(1) North Carolina (27-6)
North Carolina is a deserving #1 seed and the Tarheels have a pretty easy path to the regional final but their only win against a healthy elite team was at home against Gonzaga in a game they made a randomly high 52% of their 3-point shots. Their two wins against Duke were games in which the Blue Devils had Zion Williamson playing for less than a minute and the Tarheels lost to Michigan, Kentucky, and Virginia (at home). In fairness, UNC’s 1-point loss to Duke (with Zion) in the ACC Tournament was due to negative 3-point variance (just 4 for 26 from beyond the arc) and the Heels are talented enough to beat any team. I rate North Carolina and Kentucky the same but I’m guessing the public will mostly have UNC going to the Final Four, which means the value would be on the Wildcats.
(2) Kentucky (27-6)
Kentucky ranks 7th in the nation in compensated net points per possession and the Wildcats are actually better than that given that their 3-point defense this season is higher than it should be going forward. The Wildcats rank 213th in the nation in 3-point defense at 35.0% allowed, which is very good for a John Calipari coached team. In fact, Kentucky has never allowed more than 32.4% on 3-point shots in 9 previous seasons under coach Cal and this year’s team is now clamping down on outside shots after being particularly horrible/unlucky in that category earlier in the season.
Kentucky’s opponents made 39% of their 3-point shots through team’s first 14 games but have since allowed just 32.2% from beyond the arc in their most recent 19 games, which is about what can be expected from a Kentucky defense. The Wildcats are actually the 5th best team in the nation after adjusting for their negative 3-point variance and they’ve already beaten the region’s #1 seed North Carolina by 8 points on a neutral floor (even with UNC making 39% of their 3-pointers). I rate that potential matchup with North Carolina in the Elite 8 as a toss-up so I’ll go with whichever team is being picked less by the rest of the nation, which will probably be Kentucky.
(3) Houston (31-3)
I suppose the selection committee had to reward Houston with a #3 seed given their stellar record and quality win over LSU, but the Cougars are really more like a #5 seed in my ratings and opponents making just 27.6% of their 3-point shots against them is a bit lucky (no team can be expected to be that good in 3-point defense). Houston does have a great defense but the Cougars are nothing special offensively and I’m picking them to fall to Iowa State in the 2nd round.
(4) Kansas (25-9)
Kansas, without #2 scorer Lagerald Vick and his 45.5% 3-point shooting, is seeded too high. Kansas, with their current roster, is not better than #5 seed Auburn or #6 seed Iowa State, who they just lost to by 12 points in the Big 12 Tournament championship game. The Jayhawks should be able to beat Northeastern but it’s a risk to take them any further than that in your pool. However, if they do get to the Sweet 16 then playing the second week in Kansas City is an unfair advantage for the Jayhawks.
(5) Auburn (26-9)
Auburn gets 43% of their offensive points from beyond the 3-point arc (7th in the nation), which makes the Tigers a highly variable team. The Tigers can beat the top teams in the nation when they’re knocking down their 3-pointers but they can also lose to weaker teams when shots aren’t falling.
Auburn beat #2 seeded Tennessee twice in the last 2 weeks, including a 20-point win in the SEC tournament championship game and the Tigers are #13 in my ratings, so a 5-seed seems unwarranted. In fact, I rate the Tigers ahead of both Kansas and Houston, who are seeded #4 and #3 in this region. I’d pick Auburn to beat Kansas, but getting past #12 seed New Mexico State might not be so easy.
Auburn’s weakness on the defensive glass (330th in defensive rebounding percentage) may be their downfall against a great rebounding New Mexico State team that is 8th in the nation in offensive rebound percentage. Auburn is just 1-6 straight up in games against teams that rank in the top-20 in offensive rebound percentage, including losses to inferior teams NC State and Mississippi State. If New Mexico State can somewhat limit their turnovers then I can see the Tigers losing that first-round game. Of course, I can also see them getting to the Sweet 16 if they can win that opening game. But, getting past North Carolina in the round of 16 is not likely.
