The Psychic Is In: The NCAA Tournament Opening Weekend

Which teams are the sweetest this March? 

Editor’s note: Don’t call it a comeback, it’s the return of the Psychic Is In! If you haven’t learned from our NFL, NHL or other editions, this is where founder Brendan Murray makes how (usually wrong predictions) known to the world. We do this a little bit differently each time; for March Madness, we’ll try to pick who will be advancing to the Sweet 16, examining who each team will have to beat, what could doom them if they’re taken out early, why they will eventually end up playing on the second weekend. Let the Madness begin… 

East Region

(1) Villanova Wildcats (31-3, 1st in the Big East)

Who They’ll Have to Beat: The Wildcats are the #1 overall seed in the tournament, and will face off against (16) Mount St. Mary’s before doing battle with the winner of a matchup between (8) Wisconsin and (9) Virginia Tech 

Why They’re Headed Home Early: There aren’t many things that Villanova doesn’t have on its side as we start the tournament.

The team is supremely talented, with Big East Player of the Year and tournament Most Outstanding Player, Josh Hart at the center of it all. The team has a big-name coach in Jay Wright, who may be the second or third biggest name in the sport behind Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim. It also, at least in name, has the east road to the Final Four, having earned the distinction as the #1 overall seed from the Selection Committee, and its first round opponent will be a little gassed from a ply in game two days earlier.

About that last thing—for a top overall seed, this is no easy path for the defending champs, even just to the second weekend. While the play-in game means that MSM will have an extra game on its legs, they’ll also have a boost of confidence, thanks to a win in the tournament. And assuming they dispatch with their opening game, their reward will likely be a criminally underseeded Wisconsin team with something to prove.

The Wildcats are among the most talented teams in the dance and might have the best resume to match it. But as we’ve learned time and time again in March, nothing is automatic.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: Did you read the first two paragraphs of the first section? That was supposed to be the section we talked about the holes in their plan, and even that had a few reasons why they should have no problem advancing.

Despite ‘Nova’s earlier reputation as a tourney choker, I think they’ll have jut about no problem moving on to the Sweet 16 this year. The question is if their title defense can continue to the Final Four.

(4) Florida Gators (24-8, 2nd in the SEC)

Who They’ll Have to Beat: The Gators will take on (13) East Tennessee State University to earn a potential matchup with either (5) University of Virginia or (12) University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Why They’re Headed Home Early: If you’re a college basketball fan, you know the book on the University of Virginia. They’re slow, but they’re stout defensively. That could pose some problems for the Gators, who lost a key big man and rebounder in John Egbunu, who was a key part of their rim protection and rebounding.

Florida can score enough points to beat Virginia, but if they can’t keep the Cavaliers off the board or out of the paint, they may end up dropping a game at home…

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: It’s the Sunshine State, baby.

For some reason or another, the Committee has decided that Florida has either earned the right to play at home (which seems rather doubtful given their designation as a #4 seed) or that there was no other possible option (which, to hear some tell it, is the truth of the matter.)

I talked about this on Monday as well so I won’t spend too long complaining, but I think Florida will get a boost from playing in their home state, in front of what should be a fairly sizable crowd in both of their two games this weekend. The team played well at home this year, going 15-3 including a win over the University of Kentucky.

And, to be fair, the Gators are also a fairly accomplished team away from home this year as well, as they went 8-5 in games away from Gator country. The offense also doesn’t depend on any one player putting the ball in the hoop, meaning that distributor Kasey Hill, who finished second in the SEC in assists, has plenty of options to get the scoring going.

A balanced offense and a little home court advantage should mean good things for the Gators.

(6) Southern Methodist University Mustangs (record, place in conference)

Who They’ll Have to Beat: (11) USC knocked off the Providence Friars in a first four-game to earn a game against the Mustangs. A win would match SMU up against either (3) Baylor or (14) New Mexico State. 

Why They’re Headed Home Early: The best reason to think SMU could meet its maker early in this one comes from last night’s First Four game between the Providence Friars and the USC Trojans. The Trojans battled back 17-points behind, adding to their 11 wins after facing double-digit deficits.

