The Sweet 16 probables, and possible party-crashers...
What follows is a prediction of the Sweet 16 field in the NCAA Tournament (with rankings based roughly on my confidence in the teams making the Sweet 16), eight teams that might crash my predicted Sweet 16 (regardless of region), and my prediction for the rest of the NCAA Tournament (Elite Eight, Final Four, Champion) with any comments if I feel they are needed.
I managed to call the Final Four in the last year the tournament was held (way back in 2019), but I wouldn’t bet too much on my predictions this year — my misreading of the Michigan State Spartans’ season will be one I remember for the rest of my life (unless MSU goes on a deep run, of course, at which point I will gleefully say “I told you so!”).
To remind you, I am working off of the real data and qualitative analysis (i.e. Kenpom, Barttorvik, and Sports-Reference, and inflected and informed by analysis of teams) through the end of the conference regular seasons and including any of the conference tournament games that were completed. The bracket gives us the following “pots” of teams (bolded teams are ones I have in the top-16, italics are “wild-cards”):
Gonzaga, Norfolk/Appalachian State, Oklahoma, Missouri
Creighton, UCSB, Virginia, Ohio
USC, Wichita State/Drake, Kansas, Eastern Washington
Oregon, VCU, Iowa, Grand Canyon
Michigan, Mt. Saint Marys/Texas Southern, LSU, St. Bonaventure
Colorado, Georgetown, Florida St., UNCG
BYU, UCLA/Michigan State, Texas, Abilene Christian
UCONN, Maryland, Alabama, Iona
Baylor, Hartford, North Carolina, Wisconsin
Villanova, Winthrop, Purdue, North Texas
Texas Tech, Utah State, Arkansas, Colgate
Florida, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, Oral Roberts
Illinois, Drexel, Loyola Chicago, Georgia Tech
Tennessee, Oregon State, Oklahoma State, Liberty
San Diego State, Syracuse, West Virginia, Morehead State
Clemson, Rutgers, Houston, Cleveland State
Some general comments:
The South seems to be the most straight-forward region — I see all chalk there unless Texas Tech squeaks by Utah State, which is a bad matchup for the Red Raiders, because they can beat Arkansas.
In the Midwest, I do not see a Cinderella run in the cards for Loyola Chicago because even if the Ramblers make it past Georgia Tech, their main man Cameron Krutwig will have two very good centers to contend with in Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili in the Round or 32. Tennessee and Oklahoma State will be one of the best games of the first weekend, and both San Diego State and West Virginia are well-suited to take down Syracuse. Though I have a soft spot for both Clemson and Rutgers, Houston will get to the second weekend.
The West should see Gonzaga, Iowa, and USC stroll to the second weekend, while Virginia will have serious battle from Ohio — led by star guard Jason Preston — and likely from Creighton as well.
The East appears to be by far the toughest region, and the Isaiah Livers injury all but guarantees that Michigan fails to reach the Elite Eight, even if the Wolverines can squeak by LSU, whose two big high-scoring guards are exactly the kind of players that UM’s back-court struggle with. Colorado, Florida State, and Georgetown could all make the second weekend, but Florida State has the best combination of offensive talent and defensive length — the Seminoles are my “bet.” The bottom of this region’s bracket will be a heck of a set of games with every single team a viable candidate (including Rick Pitino’s gritty Iona squad and Abilene Christian’s excellent defensive unit). Your guess is as good as mine in the East, but when in doubt I err on the side of the best coaches with the best players —Michigan Sate (Tom Izzo and Aaron Henry) and Alabama (Nate Oats and Herb Jones) seem the two likeliest fits for this description.
Without further ado...
