My favorite four days of the year are almost here. The opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The field of 68 was set yesterday and now we are on the eve of the (don’t call them the) play in games before the rest of the tournament gets ramped up. As always, there was some controversy with the seeding and some of the teams who did or did not get in but the bubble was very weak and the teams at the end of it just weren’t that good. They could have gone in a different direction and I think NC St was the biggest omission but I am also okaywith them not being in as well. I also think this is a very “chalk” tournament. I don’t see a lot of upsets this year and feel the higher seeds are just way better than the rest of the bracket. There isn’t a lot of separation among those 4-13 seeds, so we may see a few upsets there but I don’t think we see some big runs from double digit seeds this year, like we have seen recently.

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Let’s start off in the East, where the #1 overall seed Duke Blue Devils are the largest favorite to win the title since the 2014-2015 Kentucky Wildcats team that went into the tournament undefeated. Duke faces some potential roadblocks in this bracket. Their second game will be against a good defensive team. VCU is 6th in the country in defensive efficiency and UCF is 36th. UCF also features 7’6” Taco Fall, who obviously could cause a lot of issues with his size. If things play out where the top seeds advance and Duke gets into the second weekend, they would play Virginia Tech, a team that beat them just a few weeks ago in Blacksburg. When Duke lost to them, they did not have Zion Williamson but VT also didn’t have their best player, Justin Robinson, who will be back for the tournament it sounds like. You would figure that he and the Hokies would be at their most vulnerable in their first 2 games as he is trying to get into game shape and they re-adjust with him in the lineup (he has been out since the end of January). If they get to the sweet 16, they should be in good shape and they could definitely cause Duke issues. On the bottom half of the bracket, Michigan St looms. They probably shouldn’t have been paired with Duke but the committee cited geography as the reason they are there. Michigan St is very good and has been a top 5 KenPom team for most of the year, despite having a lot of injuries. They are getting healthier now and pose a real threat. Still, despite some of the tougher teams they have to deal with, Duke gets out of this region imo. They have holes in their team and they could get knocked out if they have a bad shooting day (which they will) but they also have Zion and Barrett to mask any of those issues. It also sounds like they will get Marques Bolden back and he is very important for them. You know Izzo wants to beat Duke badly though. He has a 1-11 record vs Coach K. If you are looking for any upsets, the one that jumped out to me is Yale over LSU. LSU is a very athletic, solid team that had a great season. However, their head coach, Will Wade, has been suspended and I question if that will be a distraction for them (they did lose their first game of the SEC tournament). Add to that the idea that Yale can score. They are a respectable 44th in offensive efficiency and LSU is just 62nd in defensive efficiency. MD fans are dreaming of playing Duke in the Elite 8, in DC but I think they lose their first game, whether it is to Temple or Belmont. I think Belmont wins that game, but Temple has good guard play and are capable of beating anyone. Still, Belmont is just a really good basketball team. They do a lot of things well, including leading the nation in assists. I will say this though, if MD gets by their first game, watch out for them. I think they would beat Yale or LSU and they wouldn’t be intimidated playing Michigan St, if MSU even gets there. (the Pitino Bowl winner could pose them some issues). MD would be my sleeper pick in this bracket. If you are betting man, take Yale +8 and Liberty at +7.5 and under 127 in the VCU/UCF game.

