NCAAM

2018 NCAA Tournament Preview

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The 2018 NCAA Tournament field is set and pictured above. As usual, Selection Sunday was full of surprises, but here are some of my main takeaways after looking over this bracket. As predicted, the bubble watch conversation will dominate most of the early discussion in the lead up to this tournament. However, the selection of this year’s last four in, AKA “The first four”, was particularly controversial.

The Bubble

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UCLA and St. Bonaventure were both expected to be among the field, and will face off for a spot in the first round tonight. Arizona State’s inclusion was a little more surprising, especially considering the exclusion of conference opponents USC. While the Trojans sport the better record and finished 2nd in PAC 12, it is the Sun Devils who will be dancing this March. As debatable as it may be, I’m fully on board with this decision. Arizona State looked like one of the best teams in the country early on this season and have the most impressive wins of maybe anyone the bubble. The Sun Devils took down Kansas, Xavier, UCLA, and USC themselves throughout the course of the season. Whereas USC quite frankly beat no one. There only win over a team in the field came over in a closely contested game against automatic bid recipient New Mexico State. For that reason, Arizona State’s inclusion over USC’ and others in the conversation, does not surprise me.

What surprised everyone was the fact that Syracuse got in. The Orange were on virtually no one’s radar. Joe Lunardi had them as his 7th team out, and I myself had them my 6th team out. The decision to include them is incredibly perplexing when you consider the resumes of teams that were left out. Oklahoma State holds victories over Florida State, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Kansas (twice). Snubbing the Cowboys over a teams who’s only real wins to speak of were over Miami and Clemson doesn’t make much sense at all. There were likely even more deserving teams than Syracuse in their conference. But Notre Dame and Louisville were also overlooked. The Irish in particular have a legitimate gripe with the committee. Mike Brey’s team boasts wins over Wichita State, Florida State, NC State, Syracuse, despite playing much of the season without their star player, Bonzie Colson. Before Colson’s injury, Notre Dame was at one point ranked in the Top 5 nationally, and his return to good health should’ve at the very least propelled them ahead of Syracuse on the totem pole. But if memory serves correctly, Syracuse made the final four in 2016 after making the field as a bubble team. So I may have to eat my words come the end of March.

Saint Mary’s is another team that many thought would be among the field. However, a 28-5 record, with a road win over Gonzaga proved not enough to make their case. A bad loss to San Francisco, and an early departure in the conference tournament is likely what tripped them up. Quite simply, Saint Mary’s schedule didn’t afford them the opportunity to amass enough quality wins.

The Contenders

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In any given year, there are usually only a select number of teams in the college basketball landscape that actually have a chance to win the National Championship. This year that group may expand given the parity and lack of truly elite teams at top of the pile. But nonetheless, it is a shortlist of those with a legitimate shot at the trophy. That group is as follows (in no particular order): Villanova, Duke, Michigan State, Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky, Xavier, Gonzaga, Kansas.

Villanova

Villanova may have the most viable path to crown as a number one seed, given that the North region is decidedly less imposing than the South or Midwest. Two years removed from a national championship, The Wildcats have made a convincing case all season that they’re one of the top five teams in the country at minimum. Lead by National Player of the year candidate Jalen Brunson and NBA lottery talent Mikal Bridges, Villanova has cruised to a 29-4 record and the number two overall seed. Along the way they notched impressive victories over Xavier (twice), Gonzaga, and Tennessee among others. Out of the North region, Purdue and Texas Tech are certainly formidable two and three seeds  respectively, that could trouble anyone in country. Nevertheless, you’ll notice that Villanova’s bracket features none of the other contender teams that I have listed below.

Duke

On paper, Duke is almost unquestionably the most talented team in tournament. Their lineup of Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval, and Gary Trent should strike fear into anyone they come up against. These are all names will be hearing more of at the next level. However, for of all their talent, the Blue Devils have struggled a little more than expected at times due to their inability to defend consistently. Scoring will not be a problem for this supremely offensively skilled team, but can they find a way to win when their offense inevitably stagnates? As it stands Duke holds quality wins over Michigan State, North Carolina, Clemson, Florida, and Miami. But they’ll have to string together a few more of those if there’s any hope of making the final four. Their bracket forecasts meeting with the likes of both Michigan State and Kansas.

