2016 was one of those rare College Basketball seasons which never revealed a truly elite team. Usually there’s at least one school which is head and shoulders above the rest. With so many teams flitting in and out of elite status over the course of the season, I had to loosen the reigns a bit while making my selections.
Most years I can pretty confidently have the bracket completed within 15-20 minutes after the field is released on Selection Sunday; but certainly not this season. It took me until Tuesday evening to finalize my picks all the way to the Champion. Here is my Region by Region breakdown of the 2016 NCAA Tournament.
We’ll start in the South Region, where the top overall seed, the Kansas Jayhawks reside. Bill Self’s team began to pick up steam late in the year, and is one team which is as close to being truly elite as you can ask for this year. This is how the South shakes out:
Dangerous on Day 1:
The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors are my pick to cause real problems as a double-digit seed. Stefan Jankovic is the name to remember. The 6-11 junior is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Bows. Out of conference, they beat a tough Northern Iowa team, and lost close battles with tournament participants Texas Tech and Oklahoma. Look for Hawaii’s experienced backcourt, along with their star Jankovic to knock off the Cal Golden Bears, and their super frosh Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb.
As far as a higher seed which will get bounced on the first day, I just mentioned them, the California Golden Bears. Cuonzo Martin’s team has a plethora of talent, but inconsistency has plagued them. Cal has a good mix of size and perimeter ability. Aside from the freshmen Brown and Rabb, the Bears also have excellent wing players in Jabari Bird, Tyrone Wallace, and Jordan Mathews. However, between the inconsistency, and now the revelation of a scandal involving a recently fired assistant coach, I see the Golden Bears departing quickly.
The face-off between the Maryland Terrapins and the Kansas Jayhawks should decide the region. Kansas is one of the more balanced teams. Senior Perry Ellis uses a variety of fundamentally sound post moves to lead the way in scoring. Old man jokes aside, Ellis truly has an old school game. He teams up front with Landen Lucas, and brick house Jamari Traylor. Add in the perimeter attack of Frank Mason III, Devonte Graham, along with Wayne Selden; and Kansas has a lot of ways to beat you.
The Terps are on the list of teams with temporary elite status this year. But don’t let that fool you; they’re as talented as any team in the country. Melo Trimble is arguably the best point guard in the country; and they have plenty of post power with Robert Carter and Diamond Stone. It’ll be interesting to see how Jake Layman matches up both offensively and defensively in this one, because he may be the difference. In any event, whichever team gets past this game is going to the Final Four.
Sixth seeded Arizona is my pick to surprise in the South. Like much of the Pac-12, the Wildcats were up and down all season. Much of that can also be attributed to the absence of blue chip freshman Alonzo Trier for a number of games. However, Trier, Gabe York, and Ryan Anderson each average over 15 PPG; and they can rely on seven-foot senior Kaleb Tarczewski to patrol the paint. Don’t be surprised to see Coach Sean Miller get his team together for another deep run.
Who Wins the South?
My pick to win the South Region is the Maryland Terrapins. Coach Mark Turgeon is a coach on the rise, and is building a strong foundation at Maryland. His team has the balance and depth necessary to sustain a deep run, and fend off periods of offensive drought. Keep an eye out for the Terps in Houston.
The West is widely considered the weakest region. Top seeded Oregon is not a school accustomed to being in this position, and probably hasn’t been seen by many people East of the Mississippi. A weaker installment of the Duke Blue Devils, and a perimeter heavy #2 seed in Oklahoma, makes for a wide open, truly Wild West.
Dangerous on Day 1:
Yale has rapidly gained popular support as the classic 5/12 upset special. The Bulldogs made sure to play some top teams in the non-conference. Duke beat them by 19, and USC by 12, but they also pushed SMU to the limit in a two-point loss. They are dealing with turmoil of their own, with the dismissal of team Captain Jack Montague in February, but Yale still has what it takes to advance at least one round.
