Rejoice! The brackets are out and the tournament is set to tip off. We know the upsets will happen, and it will be exciting when they do, but it is impossible to predict when they will occur. For now let’s examine which teams are most likely to find their way to the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona.
First up is the East Region where the defending champions, the Villanova University Wildcats, are the number one seed. The committee did not do the overall number one seed any favors, as the Wildcats have a treacherous road to the Final Four. They could face a top tier opponent as early as the Round of 32, with the absurdly under-seeded University of Wisconsin Badgers only one win away from a second round matchup with the Wildcats.
The University of Florida Gators and University of Virginia Cavaliers are both scrappy veteran teams that could pose a threat to Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen. The Gators, in particular, are a legitimate threat to knock off the Wildcats. Barring their puzzling struggles against the Vanderbilt University Commodores in recent weeks, they have played lights out throughout much of their SEC schedule and have a sharpshooter in KeVaughn Allen who is at his best in crunch time.
The bottom half of the bracket does not appear to be any easier. Duke University and Baylor University are both more than capable of making a Final Four run. Duke has a wealth of talent and is playing its best basketball right now, having just won the ACC Tournament. Baylor has played well throughout the season against its most formidable opponents and can dominate a game in the paint.
The Southern Methodist University Mustangs should also prove difficult to oust. With only one loss in 2017, the Mustangs are coming into the tournament scorching hot. Villanova may feel proud for earning the number one overall seed in the tournament, but they were not exactly rewarded for their efforts with the collection of teams that was placed in their region. The Wildcats have a lot of work to do if they intend to return to the Final Four.
In the West Region, the Gonzaga University Bulldogs have a tremendous opportunity to live up to their lofty expectations as a number one seed. This region is nowhere near as tough as the East Region, so if the Bulldogs are indeed worthy of the number one seed that were given, this is their opportunity to finally make it all the way to the Final Four.
The number two seeded University of Arizona Wildcats are undoubtedly Gonzaga’s most difficult potential opponent, but if the two teams were to play each other, the matchup would not take place until the Elite Eight.
The three and four seeds, Florida State University and West Virginia University, are both hobbling into the tournament and are prime candidates to slip up in the early rounds.
The University of Notre Dame, which has reached back-to-back Elite Eights, and the University of Maryland must seize the opportunity to get past these relatively weak teams should the matchups take place in the Round of 32.
However, they too are not equipped for a deep tournament run. Watch out for Saint Mary’s College, Virginia Commonwealth University and Xavier University, three mid-major teams that have experienced success in the tournament in the past, to pose a potential threat to the higher seeded teams.
It should not be a surprise if this region is filled with upsets, but Gonzaga and Arizona should have enough talent and experience to emerge from the chaos and reach the Elite Eight, which would set up a rematch of the December 3 contest that Gonzaga won 69-62.
The Midwest Region should be manageable for the University of Kansas Jayhawks, but some of the middle-seeded teams have a genuine chance of playing spoiler to the Jayhawks’ quest to win a championship. The Purdue University Boilermakers were the Big Ten’s regular season champions, while the Iowa State University Cyclones and the University of Michigan Wolverines won their respective conference tournaments. Iowa State and Michigan both enter the tournament playing their best basketball of the season.
Purdue has not been stellar in recent weeks, but with College Player of the Year candidate Caleb Swanigan manning the middle, the Boilermakers will be a tough out for any team that matches up with them in the tournament. The Michigan State University Spartans are another team that could cause problems for the Jayhawks and make a run in the tournament. The Spartans are a nine seed but are always dangerous come March.
The two and three seeds, University of Louisville and University of Oregon, also cannot be ignored. Louisville has stumbled through several games down the stretch and Oregon just lost star senior Chris Boucher to an ACL injury. However, these two teams, especially Louisville, have both proven their worth come tournament time in the past, and there is no reason to think they cannot do so again.
Kansas should be the favorite in this region, with names such as Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson leading the charge, but there are a number of teams that are capable of making things very interesting for the Jayhawks.
The South Region is a top-heavy section of the bracket. In fact, it includes the three teams with the most Final Four appearances in history: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Tar Heels, the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of California, Los Angeles Bruins.
Teams such as Butler University, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Dayton and Wichita State University are all teams that have made noise in previous tournaments, but the odds are in favor of one of the aforementioned powerhouse schools reaching the Final Four.
These three teams match up very evenly. The Tar Heels are the number one seed, but lost to the number two seeded Kentucky Wildcats in December. In a twist of fate, the Wildcats were defeated by the number three seeded Bruins in December.
Likely NBA Draft first round picks Justin Jackson, Bam Adebayo, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf are among the players on UNC, Kentucky and UCLA that will be expected to carry their respective teams deep into the tournament. With so much star power present, this region promises to include some of the most intriguing matchups of the tournament.
By the time the final buzzer sounds on April 3, the entire college basketball landscape will have been turned upside down. Plenty of favorites will have been unexpectedly bounced in the first weekend, while Cinderellas will have made history by pulling off their stunning upsets. Which teams will be busting brackets this year?
Saint Mary’s, Vanderbilt, the University of Rhode Island and Winthrop University are several schools that I have my eye on, but I know just as much as the next guy. And it is that element of cluelessness that makes March Madness my favorite time of year on the sports calendar.
For my predicted champion, I am going with Kansas over Gonzaga in the final, but again, who knows! I’ll just be relishing the chaos.