The field of college basketball’s 68 is complete and with the NCAA’s new bracket expansion now in its second year, another crop of low-to-mid majors are poised to upend the nation’s top teams.
Despite conferences losses this weekend, Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina all earned top seeding for the NCAA tournament on Sunday, making the three-week, 67-game playoff, known as March Madness even more intriguing this year. Michigan State earned the last No. 1 seed to round out the brackets, as the Spartans defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes 68-64 in the Big Ten title game, to stand as the only top-ranked team to have won its conference tournament. The Kentucky Wildcats (32-2) and Syracuse Orangemen (31-2) each enter the dance with only two losses, but their conference defeats this weekend, to Vanderbilt and Cincinnati respectively, have made things interesting for the millions filling out brackets across America. Duke, Kansas, Missouri and Ohio State round out the No. 2 seeds.
The defiant darlings of the last two NCAA tournaments, the Butler University Bulldogs, unfortunately will be spectators this year. But with the inclusion of 11 unheralded teams from non-power conferences among the 37 at-large teams that were selected to the dance this year, it was the Bulldogs improbable march to the last two national championship games, and Virginia Commonwealth’s berth to the Final Four last year, that helped to expand the field for smaller programs. It is clear that the selection committee is becoming more open-minded when it comes to lower-profile schools. On Sunday, Iona, Colorado State, South Florida, California and Brigham Young University all danced their way past power-conference teams like Drexel, Seton Hall, Washington, Mississippi State and Northwestern to get in. Call it blue-chips versus new blood. Top tier versus mid-majors. Call it what you want, but this year, the Cinderella squads have a shot to make a run at the national championship.
With the Big East leading the field with nine teams this year, the Big Ten and the Big 12 each have six entrants to round out the brackets. Here are our predictions of how the NCAA tourney will play out:
Kentucky is the No. 1 seed in the South. Clearly, the Wildcats are the runaway favorite of the tournament, but might face stiff competition as they play in the most difficult region. With Duke seated at No. 2, Baylor No.3 and Indiana at No.4, to whom they’ve lost to already, and Shaka Smart’s VCU Rams’ return, Kentucky’s road to the Final Four in New Orleans will be an arduous task. One matchup John Calipari’s Wildcats might want to avoid is squaring up against the underachieving but talented defending national champion the UConn Huskies. With sharp shooting of Shabazz Napier and the lottery-bound Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond manning the frontcourt, don’t expect Connecticut to relinquish their title without a fight.
In the West, top-seeded Michigan State will begin its quest for its seventh Final Four since 1999 against No. 16 LIU-Brooklyn. The bottom of the bracket features No. 2 Missouri, which won the Big 12 tournament but got penalized for a nonconference schedule ranked in the 300s. The Spartans have one of the easiest roads to the semifinals, but with Memphis and Rick Pitino’s Big East champion Louisville Cardinals potentially waiting down the line in the Sweet Sixteen, Tom Izzo’s Spartans will need to find a way to contain the Tigers’ Will Barton and the Cardinals’ Peyton Siva.
In the East region, Syracuse opens against UNC Asheville with a possible third-round matchup against project No.1 overall pick in the NBA draft, Jared Sullinger, and Ohio State. Vanderbilt, which stunned the nation with its win over Kentucky in the SEC title game, finds themselves matched up against Harvard University. The Commodores, who have hit 40 percent of their 3-pointers this season, are in position to upset another top ranked program with the Orangemen, the Buckeyes and Wisconsin in the mix and secure a Final Four berth. The bottom of the region finds No. 3 Florida State, which went 4-1 against Duke and North Carolina this year, against No. 14 St. Bonaventure, which was a surprise winner of the A-10 conference tournament and took a bubble spot away. The Seminoles are riding high after winning their first ACC championship by defeating the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels, don’t be surprised if State and Vandy collide in the Elite Eight.
The powerhouse North Carolina Tar Heels are the top seed in the Midwest division. The most intriguing matchup in this region would be pitting Roy Williams against his former team and the Bill Self’s coached Kansas Jayhawks- that would be played in St. Louis. Tim Hardaway Jr. and the Michigan University Wolverines would make for an interesting contest should they advance to meet the No. 1 ranked Tar Heels in the Sweet Sixteen, with a slight advantage going to NC. Big East powerhouse Georgetown could potentially stand between the Kansas and NC bout, as their shot blocking big’s and tough guards could pose a problem for Thomas Robinson and company.
The Final Four will pit Kentucky against Missouri and Vanderbilt against North Carolina. Kentucky and North Carolina will advance to the finals with Coach Calipari and the Wildcats bringing home another championship to Lexington.