With the NCAA tournament set to tip off this Thursday, The Daily Campus basketball beat writers offered their predictions on who will be cutting down the nets in Glendale, Arizona this April, as well as their Final Four and sleeper teams.
Dan Madigan, Sports Editor
Sleeper: No. 4 West Virginia
West Virginia is arguably one of the more underrated teams in the tournament, and
while they haven’t had much success in past NCAA tournaments, I really think this year’s West Virginia team has a chance for an Elite 8 or Final Four run. The Mountaineers are a No. 4 seed in the west region despite ranking No. 5 overall in the country in KenPom ratings. Their frenetic, fast-paced style of play combined with a relatively weak west region has them in a good spot for deep run. Don’t be surprised if they handle No. 1 Gonzaga easily in the Sweet 16.
Final Four: No. 2 Duke, No. 2 Arizona, No. 2 Louisville and No. 1 North Carolina
Arizona gets the Final Four nod over West Virginia for me simply because the Wildcats have been more impressive as of late, and I don’t think the Mountaineers will be able to contain Lauri Markanen and Allonzo Trier. Louisville has just enough talent and a good enough defense to get past Kansas. Duke takes down Nova to prevent a shot at a repeat, and UNC squeaks by Lonzo Ball and UCLA for a Final Four that’s heavy with ACC flavor.
Champion: No. 1 North Carolina
I have the Tar Heels edging out Duke for their sixth national championship and ultimate bragging rights in the Tobacco Road rivalry. While the Blue Devils are hot now, the Tar Heels’ duo of ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II will prove too much for Duke in Glendale.
Chris Hanna, Staff Writer
Sleeper: No. 10 Wichita State
Wichita St. is so criminally underrated, it’s ridiculous. In one of the absolute worst decisions made by the selection committee, the Shockers were seeded tenth in the South region. That’s unbelievable considering they are ranked eighth in the KenPom rankings and are No. 15 in BPI. What was the committee thinking? That is just outrageous for a 10 seed. Plus, Wichita St. has a history of success in the tourney under coach Gregg Marshall and boasts a solid average margin of victory around 20 points per game. I could see them taking out Kentucky in the second round and making a deep run in the tourney.
Final Four: No. 2 Duke, No. 2 Arizona, No. 1 Kansas, No. 4 Butler.
Duke had a rough stretch toward the end of the regular season, but went on absolute tear against UNC in the second half of the ACC semifinal which showed that at their best, they can blow away any team. I see them taking out Villanova in the Elite Eight for a Final Four bid where they will meet Arizona, who are led by the aforementioned Markkanen, a Kristaps Porzingis-like big man with the ability to take over a game. On the other side of the bracket, I have Kansas led by Josh Jackson and Frank Mason III taking on the No. 4 Butler Bulldogs who look to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2011 after yet another great season. The Bulldogs beat Villanova twice this year and will definitely be a tough out in the tourney.
Champion: No. 2 Duke
Duke looks scary good right now. The Blue Devils have all their pieces back and are fully healthy. Harry Giles and Frank Jackson are fantastic freshmen who have really started to contribute as of late. Between the sharpshooting of Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen, and the isolation play of freshman sensation Jayson Tatum, Duke will be difficult to stop on the offensive end. Their bench goes ten deep and is full of experience including Allen, Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson, which is critical in the NCAA tournament. With this team, Coach K could be cutting down the nets for the sixth time in Glendale in what I think will be a championship rematch against Butler.
Tyler Keating, Associate Sports Editor
Sleeper: No. 11 Rhode Island. Can the late-bloomer that rolls through their conference tournament hot into the NCAAs keep it up? Depends. As a UConn student, I’d tend to say yes, but Seton Hall last year and many other examples beg to differ. I think Rhode Island falls on the positive side in this tournament, as they will be lucky enough to encounter two teams with injured stars (Creighton and Oregon) in their first two games. A Sweet 16 run may be in the cards for the Rams, before they meet the Cardinals from Louisville in that round.
Final Four: No. 1 Villanova, No. 2 Arizona, No. 1 UNC and No. 2 Louisville. Speaking of No. 2 Louisville, they will join No. 2 Arizona and bust up an all No. 1-seed Final Four. Gonzaga has a few wins in them, but I think Arizona gets their revenge in the Elite Eight. Louisville has the juice to knock off Kansas. Villanova has a tough region but SMU may do some of their dirty work by knocking out Duke. And UNC is the most polished team in the South.
