(1) Virginia (31-2)
Virginia is the consensus #1 team in the nation and the Cavaliers have played better overall than any other team in the nation. However, my issue with Virginia over the years is that they have no room for improvement because their defense can’t get any better than it already is by simply giving more effort. The Cavaliers already give full effort of every defensive possession while other elite teams that aren’t as good defensively can improve on that side of the court by bearing down more. That may be the reason why Tony Bennett’s teams have never made it as far as they’ve been seeded the other three times they were a #1 or #2 seed (and they lost in the second round last season by 26 points as a #5 seed). The team that beats Virginia has to create more possessions via turnovers or offensive rebounding while also shooting well from long range. West Virginia and Virginia Tech, the two teams that have beaten the Cavaliers this season, were a combined +10 in turnover margin in those games and combined for 39% 3-point shooting.
This Virginia team has been relatively better against better teams in general and they were 3-0 against Duke and UNC with an average winning margin of 7.7 points, so they are still going to be extremely difficult to beat. Arizona is the Cavs’ biggest challenge in the South region, as the Wildcats have size and skill on offense and the room to improve their relatively modest defensive numbers by giving more effort. If Virginia gets past Arizona then they should get to the Final Four, as Tennessee and Cincinnati are lesser versions of themselves. Once in the Final Four I think Villanova is the team they’d have to worry about the most, as the Wildcats have the offensive patience and skill to get quality shots against the Cavaliers’ great defense. The injury this week to valuable 6th man De’Andre Hunter hurts the Cavaliers some but they are still as good as any team in the tournament. I may be on Virginia to win it all if the public isn’t backing them sufficiently when I take a look at the national pool stats.
(2) Cincinnati (30-4)
Cincinnati falls into the category of they’re as good as they’re going to get. I’ve found that teams that are as good defensively as the Bearcats are, which takes peak effort on every possession, have no room for improvement whereas other talented teams that aren’t as diligent in their defensive effort in all games or all possessions can improve by simply giving a more consistent effort on that side of the floor (Arizona and North Carolina are good examples). Cincinnati is a poor-man’s version of #1 overall seed Virginia, as the Bearcats are nearly as good defensively but not nearly as efficient offensively as the Cavaliers are. That lack of shooting ability (149th in effective FG%) is likely to be an issue at some point if the Bearcats face a team that can keep them from dominating the offensive glass (Cincy is #3 in offensive rebound percentage). Cincy is a great team because they outwork other teams but the work ethic of their opponents is likely to ratchet up in this tournament.
Cincinnati is a really good team but the Bearcats are just 3-4 against teams in my top-25 with a loss to Xavier, a loss to Florida, a 2-1 record against Houston, and a 1-1 mark against Wichita State, who is the best team that the Bearcats have beaten this season (but were outscored by 3 points in two meetings). There is no team better than Cincy on their side of the South bracket but Virginia will likely be waiting in the regional final if the Bearcats make it that far and that is a game they don’t have a good chance of winning. However, I also am reluctant to pick against Cincy to lose in an upset given their 27-0 record against teams outside of my top-25.
(3) Tennessee (25-8)
Tennessee surprised a lot of people this season and the Volunteers are worthy of their lofty seeding. However, the Volunteers are an inconsistent offensive team because they lack the ability to score inside the paint, as evidenced by their poor 47.0% 2-point shooting (290th in the nation). In their defense, the Vols were able to beat a very good Purdue team early in the season (in overtime), so they are capable of beating a superior team with the effort they give (they only made 36% of their shots against Purdue but outrebounded the Boilermakers by 9). The Vols’ tournament is likely to end as soon as they face a team that is well-rounded offensively and can defend the perimeter. A possible Sweet-16 match-up with defensively rugged Cincinnati will be ugly to watch and the Vols are actually capable of winning that game. The Elite-8 seems to be their ceiling, however, as they just aren’t good enough offensively to beat Virginia should they get that far.
(4) Arizona (27-7)
Arizona is another 4-seed, along with Gonzaga, that has Final Four potential, as the Wildcats have the most dominating big man in the nation in future #1 overall NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton, who is a small forward trapped in a 7-1 frame. Ayton can do it all, as he’s dominating around the basket, can step outside and hit jump shots, and also dominate the game on the defensive side of the floor (11.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game). Arizona lost 3 games without #3 scorer Rawle Alkins, who missed 12 games, and they lost one of the two games in which star guard Allonzo Trier did not play, so the Wildcats didn’t lose often when they had their entire collection of talent available.
