For the first time in two years, we are officially having an NCAA tournament. There are plenty of intriguing headlines entering the tournament this season, most notably the quest of the number one overall seed Gonzaga Bulldogs to finish as the first undefeated National Champion since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Stacked with NBA talent across the board, the pressure is on for the bulldogs to live up to all the hype they’ve built all season long, and it won’t be without some major competition. Baylor, Illinois, and Michigan round out the number one seeds, all of whom have had extremely strong seasons and are poised to make some real noise in March.
However, we would be remiss as a Rutgers blog if we did not highlight the fact that our very own Scarlet Knights have made the tournament for the first time since 1991, ending their 30 year drought! While we unfortunately were unable to root for our squad in person this year, Rutgers nation couldn’t be happier with the success and growth of our team under the guidance of Steve Pikiell.
Now onto the preview: We broke the entire bracket down by region, highlighting our favorite matchups and teams to watch throughout. Be sure to stick around until the end of the article to see who each of our writers predict will make the Final Four, National Championship Game, and which National Championship we foresee cutting down the nets in April.
The East Region might be the most loaded of the four regions. Headlined by Big 10 Regular-Season Champion and 1 seed, Michigan the strength of the region does not stop there. The 2 seed is SEC Regular Season and Tournament Champion, Alabama, the 3 seed is Big 12 Tournament Champion, Texas, and the 4 seed is a dangerous and experienced Florida State team. Beyond that, 7 seed UConn and 8 seed LSU both had up and down regular seasons, and have been playing significantly better basketball the past few weeks. With a potential season-ending foot injury to All-Big Ten second-team selection, Isaiah Livers, Michigan once looked primed for a Final Four run, but the East Region is looking more wide open as the NCAA Tournament nears.
Matchup to Watch: #4 Florida State vs. #13 UNC Greensboro
Florida State has struggled the last few weeks having lost three of their last five games including the ACC Tournament final to Georgia Tech. In their last five games, they are averaging 18 turnovers per game, which has led to a lot of easy looks in transition for their opponents. In the ACC Tournament final, Georgia Tech had 31 points off turnovers. UNC Greensboro, led by 3x Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Isaiah Miller (19.3 ppg, 4 apg, 6.9 rpg, 2.6 spg), averaged 7.5 steals per game, which is good for 64th in the country. If Florida State’s turnover woes continue, UNC Greensboro will have a chance at pulling off an upset against the Seminoles.
Cinderella Candidate: #12 Georgetown Hoyas
The 12 seed Georgetown Hoyas are a potential Cinderella that no one would have seen coming just two weeks ago. With no post-season likely prior to the Big East Tournament, the Hoyas went on to win four games in four days to earn the automatic bid for the Big East. They capped off their Big East Tournament run with a 25 point win over Creighton in the finals. They have three guys averaging over 10 ppg, and freshman Dante Harris is coming off the Big East Tournament where he averaged 11.7 ppg and won the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament. With the positive momentum the Hoyas are riding into the NCAA Tournament, it would not be a surprise to see them steal a few games in the East Region.
Dark Horse Candidate: #7 UConn Huskies
The UConn Huskies are the most intriguing team outside the top 4 seeds in this region. With a top-25 ranked offense and defense in KenPom, the 15-7 Huskies have the potential to make some real noise in the NCAA Tournament. They started the year 7-1 before losing four of five once star guard James Bouknight suffered a shoulder injury. Once he returned their only losses were to Villanova by eight in Bouknight’s third game back, and to Creighton by three in the Big East Tournament Semifinals. The Huskies have won five of their last six, with all five of those wins coming by double-digits.
Their first-round match-up is against an experienced, but mediocre Maryland team that lacks a true point guard and a solid post presence. If the Huskies are able to contain Eric Ayala and Aaron Wiggins, they should have no problem getting past the Terps. UConn would likely face the 2 seed, Alabama in the Round of 32, whom they will likely give fits to. Alabama’s offense is mostly 3’s and shots around the basket, but UConn blocks 5.3 shots per game, which is good for top-10 in the country. If the Huskies are able to establish a dominating presence inside on defense early in the game, and Alabama is struggling to shoot from the outside, the Huskies will have a very good opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16 and maybe beyond.
