Welcome to the Madness.
The NCAA announced its 68-team basketball tournament field Sunday, with Alabama claiming the overall No. 1 seed and being joined on the top line by Houston, Kansas, and Purdue. None of those placements were a surprise, with the Boilermakers providing a little bit of drama right before the brackets were unveiled by holding off Penn State to win the Big Ten tournament.
In addition to the weight of being the No. 1 seed, the Crimson Tide will also have to deal with the increased national media scrutiny surrounding star freshman Brandon Miller and his alleged role in a fatal shooting that resulted in the indictment of former teammate Darius Miles. Miller, a likely lottery pick for the NBA Draft, was not held out of any games by coach Nate Oats since the incident became public and averaged 20.3 points and 11 rebounds in powering Alabama to the SEC tournament title.
There was not much in the way of surprises when it came to the final at-large selections, though one can always quibble. Do you want the caché of North Carolina, warts and all of an inconsistent season, in the First Four or a Nevada team that had a disastrous finish? Does it matter? Do any of these No. 11 seeds look capable of catching lightning in a bottle to reach the Final Four like VCU in 2011 and UCLA two years ago?
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There are plenty of first-round matchups with subplots (hello, UConn vs. Iona as Rick Pitino ponders a move across town to St. John’s and back into the Big East); potential four-team sub-regions of chaos (looking at you, East and South regions); under-seeded teams (Texas A&M); over-seeded teams (Tennessee); and a little bit of home cooking (that’s a nice 60-mile bus ride from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham for the Crimson Tide’s first- and second-round games). There will be lower-seeded bandwagons (your cubicle work partner will know more about Oral Roberts’ Max Abmas than his/her life partner by Wednesday) and the annual mascot question (what’s a Paladin?).
Teams that could be labeled Final Four sleepers now have defined paths to Houston, with the severity of obstacles changing based on seeding and opponents, as well as locations. So let’s rip through the field with some steaming hot takes and potential picks that will undoubtedly be revisited for ridicule.
Toughest path for a No. 1 seed
Kansas (+900 to win the NCAA Tournament at FanDuel) has the toughest path to H-Town, and it’s not even close. Even with a bazillion Quad 1 wins, the Jayhawks were the third No. 1 seed, according to the committee. To add insult to the wounded pride of getting smoked by Texas (+2000 at BetMGM) in the Big 12 title game, Kansas was put in the West Region, meaning its regional games — should it get that far — are in Las Vegas and not in nearby Kansas City.
Even as early as the second round, the Jayhawks could be sternly challenged. Arkansas was a preseason AP Top 10 team and is now a dangerous No. 9 seed playing an Illinois team that beat both UCLA and Texas, but then could not solve Penn State on three occasions. If the Razorbacks can flash the form of their 11-1 start or early February play when they beat Texas A&M and Kentucky, they could pose the Jayhawks problems.
The regionals in Sin City also offer big-time obstacles, starting with No. 4 seed Connecticut (+1750 at Hard Rock). The Huskies looked every bit their 14-0 non-conference form down the stretch and have both the talent and depth to match Kansas body for body. The bottom half of the draw likely will produce No. 2 UCLA (+1400 at BetRivers, Barstool Sportsbook, FanDuel) or No. 3 Gonzaga (+1800 at FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM, and Betway), and while the Bruins are without Jaylen Clark, they are an experienced team of “grown-ass men” who play defense. The ‘Zags, a tournament fixture, will be on a mission led by mustachioed superstar Drew Timme.
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No. 13 Louisiana (+10.5 at DraftKings, BetMGM, PointsBet, Hard Rock) vs. No. 4 Tennessee
This line has already fallen to single digits at FanDuel. It is not a line disparaging the Volunteers as much as the recognition in the sports wagering space that the selection committee rewarded them for the full season’s body of work since they will be without injured starting point guard Zakai Zeigler. The Ragin’ Cajuns are not world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination coming out of the Sun Belt and did not play a great non-conference schedule, but they can negate some of Tennessee’s strengths on the boards and will run an efficient offense.
OVER 152.5 points (BetMGM) No. 10 Utah State vs. No. 7 Missouri
BetMGM’s total is currently two points lower than current listings at multiple books elsewhere, and both teams can score the ball. The Aggies and Tigers are both crisp offensively in terms of shooting inside and outside the arc, and while Missouri is prone to giving up second-chance points, it will get some live-ball turnovers for easy points on its side.
