by Paul West
College basketball is wrapping up one of its most wide-open, parity-driven seasons in a long time; this makes it harder than usual to fill in your March Madness brackets. Here’s a region-by-region breakdown of the first round of the tournament.
The East region has the second overall seed in the tournament: the UNC Tar Heels, who are on the short list of favorites to go all the way. Their road might not be smooth, though: the region has a bunch of teams that can present a challenge, including the West Virginia Mountaineers and the dangerously talented Kentucky Wildcats. Several of these games could go either way.
1 North Carolina vs. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson/Florida Gulf Coast
The North Carolina Tar Heels have a legitimate case for being the favorite to win the title. They’re coached by Roy Williams, who has a long and successful resume. They’re loaded with talent; they dominate in the paint; they’re 4th in the country with 18.1 assists per game; they’re 12th in the country with 82.3 points per game. They also have Brice Johnson, the 6’9″ senior who averages 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds but can go off in spectacular fashion and has taken games over against good competition. If they have one weakness, it’s that they don’t light it up from outside–and when their jumpers aren’t falling, they can give up points in transition. This shouldn’t stop them in their first-round matchup, against the winner of the play-in game between Fairleigh Dickinson and Florida Gulf Coast. The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights won the NEC Conference tournament after an 18-14 season; they average 77.9 points a game, despite being prone to slow starts. The Florida Gulf Coast Eagles are back in the dance, but with a different playing style than the “Dunk City” squad from a few years back. These Eagles still fly–they average 77 points a game, and are 22nd in the country with 40.2 rebounds a game–but they aren’t quite the highlight factory they were in 2014. This team is tougher on defense, and they’re execution-driven. If the Eagles make it to the field of 64, they could make it interesting against the Heels–but a 16 has still never won a game, and this isn’t likely to be the first example. Pick: UNC
2 Xavier vs. 15 Weber State
The Xavier Musketeers might be slightly over-seeded, but they’re still going to be a tough out. They were edged out by Seton Hall in the Big East title game, but they hovered near the top of the Top 25 for most of the second half of the season. They’re balanced, they’re physical, they score, they rebound, they defend. They haven’t got a standout star, but they have a handful of players that can blow up for a stretch–like 6’6″ sophomore Trevon Bluiett, averaging 15.5 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, and 6’10” senior James Farr, averaging 10.8 and 7.8 respectively. The Weber State Wildcats play mostly off the national radar, but they might be under-seeded as a 15. They can score, they have depth, and they’re coming into the tournament on a roll. They have a beast on the inside in 6’9″ senior Joel Bolomboy, who averages 17.2 points and pulls down 12.7 rebounds per game. If they can cut down on turnovers, they might give the Musketeers a run for their money. Going with Xavier here, but it’s close. Pick: Xavier
3 West Virginia vs. 14 Stephen F. Austin
The West Virginia Mountaineers manage to score 79.2 points a game without shooting the ball particularly well. What they do do well is crash the offensive boards, swarm in the paint, and press their opponents silly on defense. They pass the ball around, and while they don’t have one go-to scorer, they have a handful of players who can get hot and drop a bunch of points–usually off of rebounds. They’re disruptive and energetic, and can short-circuit a good offense. The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks are a great offensive team that hits the open man and can shoot from anywhere on the floor; their problem is they’re susceptible to getting killed on the boards. This is a matchup where both teams’ strengths line up well against the other’s weakness; the Lumberjacks need their shots to drop, and the Mountaineers need to disrupt and clear the boards. Shooting slumps; defense, not so much. That’s the biggest reason I’m going with West Virginia here. But if the Jacks get hot from deep, look out. Pick: West Virginia
4 Kentucky vs. 13 Stony Brook
The Kentucky Wildcats have oodles of talent–not as much as last year’s team, which could send hockey shifts of blue-chip players on the floor one after another, but they likely have the best backcourt in the country. 5’9″ sophomore Tyler Ullis is a dynamo who can take over a game by himself; 6’5″ freshman Jamal Murray is one of the best sharpshooters in the country.Coach John Calipari has an excellent postseason resume, and though the cats have faltered at times this year, they’re a threat to make a deep run if they can get things clicking. The Stony Brook Seawolves, meanwhile, are a team to take seriously. They battled their way to victory in the America East Conference title game; they have a fast, fearless. playing style, quick, aggressive guard play, good outside shooting and solid team defense. They’re 88th in the country with 76.8 points per game, 36th in the country with 39.6 rebounds per game, 19th in the country with 63.4 points allowed per game, and tied for 20th with 16.6 assists per game. They also have Jameel Warney, a finalist for the Karl Malone Award for best power forward in the nation. Varney is the only candidate who doesn’t play in a power conference, and he’s earned it: at 6’8″ and 255 pounds, he combines intense physicality with a deft scoring touch. The Seawolves are an experienced team that isn’t likely to shrink under pressure, whereas the Wildcats are a young team that’s been streaky all year. Pick: Stony Brook