That’s a frightening prospect for a favorite. USC is emotional, confident and seemingly can’t be killed. Not what you’re looking for in a first round matchup.

Even if SMU can get the win, they’re probably going to face a #3 seed in Baylor in the Round of 32. The Bears have faltered down the stretch, but have faced some tough opponents on their ride to the Dance and are likely ready for a fight.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: SMU is not a deep team, but their starting five is as good as almost any team in the country. The questions for the Mustangs is just how that starting five can take them.

The good news is that starting five is crazy efficient on both sides of the floor, meaning that they should have no problem keeping pace with a wider swath of teams than most. SMU’s defense was especially stout this year, holding opponents to less than 60 points per game this season.

The Mustangs are also red hot coming into the first round, winners of each of their last 12 games. Sometimes that’s all it takes to win a few games.

(2) Duke Blue Devils (27-8, 5th in the ACC)

Who They’ll Have to Beat: Duke opens against (15) Troy State and with a win would go on to play either (7) South Carolina or (10) Marquette.

Why They’re Headed Home Early: It’s been an up and down season for the Blue Devils, to say the least.
They were crowned one of the favorites to start the season, reeling in more than 50 first place votes in the preseason polls. But then the season actually started, and before too soon, Grayson Allen was addicted to tripping and was indefinitely suspended. Coach K announced he was stepping away temporarily to deal with health problems, and the team struggled mightily in his absence. Things got so bad that Krzyzewski told his players to stop wearing their University apparel and locked them out of the gym.

There were plenty of good moments for the Blue Devils this season as well, hence the #2 seed, and we’ll get to those in a moment. But it isn’t too hard to imagine the wheels falling off in an early matchup during the tournament, especially considering they could be matched up against the South Carolina Gamecocks just a few hours from the Charleston campus. 

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: It’s Duke, people, and all the things that distinction usually implies, still apply.

They have the best coach in the tournament in Krzyzewski, even if the guy does drive me absolutely crazy. They’re also probably the most talented team in the tournament, especially when you consider that the team’s biggest name, Grayson Allen isn’t their best player (that would be Luke Kennard), and may not even be their second best player (Jason Tatum may own that distinction).

Most frightening of all, though? Duke hasn’t peaked yet. Even Coach K has said that due to the rocky road they’ve traveled so far, he thinks his team is still finding itself. Considering it just put together an ACC Tournament championship that included wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina.

If this team does find it’s groove, or if it already has, it could be another year of blue confetti, and the first two steps of that journey should find the Blue Devils in the Sweet 16.

West Region

(1) Gonzaga Bulldogs (32-1, 1st in West Coast Conference)

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Gonzaga vs Santa Clara

Who They’ll Have to Beat: The Bulldogs open against San Diego State, and would go on to face either (8) Northwestern or (9) Vanderbilt

Why They’re Headed Home Early: At this point, there aren’t many who would deny that the Bulldogs are a good team, maybe even a great team. They have a well-rounded roster, and obviously, have the win-loss record to stack up with literally anyone in the country.

The question is whether this team is battle-tested enough. While the Bulldogs won 32 games, many of those came in the lowly West Coast Conference, and the team’s best win of the season was probably back in November against the University of Florida.

If you’re a Bulldog-doubter it comes down to whether this team can handle the pressure of the Big Dance. 

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: The good news for the Bulldogs? Even if you believe everything I wrote above with all of your heart and soul, this weekend was probably not your concern when it came to the fortitude of Gonzaga.

While neither Gonzaga’s schedule nor conference is filled with impressive foes, they weren’t exactly playing nobodies out there. Along with the win over Florida, the team beat Iowa State, Arizona and St. Mary’s when each school was ranked in the top 25, and there’s a fairly good chance their competition doesn’t stack up tho that so far this year.

I’m not sold on the Bulldogs, and I think they’ll be back in Washington before it comes time for the Final Four, but they should move on to the second weekend.

