March Madness is almost here, and I’ve been releasing my picks region by region. The first half of the bracket has been pretty wild; I picked a lot of upsets and had 3rd seeded Baylor and 6th seeded Kentucky making the Final Four. This half of the bracket will be a little bit chalkier, but that’s simply because it includes some of the nation’s top contenders for a championship. Keep reading for my first round picks.
First Round Games
#1 Houston vs. #16 Northern Kentucky
Houston may be without Marcus Sasser in their early round games, but this is still a talented team without him. At the very least they’re talented enough to knock off a 16 seed. Kelvin Sampson’s defense is elite, and they’ll still see plenty of offensive production between veteran Jamal Shead, freshman Jarace Walker, and others.
#8 Iowa vs. #9 Auburn
Kris Murray has stepped right into the role of his brother, at least offensively. The Hawkeyes had some rough patches in the B1G, but they are still a top 10 offense, which I think will at least get them out of the first round. Auburn really hasn’t impressed me this year. Their road in the SEC was just as bumpy, and they didn’t really beat many notable teams along the way. I’ll take the Hawkeyes to survive another day, but with their defensive problems, don’t expect it to last.
#5 Miami vs. #12 Drake
Drake has been a popular upset pick, and these 12 seeds this year all look very dangerous. I wouldn’t count out Miami so fast though, they have one of the nation’s better superstar duos in Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack, plus depth behind them. This Hurricanes team has the talent to make a deep run, so I think they’ll at least take their first game.
#4 Indiana vs. #13 Kent State
This one’s another popular upset pick, but what’s even behind the logic that Indiana is upset prone. Trayce Jackson-Davis finally has help with the breakout of Jalen Hood-Schifino, and the Hoosiers have had their best season in years. This Kent State team has scared some teams, but they haven’t been able to finish the job against their toughest opponents like Houston, Gonzaga, and Charleston. Kent State will be able to keep pace most of the game, but I’ll bet on TJD to finish the job for Indiana’s first tournament win in a while.
#6 Iowa State vs. #11 Pittsburgh
I don’t really like either of these teams. Iowa State did own Baylor all year but they also struggled against weaker Big 12 opponents. Pittsburgh has an underrated resume and came up big against Mississippi State, but I don’t trust many players on either of these teams to get the job done on a consistent basis. This game could really go either way based on which team’s top players have the better night, but I think the Cyclones are just a little deeper. They may be able to handle it in this one even if Jaren Holmes or Gabe Kalscheur disappoints, but I’m going to go with my gut and take the upset. Pitt has momentum after their last minute victory on Tuesday.
Pick: UPSET ALERT: Pittsburgh
#3 Xavier vs. #14 Kennesaw State
Kennesaw State is lucky to be here. It may seem like the preface for a Saint Peter’s style Cinderella run, but that Peacocks team was on fire in their conference tournament. This team just barely squeaked by Liberty. Xavier may be without Zach Freemantle, but they still have plenty of talent and should be able to stay alive.
#7 Texas A&M vs. #10 Penn State
Many say both these teams are under-seeded, and I would agree, but this matchup is getting a little overhyped. Penn State is hot at the right time and the duo of Jalen Pickett and Seth Lundy will bring the excitement, but the Nittany Lions lack depth behind them. Texas A&M has definitely exceeded my expectations, and the run all the way to the SEC Championship was impressive. I do think the team is a bit overhyped though, they got lucky over the course of that path to the title game and avoided facing Kentucky after their loss to Vandy. I’ll still take them in this one since they’re deeper than Penn State.
Pick: Texas A&M
#2 Texas vs. #15 Colgate
Colgate was getting a lot of hype as an upset pick last year and they fell short. Yes, they have a lot of veterans who score a lot of points, but they have struggled to finish the job against Power Five teams. Texas is more than just a Power 5 team. They are the champion of the absolutely brutal Big 12 and a potential national title contender. Look for Marcus Carr to drop 20+ as Texas routs the Raiders.
Potential Round of 32 Matchups
#1 Houston vs. #8 Iowa
#4 Indiana vs. #5 Miami
#3 Xavier vs. #11 Pittsburgh
#2 Texas vs. #7 Texas A&M
This may seem like a really chalky region, but most of these lower seeds in the Midwest just don’t impress me. Indiana and Miami will make for a fun game with lots of star power and could be the best candidates to knock off Houston early, but beyond that, I expect the top seeds to have a pretty easy path.
And the winner is…
The Cougars may end up with a tough Sweet 16 matchup between Indiana and Miami, but by then they should have Marcus Sasser back to lead their team and be able to get the job done and make the Final Four. Everyone loves to doubt the AAC, but Houston only lost 2 games to conference opponents all year. One was a close loss to Temple which they got revenge for later, and the other was the championship loss to a red hot Memphis team with Marcus Sasser sidelined. The Cougars beat Memphis twice when healthy, and come into the tournament with wins over Virginia and St. Mary’s as well. This could be tough down the stretch for them with Miami or Indiana and then Texas. However, even in a crazy year with no clear favorites, I think it would be foolish to pick a Final Four without a 1 seed, and I trust Houston more than any other.
I’ll be posting the final region and my full bracket shortly, so stay tuned.