What makes this team scary is that they are as good as they are without really playing well defensively so far this season. The Wildcats rank 65th in compensated defensive efficiency and talented teams that are great offensively have more room to improve in the NCAA Tournament than teams that are already great defensively, as improvement in such teams is often just a case of giving more effort on the defensive side of the floor. Teams like Virginia or Cincinnati, that are elite defensively because they give full effort on every defensive possession, have no room for improvement, which is probably why the Cavaliers have under-performed in the NCAA Tournament recently. If Arizona plays better defensively, which they are certainly capable of doing, then the Wildcats can beat any team in the nation and have a good shot at making the Final Four.
(5) Kentucky (24-10)
The young Kentucky team struggled at times this season but the Wildcats started playing well after a 4-game losing streak in early February. Since then the Cats have won 7 of 8 games and looked capable of making a run in this tournament until I saw the bracket. The first round match up against an underrated Davidson squad might be tougher than it appears if Davidson’s ability to make 3-pointers (39.1%) trumps Kentucky’s ability to close out on 3-point shooters (#3 in 3-point defense at 29.9% allowed). I don’t expect Kentucky to continue to be quite so good in 3-point defense, as there is likely some positive variance in that low 3-point percentage defense, but they should be able to find a way to win their opener.
The real problem lies in round 2 against, most likely, Arizona, who can match Kentucky’s length with two 7-footers, including unstoppable future #1 NBA draft pick Deandre Ayton. Virginia awaits the winner of that game and I think the Wildcats are too young to have the patience to beat a team like the Cavaliers. Kentucky is an improving team but the Wildcats have a really tough draw.
(6) Miami-Florida (22-9)
Miami is only favored by a couple of points against a game Loyola team in their first game and the Hurricanes aren’t quite as good without injured guard Bruce Brown. But the Hurricanes are still a good team on both ends of the court. A second round match-up with Tennessee is not overly daunting but a loss to Loyola would not surprise me either, which is why the Canes’ chance to make it to the Sweet 16 is not that good.
(7) Nevada (27-7)
Nevada has some very good offensive talent in the Martin twins, who combine for 32.7 points, 7.2 assists, and 11.6 rebounds per game, but the Wolf Pack haven’t been as good since losing PG Lindsey Drew to injury and they’re just 5-4 against top-60 rated teams (0-2 without Drew with two losses to San Diego State) and the best team they’ve beaten all season is Davidson (they beat Rhode Island too but I rate Davidson higher). Nevada did compete well against the two top-25 rated teams they faced, losing in overtime at Texas Tech and by just 4 points to TCU on a neutral court, so they are capable of competing with a better team. However, the Wolf Pack are a poor rebounding team and they’d get dominated on the glass by likely second round opponent Cincinnati, who would be projected to rebound over 40% of their missed shots. Nevada is a popular Cinderella pick but I just don’t see them getting more than one win.
(8) Creighton (21-11)
Since changing their style of play 3 seasons ago from slow tempo to up-tempo, the Bluejays have been relatively better against weaker teams (43-23 ATS as a favorite) than they’ve been against superior teams (10-21 ATS as an underdog or pick). The Bluejays could get past Kansas State in a toss-up game but they’ve been worse since losing big man Martin Krampelj and I don’t give Creighton much chance of winning more than one game.
(9) Kansas State (22-11)
Kansas State is 0-7 against top-15 rated teams Kansas, Texas Tech, and West Virginia but the Wildcats have a pretty good record against the next tier of teams, as they are 9-3 against teams rated from 16th to 50th in my ratings. Kansas State is active defensively and ranks 6th in defensive steal percentage so they match up best against teams that are sloppy with the ball. First round opponent Creighton is a bit overrated in my opinion but the Bluejays do take care of the basketball (19th in offensive turnover rate). I can see that first game going either way, but I don’t see any way that the Wildcats will finally beat an elite team when that elite team is #1 Virginia, who would be their round 2 opponent should they beat Creighton.
(10) Texas (19-14)
Texas is actually one of the top 40 teams in the nation but I think there should be a rule that you have to finish at least .500 in your conference to get an at-large bid to the tournament. That would certainly spice up the intrigue in those final few regular season games for a lot of teams. Texas has trouble scoring the basketball but the Longhorns are an elite defensive team if Mohamed Bamba is healthy. Bamba missed three games but played 14 minutes in the conference tournament loss to Texas Tech so there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be healthy enough to play his normal allotment of minutes in the opening game of this tournament. Playing two days later could be a challenge if Bamba plays too many minutes in the first game, so it’s possible that coach Shaka Smart will limit his minutes. First round opponent Nevada has the perimeter scorers to make Bamba’s shot-blocking less of a factor, so the Wolf Pack are not an ideal match-up for the Longhorns in what looks like a toss-up game.
(11) Loyola-Chicago (28-5)
Those of you that have followed me this season know that I really like this team. Loyola became an underrated team when they lost 3 of 5 games when MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer was out with an injury. I started playing on the Ramblers when Custer returned and they lost have lost just one time since (by 2 point at Bradley) while covering the spread in the large majority of those games. Loyola is 26-2 straight up with Custer playing, including a win at Florida where they built a big lead before Custer was injured (and hung on to win by 6). Fellow guard Ben Richardson, who has been playing alongside Custer since they were in grade-school, also missed time early in the season and the Ramblers are 20-1 straight up when Custer and Richardson are both playing.
