Graphic courtesy of the NCAA
Justin Bjorseth, 23 Sports Reporter
The NCAA Tournament is officially here. With the release of the bracket, we now know who is playing who, where they’re playing and where the potential upsets lie. There are some obvious favorites, but this year has failed to produce a truly dominant team. It’s a wide open field and there are many dark horses and overrated teams that should be highlighted before filling out your bracket.
Let’s start in the East region. The first thing that sticks out is that the committee clearly had little respect for the Big Ten. Wisconsin, who took second in both the regular season and the tournament and has made three straight Sweet Sixteens, is now doomed for an early exit after being given a modest eight seed. The defending champion and number one overall seed Villanova Wildcats loom in the second round. I think there are a couple of big potential upsets here. UNC Wilmington has had some tournament success in the past, including giving Duke all they could handle last year. They’re a deadly match up for a Virginia team that lacks a source of offense and has limped to the finish line. East Tennessee State is 27-7 and gave Tennessee a great game earlier in the year. I won’t go out and pick them to beat Florida, but the Gators should not go into the game already looking towards the next round. The three seed Baylor will likely fall in the round of 32 to a red hot SMU team. The Mustangs are the Final Four dark horse in this region, but I think Duke and Villanova have too much talent to not meet in the Elite Eight, with the Wildcats advancing to the Final Four.
Down we go to the West Region. Will this be the year Gonzaga finally makes a Final Four? Probably not. They are looking right in the face of a power five opponent in the second round, and even if they survive that, West Virginia and their suffocating defense will be waiting in the Sweet Sixteen. I think this is a fairly weak region. Florida Gulf Coast can certainly beat both Florida State and Maryland and find themselves in the Sweet Sixteen for the second time in five years. I like Arizona to go to the Final Four after taking out the Mountaineers in the regional final. The many scoring threats that the Wildcats possess will prove too much for one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.
The Midwest Region has Kansas, who spent a solid portion of the year as the No. 1 team in the country, and two of the hottest teams in the country, both fresh off conference tournament championships, in Michigan and Iowa State. The No. 2 seed in the region, the Louisville Cardinals, have lost three of five entering the tournament and are coming in on perhaps the worst note possible after their second half performance against Duke. The third seeded Oregon Ducks will be without their 6’10” floor spacer, Chris Boucher. Oregon appeared to hold their own against Arizona in the Pac-12 Tournament, but that was also a team they are very familiar with. The Ducks should use easy match-ups to roll to the Sweet Sixteen, but I think the winner of Michigan/Louisville will take them out. They will get a date with either Kansas or Iowa State. I’m not sure which of the other three I would bet on, but something tells me it may be another disappointing March in Lawrence.
Now to the powerhouse region, the South. North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA are all blue bloods and have been regarded as title contenders for a majority of the season. You also cannot forget the No. 4 seed Butler, who is always a tough out in March. There’s not much room for dark horses to emerge in this region. The committee continues to give Wichita State unfair placement year after year. No team is placed in the gauntlet area of the bracket as often as they are. A 30-4 team with their track record is very worthy of something higher than a seven seed. Kentucky should be able to avenge their early season loss against UCLA. The Bruins had not been on the scene before that win, and Kentucky will take them a lot more seriously this time around. The Wildcats will exploit poor defense, and be well-prepared to handle Lonzo Ball and company. In a true blue blood Elite Eight matchup, Kentucky will use their speed and size to topple the Heels and return to the Final Four.
There are some regions that are more stacked than others, and it’s not close. My biggest takeaway from this Selection Sunday is that the committee clearly needs to think more about distribution of teams, rather than trying to fix the bracket to allow for more popular match-ups to take place. This is a very unpredictable tournament. The only sure thing is that it’s going to be thrilling.