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2019 NCAA Tournament: The case against the title contenders

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All that you are going to hear about this week is how good this team is, why that team can make a Final Four and how those guys are going to win a national title.

That’s not what this space is for.

Here, we’re going to spend some time discussing the other side of the coin. 

This is the case against the national title contenders.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

DUKE

As weird as it sounds, Duke is the heavy favorite to win this year’s national title the same way that Villanova was the heavy favorite to win last year’s title, but the Blue Devils are also the easiest team to project out a loss for. That’s because they are, frankly, a horrible jump-shooting team. Duke ranks 338th nationally in three-point percentage, making a measly 30.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Cam Reddish is supposed to be their floor-spacer and he’s shooting 32.7 percent from beyond the arc, which is actually the highest number of all the freshmen on the roster. Tre Jones is under 25 percent from three. Jack White, an alleged shooter who missed 28 straight threes at one point this season, is at 28.4 percent. There are just two players on the roster that make more than a third of their threes: Alex O’Connell, who has not even shot 75 threes this season because of how limited his minutes end up being, and Justin Robinson, a walk-on that doesn’t play.

Now, to be clear, keeping Duke from getting to the basket whenever they want is a lot easier said than done, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they are absolutely lethal in transition. They don’t need to be effective running halfcourt offense because they get so many points on the break and on second-chance points. But they are eventually going to run into someone that isn’t going to turn the ball over, that can keep them out of transition and does just enough defensively to force the Blue Devils to rely on the three-ball.

Who that is, I don’t know. But the 2010 Kentucky team that featured John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson shot 33.1 percent from three, and we all thought that team has major issues from beyond the arc. They lost in the Elite 8 on a night they went 4-for-32 from three. Will that happen to Duke too?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: A healthy Virginia Tech is dangerous, but I think a matchup with Texas Tech in the Final Four does Duke in.

NORTH CAROLINA

The biggest thing standing between North Carolina and a run to the Final Four is the region that they were put in. The Midwest is a tough play to be. If seeds hold — which is no guarantee — they will be playing Kansas in Kansas City in the Sweet 16. They also have to travel twice as far to get to the Sprint Center as No. 2 seed Kentucky or No. 3 seed Houston, and Iowa State fans already consider that building to be Hilton Coliseum South.

So that’s not ideal.

But that, to me, is not the biggest concern that I have with the Tar Heels. It’s the inconsistency of Coby White. North Carolina’s offense is so heavily based on the way that a point guard can play, especially in a year where they don’t really have a guy that can be a creator outside of him. White is a freshman and a volume scorer, meaning that everything about him is inherently streaky. So while that gives them a ceiling to be just about anyone in the field on the right night, it allows means that an Auburn team whose press is working or a North Carolina team that can harass White and run Cam Johnson off the three-point line will have a real shot at a win.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Whoever they get in the Elite 8 — Kentucky, Houston or Iowa State — is going to be dangerous.

VIRGINIA

I’m just going to get this out of the way now: Yes, I think what happened last season might have some lasting effects on Virginia mentally. No, I don’t think they’re going to lose in the first round of the tournament again, but I do wonder how they are going to be able to handle someone making a run on them with five minutes left in the game.

Beyond that, there are two real concerns with this group. Let’s start with the pace of play. They average the fewest number of possessions in the sport which opens them up to upsets. Think about it like doing a study with a small sample size. There’s a reason that scientists want to get to a certain number when doing an experiment or that pollsters need a certain amount of people to get a correct feel for public opinion. That’s because variance can skew things in a small sample size. The same happens in basketball. It’s easier to hang with Virginia in a 60 possession game than it is to hang with Duke, or UNC, or Gonzaga in an 80 possession game.

I’m also worried about the athleticism factor, and it’s not because of Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome. Those guys tend are usually just fine against bigger and more athletic defenders. I know they lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals, but they also humiliated Florida State in a game earlier this season. Jerome didn’t seem to have any problem carving up Duke in either of the two games they have played this year. The concern for me is Tony Bennett’s infatuation with Kihei Clark. The fact that he is playing 25 minutes a night is concerning to me. He’s not good enough defensively — yes, he’s a pest on the ball, but he’s also 5-foot-7 — to make up for the lack of an impact he has offensively.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I can see Virginia losing to Tennessee in the Elite 8, but watch out for that Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon, too.

