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NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: The Good, Bad, and Matchups That Must Happen

Which teams came out of Selection Sunday with favorable draws? Which teams will travel thousands of miles to lose in the second round? Let’s assess the road to the Final Four, region by region.

J.P. Macura, Trae Young, Mikal Bridges, and Jim Boeheim
J.P. Macura, Trae Young, Mikal Bridges, and Jim Boeheim
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before we get started, I want to congratulate Turner for finding a way to screw up the most idiot-proof show in sports. There is literally only one reason anyone watches the NCAA tournament selection show, and that is to know what the bracket looks like as soon as possible. We don’t need to see Seth Davis pulling a thousand upset picks out of his ass in the hope that he gets one right. We don’t need a 10-second broadcast delay as various teams appear on screen and watch themselves … uh … watching themselves. We don’t need Greg Gumbel’s jokes about packs of wolves or Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith filling out their bracket with question marks. And we sure as shit don’t need to have the thing take place in a damn airplane hangar just to accommodate two decks of seating for the group of actors Turner tried to pass off as a live studio audience.

Here’s my pitch to Turner: Take all of the money you usually spend on the selection show, give half of it to charity, and give the rest to me. I will then produce the entire show myself. I’ll play elevator music in the background as the teams are unveiled one by one at their respective spots in the bracket. There will be no audience or on-camera personalities in the studio. Hell, there won’t even be a studio at all. We’ll just unveil the bracket, cut to a prerecorded video of Red Panda doing her act, and call it a day after 30 minutes. It will get monster ratings and be the most beloved show to ever air on any of the Turner networks. And it will result in a ton of money going to charity while also making me rich. Boom. Why this hasn’t happened yet is almost as big of a mystery as the ninth-place team in the Pac-12 making the NCAA tournament over the team that finished second in the conference.

Speaking of which, I suppose we should dive into the actual bracket, region by region. The NCAA tournament is here!

South

Team that got screwed: Kentucky. Kentucky’s path to the Final Four might have to go through Davidson, Arizona, Virginia, and Cincinnati. Davidson is red hot and would be everyone’s 12-over-5 upset special if the Atlantic 10 champion were playing any no. 5 seed other than Kentucky. Arizona has the best player in college basketball and the projected no. 1 NBA draft pick in Deandre Ayton. Virginia has the best team in college basketball and one of the great defenses in the history of the sport. And Cincinnati has the second-best defense in the country and won 30 games while playing in a (kind of) major conference. For John Calipari’s guys to get to San Antonio, they’d have to survive one hell of a gantlet.

Team that got a cakewalk: Cincinnati. I don’t actually think any team has a cakewalk in the NCAA tournament, given that every year serves a reminder that low-seeded teams are capable of beating higher-seeded opponents. But I’m of the belief that the three best teams in this region besides Cincinnati are Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky. That’s great news for the Bearcats, because their road to the Final Four would, at most, have to go through only one of those teams.

Most enticing potential story line: Tony Bennett vs. Sean Miller in the Sweet 16. The two best active head coaches to have never made a Final Four find themselves in the same region, and each has a sense of urgency. The time has to be now for Bennett, both because he has the best team he’s ever coached and the best team in the country and because there aren’t any insurmountable juggernauts in the field for Virginia to worry about. Meanwhile, the time has to be now for Miller because … um … let’s just say that there have been some developments within the University of Arizona’s basketball program over the past six months.

Most enticing potential second-round matchup: Arizona vs. Kentucky. When they’re playing at their absolute best, both of these teams are among the five most dangerous in college basketball. That feels important to note, because both are playing close to their best heading into the tournament. Kentucky is coming off an SEC tournament title and has lost only once since its season was saved by a players-only meeting following a four-game losing streak last month. Meanwhile, Arizona hasn’t lost since Miller sat down at a press conference in his power polo and all but threw up two middle fingers at a certain ESPN reporter who hasn’t tweeted since. In an alternate universe where Miller and Calipari were able to squeeze every ounce of talent out of their teams, this would be the national championship. In this reality, though, at least one of these teams won’t even reach the Sweet 16.