Loyola is a great shooting team (40.0% 3-pointers and 8th in effective FG%) that plays good defense (29th in defensive EFG% and 55th in compensated defensive efficiency) and they are barely underdogs to first round opponent Miami-Florida. If you get bonus points for picking the lower seeded team in your pool then Loyola is an automatic pick and that win at Florida suggests that a run to the second weekend is not out of the question.
(12) Davidson (21-11)
Davidson’s win over #1 seed Rhode Island in the Atlantic-10 Tournament Championship game was not an upset to me, as my ratings favored the Wildcats by a point in that game (they won by 1 point), and the fact that they were favored by 3 points in the semi-finals over at-large team St. Bonaventure shows that this is an undervalued team. Davidson has won 8 of their last 9 games with the only loss coming in triple-overtime at St. Bonaventure, including two wins over Rhode Island, so this is a team that could surprise. The Wildcats are a very good shooting team (11th in effective FG%) that doesn’t turn the ball over (7th in the nation in offensive turnover percentage), so they won’t beat themselves.
Beating Kentucky in round 1 would not be that much of an upset but those Wildcats are also playing well and don’t give up many open 3-point looks (29.9% 3-point defense ranks 3rd in the nation). That could be problematic to a Davidson team that ranks 6th in the nation in 3-point attempt rate. Kentucky is not an ideal match-up for Davidson but an upset would certainly be no surprise to me.
(13) Buffalo (26-8)
Buffalo played most of their pre-conference schedule without former Missouri starter PG Wes Clark (missed the first 10 games) and top bench player Dontay Caruthers (missed 11 games) but they did lose by just 6 points to #2 seed Cincinnati without those two key players, so the Bulls are capable of hanging with a good team. However, Buffalo also lost road games at Syracuse and at Texas A&M by an average of 11.5 points. Buffalo is a pretty good team with some players that won’t be intimidated and their fast pace (#5 in offensive possession length) could work to get them good shots early in the possession against a sometimes lazy Arizona team that ranks 90th in defensive effective field-goal percentage, which is horrible for a team of their talent level. Arizona, however, poses a big problem inside, as the Bulls are a pretty small team that is likely to get dominated in the paint by the Wildcats. If Buffalo can take advantage of early offense and knock down some 3-pointers then their opening game could be close, but they could also get destroyed if Arizona decides to start putting some effort into their defense.
(14) Wright State (25-9)
Wright State lucked out in avoiding Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League Tournament, as they faced three teams all ranked 200th or worse in my ratings to earn the automatic bid. Wright State is a good defensive team, even on a national scale after compensating for opposition, but the Raiders don’t shoot the ball well (just 255th in effective FG% despite a weak schedule). Wright State didn’t beat a top-75 team, losing to Loyola-Chicago, Murray State, and Western Kentucky by an average of 14 points. The Raiders’ only chance at an upset is to face a team that doesn’t take care of the ball, as they do force a good number of turnovers (33rd in defensive TO percentage) and need turnovers to avoid having to operate in a half court set, where they struggle. First round opponent Tennessee can be sloppy with the ball at times, but the Vols are a bit better than average in offensive turnover percentage and an upset is highly unlikely.
(15) Georgia State (24-10)
Georgia State is a pretty good team that is capable of a first round upset. The Panthers didn’t play any really good teams this season but played relatively better against better teams in general and have some characteristics of a team that can surprise a higher seed. The Panthers take care of the ball and force turnovers and they can knock down 3-point shots (39.1%). Georgia State also locks down the paint well (#9 in 2-point defense in the nation) and forces teams to shoot 3-pointers (6th in the nation in opponent’s 3-point attempt rate). If the Panthers are making their 3-pointers at a better than normal clip and face a team struggling from the perimeter they have a shot to pull off the upset.
(16) UMBC (24-10)
Maryland-Baltimore County lost by an average of 23 points in two road games against the best two teams that they faced this season, losing by 25 at Arizona and by 21 points at Maryland. The Retrievers also lost by 15 points and 28 points to the America East’s best team, Vermont, before shocking the Catamounts in the AEC tournament final. UMBC is a good 3-point shooting team (38.2%), which gives them a chance to keep things competitive in a first round game if they knock down about half of their 3-pointers but their reliance on forcing turnovers on defense (47th in defensive TO rate) will likely backfire against an elite team that can more easily beat the pressure and make the Retrievers pay for their pressure with a layup or dunk. If the 3-point shots are not going in this team has no chance to be competitive unless they are facing a particularly sloppy ball-handling team.
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