GONZAGA

With Killian Tillie back in the rotation and, seemingly, healthy, I’m not super-worried about the depth of their frontcourt or whether or not they will be able to space the floor. I’m also not all that worried about some of the issues that the Zags have on the defensive end of the floor. Brandon Clarke makes a lot of mistakes disappear, and you only have to be so good defensively when you score the way Gonzaga scores. For context, in 2009, North Carolina, like this Gonzaga team, was No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and they entered the tournament 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Gonzaga is 16th. They’re fine.

My concern is Josh Perkins. He has been terrific this season, and there are smart people that will tell you that he has been Gonzaga’s most important player this year. The reason that is a concern for me is that he has not proven to be 100 percent reliable, and we saw that come to fruition in the WCC title game against Saint Mary’s. Perkins had arguably his worst game of the season, and the Zags had inarguably their worst performance of the year.

When your most important player is a guy that has proven to have off-nights the way Josh Perkins has off-nights, you are just one game away from flaming out of the NCAA tournament.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I think potential matchups with Syracuse and Florida State are just awful draws for the Zags.

MICHIGAN STATE

I have no idea how Tom Izzo is doing it, but he just took a team that starts Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins as the No. 2 and No. 3 offensive options to a Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

And look, I love Cassius Winston. He is a sensational player that can take over games and a joy to watch if you appreciate someone that can run a pick-and-roll. But the burden that he is going to carry for this team is heavy, and the way the bracket unfolded, the Spartans seem fairly likely to see teams they’ve played this season in the second round and in the Sweet 16. You have to think that at some point Winston’s load will become too much to bear.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Can you see Cassius Winston beating Duke?

TENNESSEE

When we recorded the ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ podcast above last month, the concern that both Brian Snow and I had with Tennessee was whether or not their guards were good enough to win big games. Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner have proven that they can be OK against some of the biggest games of the season.

I’m not worried about the Vols offensively.

I’m worried about them defensively.

They’ve been lit up by Auburn twice in the last eight days. They couldn’t guard LSU in a loss in which the Tigers did not have Tremont Waters available. Kentucky has done whatever they wanted offensive against Tennessee in two of the three games they’ve played. This is basically the same team that was a top ten defense last year. What happened?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Tennessee’s offense is built around making two-pointers, and Virginia’s defense is designed to take that away.

KENTUCKY

The big question for me with this Kentucky team is pretty simple: Are they good enough?

I know, I know, I know. Let me talk this through. Kentucky turned into a top seven team in January when P.J. Washington turned into a superhuman, and as he came back to earth, so did Kentucky. Can he put together a three-week stretch where he is that guy in March? And if he doesn’t, who picks up the slack? Reid Travis has been useful in certain matchups and has looked like a guy that put up massive numbers against a bunch of soft Pac-12 frontlines in others. Tyler Herro has looked like a first round pick at times, and so had Keldon Johnson. They’ve also looked like freshmen in some big games and big moments. And while Ashton Hagans is a terrific player with a bright future, he’s also a point guard that gambles a bit too much defensively and cannot shoot on the offensive end of the floor.

Put another way, Kentucky has a ceiling when their best players are all playing at their best. But more than any of the other top six teams — Duke, UNC, Gonzaga, UVA and Tennessee — I can see the Wildcats having a floor-game at the wrong time.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: They’ve already lost to Seton Hall once this year, but the dangerous matchup to be is a potential showdown with Iowa State in the Sweet 16.

MICHIGAN

The Wolverines just have too many players that are liabilities offensively. Zavier Simpson does not have to be guarded all that tightly. Jon Teske has his moments, but he goes through stretches where he isn’t really a threat. Charles Matthews was really good last year in the NCAA tournament, but that came at a time when he was playing the four in a lineup that featured knockdown jump-shooters at three spots on the floor, including at the five.

That spacing isn’t there this year, and that is why the Wolverines can see their offense get bogged down for long stretches. If that happens in the NCAA tournament against someone like Texas Tech, they could be in real trouble.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Texas Tech is a dangerous team for Michigan to draw in the Sweet 16.