Michigan State

Speaking of talent, one of the only team that rivals Duke in that regard is Michigan State. While Duke’s core consists of mostly freshmen, Michigan State’s starting five is made up mostly sophomores. Last year’s vaunted recruiting class all stayed on campus. This group, in addition to future NBA lottery pick Jaren Jackson, powered Michigan State to a 28-4 record and a Big Ten regular season title. Led by another potential lottery pick Miles Bridges, the Spartans have notched notable victories against North Carolina and Purdue. But a weak Big Ten schedule held this team back from achieving higher than a three seed. A potential Sweet 16 matchup against a Duke team who they’ve already lost to once this season may end up being the most important game of the tournament.

Virginia

On the strength of the nation’s best defense, Virginia has fought all the way to the top overall seed in the tournament. Somehow that unfortunately means that they’ll potentially meet either Kentucky or Arizona in the Sweet 16. But Virginia is more than familiar with tough roads. The Cavaliers made it through the gauntlet that is the ACC with a near perfect 17-1 record in conference, and a phenomenal 31-2 record overall. In addition to playing the defense in the country, Virginia has also found success due to its triumvirate of scoring guards: Kyle Guy, Devon Hall, and Ty Jerome. All of whom are very capable shooters who are instrumental to their Cavaliers offense. They have been the most consistent team all season racking up wins against Duke, UNC (twice), Clemson (twice), Miami, and Rhode Island among others. Moreover they’ve lost the least games of any team in Division I basketball. I’m going to let a piping hot take fly here and say that the number one overall seed could maybe, just maybe, be a contender (Even after losing Deandre Hunter to injury).

North Carolina

The defending National Champions will likely find the road to the final four much tougher this time around. But despite losing double digit games this year, the Tar Heels have still managed a two seed. Even with 10 losses to their name, the Tar Heels have one of the most impressive resumes in the tournament. Led by Joel Berry and Luke Maye, this team has rattled off quality wins over Duke (twice), Tennessee, Michigan, Ohio State, Miami, Clemson, and Arkansas. That should drive home the idea that Tar Heels can play with anyone in the country. Although they’re less deep than last year’s roster, they will still likely be the betting favorite to come out of the West region.

Arizona

In Spite of all of the controversy surrounding the program, Arizona will still enter the tournament as one of the favorites to win it all. The logic behind that is simple. The Wildcats have player of the year candidate and presumptive number one overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft, DeAndre Ayton. Ayton has been a man amongst boys this year in the Pac 12, averaging over 20 ppg and 11.5 rebounds as a freshman. But Ayton isn’t the only weapon the Wildcats possess. Allonzo Trier was also a top five scorer in the conference, and a player of the year favorite in the preseason. The combination of these two studs and Rawle Alkins powered Sean Miller’s team to another PAC 12 title. However, a down year for conference meant their schedule was only good enough for a four seed. What that means is that a potential second round matchup with Kentucky is looming. Furthermore, if they can pass that test, a meeting with one seed Virginia will likely be next. Coming out of this region will be a tall task, but a team that was ranked number three in the preseason is certainly capable of doing so.

Kentucky

Kentucky is a perfect example of a team that just may be peaking at the right time. A tumultuous middle of the season saw the Wildcats falling up and down out of the AP Top 25. Kentucky is characteristically young. However, this team is inexperienced even by John Calipari’s standards. In fact, they are they are youngest group the coach has ever had. As such, it has taken this team some time to find its footing. Fortunately, they seem to be putting it all together just in time for the tournament. For all its stumbles, Kentucky still managed to take home the conference tournament championship in an uncharacteristically deep SEC. Additionally, they still boast some the top draft eligible talents in the country in Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Wins over teams like West Virginia and Tennessee prove what this team is capable of. But finding consistency from such a young group may be still be a struggle, especially considering that both Arizona and Virginia will likely be waiting in the second round and Sweet 16.

