Filling out a bracket this year is near impossible. Due to the parity across college basketball, almost every single matchup – yes, even some of the most lopsided, 1-2-3 seed games – has legitimate upset potential. Making a bracket, part of you wants to think, Wow, a double digit seed? Making it that far? I just don’t know if it’s possible. Never say never. It’s March. Anything is possible – let’s get down to it. If you think I’m being too crazy, stop yourself right there; nothing is too crazy.
*Sorry for the delayed publication of this article – all predictions were made as of Wednesday night*
(1)Virginia vs. (16)UMBC
A one seed has never lost to a 16. Let’s not waste our time here.
(8)Creighton vs. (9)Kansas State
This game scares me. Both teams aren’t particularly hot coming into the tournament, and both have serious big game potential (and serious inconsistent play). Creighton hasn’t been the same since losing Martin Krampelj, but I think Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas will find ways to score anyway against an exploitable Kansas State D. Creighton takes the W.
(5)Kentucky vs. (12)Davidson
Kentucky has looked amazing recently, coming into their own when it matters. I’m cautious about writing off Davidson so easily – this is a very efficient offensive team – but the Wildcats are bigger, stronger, faster, and peaking.
(4)Arizona vs. (13)Buffalo
I don’t like this Arizona team. Looking back on their season, they haven’t beaten one legitimately good team (in my eyes), and I don’t believe that Deandre Ayton alone justifies their hype. That being said: Ayton is a physical specimen designed in a lab by Oxford’s smartest mad scientists. Buffalo won’t be able to match up.
(6)Miami vs. (11)Loyola-Chicago
Loyola-Chicago is my (and seemingly, everybody’s) sleeper for the tournament. The Ramblers are extremely efficient shooters, have a defense ranked in the Top 25 on Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Defense, and move the ball at will. Meanwhile, Miami is 4-4 in their last 8 games and is missing their best player, Bruce Brown Jr.
(3)Tennessee vs. (14)Wright State
Tennessee has the 4th best defense in the country per Adjusted Defense. Wright State has the 247th best offense per Adjusted Offense. That alone is enough to scare me off of an upset.
(7)Nevada vs. (10)Texas
I want to root for Nevada, I really do. The Martin twins have an incredible story, and Jordan Caroline is one of the most well-rounded guards in the country. Problem is though, they’re going to have trouble attacking the basket against Mo Bamba and they haven’t been the same offensively since Lindsey Drew went down. Texas will find ways to score against the Wolf Pack’s subpar defense and take the win.
(2)Cincinnati vs. (15)Georgia State
I’m not Cincinnati’s biggest fan, as I believe that analytics have inflated their defensive efficiency because of their generally poor-to-mediocre competition. However, the one thing that the Bearcats have done non-stop this season is assert their dominance over lesser teams.
(1)Villanova vs. (16)Radford/LIU Brooklyn
(8)Virginia Tech vs. (9)Alabama
Alabama is one of the most inconsistent teams in the country, anchored by their spectacular starting point guard and not much else. They’re 2-6 in their last 8. The Hokies, meanwhile, are dangerous enough to beat anybody and don’t have a bad loss on their resume. I don’t believe Bama deserves to be in this tournament, and unless Collin Sexton decides to take the world of basketball for a wild ride, Tech takes the win.
Winner: Virginia Tech
(5)West Virginia vs. (12)Murray State
Yikes, West Virginia got a tough draw. Murray State hasn’t lost a game in an eternity, and the Mountaineers have been strong-but-not-spectacular in Big 12 play. I think here, though, Murray State struggles from a lack of experience against teams this quality. The Racers’ defense isn’t world-class, and being able to stop the Mountaineers from hitting is the best way to beat them. WVU takes it in a close one.
Winner: West Virginia
(4)Wichita State vs. (13)Marshall
Don’t get me wrong, Marshall is a very good team. Wichita, however, is on another level. They have too much experience, coaching, and offensive talent to lose here.
Winner: Wichita State
(6)Florida vs. (11)St. Bonaventure/UCLA
This is going to be a good one, and Florida is an extremely talented roster that can beat nearly anyone. But they haven’t been that remarkable or consistent for about two months now, and whoever wins between the Bonnies and Bruins will be hungry to prove themselves. Both Aaron Holiday and Jaylen Adams are studs – either one finds a way to move their teams on.
