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.
Kansas is the top overall seed in the tournament, and accordingly, they seem to have gotten the easiest path of all the 1 seeds. Number two in the bracket is decidedly beatable Villanova; Villanova spent time at the top of the rankings this season, but the top of the rankings has been a game of musical chairs all year. Maryland and Iowa are two of the biggest name brands in the region, but both have been hit-or-miss all season. This region might produce some surprises.
1 Kansas vs. 16 Austin Peay
The Kansas Jayhawks are a talented human wave attack, led by do-it-all senior sensation Perry Ellis. They’re coached by Bill Self, one of the best coaches in the game. They have a handful of players who can hang up 15-25 points on any given night, like Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham. They’re 15th in the nation in points per game, 34th in assists per game, 74th in points allowed per game and 91st in rebounds per game. But Jayhawks are also prone to lapses and streakiness, and are they can sometimes give away leads. This could come back to haunt them down the line, but against the 18-17 Austin Peay Governors, their talent alone should keep them safe. The Governors are on a five-game winning streak, which is how they got here, and they’ve begun to score a decent amount of points and look confident. But if they took down the Jayhawks, it’d be one of the biggest upsets of the first round. Pick: Kansas
2 Villanova vs. 15 UNC-Asheville
The Villanova Wildcats spent some time at the top of the Top 25 this season, and led by senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono, they’re a 2 seed in what looks like the lightest quadrant. That doesn’t mean they’ll coast, though. Unlike recent seasons, in which they’ve been guard-reliant to a fault, the Wildcats have some power in the paint this time around: 6’11” senior Daniel Ochefu, who’s blossomed into a formidable presence around the rim. Ochefu averages 9.7 points and 7.6 rebounds a game, and his 61.2 field goal percentage leads the team. Still, he’s only one guy–and the cats can be beaten if their perimeter shots aren’t falling. The cats will want keep the ball moving quickly, which should make for an interesting matchup with the Bulldogs of UNC-Asheville. The Bulldogs also sport a guard-heavy lineup, and they average almost nine steals per game; they haven’t got a lot of serious size, but they have a lot of length at the top of their zone. They’re led by two freshman guards, but they’ve played in hostile environments and on neutral courts and are a gutsy squad. If they can generate some pick-twos, this could be an exciting game. Pick: UNC-Asheville
3 Miami vs. 14 Buffalo
The Miami Hurricanes are a tough, experienced, defensively stout team. They’re led by two senior guard, Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. McClellan is 6’5″ and can work in the paint; Rodriguez isn’t a high-volume shooter, but has a knack for big plays and is cool in the clutch. The ‘canes gave UVA a hard time in the ACC Tournament, and they play a hectoring, disruptive defense; they don’t do anything stunning, but they have a way of staying in games. The Buffalo Bulls, meanwhile, bring toughness of their own. They’re dangerous, too: they’re 70th in the country with 77.6 points per game, and 47th in the country with 39.1 rebounds per game. This is their second straight tourney appearance; they stressed out the West Virginia Mountaineers in last year’s dance. Miami will have to be tough to get past them. Pick: Miami
4 California vs. 13 Hawaii
The California Golden Bears have talent, and they’re tough on defense. They’ve beaten Oregon, Utah and Arizona this year. In 6’11” freshman forward Ivan Rabb, they have a dynamic presence in the paint who can take over a game. But they turn the ball over a lot, and as a team they shoot a ghastly 66 percent from the free throw line. The 27-5 Hawaii Rainbow Warriors score 77.6 points per game, and are 38th in the country with 15.8 assists. In 6’11” 235-pound Stefan Jankovic, they have a versatile big man who averages almost 16 points and 7 rebounds a game. The Rainbow Warriors hung tough against a solid Long Beach State team to win the Big West Tournament, and they’re coming into the dance flying high. They’ve shown they can step up against a top-tier opponent: in an 84-81 thriller earlier this season, they narrowly missed taking down Oklahoma. They’re athletic, they play good team defense, and if they can force a bunch of turnovers they could pull off the upset. Pick: Hawaii
5 Maryland vs. 12 South Dakota State
For a while this season, the Maryland Terrapins looked really good; then they didn’t, then they did, and so on. Sophomore guard Melo Trimble is capable of taking over a game and hitting big shots in crunch time. 6’9″ senior forward Jake Layman is an athletic slasher who can operate inside and outside. 6’11” forward Diamond Stone is a big interior presence who can dominate the paint when he gets going. When the Terps are clicking, they’re versatile and balanced–but Trimble, Layman and Stone all seem subject to cold spells, and then the Terps are off kilter they look disjointed and messy. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits have won the Summit League Tournament three of the past five years, and they’re experienced and tough. They can score, rebound and defend, and 6’9″ freshman forward Mike Daum is a threat from both inside and outside. This one will depend on which version of the Terrapins show up. Pick: Maryland
