The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament field was announced on Sunday, and this year’s bracket looks to provide a high level of intrigue and the potential for some stunning upsets in the tournament’s first weekend.
Last year, teams like the UMBC Terriers and the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers showed us why anything is possible in March. The Terriers trounced the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers, becoming the first ever No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Eleventh-seeded Loyola-Chicago rode a balanced roster to a Final Four berth, making history as one of only four No. 11 seeds to reach the Final Four.
As all 68 teams in the field prepare to compete for a national title, the layout of the bracket has begun to provide some clarity regarding the true contenders and which teams should be on upset alert in the opening weekend. Each region has its fair share of elite teams, laying the foundation for what could prove to be one of the best tournaments in recent memory.
The East Region is perhaps the most difficult side of the bracket, as it includes heavyweights such as the third-seeded LSU Tigers, the second-seeded Michigan State Spartans, and the Duke Blue Devils, the top overall seed and the betting favorite to win the national championship.
Many pundits pegged the Spartans as a No. 1 seed after their comeback win over the Michigan Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship. However, Michigan State instead finds LSU and Duke standing in the way of a Final Four berth, a brutal draw for arguably one of the five best teams in the country.
As far as potential first-round upsets are concerned, the eleventh-seeded Belmont Bruins and the twelfth-seeded Liberty Flames will prove to be difficult tests for Maryland and Mississippi State, respectively. Belmont must first defeat the Temple Owls in their First Four matchup, but the Bruins have consistently been one of the nation’s top mid-major teams.
A loss to Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament left the Bruins in limbo with regard to their postseason fate, but an at-large bid leaves them as one of the most dangerous teams in the field. It is quite possible that the Maryland Terrapins could find themselves eliminated early on, and LSU, without head coach Will Wade due to an NCAA investigation, should be worried about a potential second-round clash with the Bruins, the nation’s second-ranked scoring team.
Meanwhile, Liberty dominated the Big South regular season behind a suffocating defense, en route to a 28-6 record. The Flames ranked twelfth in the nation in points allowed per game and should be able to frustrate a Mississippi State team whose average scoring attack may struggle to put points on the board.
However, Duke remains the overwhelming favorite to win the East Region behind an extremely talented freshman quartet of Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones. Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish are all expected to be selected in the top five picks of the NBA Draft, and even the Michigan State Spartans, led by Wooden Award contender Cassius Winston, will likely struggle to keep up with the Blue Devils, who should emerge with a Final Four berth if all goes well.
The Virginia Cavaliers and Tennessee Volunteers are the class of the South Region, with both squads holding the No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll at some point this season. Both teams are legitimate threats to win the national title, but their lack of recent tournament success is concerning.
Tennessee is an up-and-coming SEC power which has not been a true title threat until this season. Head coach Rick Barnes has built an elite program in his time with the Volunteers, and forwards Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams are one of the nation’s most dangerous scoring tandems.
Virginia, on the other hand, has some NCAA Tournament demons that it hopes to exorcise this season. The Cavaliers know the heartbreak that the postseason can bring all too well. In 2014 and 2015, Virginia was eliminated by Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen and second round, respectively, by a combined eight points. In 2016, the Cavaliers blew a 15-point lead to the Syracuse Orange in the Elite Eight, finding themselves robbed of a Final Four berth. Finally, in 2018, the Cavaliers, as the top overall seed, became the first No. 1 seed ever to fall to a No. 16 seed in the first round.
The defending champion Villanova Wildcats also reside in the South Region, but they should not be viewed as a legitimate Final Four threat. After losing Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Omari Spellman to the NBA, the Wildcats were left with an inexperienced roster and have been in and out of the Top 25 all season. Jay Wright has maintained his position as one of the nation’s elite coaches, and he should be commended for the success he has had despite losing so many talented players. However, Villanova’s ceiling seems to be the Sweet Sixteen.
The Oregon Ducks are the top candidate to play spoiler in the first round. Red-hot Oregon faces off with the fifth-seeded Wisconsin Badgers in what may be the most intriguing matchup of the entire first round. The Ducks caught fire at the right time, riding Payton Pritchard’s dominant play to a Pac-12 title and automatic tournament bid. They have outperformed their seeding to an impressive degree as of late and match up very well with the Badgers. This game will be a back-and-forth affair, and Oregon has the talent to shake up the entire South Region if it can escape the first round.
The Midwest Region is perhaps the most top-heavy of the four regions, as teams like North Carolina, Kentucky, Houston, Kansas, and Auburn are all more than capable of Final Four appearances. Iowa State and Wofford are also talented enough to make some noise, but it seems unlikely that either of these squads could upset multiple elite teams on their way to a regional title.
The North Carolina Tar Heels have the most questions surrounding them out of all of the No. 1 seeds. The Tar Heels swept the Duke Blue Devils in their regular season matchups, but Duke was without freshman phenom Zion Williamson in both games, and his presence likely would have shifted both results in the Blue Devils’ favor. This proved to be the case in the ACC semifinal, as Duke enacted revenge and defeated North Carolina. Many thought the loss would knock the Tar Heels off of the No. 1 seed line in favor of Michigan State, and a difficult road to the Final Four should answer any lingering questions as to whether they deserve a top seed.
