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Your NCAA Tournament Guide: Upset Picks, Final Four Favorites, and Last-Minute Pointers Before Completing Your Bracket
Your NCAA Tournament Guide: Upset Picks, Final Four Favorites, and Last-Minute Pointers Before Completing Your Bracket Welcome back everyone! We are almost there! Less than 24 hours away from the NCAA tournament really getting going. We had the first two of the "first four play-in games" last night as Farleigh Dickinson advanced where their reward is a Thursday matchup with Gonzaga. Meanwhile, Belmont looked good in an 11-point victory over Temple. There has been a lot of talk about the Bruins heading into the tournament and I will touch more on them in a bit. We have the other two play-in games tonight, highlighted by Arizona State - St. John's matchup. Both of these schools are coached by former standout players - Bobby Hurley for the Sun Devils, and Chris Mullins for his alma mater the Red Storm. That should be a fun one. So, with the action about to begin in earnest tomorrow with 16 games throughout the day, here is your NCAA Tournament Guide! Let's start with the ever-popular "upset" picks, and who has a chance to become this year's "cinderella" - a la Loyola-Chicago last year. I've already highlighted the intriguing 5 vs 12 matchups that the committee so tastefully served up this year. There are several other teams, however, who have a legitimate shot to do some potential damage and blowup a bracket. I'm going to start with the aforementioned Belmont Bruins. They took care of business last night and now draw the 6-seeded Maryland Terrapins. Maryland is the youngest team in the tournament this year (I know, we were all expecting Kentucky or Duke with all of their standout freshmen), and they closed the season a bit inconsistent. They finished the season 7-7 over their final 14 games including a loss to 13-seeded Nebraska in the opening round of the Big TEN tournament. The Terrapins have some impressive victories, but most of those came toward the beginning of the season, and really this young squad has been exactly that - young and inconsistent. Maryland is ripe for the picking. First "upset special": 11 BELMONT over 6 MARYLAND The Bruins have the potential to knock off the winner of the LSU-Yale game. Yale can score, and the Tigers have been over-shadowed by their coach getting suspended for providing improper benefits to recruits. LSU had an outstanding season, but Will Wade's suspension has loomed large. The Tigers lost a big lead to Florida in their only game in the SEC tournament, and are a somewhat popular pick to get upset by the Bulldogs. Either way, it sets up for a favorable matchup for Belmont in the second round. The Bruins have a legitimate chance to reach the Sweet 16. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- My next "upset special" isn't quite a marque one, but I believe it's solid pick. 7/10 matchups always seem to offer plenty of quality as well, and the one I have my eye on this year is Louisville vs Minnesota. The Golden Gophers upset Purdue in the Big TEN tournament before getting blasted by Michigan, but come in relatively hot after a very, very chilly month of February. The Golden Gophers of course are coached by Richard Pitino, son of legendary former Louisville coach Rick Pitino. The elder Pitino was ousted before last season amongst another scandal, and as my boy @thesportsguru pointed out in his sportscast a couple days ago, there is nothing more father & son would like to do than to knock-off the Cardinals. Louisville was another team that was kind of just "blah" down the stretch - they actually finished the season just 4-8 in their last 12 games. Granted, they had several difficult matchups in there with the ACC's elite, but either way, that is not inspiring basketball heading into the tournament. Second "upset special": 10 MINNESOTA over 7 LOUISVILLE ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ For my next "upset" pick I'm going to visit the ever-popular 5/12 matchup. While the committee seemed to do an excellent job of making all four of these matchups particularly difficult to call, there is one in particular that I'm focusing in on. I touched on a bit the other day, but the Marquette Golden Eagles really struggled down the closing stretch of the regular season. A team that once looked guaranteed of a Big East conference championship, let the crown slip away to Villanova. A 1-5 close to the season - including home losses to Creighton & Georgetown has them ripe for the "upset" picking. Meanwhile, Marquette's opponent, Murray