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NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Top-24 teams

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NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Purdue vs Michigan State Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

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 predict all four Final Four teams in 2019. After a one-year hiatus in 2020 and despite my misreading of the Michigan State Spartans’ season, last season I was able to predict two out of the 2021 four Final Four teams (Gonzaga and Baylor) and that Baylor would win the championship — so I will see if I can keep this relative streak going.

To remind you, I am working off of the real data and qualitative analysis (i.e. my interpretation of data from Kenpom, Barttorvik and Sports-Reference, and my own analysis of the teams in the bracket). The bracket gives us the following “pots” of teams (bolded teams are ones I have in the top-16, italics are “wild-cards”):

West:

Gonzaga, Georgia State, Boise State, Memphis
Connecticut, New Mexico St., Arkansas, Vermont
Alabama, Rutgers/Notre Dame, Texas Tech, Montana State
Michigan State, Davidson, Duke, Cal State Fullerton

East:

Baylor, Norfolk State, North Carolina, Marquette
Saint Mary’s, Wyoming/Indiana, UCLA, Akron
Texas, Virginia Tech, Purdue, Yale
Murray St., San Francisco, Kentucky, Saint Peter’s

South:

Arizona, Wright St./Bryant, Seton Hall, TCU
Houston, UAB, Illinois, UTC
Colorado State, Michigan, Tennessee, Longwood
Ohio State, Loyola Chicago, Villanova, Delaware

Midwest:

Kansas, Texas So./Texas A&M-CC, South Dakota State, Creighton
Iowa, Richmond, Providence, San Diego State
LSU, Iowa State, Wisconsin, Colgate
USC, Miami, Auburn, Jacksonville State

Note: As of Wednesday morning, Texas Southern and Indiana have won play-in games and will advance to the Round of 64, with Bryant versus Wright State and Notre Dame versus Rutgers completing the First Four games on Wednesday night.

Comments:

I will never understand why so many lower-seeded teams get home-court advantage in the NCAA Tournament. It just makes no sense and flies in the face of the idea of seeding in and of itself. Anyway, on to the bracket...

The South looks like a battle between Arizona and the winner of the Houston-Illinois showdown (bet on Houston in that one). Tennessee is a team I still love, and it has gotten better down the stretch. Arizona edges the Vols.

In the Midwest, Kansas could have a real battle on its hands with either San Diego State or Creighton in the Round of 32, and Iowa should give Kansas a real run for its money in a potential Sweet 16 matchup. Auburn should be the favorite to emerge from this quadrant, but getting past USC (tricky length and pace) and Wisconsin (with heady wings, and a slow pace) could be tough. I like Auburn over Kansas every day of the week.

The West is the toughest region in the tournament. Gonzaga gets a potential brutal second round contest against Memphis, and I would like the Tigers that matchup. Connecticut should get to a regional final if Danny Hurley can keep his composure. Rutgers will win a couple games before running into the Texas Tech buzzsaw, and Michigan State matches up well against both Davidson and Duke. I could see Duke, Michigan State, Texas Tech, Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Memphis or Gonzaga as emerging from this region — the committee was on one with this bracket.

The East looks like a sneaky-tough region with Baylor likely to advance to a tough matchup against UCLA (I like the Bruins a lot). Texas and Virginia Tech. might be the lowest scoring game in the tournament (both teams tend to play really slow-paced) and Purdue should beat whichever team emerges. Kentucky gets a potential bear of a second-round matchup against San Francisco (my pick), which matches up terrifically with UK, assuming, Yauhen Massalski is healthy. A UCLA-Kentucky showdown sounds like fun.

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. Arizona [South, No. 1-seed]

1 - Kerr Kriisa, Justin Kier
2 - Dalen Terry, Pelle Larsson
3 - Bennedict Mathurin, Adama Bal
4 - Ažuolas Tubelis
5 - Christian Koloko, Oumar Ballo

Arizona has a straightforward path, and was able to overcome Kriisa’s injury in the Pac-12 Tournament. If the Wildcats get everyone healthy, this team should cruise to the Sweet 16.

2. Auburn [Midwest, No. 2-seed]

1 - Zep Jasper
2 - K.D. Johnson, Wendell Green
3 - Allen Flanigan, Devan Cambridge
4 - Jabari Smith, Jaylin Williams
5 - Walker Kessler, Dylan Cardwell

Auburn has a tricky potential matchup in the second round, but should mitigate USC’s length with its own length and ball-pressure.

