The NCAA Tournament didn’t disappoint in its opening weekend.
Fans were treated to Texas A&M’s amazing comeback over Northern Iowa to get to the Sweet 16. And Middle Tennessee State’s shocking upset of Michigan State in the Round of 64, only the eighth time a No. 15 seed has beaten a No. 2 seed.
That’s the beauty of March Madness and it is sure to deliver more memorable moments this weekend when the field is narrowed to the Final Four.
Maybe we’ll see a double-digit seed such as No. 11 Gonzaga and its formidable frontcourt reach the Final Four. Or maybe it’s time for an offensive juggernaut such as Indiana or Iowa State to blaze a trail to Houston.
Team to beat: Virginia. Defense wins championships, right? Nobody plays better defense than the Cavaliers, which will make it hard for any team to pull away from them. That includes a high-scoring team such as Iowa State. Virginia coach Tony Bennett isn’t yet a household name outside of Pullman, where he coached the Cougars, but he appears headed for national attention.
Next best: Iowa State. Offense isn’t an issue for the Cyclones, and they are playing well at the right time. Georges Niang remains a matchup nightmare for opponents, Jameel McKay is back and Matt Thomas is heating up from the outside.
See ya later: Syracuse. The Orange were lucky to even make the tournament, and found more fortune when they got Middle Tennessee State instead of Michigan State in the Round of 32. But the road ends here even though they face another double-digit seed in Gonzaga. The Zags aren’t a typical No. 11 seed as they boast a frontcourt talented enough to carry a team to the championship. Should Syracuse get to the Elite Eight, then it likely will face a team it hasn’t beaten since joining the ACC — Virginia.
Player to watch: Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga. The son of former basketball star Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas is a double-double machine. He averages 17.5 points and 11.7 rebounds to form one of the best offensive frontcourts in the country with senior Kyle Wiltjer. Sabonis has NBA written all over him, and is certainly capable of being the guy who carries Gonzaga to its first Final Four.
The pick: Virginia. As enticing as it sounds to go with a double-digit seed such as Gonzaga, the best bet is Virginia. The Cavaliers are known for their defense, but have legitimate scoring threats in Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes. This region has seen its fair share of upsets, starting with Michigan State going down, but in the end the No. 1 seed will emerge from it.
Team to beat: Oregon. Yes, the Pac-12 has had a miserable tournament with first-round losses by Arizona, California, Oregon State and USC. But the Ducks have played well and Dana Altman is one of the better coaches in the country. Plus, sophomore Dillon Brooks is peaking at the right time.
Next best: Texas A&M. The Aggies should just be happy to be here, which makes them dangerous. Everyone thought they were toast in the second round before their huge rally against Northern Iowa, so they should go into this weekend loose. That, coupled with their talent level, gives them a great chance.
See ya later: Oklahoma. This is the toughest region to pick a “loser” as all four teams have realistic chances to advance. But the Sooners just didn’t look like a Final Four team in the opening weekend. Buddy Hield is one of the best players in the country, but he can be streaky. The bigger question is senior forward Ryan Spangler, who combined for 11 points in the first two games. The Sooners can’t survive with that type of production out of Spangler.
Player to watch: Grayson Allen, Duke. Yes, Hield is the best player in the country and a must-see. But so is Allen, who is the typical Duke player. He’s loved by his school’s fans and hated by everyone else. But there’s no debate that he’s playing at a high level, along with teammate Brandon Ingram.
Our pick: Texas A&M. After the Aggies win in the Round of 32, they seem like a team of destiny. The Final Four will be held in Houston, after all, only 90 miles from College Station. Alex Caruso and Danuel House are playing well, and the A&M frontcourt is solid with Tyler Davis, Jalen Jones and Tonny Trocha-Morelos.
Team to beat: Kansas. The Jayhawks are the top overall seed for a reason. They might not have a superstar, but they have a deep roster with plenty of stars who play a selfless brand of basketball. They’re good enough to overcome an opponent even if one of their starters has an off night. With that said, the committee did them no favors with tough matchups in each round to the Final Four.
Next best: Villanova. The Wildcats are a well-balanced team with a top 10 offense and defense, and they’re coming off a 19-point win over Iowa. Kris Jenkins has turned it up a notch down the stretch, and Villanova is one of the most dangerous teams in the country when it is knocking down 3-pointers.
See ya later: Miami. The Hurricanes face a tall order to reach the Final Four. Even if they get past Villanova, they’ll have to turn around and face top-seeded Kansas or a confident Maryland team that just beat Kansas. It’s hard to see them winning consecutive games like that.
Player to watch: Melo Trimble, Maryland. At this point, every region is loaded with talent but Trimble ranks among the most exciting. He has the ability to attack the basket, shoot from the outside and get his teammates involved. His pro ceiling might not be too high, but he’s a heck of a college player who has scored 43 points in the first two games of the tournament.
Our pick: Kansas. The Jayhawks have a challenging road to Houston, but they are the best team left. They have fallen victim to their fair share of upsets in the tournament under Bill Self, but this year’s team has a different feel to it.
Team to beat: North Carolina. The Tar Heels cruised in the first two rounds, winning by an average of 17.5 points. Not even Kris Dunn’s 29 points could keep Providence within striking distance in the Round of 32. North Carolina has a dynamic frontcourt with Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, but it must get better from 3-point range as it advances deeper in the tournament.
Next best: Indiana. Arguably the best 3-point shooting team left in the tournament, which makes the Hoosiers a real threat. Plus, Indiana played better on the defensive end in the opening rounds. Most important, the Hoosiers have a veteran backcourt leader in Yogi Ferrell, an essential piece for any team making a deep run.
See ya later: Notre Dame. The Irish were fortunate to get past Stephen F. Austin, and a questionable defense will ultimately end their season before Houston. Even if the Irish knock off Wisconsin in the Sweet 16, they’ll be greeted by a more talented North Carolina team (which whipped them by 31 points in the ACC tournament) or a red-hot Indiana team.
Player to watch: Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin. This region is loaded with future NBA players, but Koenig has shown the clutch gene so far. He hit two clutch 3-pointers, including the game-winner, to help Wisconsin upset No. 2 seed Xavier. Does he have more magic left in him?
Our pick: Indiana. This is a trendy pick for a reason. The Hoosiers are getting hot at the right time, can make 3-pointers and have found a sudden ability to play defense. If they can get past North Carolina, they’ll be heavy favorites to reach the Final Four for the first time under Tom Crean.
Round of 16
4:10 p.m.: Villanova (31-5) vs. Miami (27-7), Ch. 7
4:37 p.m.: Oklahoma (27-7) vs. Texas A&M (28-8), TBS
6:40 p.m.: Kansas (32-4) vs. Maryland (27-8), Ch. 7
6:55 p.m.: Oregon (30-6) vs. Duke (25-10), TBS
4:10 p.m.: Virginia (28-7) vs. Iowa State (23-11), Ch. 7
4:27 p.m.: Wisconsin (22-12) vs. Notre Dame (23-11), TBS
6:40 p.m.: Syracuse (21-13) vs. Gonzaga (28-7), Ch. 7
6:57 p.m.: North Carolina (30-6) vs. Indiana (27-7), TBS