Xavier

Despite being the weakest one seed in the field, Xavier may still be attractive option when filling out your bracket. The Musketeers returned much of the roster that made an a elite 8 run in last year’s tournament, and have managed an 28-5 record. Led by Trevon Blueitt and JP Macura, the Musketeers took home the Big East regular season title, securing wins over Cincinnati, Creighton, Seton Hall, and Butler. They don’t necessarily have the firepower that other teams on this list do, but they do have the experience. Nevertheless, I would still favor traditional powerhouses over the X men.

Gonzaga

Mark Few has created the country’s only mid major powerhouse over there in Washington. Last year’s bulldogs fell just short in the national championship, but their tournament run went a long way towards combatting the negative stigma surrounding mid majors. Both this year’s and last year’s Zags are for real. Much of the 2017 roster returned to lead Gonzaga to a 30-4 record, including Jonathan Williams, Rui Hachimura, and Killian Tillie. They’ve rattled off wins over Ohio State, Texas, Creighton, and Saint Mary’s thus far and look to have a reasonable path to the elite eight.

Kansas

Kansas is not necessarily the juggernaut that they have been in years past. That being said, they’ve still managed to win the Big 12 and secure a one seed in the tournament. Much of that success can attributed to leader, senior point guard Devonte Graham. The fact that they aren’t as talented as they have been in years and still achieved speaks volumes about how much Graham has willed this team to victory at times. Aside from the their key scorer and facilitator, Malik Newman, Lagerald Vick, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Udoka Azubuike have provided ancillary scoring options. However, there are some questions as to whether the big man Azubuike will be unavailable to due to injury. His absence would leave Kansas devoid of viable low post scoring options. But even without Azubuike, the Jayhawks managed to win the Big 12 conference tournament. Notable wins include games against Kentucky, West Virginia (3 times), Texas Teach, and TCU (twice). The Jayhwaks certainly have a chance to make a deep, deep run in this tournament. They are a one seed after all. But i’d be hesitant to move them further than the elite 8 with all of the talent coming out of their bracket.

Other Options:

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One team that I feel may be peaking at the right time is Michigan. The Wolverines seem to be putting things together after posting wins over Michigan State and Purdue to take Big Ten tournament championship. Beyond Michigan, there are a number of teams that have the feel of teams who could either fail to make it out of the first round, or make deep runs. Here are some of the teams that I’m less confident in, but could make potentially make some noise: Florida, Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama, Seton Hall, NC State, Texas. You’ll notice that many of these teams come out of the SEC. Yes I’m an SEC guy through and through, but in my completely unbiased opinion the conference has been one of the deepest in the country this year. Florida made a deep run last year and return much of that roster. Arkansas managed many notable wins in their tough conference schedule but may be troubled even early on by Butler. Missouri was one of the better teams in the conference before adding Michael Porter back into the mix. His introduction could elevate them to new heights or conversely disrupt team cohesion. Alabama got hot in the SEC tournament and boasts one of the most talented players in the country in Collin Sexton. But a first round matchup against Virginia Tech will be no cakewalk. The winner of NC State vs Seton Hall may very well give Kansas a game. Both teams are capable of playing with anyone on their best day. But NC State has managed wins over Duke, UNC, Arizona, and Clemson that make them a viable sleeper candidate. Texas has also shown an ability to play with the best in the country, wins over West Virginia,Texas Tech, TCU, Alabama If they can get past Nevada I don’t think Cincinnati is necessarily too tall of a task for them.

Cinderella Stories

They call it march madness for reason. Every year it’s tough to pin down which team will come out of nowhere and shock the world.  Here are some of the most popular first round upset picks.

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Texas over Nevada (60 percent); Kansas State over Creighton (42 percent); Loyola-Chicago over Miami (40 percent); Florida State over Missouri (61 percent); Providence over Texas A&M (42 percent); Syracuse/Arizona State over TCU (46 percent); Oklahoma over Rhode Island (42 percent); New Mexico State over Clemson (38 percent); NC State over Seton Hall (37 percent); Butler over Arkansas (60 percent); Alabama over Virginia Tech (41 percent); UCLA/ St. Bonaventure over Florida (39 percent); Marshall over Wichita State; San Diego State over Houston; Davidson over Kentucky; Stephen F. Austin over Texas Tech.

 

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