Let me start off by saying Wichita State is a really good basketball team. Joe Public would’ve seen the name Wichita State and gotten excited given what he remembered from last year’s Final Four, but he doesn’t know this year’s team is different or better. Point guard Fred VanVleet only played 16 minutes a game as a substitute on last year’s team and has exploded with great numbers in twice the minutes this year. Tekele Cotton also has elevated his game with slightly more minutes. Ron Baker and Cleanthony Early are still playing heavy minutes, but three of Wichita State’s players in minutes per game from last year are gone.
Wichita State wouldn’t have been undefeated if they played in the Big 12, but they would’ve been quite good. All people talked about all year was that Wichita State hasn’t played anyone and the committee must’ve been on the same page. They royally screwed the Shockers (no pun intended) by placing them in the same bracket as the strongest #3 and #4 seeds according to ESPN’s BPI rankings. Michigan isn’t shabby as a #2 seed either given that they won the Big Ten conference. We wanted to see how Wichita State would play against good and great teams. We’ll see that now. Oh by the way, they have to get through the extremely talented, although enigmatic, Kentucky just to get to the Sweet 16. It was nice knowing you Wichita State.
The region starts and ends with Louisville. They got pushed down to a #4 seed because of the non-conference performance of their own team and the rest of their conference. They may’ve been mis-seeded as a #4, but they benefited greatly from being paired with the weekend’s #1 seed. I watched Louisville early in the season and my first reaction was, “these guys can’t fucking score.” A lot has changed since then. Russ Smith has elevated his game to be one of the best two-way guards In the country. Montrezl Harrell woke up from his early-season slumber to be the dominant player we expected after last season’s campaign. Possibly most importantly, Luke Hancock rediscovered his Final Four form to increase his scoring average from 5.35 in conference play. The rest of the group has grown into their roles. We all know Rick Pitino knows how to coach and we’re seeing it again.These Cardinals are heading back to the Final Four for the third year in a row.
The other major seeds in the region are Michigan and Duke, who Louisville conveniently played last year on its way to the championship. Both teams are flawed defensively, but have elite scoring. Michigan has done well to play as well as they have given Mitch McGary’s injury, but their frontcourt is severely lacking and strong perimeter defense can shut them down as we saw from Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament Final. Duke has plenty of talent on the floor, but their point guard situation is flawed. Coach K has been altering his starting lineup all year because he’s trying his best to make things work. Duke always seems to lose the same way. They live and die by the three and their aggressive defensive style puts numerous players in foul trouble.
Saint Louis is a #5 seed who has lost four of his last five games in an overrated conference. (I say overrated because do we really need six Atlantic 10 teams in the dance? Are they that good? Prove me wrong.) I learned my lesson with them last year. Kentucky has all the talent to make a run, but the guard play of the Harrison twins is too inconsistent. They totally haven’t lived up to the hype. Texas has enough big wins on their resume to make a tournament run. Unfortunately they’re coached by Rick Barnes.
First round upset that will happen: North Carolina State or Xavier over St. Louis
I actually really like a couple upsets in this region, but I’ll go with this one as the most likely. As mentioned above, St. Louis is reeling. They’ve never been known for a prolific offense, so it doesn’t bode well that they’ve given up over 70 points in three of their four losses after giving up that many points in only four of their first 27 games. NC State can score with the best of em, led by T.J. Warren. Xavier’s not bad themselves coming in at 37th in the country in offensive efficiency. The dam is breaking for St. Louis and it’ll bust wide open regardless of who they play in their opener.
First round upset that won’t happen: Arizona State over Texas
You probably have figured out that I don’t value Rick Barnes too much as a head coach. (If you haven’t figured that out, you’re not actually reading through this preview.) But Barnes won’t have to do much in this game because the Longhorns should physically abuse Arizona State. The rebounding margin disparity between these two teams is ridiculously large, so expect Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley to have their way with the Sun Devils.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
Louisville +600 to win the National Championship – Hopefully you jumped on this early when it was +1500 before all the money came in. Still it’s a positive value and a decent Final Four hedging positing since its expected value is positive when compared to FiveThirtyEight.com projections.
Mercer +14.5 over Duke – Duke’s been tested in their first game of recent tournaments and their defense isn’t good enough to blow this one out.
Manhattan +16.5 over Louisville – I’m taking a shot here with a former Louisville assistant who knows how Pitino thinks. Manhattan has been modeled after Louisville, so the defensive pressure should keep this tighter than projected.
Texas -2 over Arizona State – Because you read what I wrote above.
North Carolina State or Xavier +2 over St. Louis – This line isn’t out yet because we don’t know who won the play-in game, but take whatever team that does.
Iowa or Tennessee +2 over Massachusetts – Same applies here as applies above with St. Louis since the play-in game hasn’t happened yet. Massachusetts was grossly overrated. Oh that overrated Atlantic 10…