Top seed prognosis: On paper, the Midwest appears to be the most open of the four areas, but we still provide 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 compared to any other No. 1 team in the field, however, and for good reason: North Carolina’s crime is dependent on turning every play into a quick break. The Tar Heels fight to get into the free-throw lineup and give up a slew of shots along the perimeter, which, in a slowed-down, half-court matchup, could be quite problematic.
After getting waxed by Duke to start the season, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent months while discovering equilibrium on both ends of the floor and mostly abstaining from the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is currently in the midst of its best season since Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing college basketball, and they boast a defense that ranks among the very best along and in the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four select: No. 5 Auburn. When the Tigers steamrolled Tennessee 84-64 in Sunday’s SEC title game, it likely got the attention of a good deal of bracket-pickers. That wasn’t a one off — Auburn also conquer Tennessee eight days before, 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 acquired more of its points out of downtown than every other group in the NCAA field, Auburn can heat up in a hurry. We provide the Tigers almost a coin-flip’s odds of making the Sweet 16 — and a very solid 37 percent likelihood 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 defeat the Tigers from 27 in late February to sweep their season collection.
Don’t wager : No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went to the year ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they seemed to validate that the choice by starting the season 10-0. However a 15-9 record (plus some critical injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament potential. This is a well-balanced group, but to say it does not shoot well from the outside is a understatement — watch KU’s 3-for-18 performance from deep into Saturday’s Big 12 ouster against Iowa State. Insert an unfavorable draw that sets them on a potential second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and we provide the Jayhawks just an 8 percent chance of making from the Midwest with their championship hopes intact.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Ohio State. In case a Big Ten team that has made 11 Final Fours can be a Cinderella, then you are looking at it in these Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s rising tendency to con underwhelming power-conference colleges this manner really contrasts with the definition.) OSU went just 18-13 throughout the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game and has nearly twice as many losses as wins because New Year’s. Why are the Buckeyes a possible Cinderella? Despite the seed, this remains a dangerous group, one which ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive evaluations and contains celebrity forward Kaleb Wesson back out of suspension. So maybe they will provide Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about another prospective Cinderellas in this region: Seton Hall got a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of the other low seeds here are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a team that did all it could to play its way out of this championship, but includes some upset potential no matter.
Player to watch: Cameron Johnson On a group that does not hoist a ton of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as lethal as they are come. Observing an injury-riddled effort where he barely made more than one third of his appearances from outside the arc, the grad student is canning 46.5 percent of his efforts, which ranks inside the top 25 nationally.
Johnson has flourished in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity scheme this season. He has blossomed into one of the greatest scorers in the ACC, ranking between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency in transitionoff screens and on spot-ups.
Johnson has elevated his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive rating (132.5) and true shooting percentage (64.6). Suddenly, a player who was not seen as a bonded professional now jobs to be 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)
Check out our March Madness predictions.
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 the previous five seasons, that around was the Round of 32 before 2016 because of NCAA naming conventions.
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