Welcome to Midwest Sports Pulse’s first annual March Madness preview. Anyone who knows me knows that the NCAA Tournament is my favorite sporting event, and the first four days of the tournament are my favorite four days of the year. I am so excited that it’s finally here, and it doesn’t even matter that Indiana didn’t make it.
Okay, that stings a little.
This piece will have two parts: one being the teams that actually have a chance to win the tournament, and one being my general predictions for each region.
Let’s get started!
Part one: the teams that could win
Here, in an order that I will explain to you shortly, are the 20 teams that actually could win the NCAA tournament: Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Duke, VCU, Michigan State, Florida State, North Carolina, Clemson, Kentucky, Houston, Florida, Kansas, Gonzaga, Louisville, Oregon, Northwestern, and Washington.
Now, you may have noticed that a couple of those teams aren’t in the field, so we can eliminate Clemson and Northwestern.
So what else do the other 18 have in common?
Answer: they all finished in the Top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s (KenPom) Adjusted Defensive Efficiency.
First, what does that mean? The Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (ADE) is the number of points allowed per 100 possessions, adjusted for opponent. Essentially, when Texas Tech is on defense 100 times, they’ve only given up 86 points this season, which is tops in college basketball.
Here’s why that matters. Since 2002, which is the first year that KenPom’s analysis is listed on his website, every single national champion has finished the season in KenPom’s Defensive Efficiency Top 20.
There’s one exception: these statistics have recently switched to “Adjusted Defensive Efficiency” from just “Defensive Efficiency.” When it was the latter, the 2009 North Carolina championship team finished 21st in Defensive Efficiency. But with the ADE, they were 18th.
But yes: every single champion since 2002 has finished in the top 20 of KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. From Maryland to Villanova, every single one.
I learned that fact a few years ago, and since then, I have not chosen a champion in my bracket that has finished outside that top 20 (which doesn’t mean I’ve gotten it right every year…quite the contrary).
I think it’s safe to say a few more of those teams (VCU, Florida, Kansas, Louisville, Oregon, and Washington) can be eliminated as well. With the exception of Kansas, all of those teams are lower in the seeding, and the Jayhawks just haven’t been as good this season as they were advertised to be, despite starting the season at #1.
So who’s left? Texas Tech, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Duke, Michigan State, Florida State, North Carolina, Kentucky, Houston, and Gonzaga.
You might look at those teams and say to yourself, “Yeah, well no kidding. Of course one of them is going to win.” Fair point. Those are some heavy hitters. But it should speak volumes as to how important defense has always been in college basketball, and that the teams that play the best defense are rewarded. Those 12 teams should be your only options when choosing a champion. And you could probably truthfully whittle that list down to 8 or 9 if you’re really feeling generous. For example, Wisconsin, Kansas State, and Houston are very good basketball teams, but I don’t think they have enough all-around firepower to get them to the Final Four, let alone win the championship.
Noticeable omissions from the KenPom Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Top 20: Maryland (22nd), Virginia Tech (25th), Purdue (32nd), Tennessee (34th), Auburn (45th), LSU (62nd), Villanova (73rd).
The lowest team in the tournament field is Fairleigh-Dickinson, who comes in at a pretty terrible 294th (out of 353 Division I teams). They’re in the play-in game Tuesday night against Prairie View for the right to get trounced by Gonzaga on Thursday. (Update: before I hit publish, Fairleigh-Dickinson came back and defeated Prairie View, so they will be facing Gonzaga.)
Oh, and just because I can? Indiana’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency was 30th best in the nation this year, two spots ahead of Purdue. Go Hoosiers.
Part Two: Region by region breakdown
Let’s start in the East with the #1 overall seed: the Duke Blue Devils.
Duke is a pretty overwhelming favorite, at least as far as the number of people picking them to win the tournament. FiveThirtyEight puts their chances at 19%, which is tops among the field, and your bracket should probably revolve around how far you’re willing to take Duke.
If you’re in a pool where you can win money, you have two options with the Blue Devils. One, since they are the favorite, you could put your money on them and maybe have to split any prize winnings with 25-50% of your pool that also picked Duke. Two, you could go against the grain and hope it pays off.
I really think Duke makes the Final Four at the very least. This is one of the most talented college basketball teams to ever take the court together, and if you’ve watched any college basketball this year, you know how freakishly athletic Zion Williamson is. He’ll probably be the #1 pick in the NBA Draft in June, but he wasn’t even the top recruit coming in to Duke last summer: that was RJ Barrett, the likely #2 overall selection in the NBA Draft.