(4) West Virginia Mountaineers (26-8, 3rd in the Big 12)

Who they’ll Have to Beat: West Virginia opens against (13) Bucknell before facing off with either (5) Notre Dame or (12) Princeton

Why They’re Headed Home Early: West Virginia would not have what you’d call a path made of gold when it comes to getting to the Sweet 16.

They open the tournament in a matchup against an interesting Bucknell team that could cause the Mountaineers problems. Bucknell has won 10 of their last 12 games, and while West Virginia is perhaps the most hyped defensive team in the country, the Buffalo are no slouch when it comes to locking opponents down, allowing less than a point per game more than West Virginia over the season.

If they do avoid an early upset, they’ll probably be playing a Notre Dame that have some circled for a trip to the Final Four. The Irish and the Mountaineers are as close as two teams can get: Notre Dame has a one spot edge in RPI, but West Virgina has an extra win against Top 25 competition, and both went 12-6 in their conference.

Even if Notre Dame is the upset in this part of the bracket, West Virginia would have to deal with a Cinderella in Princeton, a team that has won each of its last 12 games and may have the defense to matchup with the Mountaineers.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: What’s that old saying? Defense wins championships.

If my sneaking suspicions are right and West Virginia does find a way to string together a pair of wins this weekend, they are going to need to be air tight. And to be clear, West Virginia can score. The team put up 82 points a game over the course of the regular season, but they’re matching up against some good defenses in their own right, so they’ll need to be stout.

The good news is, that’s well within their range of abilities. More good news?

West Virginia played well when it mattered this year, winning the majority of their games against Top 25 opponents and going 12-6 in the Big 12. That should serve them well, even if their road to the Sweet 16 is daunting.

(6) Maryland Terrapins (24-8 2nd in Big 10)

Who They’ll Have to Beat: The Terps face (11) Xavier in the first round and would face the winner of (3) Florida State and (14) Florida Gulf Coast University.

Why They’re Headed Home Early: Maryland’s first-round tussle with Xavier has the makings of an appealing contest.

It will be a matchup between styles, as Xavier’s ability to play in the paint will be matched up against the Terrapins great guards. If Maryland’s shooting goes cold and Xavier can protect the rim, it isn’t too hard to see how things could be over before they even get started.

And if they win that, Maryland will have the privilege of playing guest to another Florida school, as the winner of the first round game between FGCU/Dunk City and the Seminoles of Florida State. Not exactly 

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: Maybe I’m crazy (okay, definitely) but I think Melo Trimble could be a player to keep your eye on this weekend. He hasn’t impressed to the hype that preceded him, and this could be a chance for him to change the narrative that surrounds him

We’ve also seen just how good Maryland can be this season. The team was red hot before the year changed, losing just two contests through the end of January, but started February with a pair of losses and stumbled to the finish line, losing three more games in February before falling in their last game to Northwestern. If Maryland can look more like that team from the first two months of the year, they have a chance to surprise some people.

Some trivia on Maryland’s side as well: the Seminoles lost to a #6 seed to be eliminated last time they were in the tournament, in 2012, with a loss to Cincinnati.

(2) Arizona Wildcats (30-4, 1st in the Pac-12)

Who They’ll Have to Beat: (15) University of North Dakota will serve as Arizona’s opening matchup before they potentially face either (7) St. Mary’s or (10) Virginia Commonwealth University.

Why They’re Headed Home Early: If you believe that there are just certain schools come March, special teams that regardless of the coach or players can find a way to create upsets year after year, the Wildcats are likely not in your Final Four.

Arizona is going to have to be somewhat careful here. While they seem like they could be one of the best teams in the tournament (more on that in a moment), there is storyline potential abound, with two of those “certain teams” in their path in VCU and St. Mary’s, who unfortunately for fans of upsets, are forced to eliminate one another in the opening round.

And that’s assuming Arizona doesn’t fall victim to an awful string of bad luck against North Dakota—which certainly isn’t impossible.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: Ghosts, voodoo and fairytales aside, there are reasons to think that Arizona could cause problems for the rest of the West bracket, and maybe even emerge victoriously.