CBT’s guide to running a perfect 2019 NCAA Tournament bracket pool

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Whether it’s your office, your family, favorite bar or that random email list you got on a decade ago, you’ve got all kinds of options to jump into an NCAA tournament pool or 12 this week. Not all tourney pools are created equal, though. Some go off without a hitch, others are annoying and some are downright train wrecks. 

Since the CBT staff has been in dozens of different NCAA Tournament pools over the years, we decided to help guide you in the right direction on the ways to make your pool the best that it can be.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

WHAT SHOULD YOU PLAY FOR? 

Sure, “money” is the obvious and correct answer here, but not every question has only one right response. Also, I’d argue money isn’t the best answer here. It is simply “stakes.”

But money is the easiest so let’s start with that.

Whether it’s $5, $10, $20 or $500 an entry, putting some dough in the pot keeps everyone interesting. Depending on your audience – are they college basketball junkies or have never heard of Coach K – you’ll want to adjust the buy-in accordingly. If it’s an office pool, keeping the entry low might entice the less-enthusiastic to get involved without too much pain. If it’s your ball-crazy group of friends, maybe up the ante a little. Your friendships can handle taking each other’s money, promise.

Here’s the deal, though. Stakes don’t have to be money. Yeah, you can have some sort of prize – maybe a parking space at work or you get to be first in line to the Easter brunch with your family – but the more interesting direction here is a punishment. At least if you’re into seeing your friends and family humiliated.

Finish last in your pool? You get to stand at busy intersection holding a sign that says “MY TITLE PICK WAS THE ONLY ONE SEED TO EVER LOSE TO A 16.” Or you’ve got to name your fantasy football team in the fall after the winner. That’s why CBT editor Rob Dauster’s squad was named “Hines Is The Best” last year (don’t fact check me on this). Something that makes the worst bracketeer feel bad is really the only rule here. Winning money is great, but being able to laugh at your loved ones and dearest friends is better, right?

This can be a component of any pool. The NCAA tournament has winners and losers. Your bracket pool should, too.

WHAT SHOULD THE SCORING SYSTEM BE? 

There’s a couple of ways to go here.

If you want to add weight to picking the games that mean the most in the broader college basketball landscape – ie the Final Four and title game – then go this way:

First Round: 1 point

Second Round: 2 points

Sweet 16: 4 points

Elite Eight: 8 points

Final Four: 16 points

Title Game: 32 points

If you want to de-emphasize the later rounds a little bit – but still obviously give them their due – go here to make the difference between picking a first-round game and a national champion a little less dramatic.

Round of 64: 1 point

Round of 32: 2 points

Sweet 16: 3 points

Elite Eight: 4 points

Final Four: 5 points

Title Game: 6 points

SHOULD YOU ALLOW PEOPLE TO BUY-IN WITH MULTIPLE BRACKETS?

If you’re playing for money, yes. Now, it’s incredibly annoying to here people brag about how they picked that 15-seed over a 2 in one of their 37 brackets as if that’s some major accomplishment, but if they’re going to pony up the entry fee for each one of those, it’s worth listening to. Nod, curse them internally and take their money.

But if you’re playing for a prize and/or a punishment – and I’m really stressing the latter here – stick to one bracket.

HOW SHOULD YOU SEND THE INITIAL EMAIL/WELCOME LETTER? 

Again, know your audience here.

If you’re running your office pool, maybe stick to the basics. Deadlines, rules, stakes and pleasantries. Maybe save the inside jokes and savage personal attacks for a pool your friends or annoying in-laws are in. I mean, have the rules and stuff in that one too, but feel free to let some digs in. You’re only joking anyway, right?

One thing to stress in every opening letter is how to pay up. There are so many options now between digital payments directly to the administrator or a company that will hold the money for you, that you should never, ever have to touch a personal check. Yes, they still make those, and Bob in accounts receivable will absolutely make you deal with that outdated piece of paper unless you tell him otherwise.

Also, be crystal clear about the scoring system and payouts. That way when someone comes back to complain about something – and someone will absolutely complain about something – you can point to the initial letter and not have to argue about whether or not finishing 11th in the pool should get any cash.