Champion: No. 1 Villanova. Believe in Jay Wright, who has kept the Wildcats equally good as they were last year, when they won the title, despite losing some key cogs. Villanova has had only minor stumbles this season, they have championship experience and they have maybe the best player in the country in Josh Hart. Despite their status as the defending champions, with the No. 1 overall seed in this bracket to boot, it feels like they’re flying under the radar, and that’s not the way it should be.
Stephanie Sheehan, Associate Managing Editor
Sleeper: No. 6 SMU
I know, I know, but just hear me out. The American routinely gets no love from the selection committee, and the fact that SMU is a 6-seed proves that. They’ve won 12 in a row and absolutely decimated fellow 6-seed Cincinnati in the conference tournament, and despite what the selection committee thinks, I think that counts for something. Don’t be surprised if you see the Mustangs in the Sweet 16, with the third-best scoring defense in the country. Even though they only have two wins against top 25 teams, that’s only because they didn’t really play any. Semi Ojeleye averages 19 points per game, and if (when) they hit Baylor in the Round of 32, I think SMU’s momentum will carry them over a team who finished the season losing six of their last 11.
Final Four: No. 1 Kansas, No.1 UNC, No. 2 Duke and No. 1 Gonzaga
I’m honestly shocked that more people don’t have Zaga in their Final Four. Even though their conference is easy, they decimate every single opponent they play against– their lowest margin of victory in conference was a 10-point win over St. Mary’s. And yeah, Gonzaga is infamous for choke jobs, but so was Villanova until they won it all last year, so I think the curse is broken. UNC is a staple, ranking fifth in RPI and third in KenPom, with a dangerous backcourt. Duke is on fire, and with a veteran team with a deep bench, that doesn’t bode well for everyone else. Kansas has a cakewalk to the Final Four, with Louisville being their only real challenge to overcome.
Champion: Gonzaga Bulldogs
I’m with everyone else in thinking that this year’s Bulldogs might be the best Zaga team ever. Gonzaga has five players who average double-digit points, and their defense ranks seventh in the nation, allowing just 61.2 points per game. They are the best team in the tournament in field goal defense (second to only NIT-bound UCF in the nation), holding opponents to 36.8 percent shooting, and rank second in the nation in field goals made (51.8 percent). Everything has come together this year for the Bulldogs, and with the entire nation patiently waiting for them to make a Final Four, I think they’ll deliver and then some.
Matthew Kren, Staff Writer
Sleeper: Purdue Boilermakers
First place in the Big 10 and 25-7 in the regular season, the Purdue Boilermakers can be a sneaky pick to make the final four out of the Midwest region. Seeded on the four line, the Boilermakers are led by Big 10 Conference Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan who averages 18.5 points per game and grabs 12.6 rebounds per game. Swanigan is joined by fellow big man Isaac Haas who averages 12.8 points while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. Add in the fact they have graduate transfer Spike Albrecht who has March Madness experience, Purdue is the real deal and if they can get past the hottest team in the country, Vermont, they can make it all the way to Phoenix.
Final Four: No. 2 Arizona, No. 1 Villanova, No. 4 Purdue, No. 2 Kentucky
Purdue is the real deal as mentioned above, as they will be joined by the No. 1 team in America and defending champions Villanova, the team of destiny Arizona and the young and talented Kentucky Wildcats. After dispatching UVA the Wildcats will overtake Duke in front of a pro-MSG crowd while Kentucky will face a daunting task of beating both UCLA and North Carolina. In the final four, Arizona will ride home crowd over Villanova while Kentucky’s speed and athleticism will propel them over the Boilermakers.
Champion: Arizona Wildcats
This is the year that Arizona is finally able to put it together, as head coach Sean Miller will help his team ride a pro-Phoenix crowd to a championship. Led by Lauri Markanen and Allonzo Trier, the Wildcats are for real, as they will be able to play close to home all tournament, which will provide them with a huge boost before and after they cut down the nets.
Matt Kren is a staff writer for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.