As much as I love the Louisville Cardinals basketball team, I always muse that it’s much easier to remain objective picking my March Madness bracket if the Cards don’t make the field. Now, that’s typically a rare occurrence, and fortunately, over the last decade or so, UofL has been in the discussion as a national title contender, so picking them to win isn’t an outlandish proposition. This past Monday, I rapidly completed my bracket, and immediately tweeted my prediction that Louisville will win it all. Within minutes of making announcing my choice, I had several friends drop the “Homer” label on me. So, I ask the question, is it really a homer pick if the team you root for is a legitimate contender? I say no. Ponder that as you read through my predictions for the entire bracket.
The defending Champion Villanova Wildcats reside here, and it’s their region for the taking. Jay Wright’s team is battle-tested, and looks more than capable of a repeat. Let’s not be too hasty, as there are a number of hazards on the road to Phoenix.
Dangerous on Day 1:
Watch out for the UNC-Wilmington Seahawks. Kevin Keatts is from the Rick Pitino coaching tree, and he has put together a dangerous squad. In last year’s tournament, the Seahawks pushed Duke to the limit in the Round of 64 before losing a hard-fought game by just eight points. The Seahawks will push the pace and play pressure defense, which will be in direct contrast to Virginia, as they get another ACC foe this year. If UNCW can dictate tempo, it could spell early round trouble for the Cavaliers. While Tony Bennett’s team is always one of the toughest defensively, their style keeps opponents within striking distance, which could play right into Wilmington’s hands.
Baylor ripped off 15 straight wins to open the season, and looked like an elite team. While the Bears aren’t completely abysmal, an early disappearing act may be on its way. Baylor is 5-5 over its final 10 games; and is scuffling enough that a loss to New Mexico State in the opening round, or a run-in with a powerful and hungry SMU team in the Round of 32 should be the demise of Scott Drew’s club.
The most critical match-up to affect this region will be Virginia vs. Villanova, part two. Part one on January 29 was an absolute classic, as the Cavaliers led most of the way, on the road no less. The Wildcats scratched and clawed their way back into the game late, and won 61-59 on Donte DiVincenzo tip in as time expired. I suspect round two will be just as grinding as the first meeting, only with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line. I have Nova surviving it, but no matter which team comes out of it, they’ll be in prime form to make it out of the East Region.
Fittingly, the SMU Mustangs are the dark horse in the East. A bit under the radar, and under -appreciated coming out of the AAC, Tim Jankovich’s team has something to prove. The Mustangs have an awful lot of length, and a ton of experience, led by the powerful Semi Ojeleye. The Ponies haven’t lost since January 22 at Cincinnati 66-64, and the Bearcats finished just a game behind SMU in the standings. Facing a favorable #3 Seed in Baylor, and then a Duke team which is heavily reliant on young players, there’s a strong chance the Mustangs can aptly fulfill the dark horse role.
Who Wins the East?
I’ve gotta stick with the Villanova Wildcats. Whether the Cats have it in them to repeat once they arrive at the Final Four, I can’t say, or at least won’t say just yet; but this team has enough talented pieces to chase a mini dynasty. With a rock-solid backcourt of Jaylen Brunson and senior leader Josh Hart, along with last year’s hero, senior Kris Jenkins, it would be a good bet to book a reservation for Nova in Phoenix.
The OCD in me loves that we actually got two western teams as the top seeds with #1 Gonzaga and #2 Arizona. It feels like there’s a real opportunity for the west coast to get some representation in the Final Four; and in the case of Zona, have a distinct home court advantage.
Dangerous on Day 1:
The West has many double-digit seeds that I think can stop some hearts in the Round of 64. Xavier is one, although they’re not an under-the-radar candidate. The same goes for VCU. However, the 12, 13, 14 seeds, Princeton, Bucknell, and Florida Gulf-Coast may also pose some problems. My personal pick is Bucknell. The Bison have the mid-major formula of solid veteran guards, along with sufficient frontcourt size, which leads to upsets. Guys like Zach Thomas, Nana Foulland, and Stephen Brown may inject themselves into the American consciousness with a win of West Virginia, and potential battle with Notre Dame. The West may be blown up by day two.
West Virginia is my odds-on favorite to get bounced. Naturally, as I picked Bucknell, as my double-digit danger choice; and the Bison face the Mountaineers. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with West Virginia. Bob Huggins’ team got plucked in the Round of 64 last year, and feel like a good candidate to get bounced, in what could be a topsy-turvy region. If I had to pick another top seed that may be at peril, it would be Florida State. Leonard Hamilton has put together a talented group led by sophomore 6-7 guard Dwayne Bacon. However, these Seminoles haven’t experienced the tournament yet. If the Noles get past Florida Gulf Coast, the Round of 32 could be the end of the road.