Moving to the West Region, we see the Bulldogs of Gonzaga as the #1 seed. Some didn’t feel that they deserved to be a 1 seed since they lost to St Mary’s but they were the only team to beat Duke when Duke was at full strength. They were the best offensive team in the country and saw their defense greatly improve. They have multiple pros on their roster and they got Killian Tillie back, who is a stretch 4 that will really help them. He has been hurt for a lot of this year and its huge that he is back. It won’t be easy for them though. I feel they play Syracuse in the second round. Syracuse needs Tyus Battle back but it sounds like that will happen. They are always a tough team to play, especially with just a day to prepare, since they play a zone defense so few teams play. They did play Washington this year though and Washington plays the same zone. Their head coach, Mike Hopkins, was an assistant under Boeheim for many years, so they know how to attack it. The Zags are also a good shooting team and have a skilled big man in Hachimura that they can put in the middle of the zone and attack it down low. This side of the bracket has perhaps the most fun round 1 matchup with Ja Morant and Murray St going against Markus Howard and Marquette. These are 2 of the best scorers in the country and they could each go for 40 in any given night. Florida St also looms for the Zags. They are big, athletic and can come at you with 10-12 players. They went to the E8 last year and just had a streak snapped, by Duke, of 14 straight wins. They beat up on Virginia in the ACC tournament and have played great down the stretch. On the other side of the bracket, the thing that jumps out to me is that you have 2 of the 3 best defensive teams in the country as the 2 and 3 seeds, Michigan and Texas Tech. The problem I see with those guys is that they sometimes struggle to score. They also both face some potentially very tough second games with TT potentially playing a very good Buffalo team and Michigan playing a Nevada team that struggled down the stretch but one that got to the E8 last year and can really score. Also, Florida is an excellent defensive team and has played well down the stretch, so they could be dangerous as well. Ultimately, I think we see Michigan coming out of this bracket. Beilein is a great coach, especially in the tournament, they have the best defense in the country and while they do struggle to score at times, they are still an efficient offense (currently ranked 18th in KenPom). I don’t really see any upsets in this bracket. I think it will mostly be chalk. The best chance for one early will be Murray St over Marquette. I think Morant and Howard will basically cancel each other out and that Marquette has more talent after those guys for them to win a close game. Still, when you have a player as good as Morant, he could carry the team for multiple games, not just one. Games I could see betting on would be over 149.5 in that game, Syracuse -2 and Florida +3.

In the South region, Virginia is the 1 seed. With the weight of last year’s debacle against UMBC still hanging over their heads, this is a redemption type tournament for them this season and I think they roll through this bracket. I think they got the easiest draw. The top half of the bracket sees them playing a mediocre major conference team in their second game and, if seeds play out, the winner of KState and Wisconsin. KState had a big tournament last year, getting to the E8 but those teams struggle to score and that’s not a good formula for any team playing UVA. They both can play defense in their own right and UVA could have issues scoring themselves but I think they find a way to get by those teams rather easily. They are easily the top team in KenPom and I think they prove it this year. This seems like a bracket where the 1 and 2 seeds both got favorable draws. Tennessee should coast into the sweet 16 where they probably play the winner of Purdue and Villanova. Both of those teams have been up and down this year and they both can pose some problems. Purdue is 10th in KenPom (Tenn is 8th) and they are 5th in offense. Tennessee is a good defensive team but not a great one, so maybe Purdue could outscore them. Nova is also a top 20 offense but their defense is only 73rd, so that is an issue for them against any team they play. I think Tennessee ultimately plays Purdue and they have too much talent and experience for Purdue.  My biggest issue with Tennessee is that Rick Barnes is their head coach.  He couldn’t coach a team, led by Kevin Durant, to the second weekend of the tournament.  I am taking UVA to win this region. I think Tennessee’s good but not great defense will catch up to them against a very efficient UVA offense. If you are looking for an upset, both the 5/12 and 4/13 games could be a place to look. KSTate is offensively challenged and needs their defense to bail them out often. On top of that, Dean Wade, arguably their best player, has a foot injury and may miss the game. UC Irvine won 28 games this year. They beat St Mary’s and Texas A&M this year. Wisconsin plays Oregon, a team that is playing well down the stretch and is a pretty good defensive team. Wisconsin isn’t a great offensive team, so an upset here is very possible. Obviously, Oregon coming from a major conference, won’t be intimidated either. If you are betting, take the under 111.5 in that Wisconsin game, UC Irvine +5.5, under 138 in Cincinnati/Iowa.

