We’re still a long way off from Selection Sunday, so it’s anyone’s guess who we’re going to see competing in March Madness this year. While everyone has their top picks, technically anything can happen between now and the end of conference season. Let’s take a look at some bracket predictions this year, leading up to the Final Four. Bear in mind that there is no telling where the Selection Committee may place some of the teams mentioned, so these predictions may be subject to change.
Last Four In, First Four Out
There’s a good chance that Texas Southern and St. Francis (NY) will make it to the First Four this year. The only real contender for Texas Southern’s bid is Alabama A&M, and their projections for the rest of the season don’t quite match up. The Terriers’ spot on the board is pretty solid, with no teams in the Northeast Conference set to usurp them any time soon. The last two automatic bids in the First Four are a bit more contestable. UL Monroe has been showing a pretty strong game, but Georgia Southern could come up from behind them at any moment. The fourth spot is a toss-up between Colgate and Bucknell.
At least one spot on the last four in is almost promised to UCLA. Purdue should also take a spot on the list, facing off against UCLA for the Midwest seed. The East seed will likely come down to a faceoff between Tulsa and NC State.
Even if the above predictions hold true, it’s hard to predict this year’s first four out. Depending on how the rest of the season goes, we might see those spots going to Stanford, Davidson, Boise State and Texas A&M.
Final Four: Midwest – Kentucky
Kentucky is everyone’s favorite this year, and many are thinking they’ll take home the championship. They’ve got some towering players on their side, and those boys know how to play a strong defense. Even if an unlikely disaster strikes and Kentucky doesn’t make it past the Sweet 16, it’s safe to say that most of their players will wind up in the national association within two or three years. They may not be as aggressive on defense, but face it—whichever teams play for the Midwest 16 seed in the First Four are basically competing for a chance to get creamed.
Above all, the Wildcats have experience. They’ve seen just about every move a player might pull out of their sleeve during a tournament, and they know how to defend them all. There are a lot of major contenders potentially headed for the Midwest Regional this year, but it’s hard to say if any pose a true threat.
If the Kansas Jayhawks wind up in the Midwest bracket, the Wildcats may have a tussle on their hands. The Jayhawks are headed for their eleventh straight conference title, and their losses this season have been a lot closer than their wins. They may be able to rival Kentucky in terms of defense while throwing an offense their way that the Wildcats can’t throw back. Kentucky’s best weapon is Aaron Harrison, who might be able to give Kansas another close loss, but he can’t carry their offense if the Jayhawks wind up with a solid lead.
Kentucky may also have to watch out for Butler. Much like Kentucky, the Bulldogs have been playing some solid defense. Most of their games have been pretty close so far, but a faceoff between two defensive teams could go either way.
Final Four: South – Duke
Much like Kentucky, Duke is highly favored for the championship this year. Duke and Kentucky actually have some similarities. They’ve both won the championship since 2010, they both have a massive national fan base, and they’re both known primarily for one side of their performance. While Kentucky is known for its defense, the Blue Devils have an offense that might be able to push through it if they wind up playing one another in the National Semifinals.
Duke’s players know how to get the ball down the court, and they know how to get it through the net from just about anywhere. They also have Jahlil Okafor, a star candidate for next year’s draft who appears to be nearly unstoppable in most instances.
Depending on how the bracket is organized, Duke might end up against Wisconsin. The Badgers are possibly the only team in the Big Ten that anybody needs to worry about this year. They’ve won with some bid leads this season, and Frank Kaminsky is one of the few NCAA players right now who can stand up to Okafor. The Badgers’ forward is only about an inch taller than the Blue Devils’ center, and both of the nearly seven-foot-tall behemoths have the natural instincts it takes to give their opposing teams a run for their money.
Duke also might up playing against Iona for a chance at the South Regional. The Gaels are something of a dark horse due to their current ranking, but they’ve been averaging more than eighty points per game. They’ve got two talented guards, Isaiah Williams and A.J. English. The former is out for injury but could easily come back by the start of the Division I Tournament, and the latter seems destined for a pro career not unlike his father’s. Both Duke and Iona are high-scoring teams, so a match-up of both teams is sure to be a nail-biter.
Final Four: East – Villanova
Villanova could wind up second on the East bracket this year. The team is first in the Big East right now, and they haven’t exactly been scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to scoring. Their focus is definitely more on offense than on defense, but Nova’s kept a fair number of their opponents down by at least ten points to prevent a last-second win. The last team that even had a chance to save things at the last minute was Butler, but it was ultimately Darrun Hilliard who sank the last-second three-pointer to cement a win on Valentine’s Day.
