The NCAA tournament bracket is set after few surprises and no real snubs (sorry, NC State). Here are three takeaways from the 68-team field.
Let’s start here: For the first time in a decade, 75 percent of the top seeds come from one conference. Zion Williamson carried Duke to the top overall seed in a spectacular (and stress-relieving) run through the ACC tournament after missing five games with a Grade 1 MCL strain. The Blue Devils’ Tobacco Road rival North Carolina earned the ACC’s second no. 1 seed, helped in part by the Tar Heels’ two victories over Duke when Williamson was sidelined, and Virginia took the conference’s third. It’s the second time ever that one conference has claimed three no. 1 seeds. In 2009, the old Big East placed Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut on the top line.
Not everything went according to plan for the ACC—it had seven teams in the field after NC State’s snub, one behind the Big Ten, snapping the ACC’s three-year streak of having the most teams. Still, the path is clear for the league to have multiple teams at the Final Four in Minneapolis.
North Carolina has the most difficult road of the three. The Tar Heels could face Mountain West champion Utah State in the second round and then either no. 5 seed and SEC champion Auburn or no. 4 seed Kansas in the Sweet 16. And if they get past those hurdles? The Tar Heels could have a date with the Midwest region’s no. 2 seed, Kentucky, which beat them 80-72 in December.
Things looks good for the ACC, even beyond its mighty trio. Florida State’s no. 4 seed in the West region sets up a potential NCAA tournament rematch with Gonzaga, whom the Seminoles topped in last year’s Sweet 16. Of course, that’s only if the Bulldogs survive a possible date with Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense in the second round.
The ACC had no representatives in last season’s Final Four, the first time that’s happened since 2014. And while the nature of March Madness means nothing is certain, it would be surprising if that streak extended.
Let’s Hear It for the Little Guys
Loyola-Chicago was the feel-good story of last year’s tournament, riding a wave of Cinderella momentum and Sister Jean’s smiles to the Final Four. And while the 11th-seeded mid-major’s run reaffirmed our appreciation of lovable long shots, it also revealed a flaw in the selection committee’s logic.
Last year, my colleague Rodger Sherman wrote about the trend of mid-major teams being snubbed for at-large bids in favor of mediocre teams from power conferences. The same can’t be said of this year’s field. Bubble teams from big conferences like NC State, Indiana, and Texas were left out, while schools from smaller conferences like Belmont, Temple, and VCU heard their names called.
The Bruins, Owls, and Rams had successful seasons but were in danger of missing out on the field after failing to win their conference’s automatic bids. Keeping them out of the field because they lost in their conference tournaments would’ve discounted their regular-season victories—a 26-5 Belmont team should not have been left home because it lost to Ja Morant and Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game.
The inclusion of these teams is part of what makes March Madness great. Before the Rams’ 2011 run to the Final Four as a no. 11 seed, most fans hadn’t thought of VCU since Eric Maynor sank Duke in 2007. The same goes for George Mason’s trip to the national semifinal in 2006 or Wichita State in 2013.
And while the admittedly enormous fan bases in Raleigh, Bloomington, and Austin will be frustrated to see themselves on the outside looking in, the tournament is better off with the mid-major schools that were selected.
Ja Morant vs. Markus Howard in the First Round? Yes, Please.
The West region has two of the opening round’s best games, with no. 5 Marquette and Markus Howard taking on no. 12 Murray State and Ja Morant, and no. 7 Nevada facing no. 10 Florida. The Golden Eagles’ star point guard is graded by KenPom as the ninth best player in the country and led the Big East with 25 points per game this season, guiding Marquette to a 24-9 record. He’ll have the pleasure of trying to guard Morant—a potential top-five pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and one of the most dynamic players in college basketball.
Nevada entered the season with fans and pundits alike mentioning the possibility of an undefeated regular season. Instead, they limped into March Madness with three losses in their last eight games and now have a date with Florida. The Gators finished the regular season with three consecutive losses, but a big win in the SEC tournament over LSU and a close loss to SEC champion Auburn showed they’ll be a tough out.
Elsewhere in the bracket, Ethan Happ and no. 5 seed Wisconsin take on no. 12 seed Oregon, which crushed Washington 68-48 to win the Pac-12 tournament. Oregon struggled for much of the year without star freshman Bol Bol, who’s been sidelined for the year with a foot injury, but have won their past eight contests, including a pair of victories over tournament teams Washington and Arizona State. The absence of their big man might finally catch up to them, though, as KenPom grades Happ—not Williamson—as the country’s best player. The Badgers senior is averaging 17.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game and is the anchor of the nation’s third-most-efficient defense.
Villanova, last year’s national champion, faces a tough test in the first round as well. The Big East tournament and regular-season winner was awarded a no. 6 seed and a matchup against Saint Mary’s, which topped no. 1 seed Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference title. The Wildcats entered the season needing to fill a number of holes after key pieces from their title run left for the NBA, but Jay Wright’s team still harbored title aspirations. Their nine losses this season are the most under Jay Wright since 2013, and the Gaels have what it takes to deliver a 10th. Saint Mary’s is one of the few teams in the country that plays at a slower pace than Villanova and showed just how suffocating its defense can be in its win over Gonzaga. In Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, the Wildcats still have players who can take over games, but the absence of highly touted freshman Jahvon Quinerly has left them vulnerable.
There are possible upsets lurking in every region. When healthy, Duke has looked like the best team in the country. But it was only last year that the tournament’s no. 1 overall seed fell in the opening round, and the Blue Devils are no strangers to shocking defeats. Things rarely go according to plan in March. The chaos begins with the First Four on Tuesday. And when the dust settles in April, we’ll have a champion.