The NCAA Tournament is finally here after four and a half months of basketball, and it will provide us with the three most exciting weeks on the sports calendar.
To help you fill our your bracket and give you all the information you need about the 68 teams competing for the National Championship, here are region-by-region breakdowns of every matchup. We'll be back before the start of every round, but if you need help projecting beyond the opening round, here are projections for the only teams that can win the national title and a handful of contenders that don't have the makeup to win a championship. Here is a preview & predictions for every single first round matchup:
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(1) Villanova Wildcats vs. (16) Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers
We won't have to go too deep into this one. A 16-seed has never beaten a one-seed, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. Especially not to the defending national champions, who are as consistent as anyone in the entire country.
(8) Wisconsin Badgers vs. (9) Virginia Tech Hokies
This is not your traditional 8/9 game. Wisconsin probably deserved a five or six-seed, but the selection committee was clearly not that impressed by the Big Ten this season. Still, they're a talented team with plenty of NCAA Tournament experience. Their group of seniors have made at least the Sweet 16 every season, and while I expect that to change this year, they are at their best in the tournament.
Virginia Tech is a program on the rise under Buzz Williams - they just don't have the overall talent level to match Wisconsin. Badgers big man Ethan Happ (13.9 ppg, 9.1 rpg) will be the difference in this one.
(5) Virginia Cavaliers vs. (12) UNC Wilmington Seahawks
I detailed this game in another article picking the eight most likely upsets in the first round, so check that out for a full preview of this game. The bottom line - Virginia's offensive struggles will do them in.
Prediction: UNC Wilmington
(4) Florida Gators vs. (13) East Tennessee State Buccaneers
Another one of those likely upsets, I have East Tennessee State winning behind a breakout performance from star T.J. Cromer (19.1 ppg), who can win game by himself with his three-point shooting. The Gators are also struggling, losing three of their last four games.
Prediction: East Tennessee State
(6) SMU Mustangs vs. (11) USC Trojans
SMU won 30 games this season and have one of the best players you've never heard of in forward Semi Ojeleye (18.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg). They only really play six players, so depth is an issue with them. However, USC is just 2-6 against RPI top 25 teams, which is the reason why were in the play-in game. Even though one of those wins came against SMU, the Mustangs are a difference team now. Look for Ojeleye to lead SMU not just to a win in this game, but also carrying the Mustangs to the Sweet 16.
(3) Baylor Bears vs. (14) New Mexico State Aggies
New Mexico State is a great rebounding team, but Baylor does it better with more talented players. Big men will dominate this game, and Baylor's Johnathan Motley (17.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg) will be the best player on the court.
(7) South Carolina Gamecocks vs. (10) Marquette Golden Eagles
South Carolina is a very good defensive team (third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency), but are terrible on offense. Marquette is the exact opposite, playing very well on offense (seventh nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency), but can't stop a nosebleed.
Marquette's offensive attack is based around three-point shooting, and while they can get hot at any time, their offense can also become ineffective if they go cold. Traditionally speaking, defense wins these kind of games, and SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell will be the best player on the court.
Prediction: South Carolina
(2) Duke Blue Devils vs. (15) Troy Trojans
The Blue Devils are red hot after winning the ACC Tournament, and they appear to be peaking at the right time. Troy surprisingly won the Sun Belt Tournament to get the conference's automatic bid, but this is just as much of a mismatch as you think it is.
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(1) Kansas Jayhawks vs. (16) UC Davis Aggies
Kansas doesn't have a lot of depth, but that won't hurt them in this matchup. No matter who wins the play-in game, the Jayhawks will be the much, much more talented team.
(8) Miami Hurricanes vs. (9) Michigan State Spartans
This game will not be as good as it appears to be on paper. Everyone likes to point to how good Tom Izzo and Michigan State usually are in March, and while they've earned that right, this Spartans team does not have a lot of upside. Miles Bridges is a bona fide star and is good for one or two highlight plays per game, but as a team, Michigan State is inefficient on both ends of the floor. Bridges is their only consistent scoring option and the Spartans don't have any size.
Meanwhile, Miami is a good defensive team that will limit Bridges' effectiveness and force Michigan State's role players to beat them (which will not happen). Expect Davon Reed and Bruce Brown to lead the Canes to a relatively easy win.