A Sweet 16 tilt between Gonzaga and Notre Dame is my key match-up for this region. Mark Few has had the Bulldogs on the precipice of the Final Four in the past, only to have his talented, expectation-laden teams fall short. This rendition of Gonzaga has a go-to star in Nigel Williams-Goss, and plenty of heft manning the middle with Przemek Karnowski. Many feel like this is the year for the Zags to finally break through. Not so fast. The Golden Domers are essentially the same team that has been to the Elite Eight the past two seasons. Mike Brey’s team is led by the versatile Bonzie Colson, and has plenty of exterior firepower as well with Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem. I think the Irish make a third consecutive trip to the Elite Eight, and leave Gonzaga fans longing for that elusive Final Four run.
The aforementioned Notre Dame Fighting Irish team is my dark horse. Yes, the Irish are a #5 seed, but certainly are not considered favorites to escape the region. The experience on hand, along with the tournament success this team has gained over the previous two seasons, makes Brey’s team extremely dangerous. Assuming Notre Dame gets past Gonzaga, there’s no reason that Arizona, or whichever opponent finds their way to the Elite Eight, can’t be eliminated by the Fighting Irish.
Who Wins the West?
I’ve barely mentioned the Arizona Wildcats up until now, but Sean Miller’s squad is my choice to win the West. The Wildcats are at the top of their game heading into the NCAA Tournament, having won nine of their last 10 games, including capturing the Pac-12 tournament title. 6-5 sophomore Alonzo Trier is a do-everything type of player and 7-0 super frosh Lauri Markkanen is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the country. Miller just missed the Final Four in 2015. This year he’ll get Zona to Phoenix for a shot at the National Championship.
The Midwest Region seems to have laid out fairly well for my Louisville Cardinals. Without a doubt Kansas can’t be taken lightly as the #1 seed. However, #3 seed Oregon just lost a key player. #4 Purdue is good, but definitely not elite, and the Cardinals have already beaten the Boilermakers. And #5 seed Iowa State has been a huge disappointment the last few years come March. Of course, I say this, and the entire region could blow-up in my face.
Dangerous on Day 1:
When I look at the Midwest, I think chalk. It just feels like a section of the bracket that will end up staying to form, as few of the double-digit seeds feel like a huge upset threat. If I had to guess which teams have a shot, I’d point out Nevada and Vermont. The Wolfpack won the Mountain West regular season, and tournament titles, and closed the season winning eight in a row. The Catamounts haven’t lost a game since December 21, closing out the regular season with 21 wins in a row. Both teams face opponents – Iowa State and Purdue – which have displayed the propensity to get clipped early in the tournament. Beware.
I referenced in my Midwest Region Preview yesterday, that Oregon’s biggest challenge heading into the NCAA Tournament is the loss of Chris Boucher to injury. Most teams that suffer loss of key personnel typically either rally around it, or sulk and lose focus. My bet is on the latter. Top player Dillon Brooks can be a star, but he also has his own meltdowns and antics which distract from the team. Round of 64 opponent Iona played NCAA tourney participants Florida State and Nevada early in the year; and knocked off Nevada in the second match-up. The Ducks will likely get past the Gaels, but my prediction is that Oregon will run into red-hot Rhode Island, and get shot down quickly.
It may seem a bit early to be considered a pivotal match-up, but the potential Kansas/Michigan State game will play a major factor in this region. The Spartans have been down this season. So down, that for a while it felt like Tom Izzo’s team wouldn’t make the Big Dance. Well, here come the Spartans, landing at a #9 seed, just in time to bug the hell out of top seeded Kansas. Honestly, there’s no reason the Jayhawks shouldn’t knock off MSU. However, the one major weakness for Kansas is in the frontcourt where Bill Self’s team is a bit thin. That just happens to be a strength of the Spartans. If Kansas escapes, it will likely propel the Jayhawks to great fortune. If not, the Midwest Region really opens up.
#11 seed Rhode Island is the sleeper in this region. The Rams closed strong, winning eight of nine; and have a win over Cincinnati under their belts early in the year. Undoubtedly, URI starts with a difficult contest against #6 Creighton, and would likely have to take on #3 Oregon in the Round of 32. With the way the Rams are playing, solid inside-outside balance, and up-and-coming Dan Hurley at the helm, Rhode Island has the look of a Cinderella. I envision the Rams riding that late-season success into an Elite Eight appearance.
Who Wins the Midwest?
I have the Louisville Cardinals coming out of the Midwest. As I mentioned in my preview of the Midwest, the Cardinals have their flaws. Most of those flaws however are self-inflicted. This is a team that can play multiple defenses, get out in transition, and pick teams apart. Focusing on applying the death blow is what Louisville needs to add to the repertoire to advance deep into the tournament. Rick Pitino will adjust the rotations, and as usual, have some tricks he kept hidden all season, which will put UofL on the right path toward the Final Four.
There’s always one region which seems to have a lion’s share of top programs, and could almost be considered a “Group of Death”. The South is it this year. Arguably the top three college basketball programs of all time – Kentucky, North Carolina, and UCLA – all reside in the South. What makes this region really fun though, is that in addition to all that tradition, some of the most dangerous double-digit seeds also found their way here.
