For many sports fans, March signifies the beginning of an unpredictable postseason of college hoops. Hours of research will be spent on what team to pick only to result in a busted bracket and loss of money. That’s where we step in. Richard Harris and I have taken the liberty of divvying up the teams into four groups: High seeds (1-4) that will make an early exit, surprise Final Four teams (seeded 5th or lower), surprise Sweet Sixteen teams (seeded 8th or lower) and Cinderella teams (seeded 12th or lower) that can pull off a big upset in the first round. With that said, I present our first annual March Madness Cheat Sheet.
High seeds (1-4) likely to make an early exit
If I told you that the Kansas Jayhawks would be a four seed back in October, you’d call me crazy. The Jayhawks were ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll back in October 2018 and were poised for another dominant season.
Freshman guard Quentin Grimes, ranked No. 8 in ESPN’s Top 100 of the 2018 high school class, and five-star freshman guard Devon Dotson joined senior guard Lagerald Vick, junior transfer forward Dedric Lawson and junior center Udoka Azubuike to form a powerhouse team in the Big 12.
Since then, Kansas (25-9) has fallen out of the top 10 in the AP Poll and lost crucial pieces to its rotation. Azubuike was lost for the season in January due to a ligament tear in his right hand, and Vick left the team in early February. In addition, sophomore forward/center Silvio De Sousa was ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
The diminished Jayhawks have relied heavily on Lawson – 19.1 points per game (PPG) and 10.3 rebounds per game (RPG). The speedy Dotson has also played a huge role as the team’s floor general. He’s averaging 12.1 PPG and 3.6 assists per game (APG) on 47.9 percent from the floor and 37 percent from deep. Grimes, however, has been disappointing and will need to step up for the Jayhawks to make a long run in the tourney. On the season, he’s averaging 8.3 (PPG), 2.0 (APG) on 38.6 percent from the field and 34.5 percent from behind the three-point line.
Kansas is slated to face Northeastern (23-10) on Thursday in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Jayhawks have struggled away from home, but Kansas has the talent to outplay Northeastern, even with a depleted roster. A round-of-32 matchup with the Auburn Tigers will likely be the end to Kansas’ season, though. The Tigers are coming off a dominant SEC Tournament win over the Tennessee Volunteers. Junior guard Jared Harper and senior guard Bryce Brown lead a high-powered Auburn team that focuses heavily on the three-point shot.
Richard Harris’ comments: I agree that Auburn ends KU’s season. Auburn has an attack similar to Iowa State’s, and the Cyclones gave the Jayhawks fits this season, winning two of three. I think LSU is headed for an early exit (see Brendan’s thoughts on Yale) as well, but I believe the Kansas State Wildcats are the top-four seed most likely to not make it to the Sweet 16.
KSU’s top player, Dean Wade, has not been 100 percent all season due to multiple foot injuries, and his status for the tournament remains unclear. The Wildcats were able to make the Elite Eight last year with Wade limited to a total of eight minutes due a broken foot, but I doubt that they will be as fortunate this year.
With Wade in and out of the lineup this season, the Wildcats ranked 250th in DI for points per possession (PPP) this season, and they have not shot well from the 3-point line (35 percent) and the foul line (69.7 percent). Kansas State’s first two games will be against two excellent defensive teams in terms of points per possession allowed (PPPA): UC Irvine (ranked 14th for PPPA) and then either Wisconsin (10th) or Oregon (28th). If Wade doesn’t play in the first round vs. the Anteaters, who have won 16 straight and might have a home-court advantage playing in San Jose, K-State might not make it to the weekend.
Surprise teams (seeded 5th or lower) that could make the Final Four
Following an upset-win over Houston to capture the American Athletic Conference championship, the Cincinnati Bearcats (28-6) were vastly underrated as a seven seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, they have to be happy that their first two games will be in the state of Ohio.
The Bearcats play a slow style of basketball, as they rank in the bottom 20 teams in the nation in terms of pace, and allow only 62.2 PPG. Their slow style of play will cause havoc for fast-paced teams.