(5) Iowa State Cyclones vs. (12) Nevada Wolf Pack
Nevada is a quality mid-major team and are more than capable of pulling off this upset. They're an excellent offensive team with size and versatile wings, and have four players who average over 14 points per game. Unfortunately for them, they really struggle on the defensive end (101 in adjusted defense according to KenPom.com), and Iowa State is one of the elite offenses in the country.
Cyclones point guard Monte Morris has a long NBA career ahead of him with his playmaking skills, three-point shooting and ability to take care of the ball. Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas are two lethal three-point shooters, and Deonte Burton is a matchup nightmare at the four position. I think Iowa State simply has too much firepower.
Prediction: Iowa State
(4) Purdue Boilermakers vs. (13) Vermont Catamounts
Back to the upset picks, with a full breakdown here. Vermont has won 21 games in a row coming into the tournament and will stun Caleb Swanigan and Purdue. Turnovers will be the difference.
(6) Creighton Blue Jays vs. (11) Rhode Island Rams
Another upset! Rhode Island, a preseason top 25 team, is finally healthy and are peaking at the right time, winning eight games in a row. Though Creighton is a good team, the Rams just have more talent, led by guard E.C. Matthews.
Prediction: Rhode Island
(3) Oregon Ducks vs. (14) Iona Gaels
Yes, Oregon will struggle to adjust without starting center and leading shot-blocker Chris Boucher (who suffered a torn ACL in the Pac-12 Tournament), but this game is a cakewalk for them. Iona essentially doesn't play defense and have a very basic offense. They want to run up and down the court and play this game at as fast a pace as possible, which plays right into Oregon's hands.
(7) Michigan Wolverines vs. (10) Oklahoma State Cowboys
Jawun Evans (19.0 ppg, 6.2 apg) is another one of those "best players you've never heard of," and he'll make some NBA team very happy next year. However, Oklahoma State doesn't have enough around him to beat a red hot Michigan team coming off a miraculous Big Ten Tournament run. The Wolverines are playing their best basketball of the season, and that will continue.
(2) Louisville Cardinals vs. (15) Jacksonville State Gamecocks
Jacksonville State was the first team to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, so there's a fun fact for ya. They're also not good enough to win this game.
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(1) North Carolina Tar Heels vs. (16) Texas Southern Tigers
Another 1/16 matchup that is going to go the way every 1/16 matchup has gone.
Prediction: North Carolina
(8) Arkansas Razorbacks vs. (9) Seton Hall Pirates
Another dominant player you've never heard of is Seton Hall's Angel Delgado (15.3 ppg, 13,1 rpg), and he is going to be a major factor in this game. However, Arkansas' pressing style is going to put the onus on Seton Hall's guards to beat then, and that is exactly what they're going to do. Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez make up one of the best backcourts in the Big East.
Arkansas is balanced team still trying to find their way, and don't have a single win over a team that ranks in the top 35 in the RPI.
Prediction: Seton Hall
(5) Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. (12) Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Even though Middle Tennessee is the lower seed, they're the most popular 5/12 upset in most brackets. The Blue Raiders return the same core group from last year's team that upset Michigan State, and they've been one of the best mid-majors all season long. Full breakdown of this game here.
Prediction: Middle Tennessee
(4) Butler Bulldogs vs. (13) Winthrop Eagles
This one has the potential to be a shocker. Winthrop is a small team that spaces out opposing defenses by having four shooters on the court at all times, and if they get hot, they are capable of pulling the upset. That said, Butler plays the same style - and they do it better with more talented players.
(6) Cincinnati Bearcats vs. (11) Kansas State Wildcats
Another upset pick, I'm going with either K-State. Cincinnati simply struggles too much offensively for me to trust them against tournament-caliber teams. I go more in depth about that in the upset article.
Prediction: Kansas State
(3) UCLA Bruins vs. (14) Kent State Golden Flashes
The only questions in this game will be if UCLA can hit 100 points and how much they will win by. The Golden Flashes are one of the worst teams in the tournament field on both ends of the court, and UCLA's offense is one of the best in recent college basketball history.