The TRUE depth-charts and rankings of the ACTUAL Top-16 (plus 8) NCAA Tournament men’s basketball teams:
(Please DO let me know about factual or obvious omissions and errors)
1. Gonzaga [West, 1-seed]
1 - Jalen Suggs, Aaron Cook
2 - Andrew Nembhard, Dominik Harris
3 - Joel Ayayi, Julian Strawther
4 - Corey Kispert
5 - Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Oumar Ballo
Gonzaga has a superb top-six players, Suggs is a top-three pick in the draft and a game-breaker, and Kispert is the kind of senior-sniper that can win games with big shots. Timme may struggle against the biggest centers, but his moxie, skill, and supreme feel make him one of the best offensive hubs in the tournament. The Bulldogs play together, they are cohesive, they have veterans, and they have multiple creators. While Gonzaga’s defensive metrics may have been bolstered to some degree by the conference, the team plays in, the Zags are undefeated for a reason — they have overcome every challenge in front of them to this point. The Bulldogs are the clear favorite to win the title and no team in their bracket should beat them, on balance.
2. Baylor [South, 1-seed]
1 - Davion Mitchell
2 - Jared Butler, Adam Flagler
3 - MaCio Teague
4 - Mark Vital, Matthew Mayer
5 - Flo Thamba, Jonathan Tchamwa-Tchatchoua
While Baylor has stumbled twice since their return from their COVID-pause, I have to say it: I am thrilled by this team. Scott Drew has learned how to coach in the four years that Mark Vital has been on the team (and he should get a statue, probably), and this team plays a delightful brand of basketball. The Bears defend well on the perimeter (though they are weak on the defensive glass, a potential source of concern in potential contests against UNC and Purdue), have toughness and moxie all over their team, and they have the best three-man guard trio in the nation in Mitchell, Teague, and, my favorite, Jared Butler.
I am genuinely surprised that Butler is not regarded as a lottery pick — he defends, creates, handles, shoots, scores, and plays winning basketball. This team should cruise to the Final Four.
3. Illinois [Midwest, 1-seed]
1 - Ayo Dosunmu, Andre Curbelo
2 - Trent Frazier
3 - Adam Miller
4 - Jacob Grandison, DaMonte Williams, Coleman Hawkins
5 - Kofi Cockburn, Giorgi Bezhanishvili
The draw works perfectly for Illinois — Loyola Chicago, though a damn fine team, does not matchup particularly well against Illinois; and both Tennessee and Oklahoma State are teams that Illinois should feel confident against despite their future lottery picks. While there is real danger in facing teams, as a No. 1 seed, that have a better “best player” than you do (Tennessee and Houston can both make a claim, even if contestable, and Oklahoma State clearly has the best player in the entire field), Illinois has the best supporting cast. Illinois has a physical matchup advantage in Cockburn that, if the Fighting Illini play through him, should prove largely irresistible.
4. Iowa [West, 2-seed]
1 - Jordan Bohannon, Joe Toussaint
2 - CJ Fredrick
3 - Connor McCaffery, Tony Perkins
4 - Joe Wieskamp, Patrick McCaffery
5 - Luka Garza, Keegan Murray, Josh Ogundele
Oregon and VCU both have talented players, but neither team has anything close to an answer for the Iowa offense, let alone Luka Garza. Iowa will stroll to the second weekend, before facing a fascinating test in USC.
5. Purdue [South, 4-seed]
1 - Eric Hunter, Isaiah Thompson
2 - Sasha Stefanovic, Brandon Newman
3 - Jaden Ivey, Ethan Morton*
4 - Mason Gillis, Aaron Wheeler
5 - Trevion Williams, Zach Edey
Note: Ethan Morton has been away from the team due to personal reasons.
Purdue simply got lucky — In the Round of 32, the Boilermakers likely get to face a very good Villanova team that lost two of its three best players to season-ending injuries in the last two weeks of the season. Fair-play to Purdue. They will have a puncher’s chance against Baylor playing on home-turf, but a Sweet 16 run should be the expectation here.
6. Arkansas [South, 3-seed]
1 - Davonte Davis, JD Notae
2 - Jalen Tate, Desi Sills
3 - Moses Moody
4 - Justin Smith, Ethan Henderson
5 - Connor Vanover, Jaylin Williams, Vance Jackson
Arkansas has answers for both Texas Tech and Utah State. The biggest key is the late-season flame-throwing of Moses Moody who has really found his level late in the year. Moody, Notae, Smith (whose transfer all but sealed Archie Miller’s fate at Indiana before the season even started), and Jaylin Williams (who should be healthy for the NCAA Tournament) provide a solid foundation that has proved too much for a lot of really good teams this year. Expect a Sweet 16 appearance for the Razorbacks.
