During the next couple of days, we’ll profile each region of the NCAA Tournament bracket, breaking down the favorites and potential Cinderellas. We’ll also spotlight a few of the players you should keep an eye on.
The VCU Index searches to find a team that can fit the glass slipper. This is a team with a No. 10 seed or worse that has the chops to make a run to the Final Four.
And of course, we have to pick a team to reach New Orleans.
Let’s start with the South Region in Atlanta before heading out west to Phoenix.
Bracket favorite: No. 1 Kentucky. Plain and simple, the Wildcats are the favorite to win the whole shebang, not just emerge from the South bracket. Kentucky has the talent of a really young NBA team, and coach John Calipari is a highly underrated game coach who gets his guys to play smart, efficient ball. And by efficient, I mean really efficient. The Wildcats are one of only two teams — Kansas is the other — to rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency as rated by Ken Pomeroy.
Upset alert: No. 4 Indiana, No. 5 Wichita State and No. 7 Notre Dame. The Hoosiers suffered a tough break when Verdell Jones III tore his ACL in the Big Ten Tournament. Jones isn’t the team MVP, but he’s another offensive weapon for a team that doesn’t play much defense. That could be a problem against No. 13 New Mexico State, which has a balanced attack and gets a ton of offensive rebounds. The Aggies have three guys at least 6’8, which is better than the average mid-major team.
Wichita State is a great team. But the Shockers have to play No. 12 VCU in the first round. As long as Shaka Smart is coaching the Rams, VCU will be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament. He gets his team to bring the havoc on defense, forcing all kinds of turnovers. The question is whether VCU can score enough on offense to keep pace with a very efficient Wichita State team.
Notre Dame just didn’t look great in the Big East Tournament, especially in the Irish’s final two games against South Florida and Louisville. The offense has been rather stagnant for much of the past few weeks. No. 7 Xavier has the talent to be an Elite Eight team if the Musketeers can find some level of consistency. Tu Holloway could carve up the Fighting Irish and propel Xavier forward in the tournament.
Intriguing match ups: People would love to see a rematch of Kentucky and Indiana after Christian Watford delivered the iconic buzzer-beater of the season in Bloomington, Ind., in December. However, I don’t see it happening. Instead, I foresee Wichita State giving Kentucky a dog fight. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Shockers leading Kentucky late into the second half before Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones take over on offense, with Anthony Davis coming up big at the other end.
Another interesting match up would be No. 3 Baylor against No. 6 UNLV in Albuquerque. The Runnin’ Rebels have a slightly better defense, and Baylor has a tendency to go cold against good teams. This could be a major victory for the Mountain West Conference.
MVP candidates: Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, Duke’s Austin Rivers, UNLV’s Chace Stanback. Davis is a player of the year finalist, so he’s an easy pick. Rivers has ice water running through his veins, and Duke will need him to average at least 20 ppg to have any chance of reaching the Final Four. UNLV could easily make a run to the Elite Eight if Stanback is draining shots.
VCU Index: None of the teams seeded No. 10 or worse has much of a shot at making a Final Four run this year. Despite the presence of the index’s namesake, VCU, I don’t think this bracket will generate a miracle worker.
Dancing to the Big Easy: Kentucky. Would you bet against them? Despite some tough challenges ahead, such as Iowa State, Wichita State, Baylor, Duke or UNLV, the Wildcats just have too much talent.
Bracket favorite No. 2 Missouri. Yes, Michigan State is the No. 1 seed, but the Tigers looked really impressive in their run through the Big 12 Tournament. And the Tigers are playing offense in a different stratosphere right now. They have an absurdly good 1.255 points per possession according to Ken Pomeroy’s stats. That’s No. 1 by nearly 0.04 points per possession over Kentucky. In comparison, there are eight other teams about 0.04 points per possession within second-place Kentucky. Plus Michigan State could really miss Branden Dawson’s consistency at some point in the tournament.
