2016 Tourney Tip-Off: Rapid-Fire Questions by Region
In three short, dramatic weeks, a familiar anthem will play. You can almost hear One Shining Moment in the background. If our Journey to Houston is as good as Championship Week – buzzer beaters, overtimes, half-court heaves – it’ll be another event for the ages.
By now you’ve likely read hundreds of previews and tossed a couple of practice brackets in the trash. Which upsets to pick? Who’ll reach the Final Four? Will Cinderella emerge? So rather than simply provide you a list of picks (boring at best, wrong at worst), let’s take a peek at the possibilities – first as a whole, and then Region-by-Region. Along the way, I’ll give you my selections for the Final Four. It’ll give you something to throw in my face next November.
Tournament Questions …
Will a 16-Seed win? Start with an easy question. No. Although it would be a fun to go Dunk City after FGCU’s dominant win over Fairleigh-Dickinson, let’s remember that the Eagles finished behind North Florida in the Atlantic Sun standings and that Hampton is the only 16-seed to win its league’s regular-season title. Asking the Pirates to beat Virginia in Raleigh is a tall order.
Can a 15-seed pull an upset? Unlikely. Middle Tennessee is probably the best of the bunch, and under-seeded in my opinion, but again, they get Michigan State. I don’t see the Spartans exiting stage left in their first game.
Best First-Round game? All of the 8-9 games could be barn-burners. And if forced to pick one of those, I would go with USC-Providence. But let’s go a different direction. How about Wichita State and Arizona? The winner could arguably win a couple of more games. If you live in the East and have to go to bed early on Thursday, set your DVR.
Best Second-Round game? We have to make a leap of faith here. It’s 2016. It’s the NCAA tournament. Do we really know what’s going to happen? But if Indiana and Kentucky both win opening-round games, they’ll renew a rivalry that the two coaches couldn’t agree to continue on their own. Did we mention the two fan bases are zealous and don’t care much for each other’s team?
A Sweet 16 game to remember? Let’s stay in the East, shall we. The winner of a potential IU-UK matchup will likely run into top-seed North Carolina. Any of those names sound familiar? It would be a clash among two of the nation’s most storied programs. If it’s Kentucky-Carolina, it will all comes down to Blue; pick your favorite shade.
An Elite 8 game to savor? How about Michigan State and Virginia. Do you think Cavalier fans are tired of seeing Tom Izzo and the Spartans? Again? Michigan State is in our Region? Really? If both advance, it figures to be another grind-it-out, down-the-wire game with a trip to Houston the line.
With those notes out of the way, let’s go rapid fire through each Region.
- Favorite: Kansas – the Jayhawks are the No. 1 overall seed and have been the most consistent team all season.
- Dark-horse: Arizona – the Wildcats are playing their best basketball at the right time, taking top-seeded Oregon to overtime in the Pac-12 tournament. Sean Miller usually has his team ready in March; this year is no exception.
- Best Chance(s) for an upset: South Dakota State over Maryland or Hawaii over California. The Terrapins have the talent to reach the Final Four, but they’ve also shown an ability to play to the level of their opponent (the Terps lost to Minnesota). If Maryland doesn’t come ready to play, the Jackrabbits has the type of team that could pull off a 12-5 takedown. Update: With the news that Cal guard Tyrone Wallace has a fracture in the non-shooting hand, the Cal-Hawaii game could become that much more intriguing. The Rainbow Warriors played Oklahoma to a three-point game and beat Northern Iowa at the Diamond Head Classic.
- Biggest question mark: Iowa. Which Hawkeye team will we see in Brooklyn? The group that was flirting with a No. 1 seed in January? Or the team that lost 6 of 8 down the stretch, including a loss to Illinois at the B10 tourney?
- Sweet 16 Arrivals: Kansas, California, Arizona, Villanova
- Champion: Kansas
- Favorite: North Carolina – when the Tar Heels play defense they’re tough to handle. If Marcus Paige finds his shooting touch, watch out.
- Dark-horse: West Virginia – if you think choosing a three-seed is a cop-out, go with Providence; when Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil get on a roll, the Friars are a load. If you’re okay with the Mountaineers, here’s your disclaimer: when you’re in a region with Carolina, Indiana, and Kentucky, it’s easy to be an underdog. Playing Press Virginia is about as fun as sitting near a mosquito nest on a hot summer night.
- Best Chance for an upset: Michigan over Notre Dame. While Stephen F. Austin is a trendier pick, they are basically West Virginia with less overall talent. It’s hard to see either Notre Dame or Michigan make a deep run (which now they will, of course). Thus, consider it a pick ’em game. And pick one.
- Biggest question mark: Wisconsin. For all of its big wins in early January, this is a Badgers team that lost home games to Western Illinois, Milwaukee, and Marquette. We’re not suggesting that UW has regressed to where they were, but a 12-point loss to Nebraska in the B10 tournament is a reason to pause.
- Sweet 16 Arrivals: North Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Xavier
- Champion: North Carolina
- Favorite: Virginia – the Cavaliers put together another solid season and earned the right to be a No. 1 seed, although one could easily make a case for Michigan State.
- Dark-horse: Purdue – there are teams with size and then there’s Purdue. The Boilermakers can dominate in the paint and on the glass. The tipping point is three-point shooting. If the Boilers make outside shots they’ll be a tough out. Other than Carolina, I’m not sure anyone is stronger along the front line.
- Best Chance for an upset: The easy choice would Iona over Iowa State, or maybe Gonzaga over Seton Hall. But why go the easy route? How about Fresno State over Utah. Yes, the Mountain West was down by its standards, but the Bulldogs have won nine straight. And, did we mention that Utah is coming off a 31-point loss to Oregon? How will the Utes respond?
- Biggest question mark: Iowa State. The Cyclones are talented enough and score it well enough to make a run to Houston. But those attributes haven’t helped them avoid the upset bug in recent years. A lack of depth is a serious concern.
- Sweet 16: Virginia, Purdue, Seton Hall, Michigan State
- Champion: Michigan State
- Favorite: Oregon – the Ducks are healthy and on a roll. They arrive as both the regular-season and Pac-12 tourney champion.
- Dark-horse: Duke – yes, that sounds weird. How could Duke and Coach K ever be considered a dark-horse, right? In a normal year, no. But this isn’t a normal year. The Blue Devils lost 10 games and Amile Jefferson to a foot injury. And yet, ask yourself a question: Would you be shocked to see them in the Elite 8?
- Best Chance for an upset: Northern Iowa over Texas. If you’re not familiar with Wes Washpun, you might be by this weekend. He’s dynamic and almost impossible to guard one-on-one. The Panthers have won 11 of 12 games and beaten North Carolina and Iowa State this season.
- Biggest question mark: Texas. The Longhorns have plenty of good wins; they also lost 5 of 10 down the stretch. They could reach the Elite 8 or bow out early. And this year, Shaka Smart’s team will be favored to win. That’s a totally different dynamic.
- Sweet 16: Oregon, Baylor, Texas AM, Oklahoma
- Champion: Oklahoma
The tournament figures to be as unpredictable as any. At the same time, I believe on any given night that Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina and Oklahoma are among the best teams in the country. Does that mean that any or all will make it to Houston? No. But collectively, I like their chances.