Winner: St. Bonaventure/UCLA
(3)Texas Tech vs. (14)Stephen F. Austin
Back when they featured Thomas Walkup and Jacob Parker, the Lumberjacks were one of my favorite teams to watch in college basketball. Sadly, that lovable cinderella is no more. These guys are not nearly the caliber of a Red Raiders team featuring a healthy Keenan Evans.
Winner: Texas Tech
(7)Arkansas vs. (10)Butler
Arkansas’ offense is lauded by some metrics, but I don’t believe their defense will be able to handle the firepower of Kelan Martin and co. Butler’s been cold as of late, but they typically step up come March.
(2)Purdue vs. (15)CS Fullerton
Purdue seemingly has been off people’s radars recently, despite looking like the best team in the country for a solid chunk of the season. Easy win here.
(1)Xavier vs. (16)NC Central/Texas Southern
(8)Missouri vs. (9)Florida State
No knock against Florida State, but this Mizzou team is extraordinarily dangerous right now. Jordan Barnett might be suspended for this game, but the fantastic Michael Porter Jr. is coming back in his place. Rusty as he was in his last game back, the extra time to prepare could only have helped him.
(5)Ohio State vs. (12)South Dakota State
I love Mike Daum – and to anyone who believes SDSU can go on a legitimate run this year, I salute you and I agree. However, before you make that call, it’s important to remember who they’re up against. Keita Bates-Diop is a matchup nightmare at the college level, and the Buckeyes don’t have a single bad loss all season. I’m 50-50 on this one, but I give the slight edge to Ohio State.
Winner: Ohio State
(4)Gonzaga vs. (13)UNCG
UNCG is underrated – they’ve played hard against legit teams this year and held their own. They play a strong defense, and run a balanced, deep rotation. Gonzaga, though, excels against teams like this. Unheralded, mid-major, and not necessarily the most heralded recruits. They’re used to this situation, and they typically coast.
(6)Houston vs. (11)San Diego State
Not a knock against Houston, who are efficient both offensively and defensively per Kenpom, but SDSU has been absolutely absurd recently. The Aztecs have won 9 straight, including a dominant recent stretch with victories over Boise State, Fresno State, and Nevada (twice). They’re athletic and balanced. I’m picking the upset here.
Winner: San Diego State
(3)Michigan vs. (14)Montana
All due respect to Montana, Michigan is the hottest team in the country right now.
(7)Texas A&M vs. (10)Providence
Providence is dangerous. Very, very dangerous. In their last 9, they have wins over Villanova, St John’s, Creighton and Xavier. Meanwhile, the Aggies have barely been a .500 team since their hot start.
(2)UNC vs. (15)Lipscomb
You know, 15 seeds do beat 2 seeds every now and then… just not here.
(1)Kansas vs. (16)Penn
Penn actually is a pretty good team, but in the matchup that comes closest to resembling this level of play for them (against Villanova) they lost by 28. I say it’s not impossible for a Quaker win here – but very, very, very unlikely.
(8)Seton Hall vs. (9)NC State
NC State is a typical all-offense, no-defense team. They’re high-powered, balanced, and can beat anybody. Seton Hall, meanwhile, has struggled as of late against teams like this, with recent losses to Creighton, Xavier, Villanova and Butler.
Winner: NC State
(5)Clemson vs. (12)New Mexico State
Since losing Donte Grantham to injury, Clemson hasn’t been the same. I pegged them as an upset pick regardless of who they were playing before the tournament began, as they haven’t defeated tough competition since a January 30th win against UNC. The Aggies, on the other hand, as are a legit a 12 seed as they come. They beat Miami earlier this year and have the 15th ranked Adjusted Defense in the country. I’m taking the Aggies.
Winner: New Mexico State
(4)Auburn vs. (13)Charleston
I’m having trouble picking Auburn here, as they’ve (similarly to Clemson) struggled mightily since losing defensive anchor Anfernee McLemore (second highest Defensive Rating on team). Charleston, though, I don’t believe has what it takes to hang with a team with this amount of talent.
(6)TCU vs. (11)Arizona State/Syracuse
As a basketball fan, it made me extremely upset watching the selection show to see that both ASU and Cuse made the tournament over more deserving (and better) teams such as Middle Tennessee and St Mary’s. No matter who wins the play-in game, neither has the talent nor the consistency to beat even a mediocre TCU team.