6 Arizona vs. 11 Vanderbilt/Wichita State
The Arizona Wildcats might be the biggest sleeper in this region. They’re 19th in the nation in points per game and 21st in rebounds per game, and this pair of stats is instructive: the Wildcats have some talented big men. 6’9″ senior forward Ryan Anderson averages 15.5 points and 10.1 rebounds a game, and seven-foot senior center Kaleb Tarczewski averages 9.4 points and 9.3 rebounds. Anderson and Tarczewski can both get up and down the flor in transition, as well. Fueling their dangerous transition game, Arizona’s backcourt tandem has been increasingly dynamic of late; senior Gabe York has a knack for big shots and playmaking, and freshman guard Allonzo Trier is an electric player who can change a game. The 11 seed, continuing a frustrating tradition of making teams play their way into the middle of the bracket, will feature two teams with different styles of play. The Wichita State Shockers lead the nation in points allowed, and continue their tradition of sturdy team defense. Senior guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker have lots of experience in big games, and they should set a good tone for a team that will compete hard. The Vanderbilt Commodores like to run up and down in transition, led by the explosive downhill style of sophomore guard Wade Baldwin IV. Luke Kornet is 7’1″ junior who can erase shots in the paint and drop it in from three. Vandy, Wichita State and Arizona all have cause for consternation regarding their draw. This is a three-way coin flip, unless the Wildcats get hot–in case they could make a deep run. Pick: Arizona
7 Iowa vs. 10 Temple
The Iowa Hawkeyes are right up there with the Terrapins as one of the biggest Jekyll-Hyde teams in the draw. Earlier in the season, they were being legitimately discussed as a possible number 1 seed; lately, they’ve been a resounding disappointment more often than not. The Hawkeyes can score, rebound, and defend. They have an experienced, talented go-to player: 6’9″ senior Jarrod Uthoff, who for a while was in the conversation for Player of the Year. 7’1″ senior center Adam Woodbury is a strong rebounder and good secondary scorer, but at times seems hesitant to shoot. 6’6″ junior guard Peter Jok is an athletic wing man who can score in bunches, and senior point guard Mike Gesell is a crafty playmaker similar to Virginia’s London Perrantes. The Hawkeyes have a bunch of players who can get hot on offense, and when they’re clicking, you can’t double-team anyone and Uthoff can take over. But lately, they look discombobulated on defense and play with the chemistry of a pickup team. They’ll face a Temple Owls team that’s getting hot at the right time. The Owls are a feisty, defensively solid team that made it to the AAC Tournament final before losing to the red-hot UConn Huskies; they’re dangerous if allowed to hang around, and 6’8″ 240-pound senior Jaylen Bond is a threat to take over in the paint. 6’5″ senior guard Quenton DeCosey is a dynamic threat, and 6’9″ sophomore forward Obi Enechionyia is an athletic, streaky shooter who can be an x-factor. But this game will entirely depend on which version of the Hawyekes take the floor. Pick: Iowa
8 Colorado vs. 9 UConn
The Colorado Buffaloes gave Arizona a challenge in the Pac-12 Tournament, which is probably why they made it into the dance. They did it because of the unselfishness of Josh Scott, the 6’10” 245-pound senior forward who’s the centerpiece of the team. Scott is averaging 16.1 points and 8.7 rebounds a game, but when the Wildcats clamped down on him he kicked it out to teammates and they didn’t let him down. The Buffaloes are strong in the paint and on the glass, and when their perimeter shots are falling, they can be a problem. They’ll face the UConn Huskies, one of the hottest teams in the country. The Huskies needed a 60-foot buzzer beater by Jalen Adams to reach the sixth period of their four-overtime epic against the Memphis Tigers; since then, they haven’t looked back. They stifled the Temple Owls less than 24 hours later, and won the American Conference title by pounding the Memphis Tigers. They feature a balanced, tenacious attack on offense, with four players averaging over 12 points a game. 7-footer Amada Brimah is an emergent force in the paint, blocking shots and pulling down rebound while improving as a complementary scorer. The Huskies don’t have a ton of size, but they’re scrappy and athletic and can convert defense to offense quickly. If they stay hot, they could go on a deep run. Pick: UConn
Upset alert: This is the all-bets-are-off region, but since I can’t say “the whole region”: Hawaii could take advantage of Cal’s streakiness and bad free throw shooting to pull a big upset. Also watch for UNC-Asheville to ride transition scores into the second round.
Could make a run: Arizona. The Wildcats are athletic and experienced, and have threats on the inside and from deep.
You might not have heard of: Stefan Jankovic. He had a big second half when the Rainbow Warriors hassled the Sooners, and if he has two strong halves against the Golden Bears, he could lead his team to the next round.
Who makes the Final Four? Arizona. Remember, all four 1 seeds have only made the Final Four once. The Wildcats can beat you in different ways, they have good guards and good big men, and they’re battle-tested by a Pac 12 that’s tougher than people are used to thinking of it.