Best seed outlook: On paper, the Midwest seems to be the most open of those four regions, but we still give No. 1 North Carolina the best odds, with a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and also an 18 percent probability of appearing in the championship game. Those chances are 8 percentage points lower than every other No. 1 team in the field, however, and for good reason: North Carolina’s offense is dependent on turning each play right into a quick break. The Tar Heels fight to get to 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 discovering balance on the two ends of the ground and largely abstaining from the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is currently in the middle of its very best season since Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing school basketball, and they boast a defense that ranks among the top together and inside the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 5 Auburn. When the Tigers steamrolled Tennessee 84-64 in Sunday’s SEC title game, it probably got the focus of a lot of bracket-pickers. That was not a one-off — Auburn also conquer Tennessee eight days earlier, a portion of a string of eight consecutive wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their last 11 games. With an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficacy ) that got more of its points out of downtown compared to any other team in the NCAA field, Auburn can heat up in a hurry. We give the Tigers almost a coin-flip’s likelihood of making the Sweet 16 — and also a very solid 37 percent chance of beating top-seeded North Carolina when 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 from 27 in late February to sweep their season series.
Do not wager on: No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went to the season ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they appeared to validate that the choice by starting the season 10-0. However a 15-9 record (plus a few critical injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament possible. This really is a well-balanced team, but to state it does not shoot well from the exterior is a understatement — see KU’s 3-for-18 performance from deep in Saturday’s Big 12 ouster from Iowa State. Add an unfavorable draw that sets them on an expected second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and also we give the Jayhawks only an 8% chance of making out of the Midwest with their championship hopes intact.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Ohio State. If a Big Ten team which has made 11 Final Fours could be a Cinderella, then you are considering it in these Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s increasing tendency to con underwhelming power-conference colleges this way really messes with the definition) OSU went only 18-13 throughout the regular season, was defeated its second Big Ten tournament game and has almost twice as many losses as wins since New Year’s. So why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Regardless of the seed, this is still a dangerous team, one which ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s corrected defensive evaluations and has star forward Kaleb Wesson back out of suspension. So perhaps they will give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about another potential Cinderellas in this area: Seton Hall obtained an extremely tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of those other low seeds here are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a group which did all it could to play its way from this tournament, but includes some mad potential no matter.
Player to watch: UNC, Cameron Johnson On a group that doesn’t hoist a ton of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as lethal as they come. Following an injury-riddled effort in which he barely made greater than one third of his looks from outside the arc, the graduate student is canning 46.5 percent of his attempts, which ranks inside the top 25 nationally.
Johnson has thrived 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 efficacy in transitionoff displays and on spot-ups.
Johnson has raised his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive rating (132.5) and true shooting percentage (64.6). Unexpectedly, a player who was not viewed as a guaranteed professional now jobs 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 March Madness forecasts.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A former version of this story misstated the amount of Sweet 16s made by Villanova lately. Though the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of their previous five seasons, that around was the Round of 32 before 2016 due to NCAA naming conventions.
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