It’s that time of year! The NCAA Tournament is upon us, which means it’s time to make our picks for the three most exciting weeks of the basketball season. In the next few days, we’ll be breaking the tournament region by region in our efforts to turn the Average Joe into a regular Joey Brackets. Let’s start with the South region.
Best First Round Matchup: #5 Wichita St. vs. #12 VCU
This is a matchup between two mid-majors that are both very, very hot right now. Wichita State has lost twice since January 4 while Virginia Commonwealth has lost just once since January 8. They are set to collide Thursday in Portland in a matchup between two teams that could both easily make a run to the Sweet 16. Wichita St. sports a balanced offensive attack, with three players averaging more than 12 points per game. While they love to run and gun on offense, they also crash the boards relentlessly, pulling down 38 rebounds per game. Senior Garrett Stutz paces the Shockers’ offense. The 7-foot center records 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, shooting 82.1% from the free throw line. Meanwhile, VCU operates at a significantly slower pace. This is not the same team you saw make a run to the Final Four last year- the only starter remaining from last year’s team is senior Bradford Burgess, who leads the Rams with 13.3 points per game. But the Rams prefer to earn their stripes on the defensive end of the floor. Although they lost many key pieces from their tournament run last season, they haven’t lost the “havoc” defense that got them there. They’ll be all over the floor trying to slow Wichita State down and force as many turnovers as possible. Expect this game to be a chess match between two great coaches, VCU’s Shaka Smart and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall will be struggling throughout the game to control the pace. Marshall previously led Winthrop to seven NCAA Tournament appearances in nine seasons before being hired by Wichita State in 2007. Ultimately, the Shockers should prove too strong for the Rams, but this should be a great basketball game.
Dark Horse: #6 UNLV
Look out for the Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV’s successes this season didn’t end when they knocked off previously top-ranked North Carolina in November. They went on to defeat then-ranked Illinois and split matchups with a talented San Diego State team. This is a team that is fully loaded with offensive firepower, and other teams might not be able to keep up. Sophomore Mike Moser is a force inside, averaging a double-double at 14.1 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Chace Stanback is the type of player that can take a stake and absolutely drive it into another team’s heart. Shooting a 46.4% clip from beyond the arc, Stanback is the sixth-ranked long-range shooter in the nation. When he gets going- watch out. Chace led the way with 28 points and 10 rebounds in UNLV’s victory over North Carolina and shot 8-for-9 from beyond the arc en route to 29 points in a win over Louisiana-Monroe. This is the type of team that is very capable of catching fire and making a run to the Elite 8, but could face a very tough third round matchup with an equally athletic Baylor team. These teams will make for a great matchup, and if UNLV can survive they could be big trouble for Duke in the Sweet 16.
Don’t expect too many surprises in this region. The first round will be dominated by the higher seeds, as the two most dangerous lower seeded teams–Wichita State and VCU–have been matched up with one another. Iowa State and Connecticut will be close, but expect UConn’s talent should prevail. Xavier is far and away the best 10-seed in the tournament, and will be a tough test for Duke in the next round. Duke fans, be warned: Lehigh will also be a tough opponent for the Blue Devils. Lehigh hasn’t lost a game by double digits all season, and is the highest Pomeroy-rated 15 seed in the field. That said, here’s how our bracket shaped up:
The Final Four Pick: Kentucky. There’s a reason why they are the top overall seed in this year’s tournament: Kentucky is far and away the most talented team in the country. They ran away with the SEC this season, finishing with a perfect 16-0 record. Anthony Davis is the odds on favorite to win both National Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year in the NCAA. They are simply too deep, too athletic, too talented for anyone in arguably this tournament’s toughest region to contend with. Whether or not they’ll be able to win a national championship with a bunch of one-and-dones and questionable team chemistry remains to be seen, but they should be able to make a run to New Orleans without more than a slight scare.
We’ll be back to preview the West region tomorrow. Let us know what you think about our analysis and picks in the comments below.