Best seed prognosis: On paper, the Midwest seems to be the most open of those four areas, but we still provide No. 1 North Carolina the best chances, with a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and also an 18 percent likelihood of appearing in the championship game. Those odds are at least 8 percentage points lower compared to every other No. 1 team in the field, though, and for good reason: North Carolina’s crime depends on turning every play right into a quick break. The Tar Heels fight to get into the free-throw line and give up a ton of shots along the perimeter, and that, at a slowed-down, half-court matchup, could be rather problematic.
After getting chased by Duke to start the season, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent months while finding balance on the two ends of the ground and mostly abstaining from the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is in the midst of its best season since Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing school basketball, and they boast a defense which ranks among the top along and in the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 5 Auburn. When the Tigers steamrolled Tennessee 84-64 in Sunday’s SEC title game, it likely got the attention of a lot of bracket-pickers. That wasn’t a one-off — Auburn also conquer Tennessee eight days before, a portion of a string of eight consecutive wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their last 11 games. Having an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficiency) that acquired more of its points out of downtown compared to any other team in the NCAA field, Auburn can heat up in a hurry. We give the Tigers almost a coin-flip’s likelihood of making the Sweet 16 — and a very strong 37 percent likelihood of beating top-seeded North Carolina when the Tar Heels are waiting for Auburn there. The only kryptonite might be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which defeat the Tigers from 27 in late February to sweep their season collection.
Don’t bet on: No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went into the season ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they seemed to validate the option by starting the season 10-0. But a 15-9 record (plus a few key injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament possible. This is a well-balanced group, but to state it doesn’t shoot well from the exterior is a understatement — watch KU’s 3-for-18 functionality from deep in Saturday’s Big 12 ouster against Iowa State. Add an unfavorable draw that sets them onto a potential second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and also we give the Jayhawks only an 8% chance of making from the Midwest with their championship hopes undamaged.
Cinderella see: No. 11 Ohio State. If a Big Ten team which has made 11 Final Fours could be a Cinderella, then you’re looking at it in those Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s rising tendency to con underwhelming power-conference colleges this way really messes with the definition) OSU went just 18-13 during the regular season, was defeated its second Big Ten tournament game and contains nearly two times as many losses as wins because New Year’s. Why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Regardless of the seed, this remains a dangerous team, one that ranks 27th from Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive evaluations and has star forwards Kaleb Wesson back from suspension. So maybe they will give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about another potential Cinderellas within this area: Seton Hall obtained a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of those additional low seeds here are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a group that did all it could to perform its way out of the championship, but includes some mad potential no matter.
Player to watch: UNC, Cameron Johnson On a group that does not hoist a lot of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as lethal as they come. Observing an injury-riddled effort where he barely made more than one-third of his appearances from beyond the arc, the grad student is canning 46.5 percent of his attempts, which ranks inside the top 25 nationally.
Johnson has thrived in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity scheme this season. 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 accurate shooting percentage (64.6). Suddenly, a player who wasn’t seen as a guaranteed 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 forecasts.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A previous version of this story misstated the number of Sweet 16s made by Villanova lately. Though the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of their past five seasons, that around was the Round of 32 until 2016 because of NCAA naming conventions.
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