March is finally here. And you may have just started watching college basketball a month or so ago after the Super Bowl. You probably need a little information to help steer your bracket selections one way or another, so that’s what I am here to do. In a three-part series of blogs, I will be giving out my thoughts on each of the four regions along with how I see the end of the tournament shaking out.
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The East is the home of the favorite to win the whole thing and #1 overall seed Duke. They have a bit of a cake walk to the Elite Eight. The four seed in their region is Virginia Tech – who will not have the benefit of playing the Blue Devils in Blacksburg where they tend to struggle. Zion Williamson came back for the conference tournament from his knee injury looking like Bane in the city fight scene of The Dark Knight Rises kicking the shit out of the ACC on his own. It is very evident Duke will go as far as the big man will take them and if he has a night where it’s not working for him, the Devils can be had.
On the other half of the region though, lies a team playing as well as anyone in the county at the time, the Michigan State Spartans. Like Duke, I don’t see any land mines capable of tripping up Sparty mainly due to Cassius Winston playing the way he is and the lack of an ultra-talented contender anywhere else in their region.
Possible Upsets: Look out for Yale as they face LSU. The Tigers, reeling from the loss of their head coach Will Wade as part of the FBI recruiting scandal and alleged recorded conversations implicating him in the recruitment of guard Javonte Smart. Yale can shoot, and you always worry about a team in turmoil in March.
Liberty is a trendy upset pick over Mississippi State. Mississippi State is a decent three-point shooting team but is also definitely a team that can be had by an upstart underdog. St. Louis will give Virginia Tech trouble and I always worry about teams like Va. Tech who for whatever reason always seems to get tripped up early in March. Stereotypes exist for a reason.
The East is also host to an 11-Seed play in game between Temple and Belmont and either team will give the Maryland Terrapins a battle in the first round. Belmont being one of the more disputed teams on the bubble won the Ohio Valley Conference regular season title and stifled top prospect Ja Morant. Temple, always a team that seems to be in the 7-11 range in the tournament, has wins over Central Florida and Houston this season and is coached by Fran Dunphy whose teams are always as scrappy as they come.
Where’s Rick Pitino?: The most interesting first round match-up is centered on someone who won’t be on either bench or in either locker room, but the Minnesota vs Louisville game has a beautiful underlying story. Rick Pitino, forced out of Louisville after a run marred by scandals (strippers for recruits, extortion, and the 15 seconds of fame in an Italian restaurant rank among the best) will be cheering on his son Richard, the head coach of their Minnesota Golden Gophers take on the Cardinals. You have to figure the camera will find him if he’s anywhere in the building and the awkward energy will be outstanding.
Who can win: The East is a two-horse race as I hinted at already. It’s Michigan State and Duke. According to ESPN.com, Duke is the heaviest favorite to win the tournament since Kentucky in 2014-15 (who was undefeated at the time). I like Duke and Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish to find a way to knock off Winston and company as do most, but it won’t be easy for the Devils.
The last of the four 1-seeds went to Mark Few’s Gonzaga Bulldogs. For most of the season, this was the team I thought may finally be talented enough to win a natty for Few. Rui Hachimura is AWESOME to watch and has the game and frame ready to roll in the NBA next season. I’d take him outside of the Williamson-Morant-Barrett tier at this point for my money. This however in turn is the toughest region for any of the four top seeds.
Syracuse, Marquette, Murray State, Florida State, Buffalo, Texas Tech, Nevada, and Michigan are all teams I intend to figuratively copy and paste into the “who can win” paragraph in a few. The second-round match-ups we will see are going to provide a ton of drama over the weekend. Gonzaga and Michigan, ironically the last two runners-up in the tournament, face land mines right into the second round as they both seek to make another Final Four trip.
Possible Upsets: Where to begin on this one? Tyus Battle should return from injury for 8-seed Syracuse. One of the more talented wings in the country and a possible future lottery pick, Battle can carry the offensive load for the Orange and the 2-3 zone they employ defensively can be an issue for a cold shooting team. If there is one thing Gonzaga can struggle with at times is shooting, as seen with their loss to St. Mary’s in the WCC Tournament.
The first-round matchup of scoring machines and future lottery picks Morant (24.6 ppg) for Murray State and Markus Howard (25.0 ppg) from Marquette will be a game worth the price of admission. NBA scouts will be watching this one in great detail. The rest of us should get a cold beer or cocktail and settle in for what should be the most exciting game of the first round. A tailor-made 5-12 upset, Morant and Murray State could be poised for a bit more than just this game as well.
Florida State is a gritty team. Leonard Hamilton is a great coach. Terrance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele are fantastic players but this is just a team that screams we can’t win more than one game in March. Murray State will get to the Sweet 16 after upsetting Marquette and the Seminoles.
The potential second round matchups are some of the best on the board in Texas Tech vs. Buffalo and Nevada vs. Michigan. Jarrett Culver vs. C.J. Massinburg and Jeremy Harris. Jordan Caroline and the Martin twins vs Iggy Brazdeikis and Co.
Shocking Sweet 16 Matchup: I alluded to it briefly. There will be a couple major upsets in the second round of the West. We’re going to see two of my favorite teams from November – 6-seed Buffalo and 7-seed Nevada face off for the right to get Gonzaga and a Final Four berth. Nevada was a top-10 team for much of the season. Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, and Caroline give Eric Mussellman a trio that is only rivaled by National Champion contenders. Add Jazz Johnson and you have four double digit scorers, some outside shooting, and a post presence as well. Massinburg and Harris lead coach Nate Oats Buffalo Bulls and will need some help from Nick Perkins if they want to take down the Pack from Reno.
Who can win: Gonzaga. Obviously. Michigan – clearly. I haven’t discussed enough about my love today for John Beilein. He’s a phenomenal coach and Brazdiekis, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, and Zavier Simpson are a perfect fit for his style of coaching. But I think Nevada may have as much talent and the Wolverines looked flat in the loss last week to Michigan State. The Wolf Pack can get there. Culver’s a monster and he could lead Texas Tech to a Final Four as well. I still think the Zags get there in this one, but it won’t be easy.
Follow Matt on Twitter @schools_01