7. Ohio State [South, 2-seed]
1 - CJ Walker, Meechie Johnson
2 - Duane Washington Jr., Justin Ahrens
3 - Justice Sueing, Musa Jallow, Gene Brown
4 - EJ Liddell, Seth Towns
5 - Kyle Young, Zed Key
Florida and Virginia Tech are dangerous potential foes in the Round of 32 for Ohio State. Neither of those teams will be scared looking at OSU, although neither team will have an answer for EJ Liddell, whose excellence inside the three-point arc will propel the Buckeyes to their first Sweet 16 under Chris Holtmann.
8. Houston [Midwest, 2-seed]
1 - Marcus Sasser, Jamal Shead
2 - DeJon Jarreau, Cameron Tyson
3 - Quentin Grimes, Tramon Mark
4 - Justin Gorham, Brison Gresham
5 - Reggie Chaney, Fabian White
Houston should get past either Rutgers or Clemson, but both of those teams will feel confident going into a game against Houston — particularly Rutgers, if they get past Clemson. Rutgers has the individual personnel to give Houston real problems, which is why I do not have Houston a bit higher. If Houston gets to the Sweet 16, pencil the Cougars in for the Final Four.
9. West Virginia [Midwest, 3-seed]
1 - Miles McBride, Jordan McCabe
2 - Taz Sherman, Kedrian Johnson
3 - Sean McNeil, Emmitt Matthews
4 - Jalen Bridges
5 - Derek Culver, Gabe Osabuohien
When it comes down to it, West Virginia’s offense is good enough that I trust the Mountaineers to score consistently in a way they have failed to for the last few years. McBride’s brilliance has found supporting three-point shooters in Sherman, McNeil, and Bridges. While Culver still takes too many shots and scores too inefficiently, and while Kenpom likes this team less than in years past, I like West Virginia more when it comes to winning games in the NCAA Tournament.
10. USC [West, 6-seed]
1 - Tahj Eaddy, Ethan Anderson
2 - Isaiah White, Noah Baumann
3 - Drew Peterson, Max Agbonkpolo
4 - Isaiah Mobley, Chevez Goodwin
5 - Evan Mobley
Wichita State is cursed this year, as is Drake; so too is Kansas (who lose both David McCormack, their starting center, and Tristan Enaruna, a reserve wing, to COVID protocols). USC should stroll to the second weekend despite somewhat shaky guard play. Evan Mobley, alone, one of the best defensive big-men prospects in the last 25 years — seriously, he reminds me of Tim Duncan at Wake on defense — means that USC will have a very real chance to upset Iowa, but that will require consistent bench production from any two of their reserves, none of whom have been consistent this season.
11. Virginia [West, 4-seed]
1 - Kihei Clark
2 - Reece Beekman, Casey Morsell
3 - Trey Murphy III, Thomas Woldetensae
4 - Sam Hauser, Justin McKoy
5 - Jay Huff
If Virginia gets past Ohio in the first round, then I expect the Cavaliers to get their shot at Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. Both of those contests will depend in large part on Woldetensae’s form. After being in and out of the lineup this season, he returned from the injured list to provide a real boost to UVA’s bench in the last three games before the NCAA Tournament. If he can become that sixth man that Virginia needs, then this team will have a chance to tempo-check Gonzaga and make a game of it. IF Virginia can get past Ohio.