The top part of this region isn’t that strong. The 8/9 matchup between VCU and UCF could be fun to watch, and either of those teams could give Duke some struggles, but I also doubt either of them would be able to keep it up for 40 minutes.
I would expect Duke to play and beat Virginia Tech, the 4 seed, in the Sweet 16. A trendy upset pick is Liberty (12) over Mississippi State (5), but that’s not the 12/5 upset I would be most likely to take.
The lower half of this bracket should belong to Michigan State. I think they’re the best 2 seed in the tournament, and I also think it could have been the fourth #1 seed over Gonzaga, but that’s irrelevant at this point.
Stay far away from LSU. If you haven’t been following college basketball, their head coach, Will Wade, was caught on a wiretap by the FBI discussing payments to recruits.
LSU certainly has enough talent to win a game or two, but don’t be shocked if Yale (14) upsets them in the first round. They can really shoot the basketball, and they have a legitimate NBA Draft prospect in Miye Oni. I’m taking Yale over LSU solely because of the Will Wade dilemma. It just seems like there are too many distractions in that Tigers locker room right now.
The 7/10 matchup between Louisville and Minnesota is fun if you’re a college basketball fan. Minnesota’s head coach is Richard Pitino, son of disgraced (also by the FBI) former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. It could be an interesting matchup, but neither of them is going to win in the second round against the Spartans.
My Sweet 16 matchup in this part of the bracket is all Big Ten: Maryland vs. Michigan State. There are two ways this could go: Maryland is good enough to beat Michigan State (though the Spartans won the only regular season meeting 69-55), but they’re also inconsistent enough that they could lose to Belmont in the first round (if Belmont beats Temple). (That game is still being played as of publishing.)
The bottom line in the East is that this region should pretty much be chalk. Duke and Michigan State is the Elite 8 matchup you should expect to see. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom Izzo leads the Spartans to an upset and another Final Four, but my official pick for the East has to be Duke.
Of the four regions, the West is the most up in the air, in my opinion. Any of the 1-7 seeds has a legitimate shot to make the Final Four out of this region.
Let’s start at the top with Gonzaga. The Bulldogs, or Zags, have been nothing short of outstanding this year. They finished 16th in that Adjusted Defensive Efficiency that we discussed above, but maybe more importantly, they finished first in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. The Zags scored 125.1 points per 100 possessions, which was tops in Division I by a point and a half.
They can flat out score the basketball. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 15% chance of winning the tournament, which is third best. Rui Hachimura averaged 20.1 points per game this year and shot nearly 61% from the field. Brandon Clarke 16.5 points per game and 8.4 rebounds per game. Zach Norvell averaged 15.3 points per game and shot over 37% from three point range. Those three alone are great, but Josh Perkins also averaged double figures (11 ppg) and gives an additional offensive threat.
But the committee did Gonzaga no favors being the fourth 1 seed. They have a potential tough matchup in the second round with Syracuse and the famed 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim employs. For some reason, it seems like teams forget how to attack and beat the 2-3 zone in March, and if Gonzaga isn’t making its shots, they could be upset early.
The 12/5 matchup here is definitely intriguing and another trendy upset pick. Marquette (5) takes on Murray State (12) in a game with two excellent NBA Draft prospects. I wrote about Marquette and Markus Howard last month, and you can find that piece here. Since then, the Golden Eagles have struggled to say the least. Ja Morant of Murray State is currently ranked third on most NBA Mock Draft Boards, and he could carry the Racers to victory here. Marquette could also regain its earlier form and Howard could lead them to a Sweet 16 berth or beyond. It’s really up to you: for what it’s worth, I picked Marquette to win, but I have them losing in the second round to Florida State.
The Seminoles, to me, are simultaneously an underrated and appropriately-seeded team. I think the best way to put that is that they’re dangerous and a sleeper pick. Leonard Hamilton is a terrific coach (I can’t believe he’s 70 years old) and he’s built a very talented roster that gave Duke just about all it could handle twice this year. I don’t foresee them having any trouble with Vermont.
The top Sweet 16 matchup for me is Gonzaga and Florida State, which would be a rematch from last year’s Sweet 16. Florida State, then a 9 seed, beat Gonzaga, a 4 seed, by a score of 75-60. I think they’ll beat the Zags again and advance to the Elite 8 for the second straight season.
