2024 NCAA Tournament Preview, Predictions & more

Cam Spencer
The addition of sharpshooting guard Cam Spencer helped UConn earn the top overall seed in the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

As the 2024 NCAA Tournament unfolds, remember that each team, laden with its own tales of triumphs and tribulations, seeks the ultimate glory. Connecticut may seem like destiny’s chosen, but in a competition brimming with heart, hustle, and sheer unpredictability, anything can transpire. We bear witness to a cavalcade of hoops heroism set to unravel; every pass, pivot, and shot etching itself into the annals of March Madness lore. So set your brackets, hold your breaths, and revel in the spectacle that captures imaginations and ignites passions like none other.

Though we embrace the madness, deep inside, we believe that everything happens for a reason, and there exists an underneath logic.  With that said, we’ll take a look at how this tourney should/could play out.  

Connecticut’s Command: Dominating the East Region Once Again

In a dazzling display of skill and strategy, the Connecticut Huskies have emerged not just as the titans of the East Region but also as the top-dogs of the upcoming NCAA Tournament — for the second consecutive year. Despite waving goodbye to three key players who went pro, this year’s crew might just eclipse their predecessors. Coach Dan Hurley played a masterstroke by injecting fresh blood into the team with Rutgers transfer Cam Spencer — a paragon of efficiency — and freshman phenom Stephon Castle, who is turning heads as the squad’s most promising pro prospect. The returning Huskies didn’t rest on their laurels; rather, they’ve taken it up several notches. Tristen Newton, a guard with an arsenal that ranges from deep threes to smooth layups, ensures the offensive gears are always in motion. Alex Karaban with his ever-churning presence and sharpshooting, alongside the towering Donovan Clingan, a potential lottery pick, rounds off a fearsome starting five.  Combine that unit with veteran reserves Samson Johnson and Hassan Diarra plus an untapped group of promising freshmen, and the Huskies pack more depth than the Marianas Trench.  It’s no fluke that UConn boasts the 11th spot in adjusted defensive efficiency and claims the throne for offensive efficiency, as per analytics guru Ken Pomeroy. The Huskies’ dominant 31-3 season wasn’t ignored by the selection committee, which handed them the top seed — only to put them in the most formidable region. Nonetheless, Connecticut’s magnificence shines through; they’re primed to slice through the competition and dance all the way to the finals.

Dialing in on the Formidable Foes: Threats Looming for UConn

Despite Connecticut’s prowess, the road to victory is lined with threats, casting shadows over what appears to be a preordained path. The Auburn Tigers, led by the wily Bruce Pearl, are hitting their stride at just the right time. Following a triumphant SEC tournament final, they’ve revealed themselves as a well-oiled machine poised to deliver both on offense and defense — a duality rare enough to pose a significant risk to anyone, including the top seeds.  The Tigers boast a 15.7 margin of victory heading into the first round.

Iowa State, another behemoth in the East, could derail many a fan’s bracket with its ball-hawking defense, so devastatingly effective at conjuring turnovers. Yet, their success hinges on the leniency of officiating — a variable that could very well see them falter if tighter whistles prevail.

The threats don’t stop there.  The East features two Final Four teams from last year in Florida Atlantic and San Diego State, plus Illinois, the reigning Big Ten Champs.  The Fighting Illini feature explosive guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who has scored at least 23 points in ten of his last 12 games, including a 40-point effort vs. Nebraska in the Big Ten Tourney.  

Tucked within the region lies a dark horse: Washington State. While far from a traditional Cinderella, their unexpected advance would certainly send ripples throughout the hardwood tale. With balanced play and seamless ball movement, they’re a side no one should underestimate.

South, West, and Midwest: Glancing Across the Tournament Landscape

Beyond the East, the tournament tapestry weaves intriguing narratives in each region. Houston stands tall in the South, despite last year’s stumble, reliant on the leadership of Jamal Shead and the hope that LJ Cryer and Emanuel Sharp can deliver a strong supporting act consistently.  Injuries to key backups Terrance Arceneaux, Ramon Walker, and Joseph Tugler have cut the Cougars’ rotation down to seven. The team is especially thin in the frontcourt, and with undersized center J’wan Roberts hobbled with a shin injury in the Big 12 Final, Houston suffered an embarrassing 69-41 loss to Iowa State.  

