First-round upsets have left clear paths for title contenders.
The first round of the NCAA tournament was brutal for higher seeds. In the South region, four out of eight lower seeds won their matchups.
The upsets were frequent. We saw the Buffalo Bulls trample the Arizona Wildcats, the Marshall Thundering Herd stampede the Wichita State Shockers, the Loyola Ramblers withstand the forces of the Miami Hurricanes, and last but not least, the UMBC Retrievers dominate the Virginia Cavaliers to become the first-ever 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed. The Pac 12 doesn’t even have a team left in the tournament.
Now, the question stands: Who’s left?
Arizona, Virginia, and Wichita State were thought to be Final Four contenders, but they’ve disappointed. Here are my picks for the best chance at an Elite 8 appearance for the remaining teams from the ACC, American, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC.
My pick: UNC (West 2 seed)
UNC moves on from its first-round win over Lipscomb unscathed.
The Tar Heels are in good shape heading down the stretch after finishing the regular season 9-3 and making it to the ACC finals before losing to top-seeded Virginia (RIP). Those final 12 games included two wins over Duke, which is a good sign for a squad that was unsure if they had the size to compete with the likes of Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. The Tar Heels have also found ways to incorporate senior forward Theo Pinson, who has provided a spark on both sides of the ball.
This team does the important things well. They’re the best rebounding team in the country with 42.6 per game, and their 18+ assists per game (fourth in the nation) show this team knows how to share the ball. According to KenPom, the Tar Heels rank fourth in offensive efficiency and a not-too-shabby 35th in defensive efficiency.
KenPom also lists UNC as the team with the toughest strength-of-schedule in the nation, meaning this team is used to battling against the best of the best, an attribute that is invaluable in March.
UNC is a dominant offensive team, and except for a potential Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan, the Tar Heels have a straight shot to the Elite 8. They will face Texas A&M next, which has an offensive efficiency that ranks 68th in the country. UNC’s rebounding and balanced offensive attack will easily handle the Aggies.
Then there’s Michigan, which went 11-1 to finish the season and win the Big Ten. The Wolverines have a staunch defense, ranking fourth in defensive efficiency. But Michigan, despite its stellar defense and 37 percent accuracy as a team from three-point range, can’t rebound and at times struggles to score. If UNC could beat the Duke zone twice in a month, I’m taking the Tar Heels offense over the Michigan defense any day.
My Pick: Cincinnati (South 2 seed)
The Cincinnati Bearcats finished 30-4 and beat Houston to take the American Conference. All four of their losses were to tournament teams, and they split their season series with the Wichita State Shockers.
They also posted the second-best defensive efficiency and points allowed per game in the nation, behind, you guessed it, Virginia. The Bearcats are ranked 18th in rebounds per game (39.3), thanks to Gary Clark, who averages 12.9 points and 8.7 rebounds.
Cincinnati’s offense is their only concern. They lack an identity on offense, ranking 50th in offensive efficiency.
Luckily for the Bearcats, they pulled a relatively safe quadrant in the bracket leading up to the Elite 8. They defeated Georgia State in the first round and now turn their attention to Nevada. Nevada has one of the top offenses in the country (eighth in AdjO), but the Bearcat defense will stay true.
In the Sweet 16, the Bearcats would play Tennessee or Loyola. Both have sub-par offenses, so that won’t be a problem for the AAC champs. However, the Volunteers rank fifth in defensive efficiency, which could make for a close game.
The Bearcats’ American Conference buddy Wichita State made an early exit, and Houston’s tough section with Michigan and UNC make Cincinnati the clear favorite to make the Elite 8, or even the Final Four now that Arizona and Virginia are out of the South.
My Pick: Villanova (East 1 seed)
The Wildcats are at it again. They are the best offensive team in college basketball in terms of both points per game (87.1) and offensive efficiency (127.6 points per 100 possessions).
They took down Providence in overtime of the Big East championship to win their second straight conference title, and after handling Radford in the first round, they’re looking to avenge their Sweet 16 loss to Wisconsin last year.
The Wildcats have six players averaging double-digit points, including two of the best players in the country: Jalen Brunson (19.3 ppg) and Mikal Bridges (18 ppg). Forwards Omari Spellman and Eric Paschall are a force down low, which complements Brunson’s and Bridges’ firepower.