2019 NCAA Tournament: Expert bracket picks

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Here are the brackets from the four College Basketball Talk experts, as well as the bracket that was produced on the ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ bracket breakdown podcast.

For full bracket analysis, listen to the podcast or read through the following breakdowns.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

ROB DAUSTER

‘WHY YOUR TEAM SUCKS’ BRACKET

SCOTT PHILLIPS

TRAVIS HINES

RAPHIELLE JOHNSON

Bracket Breakdown: North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas give Midwest its blue bloods

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If you want bluebloods, I know where to find them.

The Midwest.

Three of the most storied programs in the history of college basketball sit in the Midwest this year. North Carolina is the No. 1 seed. Kentucky is the No. 2 seed. Kansas is the No. 4 seed. If all four of them can make it to Kansas City, the Sprint Center will be the toughest ticket in sports during the second weekend of the event.

And that’s not all.

Because Houston, who stormed through the American this season, is also in the Midwest, as is SEC tournament champion Auburn and Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State.

Without a doubt, this is the toughest region in the bracket.

Let’s dive into the Midwest breakdown.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. NORTH CAROLINA GOT A SWEET 16 ROAD GAME?: The Tar Heels are the No. 1 seed in the region, and the reward for that is that they get sent to the Midwest to play their regional in Kansas City. If seeds hold, they will be forced to face-off with Kansas in Kansas City in the Sweet 16. If they win that, then they’ll likely end up with: A) Kentucky, which is half the distance from Kansas City; B) Houston, which is actually located in the Midwest; or C) Iowa State, who has a fanbase that considers the Sprint Center Hilton Coliseum South. That’s tough.
  2. MIGHT THIS BE THE END OF BILL SELF AT KANSAS?: There have been seemingly unending rumors that are linking Bill Self to a move out of the college ranks thanks to this FBI investigation into college basketball and the association that his Kansas program has with it. If Self was ever going to jump to the NBA, this seems like it would be a good time to make the move. Get out of town before the NCAA shows up to vacate something.
  3. DID KENTUCKY PEAK TOO SOON?: The Wildcats spend the month of January steamrolling anyone that got in their way. They’ve struggled a bit since then, and while the only losses that they have taken during that span came against LSU and Tennessee, Kentucky was not at their best in a couple of other wins. They are going to need a dominant P.J. Washington to show up, and Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson making shots would probably be a good thing as well.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky

It’s weird: in the bracket that has the most blueblood programs in it, I feel the least confident about two of those bluebloods battling it out for the right to get to the Final Four. That’s because the rest of the region is really strong. I think that Auburn is a dangerous team that can force turnovers and get on three-point shooting runs with the best of them. Iowa State is a matchup nightmare with a ceiling as high as anyone’s on the right day. Even North Carolina and Kentucky have proven to have a certain level of inconsistency in recent years, and there may be a reason for that: Both UNC and UK start a freshman point guard.

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 5 Auburn or No. 6 Iowa State

I really do think both of these teams are dangerous enough to get to the Final Four, but I, for one, will not have the guts to take either one of them.

Because they both have the ability to lose in the first round of the tournament.

Auburn can put up points in a hurry. They love to press, they love to force turnovers, they lose to run and gun, and they love to put up threes. We saw against Tennessee in the SEC title game just how dangerous they can be when they are firing on all cylinders.

Iowa State, however, is a better bet to make a run. They have four play-making wins on their roster, flanking a couple of talented and productive big men. They can really shoot it, they are a nightmare to try to defend, and — after seemingly falling off of a cliff late in the regular season — a player’s only meeting before the Big 12 tournament turned this ship around.

(Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

No. 13 NORTHEASTERN vs. No. 4 KANSAS: Kansas starts four freshmen. One is their third string center. One was supposed to be a redshirt this season. Northeastern? They’re built like a mid-major winner: They shoot the cover off the ball, they don’t turn the rock over, they don’t give up offensive boards, and they control tempo. Upset city.