3. Baylor [East, No. 1-seed]

1 - James Akinjo
2 - Adam Flagler, Dale Bonner
3 - Kendall Brown
4 - Matthew Mayer, Jeremy Sochan
5 - Flo Thamba

Given the team’s lack of depth due to injuries, Baylor is actually on upset alert against either North Carolina or Marquette. Despite that potential scare, Baylor has too much experience and moxie to lose before the Sweet 16.

4. Gonzaga [West, No. 1-seed]

1 - Andrew Nembhard
2 - Rasir Bolton, Nolan Hickman
3 - Julian Strawther, Hunter Sallis
4 - Drew Timme, Anton Watson
5 - Chet Holmgren

Gonzaga should beat Memphis (or Boise State) in the second round, but I really like the matchup for Penny Hardaway. Memphis is tough on defense and on the glass, and has enough length and pop on the perimeter and wings to really give Gonzaga problems.

5. Kansas [Midwest, No. 1-seed]

1 - Remy Martin
2 - Dajuan Harris, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Joseph Yesufu
3 - Ochai Agbaji
4 - Christian Braun, Jalen Wilson, KJ Adams
5 - David McCormack, Mitch Lightfoot, Zach Clemence

Kansas should cruise, though, if I were a betting man, I would take a long look at both San Diego State and Creighton.

6. UCLA [East, No. 4-seed]

1 - Tyger Campbell
2 - Johnny Juzang, David Singleton
3 - Jules Bernard, Jaylen Clark
4 - Jaime Jaquez, Peyton Watson, Jake Kyman
5 - Myles Johnson, Kenneth Nwuba

Love this squad still. It is so experienced and long on the wing, and has so much shooting and moxie.

7. Purdue [East, No. 3-seed]

1 - Eric Hunter, Isaiah Thompson
2 - Jaden Ivey, Brandon Newman
3 - Sasha Stefanovic, Ethan Morton
4 - Caleb Furst, Mason Gillis
5 - Zach Edey, Trevion Williams

The bracket sets up nicely for Purdue — no teams that are red-hot, no teams with dominant wings, no teams that can really out-match-up the Edey-Ivey-Williams trio. Failing to make a Sweet 16 would be a significant failure for the Boilermakers.

8. Tennessee [South, No. 3-seed]

1 - Kennedy Chandler, Zakai Ziegler
2 - Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey Jr.
3 - Josiah-Jordan James, Justin Powell
4 - Brandon Huntley-Hatfield
5 - Uros Plavsic, John Fulkerson

The Sweet 16 should be more-or-less in the bag, but getting past Villanova (which waxed the Volunteers at the start of the year), Ohio State or Loyola Chicago (both teams evoke Villanova in many ways), will be a tall order.

9. Texas Tech [West, No. 3-seed]

1 - Adonis Arms, Clarence Nadolny, Mylik Wilson
2 - Davion Warren, Kevin McCullar
3 - Terrence Shannon, Sardaar Calhoun
4 - Bryson Williams, KJ Allen
5 - Kevin Obanor, Marcus Santos-Silva, Daniel Batcho

I would be shocked if the Red Raiders do not make the Sweet 16, though Rutgers does have the shot-making to give Texas Tech heart-burn.

10. Iowa [Midwest, No. 5-seed]

1 - Jordan Bohannon, Joe Toussaint, Ahron Ulis
2 - Tony Perkins
3 - Patrick McCaffery, Connor McCaffery, Payton Sandfort
4 - Keegan Murray, Kris Murray
5 - Filip Rebrača

Another bracket that sets up nicely for a Big Ten team — neither Richmond nor Providence should be able to slow down Keegan Murray, or make Iowa’s defense sweat nearly enough to cause them problems.

11. Villanova [South, No. 2-seed]

1 - Collin Gillespie
2 - Justin Moore, Brian Antoine
3 - Brandon Slater, Chris Arcidiacono
4 - Jermaine Samuels, Caleb Daniels
5 - Eric Dixon, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree

Should Jay Wright’s team advance to the Sweet 16? Yes. Will the Wildcats? That is the question. Both Ohio State (if healthy) or Loyola Chicago can beat Villanova at its own game.

