First Four Picks
Radford over LIU-Brooklyn
UCLA over St. Bonaventure
Texas Southern over North Carolina Central
Syracuse over Arizona State
Round of 64 and Round of 32 Picks
South Pod 1 – Virginia over Kansas State
Despite Creighton’s major statistical advantage in round one against Kansas State, I always like to ride the hot hand in the NCAA Tournament. Kansas State pulled an upset in the Big 12 tournament, while Creighton got upset, so I’ll side with the Wildcats. Virginia is advancing either way,
South Pod 2 – Kentucky over Arizona
The South region holds four of the power seven conference champions, this includes SEC champ Kentucky and Pac-12 champ Arizona. Both teams impressed me during their conference tournaments, but the SEC is the much superior conference, so I’ll pick Kentucky. In the KenPom era (2002-Present) the 2018 Pac-12 ranks #100 out of 102 for the average rating of it’s teams in the traditional power six conference. I do want to mention that I don’t think that people are giving Davidson enough talk as a potential bracket buster in round one.
South Pod 3 – Tennessee over Loyola-Chicago
Loyola-Chicago over Miami kind of feels like an overpicked upset, but that matchup was the first thing I noticed when I saw this region, and there is a reason so many are picking this 11 seed. Loyola-Chicago won 17 of their final 18 in the Missouri Valley, which by KenPom’s metrics, is the #2 “mid-major” conference, only behind the Mountain West. I like the Ramblers to pull the upset in round one, but getting by Tennessee in the second round might be asking too much.
South Pod 4 – Cincinnati over Texas
I’ll mention this again in another 10-7 matchup involving a mid-major school and a Big 12 bubble team, but the season just went wrong at a bad time for Nevada. A few weeks ago I thought of the Wolfpack as a legit sweet sixteen team, but after losing two of their final three (with the win being by single digits against a sub-100 KenPom team) I have Mo Bamba and the Longhorns advancing to round two, where they’ll be stopped by a tough Cincinnati defense
East Pod 1 – Villanova over Alabama
I’ve got Colin Sexton and the Tide beating Virginia Tech in round one. The Hokies lost to Notre Dame in their first game in the ACC Tournament, while Alabama did the opposite, upsetting Texas A&M and Auburn to earn themselves an at-large bid. However, despite Sexton’s ability I don’t see them getting past ‘Nova in round two.
East Pod 2 – West Virginia over Wichita State
Wichita State lost their final two games against tournament teams, on the other hand, West Virginia made a run to the Big 12 conference title game. I always like to run with the hot hand, and in this case, that is West Virginia. I also know that the press is extremely hard to prepare for, especially in a 48 hour window like these teams will have heading into the round of 32.
East Pod 3 – Florida over Texas Tech
Both of these teams went out early in their conference tournaments, but Texas Tech has won just two of their seven. Florida on the other hand, won three of their final four, including a win over a Kentucky team that went on to win the SEC. I’ve got the sixth-seeded Gators advancing to the Sweet 16. In fact, in the years that the Gators make the tournament, they’ve lost on the first weekend just once in the past 13 years.
East Pod 4 – Purdue over Butler
I have Butler over Arkansas in round one. Both teams pulled upsets in their conference quarterfinals, but Butler’s body of work for the year has been much better, the Bulldogs rank 12 spots higher on KenPom despite being a 10 seed. That may be short lived, as I think that Purdue will beat either of them in round two.
Midwest Pod 1 – Kansas over Seton Hall
Not much to see here. I like Kansas a lot more than most, and as for the 8 vs 9 game, while both teams lost in their first game during the conference tournaments, NC State lost to Boston College, while Seton Hall lost to a respectable Butler team who I have making it into the round of 32 themselves.
Midwest Pod 2 – New Mexico State over Auburn
Clearly my most bold pod, but I think I probably would have taken any of the 12 seeds to win this region. Clemson ranks 48th in the Sagarin “recent” rating group, and Auburn ranks 141st! New Mexico State, while obviously not at the top, ranks a respectable 26th. The Aggies went 15-2 in the WAC (including the tournament) and did well in the non-conference, earning wins over Miami and Davidson.
Midwest Pod 3 – Michigan State over TCU
Michigan State was immediately penciled into the sweet 16 when I saw this pod. I’m a big Bucknell fan, but the Bison had a bit of a down year for such a storied program, and TCU hasn’t beaten a KenPom top 30 team since January, and hasn’t beaten one away from home since December 8th.