(3)Michigan State vs. (14)Bucknell
Bucknell is a talented team with a core of 3 high volume scorers in Zach Thomas, Nana Foulland and Stephen Brown. However, their 115th ranked Adjusted Defense won’t be able to handle the firepower of Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston.
Winner: Michigan State
(7)Rhode Island vs. (10)Oklahoma
Neither team has been pretty to watch over the last several months, but one has to win. I’m going with Rhode Island. Effectively, Oklahoma is a one-man team. While Rhode Island guards E.C. Matthews, Jared Terrell and Jeff Dowtin won’t be able to neutralize Trae Young, their combined efforts against Oklahoma’s poor D should be enough to push the Rams over the hump.
Winner: Rhode Island
(2)Duke vs. (15)Iona
Of any 2-15 game, this is the one that has me the most cautious. Iona always steps up this time of year, and they are a deep team with 5 guys averaging at least 10 points and 7 averaging at least 8. Duke, though, is just too talented. They might come out flat and unprepared (as they sometimes do historically against worse teams) but they should prevail.
(1)Virginia vs. (8)Creighton
Creighton has a good offense. Virginia, though, has a much better defense. I don’t think the Bluejays even stand a chance here, unfortunately. As boring as it is to pick the one seed to win, UVA is ranked so highly for a reason.
(5)Kentucky vs. (4)Arizona
I said earlier that I don’t like Arizona – here’s where they meet their end. No Kentucky big man is particularly spectacular defensively, so Deandre Ayton is going to do Deandre Ayton things, but their offense will run right through Arizona’s mediocre-at-best D. Look for Kevin Knox to run right by whoever is guarding him – no Arizona wing has a defensive rating below 100.
(11)Loyola-Chicago vs. (3)Tennessee
Alright, let’s get to the good stuff. As I’ve already discussed, the Ramblers’ offense is better than the analytics paint it as and should perform above expectations against a very strong Volunteers’ D. However, what most don’t know is that Loyola also has the 25th ranked Adjusted Defense in the country; D is actually their stronger end. Tennessee struggles a little on offense, without one special offensive player to carry the load when the going gets tough. The Ramblers pull off an upset here.
(10)Texas vs. (2)Cincinnati
With all due respect to Texas, the Bearcats are simply the better team. Cincy’s defense will suffocate the Longhorns’ poor offense and prove to be a fairly easy matchup (besides Mo Bamba) for the 2 seed.
(1)Villanova vs. (8)Virginia Tech
Let’s get crazy here. Oh yeah, that’s right – I say Tech takes it. The simple fact is this: it makes no sense why Virginia Tech plays up to their best opponents. They don’t excel offensively or defensively – they shoot 2-pointers at the 8th highest percentage in the nation, but that’s about it. However, no matter how they do it, they do it. This year, they’ve beaten UNC, NC State, Virginia, Clemson, and Duke. All since January 22nd. Nova is obviously incredible, but they’re too prone to upset for me to pick them and feel good about it.
Winner: Virginia Tech
(5)West Virginia vs. (4)Wichita State
This, in my opinion (if it happens) will be the best game of the tournament. West Virginia’s incredible press defense against Wichita State’s wildly efficient offense? *shudder*. It’s going to be incredible to watch. I think Landry Shamet is one of the most underrated ball handlers and scorers in the country, and Conner Frankamp simply doesn’t turn the ball over. If the Shockers don’t get overwhelmed by the pressure (they have the experience not to), those two should be able to power the offense past half court and take the Mountaineers out of their element.
Winner: Wichita State
(11)St Bonaventure/UCLA vs. (3)Texas Tech
No matter who ends up playing in this game, Texas Tech’s defense should be able to soundly handle the pressure that Jaylen Adams or Aaron Holiday would put on. That, combined with Keenan Evans having inhuman efficiency, should push Texas Tech onward.
(10)Butler vs. (2)Purdue
Butler is very good, but Isaac Haas and Matt Haarms will limit Kelan Martin’s effectiveness inside while Vince Edwards will be tough for him to handle on the perimeter, and the offense will do its thing against an average Butler D.
(1)Xavier vs. (8)Missouri
Missouri will be tough to handle at full strength, but figuring out chemistry with all of the new integrated parts against a team as dominant as Xavier will be near impossible.
