Best seed prognosis: On paper, the Midwest seems to be the most open of the four areas, but we nevertheless give No. 1 North Carolina the greatest chances, with a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and an 18 percent likelihood of appearing in the national championship game. Those odds are at least 8 percentage points lower than every other No. 1 team in the field, though, and for good reason: North Carolina’s offense is dependent on turning every play right into a fast break. The Tar Heels fight to get into the free-throw line and give up a slew of shots across the perimeter, which, at a slowed-down, half-court matchup, could be rather problematic.
After getting waxed by Duke to open the summer, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent months while discovering balance on the two ends of the ground and mostly abstaining in the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is currently in the midst of its very best season because Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing school basketball, and they boast a defense which 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 probably got the attention of a lot of bracket-pickers. That wasn’t 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 efficiency) that acquired more of its points from 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 also a very solid 37 percent likelihood of beating top-seeded North Carolina when the Tar Heels are awaiting Auburn there. The only kryptonite might be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which beat the Tigers by 27 in late February to sweep their season series.
Do not bet : No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went to the season 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 (and a few key injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament potential. This really is a well-balanced team, but to say it doesn’t shoot well from the exterior is a understatement — watch KU’s 3-for-18 functionality from deep into Saturday’s Big 12 ouster from Iowa State. Insert an unfavorable draw that puts them on a potential second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and also we give the Jayhawks just an 8% chance of making from 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’re considering it in those Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s increasing tendency to seed underwhelming power-conference colleges this way really messes with the definition.) OSU went just 18-13 throughout the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game and contains almost twice as many losses as wins because New Year’s. Why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Despite the seed, this is still a dangerous team, one that ranks 27th from Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive evaluations and has celebrity forwards Kaleb Wesson back from suspension. So perhaps they will provide Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But this tells you something about the other prospective Cinderellas in this region: Seton Hall obtained a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of the other low seeds are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a team that did all it could to play its way from the tournament, but includes some mad potential regardless.
Player to watch: UNC, Cameron Johnson On a group that does not hoist a lot of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as deadly as they come. Following an injury-riddled campaign in which he barely made more than one-third of his appearances from outside the arc, the graduate student is canning 46.5 percent of his attempts, which ranks inside the top 25 nationwide.
Johnson has thrived in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity plot this year. He’s blossomed into one of the best scorers in the ACC, ranking between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficacy in transition, off screens and on spot-ups.
Johnson has raised his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive evaluation (132.5) and true shooting percentage (64.6). Suddenly, a participant who wasn’t viewed as a bonded professional now projects 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)
Check out our March Madness predictions.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A previous version of this story misstated the number of Sweet 16s created by Villanova lately. Though the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of their past five seasons, that round was the Round of 32 until 2016 because of NCAA naming conventions.
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