12. Florida State [East, 4-seed]
1 - MJ Walker
2 - Rayquan Evans, Sardaar Calhoun
3 - Anthony Polite, Scottie Barnes, Wyatt Wilkes
4 - Raiquan Gray, Malik Osborne
5 - Balsa Koprivica, Tanor Ngom
This Florida State team is solid. The Seminoles follow the Leonard Hamilton mold — dubious guard play, infinity wings with offensive pop and athletic advantages, and some tall dudes at center. Balsa Koprivica’s offensive acumen and Scottie Barnes’ point-forward skills on both ends mean that this team has a certain je ne sais quoi that past iterations of Hamilton’s workmanship have lacked. And they will need every ounce of toughness he has poured into them because both Georgetown and Colorado have toughness and fight up to their ears. This is not a sure thing, which is why they are ranked 12th.
13. LSU [East, 8-seed]
1 - Javonte Smart
2 - Cam Thomas, Eric Gaines
3 - Aundre Hyatt, Mwani Wilkinson
4 - Darius Days, Josh LeBlanc
5 - Trendon Watford
Someone has to advance from the “top” of the East’s bracket, and I do not think it will be Michigan. Losing a player of Livers’ quality, just before the tournament, and on the heels of getting Eli Brooks back from a scary ankle roll, will not help Michigan’s confidence. While I could easily see LSU Will-Wading their way in over their heads, this team still has boat-loads of talent. The trick for this LSU team in the likely matchup against Michigan: LSU’s two guards— Smart and Thomas —are big, confident, athletic, scoring guards who will likely make Brooks’ and Smith’s outings tortuous and maddening. LSU has no size to speak of, but Watford is a gamer who will score on Dickinson as much as Dickinson scores on him.
14. Texas [East, 3-seed]
1 - Matt Coleman
2 - Courtney Ramey
3 - Andrew Jones, Jase Febres
4 - Greg Brown, Brock Cunningham, Royce Hamm
5 - Jericho Sims, Kai Jones
Some team will emerge from the bottom of the East bracket, and the sensible money is on Shaka Smart’s crew. Coleman, Ramey, Jones, and the now-healthy Jase Febres form a terrific four-man back-court. Brown is a first-round NBA talent and alien-athlete. Sims and Kai Jones form a dream-come-true big-man tandem (a true model for Marcus Bingham Jr. and Mady Sissoko for next season), and Cunningham is an ideal glue-guy. If this team can get out of its own way, and harness its energy and desire cohesively, then the Longhorns can make a run to the Final Four — note that they have by far the toughest 14-seed in the Round of 64 against Abilene Christian.
15. Alabama [East, 2-seed]
1 - Jaden Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly
2 - John Petty, Josh Primo*
3 - Keon Ellis
4 - Herb Jones, Juwan Gary
5 - Jordan Bruner, Alex Reese, James Rojas
Note: Josh Primo has some degree of an MCL sprain in his knee and may be limited in the NCAA Tournament.
Alabama sitting at No. 15 in my rankings is no comment on Alabama. The Crimson Tide plays a fun brand of mathketball—nearly completely cutting two-point shots outside of the paint from their repertoire, and hoisting tons of three-pointers and rim-runs — and defend terrifically. Herb Jones fully deserved his SEC Player of the Year award, and Petty, Shackelford, Quinerly (playing like Spartan fans hoped Rocket Watts would this year), Primo (if healthy), and Ellis are as solid as it gets for a five-man guard-wing unit. They just need solid defense and finishing from their centers, and that is what they get. This team is damn good. But they have to face one of the toughest regions in the entire tournament (other than the Florida State, UNC Greensboro, Colorado, Georgetown region) — Iona is comfortably the most dangerous 15-seed in the field, and Maryland and Connecticut both match-up extremely well against Alabama, while possessing more than enough talent to make it to the Sweet 16 themselves. Just an absolute meat-grinder of a four-team pod.
16. Tennessee [Midwest, 5-seed]
1 - Santiago Vescovi
2 - Jaden Springer, Victor Bailey Jr.
3 - Keon Johnson, Josiah-Jordan James
4 - Yves Pons
5 - John Fulkerson*, Uros Plavsic, Olivier Nkamhoua, EJ Anosike
Note: John Fulkerson took a brutal elbow to the head in the SEC tournament, and may be limited in the NCAA Tournament, if he is unable to play, expect Yves Pons to shift to starting center and Josiah-Jordan James to start at forward.
