SportsPulse: The madness is finally here. USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick breaks down everything you need to know about this year’s tournament.
Remember when University of Maryland Baltimore County upset Virginia in 2018?
No one saw that coming. It was the first time a No. 1 seed ever lost to a No. 16 seed in the men’s NCAA tournament.
It would have been a gutsy pick in an office pool. But gutsy picks that actually happen provide all the glory that March Madness is about.
Here’s a look at 10 predictions for this year’s tournament.
1. Duke doesn’t win the national championship. Now that Zion Williamson is back and the Blue Devils looked the part of the title favorite (claiming the ACC tournament title), it will be difficult to pick against this high-octane No. 1 seed. That’s because Williamson changes the game’s tempo in a variety of ways and teammate R.J. Barrett is arguably a better national player of the year candidate for his playmaking. But here’s a secret: This team isn’t that great at shooting. Cam Reddish is, but he’s streaky. The team as a whole shoots 30 percent from beyond the arc (ranking 339th of 353 Division 1 teams). So, if a team plays zone, as Gonzaga and Syracuse did in two regular season losses on Duke’s résumé, an upset is doable (looking at you, Tom Izzo).
It’s not to say this Duke team isn’t one of the most talented teams in college basketball history. But the single-elimination NCAA tournament isn’t always kind to powerhouse teams. Just ask Kentucky in 2015. The Wildcats were heavily favored to win that national title and hadn’t lost a single game before Wisconsin pulled off a tournament shocker. The team to win that year? Duke. Karma is coming back, Blue Devils.
2. Virginia wins the national title. The Cavaliers’ loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals felt eerily similar to last year’s historic first-round upset loss to UMBC. And you’ll hear over and over again about Virginia being a boring pick and criticism that they’re not athletic enough to win the whole thing. That’s not exactly wrong, but the fact that UVA has the nation’s best defense (it’s not even close, allowing 55 points a game), and is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the entire tournament are also facts. More than that, this team has hidden motivation that speaks more volumes than Xs and Os. Prior to the season, All-American Kyle Guy told USA TODAY Sports: “A lot of people think a Final Four would (erase last year). A national championship is the only way to shut everyone up.”
3. Another No. 16 beats a No. 1. Oh but if Virginia doesn’t give us a historic upset, what No. 1 can? Gonzaga. The ‘Zags have the nation’s most explosive offense, averaging 89 points a game. They also were the first team to beat Duke and the selection committee seemed to think that win was worth four wins when seeding them. But if there’s one thing the West Coast tournament final showed us, it’s that anything is possible when a team’s not ready. Saint Mary’s unexpectedly won that game just a month after losing to that same Gonzaga team by 48 points. Does No. 16 seeds Fairleigh Dickinson or Prairie View A&M have what it takes? Did UMBC?
4. An all-ACC Final Four. Florida State, a No. 4 seed that deserved a No. 3 seed, looked awfully impressive in its win over Virginia in the ACC tournament. Afterwards, FSU players said they felt neglected all season long while No. 1 seeds Duke, UVA and UNC grabbed all the headlines. Then take a look at the West Region, where Gonzaga and Michigan are the top two seeds, and it’s pretty wide open for the Seminoles to use their size and athleticism to earn a trip to Minneapolis. Then consider the fact that No. 1 seeds often have solid pathways to the Final Four, and this is a legitimate possibility. North Carolina might run into trouble in the Midwest Region — where it could meet Kentucky in the Elite Eight — but the Tar Heels looked impressive even in losing vs. Duke in the ACC tourney semis.
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5. No. 7s Nevada, Wofford to the Elite Eight. Mid-majors that aren’t double-digit seeds often get looked past. But this year, Buffalo got a No. 6 seed and Nevada and Wofford are No. 7s. Both teams have the ability to bust brackets by knocking off their respective No. 2 seeds, Michigan in the South Region and Kentucky, in the Midwest Region. The Wolf Pack’s versatile arsenal is led by All-American Caleb Martin (19.2 ppg) who helped carry this team to the Sweet 16 last year. Wofford is a much smaller mid-maor from the Southern Conference but every bit as lethal. It starts with Fletcher Magee (20.5 ppg) who spearheads the second-best three-point shooting team in the country. Both these teams have only lost four games on the season and are highly underrated.
