SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Lindsay Schnell and Scott Gleeson look at all four regions to determine the story lines that fans should follow during March Madness.
USA TODAY Sports
Expect the unexpected.
It sounds cliché, but it also rings true during March Madness. Predicting the unexpected is another story.
Statistically, picking a few upsets and advancing top seeds will give you a fine bracket. But come on, that’s boring.
The reason clueless co-workers who pick teams based on jersey color win your office pool is because they unleash an instinctual whatever pick that slings their bracket to the top of the pack. The only way to hit a home run is to swing for the fences.
And with that in mind, here are some wildly bold projections that can help bracketeers think outside the box.
BRACKET TIP SHEET: Ultimate guide to March Madness
BIGGEST SNUBS: Seven teams that had strong case to make NCAA field
COMMITTEE MISTAKES: Five teams that were either underseeded or overseeded
No. 12 seeds will again punish No. 5s
Hello Cinderellas. We’ve seen three No. 12 seeds win in the first round before. That was cool. But what about all four? The reason this seeding line is such a successful pick on a yearly basis is based on capable and determined mid-majors matched up against seemingly vulnerable teams from power conferences. While that’s not specifically the case this year, each No. 5 vs. No. 12 seed clash has bracket-busting potential.
The most likely is No. 12 South Dakota State vs. No. 5 Ohio State in the West. Jackrabbits forward Mike Daum has put up 50 in a game before. This veteran group meets a Buckeyes team that had a great year in the Big Ten but isn’t exactly peaking — having lost three of five. The next most likely to happen is No. 12 New Mexico State vs. No. 5 Clemson in the Midwest Region. New Mexico State is one of the most dangerous mid-majors in the tournament, and Clemson has lost five of eight.
Murray State guard Jonathan Stark (21.8 ppg) is the type of player who can become a March star and spearhead his the Racers past a No. 5 West Virginia team that was underseeded and will pay an unfair price with its first-round matchup.
The longest shot would be No. 12 Davidson vs. No. 5 Kentucky. That’s because the Wildcats have been cooking here in March and are fresh off an SEC tournament title. John Calipari’s teams usually take a while to hit their stride. The Wildcats have found their groove heading into the tournament. But Davidson is playing exceptional as well, knocking off St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island to claim the Atlantic 10 tournament title. A name to know is Davidson forward Peyton Aldridge, who averages 21.8 points and 7.8 rebounds a game.
Trae Young drops 50
Can Oklahoma superstar freshman Trae Young have a Steph Curry-esque tournament? It would make doubters forget Oklahoma’s colossal collapse in the second half of the season. Remember: The 6-2 guard led the nation in scoring (27.4 ppg) and assists (8.8 apg) and scored more than 43 points four times.
When Big 12 teams aren’t seeing him twice in a season and smothering him — as West Virginia’s Jevon Carter, Kansas’ Devonte’ Graham and Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans did — he is tough to guard. Rhode Island draws the unique challenge of getting three days to prepare for the most electric player in the country.
No. 2 seeds Duke or North Carolina lose to a No. 15-seeded mid-major
If archrivals Duke or North Carolina lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament, odds are, brackets are busted. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have Final Four potential, but we’ve seen crazier upsets (No. 15 Middle Tennessee vs. No. 2 Michigan State). Can both of them lose? It’s possible. Will one of them lose? Perhaps.
No. 15 seed Iona was the No. 4 team during the regular season in the MAAC but came on strong to win the league’s auto bid. Coach Tim Cluess’ team — in its third NCAA tourney in a row — is balanced and runs an up-tempo offense that might be able to pull of a Mercer or Lehigh if it can figure out how to offset Marvin Bagley and Duke’s 2-3 zone.
The more likely long shot is No. 15 Lipscomb (from the Atlantic Sun) vs. No. 2 North Carolina. Garrison Matthews (22.1 ppg) is an explosive guard who could propel the Bisons to a thrilling upset vs. the defending national champs.
No. 1 seeds Villanova, Xavier exit early
The Big East’s Wildcats and Musketeers each earned top seeds. But what happens if/when Alabama’s Collin Sexton goes on a 40-point tear in the Round of 32? Could Villanova suffer an early-exit as a No. 1 like it did last year to Wisconsin? Last year Xavier overachieved in the NCAA after underachieving in the regular season. Could that be reversed this year? The Musketeers might face a dangerous Missouri team that’s unpredictable thanks to the late addition of freshman phenom Michael Porter Jr.
Villanova has the national player of the year, Jalen Brunson. And Xavier has a POY finalist in Trevon Bluiett. Both should prevent any madness. But they have more dangerous 8-9 lines in the second round than fellow No. 1s Virginia and Kansas.