If Fulkerson were healthy, I might pick Tennessee over Oklahoma State (and the Volunteers could still win that game because they have four legitimate defensive options against Cade Cunningham), but his injury takes away Tennessee’s low-post and mid-post scoring threat and a heady, veteran competitor. This team has two near-lottery picks in Spring and Johnson, and another likely first-round contender in James who has become everything Spartans dreamed of when Tom Izzo nearly snagged him out of Charleston, South Carolina. But this team is relying on two freshmen to lead them, and has iffy front-court depth at best. Not a great spot to be in, entering the tournament.
17. Oklahoma State [Midwest, 4-seed]
1 - Bryce Williams
2 - Avery Anderson, Rondel Walker, Ferron Flavors
3 - Cade Cunningham, Isaac Likekele
4 - Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe, Keylan Boone
5 - Kalib Boone, Bernard Kouma
Cade Cunningham will likely be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in a few months, for now he is busy showcasing his complete floor-game, superb skill, command and feel, oh and he scores it easily from all over the court. Isaac Likekele returning from his nearly month-long absence to get a few games under his belt to close the regular season and conference tournament will prove essential to getting Cunningham’s chief running mate back up-to-speed. If Anderson and Boone can consistently serve as the third and fourth “guys” on this team, which has had inconsistent supporting members for Cunningham’s one-man-tour, then this is a team that could make a Final Four run — he’s that good.
18. UConn [East, 7-seed]
1 - RJ Cole
2 - James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney, Brendan Adams
3 - Tyrese Martin, Andre Jackson
4 - Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley
5 - Adama Sanogo, Josh Carlton
James Bouknight, a lottery pick, and Dan Hurley’s first foray back into the Big East went about as well as could be hoped-for. Sanogo, Carlton, Whaley, and Polley form one of the best four-man front-courts in the field, and Bouknight is simply talented enough to win any given game. Maryland matches up well with the Huskies, and Alabama does as well, but UConn could easily best them both and snarl their way to a Final Four.
19. Maryland [East, 10-seed]
1 - Eric Ayala, Hakim Hart
2 - Darryl Morsell, Reese Mona
3 - Aaron Wiggins
4 - Donta Scott, James Graham
5 - Jarius Hamilton, Galen Smith
Spartans fans know this Maryland team well by now. The Terrapins defend well (when they are not called for reaching fouls) and they score it far more efficiently than their offensive talent-level might suggest (when they get handed trips to the free-throw line by college officials). The concern has to be: how will NCAA Tournament games be officiated? If Maryland does not get a favorable whistle (as they did in both contests against Michigan State, for example), then the Terps may struggle to score against UConn, who will dominate the paint. If Wiggins, Scott, Hamilton, Morsell, and Ayala can drill some contested jump shots, then fair-play to the Terrapins. But I think Maryland’s luck may run out sooner rather than later.
20. San Diego State [Midwest, 6-seed]
1 - Terrell Gomez, Lamont Butler Jr.
2 - Trey Pulliam, Adam Seiko
3 - Jordan Schakel
4 - Matt Mitchell, Keshad Johnson, Aguek Arop
5 - Nathan Mensah, Joshua Tomaic
San Diego State has the quality to make a run, but the Aztecs have to deal with Syracuse in the Round of 64, never a pleasant task. If Mitchell, Schakel, Pulliam, and Seiko hit enough three-pointers to get past the Orange, SDSU gets to celebrate by running into the high-intensity buzzsaw of West Virginia — how fun. Can SDSU get to the Sweet 16? Yes. Do I think it is likely? No. But I rank them because their odds of overcoming their two-game slate are far better than some other teams’ chances.