State, has won 11 straight, including a 12-point victory over Belmont in the OVC title game. They have one of the best players in the country in Ja Morant, who averaged over 24 points & 10 assists per game. The Golden Eagles boast one of the country's top scorers themselves, in guard Markus Howard (25.0 points per game). That should be a terrific matchup. Marquette certainly has the talent to win a few games with the Hauser brothers in the fold as well, but their recent struggles, combined with Howard aggravating a wrist-injury in the Big East tournament, has them firmly on upset alert. My third "upset" special: 12 MURRAY STATE over 5 MARQUETTE A potential second round matchup with red-hot Florida State doesn't bode well for either squad, but this should be one heck of an entertaining opening game. I like the Racers to keep their momentum going. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- My final "upset" special pick is a bit more of a leap, but sometimes things just seem to line-up for one of these picks. Bill Self has been incredibly successful at Kansas, but his NCAA tournament struggles have also been well-documented. His squads have lost early several times as 3 or 4 seeds, and this year's version of the Jayhawks come limping into the tournament. While a 9-6 finish to the season is nothing to balk-at, it is sill well-short of what we've come to expect from the Jayhawks. A 12-point loss to Iowa State in the Big XII semifinals has many believing that this squad is once again ripe for another "upset". Northeastern, on the other hand has several scoring options available. With seven players averaging between 8.2 and 17.8 points per game, the Huskies can come at you from all kinds of different ways. Furthermore, they are loaded with talented shooters, boasting five different players shooting between 39.3% and 46.2% from 3-point range. As a team, they shot 38.8% from long-range on the season, and knocked down just under 10 made 3-point baskets (9.8) per game. They have more depth available at the moment than Kansas, with recent injuries & suspensions to the Jayhawks, and with a 12-1 close to the season, come in with plenty of confidence. My final "upset" special: 13 NORTHEASTERN over 4 KANSAS A potential round of 32 match-up with either Auburn or New Mexico State is not all that favorable, but for the opening game, the Huskies are certainly capable of pulling off the upset. The perfect storm seems to have lined up for that, if the Huskies can shoot the 3-ball like they are capable of, this could be quite the game. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Now that we've covered the "upset" specials, I'm going to give you my 'Final Four' favorites. I will identify the 2-3 teams in each region that are truly capable of making a run all the way to the Final Four. Before we jump into that, one important note about the 1-seeds: Before you decide to just take chalk, and pick all four of the #1-seeds to make the final four, keep this in mind: since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only once - I repeat - ONCE - have all four of the #1-seeds made it to the Final Four. With that little tidbit in our back pocket, lets' dive into the favorites to reach the Final Four: EAST REGION The two obvious choices out of this region are the Duke Blue Devils and Michigan State Spartans. The top-two seeds in the East seem destined for an Elite 8 matchup. With all of the aforementioned turmoil in Baton Rouge, LSU doesn't inspire confidence in a deep run, and while Virginia Tech defeated Duke once during the season, it came with Zion Williamson out of the lineup. 'Final Four' Potential: 1 DUKE 2 MICHIGAN STATE SOUTH REGION Now lets shoot across the bracket to the South region and the second-overall seed, Virginia. Expect a much deeper run out of the Cavaliers this year after last year's record-setting loss to 16-seed UMBC. The region does set-up favorably for the Cavaliers, with potential match-ups down the road with similar-style teams in Wisconsin & Kansas State. If UC-Irvine somehow does pull off an upset like many predict, they play almost an identical style to Tony Bennett's squad. Virginia will be at complete ease in those kind of matchups, and there is certainly a path paved for them, if they can avoid another disaster like last year. The Tennessee Volunteers certainly are capable of making a run as well. Rick Barnes' boys play intense pressure defense and can turn-you-over quickly. A battle-tested squad, the Vols will be a tough-out. However, a potential second round matchup with a feisty & stingy Cincinnati squad would take place in nearby Columbus, giving the Bearcats' faithful a short trip. Keep an eye on that. One other squad to keep an eye on are the defending champs, Villanova. Jay Wright is getting great production out of his core group of players as of late, and the Wildcats' mini-slump from mid-February is well-forgotten. Villanova was tested constantly in the Big East tournament, and they answered the challenge each time. A 5-1 finish to the season, including the Big East tournament title, have the Wildcats playing their best ball at the right time. 