Hurley brothers meet in the Sweet 16
You won’t find a cooler story in this tournament than Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley and Arizona State coach Bob Hurley. Dan Hurley’s emotional reaction to ASU’s inclusion in the field of 68 captures the brothers’ bond, which includes daily conversations and constant support of each other’s programs. These two met as players in the early 1990s — when older brother Bobby was an All-American at Duke and Danny was living in that shadow as a reserve at Seton Hall.
It would take two miracle wins (Arizona State vs. Michigan State in the Round of 32 and Rhode Island vs. Duke in the Round of 32). But this is a bold pick you should make with your heart, not your mind.
Should the two teams actually meet, Dan Hurley told USA TODAY Sports earlier this season: “It’d be a matchup of great guards” but that the two fiery coaching brothers “would handle it horribly.”
Houston to the Elite Eight
Houston officially has had its March liftoff. The way the Cougars played in the AAC tournament, upsetting Wichita State and going down to the wire vs. Cincinnati squad, should put the West Region on alert.
The Cougars aren’t your average No. 6 seed. Kelvin Sampson’s group is fueled by Rob Gray (18.6 pp, 4.6 apg), who put up 33 on Wichita in the AAC semis. His takeover abilities could catapult Houston way into the second weekend.
Wichita State to the Final Four
The Shockers switched conferences (from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic) and were hoping to use that shift to step further into the elite status. It worked, to a degree. Wichita State has a respectable No. 4 seed. Gregg Marshall teams have reached the Final Four or Sweet 16 with way worse seeding. Seeing what this stacked team does with a really nice seed line will be interesting.
Much has been made of how the Shockers didn’t measure up to Cincinnati in the AAC. Well, conference supremacy quickly becomes irrelevant once the NCAA tourney tips off. Wichita would have to get past a Cindrella-capable Marshall team, potentially a strong West Virginia team at the No. 5 line and then most likely Villanova in the Sweet 16. Those are all winnable games, and there’s no reason this preseason top-five team can’t win the East side of the bracket. All-America point guard Landry Shamet pilots this veteran team that still plays with Marshall’s signature brand of toughness.
A double-digit seed in the Final Four
History tells us this could certainly be in the cards. And if we’re looking for a hot double-digit seed, there is 10th-seeded Providence, which looked impressive in an upset against Xavier and overtime loss to Villanova in the Big East tournament. Some other candidates? Syracuse was the last team to do this — in 2016. If the Orange can get past Arizona State in their First Four game in Dayton, could it shock the world again? Or could Trae Young put No. 10 Oklahoma on his back and rekindle the early season magic that made him a household name?
No. 11 UCLA isn’t a bad pick for this bold prediction, either. The Bruins were horribly seeded by the committee and probably should have been a No. 9 seed. If the Bruins can get past an underrated St. Bonaventure team in their First Four game in Dayton, they actually have a decent shot to do some damage in the East Region. UCLA’s Aaron Holiday (20.3 ppg, 5.8 ap) has quietly put together a sensational season.
Kansas will kick Final Four wall down
Back-to-back Elite Eight appearances would be a breakthrough for just about any program in the country. Not Kansas. The Jayhawks have been a No. 1 seed in each of the last three NCAA tournaments. Great teams the previous two seasons could not get coach Bill Self back to the Final Four.
Kansas won its 14th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title this year in what might have been the deepest the Big 12 has ever been. It’s been particularly impressive because KU has had to do it without a lot of size (outside of 7-footer Udoka Azubuike there isn’t much). Kansas looked determined in the Big 12 tournament, and that’s the swagger this team will need to come out of the toughest region. Kansas has had easier paths to the Final Four and didn’t capitalize. It can this time.
Big 12 player of the year Devonte’ Graham told USA TODAY Sports in November: “Getting to the Final Four is definitely the goal, the dream. Having been right there two years in a row, it definitely hurt. Going to the Elite Eight twice and losing definitely sits with you. It’s helped with the hunger factor.”
A (No. 3 seed) Michigan school wins it all
Much was made about Michigan State’s No. 3 seed, but the Spartans beat only two teams that ended up in the NCAA tournament field. So now that a mediocre Big Ten (just four bids this year) explains the Spartans’ seeding, their actual title potential can be examined. Playing in the loaded Midwest, the Spartans would have to beat Duke (narrow loss in the Champion’s Classic in November) and Kansas. Should it win the Midwest Region, though, Tom Izzo’s group would be battle-tested. The Spartans have a lot of nice parts, starting with Miles Bridges. But the X-Factor is point guard Cassius Winston (12.6 ppg, 6.8 apg). If he can steer the ship with his play-making MSU could cut down the nets in April.
And then there’s Michigan. It will b interesting to see how a week off following a remarkable Big Ten tournament title run serves a team that arguably was hotter than any team in the country. One reason Michigan can win it all: Defense. This is coach John Beilein’s best defensive team since he arrived in Ann Arbor. And the offense is well balanced and potent enough to drive the Wolverines to San Antonio.
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