In fact, Hilliard is one of the greatest reasons the Wildcats might have a shot this year. Not only is he an ace at getting the ball through the net, but he’s a veritable team player. When he’s inevitably drafted into the NBA, he isn’t likely to be another example of pro sports arrogance. Hilliard can efficiently read who’s open, and he knows when to let go of the ball and hand it to a teammate with a better chance of scoring. That kind of teamwork could easily take Villanova to the Final Four.
Villanova isn’t guaranteed a game against Virginia, the East’s current top seed; they very well may have to fight their way through Iowa State first. Some have said that the Cyclones won’t get past the Round of 32, and most expert brackets suggest they’d have to make it to the Sweet 16 to face Villanova. They’ve certainly had a dicey season, but their wins have been way bigger than their losses. Their recent games against the Sooners and the Jayhawks weren’t as close as they could have been, but they could generate some heat against Villanova if the two square off against one another.
If Villanova does play Virginia for the Final Four spot, they’ll have their work cut out for them. The Cavaliers have gone nearly undefeated, with the exception of a fairly close game against Duke (which Virginia had in the bag until close to the end). They’ve got a solid guard in London Perrantes, and Justin Anderson is a pretty key player as well. But no one knows if Anderson will still be out for injury when it comes time to play the tournament, and his absence could affect the Cavaliers’ chances. It’s also worth noting that most of their wins have been low-scoring games. With Virginia frequently running the shot clock instead of playing an aggressive offense, some basketball fans would rather see a team like Villanova make the National Semifinals, just for the sake of watching good basketball.
Final Four: West – Arizona
Arizona’s got a bit of hype behind them right now, although they certainly have their fair share of non-believers. Looking past the fact that it would just be plain fun to see three “Wildcats” in the Final Four if the above predictions come to pass, there are some solid reasons to suspect that Arizona might go all the way. The Pac-12 conference isn’t the strongest of the 32, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Wildcats have had a pretty golden season so far. A fair number of their wins have been by leads of 20 points or more, and their most recent loss against the Arizona State Sun Devils has been completely blown out of proportion. It was a close loss that arguably shouldn’t have happened, but it doesn’t mean they’re out of the game. If they play their cards right, they may even overtake Gonzaga’s ranking to get back on the number one seed.
The Wildcats also have Stanley Johnson on their side, a star forward who’s been raising his scoring average steadily every year since his freshman year of high school. He’s undeniably one of the best college freshmen in the NCAA right now, and his scoring average is complemented by his ability to handle rebounds and assists (not to mention a couple of steals here and there).
Arizona may not have much to worry about whether they reclaim the top seed or not. Projected teams for the West bracket include LSU and North Carolina. While LSU has a solid team, some are questioning whether or not they might lose their spot on the bracket by the end of the season. While Arizona may have disappointed fans with their loss to the Sun Devils, Tigers fans have had a lot less to cheer about lately. The Tar Heels aren’t doing much better, and it doesn’t help that they’re finishing the regular season against Duke. The only other team projected by most experts to stand between Arizona and Gonzaga on the West bracket is Xavier, and they stand to be upset by Butler and Villanova by the end of the season.
This means that the Gonzaga Bulldogs are the most likely contenders for Arizona’s Final Four spot. Some are referring to Gonzaga as this year’s dark horse, but it doesn’t quite fit. First off, it’s a little ridiculous to treat the current first-ranked team in the West bracket as if they’re total underdogs. Second, this wouldn’t exactly be the first time they’ve performed well early in the bracket, only to fail about halfway in. And that might very well be what happens. Gonzaga does have former Kentucky center and power forward Kyle Wiltjer, who banks his three-pointers successfully nearly half the time, but he simply doesn’t compare to Stanley Johnson.
Dark Horse: Northern Iowa
If the bracket plays out as some are predicting, Butler will play Kentucky for a chance to face Kansas in the Midwest Regional, and Northern Iowa will play Virginia for a chance to face off against Villanova in the East Regional. Butler has their defense going for them, and Northern Iowa has Seth Tuttle. If by some miracle Butler and Northern Iowa play each other in the championship game, Tuttle’s penchant for racking up points and rebounds should lead Northern Iowa to an unexpected win.
Granted, that sequence of events requires a very specific bracket seeding, not to mention a number of underdogs coming out of the woodworks to upset the top seeds in their brackets. But should the UNI Panthers find themselves within even spitting distance of the Final Four, they’ve got both the offense and the defense to push through to the championship game. Tuttle or no Tuttle, they’ve played a strong season. Their games have been fairly close, but they run one of the strongest programs out of all the mid-major conferences. It won’t be easy, but they have what it takes to go home champions this year.