Top Contender/Prediction: #3 Texas Longhorns
The Texas Longhorns have a real opportunity to make the Final Four this year, and they are my pick to get there from the East Region. In the NCAA Tournament, a major key to winning is strong guard play, and the Longhorns have just that. Led by senior guard Matt Coleman, who has started all but one game in his college career, and junior guards Courtney Ramey (43.5% from 3) and Andrew Jones (14.7 ppg), the Longhorns have the backcourt experience and depth that so many previous Final Four teams have had. They also have a great inside presence with the combination of 6-10 senior Jericho Sims (9.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and 5-star freshman, Greg Brown (9.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Senior guard Jase Febres, who was recovering from knee surgery until the middle of January, has become a key role player for the Longhorns since his return, averaging over 5 ppg while shooting 39.6% from 3. If Texas wants to be in Indianapolis for the next few weeks, he will have to continue his strong play off the bench. Texas is led by head coach Shaka Smart who has a lot of March experience of his own. Headlined by leading VCU to the 2011 Final Four and five consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 2011-2015, he is looking to get the Longhorns back to the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight for the first time since 2008, and back to the Final Four for the first time since 2003.
Overall, the South region is a very solid quarter of the bracket that contains several quality teams who could make a run far into the NCAA tournament. Many are torn on who to pick to advance into the sweet sixteen and who to send home early. The bottom half of the region is significantly more competitive than the upper half, although Baylor will have to withstand a couple tough battles if they wish to advance to the sweet sixteen and beyond.
Matchup to Watch: #7 Florida vs #10 Virginia Tech
Florida comfortably took care of business in the games they were favored to win, having many of their losses come to NCAA tournament teams. The Gators are solid on both sides of the ball and will require a big game from their offensive leader Tre Mann in order to come out victorious.
The Hokies are coming off a season riddled with cancellations and postponements, having only played a total of five games in February and March combined. Such an unfortunate schedule leaves it hard to assess a team that started the season so hot. Junior Keve Aluma averaged 15.6 points and 8 rebounds and earned himself Second-Team All ACC honors. He will need to lead his squad once again against a high-flying up-tempo Gators team. Expect the Hokies to rely on their physical play-style to disrupt Florida’s momentum and force a low-scoring game.
Cinderella Candidate: #12 Winthrop
Numerous college basketball analysts believe that it would be a surprise if Villanova comes out of the first round with a victory. The Wildcats lost their leader Collin Gillepsie to a torn MCL and have since looked like a completely different team from the one ranked in the top 5 at the beginning of the season. Inconsistent play and injuries make them vulnerable to a potential upset in this year’s tournament.
Winthrop boasts the NCAA leader in triple-doubles this season in Chandler Vaudrin, a 6’7 guard that can do a little bit of everything. Although they play in a weak conference, the Eagles went 23-1 en route to their second Big South title in as many seasons. The 12-seed over 5-seed upset is always a popular pick and this one seems to be the most obvious of those four matchups. Assuming success against Villanova, Purdue would be the likely opponent in the next round, which yields a formidable challenge. Winthrop would obviously be the underdogs, but it is not out of the realm of possibility for them to pull off the upset.
Dark Horse Contender: #6 Texas Tech
It was a surprise to see Texas Tech fall to a 6 seed, but the Red Raiders won’t necessarily be complaining after their draw. Utah State went on a nice run in the Mountain West tournament, but their chances versus Texas Tech are very slim. The Red Raiders’ only losses all season came from teams that are currently ranked as a 4 seed or higher in the tournament. Some of those losses were very close, which prepares them for the competitive nature of this tournament. Arkansas would be a daunting opponent in the next round, but Texas Tech has proven they can compete with the toughest of squads. If they were to pull through with a win versus Arkansas, the momentum and confidence around the team and heat-check guard Mac McClung would be a tall task for any opponent.
Top Contender/Prediction: #1 Baylor
Looking at Baylor’s first and potential second matchup, the Bears have as clear a path to the sweet sixteen as anyone in the field. Yes, the Bears’ recent “struggles” have some hopping off the bandwagon, but their latest stretch has also included wins against West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. Even looking past the sweet sixteen, a prospective Purdue/Winthrop battle should have the Bears into the Elite Eight somewhat comfortably assuming everything goes to plan (which is a big assumption in March). Jared Butler and co. have proved that it will take a mighty effort to knock Baylor out of Indiana before the end of March.
The Midwest region is packed with star power, notably Illinois’s Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, and West Virginia’s Miles “Deuce” McBride. Some familiar faces appear in the lower seeds; 2018 Cinderella Loyola Chicago is back, as are the 11 seed Syracuse Orange and 13 seed Liberty. And last but not least, our very own Rutgers Scarlet Knights appear for the first time since 1991 as a 10 seed.
