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NCAA Basketball: Early March Madness Preview

It’s almost that time of year again. The weather is getting warmer, teams are reporting to Spring Training, and birds are returning north. In college basketball terms, that means it’s almost time for March Madness. The selection committee recently released its initial 1-4 seeds. Here’s how things shook out:

 

  1. Duke, Gonzaga, Virginia, Tennessee
  2. Michigan, Michigan St., North Carolina, Kentucky
  3. Marquette, Kansas, Purdue, Houston
  4. Iowa St., Louisville, Nevada, Wisconsin

 

These rankings are bound to change, and there’s still a lot up for grabs at the end of the season, with marquee matchups and conference tournaments. Although, we’re still a few weeks out, here are some early storylines to keep an eye on.

 

A 15 in the Sweet 16?

 

Historically, only eight 15 seeds have upset 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Between 2001 and 2012 there was a break in this particular kind of upset, but since 2012, it’s been happening once every couple of tournaments. Despite the recent success, Florida Gulf Coast is the only 15 seed to ever make the Sweet 16, when it upset Georgetown and San Diego State. This year could be as good a year as ever for a team to join FGCU as a 15 seed that advanced to the second weekend because the teams currently slotted to be in the mix for 2 seeds have been particularly volatile.

 

Kentucky and North Carolina have turned their fortunes around lately, but neither team has shown the consistency to fully match its talent level. The arrow is pointing down for both Michigan and Michigan State at the wrong time. Kansas has been up and down without Udoka Azubuike, and it’s still tough to buy into Purdue, Houston, and Iowa State. On the flip side, 2019 could yield a historically-good crop of 15 seeds. Two, in particular, stand out: Loyola-Chicago and South Dakota State.

 

Who can forget the Ramblers magical 2018 run? With Marques Townes and Clayton Custer back, do they have one more run left in them? South Dakota State, currently first in the Summit League, boasts one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball history in Mike Daum. With 2883 career points, Daum has accumulated the sixth-most points of any NCAA Basketball player in the last 30 years. The Jackrabbits almost knocked off Ohio State last March. Now, with secondary-scoring option David Jenkins added to the mix, SDSU may be ready for its one shining moment.

 

What to make of the Pac 12?

 

The Pac 12 has been catastrophically bad this season. It may earn the sad mark of a Power 5 conference that sends only one team to the tournament. In all likelihood though, the conference will send two teams to the tournament, and both could make legitimate runs to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Washington is the lone lock in the conference. Mike Hopkins’s squad has stood out above the rest of the teams mired in mediocrity. The Huskies just recently dropped their first conference game, but are still a full three games better than any other team in the Pac 12. There’s also a budding excitement in the program, given that Hopkins recently landed the No. 4 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class, center Isaiah Stewart from New York. The Huskies will undoubtedly get a lower seed than they deserve given the quality of the Pac 12, but they should prove a lot of people wrong in March.

 

Barring a wild conference tournament, and that can’t be ruled out given the way the Pac 12 has gone this season, Arizona State appears as the only other legitimate threat to grab a tournament berth. If you’re a big believer in the trend of a team from the First Four in Dayton advancing to the Sweet 16, bet on the Sun Devils. As of today, they are consistently in a First Four game in mock brackets, and they present the most upside of any team projected to be in Dayton. ASU has had an odd season, beating good teams and losing to bad ones. The Sun Devils beat then-No. 1 Kansas in December and were the team that handed Washington its only Pac 12 loss. They do, however, have four Pac 12 losses in a weak conference. The best news for this type of team is that, as a likely First Four team, they’ll play good teams if they are able to win in Dayton, and it sure seems like ASU plays its best against the best. The Pac 12’s struggles haven’t just impacted the teams in the conference, they have also affected non-conference opponents, namely Nevada. The Wolfpack sit at 23-1 but do not possess a single quadrant 1 win, thanks in part to the Pac 12.

 

Scheduling a handful of teams from the conference was supposed to help boost Nevada’s strength of record coming out of the Mountain West. Wins over USC, Arizona State, and Utah haven’t panned out as the quality wins most had hoped for. Still, Nevada is one of the most experienced teams in the nation, the Pack is one of only two teams (Maine is the other) to start five redshirt seniors, and experience is valuable in March. They haven’t earned the credit thanks to the weak schedule, but they are Final Four good.

 

Down goes No. 1?

 

Most years, there’s a 1 seed that doesn’t make it through the first weekend. It’s always been in the second round versus the 8/9 seed, but Virginia made history last March losing to 16 seed UMBC. Everyone knows that the pressure will be on Jay Wright’s team if and when the Cavaliers get a 1 seed this March. Don’t expect there to be a UMBC in 2019 though. There’s a reason 16 seeds were 0-135 before UVA-UMBC: it’s really hard to for any team, let alone a mid-major that snuck in after winning a conference tournament, to beat a Virginia or a Duke. Depending on how the bracket shakes out, however, look for an 8/9 seed to knock off a 1 seed in the second round.

 

Looking at teams currently in the 7-10 seed range, Buffalo, Washington, and Syracuse could put teams on upset alert. Choosing a 1 seed to lose, however, is a bit more complicated. Duke and Gonzaga are too good to lose, and Virginia, if it can exorcize its demons in the first round, should roll to the Sweet 16 and beyond. That leaves the spot likely reserved for Tennessee or Kentucky. Don’t get me wrong, both teams are phenomenal. If I had to pick a 1 seed to lose on the opening weekend, though, I’d have to go with the SEC team that snatches the spot.

 

Parity Galore?

 

With all the question marks surrounding teams in the 2-5 seed range, it’s fair to ask if parity will reign in this year’s tournament. Teams like LSU, Purdue, and Houston have all risen to high projected seeds, but, as mentioned, none of them inspire as locks to make it out of the first weekend or even the first round. Conversely, teams like Syracuse, Washington and Buffalo are playing really good basketball, even though current seeding projections don’t show it. Buffalo will probably be a 7 seed, but the Bulls stomped DeAndre Ayton and Arizona last March and are the hardest-working team in the tournament. They have the right mental makeup to knock off a 2 seed. Jim Boeheim’s Orange have also proven more-than-capable of shaking things up in the tournament. It always seems as if Syracuse plays its best basketball when it just squeaks into the tournament.

 

That said, even if the Sweet 16 features many high seeds, the parity won’t last much longer than that. College basketball’s elite teams (i.e. Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga, Kentucky, North Carolina, Nevada, Michigan, and Tennessee) have done enough to separate themselves from the pack. While the waters may be muddied for the 3-16 seeds, there is a pretty clear drop-off between these top 8 teams and everyone else, even if some of them (I’m looking at you UNC and Kentucky) haven’t exactly dominated all season.

 

To finish things off, here is a mock Sweet 16 bracket with projected seeds. My brackets are never rock chalk, so don’t expect to see every 1-4 seed. Rather use it as a guide to see some of the teams I believe in this March.

 

Duke (1)

Louisville (4)

Marquette (3)

Buffalo (7)

 

UVA (1)

Nevada (4)

Washington (6)

Kentucky (2)

 

Gonzaga (1)

Arizona State (12)

Michigan (3)

South Dakota State (15)

 

Syracuse (8)

Villanova (4)

Texas Tech (6)

UNC (2)

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