No. 6 IOWA STATE to the Elite 8: Every time that I get on the Iowa State bandwagon, the Cyclones turnaround and completely implode. That’s not going to happen this time because I am decidedly no on the Iowa State bandwagon, I’m just picking them to go to the Elite 8. There’s a very big difference.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

No. 12 NEW MEXICO STATE vs. No. 5 AUBURN: I want to love this NMSU team, but I can’t. I don’t think they have the horses to play with this Auburn team when Bruce Pearl gets them fired up and ready to play.

THE STUDS

  • CAM JOHNSON, North Carolina: Every one loves Coby White and Nassir Little, but it’s Johnson that has been their best player this season.
  • DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas: Lawson has been the one consistently bright spot for the Jayhawks this season, posting double-doubles seemingly every single night.
  • MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall: Powell is as explosive of a scorer as you’ll find in this year’s NCAA tournament. He can go for 25 in any given half.
  • P.J. WASHINGTON, Kentucky: When Washington plays at his best, when he’s a 20-and-10 guy, the Wildcats are at their best.

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford: He is going to set the career record for threes made in a career if he makes three in the tournament. He shoots a ton and has the ultimate green light.
  • D’MARCUS SIMONDS, Georgia State: He called his shot in the Sun Belt conference tournament, guaranteeing a win. If he calls his shot to beat No. 3 seed Houston, we need to be on it.
  • SAM MERRILL, Utah State: Neemias Queta is the guy with NBA potential that has folks buzzing, but Merrill is Utah State’s best player.

ONE GAME TO WATCH: No. 7 Wofford vs. No. 10 Seton Hall

Fletcher Magee is must-see TV. Myles Powell is must-see TV. When they are trading three-point haymakers in a knockout game, the only excuse for not watching is a coma.

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 5 Auburn

These two teams want to run and gun as much as anyone in the sport right now, and the best part of seeing them face off would be that both rosters are capable of making all of those threes they fired. This game could get played in the 90s. That would be fun.

AND THE WINNER IS …

North Carolina.

I know it’s pretty corny to pick yet another No. 1 seed from the ACC to the Final Four, but I think that this Carolina team can get the job done.

Bracket Breakdown: Virginia, Tennessee to vie for South Region supremacy

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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.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

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.

THE STUDS

  • 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.

Bracket Breakdown: Gonzaga headlines a loaded West Region

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Gonzaga found themselves sitting pretty as the No. 1 seed out west despite the fact that managed to find a way to get a draw where seemingly every matchup is a bad one.

In the second round, a Gonzaga team that struggles to shoot the ball from the perimeter is looking at the winner of two teams that play zone. In the Sweet 16, they’re string down another date with Florida State, who is as athletic up and down their lineup as anyone in the country and, if you remember, sent Gonzaga home last season in the Sweet 16. In the Elite 8, a matchup with either Michigan or Texas Tech could lead to Josh Perkins going face to face with one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball in Zavier Simpson or Matt Mooney.

The luck of the draw was not ideal for the region where the mid-majors will flourish.

Think about it: Not only did the committee slot Buffalo, Murray State and Vermont out west, they put them in a region where Gonzaga is the No. 1 seed and Nevada is the No. 7 seed. These may not be the biggest draws for TV, but there sure are going to be some fun matchups.

Let’s dive into the West Region.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. CAN MARK FEW FINALLY WIN A NATIONAL TITLE? CAN JOHN BEILEIN?: The job that Mark Few has done building Gonzaga into one of the biggest national brands is all of college basketball is nothing short of spectacular. In 2017, he finally legitimized the success to the final few stragglers by taking the Zags to the national title game. This group, with Killian Tillie back and contributing, is probably his best team to date. Is this the year that he finally breaks through? What about John Beilein? He has his own fascinating story of reaching the highest of heights in the college coaching profession. He started as a Division III coach in upstate New York and just kept climbing the ladder. Now he has Michigan as nationally relevant as they have ever been. The only thing either of these men are missing is to cut down the nets on the last night of the season. Is this year the year?
  2. WILL UCLA BE COURTING CHRIS BEARD WHILE HE’S OUT WEST?: Beard has become one of the biggest names in all of college coaching by building Texas Tech into a national power that helped to end the run of 14 straight regular season titles by the Kansas Jayhawks. He is a superstar coach in the making, one that is going to be in high demand from bigger programs, and UCLA — who fired Steve Alford in December — certainly qualifies as that. He’ll be coaching out in Anaheim during the regionals. Bruin fans will get an up close and personal look at one of the potential UCLA targets to fill their opening.
  3. CAN JA MORANT LAST MORE THAN ONE DAY?: Morant is not Zion Williamson, but he is still a tremendously talented and athletic player. Murray State drew Marquette in the first round, setting up a game that could turn into a scoring battle between Morant and Markus Howard. Morant is so much fun to watch. The fact that we are going to lose him or Howard in the first round is a bummer.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