12. Kentucky [East, No. 2-seed]

1 - Sahvir Wheeler
2 - TyTy Washington, Davion Mintz
3 - Kellan Grady
4 - Keion Brooks Jr., Jacob Toppin
5 - Oscar Tshiebwe, Lance Ware

Kentucky should cruise, but San Francisco looks like a major obstacle — the Dons can cause the Kentucky guards problems, and San Francisco is by no means a small minnow. Tshiebwe will have a tough go of it.

13. Duke [West, No. 2-seed]

1 - Trevor Keels, Jeremy Roach
2 - Wendell Moore Jr., Jaylen Blakes
3 - AJ Griffin, Joey Baker
4 - Paolo Banchero
5 - Mark Williams, Theo John

The Mike Krzyzewski retirement train gets a potential thorny rematch with Tom Izzo in the second round (assuming Michigan State plays like it did in the Big Ten Tournament against Davidson). There is a significant chance that the Spartans derail the Duke media tour.

14. Houston [South, No. 5-seed]

1 - Jamal Shead
2 - Kyler Edwards, Taze Moore
3 - Ramon Walker Jr., Robbie Armbrester
4 - Reggie Chaney, J’Wan Roberts, Ja’Vier Francis
5 - Fabian White Jr., Josh Carlton, Kiyron Powell

Houston is only this low because Illinois is a good team and will pose Houston problems. Still, I like Houston to advance.

15. UConn [West, No. 5-seed]

1 - RJ Cole, Jalen Gaffney
2 - Tyrese Martin, Jordan Hawkins
3 - Andre Jackson
4 - Akok Akok, Tyler Polley
5 - Adama Sanogo, Isaiah Whaley

Connecticut should absolutely be a dark horse for a Final Four — the Huskies have everything needed for a tournament run. They have not gotten blown out once this season, have overcome adversity and have a ton of athletes, length and strength.

16. Wisconsin [Midwest, No. 3-seed]

1 - Chucky Hepburn
2 - Brad Davison
3 - Jonathan Davis, Jahcobi Neath, Jordan Davis
4 - Tyler Wahl, Ben Carlson
5 - Steven Crowl, Chris Vogt

Wisconsin should be able to get past both Colgate and the winner of LSU-Iowa State matchup — neither of which are great teams (and LSU’s coach Will Wade finally got fired last week). Will Wisconsin get past Auburn? Unlikely.

17. Illinois [South, No. 4-seed]

1 - Trent Frazier, Andre Curbelo
2 - Alfonso Plummer
3 - Da’Monte Williams, Luke Goode
4 - Coleman Hawkins, Jacob Grandison
5 - Kofi Cockburn, Omar Payne

Illinois could absolutely beat Houston to get to the Sweet 16, but it does not have much of an answer for the Cougars’ wing players.

18. Michigan State [West, No. 7-seed]

1 - Tyson Walker, A.J. Hoggard
2 - Max Christie, Jaden Akins
3 - Gabe Brown, Pierre Brooks II
4 - Joey Hauser, Malik Hall
5 - Marcus Bingham Jr., Julius Marble, Mady Sissoko

The Spartans had a great run through the Big Ten Tournament, and if Walker’s ankle is ready to go against Davidson, then the Spartans should win that game despite the Wildcats’ shooting prowess. The potential Duke game will be interesting — Duke plays a small rotation and often plays small — look for the Spartans to wear down the Blue Devils in a high-octane slug-fest.

19. Arkansas [West, No. 4-seed]

1 - JD Notae, Chris Lykes
2 - Davonte Davis
3 - Au’Diese Toney
4 - Stanley Umude, Trey Wade
5 - Jaylin Williams, Kamani Johnson

I like this Arkansas team, but it gest a brutal second-round game against Connecticut.

20. Loyola Chicago [East, No. 7-seed]

1 - Braden Norris
2 - Lucas Williamson, Marquise Kennedy, Keith Clemons
3 - Ryan Schwieger, Saint Thomas
4 - Aher Uguak, Tate Hall
5 - Chris Knight, Tom Welch, Jacob Hutson

Loyola Chicago has a great chance to beat two slow-paced teams in Ohio State and Villanova. Ohio State is banged up and a bit low on confidence (shut down E.J. Liddell and that one is over), and the Wildcats’ glacial pace just invites teams to hang around, which is right where Drew Valentine’s veterans will feel at home.