In the Midwest Region, UNC got the other #1 seed, giving the ACC 3 #1 seeds. This was the right decision by the committee and I think that ended up being the case when Kentucky lost in the semi finals of the SEC tournament. UNC has the toughest region. Their second-round game will be very tough. Utah St is known as an excellent passing team. They are 34th in KenPom and top 45 in both offense and defense. Washington, as I mentioned before, plays the Syracuse zone and they are 20th in defensive efficiency in the country and they have one of the best defensive players in the country in Matisse Thybule. UNC obviously knows the Syracuse zone, so if they beat Utah St, the idea of it being tough to prepare for will be less of a challenge for them. I think Utah St wins that game though and they could make the game against UNC very interesting. UNC also has the toughest 4 and 5 seeds. Auburn and Kansas can play with anyone. Auburn has really been playing well lately and is coming off a 20-point win vs Tennessee in the SEC tournament final. Either of these teams pose a real issue for UNC, especially since they could be playing Kansas in Kansas City, which is absurd. However, there are a lot of people that think Kansas could lose to Northeastern, so they have to get past them before we even start thinking about them playing UNC in Kansas City. The bottom half of the bracket is loaded as well. Kentucky is the #2 seed and they have been playing very good basketball over the last month. T hey are obviously very young but they are really talented. They are 7th in KenPom and are top 15 in both offense and defense. You also see a very solid Houston team as the 3 seed. Houston is 15th in KenPom and have the 13th best defense (as well as a respectable top 25 offense). To me, the real scary team here is Iowa St. They play position less basketball and can really score. They are top 10 in KenPom in offense although the defense is just 59th. Still, despite the tough region, I think UNC makes it out. I think they are too smart, too experienced and have all the things you want/need to win. I think their combination of rebounding, shooting and good guard play will carry them. In terms of an upset, I am taking Iowa St to the Elite 8. Also, watch out for Wofford. I don’t think they beat Kentucky but they are a great offensive team and can play with anyone. They haven’t lost since before Christmas and have 2 great shooters. Their guards shoot about 90% from the FT line and both also shoot great from 3, led by Fletcher McGee who is about to set the record for most 3s ever in an NCAA career. But if it’s a close game late, with their shooting upside, that could be a scary proposition for Kentucky. I don’t see any other upsets in this region. For betting purposes, take Northeastern +8.5, Iowa St -6.5, UNC/Iona over 166 and Utah St/UW under 135.

So, I have a very chalk final 4 with Duke, Michigan, UVA and UNC. I feel that UVA, UNC and Duke are the 3 best teams. Michigan is someone I am shaky about but they have had a lot of record tournament success and have that great defense. I like some of their matchups as well. In the finals, I am taking UVA vs Duke and I am picking UVA to beat them. Duke has beaten UVA twice, including beating them without Tre Jones but I think Virginia will do enough to them defensively to find a way to win. I think this is the game that Duke’s 3-point shooting catches up to them. They actually lit it up from 3 against Virginia earlier this year but that is far from the norm for this Duke team. Duke has the most upside and their best is better than everyone else but if they just have a B game against UVA, they lose. Should be an exciting tournament, so kick back, eat some good food, drink some beers and enjoy the basketball.

Rob Shields
Rob Shields

Rob has interviewed guests from outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, CBS Sports, FOX Sports, Baseball Prospectus, Athlon, Sporting News, MLB Network, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Info Solutions, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Sports on Earth, Grantland, NFL Network, FanGraphs, Football Outsiders, ProFootballFocus, etc. etc. The Baltimore native lives in Perry Hall with his Wife Lindsay, and two young sons. He has appeared as a guest on 105.7 The Fan, Q1370, and WNST 1570. Co-Host of The Warehouse: https://anchor.fm/the-warehouse Co-Host of Sports Tonight: https://anchor.fm/sports-tonight

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