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.
At the top of the West region are the Oregon Ducks, who played themselves into a favorable draw by destroying the Utah Utes in the Pac-12 title game. This is an interesting bracket, with a mix of different playing styles–from high-scoring, defensively challenged Duke to tenacious, rim-attacking squads like Baylor. Oklahoma is one heck of a dangerous 2 seed, though as usual their lack of depth could be a problem.
1 Oregon vs. 16 Holy Cross/Southern
The Oregon Ducks are coming into the tournament on fire. They wrapped up the Pac-12 Tournament by obliterating a solid Utah squad, earning themselves a 1 seed and putting themselves in the Final Four conversation. The Ducks are a balanced team of versatile scoring threats, with forwards that can open it up in transition. 6’4″ sophomore forward Dillion Brooks is their leading scorer with 16.8 points per game, but they have four players averaging 12 points or more and they’re 46th in the country with 78.8 points per game. They don’t rebound well for a team full of forwards, but when they get going, they can put up fireworks. They’ll be matched up with the winner of the play-in game between the Holy Cross Crusaders and the Southern Jaguars. The Jaguars won the SWAC Tournament as a 4 seed, and the Crusaders won the Patriot League tournament as a 9 seed; these might be the two biggest Cinderellas in the draw. Neither seems likely to be the first 16 seed to pull off an upset. Pick: Oregon
2 Oklahoma vs. 15 Cal-Bakersfield
The Oklahoma Sooners can, at times, look like they’d beat anyone in the draw. They can score in bunches, they can rebound with most teams, and any one of their starting five can drop a double-double. They have Buddy Hield, the senior guard who averages 25 points a game and is one of the most indomitable scorers in the country. They have Ryan Spangler, a hustling double-double machine who can battle for boards and shoot from beyond the arc. They’re 24th in the country with 80.4 points per game, 59th in the country with 38.8 rebounds per game, and 96th in the country with 14.5 assists per game. Unfortunately, they’re seriously lacking in depth. This could come to be a problem later in the tournament, but against the Roadrunners from CSU-Bakersfield, they should be safe. The Roadrunners are tough on the boards and tough on defense, and they share the ball–but they have neither a go-to on offense nor an imposing figure in the paint, and the Sooners would have to have an off day to lose this one. Pick: Oklahoma
3 Texas A&M vs. 14 Green Bay
The Texas A&M Aggies are, quietly, a pretty dangerous team. They won the SEC Tournament by outlasting the Kentucky Wildcats, in a matchup that always seems to go to overtime; before that, they dismantled Ben Simmons and the LSU Tigers.The Aggies are 31st in points allowed, 11th in assists, and 56th in rebounding; they haven’t got a single go-to guy on offense, but both Daniel House and Jalen Jones average 15.5 points a game. The Aggies are athletic and tenacious, and can short-circuit an opposing offense by way of sheer mayhem. They aren’t butchers, though: they just have a balanced, athletic team that fights for every loose ball and is willing to spread it around on offense. The Green Bay Phoenix are a thrilling, high-scoring team that scores 84 points a game. They burst Valparaiso‘s bubble with a 99-92 win in the Horizon League semifinal, then outlasted Wright State to clinch their tournament berth. 6’7″ senior guard Jordan Fouse can do it all, and the Phoenix like to run the floor; if they can dictate the flow of the game, they might pull off a big upset. Pick: Green Bay
4 Duke vs. 13 UNC-Wilmington
The Duke Blue Devils have two of the best players in the country: 6’5″ guard Grayson Allen, who averages 21.6 a game and can shoot from a mile away as well as drive the lane; and 6’9″ freshman forward Brandon Ingram, who’s a double-double waiting to happen and features some crafty moves in the paint. They have 7’1″ Marshall Plumlee, a tight end-sized jumping bean who averages 8.2 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. They average 81.5 points per game, and always seem like a flurry of threes waiting to happen. They’re coached by the legendary Mike Krzyzewski, one of the best ever to hold a clipboard. Alas, they also struggle on defense, sorely lack depth and often get killed on the boards. As such, they’re both extremely dangerous and extremely vulnerable. The Seahawks of UNC-Wilmington are another of this region’s high-scoring squads. The problem is, they haven’t got the size to put Duke in foul trouble, which means Duke should be able to advance even if the game stays close. Pick: Duke
