by Paul West
After a remarkably unpredictable season in which the upper rankings shuffled like a deck of cards, it’s my pleasure to once again present my annual bracketological breakdown. This promises to be a wide-open bracket; and while the South region might not have as many upsets as others, it’s loaded with game-changing players you might not have heard of. Be advised: this breakdown is a unique blend of standings-watching, numbers-noting, and eye test; enjoy the tournament, and appreciate every moment you can–both on and off the court.
1 Arizona vs 16 Wright State/Bryant
The 31-3 Arizona Wildcats are stacked. They’ve got the Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 7’1″ junior Christian Koloko, who also averages 12.1 points and 7.1 boards a game. They’ve got the Pac 12 Player of the Year in 6’6″ sophomore Benedict Mathurin. They have tons of size and shot blocking ability, and they’re 4th in the country with 84.6 points a game and 3rd with 19.9 assists. They can run the floor, but they’re efficient at both ends. They and Gonzaga are likely the best two teams in the draw.
The Wright State Raiders are a streaking team with a couple of talented bigs: Grant Basile, a 6’9″ 225 lb junior forward with nifty paint moves who’s averaging 18.5 points with 8.7 boards and 2.0 assists; and Tanner Holden, a 6’6″ junior guard averaging 19.8, 7.2, and 2.6 assists a game. The problem is, they run a short rotation; also that they might have to get through the Wildcats if they get through Bryant.
The Bryant Bulldogs are a team that can score points in bunches, and they’re led by the country’s leading scorer: 6’5″ senior guard Peter Kiss, a grad transfer from Rutgers who scores 25.1 a game with 5.8 boards and 3.3 assists. Kiss is the kind of player who can take over a game, and this is a play-in game that should be action-packed. Again, though: if they get through Wright State, the Wildcats are up next.
Villanova vs 15 Delaware
The Villanova Wildcats beat Creighton in the lowest scoring Big East title game since 2012; they’re a balanced, disciplined, and efficient team that can hang with most teams if they can dictate the tempo. They’ve also lost to Baylor by 21 and Tennessee by 18, and haven’t got a ton of depth. It’ll be tough for them to make a deep run, but coach Jay Wright facilitates a good March mindset.
After losing three in a row to close the regular season, the Delaware Blue Hens went on a run to win the Colonial Athletic Association title. They’re balanced and somewhat efficient on offense, and they can shoot; but they don’t stand out in any category otherwise.
3 Tennessee vs 14 Longwood
The Tennessee Volunteers were a surprise 3 seed, as many people expected them to land higher. They finished the season hot, winning 7 in a row to win the SEC Tournament and beating Kentucky, Arkansas, and a scrappy Texas A&M team along the way. They’re rugged on defense and create a lot of turnovers, but their offense is pretty reliant on the three and their speedy backcourt is a bit undersized.
The Longwood Lancers have won 19 of their last 20; they rely on hectoring defense, active movement off the ball, and solid shooting from deep. They haven’t played a particularly tough schedule, though, and it’ll be interesting to see how they adjust to one of the most battle-tested teams in the draw.
4 Illinois vs 13 Chattanooga
The Illinois Fighting Illini are an interesting case. They’re on-paper efficient on both ends of the floor; they’ve got size, and players who can shoot; they’re tough and battle-tested. But they’ve also come up short pretty often for a team thusly described, and they’ve struggled on offense of late. 7-foot Kofi Cockburn averages 21.1 points & 10.6 boards a game, and can change opposing shots and create second chances; but the Illini are going to have to pull it all together quickly.
The Chattanooga Mocs are a solid defensive team with some scoring punch, led by 6’4″ sophomore guard and SoCon Player Of The Year Malachi Smith. Smith who averages 20.1 points, 6.7 boards, and 3.1 assists a game while shooting 50 percent from the floor, 41.5 percent from three, and 83 percent from the line; he’s the kind of player who can take over a game. If they can keep it close against a sporadic Illini team, look out.
5 Houston 12 UAB
The Houston Cougars rolled through the AAC Tournament, wrapping up with a decisive win over Memphis. They’re talented, they have a top-notch coach in Kelvin Sampson, and they made the Final Four last year–though they’re without guards Tramon Mark and Marcus Sasser, both lost to season-ending injuries. They can score, rebound, and defend, and Sasser has said he could try to return later in March in the Cougars make a run; but their achilles’ heel is woeful free throw shooting, which is bad for business in the tournament.
The UAB Blazers put up 80.2 points a game, and they hound opponents into turnovers. Their leading scorer is 5’11” guard Jordan Walker, who’s put up 26, 40, and 27 points in their last three games; their offense flows through him, and he’s a solid passer who shoots fearlessly and hits 40.6 percent of this threes. If the Blazers can keep it close, the difference could be made at the free throw line.
6 Colorado State vs 11 Michigan
The Colorado State Rams went 25-5 in an underrated Mountain West Conference, and beat St. Mary’s 74-58 in December. They feature 19.4 points, 7.6 boards, and 2.8 assists a game from 6’5″ 252lb David Roddy, a versatile big man who can take over a game and hits nearly half his threes. The Rams have looked vulnerable lately, letting all their opponents stay close in the conference tournament before being surprised in the semis by San Diego State; but they’re tough and they hit their free throws, which is good for business in March.
The Michigan Wolverines made the Elite Eight as a 1 seed just a year ago, but this year has been different. They’ve struggled to hold leads; they were swept by Illinois; they’ve lost by 18 to Arizona and 14 to Wisconsin; and they come in with a 17-14 record. They salvaged their unlikely bid by beating Michigan State and Ohio State during the absence of coach Juwan Howard, suspended for a loss of composure not befitting his age and experience; and while anything can happen in March, this doesn’t seem to be their year.
Pick: Colorado State
7 Ohio State vs 10 Loyola-Chicago
The Ohio State Buckeyes lost to 15-seed Oral Roberts last year, and this year they face one of last year’s biggest Cinderellas. They’ve lost 4 of their last 5 and 5 of their last 8, and they gave up a 13-point lead in a loss to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament; they’re just 19-11 overall, and they start the tournament with a tough draw. They’ve beaten Duke, Illinois, Michigan, and Seton Hall, which gives them some cause for hope–along with matchup nightmare EJ Liddell, a 6’7″ junior forward who averages 19.7 points, 7.9 boards, and 2.5 assists a game.
The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers are an experienced team that’s done damage in recent tournaments. They shoot a good percentage from two-point range, three-point range, and the free throw line; and they’re tough on defense and the boards. They haven’t got a dominant scorer, but if they can slow things down and keep it close, they can swipe one at the end from the Buckeyes.
8 Seton Hall vs 9 TCU
The Seton Hall Pirates are a tough team that’s active on defense, hits the boards hard, gets to the line a lot, and hits their free throws. Unfortunately, they also get into foul trouble, and that’s not a good recipe for March success.
The TCU Horned Frogs are, like their first round opponents, a tough defensive team that hits the boards hard. But they’ve lost 3 of their last 4, 4 of their last 7, and 7 of their last 11, and they’re collectively one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country. The Pirates hit their free throws, and that could be the difference.
Pick: Seton Hall
Best player you might not have heard of? Malachi Smith; Jordan Walker; David Roddy; Peter Kiss; Tanner Holden. This region is full of hidden gems.
Bracket sleepers? UAB & Chattannooga
Final Four? Arizona