Embrace the chaos, first-round edition
In a feast-or-famine pick, there is a non-zero chance the East Region could have a No. 12 vs. No. 13 seed second-round matchup in Oral Roberts vs. Louisiana. Yes, it requires bravery to pick against an under-seeded and red-hot Blue Devils team (+4000 at Caesars, Hard Rock, and Betfred), but in addition to 30-win Oral Roberts having Abmas — a holdover from the No. 15 seed Golden Eagles team in 2021 that reached the regional semifinals — it also has 7’5″ Connor Vanover, who can at least make Duke’s stud freshman and 7-footer Kyle Filipowski work for his points.
The South Region also has the chance for 12 vs. 13 magic with Charleston and Furman posting upsets over San Diego State and Virginia, respectively. The Cougars, who made a cameo in the AP Top 25 during the season, won 31 games en route to the CAA title and are capable of shooting their way past the Aztecs. The Paladins have a very good offense inside the arc — they lead the nation in 2-point shooting at 59.1% — and Virginia’s defense, while good, is not the anaconda-like Cavaliers defense of seasons past.
Fade the Mountain West again?
The chatter will start heading into the First Four when Nevada faces Arizona State in a clash of No. 11 seeds, pointing out that the Mountain West Conference has lost nine straight NCAA Tournament games starting with the Wolf Pack’s Sweet 16 loss to Loyola of Chicago in 2018. The MWC did a four-team flop last year and has four teams in the field again this year, though San Diego State is the only team in the top half of the draw as a No. 5 seed and still carries some value as a sleeper pick (+10000 at FanDuel and BetMGM).
Despite being No. 10 seeds, oddsmakers have pegged Utah State and Boise State as slight favorites over Missouri and Northwestern, respectively. The Wolf Pack are small underdogs to Arizona State, a team making its third First Four appearance since 2018. It is possible Mountain West fortunes are reversed this year and the conference gets four wins, but it is also not out of the realm of possibility another 0-4 is in the offering.
Playing the disrespect card
Last season, Buzz Willams aired his grievances, Festivus-style, when Texas A&M was one of the last teams not to make the field of 68, as the Aggies’ 12 SEC wins were not enough to offset a pastry-soft non-conference schedule. Texas A&M opted to avoid dramatics this season, going 15-3 in conference play to finish second and reaching the SEC tournament final.
Thus, it was a little surprising the Aggies were slotted as a No. 7 seed in the Midwest with a first-round date versus Penn State (-3/-110 at Caesars, PointsBet, and DraftKings) — made even more so when a more inconsistent Kentucky team was awarded a No. 6 seed. One can hear Reveille’s howls of outrage all the way from College Station, though the prospect of a second-round showdown with No. 2 Texas and a win against their former and future conference rival could go a long way towards silencing the doubters.
Multiple rapid-fire musings
- First No. 1 seed to be eliminated: Kansas
- Most vulnerable No 2 seeds based on potential matchups: Texas (vs. Texas A&M) and Marquette (vs. USC)
- Ugliest first-round game: No. 12 VCU vs. No. 5 Saint Mary’s — first to 55 may win
- Most likely 12 vs. 5 upset: See above
- First-round game everyone would like to be close but won’t: No. 4 UConn vs. No. 13 Iona
- Biggest contrast in styles first-round game: No. 9 Auburn vs. No. 8 Iowa
- Best first-round rock fight: No. 9 West Virginia vs. No. 8 Maryland
- Upset we all want to see: No. 12 Oral Roberts vs. No. 5 Duke
- Upset we will see: No. 14 UC Santa Barbara (+475 at PointsBet) vs. No. 3 Baylor
- Star who will carry his team and avoid a first-round upset: Trayce Jackson-Davis for No. 4 Indiana (-200 at PointsBet) vs. No. 13 Kent State
- Best potential revenge: Bryce Hopkins helping No. 11 Providence (+145 at DraftKings) beat No. 6 Kentucky in the Rick Pitino Memorial
- Best potential NCAA Tournament champion darkhorse seeded No. 5 or lower: Duke (+4000 at Hard Rock and Betfred)
- Best potential Final Four team, bottom half of the bracket: No. 9 Arkansas (+1200 at DraftKings and Betway)
- Eye-test Final Four: Alabama (+190 at DraftKings and Betway), Gonzaga (+430 at FanDuel, Betfred), Houston (+140 at BetRivers and Barstool), Purdue (+300 WynnBET)
- Heartstrings Final Four: Alabama, Houston, UCLA (+340 at Betfred and FanDuel), Marquette (+700 at Betway)