Midwest Pod 4 – Duke over Oklahoma
Rhode Island-Oklahoma draws very similar comparisons to Nevada-Texas for me. A mid-major power who had a great year and then hurt their seed by faltering down the stretch taking on a Big 12 team that has been tested all season long. Rhode Island lost four of their final eight, including a 78-48 drubbing against KenPom #118 Saint Joseph’s. Trae Young taking on Duke in round two will be a novelty that will do good ratings, but I’d expect Duke to advance to the second weekend with ease.
West Pod 1 – Xavier over Missouri
Missouri-Florida State in Round 1 was one of the toughest games for me to pick for the opening round. I feel Florida State has played better this year (and KenPom backs me up on that), but the potential that this Missouri team has now that Michael Porter Jr back is phenomenal, I’ll take my chances in round one, but cut back on any potential future losses by taking Xavier to advance to the second weekend.
West Pod 2 – Gonzaga over South Dakota State
Ohio State is the most overrated team in the country. I said it. Yes, their resume is certainly deserving of a five seed, and KenPom actually would have the Buckeyes as a four seed, but I just don’t get the allure of OSU. Let’s take a look at their past five games. They lost to Purdue (by 29) and Michigan for starters, but those games were on the road, so we’ll give them a mulligan. Then, they beat Rutgers at home because everybody beats Rutgers at home. After that, they needed double overtime to barely scrape out a win against an Indiana team that missed the NIT, and then they lost to a Penn State team that was one of the final eight at-large teams selected to the NIT. On the other hand, South Dakota State has lost one game in the last three months, a road tilt against rival South Dakota, and the Jackrabbits have the best player you’ve never heard of in Mike Daum, who averages a 24 point double-double on the year… AVERAGES! I’ve got Gonzaga advancing from this pod by the way, more on the Bulldogs in my next section.
West Pod 3 – Michigan over Houston
San Diego State was a really tempting upset pick, but I decided to go chalk in this pod. All four teams are playing their best basketball right now, as they all rank in the top 25 in Sagarin’s recent ranking, including Montana. I decided to pick Houston and Michigan because of the tougher competition they faced throughout the season, although like I said, an Aztec upset certainly would not shock me.
West Pod 4 – North Carolina over Providence
Providence is probably the most commonly picked double-digit seed, and that is because they shouldn’t have been a double-digit seed. Of the four bracketology co-champs, all four of us had Providence as an eight seed. It’s a tough break for Texas A&M, but they will have to take on a team that truly should be on the eight line. I’ve got North Carolina beating the Friars in round two, although that could be one of the most interesting potential upsets in round two, as the Friars almost won the Big East Title on Saturday, taking Villanova to overtime.
Sweet 16 and Elite 8 Picks
South Region – Virginia over Tennessee
Cincinnati did not impress me during their conference tournament, struggling with a Memphis team that missed the NIT, and then playing a toss-up game against Houston. Tennessee won six games in a row before falling to Kentucky by just five points in the SEC Championship game, and I have the Vols heading to the elite eight.
As for that Kentucky team, the Wildcats are the hottest team in the country, and Virginia will be without ACC Sixth Man of the Year DeAndre Hunter, but I see the ‘Cavs getting through the ‘Cats in the sweet 16. Kentucky has struggled against teams that can slow them down. They played three games against teams among the 19 slowest in the country, and they went 1-2 in those games despite being the higher ranked team in all three. You can also think of it this way: If you see Kentucky-Arizona as a tossup, and Virginia vs the winner of that game as a tossup, then Virginia has a 50% chance of reaching the elite eight vs just 25% for the other two teams. Think of it as risk management.
If Virginia gets by Kentucky, the SEC Champs, I would think they would have no problem with the conference runner-up Tennessee Volunteers. No matter what though, we should get at least one awesome defensive team in the regional finals, as three of the top five in the country, including #1 and #2, reside in the South Region.
East – Villanova over Purdue
I had the three and four seed losing early on in the East region, but I don’t have the teams they were upset by going any further than the sweet 16 as I expect Villanova and Purdue to beat West Virginia and Florida. If anyone can prepare for that press, it is Jay Wright, and Purdue. I’m a little less certain on the bottom side of the bracket, as I’m not really enamored with Purdue, Florida, or Texas Tech, but at the end of the day I decided to pick Purdue because of the inside-outside combo of Edwards and Haas.
As for that potential Villanova-Purdue matchup, the Boilermakers lost four of their final nine, and while all five wins were against non-tournament teams, Purdue only won one of them by double digits. The East region is by far the easiest pick for me. While Villanova did struggle a bit down the stretch, Jay Wright is one of the best coaches in the world, and I know he will get his team prepared for any matchup they could potentially face in this region.