In the bottom half of the bracket, there are four teams with a real chance at getting to the Final Four. Buffalo is an absolute sleeper: the Bulls ruined my bracket on day one last year when they demolished Arizona by 21 points as a 13 seed. They’ll get to the second round and face Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had the top ADE this season, and the Bulls scored almost 85 points a game. It could go either way, but I have Texas Tech advancing to the Sweet 16, also for the second straight season.
Nevada made a pretty neat Sweet 16 run last season, and they have the tools to do it again. The Wolfpack finished the season 29-4 and returned the Martin twins (Caleb and Cody) and Jordan Caroline. Caleb Martin averaged nearly 20 points per game and Caroline averaged over 17.
But they won’t be back in the Sweet 16 this year. Michigan, the 2 seed, is too good. John Beilein (pictured above) will lead the Wolverines over the Wolfpack and Texas Tech.
The Elite 8 matchup here for me is Florida State and Michigan, which is also a rematch from last season. I don’t see the result being any different either, and I have Michigan advancing to the Final Four again this year. Beilein has quietly built one of the most impressive college programs in the country, and his successes should continue.
I know what you’re thinking, and there is absolutely NO WAY that Virginia loses to a 16 seed again. Not a chance. I would stake my entire reputation on it.
This region has some good teams, but it’s the Cavaliers and Tony Bennett’s to lose. They have a 17% chance to win it all, according to FiveThirtyEight. Virginia had the 5th best defense according to KenPom’s ADE, but this year, they also had the 2nd best offense (just behind Gonzaga). They had the 30th best offense last season, and 50th in 2017. This Virginia team is different in that they score the ball much better than the last few Tony Bennett teams, but they also play that same style of suffocating defense that Bennett has become known for.
They also have De’Andre Hunter this season, who missed last year’s tournament with a wrist injury. Between Hunter, Indianapolis native Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome, the Cavaliers have a balanced offensive attack that will continue to be hard for other teams to contain.
Virginia should cruise through the top of the bracket to the Elite 8. I think Oklahoma (9) beats Ole Miss (8), but the Sooners can’t keep up with the Cavaliers.
This region has the 12/5 upset that I’m most keen on. The Oregon Ducks played their way into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Pac 12 Conference Tournament, and they are on a heater right now. They play Wisconsin, another Top 20 ADE team, and if the Ducks can shut down Ethan Happ in the post, it’ll be an early exit for the Badgers. Also: whatever the over/under is for this game, bet the under. This game should be first team to 50 points wins.
I also like UC Irvine to beat Kansas State in a 13/4 upset. The Anteaters are another team that’s hot coming into the tournament, and they won 30 games this season. Kansas State has a couple of good players (including Dean Wade), but there’s just something about this matchup that I don’t like. I’m taking the Anteaters over the Wildcats.
That gives Virginia either the 12 seed, Oregon, or the 13 seed, UC Irvine, in the Sweet 16. Like I said, Cavs cruise.
I think Villanova and Purdue both win their matchups in the first round to set up an interesting game in the second. Villanova has struggled at times this season, and overall, I think the 6 seed is appropriate for them. But the Wildcats are the defending champions, and they return a few players from last year’s team that bring a ton of talent and experience.
The question for Purdue will be how far Carsen Edwards can carry them. I think they’ll get past Villanova, but if Edwards has another 4-24 shooting performance like he did against Indiana, Purdue will be in heaps of trouble. They should make the Sweet 16, but their performance will be directly tied to Edwards.
I think Cincinnati is underseeded at 7. The American Athletic Conference Tournament Champions are a physical squad, and when they play Tennessee, another physical team, in the second round, don’t miss that game. It’ll be a real slobberknocker (thanks, J.R.) between the Bearcats and the Volunteers, but Tennessee should come out on top.
The Sweet 16 game between Purdue and Tennessee will be another fun one to watch. Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield are terrific players for the Vols, and they’ve led the team all season long. As much as I don’t want to pick the Boilers, I think Carsen Edwards will have a game that makes him a legend at Purdue and carry the Boilers into the Elite 8. I’m talking 40 points and maybe even a game-winning or game-clinching shot.
But that’s where the run ends. If it doesn’t happen before the Elite 8, Virginia’s defense will crush Edwards, and Purdue doesn’t have enough firepower on offense to overcome the Cavaliers. I like Virginia to get to their first Final Four under Tony Bennett (which seems insane to me).