I have no doubt that Shaka Smart is going to do great things at Texas, just not this year. Smart did a real nice job with the Longhorns this season, but it’s going to take a bit more time for his full “Havoc” to take effect. Running into a veteran Northern Iowa team, who is playing in their second straight tournament is simply the wrong spot for Texas.
Texas A&M vs. Northern Iowa won’t necessarily determine the Final Four representative from the West, but it will have a major impact. The Aggies became a popular choice immediately after the brackets were released, to take the West Region. While they have had a strong season overall, they had a rough four game losing streak against some very average teams in the SEC. I’m not sure Northern Iowa has answers for Danuel House and Jalen Jones; however, the Panthers’ Wes Washpun will be the X-factor. He’ll pester the Aggies shaky lead guards, and has a knack for hitting big shots. If A&M can get past this one, it may propel them to great things. I just don’t believe they will.
Cincinnati is my sleeper in the region, coming in as the #9 seed. The Bearcats are always tough defensively, and their physical nature could disrupt the up and down style of Oregon in the second round. Whether they can score enough is the question? Cincy could be the team to knock out the first #1 seed.
Who Wins the West?
I’ve barely mentioned them while discussing the West Region, but my Final Four pick out of this bracket is the Oklahoma Sooners. Although it goes against my nature to pick a perimeter heavy team to advance this far, I think the path in front of them lends itself to that type of success. Buddy Hield has been flat-out magical this season, and that magic will carry them through the West Region.
Yesterday in my piece regarding equitable brackets I referred to the East Region as the “Group of Death”. That may be a bit dramatic, but the East is certainly heavy with pedigree, if you will. We should get blue bloods Indiana and Kentucky in the second round, followed by the winner of that game against North Carolina in the Sweet 16. This is going to be a fun region to watch.
Dangerous on Day 1:
Most of the double-digit seeds in this region aren’t much of a threat. However, you won’t want to sleep on Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks are playing in their third straight NCAA Tournament, and they did knock off VCU in the First Four a couple of years ago. Coach Brad Underwood is beginning to emerge as an attractive potential hire for the power conferences; and they have the guard play to compete. I doubt SFA pulls it off, but they have the goods to put a mighty scare into West Virginia.
This is the one region which doesn’t really have a glaring candidate among the higher seeds to get bounced early. Either Kentucky or Indiana will go home at the end of the first weekend regardless, so unless there’s a big shocker, most of the top seeds are safe. Notre Dame against the play-in winner is the closest thing to an early out surprise that the East has to offer.
All the talk is about the top of the region, but the most pivotal match-up to me is Xavier vs. West Virginia. Both of these teams are tough as nails, so this should be a grinder. Chris Mack’s team was very consistent, and has good perimeter/interior balance. The battle up front between Devin Williams, who’s an absolute beast, and the Musketeer’s big men James Farr and Jalen Reynolds should be entertaining. We’ll also witness some outstanding guards going head-to-head with Trevon Bluiett and Jaysean Paige. With all eyes on the top of the bracket, the winner of this game may get to fly under the radar.
Anytime you have a sure-fire lottery pick on your team, you’ve got a chance to advance through the bracket. Providence has that player in Kris Dunn. A powerfully built 6-4 guard, Dunn is the type of player who could put a team on his back for three weeks. Luckily, he’s also got a great running mate in 6-9 Ben Bentil, who leads the Friars in scoring and rebounding. Early in the season it looked as if Providence would do better than a 9 seed. Don’t be shocked if they make a deep run.
Who Wins the East?
The Xavier Musketeers have never made the Final Four. This year, I think they finally do it. Led by one of the bright young coaches in the game in Chris Mack, along with the required balance necessary to deal with every type of opponent; I see Xavier getting the job done. The Musketeers will harass the North Carolina guards into a rough shooting night, and the big men will keep Brice Johnson at bay on the glass to finally break through to the Final Four.
