We have reached the final part of my March Madness bracket, and what’s in my opinion the most competitive region of all. I feel there are 4 real Final Four candidates from this region, 2-3 of which could have upside to take it all the way and cut down the nets in Houston. Keep on reading for my outlook on the region.
First Round Games
#1 Kansas vs. #16 Howard
I don’t see the Jayhawks repeating as national champions, but they’re not losing to a 16 seed, and especially not a MEAC team. Nobody in this MEAC really beat anyone of note, and this should be an easy win for the Big 12’s regular season champ.
#8 Arkansas vs. #9 Illinois
It wasn’t as smooth sailing for either of these teams as last year, but they still had respectable seasons. Illinois brought in Terrence Shannon Jr. from Texas Tech to lead the team with Kofi Cockburn gone. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks have one of the most stacked freshman classes in all of college basketball. I’ll bet on the younger team to get hot at the right time and come out on top.
#5 Saint Mary’s vs. #12 VCU
I’m not a huge fan of either of these squads, but Saint Mary’s has experience in this exact slot. They took down 12-seeded Indiana in the first round of last year’s tournament with some of their current core. VCU is a weaker 12 seed than the Hoosiers; they’re simply here because they won an Atlantic 10 that’s historically a stronger conference than it was this year. The Gaels are from a similar conference, but they were competitive with Gonzaga most of the year. That doesn’t happen very often.
Pick: Saint Mary’s
#4 UConn vs. #13 Iona
It would be fun to pick a Rick Pitino-led Iona squad, but UConn is just too good to be upset here. Between veteran big Adama Sanogo and breakout sophomore Jordan Hawkins, this team has the star power of a contender. They also had the Big East’s best freshman duo in Northborough’s own sharp shooting forward Alex Karaban and the 7-foot big Donovan Clingan. They have all the tool they need to make a deep run in this tourney.
#6 TCU vs. #11 Arizona State
The Sun Devils have prevailed despite the early season loss of Marcus Bagley. However, they don’t have a star to compete with TCU’s Mike Miles. TCU’s worst losses have come in games when Miles is out, so this is likely an under-seeding for the Horned Frogs. I don’t trust Arizona State to go that far in this tournament, and that’s something TCU has potential to do.
#3 Gonzaga vs. #14 Grand Canyon
Offensively, Gonzaga honestly doesn’t look much worse than they have the last couple years. The defense has taken a step back which caused closer games against Saint Mary’s, but they still have a pretty solid resume and have Drew Timme to lead the team. They may not quite be built for a national title, but I think they’ll make it out of this one.
#7 Northwestern vs. #10 Boise State
This has been another chalky region so far, but I’m picking the upset in this one. Northwestern has seen growth from Boo Buie and Chase Audige that has helped them get to this level. However, their competition in the B1G was much easier than usual, so I’m not sure how much better this team really is than previous years. Boise State has a questionable resume as well, but they were very competitive all year in the Mountain West and have all 5 starters averaging 10+ PPG.
Pick: UPSET ALERT: Boise State
#2 UCLA vs. #15 UNC Asheville
I think UNC Asheville is better than your average #15 seed, but this is UCLA we’re talking about. This is most of the same UCLA core that made a Final Four run as an 11 seed just 2 years ago. They may be without Jaylen Clark, but they’ll still have the trio of Jaime Jaquez, Tyger Campbell, and standout freshman Amari Bailey to lead the charge. That should be enough to avoid the upset and keep moving.
Potential Round of 32 Matchups
#1 Kansas vs. #8 Arkansas
#4 UConn vs. #5 Saint Mary’s
#3 Gonzaga vs. #6 TCU
#2 UCLA vs. #10 Boise State
There are some tempting upset picks here. Arkansas is young and full of talent up and down their roster. TCU could make it very close against Gonzaga. At the end of the day though, this region has some of the strongest high seeds and I would not be shocked to see an all-chalk Sweet 16. Kansas, UConn, Gonzaga, and UCLA all have legitimate Final Four hopes. It could be a dogfight to the end between those teams.
And the winner is…
You may have caught my pun at the end there, but I think it’ll be a Huskies vs. Bulldogs Elite 8 matchup to finish off this region. This UConn team is trending in the right direction, and it will take a lot to knock off the defending champs, but I trust them to do the job. The Gonzaga-UCLA game could go either way, but whoever makes it should give UConn a close game. At the end of the day though, UConn checks all the boxes for a Final Four team, and I actually have them cutting down the nets in Houston. If they can get past some questionable coaching decisions, they have one of the nation’s most talented and well-rounded rosters. They are very underrated as a 4 seed.
In case you haven’t already figured it out based on these articles, here’s my complete bracket:
Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the Madness! We sleep in May.