Villanova enters this year’s NCAA Tournament as No. 1 seed with weakest credentials. They’re winners of 15 in a row and champions of the Big East regular season and Big East tournament, but they’ve gone unnoticed for much of the year because the Big East isn’t what it used to be. Villanova’s best two wins are, arguably, against VCU and Michigan, when both teams were at full strength. Other than that they tore up the conference, but no one’s talking about any other Big East team as an Elite Eight threat, let alone a Final Four threat.
Villanova does have a few things going for them. They’re an incredibly balanced team with six guys averaging between 9 and 14 points per game. They’re also a veteran team with five of those six upperclassmen. Villanova also avenged their only really bad loss (a 20-point stinker at Georgetown) by winning the rematch by 16. The problem is, they could have some large roadblocks in the name of LSU, Northern Iowa, and Virginia, that really give you cause for concern.
Virginia specifically serves as the biggest threat. The Cavaliers were cruising to a No. 1 seed before the injury to Justin Anderson. They actually played really well without Anderson and the minutes the bench received in his absence improved their abilities. Anderson missed the close and late loss to Louisville, but he was around for the loss to North Carolina and Virginia looked disjointed. Luckily they’ll have some time to figure things out as they should get through the first weekend with ease. At full strength, there’s no question Virginia would win behind its defense, depth, and coaching. By taking Virginia to make the Final Four, you’re taking a risk on the ability to re-integrate Anderson into the lineup. I’m willing to take that risk and send Virginia to Indianapolis.
The other major threat in the East Region is Oklahoma. The Sooners has some great wins on their own home floor, but their best road win is against rival Texas, who was dealing with injuries at the time. Their only neutral court or road wins in the last month are against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and TCU. That’s not exactly a murderers’ row. Elsewhere, Louisville has had problems scoring all year and things got worse after Chris Jones was thrown off the team. They’ve lost five of their last 10 games. Northern Iowa is extremely solid and should coast into the second weekend, but Villanova is just better than them at every aspect of the game. Michigan State has Tomm Izzo, but lacks the talent of previous years. North Carolina State is a wild card because of their victories over Duke and North Carolina this year, but they’re incredibly inconsistent. The Wolfpack’s battle against LSU will be fun because the Tiger’s size could pose a problem for Villanova if they win.
First round upset that will happen: UC Irvine over Louisville
Rick Pitino is a great coach, but his teams have shown early-round vulnerability in recent years. This Louisville team can’t end the season fast enough. We already mentioned the offense and it truly is painful to watch. The team lacks leadership in the locker room or else Jones wouldn’t have been able to run as wild as he did off the court. UC Irvine has size in Mamadou Ndiaye to give Montrezl Harrell problems around the rim and they have senior leadership in Travis Souza and Will Davis II.
First round upset that won’t happen: Georgia over Michigan State
There were a few different ways to go here, but the point is to pick an upset that won’t happen and I’m very sure about this one. Michigan State may lack talent of previous years, but they have the size inside to go against Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic. The Spartans have the edge on the perimeter and this tournament is a guard-oriented affair. Add in the coaching edge with Izzo and look for MSU to seem motivated after coming up short in the Big Ten tournament.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
Wyoming +7 over Northern Iowa – The running joke in this game is first team to 40 wins. This is a large spread for Northern Iowa to cover against Larry Nance Jr. (yes, he’s the son of the former slam dunk champion) and a team that was ranked 25th in the nation before his mononucleosis.
UC Irvine +9.5 over Louisville – For the reasons mentioned above.
Oklahoma -13 over Albany – I know America East basketball better than I should. The Great Danes didn’t play any quality non-conference games this year other than against Providence very early in the season. The athletic difference between their conference and the Big 12 is quite huge.
NC State +5000 to win the East Region – If you believe in East Region chaos then take a chance on the Wolfpack. They’ve beaten Duke, Louisville, and North Carolina this year, so they’ve shown they can beat anyone.
Virginia +1200 to win the National Championship – If Virginia can somehow integrate Justin Anderson coherently back into the fold then they have as good a chance as any if Kentucky comes up short.