Selection Sunday was as notable for who got into the NCAA Division I basketball championship tournament — as for those who didn’t.
Whatever the case or arguments to be made, the Big Dance starts Tuesday with the “First Four” and gets going big time on Thursday in the first round.
To the surprise of many Oklahoma and Arizona State, both great teams at the beginning of the season but mediocre the rest of the way, both got in.
On the flip side of that coin, three really good teams — Louisville, Oklahoma State and USC — were left on the outside looking in, despite having better records that the two aforementioned schools and who played much better down the stretch. Head-scratchers, for sure.
The four schools seeded no. 1 in the East, South, West and Midwest regions weren’t all that surprising. No. 1 ranked Virginia is tops in the South, followed by no. 2 Villanova (no. 1 in the East), no. 3 ranked Xavier (no. 1 in the West) and no. 9 ranked Kansas (no. 1 in the Midwest).
We have had a look at the bracket and judging by some things we’ve said earlier about low-ranked schools to keep an eye on, we have 10 potential upsets (big and small), plus five sure things (teams who will go deep) poolies might want to bank on when filling them in. Starting with upsets and going to sure things.
15. N.C. State (9) vs. Seton Hall (8) – Midwest Upset
We will begin with the minor upset category and say that the Wolfpack have a better than average chance of upending Seton Hall. N.C. State finished the season 21-11, losing a 91-87 thriller to Boston College in the second round of the ACC tournament. This Wolfpack club, despite that last loss, has taken down several ranked schools this season, including Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson, Duke and Arizona. Sophomore center Omer Yurtseven of Istanbul has figured huge in big games this season and was great against B.C. pouring in a team high 20, with nine rebounds and three blocks. Seton Hall, meanwhile, finished with an identical record to N.C. State and lost to no. 41 (RPI poll) Butler in the Big East quarter-finals last week. Seton Hall also hasn’t beat a top-ranked opponent all season, losing in the new year to Villanova (twice) and Xavier (twice). We smell an upset here.
14. Florida State (9) vs. Missouri (8) – West Upset
Just like their ACC brethren at N.C. State, the Seminoles come into the tournament with some pretty impressive victories over ranked squads on their resume. They beat cross-state rival Florida, North Carolina, and Clemson. Their last loss was to hard-luck Louisville (they didn’t get an invite, despite a good record), in the second round of the ACC tournament last Wednesday. They have well balanced scoring (eight players over seven points per game), ranking 31st in the nation at 81.7 PPG. Missouri, ranked 43rd in the nation and fifth in the SEC (RPI), lost its last game of the season to no. 79 Georgia (12th in the SEC) in the second round of the conference tournament. They will be in tough against Florida State and have lost four of their last six, too.
13. Kansas State (9) vs. Creighton (8) – South Upset
This is a battle of middling Big 12 (K State) and Big East (Creighton) squads that faltered down the stretch and we’re giving the nod to the RPI no. 53 Wildcats over the no. 44 Blue Jays. In the Wildcats favor was a recent triumph over no. 26 ranked TCU in the Big 12 quarterfinals. They did lose to March Madness no. 1 Kansas (Midwest) in the semis, but the Jayhawks weren’t to be stopped by anyone. They were also missing offensive centerpieces in junior forward Dean Wade and junior guard Barry Brown, who missed the Big 12 semi due to injuries. Creighton limps in having lost to lowly Providence in the Big East quarterfinals and losers in six of its last 10 games. The Blue Jays do have the 10th ranked offence in the nation (84.3 points per game) but were held to an uncharacteristic 68 against the Friars. If K-State has watched the game film, they could have the edge here.
12. Providence (10) vs. Texas A&M (7) – West Upset
There isn’t much gap between the Friars and the Aggies (no. 32 in the RPI to no. 29, respectively) so this one is more like a 9-8 matchup than a true 10-7. However, an upset is an upset and coming off a 76-66 overtime loss to no. 2 ranked Villanova in the Big East championship on Saturday, Providence is soaring. The Friars path to the final was fraught with roadblocks too, but they beat Creighton in the quarter-finals and no. 3 Xavier in the semi-finals to get a shot at ‘Nova (who they had a 1-1 record against this year). Their big three of senior forward Rodney Bullock, sophomore guard Alpha Diallo and senior guard Kyron Cartwright are to be feared heading into the tournament. The Aggies don’t come charging into the West Region, having bowed to Alabama in the second round of the SEC tournament. They have also lost four of seven since beating Auburn and Kentucky early in February.
11. Butler (10) vs. Arkansas (7) – East Upset
Butler was in tough in the Big East tournament, but the no. 40 (RPI) team managed to beat higher ranked Seton Hall in the quarterfinals before succumbing to powerful Villanova in the semis. Otherwise, the Bulldogs have done fairly well against tough opponents, going 1-1 in the season series vs. Villanova. If they can unlock Kelan Martin, who was held to under 20 against ‘Nova and Seton Hall but is averaging 20.8 points (32nd in the nation), and Kamar Baldwin, who had 32 against Seton Hall, they have a chance to upend the Razorbacks. Arkansas did get to the SEC semifinals against Tennessee (no. 8 ranked in the nation according to RPI) but their 38th ranked offence, which averaged 81.1 points per game this season, was limited to a measly 66 points by the Volunteers in a 84-66 cakewalk. In fact, in two three of their last four games, where the Razorbacks have gone 2-2, they have scored less than 70.