Joke that will be beaten to death by your corny friend: Kentucky plays Davidson in the first round, will likely play Arizona in the second round, and could theoretically play Kansas State in the Sweet 16, which means the stars are aligning for the guy who likes to pull the “I’m taking the Wildcats to win this one!” move to have the greatest stretch of his life.

Jevon Carter
Jevon Carter
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

East

Team that got screwed: West Virginia. The Mountaineers went just 9-9 after opening the season 15-1, so don’t think I’m arguing that West Virginia deserved better. I just think it’s wild how two months ago the Mountaineers were the no. 2 team in the AP poll and now they are a no. 5 seed that has to fly almost 2,500 miles to play a 26-5 Murray State squad that’s riding a 13-game winning streak into the first round.

Team that got a cakewalk: Villanova. As we’ll get to in a second, the Wildcats’ second-round game scares me more than any other no. 1 seed’s potential matchup with a no. 8 or no. 9 seed. But that’s the only part of Villanova’s draw that catches my eye. Of all the regions, the East’s crop of no. 2 through no. 7 seeds is the worst. And on top of that, the Wildcats’ path to the Final Four goes through Pittsburgh and Boston, two cities that are each about a five-hour drive from Villanova’s campus.

Most enticing potential story line: Is Collin Sexton the next Kemba Walker? It’s a March tradition unlike any other: I desperately try to find a Kemba candidate in the NCAA tournament field. I’ll admit that it’s highly unlikely that Sexton will pull off a Kemba-type run, if for no other reason than, well, Kemba-type runs are incredibly unlikely. Still, Sexton’s first two SEC tournament games last week—when he dropped 27 points and hit the game-winning finger roll against Texas A&M, then hung 31 points on SEC regular-season champion Auburn—unquestionably fit the mold. Alabama plays great team defense and boasts an absolute stud of a guard who oozes confidence and can single-handedly carry an offense. That’s enough for me.

Most enticing potential second-round matchup: Villanova vs. Alabama. Take everything I just wrote about Sexton and Alabama, add the most electrifying offense in college basketball, put a Sweet 16 berth on the line, and tell me you wouldn’t be glued to your TV.

Game that absolutely must happen: Villanova vs. Purdue. The two best offenses in college basketball could meet in the Elite Eight. I’m not sure anything else needs to be said. If both this game and the hypothetical Virginia-Cincinnati Elite Eight matchup (which would feature the two best defenses in the country) come to fruition, there’s nothing in the world I would want more than for CBS to broadcast the games back-to-back on the same night. Can you imagine a four-hour block of television featuring a more drastic stylistic pivot than one that goes from Villanova-Purdue to Virginia-Cincinnati? If you thought Get Hard serving as TBS’s lead-in for the selection show made for a weird viewing experience, I can assure you that this would be even more jarring.

West

Team that got screwed: Ohio State. The Buckeyes played Gonzaga in Portland earlier this season. It did not go well. Now, if Ohio State can get past South Dakota State on Thursday, it will almost certainly face the Bulldogs again. Only this time, instead of playing 350 miles from Gonzaga’s campus in Portland, the game would be played 370 miles from Gonzaga’s campus in Boise, Idaho. So that’s fun.

Team that got a cakewalk: North Carolina. Xavier is the worst no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. North Carolina already whipped no. 3 seed Michigan and no. 5 seed Ohio State this season. If I were a Tar Heels fan, the only team in the West region that I’d be even kind of worried about is Gonzaga, and that’s mostly because Carolina would have to play the Zags in Los Angeles. The truth is that UNC might as well start packing its bags for San Antonio now. There is absolutely nothing that could possibly go wrong.

Most enticing potential story line: any rematch from last year’s tournament. A Sweet 16 rematch of last year’s Elite Eight game between Gonzaga and Xavier would be juicy. An Elite Eight rematch of last year’s national title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga would be [insert eggplant emoji here] [insert water emoji here].

Most enticing potential second-round matchup: Xavier vs. Missouri. Michael Porter Jr.’s return to Missouri’s lineup in the SEC tournament was underwhelming, to say the least. But if you think for one second that I’m not buying into the idea that Porter was just working out the kinks and will be ready to rock once the NCAA tournament starts, you have no idea how much of a sucker I am.

