Top seed outlook: On paper, the Midwest appears to be the most open of the four regions, but we nevertheless provide No. 1 North Carolina the greatest odds, using a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and also an 18 percent likelihood of appearing in the championship match. Those odds are 8 percentage points lower than any other No. 1 team in the field, though, and for good reason: North Carolina’s crime is dependent on turning every play right into a quick break. The Tar Heels struggle to get into the free-throw lineup and give up a ton of shots across the perimeter, which, 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 weeks while finding balance on both ends of the ground and largely abstaining in the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is in the midst of its very best season because Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing college basketball, and they boast a defense which ranks among the top together 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 probably got the focus of a lot of bracket-pickers. That wasn’t a one off — Auburn also conquer Tennessee eight days before, a portion of a series of eight consecutive wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their past 11 games. Having an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficiency) that got more of its points from downtown than every other team 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 an extremely strong 37 percent chance 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 by 27 in late February to sweep their season collection.
Don’t wager : 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 (and some critical injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament potential. This really is a well-balanced team, but to state it doesn’t shoot well from the outside is an understatement — watch KU’s 3-for-18 performance from deep into Saturday’s Big 12 ouster from Iowa State. Insert a negative draw that puts them on an expected second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and we give the Jayhawks just an 8 percent chance of making from the Midwest with their championship hopes undamaged.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Ohio State. If a Big Ten team that has made 11 Final Fours could be a Cinderella, then you are looking at it in these Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s rising trend to con underwhelming power-conference colleges this manner really contrasts with the definition.) OSU went just 18-13 during the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game and has almost two times as many losses as wins because New Year’s. So why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Despite the seed, this remains a dangerous team, one which ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s corrected defensive ratings and has celebrity forward Kaleb Wesson back out of suspension. So maybe they will give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But this tells you something about the other potential Cinderellas within this region: Seton Hall got an extremely tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of the additional low seeds are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a team which did all it could to play its way from the championship, but includes some upset potential no matter.
Player to watch: Cameron Johnson On a group that does not hoist a ton of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as lethal as they come. Following an injury-riddled effort where he made more than one third of his looks from outside the arc, the grad student is canning 46.5 percent of his efforts, which ranks inside the top 25 nationwide.
Johnson has thrived in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity scheme this year. He’s blossomed into one of the best scorers in the ACC, ranking between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency in transition, off displays and on spot-ups.
Johnson has elevated his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive rating (132.5) and true shooting percentage (64.6). Suddenly, a participant who wasn’t viewed as a guaranteed professional now jobs 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)
Have a look at our March Madness predictions.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A former version of this story misstated the number of Sweet 16s made by Villanova in recent seasons. Although the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of the past five seasons, that round was the Round of 32 until 2016 because of NCAA naming conventions.
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