Matchup To Watch: #6 San Diego State vs #11 Syracuse
San Diego State enters the tournament with a very well rounded team riding a 14 game winning streak. They are a defensive minded team, with four players averaging over 1.0 steals per game, and are led by capable and efficient scoring guards in seniors Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel, who is shooting 46.7% from three this season. The Aztecs were in the mix to be a potential 1 seed in the tournament last year before it was cancelled, and are primed to be hungry for their first run to the Sweet Sixteen since 2014.
Syracuse loves March. Jim Boeheim has built up quite the reputation for being a bubble team that has success in the tournament, and this year is set up to be no different. The Orange are 6-3 in their last 9 games, most recently losing to Virginia on a game-winning three at the buzzer in the ACC tournament. Over that stretch, sharpshooter Buddy Boeheim has averaged 21.3 points per game while shooting 56.8% from three. Syracuse is notably famous for their 2-3 zone on defense, which has caused teams trouble in the past. Important to note that ‘Cuse was also an 11 seed in 2018 when they made a run to the Elite Eight.
Cinderella candidate: #10 Rutgers
Rutgers, making the tournament for the first time since 1991, has a talented roster headlined by breakout guard Ron Harper Jr. (15.4 ppg) and big man Myles Johnson (8.7 rebounds per game and 2.5 blocks per game). Rutgers had some major wins earlier in the season, beating Illinois and Purdue, but have since been up and down in the performances. However, teams that let the Scarlet Knights stick around in a game often end up regretting it. Rutgers’ Cinderella candidacy comes down to their potential path to the Sweet Sixteen. Their first round opponent, the Clemson Tigers, only average 65.3 points per game (Last in the ACC), and have also been up and down after their hot start to the season.
If Rutgers were to beat Clemson, their second round draw would most likely be 2 seed Houston, who have yet to be seriously challenged this season due to playing in a weak conference. Despite their impressive record, they have two very alarming losses to Tulsa and East Carolina, the latter of which finished in last place in the AAC. Rutgers’s experience battling with tournament level teams all season long could provide them with a competitive advantage in this matchup.
Dark horse contender: #4 Oklahoma State
Cade Cunningham. The AP First-Team All-American and Big 12 Player of the Year has led the Cowboys to an impressive 20-8 record with major wins over Baylor, Texas, West Virginia x2, Arkansas, and Kansas, all of whom are 3 seeds or higher. While Cade certainly runs the show, his supporting cast is underratedly very good, highlighted by Isaac Likekele and sophomore breakouts Avery Anderson III and Kalib Boone. The most notable statistic that supports a deep run for OK State is that they are 11-4 in games decided by 5 points or fewer. Their main glaring weakness is that they average 15.9 turnovers per game, which sometimes allows their opponents to keep games closer than they should be.
Top contender: #1 Illinois
Illinois just won the Big Ten tournament for the first time since 2005, which also happened to be the same year they made it to the National Championship game before losing to North Carolina. First-Team All-American Ayo Dosunmu has been dominant this year, and big man Kofi Cockburn has wreaked havoc in a conference with some of the best bigs in the nation. This team is deep and can light it up from three with Trent Frazier, Adam Miller, and Damonte Williams. Freshman point guard Andre Curbelo has been a huge spark for the Fighting Illini recently, hitting multiple big shots in the Big 10 Title game against Ohio State. Coach Brad Underwood’s team has been on a rampage, winning 14 of their last 15 games entering the tournament, and show no signs of slowing down.
Oklahoma State. If anyone from this region could slow down Illinois, I’d be on the Cowboys. They’ve proven time and time again that they belong in the conversation with multiple impressive wins and their ability to win close games. I predict that they will play 3 seed West Virginia in the Elite Eight, a team they have already beaten twice this season. Sign me up for as much Cade Cunningham in March Madness as I can get.
The West Region is headlined by the number one overall seed Gonzaga Bulldogs. At 26-0, Gonzaga is the only undefeated team in the nation and is a favorite to win the national championship. The region’s 3 and 4 seeds, Kansas and Virginia, were both removed from their conference tournaments last week and could be missing key contributors during the first weekend and should be on high alert for an upset. Seventh-seeded Oregon is likely the most under-seeded team in the tournament, as they played the first half of the season without junior guard Will Richardson, a key contributor to the lineup. This region may eventually crown Gonzaga as its champion, but things may get interesting before we get there.
Matchup to Watch: #2 Iowa vs. #7 Oregon
The 8/9 matchup between Oklahoma and Missouri in the first round will be an interesting game to watch, as each team has big wins on their resumes, but ended their seasons with multi-game losing streaks. However, the winner of the game will face #1 Gonzaga, which will likely mark the end to their season.