21. Texas Tech [South, 6-seed]
1 - Mac McClung, Clarence Nadolny, Jamarius Burton
2 - Kyler Edwards, Avery Benson
3 - Terrence Shannon, Chibuzo Agbo
4 - Micah Peavy, Kevin McCullar
5 - Marcus Santos-Silva, Tyreek Smith
Similar to San Diego State, Texas Tech faces just a brutal Round of 64 match-up in Utah State. Neemias Queta, the most impactful defensive force in the nation owns the paint for Utah State; a bad bit of news for a Texas Tech team that get less of its offense from three-pointers than 300 other teams in college basketball. I like Utah State in that one, but Chris Beard and this crew have a ton of fight in them, and McClung has enough bravado to carry this team in any contest. There’s a chance TTU get to the Sweet 16; a small chance, but a chance nonetheless.
22. Michigan [East, 1-seed]
1 - Mike Smith, Zeb Jackson
2 - Eli Brooks
3 - Chaundee Brown
4 - Franz Wagner, Brandon Johns Jr., Terrance Williams
5 - Hunter Dickinson, Austin Davis
Note: Isaiah Livers’ foot injury has seemingly ruled him out of the NCAA Tournament, a brutal blow to Michigan — his injury is the reason I doubt they make it to the Sweet 16.
Poor Michigan. If Livers were healthy, I would like them to go to at least the Elite Eight. Without Livers, Michigan’s spacing suffers, the Wolverines’ depth takes a huge hit, and they lose the ability to go small as easily. In fact, Juwan Howard may be forced to play with two true-bigs if anyone in the back-court gets in foul trouble. New offensive requirements, new roles for guys unaccustomed to them, all on the eve of the NCAA Tournament? That is a recipe for a Round of 32 disaster.
23. Michigan State [East, 11-seed]
1 - Rocket Watts, AJ Hoggard
2 - Joshua Langford
3 - Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown
4 - Malik Hall, Joey Hauser
5 - Julius Marble, Marcus Bingham Jr., Mady Sissoko, Thomas Kithier
You may be shaking your head, but I cannot quit this team. You may be saying to yourself “But you said this was the toughest part of the entire field.” You may be wondering how a Spartan squad that could barely muster a three-game winning streak with their season on the line is going to manage to conjure up another one. These are all legitimate questions and concerns. Allow me to elaborate:
UCLA is a game the Spartans should win — as I will make clear in my upcoming game preview — BYU is a very good team, but the Cougars’ best players are guys that Michigan State can deal with and the Spartans have played 10 games against teams rated higher than BYU in Kenpom’s ratings, winning three of them. BYU has a strong bench unit, and legit size at the center spot, but Michigan State has Aaron Henry, who will be the best player on the court, and Tom Izzo, who will be ready to cement his legend. Texas will be another war, but Izzo has matched up well against Smart in the past, Texas has been slipping in its level of play down the stretch of the season, and the Longhorns foul a lot. Did I mention that the best game in Joshua Langford’s career came against Texas?
It won’t be easy, but these matchups are workable; BYU lost to Pepperdine (No. 112 in Kenpom) and Texas runs a defense that over-helps and encourages passing and assists; yeah, Michigan State has a great shot as an 11-seed to get to the Sweet 16.
24. Ohio [West, 13-seed]
1 - Jason Preston, Mark Sears
2 - Lunden McDay, Miles Brown
3 - Ben Roderick, Jalen White
4 - Ben Vander Plas
5 - Dwight Wilson, Colin Granger
This is all about Jason Preston. He nearly single-handedly beat Illinois early in the season, and has the scoring and moxie to dominate a low-possession, high-leverage game against a good defense but one that does not have any great wing defenders. If Vander Plas can trade buckets with Sam Hauser, then Virginia could easily get tight, which has bitten them multiple times this year against inferior opponents. Even Preston would have to go on an incredible heater to get Ohio past both Virginia and a talented and balanced Creighton team, but if you are looking for a real Cinderella, this is maybe your best bet.
(1) Gonzaga vs. (4) Virginia: Zags cruise against a dazed Virginia whose defense slows the game down but cannot stop Mark Few’s machine.
(2) Iowa vs. (6) USC: Evan Mobley betters Tim Duncan — shutting down an imperious opponent in Luka Garza, and pacing the Trojans’ upset bid — reaching the Elite Eight as a freshman.