The slow, methodical basketball has its downside, however. The Bearcats average just 71.7 PPG (176th in the nation). In addition, Cincinnati heavily relies on junior guard Jarron Cumberland, who’s averaging 18.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 3.6 APG on 40 percent shooting from the floor and 39 percent from distance. He makes up for about 25 percent of all Cincinnati’s scoring.
Despite the scoring worries, Cincinnati lost just one game this season to a non-NCAA Tournament team (a 2-point loss at East Carolina) and had dominant wins over teams such as Ole Miss, UCLA, and Houston. The Bearcats go against No. 10 Iowa in the Round of 64 and will look to take advantage of a struggling Hawkeyes squad that has lost five of its last six games and has allowed 73.6 PPG on the season.
If the Bearcats make it to the Round of 32, they will likely face off against the No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers – quite the challenge for Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin’s squad. That said, however, the Bearcats are better than their seven seed says and should have the crowd on their side.
The high-powered offense of the Volunteers will be a handful for Cronin, but if he can will his team past this round, he can find himself beating teams such as No. 3 Purdue and No. 1 Virginia to make his way to the Final Four.
Richard Harris’ Comments: I actually feel that the West Region is the one most likely to implode, and either Buffalo or Nevada could sneak into the Final Four. I also think that Auburn has a reasonable shot, if the Tigers can remain hot from deep. However, in November, I tabbed the Iowa State Cyclones as the top sleeper team to make noise in March, and I will stick with them.
The Cyclones have had their ups and downs this season, but they appear to be peaking at the right time, winning the Big 12 Tournament, including a convincing victory over Kansas. The Cyclones are not a big team, but they have a number of very good ball handlers and passers, including guard Lindell Wigginton, the best sixth man in the nation in my opinion. Iowa State is versatile and efficient offensively, doesn’t turn the ball over, and shoots well from both the 3-point line and the free-throw line, and the roster features three players who can score 20-plus points on a given night in Wigginton (13.5 PPG), wing Marial Shayok (18.6 PPG), and forward Talen Horton-Tucker (12.1 PPG).
The path to the Final Four in the Midwest Region will not be an easy one for the Cyclones, starting with Houston in the second round, but if they can make it to the Sweet 16, you can count on Iowa State fans packing the arena in Kansas City.
Surprise teams (seeded 8th or lower) that could make the Sweet Sixteen
Bill Walton loves the Oregon Ducks (23-12) more than any other team in the world. I have a suspicion that if he had a say in the selection committee, he would have Oregon as a No. 1 seed.
The Ducks don’t deserve that much praise, but they should be recognized for their recent play, especially with star center Bol Bol out for the season. They finished the season 23-12, but more importantly, they are on an eight-game win streak.
Oregon has a potent defense, as its opponents were held to just 62.9 PPG on 40.2 percent from the field (ranked 17 in the nation) and 29.4 percent from three-point land (ranked 10 in the nation). The Ducks’ roster consists of a multitude of talented players that uplifted each other when Bol went down in mid-December. Five-star freshman forward Louis King, junior guard Payton Pritchard and redshirt senior forward Paul White all average double digits points.
Pritchard has been phenomenal as of late, leading Oregon to upset Washington in the PAC-12 tournament championship. He averaged 16.3 PPG and 5.5 APG on 49.1 percent shooting from the field through four games in the tournament, and has displayed a level of leadership seen among the best college point guards.
The Ducks face off against the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers in the first round of play. Both teams have a defensive playstyle, but the Ducks’ depth, recent success and leadership from Pritchard should lead them to upset over the No. 5 seed.
Oregon would then match up with the winner of Kansas State and UC Irvine. Kansas State, although a potential Final Four team itself, has dealt with injury to senior forward Dean Wade all year. Even if he suits up, he may be playing hurt. He played in the last regular season game of the season and scored 11 points on 5-14 shooting from the field and 1-7 from three. He then sat the past two games – both in the Big 12 tournament.
If Oregon can play at the top of its game and meet Kansas State with a injured Wade, we could see the 12-seeded Ducks make a run to the Sweet Sixteen.