The Kentucky Wildcats are a looming threat, ready to pounce if the Cougars should falter in the South.  There is little doubt that UK has the most collective talent and potential in the nation; however, the team also features youth and inexperience. Led by Reed Sheppard’s dazzling 3-point precision, Rob Dillingham’s game-changing speed, and Antonio Reeves’ 3-level scoring, Kentucky can put up points in a hurry (89.4 PPG), but the young Wildcats can struggle on the defensive end.

Marquette is a wildcard in the South.  For much of the season, the Golden Eagles were considered a top-10 team, but injuries to center Oso Ighodaro (knee, expected to play) and point guard Tyler Kolek (oblique, expected to play) hampered the team down the stretch (3-3 in last six games).  

Venture westward and encounter North Carolina, armored with RJ Davis’ stellar playmaking and shotmaking and Armando Bacot’s commanding presence in the paint. However, Arizona, led by Pac-12 Player of the Year, Caleb Love, and Alabama‘s high-octane system could challenge the Tar Heels’ supremacy in the region.  Interestingly, an Arizona-UNC matchup would reignite the rumored Davis-Love feud that apparently contributed to the Tar Heels’ collapse last season.     

The Midwest sings tales of redemption for Purdue and their colossus, Zach Edey, seeking to erase the memories of yesteryear’s upset with newfound confidence. Thanks to increased experience, improved 3-point shooting, and the addition of veteran guard Lance Jones, the Boilermakers appear better prepared to make a long run in the tournament, but the team is still vulnerable to full-court pressure applied by athletic defenses. Tennessee also appears ready to make a deeper run this year, thanks to the addition of scoring machine Dalton Knecht.  Even so, Coach Rick Barnes has yet to find a way to avoid the occasional offensive letdown.  Purdue and Tennessee met in Maui in November, and the Boilers prevailed, 71-67.  

Another team that participated in Maui and also happens to be in the Midwest region is Kansas.  The Jayhawks were the preseason number-one team according to the AP and Coaches polls, but they hardly look like that now.  A lack of depth has limited this team all season, and to make matters worse, star wing Kevin McCullar (knee) will miss the 2024 NCAA Tournament.  Additionally, center Hunter Dickinson is going to play with a shoulder injury (separation) suffered in the Big 12 Tournament.  The Jayhawks have lost four of their last five games, and appear to be a prime candidate to be an upset victim (vs. Samford).  

Analytic Cheat Sheet

Our stats guru Rich Harris has put together an analytic cheat sheet that you can download below.  Some interesting stats to look at are the margin of victory adjusted by strength of schedule (SOS Adj MOV) and the upset index (UPI), which emphasizes certain stats that have been important in past tournaments, such as foul shooting.  The cheat sheet also features the current power rankings for Sports Reference, KenPom, and the NET.  Stats highlighted in green are the very best among the group, while stats highlighted in orange are the worst among the group.  

HP’s 2024 March Madness Cheat Sheet:

Potential First-round Upsets To Watch For

Thursday, March 21 (Round of 64)

Friday, March 22 (Round of 64)

