by Paul West
After a Championship Week in which top seeds had a rough time (winning only two of the first eleven of the week’s tournaments) and there weren’t any widely lamented snubs, this year’s March Madness feels both wide open and top-heavy. The South Region features a lot of physicality, headlined by UVA’s famous pack-line defense and Tennessee’s experience and toughness.
1 UVA vs 16 Gardner-Webb
The Virginia Cavaliers remain one of the best defensive teams in Division 1, but they’ve got more scoring power than you might expect. Juniors Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy form one of the best backcourts in the draw, providing scoring punch along with tournament-tested poise. 6’7″ winger De’Andre Hunter is a defensive stopper, and the Cavs can smother you at one end and bury you at the other when they get hot. Guard-trapping, length, and defensive rebounding are the ways to give them trouble, as Miami showed in early February and Florida State showed in their enormous ACC Tournament upset. The Gardner-Webb Bulldogs beat Radford to make the dance, behind 32 points from 6’6″ senior DJ Laster. Both teams shoot well from the line, and about 40 percent from behind the arc…but that should only mean this one stays close for a while. Pick: UVA
2 Tennessee vs 15 Colgate
After beating Kentucky 82-78, the Tennessee Volunteers lost the SEC title game in a puzzling blowout to Auburn. Admiral Schofield scored the Vols’ last 11 points in an early December upset of then top-ranked Gonzaga; 6’7″ junior Grant Williams leads the team in boards and can control the paint. The Vols are experienced and cohesive, have played a lot of close games, and overcame some February hiccups, before reasserting themselves to close out the season–until this weekend’s mysterious flop. The Colgate Raiders won the Patriot League Tournament in a series of decisive victories. They’re a solid team, but it would be a huge surprise if they pulled this one off. Pick: Tennessee
3 Purdue vs 14 Old Dominion
The Purdue Boilermakers came in first in the Big Ten, but were taken out by Minnesota in the conference tournament. 6’1″ junior guard Carsen Edwards led the Big Ten with 23 points a game, and Purdue is a dangerous–but hard to figure–team. The Old Dominion Monarchs won the Conference-USA regular season and tournament, but don’t shoot well from the free throw line and don’t do any one thing well enough to derail Purdue. Pick: Purdue
4 Kansas St vs 13 UC Irvine
The Kansas State Wildcats won the Big 12 Conference, ending the Kansas Jayhawks’ 14-year streak. They’re a tenacious, athletic group that only gives up 59.2 points a game, and 6’8″ senior Dean Wade leads them in rebounds while putting up 12.6 points and 2.8 assists a game, but might not be able to go. The UC Irvine Anteaters went 30-5, trounced their way through the Big West Conference, and can both score and defend. They have five players 6’9″ or taller, which could allow them to give the Wildcats trouble in the paint, and their ability to get second-chance points–along with Wade’s injury, and the Wildcats’ woeful free throw percentage of 66.4–could lead to an upset. Pick: UC Irvine
5 Wisconsin vs 12 Oregon
The Wisconsin Badgers are a tough team, who can score in the paint and grind the game down to their tempo. 6’10” senior Ethan Happ is a versatile big man who leads the Badgers in points, rebounds, assists, and steals, and is capable of putting a team on his back. Unfortunately–like the Badgers as a team–he struggles from the free throw line, which could put a damper on their hopes for a tournament run. The Oregon Ducks lost the sensational Bol Bol to injury early in the season, and still went on to win the Pac 12 Tournament. Junior guard Payton Pritchard does a little of everything, and he exemplifies the tenacity the defensively stout Ducks have shown of late. This one is ripe for a classic 12-5 upset, and it should be a fun one. Pick: Oregon
6 Villanova vs 11 St Mary’s
The Villanova Wildcats won the Big East, in one of the conference’s weaker years in recent memory. Jay Wright is an excellent coach who knows how to help his team achieve their best; seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall can provide scoring and leadership, and as the defending national champs, they’re as tournament-tested as can be. But they got a tough draw in the St. Mary’s Gaels, who beat Gonzaga to take the West Coast Conference Tournament. The Gaels’ backcourt of Jordan Ford and Tommy Kuhse went off in the final game, and they beat Gonzaga by slowing the tempo and contesting every possession. The Gaels take care of the ball, can score from inside and deep, and the Wildcats better be ready. Pick: St Mary’s
7 Cincinnati vs 10 Iowa
The Cincinnati Bearcats are on a roll. Let by 33 points from Jarron Cumberland in the final game, Cincy beat SMU, Wichita State, and Houston to win the American Athletic Conference Tournament. Matching the temperament of coach Mick Cronin, the Bearcats play an athletic, mercurial style which makes them capable of beating, or losing to, virtually anyone. The Iowa Hawkeyes are similarly up and down, though of late they’re more down than up: they had a 10-10 record against fellow Big Ten teams, and have lost eight of their last ten games. The Hawkeyes’ best chance is to get out in transition, and take advantage of the Bearcats’ aggressiveness to get to the free throw line. This could go either way, but the Bearcats are currently the hotter hand. Pick: Cincinnati
8 Mississippi vs 9 Oklahoma
The Ole Miss Rebels and Oklahoma Sooners are well chosen for the 8-9 game. They came in sixth and seventh, respectively, in the tough SEC and Big 12; both teams come in with double-digit losses on the season; and both are capable of getting hot and beating most teams, but turn it over about a dozen times a game. This one is a toss-up, but Ole Miss–who played both Kentucky and Tennessee close, while the Sooner’s blowout of Kansas officially ended the Jayhawks’ streak of Big 12 titles–will pull off a tight one here. Pick: Mississippi
The bracket’s biggest sleeper is: St Mary’s. They beat the Zags, they’re experienced and versatile, and they don’t scare easy.
Upset alert: St Mary’s & UC Irvine.
The best player you might not have heard of is: Dean Wade, who does a bit of everything for the dangerous Wildcats–but also, unfortunately, missed the Big 12 Tournament due to injury and is questionable this week. Also the Bearcats’ Jarron Cumberland, the AAC Player of the Year.
Who makes the Final Four? Tennessee. This region finishes in Louisville, which is only a few hours from Knoxvile; the Vols will have a virtual home game to close it out, and they’ll advance to the Final Four.