I think that Florida State picks off Gonzaga again this season. The Seminoles are so much bigger and more athletic that Gonzaga is, especially on the perimeter, and I think that will become a problem, especially when Leonard Hamilton opts to throw on their press. Josh Perkins has his issues as a ball-handler against pressure and as a player in big games, and that matchup would qualify as both. The return of Tillie should help, but this is just a brutal matchup for the Zags with a team that, over the course of the last two months, has played like a top ten teams.

As far as Texas Tech is concerned, I just think they are better than Michigan. Both teams are built a similar way, with their defense being their calling card and their offense coming and going. The Red Raiders have been awesome of late, closing out the regular season strong before a loss to West Virginia in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament, while Michigan has been terrific when they haven’t been forced to play Michigan State. Texas Tech will have the best player in Jarrett Culver. They shoot it better. They have more perimeter playmakers. It’s not ideal for the Aggies.

(John Weast/Getty Images)

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 7 Nevada

Since Florida State has already been mentioned, I’ll go with Nevada here. The Wolf Pack have a roster full of seniors and redshirt seniors, and this is what they have been waiting for. I’m not convinced that some of their struggles this season were an issue of motivation, and with everything to play for, Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline are going to prove something to NBA scouts in attendance. We already saw them get to one Sweet 16 with a win over Michigan.

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

No. 4 FLORIDA STATE over No. 1 GONZAGA: I discussed this earlier, but I don’t trust Josh Perkins against teams like Florida State, and I think that is going to prove to be the right take.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

No. 12 MURRAY STATE over No. 5 MARQUETTE: I know everyone is going to want to fall in love with Ja Morant and take him to carry the Racers to the Sweet 16, but I just don’t see it. For starters, Marquette has a defender at the rim in Theo John that is going to make it very difficult for Morant to start dunking on everyone. I also think that the lack of talent around Morant means that Marquette can hide Howard defensively, and the lack of height and size is going to allow the Hausers to create mismatchs all over the floor. Marquette is the pick here.

THE STUDS

  • JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech: Culver is the life-blood of this Texas Tech team. So much of what they do offensively ends with Culver in some kind of an action, trying to make a play. For my money he is clearly a first-team all-american.
  • JA MORANT, Murray State: Morant is a monster. We all know this by now.
  • MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette: The single-most dangerous scorer left in the tournament. He may end up being a first-team all-american, and he has popped off for at least 45 points three times this season.
  • RUI HACHIMURA and BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga: It’s difficult to pick who was actually the best out of these two big men. Clarke is the better defender and finisher offensively. Hachimura is a better shooter and the more likely to be able to create for himself. Both are top 20 picks.

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • ANTHONY LAMB, Vermont: Lamb is Georges Niang. He’s an undersized four that has three-point range on his stroke and a crafty low post game. He’s a bucket.
  • C.J. MASSINBURG, Buffalo: We all know how good Massinburg can be when he gets it going. The Bulls got 43 points out of him in a win in Morgantown earlier this year.

ONE GAME TO WATCH

No. 6 BUFFALO vs. No. 11 ARIZONA STATE/ST. JOHN’S: The Bulls will take on the winner of Arizona State-St. John’s, who face off in the First Four. Every potential game in this section of the bracket promises to be up and down affair.

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN

I would 100 percent be here for Texas Tech and Michigan squaring up in the Sweet 16. Two of the toughest teams that you are going to find playing for the right to get to the Elite 8 in a game that may not crack the 50s? I love it.

AND THE WINNER IS …

I have Texas Tech knocking off Florida State and getting to the Final Four.