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 region is full of teams that exceeded preseason expectations, but it might hold fever big upsets than other regions. 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 Kansas vs 16 Texas Southern
The Kansas Jayhawks went 28-6 in a tough Big 12 conference, and won their conference tournament with a decisive win over Texas Tech. They’re experienced, athletic, and efficient, and 6’5″ senior guard Ochai Agbaji is a big guard who averages 19.7 points a game and can score inside and shoot from deep. Bill Self is one of the best in the draw, and he’s got one of the most talented teams in the draw.
The Texas Southern Tigers have officially in the big draw, having taken out Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the play-in game. They’re well tested, by way of a pulverizing non-conference schedule, and they’re a tough squad that gets after it on defense. Their scoring is balanced, but their leading scorer averages 9.9 points a game; that lack of scoring punch will hurt them against the Jayhawks.
2 Auburn vs 15 Jacksonville State
The 27-5 Auburn Tigers are a young, athletic team that’s beaten a bunch of good teams in an increasingly tough SEC. They were briefly at the top of the rankings–for the first time in program history–before a mysterious three-game swoon in February; and they were bounced by Buzz Williams’ scrappy Texas A&M squad in the SEC Tournament. But they have the talent, scoring ability, and defense to make a deep run into March.
The Jacksonville State Gamecocks are in the tournament via technicality: they lost in the Atlantic Sun West semis, but Bellarmine, who won their conference championship game, isn’t eligible for the bi tournament due to having recently switched over from Division 2 (yes, that’s as absurd as it sounds). Interestingly, though: the Gamecocks actually swept Bellarmine this season…and they’re a good-shooting team, especially from behind the arc. They’re undersized, though, which could be a problem.
3 Wisconsin vs 14 Colgate
The Wisconsin Badgers are a methodical, efficient team that exceeded expectations this year; this was partly thanks to Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis, a 6’5″ sophomore guard who put up 19.7 points and 8.2 rebounds a game. They’ve beaten Houston, Purdue, Illinois, Saint Mary’s, and Ohio State, they’ve got size up front, and as usual they’re methodical and relatively efficient on offense; but they don’t rebound as well as you’d think, given their size, and nothing about them really jumps off the page. They’re also on a two-game losing streak, with losses to Nebraska and Michigan State.
The Colgate Raiders are a senior-heavy squad, with four returning starters from last year’s team that nearly beat 3-seed Arkansas last year as a 14 seed. They’re blazing hot, having won 19 of their last 20, and they have a balanced scoring attack; they average 76.1 points a game and 17.2 assists a game, collectively shoot over 40 percent from three, and have four players who’ve hit at least 55 from behind the arc. Curiously, though, they collectively shoot under 70 percent from the line–something that will hurt them in crunch time, as when they gave up a 17-point lead in the aforementioned 2021 upset bid.
4 Providence vs 13 South Dakota State
The Providence Friars are another team that well exceeded preseason expectations, finishing the regular season 25-1 in the Big East and personifying the approach of Ed Cooley, one of the best coaches in the country. They’re a methodical, smart, experienced, tenacious squad that’s excelled in close games–they’re 12-2 in games that have been decided by five points or less or gone to overtime–and relies heavily on interior scoring and rebounding.
The South Dakota State Jackrabbits score 86.7 points a game, move the ball and run the floor, and collectively shoot 44.9 percent from behind the arc. They really struggle on defense, though, and are middling on the boards. This is a classic battle of tempos, and it’ll come down to whether the Jackrabbits can play like their moniker or the Friars can slow it down and limit second chances.
5 Iowa vs 12 Richmond
The Iowa Hawkeyes are a tough team that’s won 12 of their last 14 and beat Purdue to win the Big Ten Tournament. They rank 5th in the nation with 83.8 points a game and 26th with 16.1 assists, and they have its 4th leading scorer in 6’8″ sophomore Keegan Murray, who puts up 23.6 a game and hits 40.5 percent of his threes–and broke the Big Ten Tournament scoring record, set just a year ago, beating it by 11 points. The Hawkeyes can struggle on defense, unfortunately; and despite having decent size as a team, they can get beat up on the boards. Still, they’re a threat to make a deep run if they stay hot.
The Richmond Spiders have gotten hot at the right time, edging out Davidson to win the Atlantic 10 Tournament and beating VCU and Dayton along the way. Nobody jumps out as a leading scorer, but they have a few who average 12.9 or more and are never out of a game. Unfortunately, they’ve proven this last point by being 15 points down in two of their conference tournament wins–and the Hawkeyes might not let them off the hook if they spot them a couple of touchdowns.
6 LSU vs 11 Iowa State
The LSU Tigers went 15-1 to start the season, then came back to earth as turnovers and shooting woes came to haunt them; they’ve settled in as a solid, athletic, defensively oriented team that can hang with anyone. They lost coach Will Wade on the brink of the tournament, in the wake of alleged recruitment violations; this will be a tough adjustment for a young team without much tournament experience.
The Iowa State Cyclones have lost 3 in a row and 7 of their last 11, and their offense can struggle at times. But they’ve got a game-changing player in Penn State transfer Izaiah Brockington, a 6’4″ senior guard who puts up 17.2 points and 7.1 rebounds a game. They’ll need him to have a big game if they’re going to get by the Tigers.
7 USC vs 10 Miami
The USC Trojans went 26-7 in the Pac 12, and had a great regular season…but they’ve had a decidedly questionable March. Since the month began, they’ve lost 91-71 to Arizona, lost twice to UCLA, and turned it over a ton while inching past a 17-15 Washington team in their conference quarterfinals. They’ve got a ton of size, they can mash on the boards, and 6’10” junior Isaiah Mobley can do it all; but they’re not long on outside shooting, and they’re one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the draw.
The Miami Hurricanes went 23-10 in an ACC that was weaker than usual, though ending the regular season on an 18-6 run shows they’re not to be taken lightly. They can score with most teams, but the problem is that it seems like most teams can score on them; that, along with the fact that they’re undersized and struggle on the boards, could spell trouble.
8 San Diego State vs 9 Creighton
The San Diego State Aztecs are, as usual, a tough team that relies on defense and rebounding. They struggle to score, and they’ve been beaten soundly by Michigan and USC; but they beat Saint Mary’s by 10, and to advance they’ll need to slow the game down. They’ll also probably need their top scorer–6’4″ senior guard Matt Bradley, averaging 17 points a game with 5.4 boards and 41.6 percent from three–to take over.
The Creighton Blue Jays lost everyone from last year’s team that made the round of 16–then lost Big East Freshman of the Year Jay Nembhard to a February wrist injury–and managed to scrap their way into the tournament on the strength of defense and length. Their first round opponent plays a similar style, which means this game should be a real mosh.
Pick: San Diego State
Best player you might not have heard of? Izaiah Brockington
Bracket sleepers? Colgate, Richmond, & San Diego State
Final Four? Kansas