(6) Iowa State (23-11)
Iowa State is the best of the #6 seeds and the Cyclones are particularly good offensively, ranking 10th in the nation in compensated offensive efficiency. However, ISU still managed to lose 11 games with 5 of those being against teams that did not make the NCAA Tournament – so they are certainly prone to being upset if they’re not focused defensively. Iowa State has been relatively better offensively against good defensive teams and relatively worse defensively against good offensive teams so a team that is better offensively than defensively is the type of team that is likely to beat the Cyclones. First-round opponent Ohio State does not the fit that bill and neither does likely second-round opponent Houston. I will have Iowa State making it the Sweet 16 and playing in the Sprint Center in Kansas City should be an advantage given their success there in the Big 12 tournament over the years, including winning last week’s Big 12 Tournament in that building. The Cyclones are 22-6-1 against the spread (ATS) in Kansas City, including 13-0-1 ATS the last 6 years. I still have Iowa State losing to Kentucky in the round of 16.
(7) Wofford (29-4)
Wofford is 29-4 and deserves their #7 seed (the Terriers are 31st in my ratings) but they’ve only faced four NCAA Tournament-caliber teams and they lost those games to North Carolina, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Mississippi State by an average margin of 14.5 points with their best game being an 11-point home loss to UNC. That’s not to say that Wofford can’t advance to the Sweet 16 but they’d have to really be on fire from 3-point range to beat Kentucky in round 2. Wofford is the 2nd best 3-point shooting team in the nation at 41.6% but they made just 32% in those 4 games against good teams and would have to make around 50% from long range to compete with Kentucky. That’s not out of the question but it’s also not likely.
(8) Utah State (28-6)
Utah State’s first-year head coach Craig Smith is a very good coach that had very good success building South Dakota into a winner (they now suck again without him) and is doing the same with the Aggies. Utah State improved mid-season when their worst starter, sophomore point guard Crew Ainge, was injured in mid-January and the Aggies are 15-1 with Abel Porter starting at the point, including a win over highly rated Nevada and a Mountain West Conference tournament championship.
Beating Utah State requires being able to knock down 3-point shots, as scoring inside the arc against the Aggies is very challenging (they’re 4th in 2-point shooting percentage). First-round opponent Washington is not a particularly good 3-point shooting team and the Huskies aggressive defense tends to back-fire against good passing teams. The Huskies rank 319th in defensive assist percentage and Utah State is one of the best passing teams in the nation (6th in offensive assist rate). Utah State is likely to beat Washington but it’s unfortunate that they’d have to face North Carolina next.
(9) Washington (26-8)
Washington was 15-3 in Pac-12 regular season play but the Huskies are just 1-7 against other Tournament teams and that lone win was against an Oregon team that they also lost to twice. Washington’s best game was actually a 2 point loss at Gonzaga but the Huskies also lost by an average of 17 points to other high-seeded teams Auburn and Virginia Tech. Washington’s success hinges on their aggressive defense that ranks 4th in turnover percentage and 3rd in blocked shots. But, the Huskies can struggle in their half-court offense (they’re 108th in compensated offensive efficiency despite getting some easy buckets after turnovers) and they’ll lose to Utah State if the Aggies can handle their pressure.
(10) Seton Hall (20-13)
Seton Hall is a decent 6-7 against fellow Tournament teams and they did beat Kentucky back in early-December. However, the Pirates rate as a borderline at-large team in my ratings – although they do have a decent shot at beating Wofford in the first round. I just can’t see this team beating Kentucky again to get to the Sweet 16.
(11) Ohio State (19-14)
Ohio State’s record isn’t particularly impressive but the Buckeyes lost all 4 games in which one of their two stars, Kaleb Wesson or C.J. Jackson, did not play and were 2-2 when key contributor Kyle Young was out. So, the Buckeyes are 17-8 with all their key players playing and are a couple of points better in those games than their overall season rating. Iowa State, however, is a brutal draw, as the Cyclones are easily the best #6 seed, but winning that game is not out of the question.
