Silverberg: Bracket thoughts and projections

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

The NCAA Tournament is here. The First Four has already started and will conclude Wednesday night. By Thursday morning the round of 64 will be complete and two of the best days of the sports calendar will commence.

The bracket is set. Keep in mind you can compete in our Sports Animal Bracket Challenge here. We’re looking forward to having everyone fill out brackets and participating against our staff here at WNML.

A couple thoughts from Selection Sunday:

  • As upset as North Carolina State is about being left out, the committee did the right thing leaving the Wolfpack out of the tournament. There are 353 teams in Division 1 college basketball. N.C. State’s non-conference schedule ranked 352. Had the committee put the Wolfpack into the field, other major conference teams would be more reluctant so schedule quality opponents before January.
  • Yes, I consider teams that lose in the First Four to be tournament teams. No, I do not consider the First Four to be the first round of the tournament. That begins Thursday.
  • I think it’s pointless for half of the First Four participants to be comprised of conference champions. If you win your conference you shouldn’t have to play another game to make the first round. Let Fairleigh Dickinson, Prairie View A&M, North Dakota State and North Carolina Central all be 16 seeds. Move Iona, Gardner-Webb and other teams already seeded up a bit as necessary and then make teams such as Florida, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio State, or Washington play two other games for a 11-12 seed play-in game.

With those out of the way, on to my bracket.

Let’s start with the West Region. This is the toughest region in terms of pure talent. Gonzaga and Michigan are national powers. Texas Tech has the best defense in college basketball and boasts one of the top guards in the country in Jarett Culver. Florida State finished the year strong and scored a big win over Virginia in the ACC Tournament. Buffalo has a high-octane offense with a lot of upperclassmen and Marquette’s matchup with Murray State features two of the top scorers in college basketball with Markus Howard and Ja Morant.

Despite all of that, I have mostly chalk here. Florida’s defense could spring it to a minor upset in the 7-10 game against Nevada, but the Gators aren’t getting by Michigan. I’ll take Syracuse in the 8-9 matchup against Baylor, but I wouldn’t expect the Orange to have enough firepower to compete with Gonzaga. However, I like Buffalo’s offense to get by the Red Raiders, who can struggle at times to get the offense going. I like the Zags to knock off Florida State and Michigan on their way to the Final Four.

The East has Duke and Michigan State. Beyond that there are some talented teams like LSU and Virginia Tech, but the Tigers don’t have Will Wade and there’s a big question mark about just how far this team could go. The Hokies have a win over Duke, but that was without Zion Williamson. Sure, Virginia Tech is getting Justin Robinson back, but I’d give the Blue Devils the nod in getting Zion back in the fold. Belmont put up points in the First Four despite not getting much out of Dylan Windler. I like the Bruins to get by Maryland and upset LSU to make the Sweet 16, but fall to the Spartans.

My high-risk-high-reward pick of the tournament is Michigan State knocking off Duke to make the Final Four. The Spartans have Nick Ward back and at some point Duke’s poor outside shooting could really bite the Blue Devils against a good defense, and Tom Izzo’s team has just that.

The Midwest Region is intriguing. North Carolina and Kentucky seemed destined to meet in the Elite Eight, but there’s some splash in this region. If Auburn shoots lights out the Tigers can knock off almost anyone. Can Houston handle being a No. 3 seed? Which Iowa State team is going to show up? Is Kansas being overlooked? Could Wofford knock off Kentucky?

Alas, I ignored most of this and have North Carolina beating Kentucky to get to the Final Four. The Tar Heels are used to being in the big dance late and are probably coming in with a chip on its shoulder after getting blown out by Texas A&M in the second round last year. I have Auburn getting to the Sweet 16 after beating Kansas with the big upset here being Ohio State knocking off the Cyclones in the opening round. The Tar Heels beat the Wildcats for their third trip to the Final Four in the last four seasons.

Finally, the South Region. Virginia looks to erase last year’s 20-point loss to UMBC in what was the first 16-seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the history of the tournament. The Cavaliers should dispatch Gardner-Webb in the opening round, but might be surprised to see Oregon in the Sweet 16. I have the Ducks beating Wisconsin and Kansas State to get to the second weekend.

In the bottom half of the region there’s a lot of anticipation for Tennessee to meet Purdue in the Sweet 16, but I actually like Villanova to get there. I think that team has some valuable postseason experience and depth and can get by the Boilermakers. The Volunteers will escape Columbus with a win over Cincinnati despite the home court advantage for the Bearcats. The Vols advance to take on Virginia in the Elite Eight.

And win.

Yep, I’ve got Tennessee making its first ever Final Four. And first National Championship game. The Spartans squeak by Gonzaga on their way to the title bout with Tennessee, where Michigan State claims its first natty since 2000. Not what Tennessee fans want to hear, but a runner-up finish would include a win over Virginia and a revenge win over North Carolina.

Have fun filling out your brackets and laughing at mine.

Enjoy the tournament, everyone.

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