Arizona is a devastating offense—there’s simply no other way to put it.  The team has six players averaging nine or more point, meaning they will be tough to shut down in the tournament, as no one player is the key to their scoring. If there is one player to look at, though, it’s the man who will likely hear his name called during the NBA lottery, 7-foot shooter (because those are a thing that now exists) Lauri Markkanen.

That talent and scoring ability gave Arizona an argument as a one seed, with both regular season and postseason conference titles and a top four AP ranking at the end of the season. They also have plenty of the boxes that many championship-contending teams tend to check, including a high RPI rank (2) and an impressive finish to their campaign (10-2 in their last 12 games). The Wildcats even beat UCLA twice this season, split a series with Oregon, and picked up a win against Michigan State.

For my money, the Wildcats are the best team in this bracket, and they’ll keep dancing come next week.

Midwest Region

(1) Kansas Jayhawks (28-4, 1st in the Big 12)

Who They’ll Have to Beat: The #1 seed in the Midwest will open against UC-Davis before doing battle with either (8) Miami or (9) Michigan State

Why They’re Headed Home Early: With any of the 1 seeds, and many more of the high seeds we have picked to go on to the second weekend, the real cases for them to lose are in the second round.

That’s the case again here, and for a team that may have had the second best resume in the regular season behind Villanova, the Jayhawks got a similarly rough treatment to the Wildcats. Bill Self’s squad’s prize for keeping the tradition of #1 seeds advancing would be against two of the bigger names in the college coaching ranks: Jim Larranaga of the University of Miami and Tom Izzo of Michigan State University.

While Izzo certainly doesn’t have the caliber of team he’s boasted in the past and Larranaga did not have the kind of team that could realistically compete in a strong ACC, I wouldn’t sleep on either coach in the tournament.

It may not be a ton to worry about this weekend if you’re just focusing on second-round coaching matchups, but such is life as a #1 seed—something tells me the Jayhawks won’t be lying down on the job.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: I’m not convinced Kansas isn’t the best team in this tournament. I don’t have them winning it all, but I certainly don’t have them all that far off either.

Kansas was good early, winning 19 straight after dropping their first game of the year, including a win over the Blue Devils when Duke was the top-ranked team in the nation. They were good late, winning 10 of their last 12 games before the tournament. They were also good against the best teams in the country, going 6-2 against Top 25 teams this year, and they were good in their own conference, going 16-2 for a regular season title.

They were good, is what I’m trying to tell you here. Really, really good. And there’s no reason to think that’s going to change anytime soon. Frank Mason III is considered the best player in the country this year, and with good reason.

Expect the Jayhawks to soar this weekend.

(4) Purdue Boilermakers (25-7, 1st in Big 10)

Who They’ll Have to Beat: Purdue faces off against (13) Vermont and would go on to play either (5) Iowa State or (12) Nevada. 

Why They’re Headed Home Early: This just might not be the Big 10’s year.

The conference’s top teams, including both Purdue and Wisconsin, showed signs of serious weakness over the course of the year. And, the conference’s postseason tournament was won by lowly Michigan, a team that did not impress during the regular season (spoiler alert: I think Michigan runs out of steam in the opening weekend). So a regular season title, while a nice badge to pin on the Boilermakers’ chest, it wouldn’t have been much more than that.

If it really is a down year for the Big 10, it’s not hard to imagine the Boilermakers as one of the early casualties.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: There are two big reasons to believe in the Boilermakers, whether or not the Big 10 was any good this year—Big 10 Player of the Year Caleb Swanigan and 7’2” center Isaac Haas.

The two two players are both impact players on either end of the floor, and they made Purdue the second most efficient offense and defense in the Big 10 this year. They should be able to top a largely untested University of Vermont team (0-1 vs Top 25 teams) and match up well against their most likely opponent in the next round, Iowa State, with a defense that outclasses the Cyclones and similarly producing offense.

Often times in March, the best players can win games, and have a pair of players like Swanigan and Haas will serve Purdue well as they look to make the Sweet 16, and move on from there.