The Kentucky Wildcats are perhaps the most dangerous team in the region. John Calipari’s squad has been strong all year with the exception of a blowout loss to Duke in the season opener. Kentucky has not lost to an unranked team since early January, with the only three losses in that span coming against SEC foes LSU and Tennessee (twice). The Wildcats simply have not lost to inferior competition and have shown a level of resilience that is uncommon among young teams like themselves. These qualities will serve them well in tournament play, and should allow them to keep pace with the likes of North Carolina, Houston, Kansas, and Auburn.
Houston and Kansas, while both talented and well-coached, will likely have trouble emerging from the Midwest Region simply due to the nature of their competition. Kansas would likely need to defeat Auburn, North Carolina, and either Kentucky or Houston to reach the Final Four, a gauntlet that will likely overwhelm a team which has struggled mightily in recent tournament history. Auburn would likely face the same road to the Final Four, but the Tigers are one of the nation’s hottest teams entering the tournament. They have won their last eight games, including two victories over Tennessee, and seem to have the mettle to survive such a challenging region.
Houston, while talented, also has a difficult road to the Final Four, likely needing to defeat Iowa State, Kentucky, and one of North Carolina, Kansas, and Auburn. Ultimately, the Midwest is the most difficult region to forecast. None of the first-round matchups seem to lend themselves to upsets, and while there will likely be some surprises, it appears that they will come in the later rounds. Assuming that most of the higher seeds win in the opening round, Kentucky should view a potential matchup with Wofford as dangerous, while the same can be said about Houston in a potential clash with Iowa State. More likely than not, one of North Carolina, Kentucky, and Auburn will emerge from the Midwest with a Final Four berth.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs are the class of the West Region, despite losing to St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament, finishing their regular season 30-3 with the nation’s top scoring offense (88.8 points per game). Led by star forwards Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell Jr., this year’s iteration of the Bulldogs is the most talented team that coach Mark Few has had at his disposal in his tenure. Few is one of the nation’s best coaches, but a national title would cement his place as elite after he came up one win short just two seasons ago.
The Bulldogs are not only the deepest team in the nation, but also arguably have the most star power outside of Duke and possibly Virginia. While Michigan, Texas Tech, and Florida State are all capable of giving Gonzaga trouble, the Bulldogs are a Final Four favorite until proven otherwise, and likely the biggest title threat outside of Duke.
Out of the potential challengers to Gonzaga in the West Region, Florida State looks to pose the most serious threat. Fresh off of an impressive victory over Virginia in the ACC semifinal, the Seminoles have the right combination of size, scoring ability, and defensive prowess to knock off the Bulldogs in a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup, although such a scenario is unlikely.
Michigan and Texas Tech are also supremely talented, but will likely have to face each other in the Sweet Sixteen. In such a scenario, the result would likely come down to one or two possessions. However, both teams would likely struggle to keep pace with Gonzaga in a potential Elite Eight matchup. This is not a condemnation of the Red Raiders or the Wolverines, but rather a statement on just how good the Bulldogs are. Buffalo is another potentially-dangerous team out West, with a high-powered offense that may be able to out-score the likes of Michigan and Texas Tech before meeting with Gonzaga or Florida State in the regional final.
As far as potential upsets are concerned in the West, the matchup between the fifth-seeded Marquette Golden Eagles and the twelfth-seeded Murray State Racers provides the most intrigue. Each team has one of the most talented guards in the nation in Markus Howard (Marquette) and Ja Morant (Murray State).
Morant is widely expected to be a top-three pick in the NBA Draft and has been compared to NBA superstar Russell Westbrook, while Howard is one of the nation’s premier scorers, averaging 25 points per game on the season. However, the Golden Eagles may be vulnerable after a disappointing finish to the season in which they lost five of their final six contests. This game will likely be decided by which point guard outperforms the other, likely making this one of the first round’s most exhilarating games.
Final Four Predictions
In all likelihood, the highly-seeded teams will dominate the Final Four field. Duke and Gonzaga will likely come out of their respective regions, while Tennessee and Kentucky look to be most capable of winning the South and Midwest. However, Auburn is perhaps the most dangerous sleeper team in the entire tournament. Riding an eight-game win streak and fresh off of an SEC title, the Tigers have the talent and the body of work to suggest that a Final Four run is feasible. Out of those teams, Duke is the most talented, but each group has what it takes to win the national title.
Of the mid-major schools participating in the tournament, Buffalo, Houston, and Wofford are the biggest Cinderella threats. Each team has an elite scoring attack and has dominated their regular seasons, suggesting that they may pose a threat to some of the big-name schools that stand in their way.
Every year, the tournament produces unexpected results and is therefore difficult to forecast. Small, unknown schools knock off elite programs year after year, so while it is easy to speculate based on every team’s body of work, the tournament field will likely look much different than expected after this weekend. While the teams outlined above are some of the strongest in the field, one of the best things about the postseason is its unpredictability. It wouldn’t be March Madness without a few surprises. With that being said, this looks to be another exciting tournament in which the best of college basketball will be brought to the forefront.