Let’s cut to the chase. Here’s my bracket:
That’s right: North Carolina over Duke in the final. Sure, there’s some wishful thinking behind that prediction. Would it not be terrific to see college basketball’s greatest rivalry on the grandest stage? Nonetheless, I could actually see it happening. For starters, Duke (+650) and UNC (+700) have the first and third best odds to win it all respectively, according to a variety of sports books. Everyone seems to be buying into the Blue Devils, in particular, after they beat three ranked opponents–including the Tar Heels–to win the ACC tournament. I’m jumping on the bandwagon, too. The preseason number one seems to be rounding into form at just the right time. And one thing I especially like about Duke is that they’re not reliant on one player to succeed. For instance, truculent star Grayson Allen, the hero of the 2015 national title game against Wisconsin, is only their third leading scorer this season behind sharp-shooting sophomore Luke Kennard and standout freshman forward Jayson Tatum. Those three should provide more-than-enough scoring for Duke to advance through a difficult East region that features the defending champs, Villanova, and a dangerous sleeper, SMU, en route to the Final Four.
But I’m ultimately picking the Tar Heels to win it all. Amid all the “madness” usually associated with this tournament, the strongest teams still tend to emerge victorious. Take a look at the total efficiency rankings of the past five champions, according to college basketball analytics expert Ken Pomeroy’s website: Villanova (1st), Duke (3rd), Connecticut (15th), Louisville (1st), and Kentucky (1st). Sure, that Shabazz Napier-led UConn team is a quasi-exception (although their efficiency rating clearly shows they did not deserve to be a 7 seed). Generally speaking, however, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: There are only a few teams capable of winning it all each March, and they tend to rank highly in many of these analytical power rankings.
North Carolina (ranked 3rd in total efficiency) is clearly one of those squads. The Tar Heels are in the top ten in the country in point differential per game (+13.4), and they’ve done this despite playing a tougher schedule than the other nine teams ahead of them. Better yet, they’re ranked third in the nation in overall efficiency, behind only Gonzaga, who has played the 128th toughest schedule, and Villanova. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Tar Heels are stout on both ends of the floor, as they rank very highly in most offensive efficiency metrics and grade out reasonably well on the defensive end despite facing the nation’s 6th toughest slate of opposing offenses. This tough slate of opponents I keep referring to should serve North Carolina well this tournament. For reference, the average Strength of Schedule (SOS) of the previous twenty Final Four teams is 13.3. The Tar Heels’ SOS in 2016-17 was 11th.
Another reason why I like North Carolina is that they have the easiest path among the one seeds. They may run into trouble against one of the teams from the other half of the South region (namely Kentucky). But until then, UNC has little to worry about against the likes of #4 Butler or #5 Minnesota, if either of those two teams even makes it to the Sweet Sixteen. I then expect that their strong veterans such as forwards Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks will be enough for the Tar Heels to prevail over an inexperienced squad like Kentucky or potentially Lonzo Ball’s UCLA.
In contrast, the road to the Final Four is more difficult for the other number one seeds. Historically, defending champs have had difficulty repeating, which is partly why I expect Villanova to run into trouble against a hot Duke team. I’m also not a believer in Kansas’ national title prospects. As mentioned in one of my previous articles, their success in close games is likely unsustainable. I bet they’ll slip up to either Iowa State, who has defeated them before this season, or, as I have it, Louisville before the Final Four. And as for Gonzaga, I have them losing early for two reasons. First, I don’t buy their 32-1 record because they played an easy schedule. Yet that would make me a hypocrite because I have a dangerously under-seeded Saint Mary’s team from the same conference in the Elite Eight. The main reason, though, why I have the ‘Zags being the first one seed to lose is because I love West Virginia. In short, the Mountaineers are a four seed who profiles as a two. Their defense is first by a mile in turnovers created per game, and their average scoring margin of +15.6 per game this season is first among teams from major conferences. Hence why I have them in the Final Four.
Referring back to the Tar Heels, they’re simply the one seed I trust the most to make it to the Final Four. They’re strong on both ends of the floor and I’m high on their veteran leadership. Plus, I sense they might have an extra motivational edge, for two reasons. First, I’ve noticed something over the past few years: Four of the previous five national champions have not won their conference tournament. Perhaps a loss, ironically, puts teams like North Carolina in a better frame of mind before entering the real tournament. Moreover, UNC still has many holdovers from the team that lost at the buzzer last year to Villanova. You think they’re hungry to get back to the title game? I do. But as explained in the previous paragraphs, that’s just one of many reasons why I’m picking North Carolina to win this year’s national title.
