The 2018 NCAA Tournament is finally here. We’ve gone over the teams that have made it in, the teams to watch as potential Cinderella stories, and the teams that were snubbed by the committee. Now, it’s time to go game by game and pick some winners with out complete and totally accurate picks for what’s going to go down over the next few weeks.
All winners are in bold.
1. Villanova vs. 16. LIU-Brooklyn/Radford
8. Virginia Tech vs. 9. Alabama
5. West Virginia vs. 12. Murray State
4. Wichita State vs. 13. Marshall
6. Florida vs. 11. St. Bonaventure/UCLA
3. Texas Tech vs. 14. Stephen F. Austin
7. Arkansas vs. 10. Butler
2. Purdue vs. 15. Cal State Fullerton
Not a lot of drama here, as the only “upsets” come from teams that are lower seeded in the 8-9 and 7-10 games. Butler is underseeded and the kind of team that can slow down a more uptempo Arkansas squad, and while Virginia Tech is a better team on the whole than Alabama, Collin Sexton is too good to let the Crimson Tide get bounced right away. Keep an eye on the point guards in the 6-11 game, as Florida’s Chris Chiozza against either St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams or UCLA’s Aaron Holiday is going to be a ton of fun.
1. Kansas vs. 16. Penn
8. Seton Hall vs. 9. NC State
5. Clemson vs. 12. New Mexico State
4. Auburn vs. 13. College of Charleston
6. TCU vs. 11. Arizona State/Syracuse
3. Michigan State vs. 14. Bucknell
7. Rhode Island vs. 10. Oklahoma
2. Duke vs. 15. Iona
Don’t watch Clemson and New Mexico State if you like watching teams score. Both defenses are outstanding, and both teams love to punch opponents in the mouths. It’ll be a close game throughout, with the Aggies’ Zach Lofton making one more shot than anyone on Clemson. Rhode Island-Oklahoma is like Virginia Tech-Alabama: The Rams are a better team, but despite the Sooners’ stumbling to the finish, picking against Trae Young seems unwise.
The game of the region will be Seton Hall against NC State, one which will be determined by whether the Wolfpack can keep Angel Delgado off of the glass. Oh, and watch the 1-16 game. Kansas has a history of slipping up too early in March, while Penn is underseeded. I’m not saying it’ll happen, but I am saying I’d like a 16 to beat a 1 someday.
1. Xavier vs. 16. NC Central/Texas Southern
8. Missouri vs. 9. Florida State
5. Ohio State vs. 12. South Dakota State
4. Gonzaga vs. 13. UNC Greensboro
6. Houston vs. 11. San Diego State
3. Michigan vs. 14. Montana
7. Texas A&M vs. 10. Providence
2. North Carolina vs. 15. Lipscomb
Mostly chalk in this region, although look for South Dakota State and its star senior, Mike Daum, to give the a Buckeyes team that is good but has overachieved this year hell. Also keep an eye on two really dangerous squads: Missouri and Texas A&M.
If the Tigers can get Michael Porter Jr. comfortable before the Tournament starts, they’re really dangerous. If the Aggies, which came into the year as a sleeper to make a run, can get guys like Robert Williams and D.J. Hogg to play up to their potential, no one will want to play them.
1. Virginia vs. 16. UMBC
8. Creighton vs. 9. Kansas State
5. Kentucky vs. 12. Davidson
4. Arizona vs. 13. Buffalo
6. Miami vs. 11. Loyola-Chicago
3. Tennessee vs. 14. Wright State
7. Nevada vs. 10. Texas
2. Cincinnati vs. 15. Georgia State
More chalk, even if the 5-12 matchup is tantalizing, as Kentucky hasn’t quite played up to its talent this year and this Davidson team is really good. Absolutely watch Loyola-Chicago — which boasts a win over Florida and a current 10-game winning streak — go up against a talented-but-flawed Miami side that will be without NBA hopeful Bruce Brown. Fellow NBA hopeful Lonnie Walker has the talent to beat the Ramblers, but will he?
1. Villanova vs. 9. Alabama
4. Wichita State vs. 5. West Virginia
3. Texas Tech vs. 6. Florida
2. Purdue vs. 10. Butler
The guard play in this region will be insane. Jalen Brunson against Sexton will headline things, but you will want to watch the Shockers’ Landry Shamet try to navigate the Mountaineers’ hellacious press led by Javon Carter. Chiozza and Keenan Evans is a heavyweight fight between two of the toughest guards in the nation. In the least guard-friendly matchup, the Boilermakers and the Bulldogs faced off earlier this year with Purdue winning, 82-67. The rematch will be closer.
1. Kansas vs. 8. Seton Hall
4. Auburn vs. 12. New Mexico State
3. Michigan State vs. 6. TCU
2. Duke vs. 10. Oklahoma
Chalk through two rounds as the higher seeds are just too good for the lower-seeded squads. Watching the Jayhawks deal with the Pirates’ size could be interesting if Udoka Azubuike isn’t healthy, but still, this is a talented Kansas squad that can handle that.