Player game analysts will act like they know intimately even though they’ve never watched him play: Mike Daum. South Dakota State’s star big man is averaging 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. He is exactly the type of player that people who get paid to cover college basketball should know all about. Unfortunately, because he plays in a tiny conference for a school located in the middle of nowhere, most of my colleagues know next to nothing about Daum. It’s embarrassing and shameful. I bust my ass to know every team and player in America like the back of my hand, and these lazy sons of bitches besmirch my profession by following only the blueblood teams.

Anyway, here’s what I can tell you about Daum: He’s a really good scorer and a great rebounder. He’s at his best when he gets the ball on offense and then makes a move and scores. Additionally, I think he’s good when a shot goes up and he runs to the basket and grabs a rebound. He uses his size well to score from all sorts of spots on the floor, such as inside the 3-point line. He uses his size to do other things, too, like rebound. And that’s why I think Daum could be special in the tournament.

Malik Newman and Devonte’ Graham
Malik Newman and Devonte’ Graham
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Midwest

Team that got screwed: Clemson. Clemson went 23-9 and finished tied for third in the ACC regular-season standings. The Tigers were handsomely rewarded for their efforts with a no. 5 seed and a first-round matchup in … San Diego? Against a team from New Mexico? And that same team from New Mexico is 28-5 despite being a no. 12 seed? What the hell did Clemson do to piss off the selection committee?

Team that got a cakewalk: Kansas. The Jayhawks would make stops in Wichita and Omaha on their path to San Antonio, and there isn’t a single team in the top portion of their region that jumps out to me as an obvious problem matchup. In other words, it feels like a no-brainer to pencil in Kansas for an Elite Eight clash with Michigan State or Duke. Unfortunately, we have no historical data to help us make an educated guess as to what would happen to the Jayhawks after that.

Most enticing potential story line: Bobby Hurley vs. Dan Hurley in the Sweet 16. I’m always in favor of NCAA tournament coaching matchups between brothers. There’s just something awesome about the thought of programs’ entire seasons being on the line and two guys who used to give each other wedgies going toe-to-toe. Bobby’s team is hot garbage right now and made the NCAA tournament only because it hit some 3s in a handful of games three months ago, so I don’t expect a Bobby-Dan matchup to happen. Still, it’s fun to dream. Speaking of which …

Most enticing potential second-round matchup: Duke vs. Oklahoma. I wouldn’t trust Oklahoma to change a light bulb right now, much less win an NCAA tournament game against Rhode Island. So please, spare me the comments about how Trae Young versus Duke isn’t going to happen. I know. It became clear that the basketball gods hate us when the Sooners weren’t sent to Dayton to play Arizona State in what would have been the most entertaining play-in game of all time. I just need some hope to cling to, OK? If you would’ve told me in December that Young would be one game away from playing Duke in the NCAA tournament, I would have taken a three-hour ice bath to redistribute my blood back to the appropriate places in my body. I owe it to that version of myself from three months ago to keep believing that this matchup is not only still possible, but would also be great if it happened. Just let me have this.

Historic 16-over-1 upset-watch status: YOU HAVE MY ATTENTION. My desire to find a Kemba Walker candidate and see Trae Young take on Duke has nothing on America’s collective desire to see a no. 16 seed upset a no. 1 seed. There have been a handful of close calls through the years, like when UNC-Asheville got jobbed against Syracuse in 2012, but entering this March no. 1 seeds are 132-0 all time in these matchups. This year, our best opportunity seems to be Penn’s first-round game against Kansas, despite what I wrote about the Jayhawks’ outlook earlier.

The Quakers enter the NCAA tournament having won 12 of their last 14 games, while Kansas’s combination of suspect defense plus a heavy reliance on 3-pointers feels like exactly what a 16-over-1 recipe needs. Also, there’s my favorite bit of tourney trivia: Jayhawks coach Bill Self has lost to every NCAA tournament seed in his career except no. 6, no. 12, no. 15, and no. 16. I’m convinced that he’s destined to hit them all, so why not roll with the assumption that no. 16 is happening this week?

I’ll tell you why: I’ve already jinxed a potential Penn upset by talking about it. Dammit. Kansas is going to win by 40. Since there’s not another no. 1 seed in this tournament that’s much better on one end of the floor than the other, I guess we’ll just have to wait until next year. Oh well.