Midwest Region – Kansas over Michigan State
Alright, I obviously have New Mexico State’s Cinderella story ending before the elite eight, so let’s just move on to the other sweet 16 matchup with a rematch from the Champions Classic as Michigan State faced Duke. Duke won that game, even without Grayson Allen for most of it, but these are two very different teams now. Duke and Michigan State rank 4th and 6th respectively on KenPom, but when it comes to who will advance to the elite eight though, I’ve got Michigan State. The Spartans won 13 in a row before losing to their arch-rivals Michigan in the Big Ten semifinals by single digits, and while a lot of people forget this, Duke lost to Virginia Tech only two weeks ago. The Blue Devils lost two of their final four, and haven’t won a game against a top 15 team away from home since the November 14th clash against the Spartans. I have MSU getting their revenge here, and advancing to the elite eight.
I don’t think that Michigan State will get any further than the elite eight however though, as the Spartans will run into Kansas. Like I mentioned with Virginia against Arizona/Kentucky, it makes sense to take the team that will only have to win one tough game, in this case, Kansas. That way you don’t risk your final four pick losing in the sweet sixteen. You shouldn’t only pick the Jayhawks for risk management reason, Kansas won eight of their final nine games in the Big 12, which is far and away the toughest conference in the nation.
West Region – Michigan over Gonzaga
Yep, I’ve got the one seed going down in the Sweet 16. The Xavier Musketeers are tied for the lowest KenPom ranking (#14) of any one seed ever, and their actual KenPom rating is a half a point lower. Gonzaga has been on fire this year, losing four games the whole year, all to KenPom top 50 teams. The Zags have won 20 of their last 21, and I’ve got them advancing onto the elite eight.
The second sweet 16 matchup in the West is Michigan and North Carolina, which should be one of the best games of the whole tournament. Michigan won the Big Ten, and UNC defeated Duke en route to finish second in the ACC Tournament behind Virginia. In the Sagarin “recent” rating, Michigan ranks 2nd in the country, and I expect the extra rest to be a bonus, not a downfall for the Wolverines. Michigan’s defense ranks just behind Virginia and Cincinnati in KenPom, and Carolina did not respond well to the ‘Cavs both times the two played this year. Obviously Virginia and Michigan play vastly different styles, but Carolina is the type of team where one bad shooting night can end their year, and like Virginia, Michigan forces you to take shots you don’t want to take, and I don’t want that type of team into the elite eight.
As for the elite eight, we’ll see Gonzaga take on Michigan in a battle of the two. Of teams that play in a conference with an average positive rating on KenPom, just four currently own a nine plus game win streak: Loyola-Chicago, San Diego State, Gonzaga, and Michigan. This game will be loads of fun, but I am worried about Gonzaga having to face the toughest defense they will have faced all year on a 48 hour notice, so give me Michigan to go to the final four.
Final Four Picks
Virginia over Michigan, Villanova over Kansas
I’ve already covered a lot about all four of these teams earlier on in my bracket breakdown, but quickly, here is what I like about Virginia and Villanova as I pick them to advance to the national championship. The two teams dominated the regular season, and were the only two to finish with a +30 or higher rating on KenPom. The two schools both won major conference tournament championships, and come into this game hot. Perhaps most importantly, both teams are led by world-class coaches, and have unique intricacies to their schemes.
National Championship Prediction
I stayed up all night deciding this one, but after the DeAndre Hunter injury, I had to pick Villanova. The ‘Cats are the best shooting team in the entire tournament, and without Hunter, I don’t know that Virginia will be able to keep up with Jay Wright’s team on a good night. I understand that generally the “you don’t score enough points” argument has been completely disproven by advanced statistics, but while the number on the scoreboard doesn’t matter, the difference does. I’ve probably watched more Virginia basketball than any other team this year because I have had them at #1 in the country, and it is undeniable that DeAndre Hunter is the best, perhaps the only true shot creator on that team.
The Virginia offense revolves around simple screens and curls, or how Seth Greenberg likes to put it every time someone brings up the ‘Hoos, a “mover-blocker offense” wherein two “blockers” set screens for the other three “movers” in a basic motion style offense. This has helped Tony Bennett’s team to become one of the best shooting teams in the land, but in late game situations, it is hard not to notice that sometimes the Cavaliers just have trouble creating shots by themselves. DeAndre Hunter was the one guy that could do that, he was also their zone buster, and now he is gone. While I have some serious reservations about Villanova, namely their three losses to sub-25 KenPom teams in the month of February, but I’ll take the sure thing in Villanova’s 59.7% effective field goal percentage, which is best in the nation.