SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Lindsay Schnell and Scott Gleeson look at all four regions to determine the story lines that fans should follow during March Madness.
USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports examines the field of 68 and pinpoints the teams with 1.) the best winning streak or momentum from championship week, and/or 2.) the best path — matchup-wise — to stage a deep run and go way further than their seeding line suggests.
Side note: No. 1 seeds are excluded.
Coach John Calipari’s freshmen-laden teams always evolve interestingly over the course of four months. While it’s not always clockwork, that evolution of McDonald’s All-American teenagers usually looks something like this: In November, they buy in and try to toss their egos aside. In December, they come together more through growing pains. In January, they figure out how hard major conference basketball can be. In February, they weather more storms and come together — developing a team chemistry that is necessary for March. And this year’s group, adversity and all, followed suit to peak in March by winning seven of eight.
THE BRACKET: See all the NCAA tournament matchups | Printable
REGION CAPSULES: East | Midwest | South | West
BRACKET ANALYSIS: Selection committee valued early wins, not late failures
BOLD PROJECTIONS: 10 dreams we have about the NCAAs
BRACKET TIP SHEET: Ultimate guide to March Madness
Kentucky (24-10) drew a No. 5 seed in the South Region — a dangerous area for any power conference team when a really good No. 12 seed (in this case Davidson) is ready to shock the world. But don’t count the Wildcats out because the talent isn’t as jaw-dropping as it has been in the past and UK didn’t win the SEC regular season. Calipari’s mastery is creating a team and sometimes teams can do more with less. NBA-caliber freshmen Kevin Knox (15.6 ppg) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (13.9 ppg, 5.0 apg) have helped UK hit its stride late, including an impressive three-win showing to capture the SEC tournament title.
► Final Four potential
Michigan forward Moritz Wagner hugs coach John Beilein after the Wolverines won the Big Ten tourney title. (Photo: Nicole Sweet, Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports)
Michigan (28-7), winners of nine consecutive games, has perfected the peaking-in-March magic over the last two seasons, winning back-to-back Big Ten Conference tournament titles. What will be interesting this year is how that momentum carries over following a week-long break since the Big Ten had its tourney a week early. That’s lots of practice time to get better for coach John Beilein’s best defensive team he’s ever had (yes the Wolverines are that good on D). It’s enough lag time to lose some momentum and swagger necessary for March success. This is a well-balanced offense this year, and Mo Wagner (14.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg) anchors the team with his motor and clutch shooting. Don’t be surprised to see Michigan come out of the West Region as a red-hot No. 3 seed.
► National champion potential
This isn’t a the same caliber of team that reached the Final Four last season, but it’s still a darn good one. The Bulldogs (30-4) are the No. 4 seed in the West Region and are good enough to knock off top-seeded Xavier if that matchup unfolds. Coach Mark Few has an extremely balanced and potent offense with six players averaging over nine points a game and spearheaded by 6-9 forward Johnathan Williams (13.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg), a key cog from last year’s Final Four squad. The ‘Zags have a top-10 offense, averaging 85 points a game and 50% from the field. The defense, which used to be a glaring weakness for this program, has come a long way. West Coast Conference play didn’t exactly prep this team for the tournament well, but it did help in one area: Guarding the perimeter. Gonzaga’s backcourt players are athletic and can stop lethal guards on the other end.
► Elite Eight potential
Mick Cronin’s Bearcats are good enough to be a No. 1 seed, but the American Athletic Conference’s No. 7 RPI probably limited that from happening. Still, this is a team that shouldn’t be slept on for going to San Antonio. Cincinnati has won seven in a row, but more importantly has pulled off huge victories in close-game situations — first a one-point win in the regular-season finale over Wichita State and second a one-point win over Houston in the AAC tourney final. Streaking is one thing, but winning in a way that shows pressure and late-game anxiety can be handled well speaks volumes for deep-run capabilities. Outside of UVa, Cincy has the best defense in the country. As a No. 2 in the South, how nice it would be to see these two defensive-minded teams in an Elite Eight rock fight.
► Final Four potential
Arizona (27-7) has clearly dealt with adversity (that’s what we’ll call the FBI probe and Allonzo Trier’s eligibility issues), and seems to have come out stronger because of it. The Wildcats have won eight of nine and their only loss came when coach Sean Miller wasn’t coaching in the wake of an ESPN report that implicated him in the FBI investigation into illegal recruiting. One critical major reason Arizona is hot and a team to circle on the bracket: 7-foot freshman sensation Deandre Ayton (20.3, 11.5 ppg) has been on a tear and might just be the best player in the tournament. He had back-to-back 32-point outings in Pac-12 tournament victories over USC and UCLA.
► National champion potential
The Volunteers (25-8) narrowly lost int the SEC tournament title game to Kentucky but have been rolling in late February and early March. They’ve won six of seven and are a dangerous No. 3 seed in the South Region. Coach Rick Barnes has reinvigorated the program with an SEC regular-season title, but more could be in store for this group, led by sophomore Grant Williams. The 6-7 forward averages 15.3 points a game and could be a matchup nightmare on the south side of the bracket.
► Elite Eight champion potential
The Friars (21-13) aren’t exactly hot when it comes to winning streaks, but it’s undeniable that Ed Cooley’s team is playing it’s best brand of basketball here in March. That was evidenced by two overtime victories over Creighton and No. 1 seed Xavier in the Big East tourney before succumbing to another No. 1 seed, Villanova, in the conference tournament championship. Providence might be the scariest double-digit seed (No. 10) around, and don’t be surprised if the Friars make it to the second weekend by bouncing better seeds out in the West Region.
► Sweet 16 potential
Murray State Racers
Hello, Cinderella of the East Region. The 12th-seeded Racers have won 13 in a row and did so in convincing fashion en route to claiming the Ohio Valley’s auto bid by beating the likes of a really good Belmont team. If Murray State can manage against No. 5 West Virginia’s press and top-notch defense, there’s a deep run in store for this mid-major. Jonathan Stark (21.8 ppg, 3.9 apg) will need to show his takeover abilities against All-American defender Jevon Carter in this dynamite 5-12 first-round clash.
► Sweet 16 potential
Honorable Mention: No. 12 seed South Dakota State, which faces No. 5 in the West Region, has won 19 of 20 while drubbing Summit League opponents behind must-watch big man Mike Daum (23.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg).
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