The Midwest region should really boil down to two teams, much like the East did. And, spoiler alert, it should be the top two seeds in the region.
North Carolina is a popular pick to win the title this year, and rightfully so. The Tar Heels beat Duke twice (albeit without Zion), which is impressive. They beat Florida State. They beat Virginia Tech. They also beat Gonzaga in December and scored 103 points in that game.
This team is good, which pains me to say. It may be one of best coaching jobs of Roy Williams’ career, too.
FiveThirtyEight gives the Tar Heels a 9% chance to win it all this year. It would be their second title in three years and fourth under Roy Williams. But they have to get there first, and Virginia would be waiting for them in the Final Four.
The Tar Heels are far better than any teams they’d face up through the Sweet 16, and I have them advancing to the Elite 8 pretty easily.
Utah State could be a team to watch, though. The 8 seed won 28 games this year and shoots the three ball well, which would be the key to any upset over North Carolina. But don’t bet on it to happen.
Auburn and Kansas should win their first round matchups and face off in the second round. The Tigers are coming off the SEC Tournament as champions, while Kansas has been reeling since the middle of the season. Their run of 14 straight Big 12 regular season championships came to an end this year (which is incredibly impressive), and I don’t have any faith in the Jayhawks. Auburn relies on the three pointer as well, and if they’re on, they’ll beat Kansas easily. If they can’t hit shots, Kansas should win. But neither of them will beat the Tar Heels.
A lot of people seem to like Houston in the bottom part of this bracket, but I don’t trust the Cougars. For one, I can’t stand their coach. In case you didn’t know, Kelvin Sampson is the head coach at Houston; you know, the same Kelvin Sampson who cheated and drove Indiana’s program into the ground. I like Houston to beat Georgia State in the first round, though if you’re really feeling spicy, take the Panthers in an upset.
However, I see Houston losing to Iowa State in round two. The Cyclones should dispatch of the Buckeyes easily, as I find Ohio State supremely overrated. I like Iowa State to make the Sweet 16.
They’ll play Kentucky. The Wildcats would face either Wofford, a team that made its way into the Top 25 this season, but hasn’t fared well against stiff competition, or Seton Hall. That game could be interesting, because the Pirates beat Kentucky in December. Either way, I don’t see Kentucky losing early, as they have improved loads since the beginning of the year.
They should also take care of business against Iowa State, which sets up a rematch in the Elite 8. Kentucky beat North Carolina 80-72 earlier in the season on a neutral court in Chicago. Both teams have come a long way since the start of the year, but I think the Tar Heels will prove to be too much for the Wildcats this time around, and North Carolina will advance to the Final Four.
So it all comes down to this. My Final Four is Duke vs. Michigan and Virginia vs. North Carolina. The three ACC teams that earned #1 seeds should also earn their spots in the Final Four.
If you’ve read this far, I really appreciate you. Just wanted you to know that.
Duke and Michigan would be a heck of a game to watch. Both teams can score the basketball at a high pace and both teams play good defense. Of course, Duke is the favorite, but in this matchup, I think the luck runs out. It only takes one game for star freshmen to show their inexperience, and when it happens, teams don’t usually survive.
As much as I like Duke and the sheer amount of talent they have on the roster, I think the Michigan Wolverines pull this one out and make it to the National Championship game for the second straight season.
On the other side, we have an ACC rematch in Virginia vs. North Carolina. The only regular season matchup between these two teams was won by the Cavaliers, and I expect the same result. As good as the North Carolina offense has been lately, Virginia’s offense has been great all year, and that defense…well, I don’t need to tell you anymore about that. The Virginia Cavaliers will go to the National Championship game.
A Virginia/Michigan National Championship game would be awesome. Michigan’s ADE was actually better than Virginia’s this season: the Wolverines had the 2nd best defense compared to Virginia, who finished with the 5th best defense.
You know what they say: defense wins championships.
But offense helps too, and while Michigan isn’t bad (18th AOE), Virginia is that much better. After the most humiliating exit in NCAA Tournament history in 2018, Tony Bennett and the Virginia Cavaliers will climb and conquer the mountain in 2019 and win their first National Championship. Michigan will again settle for runners-up, the 3rd time that’s happened since 2013.
Expect to see essentially this same image again on Monday, April 8th, when Virginia wins the Big Dance.