Players to Watch

Top Draft ProspectsPOSTeamClass
Kylan BoswellPGArizonaSO
Ja’Kobe WalterWBaylorFR
Yves MissiCBaylorFR
Cody WilliamsWColoradoFR
Donovan ClinganCConnecticutSO
Stephon CastleCGConnecticutFR
Jared McCainCGDukeFR
Kyle FilipowskiPFDukeSO
Terrence ShannonWIllinoisSR*
Justin EdwardsSFKentuckyFR
Reed SheppardCGKentuckyFR
Rob DillinghamPGKentuckyFR
Dalton KnechtSFTennesseeSR*
Dillon MitchellFTexasSO
The StarsPOSTeamClass
Mark SearsPGAlabamaSR
Caleb LoveCGArizonaSR
Johni BroomeCAuburnSR
RayJ DennisPGBaylorSR*
PJ HallPFClemsonSR
KJ SimpsonCGColoradoJR
Tristan da SilvaFColoradoSR
Isaiah StevensPGColorado StateSR*
Tristen NewtonCGConnecticutSR*
Baylor ScheiermanWCreightonSR*
Ryan KalkbrennerCCreightonSR
Trey AlexanderSGCreightonJR
DaRon HolmesPFDaytonJR
Johnell DavisSGFlorida AtlanticSR
Graham IkePFGonzagaJR
Jamal SheadPGHoustonSR
Coleman HawkinsPFIllinoisSR
Marcus DomaskCGIllinoisSR*
Tamin LipseyPGIowa StateSO
Hunter DickinsonCKansasSR
Antonio ReevesWKentuckySR*
Kam JonesCGMarquetteJR
Oso IghodaroPFMarquetteJR
Tyler KolekPGMarquetteSR
Tyson WalkerPGMichigan StateSR*
Jaelen HousePGNew MexicoSR*
Armando BacotCNorth CarolinaSR*
Harrison IngramSFNorth CarolinaJR
RJ DavisPGNorth CarolinaSR
Boo BuiePGNorthwesternSR*
Braden SmithPGPurdueSO
Zach EdeyCPurdueSR
Jaedon LeDeePFSan Diego StateSR*
Dylan DisuPFTexasSR*
Max AbmasPGTexasSR*
Wade TaylorPGTexas A&MJR
Great OsoborPFUtah StateJR
AJ StorrWWisconsinSO
Hidden GemsPOSTeamClass
Enrique FreemanPFAkronSR*
Jaylin WilliamsPFAuburnSR*
Aly KhalifaPFBYUJR
Jaxson RobinsonWBYUSR
Nique CliffordWColorado StateSR
Koby BreaWDaytonSR
Tucker DeVriesWDrakeJR
Tyrese SamuelPFFloridaSR*
Walter ClaytonCGFloridaJR
Tyon Grant-FosterWGrand CanyonSR*
Keshon GilbertCGIowa StateJR
Milan MomcilovicFIowa StateFR
Terrence EdwardsWJames MadisonSR
Ugonna OnyensoCKentuckySO
Zvonimir IvisicCKentuckyFR
Shahada WellsCGMcNeeseSR*
Cameron MatthewsFMississippi StateSR
Josh HubbardPGMississippi StateFR
Keisei TominagaSGNebraskaSR*
Jarod LucasSGNevadaSR*
Donovan DentPGNew MexicoSO
JT ToppinPFNew MexicoFR
Brooks BarnhizerWNorthwesternJR
Jackson ShelstadPGOregonFR
N’Faly DanteCOregonSR
Achor AchorPFSamfordSR
Emanuel MillerFTCUSR*
Pop IsaacsPGTexas TechSO
Jaylen WellsSFWashington StateJR
Myles RiceCGWashington StateFR
Danny WolfCYaleSO

The Experts’ Picks

The latest episode of the Hoops Prospects Podcast featured game-by-game analysis, with the hosts picking a collective bracket, which surprisingly featured a high number of upset picks.  Below, you can download the HPP Collective Bracket, and also listed are each host’s individual picks for an in-show contest — and my picks as well.  

HPP Bracket Contest Points:  

  • All correct Final Four Picks = 25
  • Correct Runner-up Pick = 25
  • Correct Champion = 50
  • Sleepers (an eight seed or higher) = the team’s seed multiplied by their number of wins
HostChampionRunner-upFinal FourFinal FourSleeperSleeper 2
Josh SimonUConnPurdueMarquetteSaint Mary’sDrakeSamford
Caleb SlatonUConnKentuckyBaylorTennesseeSamford Colorado                        
Cam RiehlTennesseeUConnKentuckyUNCSamfordDrake
Drew BartonUNCTennesseeUConnKentuckyColoradoNevada
Rich HarrisUConnKentuckyUNCTennesseeColoradoGCU
Cliff DixonDukeUConnBaylorOregonOregonJMU
HPP CollectiveTennesseeUConnUNCKentuckySamfordGCU


Can Connecticut maintain their statistical dominance throughout the tournament?

While their season has been impressive, the shifting dynamics and pressures of the tournament are distinct challenges that will test their resolve. Yet, given the deep talent pool and strategic ingenuity, they’re positioned favorably to keep thriving.

What makes Auburn a particularly dangerous foe for UConn?

Auburn’s balance of efficient offense and stringent defense, coupled with a well-spread scoring load and unyielding teamwork, equips them with the type of holistic capability that can unsettle any opponent, including the seeming invincibility of UConn.

Are there any underrated teams that could surprise us during the tournament?

Absolutely. Teams like James Madison and Dayton enter the fray with unique styles and standout performers capable of causing seismic upsets. Keep an eye on lower-seeded teams that have fostered winning streaks and cohesive play; they often harbor the potential to craft true Cinderella stories.