(3) Oregon Ducks (29-5, 1st in Pac-12)

Who They’ll Have To Beat: The Ducks will open against (14) Iona and would go on to face either (6) Creighton or (11) University of Rhode Island 

Why They’re Headed Home Early: Injuries are an unfortunate part of sports, and an especially unfortunate part of the NCAA tournament and they’re going to undoubtedly hurt Oregon’s chances here.

The Ducks will be without rim protector Chris Boucher, who’s out with a torn ACL. And while he may not be the Ducks best player (that’s the Pac-12’s Player of the Year, Dillon Brooks) he’s going to be an especially interesting loss when Oregon faces off against Iona, who seems to be at a major size advantage against the Ducks.

It could be depressingly poetic if the Ducks do win their first round matchup and end up facing Creighton in the round of 32—the Jays lost their best player, Maurice Watson Jr. 

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: The NCAA Tournament isn’t often, and in fact maybe rarely, is dependent on who the single best team in the tournament. With so much that could go wrong, it’s more often about whether the matchups bend in a team’s favor.

That’s the case for the Ducks here. They’re faced up against an Iona team that looked like it was going to fall out of the field in the days and weeks before the MAAC Tournament same around. And Creighton is just 7-8 since losing Watson Jr., so if the Jays can beat everyone’s favorite double-digit seed in URI, it could be another favorable matchup for Oregon.

And while Oregon may have been bit by the injury bug, Brooks is more than capable of replacing some of the lost production—he’s been prolific from three this year, and while that can leave players in the tournament, I expect brooks to find ways to score one way or another.

While it would no doubt be nice to see a team like URI make a run, I think the Ducks will make a run at the Final Four this year, even if they do fall short.

(2) Louisville Cardinals (24-8, 2nd in the ACC)

Who They Have to Beat: The Cardinals start their campaign against (15) Jacksonville State 

Why They’re Headed Home Early: If you like a nice, life-affirming story, odds are you aren’t rooting for Louisville this year.

And that’s nothing against the Cardinals. But most people who aren’t born in the state of Ohio (specifically near a campus in Columbus) are probably rooting for Michigan to advance from this section of the bracket. By now, you now all about how the team’s plane crashed, how the players had to get their minds right to play (in practice uniforms no less), and how they won the Big-10 anyway.

Louisville may have to ruin that feel good story in the second round, and if they don’t they’ll be faced off against an Oklahoma State team that can score with ease. That first round matchup may not give the #2 seeded Louisville much to worry about, but either opponent in the second round could give the Cardinals a headache.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16:  While SMU may have been the most top-heavy roster in the tournament, Louisville might be the deepest.

They have no problem going eight players deep, meaning that they can play with more aggression on defense and on the boards, confident that having to go to their bench won’t cost them a game. And that’s especially good news for the Cardinals, who’ve been great at keeping teams off the scoreboard and off the boards in general. That’s always a plus in March.

Overall, the team is extremely efficient on both ends of the floor, are familiar with the rigor of a major-conference schedule and like we said, are very deep. That’s a great combination during Tourney Time.

South Region 

(1) University of North Carolina Tar Heels (27-7, 1st in the ACC)

Who They Have To Beat: The Tar Heels open against (16) Texas Southern, and would go on to face either (8) Arkansas or (9) Seton Hall

Why They’re Headed Home Early: Our final #1 seed of the tournament may just have the easiest road out of their bracket, and that starts with their opening round matchup.

None of the top seeds, or really top two seeds, have much to worry about during the opening round of the tournament, but there’s little to see here that could hurt UNC. The team was among college basketball’s elite from start to finish this year.

If there’s anything that could take the Tar Heels down, it’s probably the Pirates of Seton Hall’s recent run. The team impressed at the end of the season, going 8-3 in their last 11 Big East games of the season including the tournament, and the Big East is certainly not to be trifled with.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: Just reread the fist few paragraphs above. North Carolina has it made this weekend.

To be fair to the Tar Heels, they have done their fair share and then some in order to be rewarded with this road to the Final Four. They have the skill and shooting ability to play a run-and-gun shootout with playmakers like Joel Berry II, or the size and strength to win a down-low battle thanks to the large frames of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks roaming the paint.