10. Texas (10) vs. Nevada (7) – South Upset
The Nevada Wolf Pack come into the tournament ranked 17th in the RPI and with an overall record of 27-7. However, they were whupped 90-73 by lowly San Diego State (no. 62, RPI) in the Mountain West Conference semi-finals and haven’t beaten a high ranked opponent all year. Texas, on the other hand, has beaten TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia, this season. The Longhorns, ranked no. 51 on the RPI, were beaten by no. 23 Texas Tech, by a narrow count of 73-69 in the Big 12 quarter-finals. We like them in an upset of Nevada for the fact that they can defend, having given up just 68.2 points per game this year and that Nevada, normally very high scoring (83.1 PPG, 18th overall in the NCAA) have been held to under 80 points in its last three games, two of them losses to San Diego State.
9. San Diego State (11) vs. Houston (6) – West Upset
The Aztecs, ranked 62nd in the RPI, come roaring into the tournament as winners of their last nine in a row, including a decisive 82-75 victory over New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference championship. That came after they plowed under no. 17 ranked Nevada in the semifinals. This talented San Diego State squad went 22-10 this season, beating Nevada twice in three attempts, as well as taking down no. 21 Gonzaga. The Aztecs have five players in double digit scoring, led by senior forward Malik Pope, who scored 16 and added five rebounds and two blocks in the MWC championship game. The Cougars, who are 18th in the RPI rankings, come into the tournament on the heels of a tight 56-55 loss to Cincinnati in the AAC championship. Houston is a good defensive club, having surrendered just 64.9 points per game this season (22nd overall), however, we think the Aztecs balance can overcome the Cougars defence.
8. UCLA (11) vs. Florida (6) – East Upset
This game is contingent upon UCLA beating St. Bonaventure in the First Four, which we think will happen. Then, the Bruins, who took no. 13 Arizona to overtime in the Pac-12 semifinals before losing, have a shot at toppling no. 46 Florida. Funny thing is, the Bruins are actually no. 36 in the RPI, 10 full spots ahead of the Gators. Where UCLA has a big edge is in scoring. The Bruins are 28th in the NCAA with 81.9 points per game, a good chunk of which came from the hands of talented junior guard Aaron Holiday (brother of Jrue), who was 40th in scoring at 20.3 PPG. It was telling that the Gators allowed Arkansas’ Jaylen Barford to pound in 27 against them in the SEC quarterfinals, where the Razorbacks prevailed 80-72. Holiday has been hot lately, scoring 34 against Stanford in the Pac-12 quarters and the same against USC in the last game of the regular season.
7. Loyola-Chicago (11) vs. Miami (6) – South Upset
The Ramblers of Loyola-Chicago may not be the flashiest bunch, offence-wise, but they are a stingy crew on defence, limiting DI opponents to just 62.2 points per game, which is fifth lowest in the NCAA. Loyola-Chicago has used this stifling wall of ‘D’ to go 28-5 and win the Missouri Valley Conference title against Illinois State, by a 65-49 count. The Hurricanes ranked 28th in the nation (RPI) have to be worried by the Ramblers stout defensive zone play, as they were bounced easily by North Carolina 82-65 in the ACC quarterfinals. In their biggest non-conference game this season, the Ramblers beat Miami rivals, the Florida Gators, 65-59. While the Ramblers have limited opponents to minimal points, they have four starters and a bench player in double digit scoring, paced by Clayton Custer (13.4 ppg, 4.3 assists).
6. New Mexico State (12) vs. Clemson (5) – Midwest Upset
This is our biggest possible upset in the first round and a tough call. Yet, the New Mexico State Aggies come into March Madness on the heels of a superb 28-5 campaign and a Western Athletic Conference championship. And, like Loyola-Chicago above, these Aggies don’t give up a whole lot in their own zone, to the tune of 63.8 points against per game, or 10th lowest in NCAA DI basketball. The Aggies-Tigers match-up in the first round will probably be a low scoring affair, since Clemson is 29th in NCAA hoops at just 65.8 points per game against. Clemson lost a narrow 64-58 affair to no. 1 Virginia in the SEC semifinals, so they will be a tough nut to crack for N.M. State. Where the difference will likely lie is in scoring. The Aggies will play their usual air-tight D, then use their slight edge in team scoring — 76 PPG to Clemson’s 72 — to come out on top. Senior guard Zach Lofton, who leads the team with 19.8 PPG, averaged 24.3 points in three WAC tourney games.