5 Baylor vs. 12 Yale
The Baylor Bears aren’t a team that will shoot the lights out. They attack the glass, spread the ball around on offense, and like to get up and down the floor. This translates into a team that lacks an elite scorer being 6th in the nation with 17.8 assists per game, and 79th in the nation with 77.2 points per game. Their rebounding numbers aren’t stellar, but the Bears are another team that swarms on the boards and creates mayhem in the paint. The Yale Bulldogs are a tough, defensively solid team that’s looking to put itself on the map. 6’1″ guard Makai Mason averages 15.8 points a game, as does under-heralded forward Justin Sears, a 6’8″ senior who also averages 7.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Brady Heslip isn’t around to bail the Bears out with half a million threes; if the Bulldogs can keep them = from getting second chances on offense, this could be a classic 12-5 upset. Still, the Bears’ barrage should push them through to the next round. Pick: Baylor
6 Texas vs. 11 Northern Iowa
The Northern Iowa Panthers scrapped their way through the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, taking out Wichita State along the way to an automatic bid. They beat UNC 71-67 early in the season, and beat Iowa State 81-79 in December. They play a stingy team defense, and if they keep it close, they still have a knack for the big shot. But man, do they struggle to score. The Texas Longhorns have benefited from coach Shaka Smart‘s arrival, as they play their own style of Smart’s renowned “Havoc” approach to defense and can create offense flurries of offense from turnovers. Despite their occasional explosions in transition, they also struggle to score the ball; this game has a lot of possible permutations, but it’ll be a battle. Pick: Northern Iowa
7 Oregon State vs. 10 VCU
The Oregon State Beavers were already a hard team to figure out. But now it looks like they’ll be go into the tournament without Tres Tinkle, the 6’8″ forward who’s averaging 13.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game. Tinkle’s been out since early March with a foot injury suffered in practice; the Beavers have made it this far in his absence, but eventually the lack of scoring depth will come back to haunt them. Senior guard Gary Payton II is an all-purpose threat, scoring 15.9 points a game while adding 7.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists; but he’ll have to have a particularly epic game to help the Beavers beat the VCU Rams. Despite the loss of coach Shaka Smart, the Rams have continued their tradition of aggressive, hectoring defense and solid transition play. If they can smother Payton, the Beavers aren’t a dynamic enough scoring team to pick up the slack. Cue the upset here. Pick: VCU
8 St. Joe’s vs, 9 Cincinnati
The Saint Joe’s Hawks don’t jump off the screen in any respect, but they toughed their way through the Atlantic 10 Championship, closing out with an 87-74 win over VCU. DeAndre Bembry is a 6’8″ junior forward who 17.3 point, 7.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game; he and 6’7″ senior forward Isaiah Miles, who averages 18.4 points and 8.1 rebounds, can be a tough tandem in the paint. They’ll likely engage in a pitched battle with the Cincinnati Bearcats, who reflect the tenacious disposition of coach Mick Cronin. Junior guard Troy Capuain is their leader on offense, but the defense is how the Bearcats win their games. This will be another tight, physical matchup that could go either way. Pick: St. Joe’s
Upset alert: Green Bay over Texas A&M. The Phoenix will use their up-tempo physicality to speed up the Aggies and pull of the upset.
Could make a run: Oklahoma. If they can avoid foul trouble, their starting five can match up with and other starting lineup in the tournament.
You might not have heard of: Jordan Fouse. The versatile big man could lead his team to a big first-round upset.
Who makes the Final Four? Oregon. They’re deep, they’re balanced, they’re athletic, and they’re on a roll. They also have the kind of interior physicality that can get the Sooners in foul trouble. They’ll be tested, but the 1 seed will emerge.