North Carolina is seen as one of college basketball’s powerhouse programs, but UNC hasn’t seen a Final Four since 2009. That’s six years of unacceptable results for Carolina when you consider how great their recruiting classes are year after year. It’s been a while since they’ve been a #1 seed, but the good news for UNC fans is that #1 seeds are usually a good thing for them. They’ve had five previous #1 seeds under coach Roy Williams and they’ve reached the Elite Eight in each of those tournaments. They won the tournament twice in those five tournament runs, so they’ve at least shown success in this spot.
UNC is a well-rounded team with scoring on the perimeter and the interior. Marcus Paige has regressed offensively since his elite sophomore year, but his defense has improved dramatically. Joel Berry is great at running the offense and easy baskets come from inside weapons Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and Isaiah Hicks get the job done with scoring in the post. Justin Jackson does all the little things to help the team win. Will it be enough? Their only threat to reaching a Final Four will come from Kentucky. Ironically the two teams played each other a lot in recent years, but didn’t schedule each other this year. Kentucky has great guard play, but UNC’s perimeter defense led by Paige will be enough to shut down the Wildcats and the Tar Heels eventually reach the Final Four.
Kentucky, as previously mentioned, has the next best chance of reaching Houston. Kentucky is peaking at the right time having won nine of their last 12 including a huge win against Texas A&M in overtime to clinch the SEC Tournament title. Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray are the kind of guard tandem that leads a team to the Final Four. The talent is certainly there for Kentucky with all their elite recruits, but their big men haven’t given them what was expected. For their sake, Skal Labissiere is finally showing the talent that made him a potential lottery pick. How well he plays will determine Kentucky’s tournament fate.
West Virginia is another intriguing option because of their defensive intensity. Preparing for them in the second game of a week could put a team in trouble. They also have plenty of perimeter players who can score surrounding the monstrous Devin Williams in the post. They should breeze through the bottom half of the East. Xavier is a fraud. How they’re a two seed ahead of teams like Miami or West Virginia is a joke. Their win over Providence is nice, but after that their best win is Seton Hall, who beat them the last two times they played. Non-conference wins against Dayton and USC aren’t impressive. Chris Mack is a good coach, but I just don’t value the competition in the Big East right now. They’ll have to prove me wrong.
Wisconsin is intriguing because of their style of play and their nine wins in the last 12 games. Indiana only did as well as they did in the Big Ten because of an unbalanced schedule. Yogi Ferrell can ball, but they’re ripe for an upset and definitely can’t get through Kentucky or UNC. Providence is interesting because of because of elite talents Kris Dunn and Ben Bentl, but they really faded in the second half of the year. Notre Dame has plenty of offense, but their defense is very average and they’ll likely struggle to contain West Virginia’s guards.
First round upset that will happen: Providence over USC
This upset is an upset in seed only as the Friars are a 2.5-point favorite over USC. Both teams started the season fast and faded over the last couple months with Providence going 6-6 in their last 12 and USC being 5-7 in the same time frame. Providence at least showed signs of life over the last three weeks and will have the two best players on the floor in Dunn and Bentl. Their defense will help get them over the top in this close affair.
First round upset that won’t happen: Pittsburgh over Wisconsin
Remember when Pitt played Syracuse in what was billed as a “play-in” game? Yeah apparently losing that game didn’t impact Pitt’s status in the tournament too much. It’s nice and all that Pitt beat Duke at the end of the regular season to add a second quality win, but Duke’s defense and lack of depth makes them an easy target. Wisconsin is peaking at the right time and their frontcourt of Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ will be too much for Pitt to handle. This game will be ugly, so I advise watching as little as you can.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
Wisconsin -2 over Pittsburgh – The Badgers have the experience and the talent advantage over Pittsburgh. Jamie Dixon has also exhibited in-game coaching weakness. Wisconsin wins, which should make a safe cover.
Tennessee Chattanooga +11.5 over Indiana – Indiana and their fans will be looking ahead to the second round game against Kentucky, but they have to get through the Mocs first.