5. Kentucky (5) – South Region Sure Thing
Here is where we are probably making our boldest pronouncement. And that would be the Wildcats emergence into the Final Four from a region that includes no. 1 Virginia. The Wildcats, who beat Tennessee 77-72 in the SEC final on Sunday, will manhandle Davidson in the first round, before taking down one of either Arizona (likely) or Buffalo (highly unlikely) in the second round. At that point, Kentucky should draw the Cavaliers in the Sweet 16 (they will be UMBC and our pick in the first round Kansas State in the second round. A Wildcats-Cavaliers tilt is a poolies dream, and nightmare, given that Kentucky can score (77 PPG), while Virginia has the top defence in DI, giving up a paltry 53.4 PPG. So, how do the Wildcats topple Virginia to continue their march to the Final Four? By keeping the Cavaliers big three shooters, Kyle Guy, Devon Hall and Ty Jerome from launching open threes (they are all proficient) and having their own Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and PJ Washington exploit Virginia’s interior defence.
4. North Carolina (2) – West Region Sure Thing
There are some good teams in the West Region, like Michigan (3) and Xavier (1), however, we think the Tar Heels are set up well to win that region and move on to the Final Four, where their fate may not be so certain. UNC smoked no. 28 Miami in the ACC quarterfinals, 82-65, then dismantled no. 7 Duke 74-69 in the semifinals. The gas was pretty low, then, in the ACC final vs. no. 1 Virginia, where the Tar Heels fell 71-63. Why we like North Carolina to come out of the West Region is by virtue of team scoring. This edition can score in buckets, clipping along at 82.0 PPG, which is 26th best and made even more impressive by the fact their schedule was chock full of top shelf DI schools. Leading the charge are dual threats in junior forward Luke Maye and senior guard Joel Berry II. Maye was tops in Tar Heels scoring at 17.2 PPG and first in rebounds (10.1) and blocks (1.1). Berry II was second in PPG (17.1)and second in assists (3.3). The West should belong to UNC.
3. Duke (2) – Midwest Region Sure Thing
The Blue Devils, under the outstanding leadership of Coach K, will make it to at least the Elite 8 for the third time in 10 seasons. It was a tough pill to swallow losing to hated rival North Carolina in the ACC semi-finals, but we think the 26-7 Blue Devils are poised for a meeting with Kansas in the Midwest final, providing they eliminate Michigan State (3) in the Sweet 16. Speaking of the Spartans, Duke has beaten them this season, along with triumphs over ranked opponents in Florida, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and Clemson. Like Blue Devils teams of the past, this unit can score, seemingly at will. They are eighth in scoring with 84.7 points, with Big Man on Campus Marvin Bagley III setting the tone at a rate of 21.1 PPG (along with 11.5 rebounds, tied with DeAndre Ayton for sixth overall). Duke opponents can’t just nullify Bagley III though, and forget about Grayson Allen (15.7 points, 4.5 assists), Gary Trent Jr. (14.3 points, 41.5 percent three-point shooting) or Wendell Carter Jr. (13.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks). Scary good.
2. Kansas (1) – Midwest Region Sure Thing
Under Bill Self, the no. 5 ranked Jayhawks have been one of the most successful NCAA teams in the last 15 years. They have won a title (2008), been to the Final (2012), the Elite 8 (five times) and the Sweet Sixteen (twice). This is a team built, year in and year out, to compete for titles. They won their 11th Big 12 championship and eighth under Self, clipping West Virginia 81-70 on Saturday. The 27-7 Jayhawks have more than enough offensive balance (they are 32nd overall in scoring at 82.0 PPG), with five players putting in over 12 points per game. Senior guard Devonte’ Graham is having a heck of a goodbye campaign and did considerable damage to the Mountaineers in the Big 12 final, pouring in 18 points (he averages 17.3) and adding a game high 13 dimes (of his team’s 17 total). The Jayhawks also won the Big 12 without Nigerian center Udoka Azubuike, who was a seven-foot rebounding (7.1 per game) and shot blocking (1.8) nightmare for Kansas foes. He’ll be back for the first round, so look out.
1. Villanova (1) – East Region Sure Thing
Jay Wright and the no. 2 Wildcats are gunning for their second title in three years, having won in 2016 and then getting bounced in the second round in 2017. ‘Nova is 30-4 this season and handily won the Big East title, subduing Providence in overtime, 76-66 on Saturday. Where they are positioned well to cruise in the East Region, and beyond, lies in their ability to score. This Wildcats team topped the NCAA — no small feat playing harder competition — with 87.1 points per game. Six players on a potent Villanova team are in double digits in scoring, with junior guard Jalen Brunson a key catalyst. He has a team leading 19.4 points per game, as well as 4.7 assists. Brunson tuned up well for the tournament, scoring a game high 31 and adding six rebounds and four assists in the win over Providence. He has help too, in the form of hot-shot NBA prospect Mikal Bridges, who has hit 43.3 percent of his three-pointers this season. This will be one tough squad to beat.