Richard Harris’ Comments: I totally agree with Brendan that Oregon is the most likely team seeded 8th or lower to get to the Sweet Sixteen. Wisconsin is not shooting well lately, and K-State will be in trouble with Wade at less than 100 percent. I also think St. Mary’s has a shot against a Villanova team that has a number of bad losses this season, and then against Purdue that relies heavily on one player (Carsen Edwards). More than St. Mary’s, however, I like the winner of First Four matchup between the Belmont Bruins and the Temple Owls to make it to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Belmont-Temple winner has a great path to the Sweet Sixteen. The first-round matchup will be against a young, turnover-prone Maryland squad that has dropped three of its last four games. After that, the opponent will be another young squad with its own set of troubles (LSU – see below) or Yale.
Led by Dylan Windler, a sharpshooting wing who ranks 78th on current draft board, Belmont appears to have a slight edge over Temple, assuming that freshman center Nick Muszynski is healthy. Muszynski, who joined Windler on the All-OVC first team, did not play in conference championship game due to an ankle sprain, but he is reportedly ready to go.
Low seeds (12th or lower) most likely to be this year’s Cinderella
The Yale Bulldogs (22-7) are no stranger to upsetting big-name schools in the first round. The No. 12 Bulldogs upset the No. 5 Baylor Bears in 2016. Former Yale standout guard Makai Mason recorded a career-high 31 points on 50 percent shooting and a perfect 11-11 from the charity stripe in the contest.
This year, Mason isn’t there to save the day (he plays for Baylor now), but Ivy League player of the year guard Miye Oni (74th on our draft board) will be leading the charge. He’s averaging 17.6 PPG on 45.5 percent shooting and 39 percent from behind the three-point line.
Along with Oni, the Bulldogs have four other scorers in the rotation. Senior guard Alex Copeland (13.8 PPG), senior forward Blake Reynolds (11.4 PPG), junior forward Jordan Bruner (10.2 PPG) and sophomore forward Paul Atkinson (9.1 PPG) are all key contributors to this veteran Yale squad.
The Bulldogs play the LSU Tigers in the first round of the tournament, and they are meeting them at just the right time due to the recent pay-to-play scandal surrounding LSU head coach Will Wade and freshmen guard Javonte Smart. While Smart has returned to action, Wade is still sidelined and under investigation.
LSU is a young team, with four of the top six scorers being freshmen. Without Wade, the team has to rely on junior guard Skylar Mays to lead the forces past Yale. Given the Bulldogs’ history and veteran lineup, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were crowned this year’s cinderella team.
Richard Harris’ Comments: Again, I totally agree with Brendan. LSU is very talented, but Yale has an excellent chance to beat the distracted Tigers. LSU imploded down the stretch vs. Florida in the SEC Tournament without Wade in charge. There were a number of mistakes made by the youngsters, especially from point guard Tremont Waters, who is impetuous even when Wade is present. And then there was a six-point play for Florida, thanks to an ill-advised technical foul on interim coach Tony Benford.
In addition to Yale, and the aforementioned Oregon Ducks and UC Irvine Anteaters, I believe that the Murray State Racers have a great shot to pull off a major upset against Marquette. For starters, Murray State has point guard Ja Morant (ranked 3rd on our draft board), who is averaging 24.6 points and 9.9 assists per game. In a pair of close loses to Auburn and Alabama this season, Morant had a combined 63 points, 17 rebounds, and 12 assists. But perhaps more importantly, Marquette’s star guard, Markus Howard (25 PPG), is nursing a left wrist injury. Though the injury is not expected to prevent Howard from playing, the Golden Eagles have lost five of six games since he suffered the injury on February 27 vs. Villanova.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 1 Gonzaga
It’s not always that the two No. 1 seeds meet in the Final Four – take last year as an example – but Duke and Gonzaga are in relatively weaker regions and are easily the most dominant teams in their respective regions.
Earlier this year, Gonzaga beat full-strength Duke in the Maui Invitational even though the Zags were missing junior forward Killian Tillie. A rematch – this time with Tillie – should also be a close battle. The outcome will be different, though.
