The bracket kicks off with the region of death, if only because of the team up at the top. The moment the committee announced Kentucky would be playing in the Midwest, every other team held their breath in hopes of avoiding the best team in over 20 years. Anyone other than Kentucky advancing to the final four would be downright shocking. But, hey, it’s March. Somebody is going to give Kentucky a run in this bracket and might, just might, actually beat the 34-0 Wildcats. Let’s get to the picks:
Round of 64
Kentucky (1) over Hampton (16)
Let’s move on for the sake of the family of the Hampton players. They will be in our thoughts and prayers.
Purdue (9) over Cincinnati (8)
This game has all the makings of the makings of “first to 50.” Cincinnati struggles to score in the half court, scoring just over 62 points per game, good for 294th in the NCAA. It’s a balanced squad that plays good team defense, but if they want to win this game Troy Caupain will be the key from long range. If he can stretch the defense, Cincinnati can win it ugly. Purdue is led by 7-footer AJ Hammons – a bona fide force on the interior. The Boilermakers know what it takes to win in March and played Wisconsin close for 30 minutes in the Big 10 tournament. Purdue wins a close offensive-struggle.
West Virginia (5) over Buffalo (12)
Buffalo, led by Coach Bobby Hurley, will be ready for West Virginia in its first ever NCAA tournament appearance. The Bulls actually led Kentucky (!!!) at Rupp earlier this season and their eight game win-streak is no fluke. West Virginia isn’t going to roll over, though. This has become a trendy upset pick, which might be selling now-healthy Juwan Staten and the Mountaineers short. Don’t blindly take every 12 over 5; take the better team here.
Maryland (4) over Valparaiso (13)
If guards win games in the tournament, as the popular narrative goes, Maryland has some serious sleeper potential. You’d be hard pressed to find a more complete backcourt than Freshman Melo Trimble and Dez Wells. Wells, a Xavier transfer, is no stranger to big moments and the two won’t cough up games either, both averaging over 15 points and shooting over 80% from the charity stripe. Valpo is no slouch – as evidenced by their just five losses all season – but the underrated Terps should win comfortably.
Texas (11) over Butler (6)
Talent has a funny way of rising to the surface come March. Texas would be one team with serious upside in this tournament. Had they not coughed up a double-digit lead against Iowa State in the Big 12 tourney, the Longhorns might be a trendy team to advance far. A preseason top-10 team, Texas has been inconsistent all season. Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner have the chance to dominate Butler down low, and Javan Felix and Isaiah Taylor will more than hold their own up top. It’s not too late for Texas to realize their limitless potential. If they do? Watch out.
Wichita State (7) over Indiana (10)
Speaking of guards, this game will have guard talent on both sides. Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet are better players than they were a year ago when the Shockers went undefeated in the regular season and nearly knocked off Kentucky in the tournament. For the Hoosiers, Yogi Ferrell is the engine. Ferrell averages over 16 points and nearly five assists per game, while shooting over 40% from range. Looking for a possible Shabazz Napier? Ferrell might not be a bad choice. The Shockers will probably win, but all bets are off if Ferrell gets a hot hand.
Kansas (2) over New Mexico State (15)
Kansas is simply too talented and too well-coached to fall to a 15 seed here. Looking to impress all your friends with a huge upset? Move along because there’s nothing to see here.
Round of 32
Kentucky (1) over Purdue (9)
Not to say Purdue has no chance, but it would take nothing short of the entire Kentucky team oversleeping for them to lose this one. Even then…
Maryland (4) over West Virginia (5)
Like I said, this Maryland team is better than you think. The Mountaineers pride themselves on defense and getting you to turn the ball over; they force nearly 11 steals per game, tops in the nation. The problem is Trimble and Wells aren’t going to hand them those gifts. In the half court, West Virginia will struggle to score enough to stay in this game, especially if Staten isn’t healthy. The Terps move on easily to face the team of the decade.
Notre Dame (3) over Texas (11)
Tread lightly with this game. Texas is the more talented team, but I just don’t know how to trust Texas after everything they’ve shown this season. This will be a high-scoring affair, with Jerian Grant taking over late to give the Irish a comfortable win.
Wichita State (7) over Kansas (2)
Little brother takes down big brother in a second (third?) round upset. This win will be for all those Wichita kids who were told they weren’t good enough for Kansas, for all the times Bill Self and Kansas have refused to play Kansas, for proof of the best basketball team in Kansas. This just isn’t a vintage Kansas team, especially with Cliff Alexander suspended. They lack frontcourt depth and enough back court talent to make a deep run. The Shockers send shockwaves throughout the tournament with a monumental win for the Wichita State basketball program.
Kentucky (1) over Maryland (4)
If you can’t tell by now, I’m very fond of this Maryland team. Just not this fond. Kentucky is just unreal. Cut this team in half and put them on opposite sides of the bracket and they might just meet in the finals. Wells and Trimble do have an advantage over the Harrison twins (and Ulis and Booker, for what it’s worth), they just don’t have enough down low to provide any semblance of challenge on the boards. The only way Kentucky will lose is if a team can successfully spread them out and make the bigs guard on the perimeter. Georgia proved that when they took Kentucky to the wire in Athens. Maryland just can’t do that.
Wichita State (7) over Notre Dame (3)
The Shockers are on a mission. After being disrespected as a one-seed last season and losing a game they should have won against Kentucky, the Shockers have been preparing for March. And sorry if I’m just not buying this erratic Notre Dame team yet. Sure, they’re going to score, but deep runs in March are built on balance – something this team desperately lacks. One cold half for the Irish from deep and they’re toast. Ron Baker, Fred Van Vleet, and coach Greg Marshall get their rematch with the vaunted Wildcats. (Sidenote: the Shockers take down Northern Iowa by 15 just a month ago, lose one close game in the conference tournament, and are TWO SEEDS LOWER than UNI? How?)
Kentucky (1) over Wichita State (7)
It’s just not going to happen. They aren’t fair. Just put them in the NBA D-League for kicks. Yet I don’t think they’re quite as invulnerable in the “one-and-done” format as some may believe. Remember that the John Wall/Boogie Cousins Wildcats lost in the tourney, and so can this version. All it takes is one incredibly motivated, talented team (Wisconsin *cough) with the right coach (Bo Ryan *cough) and a star player (Frank Kaminsky *cough cough cough) who is capable of stringing together shots. Spoiler alert, Wisconsin is going to beat Kentucky in the final four. But for now, Kentucky advances.