOWEST SEED VILLANOVA HAS GOTTEN SINCE THE BIG EAST SPLIT: Since 2014, when Villanova returned to relevance and the first year that the old Big East turned into the new Big East, Villanova has been a No. 1 seed three times and a No. 2 seed twice. They’ve won two national titles in that time frame, and they’ve won nine of the 12 Big East titles in the last six years. This year, Villanova is younger and, frankly, not as good. That’s why they are the No. 6 seed despite winning the Big East regular season title and the Big East tournament title.
- CAN RICK BARNES WIN IN MARCH?: The former Texas coach is no stranger to having teams with some regular season success. But he has not been to the Final Four since T.J. Ford was on his roster in Austin. This will be his best shot. The Vols are absolutely loaded with under-recruited veterans that have a point to prove and an NBA future in front of them. There is no fight that they won’t win on a basketball court.
THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Tennessee
Everyone is going to want to pick this Virginia team to get upset at some point before the Final Four because that is just what the Cavaliers do, and I get it to a point. The style that Virginia plays — limiting possessions as much as possible — makes it so that more things have to go right in order for them to win games against good teams. It makes sense. But it also makes sense that there just aren’t teams in the top half of their bracket that are going to be good enough to beat them.
That said, Tennessee definitely is good enough. I also don’t see them having too much of an issue getting to the Elite 8. Cincinnati is not a good matchup for a Tennessee team that no one is going to out-physical or push around, and Villanova — who I think gets past Purdue — relies on creating mismatches that they will not be able to create against Tennessee. Tennessee vs. UVA with a Final Four berth on the line would be a lot of fun.
THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 6 seed Villanova
I honestly don’t think there is one in this bracket, at least not one that I love. Oregon has been playing really, really well lately, but they did it by beating up on bad Pac-12 teams. I don’t trust a Wisconsin team whose best player, Ethan Happ, can’t make free throws. Kansas State may or may not have Dean Wade, and even if they have him, I just cannot imagine the Wildcats trying to make shots against UVA. Carsen Edwards is good, but with the way he has been shooting of late, he is hurting Purdue more than he is helping them at times.
HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS
No. 6 VILLANOVA vs. No. 3 PURDUE: Here’s my logic on this game: Purdue gets a ton of their shots directly out of the offense that they run. It’s heavy in ball-screens, has a lot of dribble-handoffs and even more movement and screening. Villanova is going to switch all of that, and Purdue doesn’t have the dudes to be able to create.
No. 12 OREGON over No. 5 WISCONSIN: The Ducks are just loaded with talent and athleticism all over their roster, which is something that Wisconsin lacks a lot of. As good as Ethan Happ has been, I think that Kenny Wooten can take him away. Oregon’s big, athletic wings will be all over Wisconsin’s perimeter players. I have a feeling Oregon will be favored by the time this tips off.
No. 13 UC IRVINE over No. 4 KANSAS STATE: This is contingent upon the status of Dean Wade. If he’s out, keep an eye on Irvine, who is a really good mid-major program.
BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET
No. 11 SAINT MARY’S over No. 6 VILLANOVA: I am on the side of trusting Villanova in March, but even when I don’t trust Villanova in March, I do like them against teams that can be taken out of what they do offensively by switching.
- DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: For my money, he is the second-best player in college basketball considering the way and who he can guard. And he also happens to be a 6-foot-7 wing that shoots 47 percent from three and can do things like score 26 points on 9-for-11 shooting.
- GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee: He is just a monster that sets the tone for everything that Tennessee does on both ends of the floor. He’s one of the best post scorers in college hoops and a guy with real three-point range these days, too.
- ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin: On the one hand, Happ is a college basketball legend in the state of Wisconsin. On the other, he is susceptible to the Hack-a-Happ strategy. That’s a real problem.
- CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: High-volume gunner that can pop off for 40 but has spent the last month playing wildly inefficient basketball.
THE STARS OF MARCH
- JORDAN FORD, Saint Mary’s: The Gaels point guard is the second coming of Patty Mills. Maybe faster.
- MAX HAZZARD, UC Irvine: Hazzard is the best player on the Anteaters, but he’ll have his hands full with a first round date with Barry Brown.
ONE GAME TO WATCH: No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 Saint Mary’s
Two well-coached teams that are really good in their league. Two teams that will play a slower brand of basketball but that also will take and can make a lot of threes. Should I remind everyone of Omar Samhan and what he did to Villanova in 2010, too?
ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Tennessee
The Hoos and the Vols are both top five teams. They are both veteran and all-american laden. This is the game we need.
AND THE WINNER IS …
Virginia. They finally get the job done and get to the Final Four.