DISCLAIMER: The first round (or day) of the tournament will probably invalidate this entire article. The craziness of this tournament is why people love it so much.
For this NCAA Tournament preview, I will not go game-by-game and round-by-round as there is far too much potential to be wildly off the mark. Instead, I will just state my thoughts on what I believe to be the most likely things to happen.
Notable First Round Upset Chances (not including 8 vs. 9 or 7 vs. 10 matchups)
5 Mississippi State vs. 12 Liberty
Mississippi State only won one game against a ranked team this season, losing their other five attempts. Liberty shoots almost 50% from the field on the season, and ranks 12th with their 49.1% mark.
6 Maryland vs. 11 Belmont
Belmont is fresh off a First Four win over Temple to earn the opportunity to play Maryland. Maryland has a .500 winning percentage over its last 14 games including a loss in its only Big Ten Tournament game to Nebraska, who finished 13th in the conference.
3 LSU vs. 14 Yale
There really is no reason on paper that LSU should lose this game, and they may be especially motivated to play well in the tournament after key player Wayde Sims was tragically murdered before the season began. However, LSU coach Will Wade was suspended March 8 after a wiretap emerged in which he was talking about potentially paying recruits to sign with LSU. The team only played one game since Wade was suspended, and it was a loss to Florida in LSU’s SEC tournament opener.
5 Marquette vs. 12 Murray State
This game may turn into a shootout with two main players stealing the spotlight, Marquette’s Markus Howard and Murray State’s Ja Morant. However, Morant’s skillset is more well-rounded; he is a great scorer but an excellent passer who led the nation in assists per game. Howard’s game hinges on his shooting, which can be extremely bipolar. He had 45+ points in three games (all wins) this season, but also posted 2-11, 2-15, and 1-15 shooting percentages in three other games (all losses). If Howard goes cold, watch for Murray State to pull off the upset.
2 Michigan vs. 15 Montana
Michigan only had one good non-conference win, a 17-point victory over North Carolina, but that win does not look as impressive as it seems because it came during a rough week-long stretch from Nov. 22 to Nov. 28 where UNC also lost to Texas, who did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Montana, on the other, hand, had the same exact matchup last year in the 2018 tournament, seeding and all. Montana actually jumped out to a 10-0 lead before eventually falling 61-47 in the end to Michigan. Perhaps they will be looking for some revenge this year.
1 Virginia vs. 16 Gardner-Webb
I didn’t forget what happened last year, Virginia.
5 Wisconsin vs. 12 Oregon
5-12 matchups have historically been much more competitive than the 7-seed margin between teams suggests, which is the first reason I have another one of these games on this upset watch list. But, from an in-depth standpoint, Oregon is rolling after winning the Pac-12 Tournament. They struggled with injuries early on, but they seem to have put things together in a way that may make them a much better team than their record and consequent seed suggests. However, Oregon will need to score on a tough Wisconsin defense and figure out a way to slow down star forward Ethan Happ in order to have a chance in this one.
4 Kansas State vs. 13 UC Irvine
Kansas State is unlikely to have senior forward Dean Wade for the NCAA Tournament, a piece of the team that they have had for the entirety of the Big 12 regular season schedule. The Wildcats won a share of the Big 12 title with Wade, but without him, the future is rather murky. Indeed, Kansas State went to the Elite Eight last season in the same situation (Wade was once again injured for all but one game on that run), but at the same time that success could be attributed to not playing a seed higher than a 5. Obviously, UC Irvine is still a 13 seed, but they have won 16 straight games going into the tournament, so they are a hot team. Both teams rely on defense and controlling the pace, so don’t expect this game to go much past 100 combined points. The slow pace of both teams may also keep the score close no matter the circumstances.
6 Villanova vs. 11 Saint Mary’s
Villanova lives and dies by the three-point shot. If it goes in often, things go well, but if not, they are extremely vulnerable. Saint Mary’s is coming off a West Coast Conference Tournament victory over Gonzaga, a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, in which the strategy for victory was to slow down Gonzaga’s fast-paced offense while scoring a lot of points themselves. Of course, that strategy is much easier said than done, but if they can put the same gameplan together against Villanova, the Gaels have a good chance of emerging victorious.
5 Auburn vs. 12 New Mexico State
If you have not noticed, this is the fourth out of four 5-12 matchups I could have mentioned. Again, I examined all of these games because, historically, there is very high upset potential. Actually, though, last year’s tournament was only one of five tournaments since 1985 where a 12-seed did not advance to the second round. Anyway, about this game—Auburn looks to be a healthy favorite on paper especially with their excellent three-point shooting, but New Mexico State has quietly compiled a 30-4 record. No matter what conference you play in, a record like that cannot be totally disregarded. The Aggies barely lost to potential second-round matchup Kansas by three points in November. The key to their success is offensive rebounding and depth, so they may be able to out-hustle Auburn and spur an upset win.
