NCAA Tournament Bracket Picks and Analysis

SOUTH

#1 Virginia over #16 UMBC: To refresh, a 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed, and it’s not happening here to the Cavaliers, who boast the nation’s strongest overall resume by a landslide.

#8 Creighton over #9 Kansas State: We like picking standout transfer Marcus Foster’s new school over his old school. The Blue Jays also enjoy a 2.5 point efficiency advantage.

#5 Kentucky over #12 Davidson: While this is the most likely 12 over 5 upset from a probability standpoint, this is a really bad matchup for Davidson, who ranks 27th nationally in three point field goal percentage and scores 42% of its points from beyond the arc (6th highest in the country). Kentucky’s three point defense is 3rd in the nation and will likely shut this down completely.

#4 Arizona over #13 Buffalo: This won’t be a blowout but the Wildcats are far too talented to let this one slip away and have shown defensive improvement over the last month.

#11 Loyola-Chicago over #6 Miami: This is by far the most likely 11 over 6 upset from an efficiency standpoint as Miami holds just a 0.5 point advantage. The Hurricanes will be without standout guard and future pro Bruce Brown here and figure to struggle against the Rambler defense, which is ranked 25th nationally. Loyola is also a 40% three point shooting team, has a win over Florida in Gainsville and hasn’t lost since January.

#3 Tennessee over #14 Wright State: This looks like by far the least likely 14 over 3 upset, with Wright State perplexingly overseeded.

#7 Nevada over #10 Texas: Nevada holds a 2.7 point efficiency advantage over the talented but inconsistent Longhorns but should pull this out behind the strength of their ball care, as they turn the ball over on a national low 13.6% of possessions.

#2 Cincinnati over #15 Georgia State: Ron Hunter has played Cinderella before, beating Baylor as a 14 seed two years ago. Expect them to give the offensively-challenged Bearcats all they can handle here before falling just short.

 

#1 Virginia over #8 Creighton: Creighton’s 22nd ranked offense would be a challenging second round draw for most teams, but the Blue Jays don’t guard well enough to keep pace against the best defensive squad of the modern era.

#5 Arizona over #4 Kentucky: This feels more like a National Championship game than a second round game. While the analytics point towards Kentucky here, Arizona seems the safer bet based on talent, and while their defensive efficiency numbers appear to be a red flag, they’ve improved massively over the last month.

#3 Tennessee over #11 Loyola-Chicago: The dream ends here for the upset-minded Ramblers against the nation’s 4th ranked defense and SEC player of the year Grant Williams.

#2 Cincinnati over #7 Nevada: To be clear, this is not the team that Cincinnati wants to see in this spot, as the 11th ranked Nevada offense figures to make some headway against the 2nd ranked defense of the Bearcats. It’s a risky upset pick due to the toss-up nature of Nevada’s first game, but a good reason to take Cincy out in the next round from a probability standpoint.

 

#1 Virginia over #4 Arizona: This could be the last team Virginia wants to see here, as the Wildcats have them beat on talent. But despite recent improvement, a defensive ranking in the 70s is a historical eliminator for picking a team much past this point, and something tells us that the pack-line defense of the Cavaliers will find an answer for the absolute monster that is DeAndre Ayton.

#3 Tennessee over #2 Cincinnati: While Cincinnati seems to be a bit of an analytics darling, we are undersold on their entire body of work. Matching up with a team that plays equally tough defense but scores more effectively will be their undoing.

 

#1 Virginia over #3 Tennessee: It’s finally time for Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers, who ride their stout defense and surgically efficient offense past a worn down Volunteer team who would be on the heels of having to face the nation’s top two defenses.

WEST

#1 Xavier over #16 Texas Southern: This isn’t impossible, as Xavier is overseeded from an efficiency standpoint and Mike Davis has plenty of tournament experience. But again, it’s never happened before and there is a 16 vs. 1 game that we believe has even more upset potential…and aren’t predicting that one either.

#9 Florida State over #8 Missouri: We’ll play contrarian here as the rest of the nation seems to swoon over the return of Michael Porter Jr in a game that is a total toss up in terms of the math. But Missouri will be without its second leading scorer and looked out of sync in Porter’s return at the SEC tourney.

#5 Ohio State over #12 South Dakota State: This will be a trendy upset pick and one well worth avoiding. The Buckeyes have been too solid defensively all year long to succumb to the one-dimensional South Dakota State attack. Look for Big Ten Player of the Year Keita Bates-Diop to neutralize Jackrabbit superstar Mike Daum on the interior as Ohio State wins this fairly easily.

