Top seed outlook: On paper, the Midwest appears to be the most open of the four regions, but we still provide No. 1 North Carolina the best odds, using a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and also an 18 percent probability of appearing in the championship game. Those odds are at least 8 percentage points lower compared to every other No. 1 team in the field, however, and for good reason: North Carolina’s offense is dependent on turning every play right into a quick break. The Tar Heels fight to get into the free-throw line and give up a ton of shots along the perimeter, which, at a slowed-down, half-court matchup, could be rather problematic.
After getting chased by Duke to open the season, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent weeks while finding balance on both ends of the ground and mostly abstaining in the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is in the middle of its very best season since Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing school basketball, and they boast a defense which ranks among the top together and in the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 5 Auburn. When the Tigers steamrolled Tennessee 84-64 in Sunday’s SEC title game, it likely got the focus of a good deal of bracket-pickers. That was not a one-off — Auburn also beat Tennessee eight days before, part of a series of eight consecutive wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their last 11 games. Having an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficiency) that got more of its points out of downtown compared to every other team in the NCAA field, Auburn can heat up in a hurry. We provide the Tigers nearly a coin-flip’s likelihood of making the Sweet 16 — and also an extremely solid 37 percent chance of beating top-seeded North Carolina if the Tar Heels are waiting for Auburn there. The sole kryptonite might be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which beat the Tigers by 27 in late February to sweep their season series.
Do not wager : No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went to the year ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they appeared to validate the choice by starting the season 10-0. However a 15-9 record (plus some key injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament possible. This really is a well-balanced group, but to say it does not shoot well from the exterior is an understatement — watch KU’s 3-for-18 performance from profound in Saturday’s Big 12 ouster from Iowa State. Insert an unfavorable draw that puts them onto a potential second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and we give the Jayhawks only an 8% chance of making from the Midwest with their championship hopes intact.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Ohio State. In case a Big Ten team which has made 11 Final Fours can be a Cinderella, then you’re looking at it in these Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s rising tendency to seed underwhelming power-conference colleges this manner really contrasts with the definition.) OSU went just 18-13 throughout the regular season, was defeated its second Big Ten tournament game and contains nearly two times as many losses as wins since New Year’s. Why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Regardless of the seed, this remains a dangerous team, one which ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive ratings and contains celebrity forward Kaleb Wesson back from suspension. So perhaps they’ll provide Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But this tells you something about the other potential Cinderellas within this region: Seton Hall got a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of those other low seeds are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a group which did all it could to play its way from this championship, but has some mad potential no matter.
Player to watch: Cameron Johnson, UNC On a group that does not hoist a ton of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as deadly as they are come. Observing an injury-riddled campaign where he made greater than one-third of his looks from beyond the arc, the graduate student is canning 46.5 percent of his efforts, which ranks inside the top 25 nationwide.
Johnson has flourished in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity scheme this season. He’s blossomed into one of the greatest scorers in the ACC, standing between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency in transition, off screens and on spot-ups.
Johnson has elevated his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive evaluation (132.5) and true shooting percentage (64.6). Unexpectedly, a player who was not seen as a guaranteed professional now projects for a second-round pick.
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Washington over No. 8 Utah State (49 percent); No. 10 Seton Hall over No. 7 Wofford (37 percent); No. 11 Ohio State over No. 6 Iowa State (33 percent)
Have a look at our latest March Madness predictions.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A previous version of this story misstated the amount of Sweet 16s made by Villanova in recent seasons. Though the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of their past five seasons, that round was the Round of 32 until 2016 because of NCAA naming conventions.
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