Dangerous on Day 1:
This one is easy; the most dangerous high seed is #12 Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history last year, knocking off #2 seed Michigan State. Much of that squad is back for a second helping, and now they have 6-8 senior JaCorey Williams. The Arkansas transfer leads MTSU in scoring at 17 points per game. In the Round of 64, the Blue Raiders get Richard Pitino’s #5 Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Gophers are back in the tournament field after having a miserable 2015-16 season, finishing 8-23. Without a doubt, Pitino did a masterful job turning this team around, but the visit to the tournament may be short-lived.
Once again John Calipari has an uber-talented group of freshmen, forecasted for greatness, which captured the SEC regular season and tournament titles. Kentucky has won 10 games in a row, and may possibly be hitting their stride. Like most of Calipari’s teams, in-game focus, and reliance on physical ability over substance, are the most glaring flaws. On most nights, the Wildcats can overcome those. Enter Wichita State as the foe in Round 2. Greg Marshall’s team has reeled off 15 wins in a row, and has faced tournament teams, Louisville, Michigan State, and Oklahoma State this season. The Shockers were also woefully under-seeded by the tournament committee. That sounds familiar. Like 2014 familiar when Wichita State was undefeated and a #1 seed, and had to face a Kentucky team that ended up with a peculiar #8 seed. Turnabout is fair play. Wichita gets revenge on Kentucky, and sends the Cats packing.
It has to be Kentucky vs. Wichita State. If my forecast is correct, and the Shockers knock off the Wildcats, then things open up for UCLA. Not that the Bruins can’t take down Kentucky, they’ve done so the last two years in row. This year, Steve Alford’s team traveled to Rupp Arena and did it. Despite my prediction, it will take everything Wichita has to defeat the Wildcats. Many times, that type of effort leads to a let-down the following game. If Kentucky gets through the Shockers, then Calipari’s team has vengeance on the mind, and a more talented opponent for the Bruins to have in their way.
The Cincinnati Bearcats haven’t been able to recapture the success experienced under Bob Huggins in the 1990’s. Now relegated to the AAC after the Big East restructure several seasons ago, UC doesn’t garner a lot of respect. Mick Cronin’s team could punch some teams square in the face and take back respect. Cincy plays a physical brand of basketball, particularly on the defensive end. That has been Cronin’s hallmark. Senior point guard Troy Caupain runs this team with aplomb. Juniors Gary Clark and North Carolina State transfer Kyle Washington provide a strong frontcourt, to go with the scoring punch of 6-6 sophomore Jacob Evans. Assuming the Bearcats get by Kansas State in the opener, UC could present a tough match-up for UCLA in the Round of 32.
Who Wins the South?
Although I’m never sold on Steve Alford coached teams, I’ve got the UCLA Bruins getting out of the South, and giving the Final Four its second west coast rep. There’s an awful lot of talent on board for the Bruins, particularly super freshman Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. Ball does just about everything, and Leaf leads the UCLA in scoring. Blend that with veteran contributions from senior Isaac Hamilton and junior Thomas Welsh, and the Bruins have the arsenal available to make a run at the NCAA title.
THE FINAL FOUR:
The first semifinal pits a couple of Wildcats against each other. Defending champion Villanova against traditional power Arizona. Nova has all the moxie, veteran experience, and the championship in their hands until someone rips it away. Josh Hart is one of the toughest players around, and always seems to make the necessary play to win. I think the biggest difference will be up front. Lauri Markkanen is getting better by leaps and bounds every game. The size issue that Zona presents will be the difference as Arizona gets back to the NCAA title game for the first time since 2001.
On the other side of the bracket, Louisville and UCLA square off. It’s been some time since the Cardinals and Bruins have played, so it’ll be nice to see these traditional powers, and rivals of the 70s and 80s get back together. The Bruins can put up some serious points, and have an edge in overall depth of talent, but that gap isn’t as large as you’d think. Getting out in transition is just what Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel want to do for the Cardinals, and if UofL doesn’t have to settle for jump shots, it’s for the best, as that runs hot and cold for the Cards. The biggest difference here is coaching and experience. Rick Pitino is a far superior strategist than Steve Alford. The Cardinals also have several holdovers from the 2015 Elite Eight run, including Quentin Snider and Mangok Mathiang. After having to miss out on the Big Dance last year, the Cardinals are hungry for more, and get through to the Championship game.
THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:
Arizona Wildcats. Louisville Cardinals. This is a National Championship game that I crave. Sean Miller’s star continues to rise, as he brings Arizona back to the prominence. Rick Pitino continues his master craftsmanship of molding elite basketball teams. Alonzo Trier and Donovan Mitchell will be the showstoppers. Much of the talent position by position will be crossed out. Louisville has the big men to throw different looks at Lauri Markkanen, and limit the freshman’s impact on the game. The X-factor will be junior point guard Quentin Snider. Q can very quietly step up in the biggest moments, and his control of the game, and perhaps a big shot or two, will decide this one. Rick Pitino gets his third, and the Louisville Cardinals grab their fourth National Championship.
E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.