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 best team over the course of the season was arguably Tony Bennett’s Virginia Cavalier squad. De’Anrdre Hunter is going to be an impact player on the next level both offensively and defensively. He can lock up most wings on his own which in itself makes the vaunted Virginia Pack Line defense even stronger. They have shooters in Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. And they are fresh off being the first ever 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed. If there is ever a year Virginia can do it, it’s this season.
The bottom half of this region is loaded with stars on the collegiate level: Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, the Vols’ Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon, and defending champions Eric Paschall and Phil Booth from Villanova. The survivor of that half of the South Region will have earned their birth to the Elite Eight.
Possible Upsets: Oregon is one of the hotter teams entering the tournament. They are a 12-seed after winning the Pac-12 Tournament and are prepping to face 10th-year Senior Ethan Happ and the Wisconsin Badgers. Early lines are actually favoring the Ducks so this could a potential upset in seed only. I personally like the Badgers here. The team that would win the whole thing if it was based on best name, the Cal Irvine Anteaters, are a team I really got on board with watching them destroy the Big West Conference in tournament play. They have some athleticism and a fire name like that is sure to register an upset somewhere. Kansas State was solid for most of the season but without Dean Wade Cal Irvine will be all over the Wildcats in the first round.
This region should follow chalk for the most part, until the Sweet 16 which is when things should really ramp up in Nashville. I am a huge fan of Edwards. I immediately wrote Purdue into the Elite Eight when I saw the unveiling of the bracket. I can just easily see them do what Purdue does though and fall short, even as early as the second round against the defending champion Villanova Wildcats. Is it honestly that unrealistic to see Nova beat Purdue – Edwards or not? You’d almost expect it at this point.
Spider-Man Meme Game: A Sweet 16 match-up of Wisconsin and Virginia, two teams who play at a pace similar to how old people move, will bring an extra bit of joy to the Bennett family. Tony grew up in Wisconsin, played at Green Bay and was an assistant at Wisconsin where his old man Dick was the longtime head man for the Badgers. Happ and Virginia big man Jack Salt banging bodies down low will bring a tear to the eye of any YMCA league legend. Somewhere, some kid in Rhinelander, Wisconsin will be firing buckets off the side of his barn as a result of this game.
Who can win: Four teams in this region wouldn’t shock me if they made an appearance in Minneapolis for the Final Four. Virginia is the odds-on favorite. Angry, talented, they can shoot, and obviously defend, the Cavs should get to the Elite Eight without a struggle. From there though, any one of Villanova, Purdue, and Tennessee led by the duo of Williams and Schofield are more than capable of beating Virginia to advance on. I worry about Rick Barnes in the tournament as his track record suggests a person with basic math skills should. Having a pair of All-Americans can make an average coach look great though.
The region of the blue bloods, both past and present, as represented by North Carolina, Kentucky, Houston (Phi Slamma Jamma, – you’re welcome youngsters), Kansas, Seton Hall, and Ohio State carries the most shine of the four regions. There are potentially fascinating match-ups in this region, but it also feels like one that is just as likely to fall flat and go chalk.
North Carolina has looked like a different team since the shocking 20+ point beat-down they took at home against Louisville in early January. Coby White, although maddening at times in his decision making is the most fun player to watch in the tournament. A motor that doesn’t quit and armed with a shooter’s mindset, White will get hot at some point and will UNC to a win. Paired with seniors in Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and defensive stopper Kenny Williams the Heels are a viable one seed and more than capable of winning Roy Williams’ fourth National Title.
Kentucky, who destroyed UNC in Chicago back in December is another team loaded with starts – P.J. Washington, Keldon Johnson, Ryan Herro (how he didn’t end up at Duke is beyond me), and Reid Travis, Kentucky is contender to win it all as well. They were playing their best ball in late January into February as evidenced by their mauling of Tennessee.
Possible Upsets: This region is the casual March Madness fans wet dream. UNC could struggle mightily with Utah State and even Washington for that matter in the second round. 30-win New Mexico State faces off right away with SEC tournament winner and 5-seed Auburn. Kansas could lose to a D-II team – or beat anyone (upset alert: I do think they lose to Northeastern). Ohio State and Iowa State is as even of a 6-11 matchup as you will see. Houston isn’t extremely battle tested and they face a hungry and athletic Georgia State squad. Wofford, the 7-seed in the Midwest, assuming they can sneak past Seton Hall in the first round could give Kentucky fits with gunners Fletcher Magee and Nathan Hoover.
Keep in mind Wofford, led my Magee beat North Carolina last season and didn’t go down quietly this year when they faced off either.
Elite Eight Rematch: North Carolina and Kentucky have faced each other four times in Regional Finals in their storied histories (UNC won: 1977; 1995; 2017; Kentucky won: 2011). Their most recent one was an instant classic in which Maye hit a game winning jumper in the in final seconds to give the Heels a two-point win over the Cats. Maye, in his senior season would love to do it again if he can get the chance.
Who can win: This is the deepest region of contenders – UNC, Kentucky, as heavily highlighted can both do it. Houston is tough as nails and do not give up easy baskets. Veteran leadership and a snake oil salesman coach in Kelvin Sampson make them even more dangerous. Dedric Lawson and Quentin Grimes can lead Kansas in a win against anyone. If you want a dark horse? Utah State can shoot the lights out and if they can upset North Carolina in the second round, they could make a run to Minneapolis as well.
Follow Matt on Twitter @schools_01