Roy Williams has one of the strongest squads that has been under his tutelage in recent memory, and it wouldn’t shock me at all to see the Tar Heels in the Final Four.

(4) Butler Bulldogs (23-8, 2nd in the Big East)

Who They Have To Beat: Butler is matched up against (13) Winthrop to start, and would face either (5) Minnesota or (12) Middle Tennessee State

Why They’re Headed Home Early: Did the Bulldogs “peak too early,” or whatever the saying is? If you believe their rough finish to the end of the season is

If you believe their rough finish to the end of the season is indicative of where the team is at entering the tournament, then odds are you aren’t high on the Bulldogs. Other than that, however, Butler has a pretty easy road for a #4 seed. After their matchup as a heavy favorite over Winthrop, the face off against the winner of a #5/#12 game that many have already awarded to the underdog.

Maybe Minnesota can bond over the fact that no one believes in them, and make a run, but this seems like a nice ride for a competitive Big East team.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16:  As if the path we talked about wasn’t paved nicely enough, the Bulldogs also have a pretty damn talented team.

The Bulldogs don’t turn the ball over, which is always good in March. Kelan Martin leads the team in both rebounds and points and can stack up against many of the best players in the tournament. The Bulldogs are also battle-tested, going 4-0 against Top 25 opponents this season, which seems to set them up for a potential run here.

Butler has also been a quietly consistent tournament team over the past few years, picking up wins in each of their last five appearances. I expect more of the same in the first weekend for the Bulldogs.

(3) University of California, Los Angeles Bruins (29-4, 3rd in the Pac-12)

Who They Have To Beat: The Bruins take on (14) Kent State to open the tourney, and would play (6) Cincinati or (11) Kansas State University 

Why They’re Headed Home Early: Assuming that they aren’t knocked off by a Kent State team that is seemingly peaking at exactly the right time, they could run into their worst matchup.

UCLA’s offense is excellent, but if Cincinnati can win their first round matchup, their defense may provide the perfect foil to the high-profile, high-flying attack UCLA can boast.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: Ball is life, baby. You aren’t a college basketball fan if you aren’t rooting for a run from this kid, and this team.

Simply put, UCLA is the platonic ideal of a college basketball team. They’re startlingly talented, brazenly unpredictable, and offensively explosive. They have a future lottery pick that could play his way to #1 overall pick status. They’re a blue blood with a long history of tournament greatness.

They have it all, and that includes a stout roster. It’s going to be difficult for just about any team on the board to keep pace if UCLA’s offense is clicking, and on the first weekend, I expect it to be, early and often. 

(7) University of Dayton Flyers (24-7, 1st in the A10)

Who They Have To Beat: The Flyers start against (10) Wichita State and would go on to face either (2) Kentucky or (15) Northern Kentucky

Why They’re Headed Home Early: To hear most people tell it, Wichita State should be the favorites in this matchup, despite what seeding will tell you.

KenPom has Wichita as a #2 seed. Most people are familiar with the Shockers, their strange and horrifying mascot, and the runs they make in March. It feels like some kind of foregone conclusion that Dayton might get eliminated in the opening contest.

Even if they squeak through that game, they’ll be matched up against a talented Kentucky team. This may not be the undefeated Wildcats of yore, but John Callipari’s squad is not to be trifled with, and will obviously posed a challenge to Dayton in this one.

Why They’re Headed to the Sweet 16: I guess in March, everyone has short memories, because while everyone is circling the Shockers, Dayton has a history of runs all their own.

There’s reason to believe the Flyers could do it again this year. I always love a team that people are sleeping on, a category the Flyers certainly check in the first round. The Flyers have experience, with four seniors lining up as starters, who will surely be motivated knowing it’s their last chance to be a cinderella. They’ve been red hot at times this year, and if they can bounce back from a two-game stumble to end the season, Dayton could be flying high.

Then again, with two cinderellas facing off, it’s tough to get a beat on just about anything.

As Dickie V would say, that’s March, baby. Let’s go enjoy it.

Thanks for reading everyone—follow my picks and you’re guaranteed a successful bracket, or a complete disaster. Follow @MurraySporttalk on Twitter for more.








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