So many good defenses in this region. So many slow offenses. This region might be more accurately referred to as the “Rock Fight” region.
Can you imagine Virginia slugging it out with Oregon? Or Cincinnati trying to score on Kansas State? All of this and more can be yours if the basketball gods decide to punish us for whatever reason.
Let’s take a look at each of the first-round matchups, preview some potential upset specials, and make a prediction on who will make it to Minneapolis for the Final Four.
(1) Virginia vs (16) Gardner-Webb
Everyone remembers - and will remember for a long time - UMBC. Does anyone (other than possibly Duke) have more to prove in this tournament than Virginia?
The Cavs are the ONLY team in the field with a top-5 offense and and top-5 defense per KenPom. They also have the worst Adjusted Tempo mark in the country per KenPom, 353 out of 353 teams, which means they have the fewest possessions per 40 minutes (adjusted for opponent). Many people will harp on this being what will bring Virginia down again this year.
But can Gardner-Webb really do it? The Bulldogs have a similar ranking to UMBC last year (in the 160s). However, Virginia’s offensive efficiency is way better than last year. Virginia’s got to have a chip on their shoulder the size of, well, Virginia, and I expect them to mercilessly obliterate G-W.
(8) Ole Miss vs (9) Oklahoma
Why is Oklahoma in this field? They limped to a 7-11 Big 12 record, have no really impressive noncon wins, and their only top-25 win was a senior-day home victory over Kansas.
Ole Miss is a top-40 offensive and defensive team per KP, and has just about every statistical edge you could want. The Rebels have four players shooting over 34% from behind the arc, led by Breein Tyree.
(5) Wisconsin vs (12) Oregon
Soooooo many people are picking Oregon to make at least a Sweet 16 run this year. The Ducks are indeed one of the hottest teams coming into this tournament, winners of 8 straight, including the PAC-12 Tournament. But Wisconsin has a top-5 defense, and Ethan Happ is a leading All-American candidate who will look to stymie the Oregon offense.
Also consider that Oregon is a sub-300 team when it comes to tempo, down there with Virginia. Combine that with an offensive efficiency rating in the 100s, you’ll want to avoid the Ducks if you believe in those stats.
(4) Kansas State vs (13) UC Irvine
Rock fight, anyone? UC Irvine boasts the best 2-point defense in the country, while K-State brings in a top-5 adjusted defense. However, Irvine struggles to force turnovers, which just happens to be KSU’s specialty. UCI has won 17-games in a row, but hasn’t faced anyone of K-State’s caliber all year long. That said, this could actually be a 50-40 game.
(6) Villanova vs (11) Saint Mary’s
Two high-powered offenses face off against okay defenses in this one. The defending champs will have their hands full with Saint Mary’s, who managed to slow down Gonzaga’s powerful offense in the conference championship game. Kansas fans will recognize Villanova’s Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, who are both shooting over 35% from behind the arc on the season.
(3) Purdue vs (14) Old Dominion
Purdue stumbled down the stretch, losing two of their final three games - both to Minnesota - but don’t underestimate these Boilermakers. With five sub-150 losses on the year, ODU doesn’t project to provide much of a challenge to Purdue in the first round of this tournament. The Monarchs are terrible offensively, one of the worst teams in the field in terms of eFG and 2P%.
(7) Cincinnati vs (10) Iowa
I’m seeing lots of love for Cincinnati out there on the internets despite the Bearcats being one of the worst 2P% teams in the field. Meanwhile, Iowa has quietly put together a top-15 offense over the course of the season. However, the Hawkeyes have lost 6 of their last 8 games, which is... not good, and probably due to their thoroughly mediocre defense.
(2) Tennessee vs (15) Colgate
Winners of 11 in a row, Colgate has a less-than-impressive noncon resume. They also have four sub-200 losses, which is not promising for their chances against Tennessee’s top-5 offense and top-40 defense. The Volunteers won 19 games in a row at one point this year, including a neutral site matchup with Gonzaga. However, they are just 2-2 in their last four games, with both losses coming at the hand of Auburn.
Most Likely Cinderella: Saint Mary’s
Lots of good candidates here among Oregon, UC Irvine, and Iowa, but Saint Mary’s gets the nod here. The Gaels have the best statistical profile of these four, with a top-25 offense to go along with a top-60 defense. They played a decent nonconference schedule and got Gonzaga three times, winning just once. That experience should serve them well.
Favorite to Advance to Minneapolis: Virginia
Yeah yeah, I’m chickening out and picking the top seed. Once again, they are the ONLY team in the field with a top-5 offense AND defense. On top of that, I think they have more #Motivation than anyone in the field. They also have plenty of talent on the floor with two potential first-round NBA Draft picks. Also, if Bill Self were leave Kansas anytime soon, Tony Bennett is who I want in Lawrence. Why? Because I like winning games.