#4 Gonzaga over UNC Greensboro: Disespected no more. Gonzaga is underseeded and dangerous in this tournament, and should cruise here behind their length and experience.

#6 Houston over San Diego State: This is likely to be another tempting upset pick after the Aztecs steamrolled their way to a Mountain West tournament championship. But don’t be fooled, Houston holds a 6.4 point efficiency advantage, played second seeded Cincinnati down to the last possession in their conference tourney championship and looks underseeded here by the metrics.

#3 Michigan over #14 Montana: This is a pretty tough draw for the red hot Wolverines, who face by far the toughest 14 seed and are coming off a two week break, and as a reward for winning could face an underseeded 6 seed in the next round. We’ll give them the edge based on their ability to take care of the basketball and maximize clean possessions, while discounting their chances to advance much further as a result of the draw.

#7 Texas A&M over #10 Providence: The Friars have the look of a “wise guy” team coming off a tough effort in the Big East tournament, beating Xavier in overtime and losing to Villanova in overtime in the championship. But their efficiency numbers would seem to indicate that they would have missed the tournament if things like RPI didn’t exist (one can dream.) As it stands, at 64th overall per KenPom, they are the lowest ranked at-large team in the dance that didn’t have a play-in game, and with an offense ranked outside the top 100, could struggle to score against the Aggies’ 12th ranked defense.

#2 North Carolina over #15 Lipscomb: The defending champions deal Lipscomb, who once beat Indiana at Assembly Hall, a brutal introduction in their first tournament appearance.

 

#1 Xavier over #9 Florida State: The Musketeers appear the most vulnerable 1 seed, but still hold a 6 point efficiency advantage over a Seminole squad that has been shaky against top competition.

#4 Gonzaga over #5 Ohio State: They played this game back in November, and Gonzaga won 86-59. Have the Buckeyes closed the gap that much since then? Playing this game in Boise won’t help their chances, and the Bulldogs carry a 3.8 point advantage in efficiency.

#3 Michigan over #6 Houston: This is actually the closest of the potential 3 vs. 6 matchups, with Michigan owning a relatively narrow 2.6 point efficiency advantage. But, using the same schedule strength argument we used against Cincinnati, we still wonder whether teams from the American Athletic are battle tested enough to knock off a top foe like this in the tournament.

#2 North Carolina over #2 Texas A&M: The balanced scoring attack of the Tarheels should be able to make headway here against a stout Aggie defense. It was impressive the way the defending champs spaced out the floor against the Duke zone and knocked down jump shots.

 

#4 Gonzaga over #1 Xavier: In a battle of previous mid-major programs, the experience and efficiency edge goes to Gonzaga, who amazingly gets to play this game closer to home than the top seeded team in the region. Xavier’s 60th ranked defense is a historical eliminator for a final four contender and it will struggle to contain Gonzaga’s balanced scoring attack that boasts an entire starting five averaging in double figures. All-name team contender Killian Tillie is a stretch four that can really light it up from outside (50.0% three point shooting percentage) and do some damage against a highly penetrable Xavier defense.

#2 North Carolina over #3 Michigan: In another rematch game, North Carolina is able to repeat the 86-71 drubbing it delivered in November. In all seriousness, Michigan’s improvement on defense likely makes this a much closer contest this time around, but a more experienced UNC backcourt makes the difference here. And again, Michigan’s likelihood of advancing this far are greatly less than the Tarheels, making this the correct pick from a probability standpoint.

 

#2 North Carolina over #4 Gonzaga: What a cool Elite 8 contest this would be in a rematch of last year’s National Championship. The teams look fairly evenly matched so we will side with the team that has the easier path to arrive here and expect a game that comes down to the wire. The Tarheels’ ability to crash the offensive glass (3rd nationally in offensive rebounding percentage) versus the Bulldogs’ defensive rebounding ability (6th nationally) will be the battle that determines the game. Theo Pinson, Luke Maye and Joel Berry all played large roles in last year’s championship run and are beginning to gel at the right time; UNC looks poised to take advantage of the tournament’s weakest region in route to their third straight trip to the Final Four.

EAST

#1 Villanova over Radford: Let’s not be ridiculous. With an explosive offense firing on all cylinders currently, this is not a #1 seed that you want to fade.

