by Paul West
The Madness is finally here! After a whacked-out Championship Week full of upsets and buzzer beaters, the field of 68 is finally set. Before you fill in your brackets, you need some Bracketology. I’m here to help. Please don’t shoot the messenger.
The South Region has a handful of over-seeded teams. Its top seed has a recent history of being on the wrong end of big upsets, and its 3 seed is probably a misplaced 2. It also has some dangerous teams that could stay alive for a while if they heat up. This makes it the most wide open region in the field, behind the East.
1 Duke vs. 16 Robert Morris/North Florida
Duke is 4th in the nation in scoring and 3rd in field goal percentage. They have the first freshman ever to win ACC Player of the Year in 6’11” Jahlil Okafor, who’s the real deal and hustles like hell on top of his talent. They’re coached by Mike Krzyzewski, who’s on the Mount Rushmore of basketball coaches. 6’2″ senior guard Quinn Cook is a closer who hits big shots late in games; 6’1″ freshman guard Tyus Jones is a finisher at the rim who’s also fearless in the clutch and leads the team in assists. There are two caveats: Okafor’s free throws are an eyesore that belies his otherwise marvelous skill set, and the Blue Devils have lost their tournament opener several times in the last few years. Still, they should be safe here; Robert Morris and North Florida are scrappy, but neither seems to match up well against Duke. Pick: Duke
8 San Diego State vs. 9 St. John’s
The San Diego State Aztecs are coached by the venerable Steve Fisher, the man who seems to know how to coax wins out of his teams in March. The St. John’s Red Storm are coached by the well traveled and highly regarded Steve Lavin. Both teams have flown under the radar and at times underachieved. Both rely on defense-based transitions to score. The Red Storm win with blocked shots and high energy; the Aztecs win with team defense and…high energy. This would be an interesting matchup, if leading shot-blocker Chris Obekpa hadn’t been dismissed from the team for undisclosed violations of team conduct–just this weekend. Still, the Storm also have D’Angelo Harrison, an aggressive pure scorer who can put a team on his shoulders. There are reasons to go either way with this one. Pick: St. John’s
5 Utah vs. 12 Stephen F. Austin
The Utah Utes are a versatile team that can match up with anyone when they get hot. They have size inside, led by 7-foot freshman forward Jakob Poeltl. 6’5″ senior guard Delon Wright can take over a game. They’re 12th in BPI, and they’re 60th in the country in points and assists per game. They’re a high percentage team form the floor, and they crash the boards on defense. They’re a threat to go multiple rounds, but they shouldn’t look past the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks. The Lumberjacks are 9th in points, 5th in field goal percentage, first in assists and 41st in steals. They have small, scrappy guards and decent interior play. This is the stuff 12-5 upset mythology was made of, especially since they have three returning players from the crew that beat 5th-seeded VCU last year. Pick: SF Austin
4 Georgetown vs. 13 Eastern Washington
The Georgetown Hoyas have lost to double-digit seeds multiple times in the years since 2007, when they last made it to the second weekend of the tournament. This year, they seem like one of the more grossly over-seeded teams in the tournament, and they’re up against a real sleeper. The Eastern Washington Eagles are 3rd in the country in scoring, 20th in field goal percentage, and 35th in blocks. They have height, and they have the leading scorer in the country: 6’4″ sophomore guard Tyler Harvey, who averages 23 points per game and thrives in crunch time. The Eagles have beaten Indiana and tested SMU this season, and they’re fearless and exciting to watch. They’re not great on defense, but if this turns into a shootout, Georgetown might face another early exit. Pick: Eastern Washington
6 SMU vs. 11 UCLA
The UCLA Bruins are as widely decried an 11 seed as I can remember. They’re talented, but they spent much of the season frustrating those who expected more of them. But here they are, and once they’re in, they can be dangerous. They’re talented, and they averaged 72 points per game against the 29th-ranked schedule in the nation. They lack depth, though, and they can give games away. Coached by the legendary Larry Brown, the SMU Mustangs are peaking at the right time; they beat a streaking UConn team for the American Conference title, and are playing with high energy at both ends. They share the ball, they shoot a high percentage from the floor, and lately they’ve had a knack for timely threes. If they attack the glass and 50/50 balls the way they did against the Huskies, it could be a long night for UCLA. Both teams can be streaky, though, so stay tuned. Pick: SMU
3 Iowa State vs. 14 University of Alabama-Birmingham
The Iowa State Cyclones might be the most dangerous 3 seed in the tournament. They have a balanced attack, they’re experienced and mentally tough, and they’ve spent all season producing thrilling comebacks. They also just won the Big 12 tournament, and are playing with fire and purpose. 6’8″ junior forward Georges Niang combines underrated athleticism with versatility and the guile of an NBA veteran; he leads the Cyclones in scoring, and he’s second in rebounds and assists. The UAB Blazers made a surprise run to win the Conference-USA tournament, but they probably aren’t a match for Iowa State. Pick: Iowa State
7 Iowa vs. 10 Davidson
If I may quote myself from a previous post: The Iowa Hawkeyes sometimes look like they can beat anyone in the country. And then they look like they could lose by ten points to a hastily assembled rec league team. They have a balanced attack with multiple shooters, and when their offense is clicking they spread the floor and move the ball. 6’8″ junior transfer Jarrod Uthoff is a rangy athlete who can defend and shoot the three. 6’9″ senior Aaron White is another big, versatile player who gets to the line frequently and can score in bunches. As a team, the Hawkeyes shoot their free throws well and they also crash the boards well. Sounds like a top 15 team, right? Wrong. They’ve been doomed by slow second-half starts and at times puzzling team defense, and for much of the season they seemed to lack mental toughness. Still, with the 33rd-ranked strength of schedule, they made it to the dance and now they’re a threat. Meanwhile, the Davidson Wildcats are back in the tournament and they’re also a threat. They’re 6th in the country in scoring and 3rd in assists, and 6’4″ senior guard Tyler Kalinoski leads a dangerous spread offense. Will the Hawkeyes get out of their own way on a run, or will the Wildcats heat up and shoot their way to the next round? This one could be an exciting one. Pick: Iowa
2 Gonzaga vs. 15 North Dakota Sate
The North Dakota State Bison beat the 5 seed just last year. They have great interior passing, and they can rebound and defend. 6’3″ senior guard Lawrence Alexander averages 19 points a game and can hit from three. Unfortunately, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are one of the most experienced and versatile teams in the country. The Bulldogs are great at the pick and roll; 7’1″ junior center Przemek Karnowski has power and great footwork, and 6’10” freshman forward Domantas Sabonis is also versatile. 6’10” junior forward Kyle Wiltjer, a transfer from Kentucky, can shoot from all over the place and has scored as many as 45 in a game this season. 6’2″ senior guard Kevin Pangos leads a solid backcourt, and the Bulldogs have depth and experience all around. Pick: Gonzaga
Upset alert: Eastern Washington. The Hoyas have talent, but they haven’t shown consistency. Eastern Washington has size and scoring.
Watch out for: Iowa State. They’ve been borderline-elite for a few seasons now, and have the balance, experience and clutch performance to make a Final Four run if they can get through Gonzaga.
You might not have heard of: Once again, Tyler Harvey. He’s an elite scorer who’s under the and plays with a chip on his shoulder. He likes the big moments, and if the Eagles keep it close, look out.