Ryan Mayer

The bracket has been released and the prognostication has begun. As you fill out your bracket and take in advice from your favorite sources on which teams to pick, allow us to add one more voice to the mix with our bracket preview series. We’ll go region by region and break down each and every match-up on the road to the Final Four.

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#1 North Carolina vs #16 Texas Southern

The Tar Heels have been one of the best teams in the country all season. A 16-seed has never beaten a one. There’s enough experience, scoring and size on this UNC squad to make sure that continues to be the case. Thank you for playing Texas Southern, here’s a lovely parting gift.

Pick- UNC

#8 Arkansas vs #9 Seton Hall

The Razorbacks return to the NCAA Tournament after last year’s absence while the Pirates are back for the second straight year. Arkansas’ offense has been prolific averaging 79.8 points per game and ranking in the Top 30 in offensive efficiency (116.6, 26th DI). Seton Hall has been better on the defensive end when adjusting for efficiency allowing just 95.9 points per 100 possessions. Both teams are experience laden with junior and senior leaders. 8/9 is always tough to call, I’m going to go with Seton Hall, who was red-hot to end the year.

Pick- Seton Hall

#5 Minnesota vs #12 Middle Tennessee State

You probably remember the Blue Raiders for killing your bracket last year. They’re back to do it again with virtually the same group. Their opponent won’t be caught by surprise this year though. The Golden Gophers under head coach Richard Pitino have been quietly one of the best defensive teams in the country posting a Top 20 defensive efficiency rating. The Blue Raiders are solid defensively (47th defensive efficiency) and are more efficient on offense than the Gophers. This feels like a toss-up as well. I think the addition of forward Jacorey Williams has been huge for MTSU this year and puts them over the top here.

Pick- Middle Tennessee State

#4 Butler vs #13 Winthrop

Butler going to Butler. Efficient offense, solid defense, slow, plodding tempo. Names on the jerseys change, but the style doesn’t. They face a Winthrop team that features a star guard duo in the diminutive senior (5’7″) Keon Johnson and junior big guard (6’8″) Xavier Cooks. The Eagles like to play at a faster tempo and light up the scoreboard (79.7 PPG), but it’s always easier to slow a game down than to speed it up. Expect the Bulldogs to slow the pace, force Winthrop to execute in the half court. Butler gets the win, but Winthrop makes it entertaining.

Pick- Butler

#6 Cincinnati vs. #11 Kansas State

I’ll keep this one simple. Mick Cronin’s group will choke the life out of an opponent on defense, giving up just 60.8 points per game this season and posting the 11th best defensive efficiency rating in the nation. Kansas State has been solid on both sides of the ball and looked good in the First Four win over Wake Forest. It will likely be a low-scoring game, but, the Bearcats should handle K-State and move on to the Round of 32.

Pick- Cincinnati

#3 UCLA vs #14 Kent State

The nation’s highest scoring offense at 90.4 points per game (3rd best in offensive efficiency) faces a Golden Flashes team whose defense isn’t its strength. Kent State does feature a double-double machine in senior forward Jimmy Hall (18.9 PPG 10.5 RPG), but they don’t have the horses to run with the Bruins.

Pick- UCLA

#7 Dayton vs #10 Wichita State

Whoooooo boy. If I’m Archie Miller I’m wondering what the committee has against my family. Last year, the committee under-seeded the Shockers as an 11-seed against Sean Miller’s (Archie’s brother) 6th seeded Arizona team. Now, the Flyers get a 30-4 Shockers team as a 10-seed. That, however doesn’t mean this is an automatic win for Wichita State. The Flyers feature a three-pronged attack of guards Scoochie Smith (13.5 PPG 4.5 APG), Charles Cooke (16.1 PPG 5.1 RPG) and forward Kendall Pollard (14.1 PPG 5.1 RPG). The Shockers also rely on a freshman (Landry Shamet) and sophomore (Markus McDuffie) to handle the scoring load. That said, there’s a lot of balance to the Shockers attack (six guys between 7.2 and 11.8 PPG) and these situations tend to be when the Shockers shine the most. I’ll take the Shockers in a tight one.

Pick- Wichita State

#2 Kentucky vs #15 Northern Kentucky

Welcome to your first tournament Norse! You get the lovely prize of being the sacrificial lamb to John Calipari’s marauding group of future NBA picks. Oh, and the Wildcats are playing their best basketball as of late. Yeah, Kentucky’s the pick.

Pick- Kentucky

Round of 32

#1 North Carolina vs #9 Seton Hall

The Tar Heels offense, and length is too much to handle for the Pirates in this one. Roy Williams’ group advances.

Pick- UNC

#12 Middle Tennessee State vs #4 Butler

The Blue Raiders play in the half court and actually play at a slower pace than the Bulldogs. So, they’ll be perfectly comfortable getting down into the muck and trading blows here. After failing to advance to the Sweet 16 last year, the Blue Raiders pull it off in their second go-round with Giddy Potts, Jacorey Williams and Reggie Upshaw leading the way.

Pick- MTSU

#6 Cincinnati vs #3 UCLA

This would be a significant defensive test for the Bruins and I’d be interested to see how this plays out. In the end, the UCLA offense is too much for the Bearcats to handle and they advance to the Sweet 16.

Pick- UCLA

#2 Kentucky vs #10 Wichita State

Part of me is rooting for this match-up simply as a re-do of the 2014 bracket when the Shockers got screwed by the committee placing Kentucky as an 8-seed in their bracket when they were 35-1 and a 1-seed. Getting a rematch this year would be great, but the Shockers aren’t as experienced as in year’s past and I think the Wildcats would be able to handle them.

Pick- Kentucky

Sweet 16

#1 North Carolina vs. #12 Middle Tennessee State

As nice of a story as this would be, this is where the magical run ends. The Tar Heels win this one going away.

Pick- UNC

#3 UCLA vs #2 Kentucky

You like offense? This game is for you. We saw this game played in December when the Bruins won a 97-92 barn burner at Rupp Arena. Similar contest this time around and UCLA gets the better of Kentucky once again.

Pick- UCLA

Elite Eight- Regional Final

#1 UNC vs #3 UCLA

I reiterate my question. You like offense? How about star power? Lonzo Ball, Justin Jackson, TJ Leaf, Kennedy Meeks. In the end, UNC’s experience, and more consistent defense (25th defensive efficiency to UCLA’s 78th) puts the Tar Heels over the top for me and sends them to the Final Four. The Tar Heels win the region and advance to Phoenix for the right to try and get back to the National Championship game once again.

Pick- UNC