Although Xavier also earned a top seed in the tournament, Villanova is by far the most talented team in the Big East. They will have to get by a hot Alabama team in the second round, and then (probably) West Virginia to make the Elite 8. Villanova has more pro talent than Alabama at every position, but Bama point guard Colin Sexton (19.2 ppg) against Jalen Brunson will be fun to watch. Sexton alone, however, won’t be enough to take down the Wildcats.
Press Virginia also poses a threat to Villanova’s high-powered offense, but Nova can score from anywhere, and West Virginia’s press is breakable.
Xavier will come up against either Ohio State or Gonzaga if they defeat Florida State in the second round, and in my eyes Gonzaga would have the upper hand against the Musketeers. Xavier had a great season but dropped both meetings with Villanova. I like the Wildcats to make a return to the biggest stage in college hoops and make the Big East proud.
My Pick: Purdue (East 2 seed)
The Big Ten was top-heavy this year, and Purdue was there at the top right behind Michigan State. Of the three top Big Ten performers (Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan) Purdue has the best offense.
Guard Carsen Edwards, who averages 18.4 points per game, led the Boilermakers to an average of over 80 points per game, which earned them the second-best AdjO in the country. Oh, and they shoot 42 percent from three as a team, which also ranks second among Division I teams.
With help from guard Dakota Mathias and forward Vincent Edwards, the Boilermakers can score inside and outside. Losing Isaac Haas to a fractured elbow is a major inconvenience, as Haas averaged 14.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. However, 7‘3” freshman center Matt Haarms, who played solid backup minutes to Haas, can step right in. With the Edwards and Matthias, the Boilermakers can still pound it inside or drain it from deep.
This will help Purdue fight past three-seed Texas Tech, the 45th-ranked squad in AdjO. Purdue played better down the stretch, going 12-4 compared to the Red Raiders’ 9-7. Besides Texas Tech, Florida and Butler are the toughest competition Purdue would see. This is a stark contrast to Big Ten rival Michigan State, who would face Duke in the Sweet 16, and Michigan, who would come up against UNC in the Sweet 16 as well.
Purdue is poised to be the Big Ten’s last team standing, after having the longest win streak in school history this season (19 games).
My Pick: Kansas (Midwest 1 seed)
Kansas went 27-7 to secure its 14th-straight Big 12 title. Enough said.
No, but really, this team knows how to win. Seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk (not a typo), who are averaging 17.6 and 15.0 points per game, respectively, have been to the big dance a few times. Graham and Svi are having career years, shooting a scorching 41 and 45 percent from long range.
Graham’s 7.4 assists per game help their offense run, and they have five players averaging double figures.
Although Kansas looked sluggish in its first-round bout with Penn, its veterans will hold the team up. If the Jayhawks survive Seton Hall in the second round, they will face Clemson or Auburn, both of which have been inconsistent down the stretch. Kansas has a clear edge in their guard play against any team they face.
I am not counting out West Virginia, Texas Tech, or any of the other talented Big 12 teams, but Kansas clearly has the most talent and the best shot at an Elite 8 run.
My Pick: Kentucky (South 5 seed)
Kentucky is always a dangerous tournament team, and they beat Tennessee in the SEC championship. Now, much to the world’s surprise, Kentucky has a wide open path to the Elite 8, and once again coach John Calipari is living the good life.
Things turned out as good as they possibly could have for this young Kentucky team. They are now facing Buffalo instead of Arizona in the round of 32. That’s quite a better outlook.
If they do what Arizona couldn’t (goodbye to my bracket) and defeat Buffalo, either UMBC or Kansas State will be waiting for them in the Sweet 16 instead of…the number one overall seed Virginia. Talk about an upgrade.
Led by Kevin Knox (15.9 ppg), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (14.0 ppg), and at times Wenyen Gabriel (6.6 ppg and 23 points vs. Alabama a week ago), this Kentucky team got hot down the stretch, winning seven of their last eight to take the SEC title. The Wildcats rank 23rd in both offensive and defensive efficiency, so they’ll play anybody tough on both sides of the court.
Tennessee, Auburn, and Florida all have tougher teams to play before the Elite 8. Barring any major second-round upsets, Tennessee would face Nevada or Cincinnati, Auburn will face Clemson then Kansas if they win, and Florida would face Texas Tech and Purdue. Kentucky has the clearest path of perhaps any team in the tournament now, and that is a blessing for a team that is finally playing with some of that Blue Blood swagger we’re all used to.
Edited by Jeremy Losak.
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