NCAA Tournament breakdown: Sleepers, favorites, Final Four predictions
March Madness is in full swing now that the NCAA Tournament bracket has been revealed. Like every year, the field has a few sleeper teams that can make deep runs, along with the usual heavyweights.
Here is the full tournament breakdown, region by region.
The only other Pac-12 team guaranteed a spot in the field besides the Wildcats are the Bruins of UCLA, and they’re a No. 11 seed, so one could argue UCLA’s five-game winning streak to a weak conference tournament.
But despite that, the reason why the No. 4-seeded Wildcats should be favored coming out of this region is all because of potential lottery pick Deandre Ayton, who is playing like a man possessed. Ayton isn’t just scoring at a high level, he’s doing it with high efficiency. The Wildcats will have to see Kentucky and the south region’s No. 1 seed Virginia on their way to the final four, but it’s unlikely anyone on those teams can contain Ayton.
The No. 3-seeded Volunteers have seen a complete turnaround from last season. Tennessee finished second in the SEC with a 13-5 conference record after going 8-10 last year. The Volunteers had won six straight before their recent loss to Kentucky in the SEC championship game, including two wins over teams in the field in Florida and Arkansas.
Some might be getting cold feet regarding the Volunteers following their loss to Kentucky, which is fair, but it’s Kentucky. Granted, this isn’t a traditional John Calipari team, but they still have a load of raw talent.
The most important factor here is Tennessee wouldn’t have to play Virginia, Arizona or Kentucky until the Elite Eight.
If it weren’t for Virginia, the Villanova Wildcats would be the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. Led by their steady point guard Jalen Brunson and potential lottery pick Mikal Bridges, the Wildcats wield one of the most high-powered offenses in the field. Jay Wright’s squad averages more than 87 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
The Wildcats also benefit from being placed in the weakest region of the bracket. Alabama’s freshman phenom Collin Sexton is a force by himself, but the same can’t be said for the No. 9-seeded Crimson Tide as a whole. And while Purdue looked dominant for most of the regular season, the Boilermakers have fallen off quite a bit in recent weeks.
West Virginia will be a tough out for the Wildcats in a Sweet Sixteen matchup, but if Villanova is able to get past Bob Huggins’ feisty squad, it should be smooth sailing to the Final Four.
Sleeper: West Virginia
Speaking of the devil.
The Mountaineers are always a load to deal with in the tournament, mostly because of their vaunted press style of defense. But it seems like they come up just a bit short year after year.
This year could be different, however. Aside from a potential regional semifinal matchup with Villanova, the No. 5-seeded Mountaineers have a relatively easy path to the Final Four, especially behind the play of guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr., who both can fill it up from deep and make life miserable for opposing guards on offense.
The road to San Antonio won’t be easy for the Spartans. To make it to the Final Four, No. 3 seed MSU would potentially have to play No. 2 seed Duke in the Sweet Sixteen and the midwest region’s top seed Kansas Jayhawks in the regional final.
A Sweet 16 matchup with Duke would be a chance for the Spartans to redeem a November loss to the Blue Devils, and to essentially get their first real glimpse of star freshman and potential lottery pick Marvin Bagley Jr., who played just a handful of minutes in the first meeting.
The talent factor in this region leans toward MSU, however, as the Spartans would have at least two of the top three players in every game on their side, in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. The statistics favors Tom Izzo’s club as well, as MSU ranks in the top 10 in a number of major categories, including overall field goal percentage and defensive efficiency.
A lot of controversy was raised because the Sooners made it to the field and Oklahoma State, who beat Oklahoma three times this season, was left out. The Sooners are still a team to watch out for in the tournament, despite their recent struggles, simply because of one guy: Trae Young.
Yes, teams have keyed in on him more in the second half of the season after he lit the college basketball world on fire with his 3-point shooting. But this tournament is perfect for a player like Young, who can heat up quickly and is never shy with his shot selection. Evident by his reaction upon finding out his squad made the field on Selection Sunday, Young won’t go down without a fight.
Favorite: University of Michigan
The No. 3-seeded Wolverines are one of the hottest teams heading into the tournament, and it’s not just about them winning games, but it’s how they win games. On their route to capturing the Big Ten Tournament Championship, the Wolverines beat MSU by double-digits for the second time this season and led by as many as 18 points against Purdue.
No. 2 seed North Carolina would be a challenging matchup for the Wolverines in the Sweet Sixteen, but U-M forward Moritz Wagner would have the size and quickness advantage over Tar Heel forward Luke Maye.
Xavier is the No. 1 seed in this region, but the Musketeers are the lowest ranked No. 1 seed in the field. The Wolverines’ Final Four chances would look pretty good following a successful regional semifinal outcome.
The Cougars were inches away from capturing the American Athletic Conference championship but lost by one point to Cincinnati. Houston would have beaten the Bearcats for the second time this season, and also has two wins over No. 4 seed Wichita State.
The Cougars are the real deal and could go far if they get past the Wolverines in the Round of 32.
Final Four Predictions
Arizona over University of Michigan, MSU downs Villanova
The Wildcats and Wolverines both have fast-paced offenses, and Wagner's versatility will certainly give Arizona fits but the dominance of Ayton will prove to be too much for the maize and blue.
Both Villanova and MSU have shown some cracks in their armors recently, but the Spartans’ rebounding advantage and frontcourt depth with Jackson Jr., Nick Ward and Gavin Schilling controlling the paint will be the determining factor in a game that could likely go down to the wire.
National Champion: MSU
Here's the rest of Michael Duke's bracket: