As the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee announced the lucky sixty-eight teams that will be taking part in this year’s NCAA Tournament, and the number of unfortunate schools to miss out on that distinction, we look ahead to the conclusion of a 2015-2016 campaign that has been marked by many things, but none more than parity. In a contest that is historically rife with chaos, based off of the previous four months there is reason to believe that this particular March will be even more mad than it’s predecessors. Seriously folks, in this year’s tourney ANYONE could be cutting down the nets in three weeks time, with arguably a dozen teams possessing the credentials worth of a National Champion. Unlike last year in which Kentucky brought an undefeated record into the Big Dance, there is no clear favorite in this tournament field. Every team has it’s faults and failings. Every contender has it’s weaknesses and shortcomings. In fact, the four teams that comprise the four No. One Seeds (Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia, and Oregon) have combined for more losses than any quartet of predecessors in over a decade. Six different teams laid claim to the top ranking in the Polls this season, with each of them succumbing to a swoon at some point of their respective campaigns, with each also falling to at least one unranked opponent. So as we consider the myriad of factors that will play a part in the crowning of a champion, none greater than good fortune, let’s take a look at the 2016 NCAA Tournament, region by region, while providing a spotlight on the favorites, the sleepers, and the Cinderellas that could potentially turn your personal bracket into ashes. Oh, and don’t worry folks, we’ll also provide our pick to be reign supreme in Huston, Texas.
Atop the South we find a familiar face, as the Kansas Jayhawks (30-4, 1st in Big XII) have claimed the No. One Overall Seed in the Tournament. Granted, there is always a good deal of trepidation when evaluating Kansas when they’re prohibitive favorites, for on a number of occasions they’ve been eliminated by the most unforeseen of opponents. Case in point; last year’s Jayhawks were stunned by Seven-Seeded Wichita State 78-65 on the back half of the Opening Weekend. With that said, this team looks far more cohesive than their predecessors, evidenced by their current fourteen-game winning streak, in which they obtained yet another Big XII Championship. So who among this region will challenge Rock Chalk Jayhawk? Honestly, there are no shortage of suitors to upend Bill Self’s charges, with Three-Seeded Miami, Five-Seeded Maryland, Four-Seeded California, Six-Seeded Arizona, Seven-Seeded Iowa, and Two-Seeded Villanova all carrying championship aspirations of their own. Both Maryland (28-5, 3rd in Big Ten) and Iowa (21-10, T-3rd in Big Ten) ranked among the nation’s elite at various points of the season before stumbling towards the end of their Big Ten schedules. In fact, the Terrapins rose as high as Second in the Polls, while the Hawkeyes ascended to Third. Miami (25-7, T-2nd in ACC), climbed as high as Seventh, before dropping two out of their final three outings. Arizona (25-8, T-3rd in Pac-12), for their trouble spent consecutive weeks ranked as high as Eighth, while another group of Wildcats, this one from Villanova (29-5, 1st in Big East), spent three straight weeks atop the Polls altogether. And then there is California (23-10, T-3rd in Pac-12), who took a huge step in Cuonzo Martin’s second season on the sidelines, on the strength of a huge Freshmen Class. And what do all six of those teams have in common, you ask? They failed win their respective conference tournaments. However, that cannot be said about Nine-Seeded Connecticut (23-10, 6th in AAC), who will make their triumphant return to the tourney after the NCAA banned them from the postseason in 2015. And for the record, does anyone remember what happened the last time that Kevin Ollie’s Huskies danced in March? They won the whole damn thing as an improbable Seven-Seed, toppling One-Seeded Florida in the Final Four. This year, it took a tour de force in their conference tournament to get them to this point, with a 4-OT epic against Cincinnati highlighting a miraculous run. If you ask us, Kansas should be sweating a potential meeting with UConn in the Round of 32, which is coincidentally where their run ended a year ago.
In arguably the most wide open of regions, Oregon (28-6, 1st in Pac-12) has found themselves reigning atop the West. The Ducks double-dipped as Pac-12 Regular Season Champions and Tournament Champions this year, obtaining their first No. Seed in program history as a result. Dana Altman’s charges are an offensive juggernaut (78.8 points), and are one of the most unorthodox teams to defend in the country. Not to mention they laid waste to their competition in a conference that sent seven teams to the Big Dance, most recently obliterating Utah in an 88-57 debacle in Saturday Night’s Pac-12 Tournament Final. However, they have far from a clear path to Houston, as a number of teams stand in their way. Two-Seed Oklahoma (25-7, 3rd in Big XII) sports National Player of the Year frontrunner Buddy Hield (25.0 points), along with one of the most prolific three-point shooting arsenals in the tourney (42.6%, 3rd Overall). And let’s not forget the Texas Two-Step, excuse us, Three-Step consisting of Three-Seed Texas A&M, Five-Seed Baylor, and Six-Seed Texas. The Aggies (26-7, T-1st in SEC) hold a share of the SEC Championship, while the Bears’ (22-11, 5th in Big XII) size and physicality always makes them a tough matchup. As for the Longhorns (20-12, 4th in Big XII), they’ve done well for themselves in Shaka Smart’s first campaign in Austin, with the potential return of Cameron Ridley (11.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.1 blocks) making them that much more dangerous. Oh, what’s that you say? What about Duke? Oh, that’s right! The Four-Seed Blue Devils (23-10, 5th in ACC) are out to defend their 2015 National Championship with a new group of youngsters, led by last year’s improbable hero of the National Final Grayson Allen (21.6 points) and star Frosh Brandon Ingram (16.8 points), who have helped Coach K’s charges overcome their startling lack of depth. As for Sleepers, Eight-Seed St. Joesph’s (26-7, 4th in Atlantic 10) is exactly the kind of unorthodox matchup nightmare that will keep the higher seeds, including Oregon, up at night, while Eleven-Seed Northern Iowa (22-12, 4th in Missouri Valley), though not as strong as last year’s team, has made plenty of noise in this scenario in the past. Just ask Kansas. And lastly, let us not discount Ten-Seed VCU (24-10, 1st in Atlantic 10), who under Will Wade still press like hell, making them a difficult matchup for any team facing them on a short turnaround.
Adorning the East is yet another familiar face, as North Carolina (28-6, 1st in ACC) are once again a No. One Seed. The last time that the Tar Heels were a One, they cut the nets down back in 2009, and Roy Williams’ charges earned an ACC Regular Season Championship for the first time in four years, as well as a conference tournament title to boot. However, the question that has loomed over this group all year is whether or not they will play at their full potential. Preseason All-American Marcus Paige has struggled mightily all year long, and will need to find his touch in lieu of the potential Murderer’s Row of opponents his team will face. If they can’t meet that lofty plateau, then there are plenty of pitfalls in this region, coming as early as the Third Round in the form of Nine-Seed Providence (23-10, 4th in Big East). The Friars have arguably the best Point Guard in the tourney in Kevin Dunn (16.0 points, 6.4 assists, 2.5 steals), while Ben Bentil is a bonafide machine (21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.1 blocks) at Forward. In fact, Ed Cooley’s charges very nearly upset Carolina in the Opening Round two years ago. Two-Seed Xavier (27-5, 2nd in Big East) is always a tough out in the tourney, and Chris Mack’s squad is physically imposing with a stud Guard of their own in the form of Trevon Bluiett (15.5 points). But enough of that, let’s get to the Blue Bloods, because this Region is chock full of them. Having the likes of Indiana (25-7, 1st in Big Ten) and Kentucky (25-8, T-1st in SEC) as Five and Four Seeds is simply too juicy to ignore, while the possibility of them squaring off in the Third Round serving as a must-see for the viewing public. Both teams improved dramatically as the season progressed, with both earning at least a share of their respective conferences’ Regular Season Championship. Whomever emerges between their likely meeting should give Carolina a world of problems, particularly the Wildcats’ sensational Backcourt of Tyler Ulis (16.8 points, 7.2 assists) and Jamaal Murray (20.2 points, 42.6% 3FG). Not to be forgotten, Three-Seed West Virginia (26-8, 2nd in Big XII) figures to confound at least a few opponents with their relentless Press Defense, while Six-Seed Notre Dame (21-11, 5th in ACC) was one of the only teams in this tournament field to have beaten the Tar Heels this season (80-76 on Feb, 6th). One thing is certain here folks, while Carolina is favored to escape this region, they’ll have to go through hell to do so.
Now for the last, and clearly the most controversial of the quartet of regions. Anyone who watched Michigan State (28-5, 2nd in Big Ten) grind their way to a Big Ten Tournament Championship on Sunday Evening, no doubt came away with the impression that they were a lock to hold down one of the NCAA Tournament’s No. One Seeds. To the surprise of many, the Spartans were left out of that number, in favor of Virginia (26-7, 2nd in ACC), who have gained the One Seed in this particular region. In fact, they were ranked ahead of them in the AP Poll, and even defeated No. One Overall Seed Kansas on a neutral court earlier in the season. Indeed, it’s anyone’s guess why the Selection Committee chose Tony Bennett’s charges over Tom Izzo’s, particularly given the fact that the other three Ones won both their Regular Season Conference Titles and Conference Tournaments, while the Cavaliers won neither. So with that said, what better way to ascertain which is the more deserving team than by having them potentially meet in an Elite Eight matchup? Oh, that Committee, they’re full of tricks! In the meantime, are there any roadblocks on the way to this encounter? Purdue (26-7, 3rd in Big Ten) is definitely a problem at the Five-Seed, given their outstanding size in the paint; anyone who hasn’t seen the damage that big man A.J. Hammons (15.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 blocks) is capable of, knows not to take the Boilermakers lightly. Hell, it could very well be Matt Painter’s charges squaring off against the Spartans in the Regional Final in a rematch of the Big ten Tournament Final. Of course, Four-Seed Iowa State (21-11, 5th in Big XII) might have something to say about that, with one of the most experienced and battle-tested teams in the Field (10.74 Strength of Schedule, 7th Overall). And can we finally show Three-Seed Utah (26-8, 2nd in Pac-12) some love? Larry Krystkowiak, the other Coach K, may have just seen his kids get throttled by thirty-one points against Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament Final, but on the whole they had a marvelous campaign, earning an 11-7 record against teams in this tourney. Sophomore Center Jakob Poeltl (17.6 points, 9.0 rebounds) is a BIG problem for the opposition, just ask Duke, whom he torched for nineteen points and fourteen rebounds in a 77-75 overtime victory on a neutral floor. Lastly, while not as strong as they’ve been in previous years, Gonzaga (26-7, West Coast Conference) always merits attention as an underdog. Mark Few’s kids have a brand-new Backcourt, but one of the best Frontcourts in the country with Kyle Wiltjer (20.7 points, 42.4% 3FG) and Domantas Sabonis (17.4 points, 11.6 rebounds), making the Bulldogs a prime candidate to pull an upset or two as an Eleven-Seed.