Instead, all eyes should be focused on the potential Round of 32 matchup between Iowa and Oregon. These teams are high scoring and have great perimeter shooting ability, with Iowa shooting 38.6% from 3 point range and Oregon shooting 37.9%. Both teams are experienced, as 9 out of their 10 combined starters are juniors or seniors. The winner of this game likely reaches the Elite Eight.
Cinderella Candidate: #13 Ohio Bobcats
This region is prime for early round upsets by double digit seeds. #3 Kansas, #4 Virginia and #5 Creighton are all candidates to be upset. Kansas travelled to Indianapolis without forwards David McCormack and Jalen Wilson due to COVID-19 concerns, who combined to average 25.5 points and 14.3 rebounds per game. They face an offensive minded team in 14 seed Eastern Washington, and could be susceptible to an upset.
Creighton is coming off a crushing loss to Georgetown in the Big East Championship game and are also prime for an upset. The Bluejays were thoroughly outplayed by the Hoyas, causing some to doubt them in their first round matchup against the 12 seed UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. UCSB is well rounded and could take advantage of a reeling Creighton team.
However, the team best positioned for an upset and Cinderella run is the 13 seed Ohio, led by junior point guard Jason Preston. The Bobcats will square off with Virginia, who will not travel to Indianapolis until Friday due to last week’s positive COVID-19 tests. Virginia cannot practice all week and will not be prepared for the offensive attack of Ohio, which averages 80.9 points per game. If Ohio were to pull off the upset, they would face the winner of Creighton vs UCSB. Ohio’s offensive would give them a good opportunity against either opponent. The Sweet 16 is within reach for the Bobcats if they can get hot at the right time.
Dark Horse: #6 USC
The 6-seed USC Trojans are not being talked about enough as a team with a chance to make a Final Four run. Freshman Evan Mobley, a top NBA prospect, possesses the star power needed to lead such a run. The Trojan frontcourt is one of the best in the nation at rebounding and shot blocking. USC will face the winner of the Wichita St. vs. Drake First Four game that will take place on Thursday. While each of these teams have had successful seasons, I do not envision the Trojans having much trouble with them. Next, the Trojans would face the potentially undermanned Kansas Jayhawks or mid-major Eastern Washington, offering a fairly easy path to the Sweet 16.
In the Sweet 16, USC would face their toughest challenge yet, likely against Iowa or Oregon. Iowa has fallen victim to large and physical frontcourts this season, most notably against Illinois and Michigan, so USC has a clear starting point for their game plan if they were to square off with the Hawkeyes. USC beat Oregon in Pac-12 play earlier this season, so another Trojan victory is well within reason should they face the Ducks again. In the Elite Eight, USC would likely face off with Gonzaga, the consensus best team in the nation. USC would need to improve its free throw and three point shooting to keep pace with Gonzaga. While this may be a tall task, that is what could stand between USC and its first Final Four trip since 1954.
Top Contender: #1 Gonzaga
There’s no guessing to be done here. Top seeded Gonzaga is the frontrunner and likely winner of the region. They beat three teams in this region handily in the regular season and there is no reason to believe why this would change. The Bulldogs are ranked #1 in the KenPom rankings, which measures adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings along with other statistical factors. In the 18 years that these rankings have been used, the top seeded team has made the Final Four 14 times. I don’t expect Gonzaga to break this trend.
It is impossible to bet against Gonzaga, even though almost everyone will pick Gonzaga to go to the Final Four. However, I did not typically stick to all chalk picks, because no region goes without upsets. I truly believe that Ohio can pull off the early upset of Virginia and that USC can beat Kansas. Ultimately, however, I can’t pick against the overwhelming talent of Iowa and Gonzaga. Expect a competitive game in the Elite Eight between these two, but Gonzaga should ultimately prevail just as they did when they met earlier in the season. Gonzaga is well positioned to capture its first ever national championship.
- Theo Franks
Final Expert Predictions
Eric: Gonzaga, Texas, Arkansas, Illinois
Hani: Iowa, Florida State, Baylor, Oklahoma State
Jamie: Gonzaga, LSU, Arkansas, Oklahoma State
Theo: Gonzaga, Texas, Ohio State, Illinois
Eric: Gonzaga vs Illinois
Hani: Florida State vs Baylor
Jamie: Gonzaga vs. Oklahoma State
Theo: Gonzaga vs. Illinois
Jamie: Oklahoma State