'Final Four' Potential: 1 VIRGINIA 2 TENNESSEE 6 VILLANOVA Dark Horse Candidate: 7 CINCINNATI MIDWEST REGION Now we head down to the lower right quadrant of the bracket and the completely-stacked Midwest Region. North Carolina may have got a 1-seed, but they will have an interesting and challenging path to have to maneuver through to reach the Final Four. While all 3 of head coach Roy Williams' championships have come as a #1 seed, this year will be especially difficult. The Tar Heels certainly have a legitimate chance to make it out of this region, but with potential match-ups down the road with Auburn, Iowa State, Houston, or Kentucky, UNC needs to be on alert as the first #1 seed to go down. Even a second round matchup with a surprisingly efficient & well-rounded Utah State squad could provide a shocking result. So, who else could potentially emerge from the deep and talented Midwest region? Look no further than 3-seed Houston. The Cougars won, won, won all season long and come into the tournament an impressive 31-2 overall. Before you dismiss them because they didn't play in the ACC, Big TEN, or Big XII, keep in mind that the American Athletic fielded four teams in the tournament this season - that equals the amount the Big East got, and is one better than the Pac-12. Houston faced quality opposition, so that sparkling record isn't a mirage. In addition, the Cougars play incredibly efficient defense, and when they are hitting shots like they were to close the season against Cincinnati and again through the AAC tournament, they are nearly unbeatable. Houston will have more experience than a once-again young Kentucky squad in a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup, and matchup well with any of the squads in the top half of the region. Houston has the goods to get it done. One other note - if the Cougars do happen to fall, it could be to potential "dark-horse" bracket buster Iowa State. The 6th-seeded Cyclones just ran through the Big XII tournament, scoring at-will in the process after a quiet close to the regular season. If the version of ISU that was on display in the Big XII tournament shows up for the Big Dance, then this bracket needs to be ware, they could beat anybody. 'Final Four' potential: 3 HOUSTON 1 NORTH CAROLINA Dark Horse Candidates: 6 IOWA STATE; 5 AUBURN WEST REGION Finally, we reach the West Region. Top-seeded Gonzaga is probably not getting the respect they deserve as a legit title contender as many have already pointed out - including fellow scorum buds @mikey & @thesportsguru. This is a talented bunch, and while Mark Few's boys suffered a shocking upset to Saint Mary's in the WCC title game, they will be back at full-strength for the tournament. The Zags were the only team to defeat Duke during the season, while the Blue Devils were at full-strength. The Bulldogs have favorable opening round match-ups before a potential Sweet 16 showdown with red-hot Florida State. Don't be surprised if the winner of that one goes on to the final four. The Seminoles finished the season 14-2 with the only two losses coming @ North Carolina and against Duke in the ACC title game. FSU comes at you from all kinds of angles with several different players capable of carrying the scoring burden. They will be a tough matchup & a tough out and because of those factors, have a legitimate chance at reaching the Final Four. Lastly, don't sleep on 6-seed Buffalo, another team that just won, won, won during the season. The Bulls come in with experience (they upset 4th-seeded Arizona last year as a 13 in a blowout), and with a ton of victories to their credit (they went 31-3 on the season). Buffalo matches up very favorably with whichever team wins tonight's game between Arizona State & St. John's and could catch Texas Tech on upset alert. The previously red-hot Red Raiders were shocked in their opening game of the Big XII tournament by last place West Virginia. They made a big-run late in that game to close it up, but were exposed badly in certain areas - most notably, lack of rebounding. Also, don't sleep on the Nevada