(12) New Mexico State (30-4)
New Mexico State is a deep team that possesses scorers, rebounders, and good defenders and the Aggies haven’t lost a game when versatile guard Trevelin Queen has played 10 or more minutes. Queen missed 10 games and played limited minutes in 6 others and other key players also missed games over the course of the season. The Aggies are at full strength now and are a few points better than their season rating and could certainly win a couple of games.
First-round opponent Auburn leads the nation in defensive turnover percentage but if the Aggies can handle the pressure then they’ll be able to score in the half-court thanks to efficient shooting (9th in 2-point FG%) and their ability to get second chances with offensive rebounds. New Mexico State is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, ranking 8th in offensive rebound percentage and 4th in defensive rebounding. Auburn ranks 330th in defensive rebounding so the Aggies will get some second chances after missed shots. The key will be the turnovers.
NMSU has already proven that they can play with likely second-round opponent Kansas, as the Aggies lost by just 3 points in Kansas City against the Jayhawks even with 27% 3-point shooting and 30% free-throw shooting in that game (and without Queen while KU had #2 scorer Vick, who is now out). New Mexico State deserves to be the underdog against Auburn but I can certainly envision this team winning that game and then getting past a vulnerable Kansas team.
(13) Northeastern (23-10)
Northeastern is 16-2 in their last 18 games with one of those losses by just 3 points and the other in overtime. The Huskies’ best wins were against Alabama and Hofstra (2-1 vs the CAA’s top-seed) but they were destroyed in two games against NCAA Tournament quality teams, losing by 28 points on a neutral floor to Virginia Tech and by 23 points at Syracuse. Northeastern ranks 5th in the nation in effective FG% but that was against a pretty soft schedule and the Bulldogs are just 2-5 against teams in the top-100 in compensated defensive efficiency, including those two blowout losses to top-30 defensive teams V Tech and Syracuse. First-round opponent Kansas is a bit vulnerable but the Jayhawks are 18th in my defensive rankings and should be able to get past Northeastern. However, if you get bonus points for picking upsets and don’t have Kansas advancing to the Sweet 16 then you might consider Northeastern here, as they’re only a 7 point underdog.
(14) Georgia State (24-9)
Georgia State has been consistently good under coach Ron Hunter and the Panthers won a first-round game in 2015. However, that team was considerably better than this edition and Georgia State would have to hit a high percentage of their 3-point shots to pull off an upset. The Panthers are 38% 3-point shooting team but Houston ranks 2nd in the nation in 3-point defense so this is not an ideal match-up for Hunter’s squad.
(15) Abilene Christian (27-6)
Abilene Christian has improved every season since joining Division 1 in 2013-14 and this season’s Wildcats are actually a slightly better than average D-1 team. Slightly better than average obviously isn’t good enough to compete with Kentucky and Abilene lost by 24 points to Texas Tech in their only game against a good team.
(16) Iona (17-15)
Iona prevailed in a very weak Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference but the Gaels were relatively worse against better teams this season (lost to Providence, VCU, and Yale by an average of 19 points) and playing at a fast pace is not a good recipe for success against first-round opponent North Carolina.
College Basketball Best Bets: 590-464-19 on a Star Basis for +78.9 Stars since last season!
The Dr. Bob NCAA Tournament package consists of analysis of every NCAA Tournament game and Brackets analysis for those of you in Tournament pools (available on Wednesday afternoon/early evening). The price for the all of NCAA Tourney analysis is just $245.
My NCAA Tournament Best Bets are a profitable 55.6% over 30 years and 61-46-2 (57%) the last 7 years (9-6-1 last year). Designated ‘opinion’ games are 124-99-4 (56%) the last 7 years in the NCAA Tourney, including 18-12 last year.
East Region Team Capsules
West Region Team Capsules
South Region Team Capsules