Duke has looked stronger than ever in its past few games with freshman phenom Zion Williamson back from injury. Williamson, freshmen forwards R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish along with freshman point guard Tre Jones are going to be too much for the Zags to handle.
The Blue Devils will move on to the championship game as head coach Mike Krzyzewski looks for his sixth national title.
No. 2 Tennessee vs. No. 1 UNC
After watching UNC beat Duke twice without Williamson and lose by one with him, I was set on picking UNC to make at least the Final Four. That said, its region is easily the toughest of the four, and it will be a strenuous hike to make it.
Regardless, UNC has been too good to as of late. The rotation, including freshman guard Coby White, senior forward Luke Maye, graduate student guard Cameron Johnson, senior guard Kenny Williams and freshman forward Nassir Little, is deep, experienced, and of course, well-coached by none other than head coach Roy Williams.
Similarly, Tennessee has the veteran talent and coaching expertise to match up with UNC. Junior forward Grant Williams leads the pack with 19 PPG and 7.6 RPG, while senior forward Admiral Schofield adds an efficient 16.2 PPG (47.6 percent from the floor, 41 percent from three). Junior guards Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden along with redshirt junior guard Lamonte Turner each chip in double-digit scoring averages on the year.
Either team can win on any given night, but UNC has the slightest edge with Coach Williams at the helm. He will be looking to add to his impressive résumé of three national championships and nine Final Four appearances.
UNC will move to face off against Duke in the rivals’ fourth meeting this season.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 1 UNC
The talk around the world and web is about Williamson and his dominance. It’s true and justified to an extent, but he is not the be-all, end-all of the college basketball world. UNC will prove that into existence this April.
In the three meetings with Duke, UNC has won twice – both without Williamson playing. However, when Williamson did play, Duke only prevailed by a single point. The outcome easily could have changed if White drained the buzzer-beating shot to win the game.
It’s likely that the ending of this game proves to be similar, but I believe UNC will come out on top this time. In the last meeting, the Tar Heels made just four of 27 shots from deep, which is unlikely to happen again. White, usually a consistent threat on offense, failed to show up. He was limited to 4-14 shooting and 0-6 from three, with only 11 points.
With a game against Williamson under their belt, the Tar Heels can gameplan better to stop the future No. 1 pick. UNC is going to find itself in a tough journey to the championship, but Williams’ team will be ready for Duke – if Krzyzewski and co. are there.
National Champion: UNC
Richard Harris’ Final Four and Championship Picks: As long as Zion Williamson remains healthy, I think that Duke should have a fairly easily time of it in the East Region. I am a little concerned about the Blue Devils’ poor 3-point shooting, but I doubt that will be an issue until the Final Four.
As I noted before, I believe the West Region could be full of upsets, and I expect Gonzaga to get a scare from the Syracuse-Baylor winner. Ultimately, however, the Zags’ firepower will be the difference in the West against the likes of Florida State, Texas Tech, and Michigan, all of whom can struggle to score.
In South Region, I believe Virginia cruises until it meets Tennessee. This not a typical Cavalier squad – these Cavs can score, and there will not be any first-round upsets because star forward De’Andre Hunter is healthy this year. The Vols will give Virginia a battle, but in the end, the Cavs will prevail because they are a better shooting team.
As I noted above, I am going with Iowa State in the loaded Midwest Region, but North Carolina and Kentucky are arguably better teams. Iowa State should benefit from a home-court advantage in Kansas City, and a little help from Auburn vs. UNC and Wofford/Seton Hall vs. UK wouldn’t hurt either. Of the two, I believe that the Tar Heels pose a bigger threat to the Cyclones.
In the Final Four, I like Duke over Gonzaga, and Virginia over Iowa State. While the Zags already have a victory under their belts vs. Duke, I feel that the lack of competition WCC did not help them get better. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils are now battle tested after playing in the tough ACC. Iowa State’s surprise run will come to an end against a veteran Virginia team that simply executes better and is significantly superior on the defensive end. And in the final, the Blue Devils, who have already beaten Virginia twice, once easily, will go three-for-three because they are physically superior at too many positions.