Wolfpack. The Mountain West regular-season co-champs made a run all the way to the Elite 8 last year, and after going 29-4 this year, are poised for another run. They most likely will have something to prove, coming in as a 7-seed after sporting a top-20 profile. A potential second-round matchup with Michigan actually bodes well for the Wolfpack. They have the size to matchup with the Wolverines, and with this year's Michigan squad not as potent from long-range, their perceived advantage (in size) will actually be cancelled out by Nevada's Martin twins, and fellow 6'7" forward Jordan Caroline. They also sport a pair of 6'11" forwards that both are solid contributors. We are in-store for one heck of a potential second round matchup. 'Final Four' potential: 1 GONZAGA 4 FLORIDA STATE 7 NEVADA Dark Horse Candidate: 6 BUFFALO Other Helpful Tidbits to Keep in Mind Before Locking in Your Picks: ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ 12's are a very solid 20-24 overall in the past 11 tournaments, & last season marked only the fifth time since the field expanded in 1985, where all four #5 seeds won. This could potentially be a big year for the 12's. Only 21 #3-seeds have lost in the opening round to a 14-seed (just a 15.44 win% for the 14-seeds), however, in an interesting twist, 5 over those wins have come recently all in a short-period of time (2010-2016). So the question is after a two year hiatus will a 14-seed revert back to that recent trend and pull of an upset? There seems to be a higher-than-normal chance that it could happen. The 13 verse 4 matchup offers plenty of intrigue as well. In 8 of the past 11 tournaments, at least one 13-seed has pulled an opening round upset. Last year it was two 13s pulling off the upset (Buffalo, Marshall). Keep an eye on that Kansas - Northeastern matchup, and Kansas State vs UC-Irvine showdown as potentials for 13 vs 4 upsets in this year's bracket. In the 24 of the 34 tournaments played since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, at least one #13 seed has won (71% of the time). Odds are there will be at least one 13-seed to pull an upset, but will you pick the right one? Lastly, my final word of advice before locking in all of your picks ahead of tomorrow's action is to not go too upset-heavy throughout your bracket. I know what your saying - but Chris, you just talked about all these upsets to keep in mind, what gives! Well go ahead and pick those first round upsets but don't take those double-digit seeds to go too far. There has only been (1) #12-seed to ever win a Sweet 16 game. They are good at winning those opening games, but don't ride a 12 too far. Meanwhile, 11-seeds have had better luck at advancing deep into the tournament, with (4) #11's getting all the way to the Final Four, and 8 reaching the Elite 8. That is still a very low %, so unless you are somehow certain, don't take an 11 all-the-way to the Final Four at the very least. Finally, you might have noted that I didn't have much to say about the 13, 14, or 15 seeds making a deep run, and that's because they haven't. There has never been a team seeded 13 or higher to advance beyond the Sweet 16. If that isn't convincing enough, keep in mind that only a grand total of 13 teams seeded higher than a 5, have ever advanced to the Final Four (8.1%). The overwhelming majority of the Final Four participants come from the #1-#4 seed-lines (81%) since the expansion in 1985. Take your upsets, but when you get to the Elite 8 anyway, taking chalk is not a bad idea (coming from the guy who normally goes upset crazy and has bracket destroyed by Saturday afternoon). Oh and the only #10 to make it that far was last year, with Loyola-Chicago's epic run to the Final Four. Final Four Participants All-Time By Seed # (source: ---------------------------------------------------------------------- #1 (65) #2 (33) #3 (18) #4 (14) #5 (7) #6 (6) #7 (4) #8 (6) #9 (2) #10 (1) #11 (4) --------------------------------------------------------------------- Well, there you have it boys & girls your comprehensive guide to the NCAA tournament. I've identified some potential upsets, legitimate contenders to reach the Final Four out of each region, and some helpful trendy tidbits to keep in mind before locking in your final picks. As always, I appreciate all of your support, and will have plenty of coverage throughout the NCAA tournament. Now there's nothing left to do but sit-back and enjoy all of the games tomorrow! As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts below - who do you like to pull off an upset or two? - and of course, Happy reading & writing!!