4 Kansas vs. 13 Northeastern
As a Kansas fan, I can safely say that this year’s iteration of the Jayhawks are far more vulnerable than perhaps any Kansas team of the past decade to lose to an inferior opponent. Ever since losing starting center Udoka Azubuike in January, this team has croaked out a 3-7 road record despite an undefeated home record. Road losses have come to the likes of West Virginia and Texas, and the team has looked entirely different when not in the confines of Allen Fieldhouse. Northeastern shoots the three-point shot excellently, at almost 40%, and Kansas has had a lot of difficulty containing three-pointers all season. With the current lineup, Kansas has not beaten a single NCAA tournament team away from home (including the neutral floor of the Big 12 Tournament), so picking them to win their first one with the added pressure of actually being in the sudden-death tournament itself is risky.
6 Iowa State vs. 11 Ohio State
Iowa State is very similar to fellow 6-seed Villanova in that the success of their offense—and their entire team, really—relies heavily on the three-point shot going in. In the past three seasons in which Iowa State has won the Big 12 Tournament, they have posted a combined three NCAA Tournament wins—largely because they lose when they go cold from three. Ohio State comes from the Big Ten Conference, where teams are known for stifling defense, and despite a lack of success in conference play, Ohio State could match up better with a more run-and-gun style of team from the Big 12 in Iowa State.
Locks for the Second Weekend of the Tournament
If all went as planned, the top four seeds from every region would advance to the Sweet 16 and the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, but anyone who has ever followed the tournament knows that never happens. However, there are a few teams who are near locks to win their first two games.
The number-1 overall seed finished just third in their own conference, but there was an obvious piece of the team missing: number-1 recruit out of high school Zion Williamson. While Duke lost its two regular-season contests with fellow 1-seed North Carolina, Williamson was injured in the opening minutes of the first game and missed the rest of it along with missing the entirety of the second game. When the two teams faced off a third time in the ACC Tournament, Williamson was back for Duke and gave the Blue Devils the boost they needed to avenge their two earlier losses in a 74-73 victory March 15. There is almost no scenario I see where 16-seed North Dakota State or either potential second-round matchup VCU or UCF could beat Duke, so they are a healthy write-in for the Sweet 16.
3 Texas Tech
This team is good when their offense is okay, and nearly unbeatable when the offense is excellent. A strange early exit in the Big 12 Tournament after losing to West Virginia should be regarded as a fluke, because this team proved over and over again that it would step up when it needed to. The Red Raiders won their last 11 regular-season games including a dominant 91-62 victory over Kansas. This team relies on its defense to choke opponents out, and it can also get red-hot from three-point range on offense, an excellent combination of traits that makes Texas Tech a lock for the second weekend.
Many people might be skeptical of this year’s Virginia squad because of their now-infamous loss to 16-seed UMBC in last season’s tournament. This team is even better than last year, because this season they have an offense that can keep up with teams who score well to complement coach Tony Bennett’s patented pack-line defense. The only team that could potentially beat Virginia in the first two rounds, in my opinion, is Oklahoma, but the Sooners would have to first win their first-round matchup against Ole Miss and then they would have to shoot a crazy-good percentage from three. I don’t envision both of those things happening, so Virginia, good luck in the Sweet 16. (And don’t get upset by a 16-seed again, or you’ll make me look silly.)
The Wildcats, as they usually are under coach John Calipari, are very young, athletic, and talented. They can score from all over the court, especially from the free-throw line—most teams can’t match up with Kentucky’s powerful drives to the rim and are forced to foul to prevent easy dunks and layups. After an embarrassing blowout loss to Duke in the season opener, Kentucky has only lost five other times. Two of those losses were to 2-seed Tennessee and one was to 3-seed LSU (and was on a buzzer-beater with a controversial no-call to boot). This team’s sheer athleticism should overpower first- and second-round opponents, and they should be playing in the Midwest Regional in Kansas City come March 28.
My Final Four, National Championship, and Champion Picks
Final Four: 2 Michigan State vs. 3 Texas Tech, 1 Virginia vs. 2 Kentucky
Only one of these teams was not a second-weekend lock stated above, and the reason I did not put the Michigan State Spartans on that list is because they have been shockingly upset in recent years (see the 2016 and 2018 tournaments). But, if all goes according to plan and they make it to the Elite Eight with a potential clash with Duke, I think they have the experience to be more calm and collected under pressure, and that will be enough for them to win. I have already stated the strengths of the other three teams, and those strengths explain why I have them in my Final Four.
National Championship: 2 Michigan State vs. 1 Virginia
Once again, I think Michigan State’s experience will help them enough to get past Texas Tech. Virginia, on the other hand, is the one team in the tournament that can slow Kentucky’s offense without fouling. I think they can force Kentucky to settle for lower-percentage shots, and they can ride that defensive success to the national championship.
Champion: 1 Virginia
This season of college basketball has been disgustingly ugly to watch, with many top teams controlling pace with suffocating defense, and it contrasts greatly with the offensive trend of past seasons. Therefore, Virginia, who embraces playing ugly with great defense to win, is my pick to cap off 2019’s March Madness. The team will be especially motivated to win with many people doubting their potential after last season’s disastrous end in similar circumstances.
11 Belmont, 8 Syracuse, 12 Murray State, 12 Oregon, 13 UC Irvine, 9 Washington, 7 Wofford
These are a total crapshoot, and every single one of them may very lose in the first round. So, I will not take the effort to go in-depth on all of these teams. I will say, however, that Syracuse and Washington are interesting because they both run a dedicated zone defense, and Syracuse has used success with their defense to their advantage in multiple unexpected runs in recent years.