The Aggies will struggle to slow down a potent Tiger attack, while the Horned Frogs won’t be able to keep up with the Spartans with star guard Jaylen Fisher sidelined. Young will score on Duke’s zone, but it won’t be anywhere enough, as Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter feast against the Sooners.
1. Xavier vs. 8. Missouri
4. Gonzaga vs. 12. South Dakota State
3. Michigan vs. 6. Houston
2. North Carolina vs. 7. Texas A&M
Let’s get weird. I’m a big believer in Porter’s ability to take over games, and against an Xavier team ranked 14th in KenPom, I think he can do that and lead the Tigers to a massive win. Gonzaga is just quietly churning away, and shouldn’t have too many issues against the Jackrabbits.
Houston is a really tough team, but just doesn’t have the size to deal with Mo Wagner and Duncan Robinson. You should still watch this game, because Rob Gray is still good enough to win it on his own. The Aggies’ talented roster runs into another talented squad in the Tar Heels, and behind the 1-2 senior punch of Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, North Carolina advances.
1. Virginia vs. 8. Creighton
4. Arizona vs. 5. Kentucky
3. Tennessee vs. 11. Loyola-Chicago
2. Cincinnati vs. 7. Nevada
More chalk, as three of the four games aren’t a huge shock — Virginia will slow Creighton down and make life hell for them, Tennessee is simply a better team than Loyola-Chicago, and while Nevada can hit threes against almost anyone, Cincinnati’s stingy defense smothers them. The fascinating game is the 4-5 matchup, in which Kentucky’s frontcourt has to find an answer for Deandre Ayton. I am skeptical that happens, even if 6’6 point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a star and Kevin Knox is a dangerous point guard.
1. Villanova vs. 5. West Virginia
2. Purdue vs. 6. Florida
Press Virginia beats you by getting you unsettled. That does not happen with Villanova, as Brunson may be the most composed point guard in the nation. Even if he has an off game, the rest of the Wildcats’ starting five — Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall, and Omari Spellman — is more than capable of picking it up. The Mountaineers have a bit of a propensity to really struggle for long stretches, and you cannot ever give Villanova an inch.
Purdue is a team that, prior to a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, was considered by some to be the best team in America. While, spoiler alert, they don’t end up winning a national title, their run does not end here. Point guard Carsen Edwards is a warrior, 7’2 center Isaac Haas is a load, and basically everyone else on the Boilermakers fill their roles perfectly. If Florida’s trio of 40+ percent shooters from deep — Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov, and Keith Stone — get hot, they can keep the Gators in this game, but Edwards is ultimately too much.
1. Kansas vs. 4. Auburn
2. Duke vs. 3. Michigan State
Auburn has been one of the best stories in the sport, playing a fast and uptempo style that can wear opponents down. The duo of Mustapha Heron and Bryce Brown has been a joy to watch, but Kansas just has so many guys who can beat you, whether it’s a star like Devonte’ Graham, a marksman from downtown like Svi Mykhailiuk, or two of the best “role players” in the country in Malik Newman or Lagerald Vick. The Jayhawks aren’t very deep, especially if Azubuike is out, but they’re still a talented, well-coach squad that should be able to beat the Tigers.
Before the year, Duke-Michigan State was a potential title game. Now, it’s a Sweet 16 game. The two teams met up earlier this year in an 88-81 Blue Devils victory that was really weird — Grayson Allen had 37 points while Bagley had four because he got hurt and had to leave the game. Three Spartan players (Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Nick Ward) had 19 points each, the rest had 24 combined.
Basically, that game was likely not a reflection of what we’ll see here. These teams are so evenly matched, but the x-factor will be point guard play. Duke has Trevon Duval, who has hit a wall lately but still oozes talent. Michigan State has Cassius Winston, who is playing his best ball lately and is second in the nation in both assist rate and three-point shooting percentage. Winston wins this matchup, and Michigan State wins the game.
4. Gonzaga vs. 8. Missouri
2. North Carolina vs. 3. Michigan
Gonzaga and Missouri would be a fun matchup of two long, talented squads that have the talent to win this region. The Tigers have the Porter brothers — Michael and Jontay, who has been great this year — along with dynamic wings Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett (who is suspended for at least their first game due to a DWI). The Bulldogs are just so balanced, six players averaging at least 9.5 points per game, led by the frontcourt duo of Jonathan Williams and Killian Tillie. Ultimately, Gonzaga is just a better basketball team that has been here before and is able to come out on top.
Stylistically, North Carolina against Michigan is a tremendous matchup of a team that wants to speed it up facing off against a team that wants to slow things down. You can beat the Tar Heels by hitting threes — opponents are shooting 38.3 percent from behind the arc against them — and when the Wolverines get hot from downtown, their offense is nearly unstoppable. If Wagner and Jon Teske can hold their own on the boards, Michigan wins and keeps dancing.