#8 Virginia Tech over Alabama: Alabama’s impressive run in the SEC conference tournament brought many aboard the Collin Sexton bandwagon. The lottery pick is the type of player that can take over a game and will his team to win. But the feeling here is that the love is a touch overblown and we will side with a Hokie squad that has wins against Duke, North Carolina and at Virginia, and owns a 2.8 point efficiency advantage in this contest, the largest of the 8-9 matchups that are usually closer to a toss up.

#5 West Virginia over #12 Murray State: The Racers have been hot lately, winning their last 13 games, but get a tough matchup here with the underseeded and defensive minded Mountaineers. This is probably our least favorite of the 5/12 upset possibilities.

#4 Witchita State over #13 Marshall: The Thundering Herd stands a real chance here against a Shocker defense that ranks outside the top 100 in efficiency. Witchita State has underachieved in a season that many believed would be their best ever, but has the talent to pull this one out. Expect it to be a bit too close for comfort, however.

#6 Florida over #11 St. Bonaventure: We are HARD sellers of this trendy upset pick. St. Bonaventure holds the honor of being the lowest ranked at-large team in the tournament in terms of efficiency, and wasn’t included in the field when our Bracketology was finalized based on their subpar body of work profile. Meanwhile, Florida looks underseeded in this spot, showing two wins over Kentucky, a win over Cincinnati and a win over Gonzaga in December. In fact, the 7.1 point efficiency edge that the Gators hold here is the largest of any 11/6 matchup.

#3 Texas Tech over Stephen F. Austin: The Red Raiders were one of the most surprising stories of the year. Despite struggling down the stretch as injuries lagged, they finished with the 3rd strongest defense in the country in terms of efficiency. Stephen F. Austin plays a rugged style and leads the nation in opponent turnovers per possession (25.6%!) by a wide margin and could make this interesting late, but we don’t see Texas Tech dropping this one. This should be a fun game between state opponents as the game is being played in Dallas.

#10 Butler over #7 Arkansas: This just seems like the type of game that Butler wins, weighting mental toughness above athleticism, and the efficiency stats give the Bulldogs a 2.2 point advantage. With a victory over Villanova to their credit, they’ve shown the ability to knock off the best when playing at full capacity.

#2 Purdue over #15 Cal State Fullerton: Senior leaders won’t let the Boilers drop this game, as they are poised for a deep run.

 

#1 Villanova over #8 Virginia Tech: This is a tough matchup for Villanova, as the Hokies have proven the ability to beat anyone on their best day. But Villanova is loaded with experienced players including likely player of the year Jalen Brunson, and boast the greatest offense in terms of efficiency in the modern era heading into the tournament. Virginia Tech struggles to contain opponents from the perimeter, ranking 142nd nationally, and may have met their match against the heavily perimeter oriented Wildcats.

#5 West Virginia over #4 Witchita State: West Virginia’s 39th ranked defense hasn’t been as stout as years past, but that’s nothing compared to the disappointment of the Witchita State defense this season. Just two years ago, the Shockers held the nation’s very best defense, and coming into this tournament, it ranks 109th. That’s quite a tumble! The more balanced Mountaineers have been challenged offensively at times this season but still rank 13th in offensive efficiency and should be able to score with ease in this one.

#6 Florida over #3 Texas Tech: The widespread hate for Florida is difficult to understand considering their resume. Texas Tech holds just a 3.2 point efficiency advantage in this one, one of the smallest of the potential 3 vs. 6 matchups, and comes limping into this tournament. The Red Raiders have lost five of their last seven and health questions abound regarding star All-American guard Keenan Evans. Florida is more than capable of beating the nation’s best on their day and we will give them a shot to pull the upset here. It’s worth nothing that preseason rankings, often one of the better tournament success predictors, had the Gators ranked 8th, and Texas Tech unranked.

#2 Purdue over #10 Butler: A very fun matchup in the Midwest town of Detroit features another early season rematch in which the Boilers prevailed 82-67 in Indianapolis. The stat that stands out here is that the Boilers own the best three point percentage in the tournament field, while the Bulldogs rank 295th nationally in three point percentage defense. Purdue should have a field day from deep.

 

#1 Villanova over #5 West Virginia: Villanova’s three point rate, or the percentage of their three point attempts relative to their total field goal attempts, has been high to a worrisome level for the past several seasons. However, they bucked that trend in winning the 2016 championship while relying heavily on the three. This year’s team is far more accurate than that team was (39.8% vs. 36.2%) and West Virginia’s three point defense ranks 296th nationally. Against a West Virginia team that likes to press, Villanova’s ability to take care of the basketball (7th nationally on a per possession basis) is a huge difference maker here.

