Last year’s battle between Arizona and Wisconsin was quite the contest. Forty minutes couldn’t settle it so the teams went to overtime. Wisconsin held on by one point and received the present of losing to Kentucky in the Final Four. Of course, the committee decided to be humorous and stack the two teams together again in the West Region, ruining the chance of us seeing the winner take on Kentucky in the championship game.
Wisconsin earned the top seed after winning both the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament. Arizona did the same after winning the Pac-12. Despite the fact that both conferences are better than the Big East, although some of my favored metrics may disagree, Villanova got the No. 1 seed Arizona was hoping for and somehow neither of these teams got selected as their No. 2 seed. But there’s no point in crying over spilled milk now that the bracket is out, so let’s focus on what’s at hand.
Wisconsin is the same Wisconsin they’ve always been and specifically is mostly the same Wisconsin we know from last year. Led by Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin has an elite frontline to go along with hustle king Josh Gasser and Bronson Koenig, keeper of steel balls. Traveon Jackson has missed the last two months, but is slated to return at some point during the NCAA Tournament. Like Virginia’s issue re-incorporating Justin Anderson, Wisconsin will have to bring Jackson back in without ruining their current form. That and that alone is what has me thinking they’ll come up short to Arizona because they likely won’t turn their back on the senior Jackson in favor of what’s worked recently.
Arizona still has the bad taste in their mouth from last year and returns mostly the same team as well. Brandon Ashley is the key difference given he’s playing like a house on fire in the last five games and he wasn’t able to suit up for last year’s game. Ashley was arguably Arizona’s best player last year before getting injured and his return and the addition of dynamic wing Stanley Johnson means more than what was lost. But it’s guard T.J. McConnell that will be the difference in this game. The floor leader just gives you confidence. A year wiser, McConnell will lead Arizona over Wisconsin and on their way to the Final Four.
The West is actually pretty loaded outside of the top two teams, so it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if another team came out of the mix. Baylor is as feisty as any No. 3 seed in the country with their zone defense capable of shutting a team down when they don’t have a long time to prep for it. Taurean Price may come off the bench, but there’s no doubt he’s Baylor’s most dynamic scorer. He’s fully capable of taking a game over.
Then there’s North Carolina, who seems to be peaking at the right time. Their problem is perimeter shooting, but they might not need it in games against Arizona and Wisconsin if they can somehow push the pace of play. Marcus Paige certainly has as much testicular fortitude as any player in the country. You don’t have to care about Arkansas because their pressing style plays right into North Carolina’s hands. Ohio State has arguably the best guard in the region in D’Angelo Russell, but Ohio State is sadly missing pieces up front to be a true threat.
First round upset that will happen: Ohio State over VCU
VCU’s result of winning the conference tournament is not something to take lightly after losing point guard and elite defender Briante Weber. But we should acknowledge that VCU was on a revenge tour in beating the three teams they lost to toward the end of the regular season. They likely will lose the chip on their shoulder after lifting the trophy and that’s not what they want in facing Ohio State. VCU’s defense isn’t as good without the loss of Weber and that’s a shame considering Russell and Shannon Scott have the ability to beat their press with ease.
First round upset that won’t happen: Harvard over North Carolina
The general population knows Harvard’s name now that they’ve won four straight Ivy League championships and made the NCAA Tournament each season. After winning its opening game in the last two years, people might be quick to call for the upset again this year. Sadly this is not the same Harvard team. It lacks the outside shooting threat of years past while also catching North Carolina at the wrong time. North Carolina is playing as well as any team in the country and should dispose of Harvard with relative ease, so much so that you’re about to see their name again in a few seconds.
Best Non-Bracket Bets:
North Carolina -13.5 over Harvard – A contrast in styles, Carolina’s fast pace should leave Harvard in the dust.
Ohio State -4 over VCU – The dream is over for the Rams.
Wofford +7.5 over Arkansas – I, like many others, have no faith in the SEC outside of Kentucky
Oregon -1.5 over Oklahoma State – The Ducks don’t have to worry about a size disadvantage in this one. Joseph Young will lead the way.
Baylor +1200 to win the East Region – They need Ole Miss to beat BYU to really help their cause here, but their zone defense should cause problems for Arizona and then Wisconsin on short rest. No one in the Big Ten plays zone, so Wisconsin could potentially not be prepared.
North Carolina +4000 to win the National Championship – If you wanna take a shot with something different, North Carolina has a good look to their game right now. They may lack a little something on the perimeter, but they certainly have athletes and Marcus Paige could become a hero.