It’s here! It’s here! The selection committee unveiled the bracket on Sunday night. Play-in games began with a high-tempo thriller between BYU and Ole’ Miss on Tuesday, and in mere hours, the best weekend in sports tips off. Before sifting through the match-ups and potential outcomes, I want to thank BC, Matt, Tiffany, Andrew, -J., Bean, Travis, Meryl, Spenser, Ted, Brian for their stellar participation in our first live twitter chat. You should follow them all, and, of course, the Addison Recorder account.
Best First Round Game: Ohio State vs. VCU
Potential Upset: Georgia State over Baylor
The West Region has the most potential of any 16 team group this year. VCU vs. Ohio State is perhaps the most intriguing first round match-up in the tournament. The Buckeyes struggled down the stretch, but D’Angelo Williams is a stud. VCU’s Havoc defense hasn’t fared well against teams with strong backcourts in tournament play. Shannon Scott and Ruseell are sure-handed point guards who make few mistakes. I like the Buckeyes to squeeze by in this one.
Georgia State, to whom I awarded two slippers earlier this season, stands a decent chance of knocking off Baylor. The Bears turn over the ball close to 20% of possessions. Over 10% of their possessions end in steals. Georgia State ranks top 10 nationally in defensive turnover and steal-percentage. It’s the truest test of my Cinderella theory this season.
Finally, Arizona vs. Wisconsin for a shot at the Final Four might be the game of the year. Wisconsin earned the #1 seed in the West following Big 10 regular season and tournament championships, but odds-makers and statisticians will favor Arizona should it come down to that. The dark horse in this region is North Carolina, who played a grueling schedule and won high profile games at home, on neutral floors, and on the road. The Tar Heels are tall, experienced, well-coached, and can score on anyone. I expect them to hold their seed and give Wisconsin fits next week.
Best First Round Game: Iowa vs. Davidson
Potential Upsets: SF Austin over Utah; Eastern Washington over Georgetown
The South region, similar to the West, could end in a fantastic showdown between #1 seed Duke and #2 seed Gonzaga. Duke secured the top spot in this bracket despite the absence of a conference regular season or tournament title, leading to Kenpom rating the Blue Devils as the weakest #1 seed. Typically a championship-caliber team ranks top 20 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Duke ranks 56th right now. Gonzaga’s size could neutralize Duke’s superstar center Jahlil Okafor and the Bulldogs’ superior shooting should hold up against the weak defensive teams in this region. Look for Mark Few and his Bulldogs to make their first Final Four.
Outside the top 2 seeds, Utah holds the key to your bracket success this season. On one hand, the Utes are 8th overall in Kenpom – ahead of every single three seed. This makes them a smart pick if you’re an economist. On the other hand, the Utes have alternated wins and losses dating back to February 22, and their point guards turn the ball over about one in every five possessions. Stephen F. Austin, the strongest 12-seed in the field by a mile, forces turnovers, scores a ton, and could send the Utes packing early.
Eastern Washington displays almost no characteristics of a low-seed capable of making a run, other than playing Georgetown in the first round. The Eagles’ Tyler Harvey leads the nation in points per game this season, but teams that rely on high-usage players to carry them to upsets don’t typically succeed.
Best First Round Game: Louisville vs. UC-Irvine
Potential Upsets: Louisville vs. UC-Irvine
Meryl asked a great question in our tweet chat on Monday:
— Meryl Williams (@MerylWilliams) March 17, 2015
For me, it’s pace. In a tournament preview last season, I wrote that teams who rank 300 or lower in Adjusted Tempo and average 62.5 possessions or less don’t typically win national titles. Fewer possessions means closer games, amplifying the importance of weird bounces, lucky shots, or ref whistles in a single elimination tournament. Virginia plays notoriously slow basketball under Head Coach Tony Bennett – their 58.2 possessions per game this season are the third fewest in the country. UVA drew a potential second round match-up with Michigan State, who ended their season last March. I just don’t trust this team to make a Final Four.
That pretty much leaves Villanova as the most likely option to reach Indy from the East. But “most likely” is relative. Louisville should consider themselves incredibly lucky to draw the 4-seed in this region. The Cardinals have tournament experience and the savvy Rick Pitino behind the bench. Despite their down season and the loss of starting Point Guard Chris Jones to suspension, Louisville could march through this weaker region. Or, they could drop a tough first round game to UC-Irvine and tallest player in the country Mamadou Ndiaye.
Best First Round Game: Indiana vs. Wichita State
Potential Upsets: Valparaiso over Maryland
Kentucky enters the tournament undefeated and sits in perfect position for the first unbeaten season since 1976. The Wildcats are the highest rated team in Kenpom history and clear favorites to rip through the Midwest region. A good strategy for winning your office pool would be: “Pick Kentucky to win it all.”
The bottom half of the Midwest region provides most of the excitement here. Wichita State’s coach Greg Marshall campaigned fervently for a home-and-home series with in-state rival Kansas. Kansas declined. The two teams are favored to meet in the second round. Should the Shockers knock off the Jayhawks, they have a great shot at meeting Kentucky–and you may recall that Kentucky ended Wichita State’s undefeated season in the game of the tournament last season.
I don’t see many potential upsets in the Midwest region, but Maryland worries me. The Terps lost so few games this year, but their efficiency numbers tell a much different story than their record. Valpo has the size to compete with most Power-5 conference teams, and they shoot the 3 ball well. Maryland earns most of their points at the free throw line. If calls don’t go their way, they may struggle to score on Valpo’s tough defense.
The Addison Recorder will have a bracket pool on ESPN this year! Submit your picks and see how you stack up with our staff and readers. Enjoy all 48 games this weekend!