#2 Purdue over #6 Florida: The balance and experience of the Boilermakers, not to mention their 2nd ranked offense, figures to get the best of the Gators here. This is yet another opponent that doesn’t match up well against Purdue’s ability to knock down threes; Florida ranks 216th nationally in three point defense.

 

#1 Villanova over #2 Purdue: We’ve been looking for an angle all week to justify picking Purdue to win here, but just simply cannot see it happening. In a matchup showcasing the nation’s two best offenses, Villanova’s seems so much more explosive and athletic, and while both defenses have struggled against higher quality opponents, Purdue really seemed to play down to their competition late in the season. They may not know what hits them here, and Villanova is the rare team that can match up with Purdue’s experience and defend their three point attack (45th nationally in three point percentage defense).

MIDWEST

#1 Kansas over #16 Pennsylvania: We’re not going to go out on a very risky limb and predict the impossible here. We’ll just point out that this matchup is a total nightmare for Kansas. Aside from facing perhaps the strongest 16 seed in recent memory (128th in KenPom which is ahead of 14th seeded Wright State), the Jayhawks also face one that takes away their strengths. Kansas scores 37% of their points from three point range, and Penn is the single best team in the tournament at defending the three. Add in the fact that the Kansas interior is likely depleted due to injury to starting center Udoka Azubuike, which means they will be even more dependent on perimeter shooting than usual, and….let’s just say you will want to tune in for this one.

#8 Seton Hall over #9 NC State: Seton Hall is the highest rated 8 seed in terms of efficiency (27th) and holds a 2.2 point edge in this game. All of these evenly matched 8-9 games start to become exhausting to try to predict so in this case, that’s good enough for us.

#12 New Mexico State over #5 Clemson: Here it is! The lone 12 over 5 upset… because, ya know, there has to be at least one and it’s no fun at all to pick a bracket without trying to guess it. The reasons for this pick are three fold. For one, Clemson finds a matchup here against a similarly defensive-minded team (8th vs. 15th nationally in defensive efficiency). Also, importantly, the Tigers have struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last seven after losing second leading scorer and rebounder Donte Grantham. Finally, the banged up Tigers have to travel to San Diego an play a virtual road game here.

#4 Auburn over #13 Charleston: According to the numbers, this is the most likely 13 over 4 upset, and Auburn has certainly struggled down the stretch, dealing with injuries after overachieving for much of the season. We’ll hedge this possibility by taking out the Tigers next round but don’t want to go too crazy with side by side upsets.

#6 TCU over #11 Syracuse: TCU really isn’t getting enough credit. Ranked 22nd nationally in overall efficiency, this is a team that can really light it up from three (40.0%, 13th nationally). Syracuse shouldn’t be playing in this game (they shouldn’t have even been in the last four out of the tournament) and Jamie Dixon has seen the Syracuse zone many times in his years at Pittsburgh and had success against it. The Horned Frogs shoot it well enough to roll here.

#3 Michigan State over #14 Bucknell: Don’t look for a repeat of the Middle Tennessee upset here. The Spartans are back, and they are loaded, and possibly even better than the team that lost in the first round inexplicably two years ago as the tournament favorite.

#10 Oklahoma over #7 Rhode Island: First thing’s first- Oklahoma absolutely deserves to be in this tournament based on their wins and collective body of work. In fact, we’d even argue they are underseeded, so there! The bottom line is that Trae Young is the best scorer and passer in the tournament and now this team has a chip on its shoulder and faces an overseeded Rhode Island team that lost to some really bad opponents late in the year. End of rant.

#2 Duke over #15 Iona: Duke has the #3 offense in the nation. Iona has the #214 defense in the nation. Any questions?

 

#1 Kansas over #8 Seton Hall: We really wish we liked any of the other teams in the upper quadrant of this region enough to take Kansas out early. The truth is that if the Jayhawks emerge victorious from a very tough first round game they are liable to walk into the Elite 8. Seton Hall poses a formidable inside presence but won’t be able to contain the Kansas backcourt.