Upset alert: No. 3 Marquette, No. 4 Louisville, No. 5 New Mexico, No. 1 Michigan State in the second round. The Golden Eagles could be one of the highest seeds to fall if No. 14 Iona advances past No. 14 BYU in the First Four. The Gaels are a great offensive team, led by a bunch of juniors and seniors. Senior guard Scott Machado leads the crew and could cause trouble to Marquette. Usually, power conference teams have a significant size advantage over their mid-major foes. But not Marquette, which is playing at the same level as Iona. Unless Jae Crowder goes off for a monster night, Iona could easily pick off the Golden Eagles.
Likewise, Louisville draws a tough match up in the first round against No. 13 Davidson. The Wildcats already have a road win at Kansas, and a game in Portland will be a true neutral court. That means the longer Davidson hangs around, the more the crowd will root for the upset. Louisville’s offense is flat-out ugly, while the Wildcats play great offense and suspect defense. This team fell short to Morehead State last season and could do so again against a No. 13 seed this tournament.
New Mexico actually might have a better match up than either the No. 3 or 4 seeds, but because that opponent is No. 12 Long Beach State, the Lobos have to be on upset alert. The 49ers played one of the toughest non-conference schedules of any team in the country, and Long Beach State believes they can win. And when Casper Ware is knocking down shots, the 49ers are hard to beat. Ware will have to be huge for Long Beach State to have any chance as New Mexico is one of the best teams in the country at 2-point defense.
Meanwhile, Michigan State draws the toughest potential second-round match up of any team in the tournament. If No. 9 Memphis gets past No. 8 Saint Louis and the Spartans don’t become the first top seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed, the Tigers could easily take Michigan State down to the wire. Memphis has the talent. The Tigers just have questionable consistency. Memphis has enough athletic manpower to contain Draymond Green, which is not something that many teams can say.
Intriguing match ups: The potential second-round match up of Michigan State and Memphis is one of the most mouth-watering match ups in this bracket. It could be epic. Another great second-round match up would be Florida and Missouri. Those two teams could easily approach 100 points apiece. If Murray State and Iona meet in the second round, the game would feature two mid-major superstars: Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan and Iona’s Scott Machado.
In the later rounds, a potential Michigan State vs. Missouri Elite Eight battle would be a massive contrast in styles, with Michigan State looking to beat up the Tigers. On the flip side, Missouri would try to run the Spartans out of the arena.
MVP candidates: Michigan State’s Draymond Green, Memphis’ Will Barton, Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan, Marquette’s Jae Crowder, Iona’s Scott Machado, Missouri’s Phil Pressey.
For the Spartans to reach the Final Four, Green will have to be a complete beast at both ends of the court. In my opinion, he belongs in the conversation with Kansas’ Thomas Robinson and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis for player of the year. For Missouri, the offense is the thing that’ll get the Tigers to New Orleans. And for that to happen, Missouri needs Phil Pressey to keep the engine humming along at a nice fast pace.
Iona’s Machado and Murray State’s Canaan have the mid-major star power of a Stephen Curry, and they could easily go bananas for a lengthy run in the West Region.
VCU Index: If Murray State were seeded at No. 10 or worse, the Racers would be an easy pick here. Instead, I’m looking as low as is realistically possible: No. 14 Iona. First, let’s say that Iona is far better than a No. 11 seed. If the Gaels hadn’t lost in the Metro Atlantic Tournament to a really good Fairfield team, Iona could have been a No. 10 or 11 seed. So yeah, Iona has what it takes to make a run. With Machado and Arizona transfer Lamont “Momo” Jones leading the way, Iona could work their way past Marquette, Missouri and Michigan State.
Dancing to the Big Easy: Missouri. This was tough. But the Tigers are so good on offense that I don’t think they’ll lose before the Elite Eight. As good as Florida, Iona, Marquette and Murray State have looked at times this season, I don’t believe they can keep pace with the Tigers for 40 minutes. This is a veteran Tigers team looking to reap the rewards of years of hard work. Something tells me that Missouri won’t have to face Michigan State, and anyone else from the north side of the bracket would face the same fate as the Gators and Golden Eagles of the world.