(5)Ohio State vs. (4)Gonzaga
The Zags killed Ohio State earlier this year (that being said, it was before Keita Bates-Diop’s explosion) and look poised to be in for another good matchup. Johnathan Williams matches up favorably with Bates-Diop, and by neutralizing him, the Bulldogs should be able to outplay this Buckeyes squad at most other spots in the lineup.
(11)San Diego State vs. (3)Michigan
One of the hottest teams in the country matches up against the hottest team in the country. The Wolverines will simply be too talented and offensively strong for this Aztecs team to handle. I wouldn’t be surprised if SDSU has trouble scoring as well, as Charles Matthews’ presence on the perimeter coupled with Jon Teske’s down low will be tough for players like Malik Pope to deal with.
(10)Providence vs. (2)UNC
Remember how I said Providence is dangerous? Well, they’re very much dangerous enough to knock off the Tar Heels here. UNC, good as they are, are overseeded. They’re a 10-loss team who is 3-3 in their last 6 and can struggle to defend athletic, offensively talented teams. Providence has the toughness to defend this high-powered offense, and they’ve shown serious offensive skill in recent wins, such as the close one over Xavier.
(1)Kansas vs. (9)NC State
I can see the Wolfpack making a run here, but Kansas matches up against their offense pound for pound. Devonte’ Graham is steady as they come, and Svi Mykhailiuk is a deadeye. Kansas wins this one in a shootout.
(12)New Mexico State vs. (4)Auburn
Let me introduce you all to a man named Jemerrio Jones. Jemerrio over here is a measly 6’5”, 200 pound forward. He also averages 13 rebounds per game. Why, you ask? Because Jemerrio is a tank with more hustle than most players have in their little fingers. Such is the theme for the Aggies – they’re tough, scrappy, and one of the best rebounding teams in the country (7th in Rebound Rate). Auburn has struggled with their physicality since McLemore went down. Watch for New Mexico State to body them heavily on their way to victory.
Winner: New Mexico State
(6)TCU vs. (3)Michigan State
TCU is a decent Big 12 team who’s faded in the second half of the season. The Spartans are an underseeded perennial power who spent the majority of the season in the Top 5. They won’t lose here.
Winner: Michigan State
(7)Rhode Island vs. (2)Duke
Playing Oklahoma and playing Duke are two different battles altogether – and honestly, the Rams don’t stand a chance here. Duke is bigger, stronger, and more athletic. Rhode Island has had a rough month of basketball. Duke cruises.
(1)Virginia vs. (5)Kentucky
It’s been a nice run for Kentucky – but, bye-bye. Virginia’s grit and hustle will outclass the edge in NBA talent that Kentucky theoretically has. As long as the Cavaliers can find a way to put a few points on the board, their defense should win them this one.
(11)Loyola-Chicago vs. (2)Cincinnati
I want to pick Loyola-Chicago so badly. Coming off beating Tennessee, they will know what it takes to beat a great defense. Even more enticing is that if they can beat both Tennessee and Cincy, they’ll be in a great position to know what it takes to beat Virginia’s D as well. Buttttt, while my heart says yes, my brain says no. Cincinnati feeds off of broken mid-major dreams, and their defense really is suffocating (almost as much so as Virginia’s). If you put the Ramblers, though, I won’t fight you.
(8)Virginia Tech vs. (4)Wichita State
The Hokies will be high off their victory over Nova and come crashing down to Earth against the unrelenting offense of Wichita State. To those of you who believe that Nova and the Shockers play in similar ways, so Tech should take this win as well – that’s fair, but I disagree. Virginia Tech plays to their opponents – Wichita is less talented than Villanova, and I expect the overall level of the Hokies to fall with that drop-off.
Winner: Wichita State
(3)Texas Tech vs. (2)Purdue
As good as Texas Tech is, Purdue takes this one. Purdue did well twice this year against Michigan’s top defense, turning each game into a shootout with spectacular performances by Carsen Edwards, Dakota Mathias and Isaac Haas. Look for Purdue to either dish inside or shoot a 3 every time down the floor, beating the Red Raiders down.
(1)Xavier vs. (4)Gonzaga
Xavier chokes here. Good as they are, fact of the matter is that they are nowhere near the level of a typical 1 seed. Bluiett, Macura and co. will be smaller than a tough, skilled Gonzaga team that wants to prove last year was no fluke.