#12 New Mexico State over #4 Auburn: New Mexico State got a really great draw here to get to play two injury-ridden squads so close to home, and there’s always a double digit seed in the Sweet 16, so it might as well be this one. Auburn hasn’t been the same since losing center Anfernee McLemore to a dislocated ankle, dropping four of their last six. Auburn was already 163rd nationally in defensive rebounding percentage before the injury and would face a team ranked 11th in offensive rebounding percentage. That’s a horrible matchup.

#3 Michigan State over #6 TCU: This should actually be a closer game than most expect, as the Spartans would hold just a 7.3 point advantage in terms of efficiency. However, that’s still good for the largest advantage amongst potential 3 vs 6 games, and TCU’s ranking outside the top 100 in defense doesn’t exactly lend heavily towards upset potential against the nation’s 9th best effective field goal percentage.

#2 Duke over #10 Oklahoma: Trae Young may cut up the Duke zone here a bit and put on the show everyone wants to see, but the Sooners simply don’t have the horses around him to keep up with the nation’s most talented team. The ride ends here for Oklahoma.

 

#1 Kansas over #12 New Mexico State: See what we mean about Kansas? If they get this far, you can’t possibly pick them to lose. It’s either lose first round, or pencil them in to the Elite Eight. But no further…

#3 Michigan State over #2 Duke: Full disclosure- before the bracket was announced, this was our choice for the National Championship game. If it seems ridiculous to create a bracket with the potential of the nation’s two most talented teams meeting before the Elite Eight, then you aren’t giving enough credit to the most perennially incompetent individuals assembled annually as the NCAA Selection Committee. Nevertheless, if this happens, this is the game of the tournament, and the winner takes the whole thing. So, this is an important pick. It’s another rematch game, as Duke defeated Michigan State back in November by a score 0f 88-82. Amazingly, Tom Izzo is now a shocking 1-11 in games against Duke and Coach K, but we feel this is the spot for the tables to turn. Duke’s defense has improved massively since switching to zone, but Michigan State is not a team that you want to play a zone against. The Spartans are 4th nationally in three point field goal percentage and 24th nationally in two point field goal percentage. Simply put, this isn’t a team that misses open shots, and even when they do, they corral 35.0% of their misses, which is good for 4th in the nation. Duke actually leads in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (37.9%) but Big Ten defensive player of the year Jaren Jackson Jr. may be able to frustrate the manchild Marvin Bagley Jr. on both sides of the ball and take him out of his game a bit. Spartan shooting guard Cassius Winston is the sharpest three point shooter in the tournament, finishing the season at an insane 52.6% from beyond the arc. If Duke tries to go zone here they are liable to be torn apart, and switching defenses may create rhythm issues. This could go either way but Sparty has a slim edge here from a matchup perspective.

 

#3 MICHIGAN STATE over #1 Kansas: This should be a great backcourt battle but if Kansas gets this far, their time is up. Defensively, the Jayhawks sit dangerously close to the dreaded 50 line in efficiency, while Michigan State is one of two teams to be top 10 on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. The other is Duke. Again, what was the committee thinking even making that game a possibility so early in the tournament?

FINAL FOUR

#1 VIRGINIA over #2 North Carolina: These teams have played twice already this season, and Virginia has won handily both times. It’s difficult to beat a team three times in one year, but Virginia simply seems to have North Carolina’s number here. It will be ironic indeed to see a Virginia team that on paper doesn’t look nearly as strong as the Malcolm Brogdon or Justin Anderson teams did make it this far. But this is a team that doesn’t turn the ball over and dictates the pace in a style that has been perfected. The Anaconda marches on.

#3 MICHIGAN STATE over #1 Villanova: For as much as we have discussed three point defense, a more important statistic in terms of championship teams has historically been two point defense. Michigan State leads the nation in that category by a wide margin, surrendering only an astonishing 38.4% mark to its opponents over an entire season. (No other team is below 40%). Defense makes the difference here against an admittedly formidable offense. Villanova, on the other hand, has struggled at times defensively, and ranks just 151st nationally in this same statistic.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

#3 MICHIGAN STATE over #1 Virginia: Redemption for the Big Ten and Tom Izzo here, in a game that will be low scoring and defensive. Michigan State simply has more playmakers, and that will be the difference in a game that features the nation’s 1st and 3rd ranked two point defenses. Another stat that jumps out here is that as strong as Virginia is defensively, they aren’t exactly dominant on the boards, ranking just 54th in offensive rebounding percentage. The Spartans prevail 60-53 with late free throws and a few very big second chance put backs and scoring opportunities.

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