21. Saint Mary’s [East, No. 5-seed]

1 - Tommy Kuhse
2 - Logan Johnson, Augustus Marciulionis
3 - Alex Ducas, Jabe Mullins
4 - Kyle Bowen, Dan Fotu
5 - Matthias Tass, Mitchell Saxen

Saint Mary’s can beat UCLA. I just do not see it happening.

22. San Francisco [East, No. 10-seed]

1 - Jamaree Bouyea
2 - Khalil Shabazz
3 - Julian Rishwain, Gabe Stefanini
4 - Josh Kunen, Patrick Tape, Zane Meeks
5 - Yauhen Massalski, Volodymyr Markovetskyy

My double-digit seed pick for the Sweet 16.

23. Ohio State [South, No. 7-seed]

1 - Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson
2 - Malaki Branham, Cedric Russell
3 - Justin Ahrens, Eugene Brown
4 - E.J. Liddell, Kyle Young
5 - Zed Key, Joey Brunk

If Liddell and Branham can get going, and if Johnson, Young and Key get fit, then this OSU team could eke into the Sweet 16.

24. Memphis [West, No. 9-seed]

1 - Alex Lomax
2 - Lester Quinones, Tyler Harris
3 - Landers Nolley, Earl Timberlake
4 - DeAndre Williams, Josh Minott
5 - Jalen Duren, Malcolm Dandridge

The Tigers can give Gonzaga some real problems. This is my pick for the surprise of the tournament.

Predictions

Sweet 16:

West:

Memphis (9) vs. UConn (5): After stunning Gonzaga, Memphis gets sent home by a better version of itself. Emoni Bates does not play a single minute in the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament run.

Texas Tech (3) vs. Michigan State (7): In another shocker, Tom Izzo revisits the 2019 tournament and re-writes history, following up a surprisingly comfortable win over Duke and a disconsolate Coach K, with a high-drama comeback victory against the Red Raiders.

East:

Baylor (1) vs. UCLA (4): UCLA is on a mission and Baylor’s margin of error has gotten too fine with all of its injuries. UCLA marches on.

Purdue (3) vs. San Francisco (10): In yet another stunning upset, the Dons work over Kentucky as Calipari goes apoplectic on the sidelines. Against Purdue, however, Jaden Ivey and Zach Edey prove too much to handle.

South:

Arizona (1) vs. Houston (5): Arizona has the best player on the floor in Bennedict Mathurin and his shot-making proves too much for the excellent Cougars.

Villanova (2) vs. Tennessee (3): In a rematch of the Wildcats’ drubbing of the Volunteers, history more-or-less repeats itself with Villanova pulling away late thanks to veteran shot-making and composure.

Midwest:

Kansas (1) vs. Iowa (5): After struggling to get to the Sweet 16, Kansas finds a team more suited to its tastes in Iowa. With enough bodies to throw at Keegan Murray, Kansas finds a way to advance.

Auburn (2) vs. Wisconsin (3): In a contrast of styles, Auburn’s ball-pressure and rim-protection prove too much for the Badgers.

Elite Eight:

UConn (5) vs. Michigan State (7): We have seen this story before, and the Spartans find a way to hang on as the Huskies make a furious comeback late in the second half.

UCLA (4) vs. Purdue (3): UCLA’s wings and forwards batter Purdue’s weaker perimeter defenders and Zach Edey and Trevion Williams cannot make up the difference.

Arizona (1) vs. Villanova (2): Arizona cements itself as the favorite heading into the Final Four with a truly dominant performance against an under-sized Villanova team.

Kansas (1) vs. Auburn (2): Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler dominate Kansas’ front-line, with Bill Self left smirking and “aww jeez-ing” his way off the court.

Final Four:

Michigan State (7) vs. UCLA (4): In more revisionist history, the basketball gods smile down on Izzo during the undercard of the Final Four — his whole team plays well for an entire game, for the first time all season, and Marcus Bingham Jr. sets a Michigan State record for blocks in a tournament game.

Arizona (1) vs. Auburn (2): Auburn is the better team, but Arizona brings its “A-game” more consistently than any other team in the nation — an off-night for the Auburn guards dooms the Tigers.

NCAA Final:

Michigan State (7) vs. Arizona (1): In one of the bigger national title game upsets in recent memory, Izzo collects his second title as his Spartans, who actually match-up nearly identically with the Wildcats, beat Arizona at the Wildcats’ own high-paced transition-driven barn-burner.

Go Green!