(7) Dayton Flyers vs. (10) Wichita State Shockers
It's really a shame that these two teams have to play each other so early, but what we get is the best game of the first round. Many metrics projected Wichita State to be a five or six-seed in the tournament, and they were definitely deserving of a much higher seed than what they got. KenPom.com ranks the Shockers No. 8 in the entire country as they are in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They have a history of tournament success, have won 15 straight games and are one of the deepest and most balanced teams in the country.
It will not be a shock (pun intended) if Wichita State wins. In fact, they're the favorite. But I'm picking Dayton. The Flyers have a veteran team with many of the same players that led them to the Elite 8 three years ago and have wins over several tournament teams (Rhode Island (twice), VCU, Vanderbilt, East Tennessee State, Winthrop) this year.
As for Wichita, their metrics are great, but they don't have a single win over another tournament team. In fact, 24 of their 30 wins came against teams that finished outside the top 150 in the RPI. They benefitted greatly from a weak schedule, and that will hurt them in a close game like this.
(2) Kentucky Wildcats vs. (15) Northern Kentucky Norse
Northern Kentucky made the NCAA Tournament in the first year they were eligible after making the move from Division II. That's an awesome story - but it's a story that doesn't include a win over a Kentucky team with title aspirations and NBA players all over the court.
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(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. (16) South Dakota State Jackrabbits
The Zags will win this game, but this isn't one to just gloss over like the other 1/16 matchups. South Dakota State center Mike Daum (25.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg) has an NBA future and can take over any game. He will play well, but the Jackrabbits are just 18-16 for a reason - he gets absolutely no help from his supporting cast. Gonzaga will win in a blowout, but it'll be one worth watching for Daum.
(8) Northwestern Wildcats vs. (9) Vanderbilt Commodores
Northwestern is in the tournament for the first time in school history, and Vanderbilt is the first team with 15 losses ever to make the tournament as an at-large team. The Commodores earned that bid because of how good they've been over the past month or so, but they don't have the code to crack Northwestern's defense. Vanderbilt really struggles with turnovers when they face any kind of pressure, and the Wildcats play a pressure man-to-man defense modeled after Duke. Northwestern's defense prowess will be the difference.
(5) Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. (12) Princeton Tigers
This will not be one of those 5/12 upsets. Princeton is good, especially defensively, and they are not a team to be taken lightly. However, they play small ball (as most mid-majors do), and Notre Dame plays small ball better than anyone else in the country. They've also been as consistent in March as anyone in recent years, going to two straight Elite 8's. Their superior talent will show itself in this one.
Prediction: Notre Dame
(4) West Virginia Mountaineers vs. (13) Bucknell Bison
This is another game where I don't see there being much of a chance for an upset. West Virginia's press wreaks havoc on a lot of teams, and Bucknell figures to be one of those. The Bison rank 204th in the country in turnovers per possession. WVU should feast on that and win this one easily.
Prediction: West Virginia
(6) Maryland Terrapins vs. (11) Xavier Musketeers
Perhaps the least surprising of the upset picks, I have Xavier beating the Terps simply because Maryland hasn't beaten a ranked team this year. They have struggled against good competition because of how bad their big men are, and Xavier will take advantage.
(3) Florida State Seminoles vs. (14) Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
There is a lot of steam behind FGCU pulling off this upset, and for good reason. Florida State has been inconsistent and disinterested on defense at times this year, and the Eagles boast a quality mid-major team. They have a lot of offensive firepower, but they don't have a lot of size. At 6-foot-9, Demetris Morant and Antravious Simmons are the two tallest players in their rotation.
On the flip side, Florida State is the second tallest team in the country with an average height of 6-foot-7. That size will deter FGCU from attacking the rim and force them to the perimeter, where they shoot just 33.9 percent from three-point range (219th in the country).
Prediction: Florida State
(7) Saint Mary's Gaels vs. (10) VCU Rams
I am as sure about this upset pick as any (full breakdown). In a nutshell, Saint Mary's has struggled to defend good, quick teams because of their lack of athleticism. VCU is as athletic as any team in the country and should have no problem getting to the rim and shredding Saint Mary's defense.
(2) Arizona Wildcats vs. (15) North Dakota Fighting Hawks
Arizona is my pick to win the national championship because they are the most complete team in the country now that Allonzo Trier is back in the fold. North Dakota won't provide them with anything more than a warmup game for the rest of the tournament.
Prediction: ArizonaBack to the NCAA Newsfeed