(1) Baylor vs. (4) Purdue: The Baylor guards destroy Purdue even as Trevion Williams and Zach Edey combine for 50 points. Baylor cruises in the second half.
(2) Ohio State vs. (3) Arkansas: Ohio State runs into trouble as Justin Smith, an old Big Ten foe, frustrates EJ Liddell, while the Razorback guards hound Duane Washington into a miserable night — Moses Moody paces Arkansas who strut to the Elite Eight.
(1) Illinois vs. (5) Tennessee: In one of the best games of the entire tournament, Yves Pons puts on a defensive performance for the ages despite giving up half a foot and over 50 pounds against Kofi Cockburn. The dynamic freshman duo for Tennessee show their lottery quality; Tennessee advances.
(2) Houston vs. (3) West Virginia: Houston’s defense grinds West Virginia down like the Mountaineers used to do to their foes. Kelvin Sampson reaches his second Elite Eight.
(8) LSU vs. (4) Florida State: In a battle of attitudes, the tougher team wins — Leonard Hamilton reaches his second Elite Eight in the past three tournaments played. Balsa Koprivica’s finishing, Scottie Barnes’ passing, and the length of the Florida State back-court, make all the difference.
(3) Texas vs. (7) UConn: After downing the Spartans with their guard-play, it is Texas’ Kai Jones and Greg Brown — their two first-round talents in the front-court — who dominate a game that sees the back-courts draw even.
(1) Gonzaga vs. (6) USC: Evan Mobley dominates, but Jalen Suggs makes it clear that his shot-making and athleticism deserve consideration for the second pick in the NBA draft. Corey Kispert rains three-pointers in the second half, and Mobley’s foul-trouble dooms USC’s run.
(1) Baylor vs. (3) Arkansas: Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell show just how far the Arkansas guards are from the Final Four level, and the Baylor front-court bruises and bullies Arkansas’ relatively slight bigs.
(2) Houston vs. (5) Tennessee: The Tennessee freshmen guards performance initiates discussions of their jersey retirements in Knoxville with each guard scoring more than 25 points. Yves Pons switches onto every player, and Houston’s guards cannot find the gaps they are used to; their three-pointers do not fall, and and their hopes are dashed. Rick Barnes finally makes a second Final Four.
(3) Texas vs (4) Florida State: MJ Walker puts in the shooting display of his career, hitting seven three-pointers, Florida State’s length stifles Texas around the paint, and Leonard Hamilton gets the reward for his incredible career — a first Final Four.
(1) Gonzaga vs (4) Florida State: In the shocker of the NCAA Tournament, Florida State upsets Gonzaga. The FSU length, Hamilton’s determination on the sidelines, and the FSU depth that Gonzaga lacks prove the difference. Raiquan Gray, Malik Osborne, and Scottie Barnes torment the Zags on the offensive glass, and for the first time in the tournament, Gonzaga finds two of its starters — Suggs and Kispert —in foul trouble. Gonzaga’s offense gets stuffed at the rim, and their come-back falls short.
(1) Baylor vs. (5) Tennessee: In a battle between similar teams, both with a defense-grit-and-grind heartbeat (Mark Vital for Baylor and Yves Pons for Tennessee), the team that controls the ball better, and hits more shots wins. Baylor’s trio of guards never looks flustered by Tennessee’s athletes, and its veteran confidence and execution pay dividends on the big stage.
(1) Baylor vs. (4) Florida State: Florida State, so reliant on its length to dominate the interior, gets stretched beyond its breaking point against the smaller, quicker Baylor Bears. Butler, Mitchell, and Teague carve up the Florida State defenders in pick-and-roll, and a Florida State team that forces teams to beat them with three-point shots gives up a season high 15 three-pointers. Against all-odds, the coach I once said “couldn’t coach his way out of a hat-box,” Scott Drew, wins the national title thanks to a superlative trio of guards and Mark Vital, who finally earns his statue.
I am not particularly confident in these predictions, or, rather, I am desperately hoping that Izzo and the guys in green and white prove me wrong.