1. Virginia vs. 4. Arizona
2. Cincinnati vs. 3. Tennessee
For how great the Cavaliers are, they run into a massive issue at this juncture: They don’t have a single person who can physically match up with Ayton. Virginia already isn’t a great rebounding squad, but asking 6’10 junior Jack Salt to keep Ayton at bay is a tall task. In a game that slows down — and this game will be really slow — having one trump card over your opponent is sometimes all it takes. Virginia will do everything right, but Ayton and fellow seven footer Dusan Ristic tilt the tables in the Wildcats’ direction.
In an all-out war, Cincinnati has the nation’s No. 2 adjusted defensive efficiency, while Tennessee is fourth in that metric. Neither team is going to give the other an inch, which is going to make for one of those weird low-scoring basketball games that still manages to be entertaining. In a strange twist, it’s the offense of the Volunteers that wins this one — the Bearcats have a number of solid options but don’t really have one guy who can win a basketball game. Tennessee, meanwhile, has the remarkably crafty Williams, who is really good at finding ways to score. That ends up making the difference in a game that ends up with both teams scoring fewer than 60 points.
1. Villanova vs. 2. Purdue
These are two of the most well-rounded teams in college basketball and would play as evenly-matched of a game as we’ll see this year. They’re both top-5 squads in KenPom, and neither really has a major weakness. Honestly, if this happens, you can flip a coin and let that determine who you pick. This isn’t especially insightful, but I did that for this, and it came up Purdue, so let’s say that Edwards out-duels Brunson in a classic, while Dakota Mathias makes one more big three than Bridges.
1. Kansas vs 3. Michigan State
The Jayhawks’ depth issues catch up to them against a Spartan squad that is among the deepest teams in the country. Graham against Winston will be a war, but the big thing to watch is how Kansas would deal with Michigan State’s frontcourt. Bridges is a matchup nightmare, Jackson is a potential two-way star, and Ward is a tank down low. The Spartans just have too many weapons, and when you’re a team that lacks depth, that’s a recipe for disaster.
2. Michigan vs. 4. Gonzaga
Both of these teams have come into the Tournament on fire, with the Wolverines winning their final nine games en route to a Big Ten Tournament victory and the Bulldogs winning every game they’ve played since Jan. 20. This game is another coin flip, but look for Michigan’s elite defense to carry it to a victory — the Wolverines are fifth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, and as the season has gone on, the team has gotten more and more stingy on that end of the floor.
3. Tennessee vs. 4. Arizona
The Wildcats ride the Ayton train all the way to the Final Four, as Tennessee doesn’t have the size to match up with him. More importantly, watch out for the players the Wildcats have on the perimeter to open things up, as Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright are at their most dangerous when opposing teams focus on slowing down their frontcourt.
Purdue vs. Michigan State
Michigan vs. Arizona
The first game is a rematch from Feb. 10 in East Lansing, one which saw Michigan State come out on top in a tightly-contested game, 68-65. Expect something similar here, right down to the final score. The way we get there will be a little different — Jackson played 13 minutes due to foul trouble, leading to Haas feasting and no one else on Purdue playing especially well — but these teams are separated by one spot in KenPom and were the class of the Big Ten all season long.
Speaking of the Big Ten, it will get three teams in the Final Four, with its Tournament champion going up against the Pac-12 champs. This isn’t an especially good matchup for the Wolverines, as Arizona can match their size and, more importantly, have big men who can defend Wagner on the perimeter. The matchup of backcourts/wings will be fantastic — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Zavier Simpson, Jordan Poole, and Charles Matthews are all really fun, while the aforementioned Arizona players are going to go right at them — but the Wildcats win out, preventing from what would surely be a not-tense final between the two top teams from Michigan.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Michigan State vs. Arizona
The Spartans are one of the few teams capable of slowing Ayton down, as Jackson is an absolute stud on both ends of the floor and Ward is powerful enough to not get pushed around by the Wildcats star. Ayton will still get his, but this is the hardest he will have to work all Tournament.
This game will be won on the perimeter, assuming that Ayton and Jackson will spend 40+ minutes going at one another. Does Michigan State have an answer for if Trier or Alkins get hot, or if they cen’t get jumpers to fall in the cavernous Alamo Dome? Can anyone on Arizona stop Bridges from being the all-consuming force he’s capable of being? Which point guard — Jackson-Cartwright or Winston — is ultimately able to get the ball into their big men in better spots?
In the end, give me the Wildcats, which have looked motivated beyond belief ever since head coach Sean Miller was put in the center of the FBI’s investigation into college hoops. They’re getting hot at the right time and have the best player in the nation, so despite the fact that this Spartan squad is outstanding, it’s not quite enough.