(3)Michigan vs. (10)Providence
As gritty as Providence is, Michigan is even grittier – shockingly holding a top 5 ranking in Adjusted Defense. The Friars will struggle against the Wolverines’ combo of punishing defense, slow play, and ability to get hot in an instant (it’s almost like the Cinderella-crushing formula).
(1)Kansas vs. (12)New Mexico State
New Mexico State is big, tough, and gritty. But, Kansas has so much talent. Udoka Azubuike will gobble up boards and keep his team strong, while Devonte’ and Svi do the heavy lifting on offense.
(3)Michigan State vs. (2)Duke
The second best game of the tournament (if it happens), this is going to be an all-out brawl. These are two massive, physical teams full of NBA prospects and pent-up aggression. I think Duke takes it, but this is a toss-up. Wendell Carter and Nick Ward should effectively cancel out, so I think this comes down to which duo can perform better: Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges or Marvin Bagley and Grayson Allen. My money is on the latter, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for picking the Spartans. Hot take: the winner of this game wins the tournament.
(1)Virginia vs. (2)Cincinnati
Pro-tip: if you like watching games where teams score, don’t watch this one. This is going to be a gritty, grind it out defensive effort between two of the best defensive teams of all time. Overall, Virginia should take it though – while their defense is marginally better than Cincy’s, their offense vastly outranks the Bearcats’ by most measures.
(4)Wichita State vs. (2)Purdue
Fresh off of beating Texas Tech, Purdue is going to be exhausted. Look for Wichita State to capitalize on that – they’ll have more energy and be looking to attack on offense every possession. Additionally, Shaq Morris is a matchup nightmare for this Boilermakers squad; Haas and Haarms do a great job of holding their ground inside, but when it comes to the unrelenting toughness combined with the finesse and touch of his offensive game, it’s going to be very tough for Purdue to stick with him.
Winner: Wichita State
(4)Gonzaga vs. (3)Michigan
As strong as both teams will likely be playing at this point, Michigan should take this game. Gonzaga is long and full of outside shooters – however, Charles Matthews matches up perfectly with Johnathan Williams, Mo Wagner will take Killian Tillie, and Xavier Simpson can shut down Josh Perkins. A nightmare scenario for Michigan would be this game coming down to the wire and seeing them fall victim to poor free throw shooting and foul trouble; but besides that situation, I have trouble seeing the Wolverines those this one.
(1)Kansas vs. (2)Duke
This is a rough game for Kansas. They play small, and Duke is very big – and, unfortunately for the Jayhawks, mobile and agile enough to stick with anyone. Assuming Carter and Azubuike play as about equals, this game is wide open for Marvin Bagley to go bonkers.
(1)Virginia vs. (3)Michigan
It’s been quite the run for Michigan, but it ends here. The defense is simply just too strong – look for Mo Wagner to have trouble penetrating, which will lead to him having trouble getting any room off of the pick and pop. Once that play disintegrates, Michigan’s offense could take a nosedive. I give the Wolverines a chance if they tire out a now-shorter UVA rotation and both Wagner and Duncan Robinson hit the 3 at a very high percentage, but it’s unlikely.
(4)Wichita State vs. (2)Duke
Similarly to what happened in the Duke-Kansas game, Duke will simply have too much size for the Shockers to handle. Grayson Allen and Landry Shamet, I’m predicting, will have roughly equal offensive outputs – but down low, Marvin Bagley is going to have himself a day against an undersized Wichita State starting frontcourt. Defense has not been the Shockers’ calling card this year – finally, it will come back to bite them.
(1)Virginia vs. (2)Duke
Here, in my opinion, is where losing De’Andre Hunter hurts UVA the most. Duke will be the most efficient offense that the Cavaliers come up against, and missing such a big presence is a big deal. And as tough as the Cavaliers are, Duke can handle them defensively and has the size to beat them down on offense. Look for the big men to be key – as we saw in the first Duke-UVA matchup during the regular season, the Blue Devils’ guards were effectively neutralized. It was, however, a big day for Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter. This matchup will be more of the same; unfortunately, UVA missing such an important piece will likely be what pushes Duke over the edge.
Data courtesy of Team Rankings, Kenpom, ESPN, and Sports-Reference. Thanks for reading!