If the East is the Group of Death, then the Midwest is “The Bloodbath”. Honestly I view this as the most difficult region. There are essentially two #1 seeds with Virginia and Michigan State. Both of these top-tier teams will have some tremendously physical match-ups en route to the Regional Final. Can they survive it?
Dangerous on Day 1:
While most of the Midwest region will be playing brass knuckle ball, the Iona Gaels and Iowa State Cyclones are going to be in a track meet. Iona has a future pro in A.J. English; and that alone makes them dangerous. The Gaels will get up and down with the best of them, and shoot a lot of 3’s. Although they didn’t have any great wins this season, they may just get their first during the tournament.
Iowa State clearly has talent, and Georges Niang will be the most versatile player on the floor on most nights. The Cyclones have seven players who average double figures, so scoring won’t be an issue. However, it’s been rocky waters in Steve Prohm’s first season in the locker room, which may end much like last year’s did for Iowa State; on the first day.
When I mentioned this region being a bloodbath, I was thinking specifically about the potential match-up between Virginia and Purdue. The Boilermakers frontline of A.J. Hammons, Caleb Swanigan, and Isaac Haas is imposing. The Cavaliers won’t be intimidated with 7-0 Mike Tobey, and powerful Anthony Gill going to battle with them. The backcourt is where Virginia likely gets it done, with London Perrantes knocking down shots, and Malcolm Brogdon doing a bit of everything. The key will be if either of these teams have another 15 rounds in them once they reach the Regional Final.
Seton Hall is HOT! The Pirates have won 14 of their last 16 games, including the Big East Tournament Title. They’re led by four sophomores, namely Isaiah Whitehead on the wing, and Angel Delgado in the paint. Whitehead is the type of player that can lift a team onto his shoulders, especially for a short sprint of the tournament. The toughest part will be the difficult pairings they’ll have right from the jump.
Who Wins the Midwest?
Virginia has lost to Michigan State two years in a row in the NCAA Tournament; last year in the second round, and the Sweet 16 the prior year. Both of those games were bare knuckle brawls. The toe-to-toe match-up between Denzel Valentine and Brogdon one last time may become a thing of legend. I expect nothing less than brilliance this year, but this time Tony Bennett gets his guys over the hump. Virginia advances to the Final Four.
THE FINAL FOUR:
In the first semifinal we’ll have Maryland vs. Oklahoma. There will be some unbelievable guard play on display with Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon, nose-to-nose with Isaiah Cousins and Buddy Hield. The guards may cross each other out, leaving the Terps frontcourt to be the difference. This is the game which will expose the Sooners up front. Willow-thin Khadeem Latin will have all he can handle and then some with Robert Carter and Diamond Stone. The overall balance of Maryland gets them into the Championship game.
Next up will be Final Four newcomers Xavier, versus a Virginia team which hasn’t been this far since 1984. While the backcourt match-up won’t be quite as dynamic in this game, it will certainly be formidable. Unlike the other semifinal, the yeoman’s work being done up front by both teams big men, may even things out. The difference here will be the defense of Virginia, and Malcolm Brogdon. The Cavaliers put opponents in a vice and squeeze until they crush them. Defense will push Virginia into the final game.
THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:
Squaring off in the National Title game are the Maryland Terrapins and the Virginia Cavaliers. Former ACC Rivals meet again for the hardware. Virginia has beaten opponents all season by imposing their will. A similar fate awaits the Terrapins in the Championship game. The size up front which Maryland has been able to use as an advantage all tournament, will be offset by the physical nature of Virginia. Melo Trimble will rise to stardom this March, but the Cavaliers have a disciplined backcourt combo which will be able to keep him in check. Once again, Malcolm Brogdon is the difference maker, impacting every aspect of the game, to lead his team to victory. The senior laden Virginia Cavaliers are your National Champions!
Image via Flickr/Thomson20192