Other notes before I call it a day:
First round upsets: I have four that stand out
The upset pick I’m most confident in is #12 Middle Tennessee State over #5 Minnesota. You might remember MTSU from last year: They pulled a rare #15 over #2 upset by knocking off Tom Izzo’s Michigan State. Well, they’re back this year, and they lucked into a favorable matchup against an over-seeded Golden Gophers squad. Minnesota is only 33rd in total efficiency this season, suggesting that they deserved to be an eight or a nine seed. Moreover, they’re not very good offensively (81st in efficiency) and to make matters worse, they lost their top three-point shooter to injury during the Big Ten tournament.
The other #12 seed I like is Princeton. Maybe I’m just picking the Tigers due to recency bias: After all, Yale upset Baylor last year in another one of those oft-talked about 5 vs 12 matchups. But my thinking is that the Ivy League champs are a high-volume three-point shooting team, so if they get hot the Fighting Irish could be in serious trouble.
Two #11 seeds that stand out are Xavier and Rhode Island. The Musketeers, in particular, lucked out because Maryland, frankly, is not very good. The Terrapins rank just 43rd in total efficiency, so I’m confused why they ultimately received such a high seed. Xavier, for the record, is even ranked higher than Maryland in this same category. If you’re looking for a relative lock among the double-digit seeds, this is it. As for URI, I like their matchup against Creighton, who is only 7-8 in their last fifteen games.
Explaining my later round upsets
Again, four that stand out. I’ve already explained my rationale for picking West Virginia to knock off Gonzaga en route to reaching the Final Four. But I feel like I need to explain why I have Saint Mary’s upsetting both #2 Arizona, a relatively popular pick to win it all, and #3 Florida State. For starters, the Gaels are incredibly under-seeded. Sure, they played a weak schedule; but having the nation’s fourth best scoring margin per game should’ve garnered them at least a five seed. Fortunately for Saint Mary’s, though, they’ll likely play an Arizona team that everyone is overhyping. The Wildcats may have won the Pac-12 tournament, but as I explained earlier, that doesn’t really mean much. Arizona is still ranked just 21st in overall efficiency and 24th according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). Saint Mary’s, in comparison, is ranked 14th and 12th by those respective metrics. Even though I like the Gael’s to beat both Arizona and Florida State, a team that compares favorably to the Wildcats, I really don’t view a potential Saint Mary’s run to the Elite Eight as a surprise.
Two other things that won’t surprise me. First is #6 SMU reaching at least the Sweet Sixteen. I like the Mustangs offensively, as they rank in the upper echelon of many offensive categories, including effective field goal percentage. They project to be a problem for #3 Baylor, who has struggled mightily since attaining the nation’s number one ranking back in mid-January. The other six seed I like to advance to the second weekend is Cincinnati. I’m sure many will question this, as they’ll have to get past UCLA in order to do so. Referring back to one of my previous articles, though, I think the Bruins are overrated. My main point in that article was how UCLA’s offensive numbers were deceptive. But part of this is also due to a misguided logic: Since many people are aware of the extraordinary Lonzo Ball, they assume UCLA will naturally make a deep run.
Great players, however, haven’t always succeed in March. Remember when Jabari Paker, who later was drafted number two overall in the 2014 NBA draft, and his Duke Blue Devils were shocked by #14 Mercer? Coincidentally, in that same tournament, future number one pick Andrew Wiggins and his number two seeded Jayhawks were bounced by #10 Stanford before reaching the second weekend. But there are two even better examples. As great as Kevin Durant was in his lone season at Texas in 06-07, his Longhorns lost in the first round. And if we go back even further, the great Tim Duncan couldn’t prevent his Demon Deacons from losing in the second round during the future Spurs legend’s final season at Wake Forest.
This reflection leads to this article’s ultimate conclusion: Expect the unexpected during this year’s college basketball tournament. However, I mean for that to be a rather ironic statement. As you can see above, I don’t envision anything too crazy occurring in this year’s tournament. No twelve seeds advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. No eight seeds in the Final Four. I’m going mainly with the chalk. And wherever my picks do deviate from the mean, they actually shouldn’t be considered too surprising based on more advanced stats.
So expect the unexpected. For once, I project a March that will be rather short on madness.