6. Belmont is this year’s Loyola-Chicago. The nation’s second-best offense that will start its NCAA tournament in Dayton for a first four play-in game vs. Temple has Cinderella written all over it. Veteran coach Rick Byrd has had strong Belmont teams before, but never has he had a team this poised to go on a deep run. The key to bracket-busting here? Unselfishness. Similar to Loyola-Chicago, a selfless group of floor-spreading average Joes, Belmont is as selfless as they come, leading the nation in assists per game and ranking second in assist-to-turnover ratio. Team chemistry and culture often get overlooked this time of year. Don’t make that mistake with the Bruins, who’d faced a youthful Maryland team in the first round and then a potentially vulnerable LSU team with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. Much can be made about how tough the East Region is with Duke and Michigan State, so the Final Four might be out of reach. But Loyola-Chicago largely benefited from other upsets paving the way for their unexpected rise last year.
7. Three Cinderellas in the East Region. Never has one Region fielded three double-digit teams to pull off first-round upsets. But it’s wholly possibly this year with Belmont, Yale, Liberty all lined up with favorable first-round matchups. Yale, the No. 14 seed from the Ivy League, draws an LSU team that’s likely trying to rekindle its identity with coach Will Wade suspended. The Tigers are talented but this still isn’t the same team that won the SEC regular season and upset Kentucky and Tennessee — even if it looks that way on paper. Then Liberty has the classic No. 12 vs. No. 5 seed matchup against Mississippi State. What’s to like about the Flames is actually their defense. The Atlantic Sun winner has a top-six defense (allowing 60.8 points a game) and excellent team shooting percentage (49%). Scottie James (13.1 ppg, 8.8 rpg) paces a balanced scoring attack for an offense that leads by committee.
8. Murray State’s Ja Morant and Marquette’s Markus Howard combine for 80+ points. The committee knew what it was doing here. You don’t just randomly put two of the nation’s most electric scorers in one game. Morant, a projected top-three NBA lottery pick who almost single-handedly guided his mid-major Racers to the NCAAs, averages 24.6 points and 10 assists per game. He had 27 points or more in 12 games this season, including 36 in the Ohio Valley tourney final win over Belmont. Howard, a 5-10 sparkplug guard, has channeled his inner Allen Iverson on several occassions this season, scoring 38 points in a Feb. 9 win over Villanova, 53 points in a Jan. 9 win over Creighton, and 45 points in a Dec. 21 victory over Buffalo, and 45 points in a Dec. 1 win over Kansas State — all tournament opponents.
9. Utah State stuns North Carolina in second round. OK, so forget the whole ACC sends four teams to the Final Four story line for a minute. If there’s one No. 8/No. 9 seed to drop the first No. 1 this year, let’s lean towards the red-hot Aggies, who have won 10 in a row including an upset of Nevada and the Mountain West tournament title. While UNC typically hurts teams on the glass, USU can rebound well (ranking sixth in rebounding margin) and also has what it takes to contain the Tar Heels’ scorers with a defense that ranks in the top-10 nationally in field goal percentage allowed (39 percent). Then factor in a top-40 offense that has great balance behind Sam Merrill (21.2 ppg, 4.2 apg)’s production, and this is one to circle on your bracket if you’re tired of picking blue bloods.
10. Northeastern ousts Kansas in first round. Kansas is a blue-blood and powerhouse programs like this don’t lose in the first round to teams from the Colonial Athletic Association. Throw that nonsense out the window and look at how depleted KU’s once title-contending roster is. Udoka Azubuike was lost for the season in December, causing All-American Dedric Lawson to do too much on a regular basis, and right when this team seemed to be finding its identity, second-leading scorer Legerald Vick abruptly parted ways with the team. Upset prone much, KU? Then factor in the Huskies’ three-point shooting prowess (ranking in the top-25 nationally in made three-pointers) and this is probably least bold of all the aforementioned picks.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.