This season everyone is ripe for the picking.
With no overwhelming favorite in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament like Kentucky was last season, we could be looking at a roller coaster ride of a tournament season. That’s a great thing for college basketball fans and a bad thing for everyone’s bracket, which will probably be marked to pieces by the time the Sweet 16 rolls around next week.
With the exception of mid majors Gonzaga (31-2) and Memphis (30-4), every team in the field has at least five losses and there are several small conference teams that appear to be poised to knock off a giant.
Here’s a look at each region and what the future could have in store for the 68 teams battling for the National Championship.
:Top Seed: Indiana (27-6)
Best First Round Matchup: No. 6 Butler vs. No. 11 Bucknell. If you like good teams from mid-major conferences this may be the most interesting first round matchup as Butler of the Atlantic-10 and Bucknell of the Patriots League square off on Thursday afternoon (12:40 p.m.).
Butler enters the tournament battle tested in a tough Atlantic-10 Conference. The Bulldogs can grind out wins and score, and have had recent success in the NCAA Tournament. Butler also has one of the best coaches in the nation at the helm in Brad Stevens.
Bucknell, the Patriot League champions, enters the tournament on a hot streak as winners of seven straight and brings one of the best defensive units in the country to the tournament. Expect a low-scoring, grinding out affair, a type of game that both teams are used to playing and both teams thrive in.
:Upset Alert: No. 3 Marquette has played a who’s who of ranked teams this season in the Big East, but it has a difficult first round draw in No. 14 Davidson. The Wildcats, Southern Conference champions, are winners of 17 straight games and are your typical dangerous mid-major team who can score the basketball and most notably shoot the three.
Marquette is a very solid team but having no superstars and a go-to scorer makes them ripe for the picking for a first round upset.
:Dark Horse: No. 7 Illinois is a dangerous middle seed as it played in the best conference this season (Big 10) and has already beaten Indiana, the top seed in the East.
Region Outlook: Indiana is certainly the team to beat and Miami looks like the only team in the bracket that has the athleticism to match Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Miami, however, is going to be upset by Illinois in the second round giving the Hoosiers smooth sailing into the Final 4.
:Top Seed: Kansas (29-5)
Best First Round Matchup: No. 8 North Carolina vs. No. 9 Villanova. Two talented power conference teams who are looking to erase disappointing regular seasons. The Tar Heels and Wildcats are also dangerous teams in the second round and could give Kansas the boot. What’s not to like about this game?
Upset Alert: No. 4 Michigan was is on the upset alert no matter who they play for the simple fact that they are incredibly flawed. Great athleticism but no defensive identity.
Michigan’s porous defense is a tough matchup for No. 13 South Dakota State, as the Jack Rabbits can score the basketball. Michigan is not great away from home and the Jack Rabbits could steal one in a shootout.
:Dark Horse: No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth has been to the Final 4 before, has an awesome coach in Shaka Smart, and is playing great basketball at the moment despite a loss in the Atlantic-10 Championship to Louisville.
Region Outlook: There are lots of options in this region. No. 1 Kansas is good but the Big 12 was mediocre this year. No. 2 Georgetown, is big, strong and tough and may actually be the favorite in the conference while No. 3 Florida is also a dangerous team in the tournament with Billy Donovan at the helm.
While Kansas, Georgetown and Florida are great choices, I’m going with a sleeper out of the South in VCU. The Rams are an absolute nightmare to prepare for. They wreak havoc on the defensive, cause countless turnovers and can get into the heads of even the best teams. Smart and VCU frustrate a few top teams on their way to another Final 4 appearance.
Top Seed: Louisville (29-5)
:Best First Round Matchup: No. 5 Oklahoma St. vs. No. 12 Oregon. The Ducks may not have even qualified for the tournament if it did not win the Pac-12 title last week but they are rolling at the moment and poised to keep that momentum going in the first round. Oklahoma State certainly played a tougher schedule falling in the Big 12 semifinals but this looks like an even matchup as both teams score and allow a similar amount of points. Plus a 12 seed always gives a five seed a run for their money.
Upset Alert: The fifth seeded Cowboys are probably the most likely to go down in the first round seeing that a No. 10 over a No. 7 is not an upset. The top seeds got some pretty easy draws in this region.
Region Outlook: Another tough region to call. When in doubt I always like to pick the teams with the best coaches, but it just so happens that three of the greatest coaches of all time reside in this region in Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. The three legends have six National Titles and 23 Final Four appearances split between them.
Duke may have the best coach of the bunch but it is the least talented of the three. Louisville is tough to bet against as the No. 1 overall seed but I’m going with Tom Izzo and Michigan State. The Big 10 was the best conference in the country this season and playing the tough physical teams of the Big 10 will help the Spartans get past Louisville in the Elite Eight. Look for the Spartans toughness to reign supreme when the dust settles in this region.
:Top Seed: Gonzaga (31-2)
Best First Round Matchup: No. 5 Wisconsin vs. No. 12 Ole Miss. Another intriguing 5/12 matchup. This is a very nice clash of styles as Wisconsin enters the contest with a top-10 defense and Ole Miss enters with a top-10 offense.
The Wildcats thrive on slowing games down and turning them into a physical battle while Ole Miss is as exciting and fun to watch as any team in the nation led by the energetic Marshall Henderson (20 ppg).
Upset Alert: At 30-4, Memphis is just not as good as its record indicates. Whoever won last night’s play-in game between Middle Tennessee State and St. Mary’s (game concluded after the Gloucester Times went to press) is getting a very beatable team in the round of 64.
Region Outlook: Gonzaga is the weakest No. 1 team of the bunch and would not have only two losses if it did not play in the West Coast Conference. This region should be Ohio State’s to lose. The Buckeyes are the most complete team in the softest region and they get to the Final Four with a close win over Wisconsin in the Elite 8.
Final Four and Championship
Noticing a trend here? That’s six Elite 8 teams and three Final 4 teams coming out of the Big 10. It was the deepest conference all year and boasts teams that compete on both ends of the floor.
On one side of the bracket Ohio State edges Michigan State in one Final Four game in a Big 10 clash and Indiana makes sure it’s an all Big 10 final bumping off VCU in the other Final 4 matchup.
In the end Indiana is too good on both ends of the floor. The Hoosiers knock off Ohio State for their first national title since 1987.