5 Indiana vs. 12 Chattanooga
The Indiana Hoosiers are a dangerous team. They score 82.3 points per game, they’re good on the offensive boards, and they’re led by senior guard Yogi Ferrell, who isn’t prolific but hits big shots and is a standout floor general. They were also one-and-done in the Big Ten tournament–as the top seed–and have a couple of brutal blowout losses this year, to Duke by 20 and Michigan State by 19. They’re hit-or-miss, and largely dependent on Ferrell’s leadership. Ferrell might have a hard time getting inside on the Chattanooga Mocs, who are defensively tough and have a lot of length. The Mocs won the regular season and the postseason in the Southern Conference, and they went 29-5 in a schedule that included some tough non-conference games. The Hoosiers should pull this one out. Pick: Indiana
6 Notre Dame vs. 11 Michigan/Tulsa
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are another of the more puzzling entries in the draw. They went a middling 21-11 in the ACC; they got obliterated in the conference tournament, 87-47, by UNC. They beat Duke twice, took one of two against the Tar Heels, and lost to Virginia by 11. Monmouth nipped them by two points. They have Zach Auguste, a 6′ 10″ force in the paint who averages 14.4 points and 10.8 rebounds. In other words, they’re hard to figure out. The Michigan Wolverines are a dangerous small-ball team that moves the ball around well and has multiple deep threats. They can hassle you on defense, and when their shooters get hot, they can look really good. They also live and die by the jumper, which usually comes back to haunt teams around this time of year. The Tulsa Golden Hurricane are one of the most broadly decried entries in the bracket, and they’ll come out in the play-in game with something to prove. They don’t stand out in any particular way, but they’re a veteran team, and coach Frank Haith is capable of bringing out their best. The Wolverines played their way into this position with a buzzer-beater, and they’ll need to continue their hot shooting if they’ll last. If that should happen, and they make it past Tulsa, Notre Dame could be in for a surprise. Pick: Michigan
7 Wisconsin vs. 10 Pittsburgh
The Wisconsin Badgers are an offensively challenged team that relies on balance, ball sharing and grit. Nigel Hayes, their leading scorer, is a bulldog on the interior who exemplifies the Badgers’ gritty style and averages 16.3 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. They lost a lot of firepower with the departures of Frank Kaminski, Sam Dekker and the like–but they battled their way to 12-6 in a tough Big Ten Conference. The Pittsburgh Panthers are similar to the Badgers: they don’t shoot it that well from outside, and their primary scorer is a big man who can regulate in the paint. Michael Young is a 6’9″ 235 pound junior who averages exactly 16 points and seven rebounds a game, along with 2.4 assists. He and Hayes will be a showdown worth watching, and this game will be won and lost under the rim. 7-10 games are often evenly matched, but this might be the closest of the four at this seed line. Pick: Pittsburgh
8 USC vs. 9 Providence
The USC Trojans are coached by Andy Enfield, who took the 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast Eagles to the Sweet Sixteen. They’re 20th in the nation with 80.2 points per game, and they’re capable of scoring in bunches. Their backcourt of Julian Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin can catch fire in transition, . They’re also capable of producing outright snoozers, which is why they’ve lost seven of their last ten games and might even be fortunate to have made the draw. They’ll have to right the ship in a hurry against the Providence Friars, who’ve won four of their last five. The Friars have fattened up their resume on the bottom portion of a top-heavy Big East Conference, but they do have some threat potential; they’re a scrappy bunch, and they have a formidable big man in Ben Bentil. Bentil is 6’9″ and 235 pounds, he averages 21.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a game, and he sets the tone for his team down low. USC is just most talented, which is why I’m going with them here. Pick: USC
Upset alert: Stony Brook over Kentucky. Yes, really. Kentucky could get their act together and blow the doors off…or they could get caught snoozing, as has happened to them at times this season, and the tough Seawolves could pull off a stunner.
Could make a run: West Virginia. They might barely escape their first rounder with Pittsburgh, but if they do, they have the physicality and defensive pressure to challenge the rest of the region.
Who makes the Final Four? North Carolina. They have vulnerabilities, but they’re still arguably the best in the draw.