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Quick Takes and Picks: Region by Region

Dave2015When the ball tips at Noon today, we’ll begin another wild, wacky, and predictably unpredictable journey to the Final Four.  Until then, we scour the Field of 68, looking for a key upset, a team we think can make an unexpected run, a big name we think we’ll lose early.

If we’ve learned anything over the years, the Madness of March cannot be predicted, regardless of algorithms, statistical metrics, and/or game simulations.  So, with that in mind, rather than offer up an individual selection of picks per game – which will be helpful to no one  – here are a few thoughts (and picks) for each Region, including my takes regarding potential dark horses and upsets (use at your own peril):

SOUTH REGION

Let me start with this: Virginia was my first pick until the news about De’Andre Hunter.  Continue: Arizona is arguably the most talented team in the Region – even though Virginia had, by far, the best season.  Case in point – many college hoops aficionados predicted Arizona to be a No. 1 seed back in November.  So the question becomes: Do you trust the Tucson Cats to break through and reach the Final Four?

  • Favorite: Virginia.  The Cavaliers finished the season 31-2 and dominated a strong Atlantic Coast Conference field.  If there’s a reason to pause, it’s the unfortunate injury to De’Andre Hunter – who’ll miss the NCAA tournament with a broken wrist (announced on Tuesday).  We haven’t seen the Cavaliers play without him.
  • Dark Horse: Kentucky.  There were moments toward the end of the season – and in the SEC tournament – when the Wildcats looked the part of a Final Four team.  If Jared Vanderbilt plays at some point, and UK continues to make perimeter shots, they have the length and athleticism to create problems.
  • Best chance(s) for an upset: Loyola-Chicago over Miami.  The Ramblers make shots and use the three-point line effectively.  If they can hold their own on the glass, they’ll be a tough out for the Canes and others. Looking elsewhere? Viable double-digit seed options include Davidson (vs. Kentucky, ironically) and Buffalo (vs. Arizona).
  • Teams you’ll see in Atlanta: Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Cincinnati.
  • Final Four pick: Kentucky

EAST REGION

Experience. Talent. Toughness.  Check all of the boxes for Villanova.  There’s nothing not to like about the Wildcats roster, nor its draw.  West Virginia and Wichita State could both provide stiff challenges in the upper half, but here’s the thing: Villanova generally avoids turnovers (something WVU thrives on), and Wichita State is a slightly less talented version of Nova.

  • Favorite: Villanova.  Experience matters sometimes and the Wildcats have plenty.  They are one of the toughest teams, mentally and physically, in the Field of 68.
  • Dark Horse: Florida.  When the Gators are good, they’re really good.  They swept Kentucky, won a host of SEC games, and beat both Cincinnati and Gonzaga in the non-conference season.  Flip side: The Gators have also been wildly inconsistent: which team shows up?
  • Best chance(s) for an upset: Murray State and Stephen F. Austin.  Murray State hasn’t lost a game since mid-January and played Auburn (at full strength) to a four-point game on the Tigers home floor.  Stephen F. Austin has a win over LSU, and lost on the road to Missouri and Mississippi State by a combined 6 points.  The explosiveness of Keenan Evans (due to a toe injury) is a key question for Tech, which struggled a bit down the stretch.
  • Teams you’ll see in Atlanta: Villanova, West Virginia, Florida, Purdue.
  • Final Four pick: Villanova

MIDWEST REGION

One can easily argue that Michigan State is the most talented team in the Region (if not the country). Picking the Spartans based on that talent is understandable.  Just ask this question first: How often this season have you seen the Spartans play like a Final Four team?  The other undeniable questions here … can Duke’s zone defense hold up against high-level competition?  Can Trae Young and Oklahoma re-boot?

  • Favorite: Kansas.  The Jayhawks continue to amaze – winning yet another Big 12 crown.  There are plenty of questions about Kansas’ front line, but the perimeter play of Devonte Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and Malik Newman makes the Jayhawks a tough out.  All things considered, one has to like the Jayhawks’ draw, too.
  • Dark Horse: Seton Hall.  Way back in November, the Pirates were a Top 20 team, with experience, tenacity, and toughness in tow.  Other than early wins over Texas Tech and Louisville, however, the season didn’t quite unfold as expected.  But if they can clip NC State, SHU can compete with Kansas for a shot at the Sweet 16.  Another bonus? Both Clemson and Auburn are at less than full strength as the four and five seeds.
  • Best chance(s) for an upset: New Mexico State over Clemson AND Syracuse over TCU.  The Aggies beat Miami-FL earlier this season; they also beat Davidson. They will not be intimidated by Clemson.  As for Syracuse, the Orange’s zone is a tough figure on a short turn-around.  Can the Orange control pace?
  • Teams you’ll see in Omaha: Kansas, New Mexico State, Michigan State, Duke.
  • Final Four pick: Duke

WEST REGION

Quietly, Gonzaga is rolling.  Forgetting that the Zags are less than 12 months removed from a Final Four could be a mistake.  Mark Few’s group is still dangerous.  Blue Blood North Carolina lurks – hungry for a third straight trip to the sport’s biggest stage.  And what about Michigan?  Did anyone end the season hotter than the Wolverines?

  • Favorite: Xavier.  The Musketeers can score and compete with anyone.  If there’s an Achilles heel it’s perimeter defense.  Just keep in mind, this is largely the same team that reached the Elite 8 a year ago as a No. 11 seed.  They are no stranger to March success.
  • Dark Horse: Providence.  The Friars have shown an ability to beat elite teams – having knocked off Xavier twice and Villanova once; plus, losing a close game to ‘Nova in the Big East title game this past weekend.  Ed Cooley’s group is mentally tough and resilient; Kyron Cartwright can take over games.
  • Best chance(s) for an upset: San Diego State over Houston.  The Cougars are playing great basketball and could easily have been the Dark Horse pick to reach the Elite 8 or the Final Four.  But … there’s something about the Aztecs late-season push that suggests a potential upset here.  SDSU routed a solid Nevada squad in the Mountain West semifinals and brings it defensively.
  • Teams you’ll see in Los Angeles: Xavier, Gonzaga, Michigan, North Carolina.
  • Final Four pick: Gonzaga

These insights and picks will likely be dismantled by Sunday.  Enjoy the Madness!

 

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