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2019 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: Best Matchups, Story Lines, and Scenarios

From a Zion Williamson fantasy dunk experiment to a potential North Carolina–Kentucky matchup, it’s time to break down the best and worst from each region

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before we get going, I’d like to take a second to applaud CBS for finally delivering a completely forgettable selection show. I mean that as a compliment, by the way. It’s been less than 24 hours since the NCAA tournament bracket was released and I remember only two things about the entire broadcast. One is when Seth Davis opened the show by publicly admitting that nobody wants to hear him talk. The other is when Wofford’s entire team instantly became stone-faced when their first-round opponent was revealed to be Seton Hall, a red-hot Big East team that has beaten Marquette twice and Villanova once in the last two weeks (and was a shot away from beating the Wildcats a second time in that same span).

I can’t describe how happy this makes me after having to endure last year’s debacle, when the teams were revealed in alphabetical order in front of a live studio audience. That selection show broadcast also featured Charles Barkley eating multiple times on air, and Kenny Smith filling out his bracket with question marks because he had no idea who to pick for any of the games. (I made only one of these things up.)

It wasn’t quite my dream selection show, which involves zooming the camera in on the 8-by-11-inch bracket held by Greg Gumbel as he names the mascot and/or a famous alum from each school. But it was as close as we’ll probably ever get, so I’ll gladly take it.

Let’s break down the actual bracket!

East Region

Team that got screwed: Michigan State

Of all the teams in the field that are good enough to be a no. 5 seed or better, Michigan State is the only one that won both its regular-season and conference tournament titles. The Spartans’ reward was to be placed in the same region as the tournament’s no. 1 overall seed. What’s worse, their second-round matchup will be against either no. 7 Louisville, who they lost to in November, or no. 10 Minnesota, a fellow Big Ten team that knows them well. And that’s to say nothing of Michigan State’s opening game against Bradley, who will surely give the Spartans a good fight given the lengths that the Braves are willing to go to in order to protect their brand.

Team that got a cakewalk: Duke

Duke has Zion Williamson. The rest of the country does not. Ipso facto, Duke has the most favorable draw of any team in the NCAA tournament.

Most enticing potential story line: Anything and everything involving Will Wade

Wade has been suspended by LSU ever since Yahoo reported that the FBI has wiretap recordings of Wade discussing a “strong-ass offer” he made to secure the commitment of a recruit. It’s highly unlikely that Wade will return to the LSU sideline this season, if ever. But what if he does? Try to stay with me, because this is a crazy hypothetical I’m working on. What if Wade’s attempts to be reinstated are successful, and he returns to the Tigers’ bench, and LSU makes a run to the Final Four … and then more damning evidence is released in the lead-up to the Final Four and the Tigers become the first team ever to forfeit a Final Four game without playing in it? When I say crazier things have happened, I mean that I … am actually full of shit. That would be the wildest thing I’ve ever seen in my life as a college basketball fan.

Most enticing potential second-round matchup: Louisville vs. Michigan State

It seems like a lifetime ago that Louisville beat Michigan State in overtime during the ACC–Big Ten Challenge, but I swear it happened. Granted, both of these teams are completely different now than when they played in November. Michigan State’s best player in that game was Joshua Langford, who is out for the season with a foot injury and has not played since December, while Louisville was yet to have its spirit irreparably destroyed by Duke’s 23-point comeback in the Cardinals’ home arena February 12. Still, it’s rare for one of the top seeds to have to play an early tournament game against a team that has already beaten them, which is why it’s safe to say this matchup would have my attention.

The matchup that I’m doing all I can to will into existence: Zion Williamson vs. Tacko Fall

If UCF plays Duke in the second round, Zion will try to dunk on Tacko, the Knights’ 7-foot-6 center. It’s a foregone conclusion. I don’t think the game should even be played. The NCAA should give Duke the automatic win (you’re out of your skull if you think Mike Krzyzewski will let his former player and assistant Johnny Dawkins beat him), throw Zion and Tacko onto a SlamBall court, and let Zion try to dunk on Tacko for two hours. One of two things is bound to happen when these two meet at the rim: either Zion would get the ball stuffed back into his face for the first time in his life, or Zion would break a 7-foot-6 guy in half. And I have to tell you, folks: I would greatly enjoy witnessing either one of those outcomes.

ACC Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals
Virginia’s Tony Bennett
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

South Region

Team that got screwed: Virginia

The selection committee must be playing a cruel and twisted joke on Virginia. One year removed from losing to a no. 16 seed in historical and humiliating fashion, the Hoos have to play a no. 16 seed again in the first round this year. I have no idea why the committee is so hell-bent on torturing Virginia, but somebody needs to step in and stop this madness before it’s too late.

Team that got a cakewalk: Villanova

It stands to reason that this is a favorable draw for the defending national champions. Villanova plays at a glacial pace and jacks a ton of 3-pointers. Its first-round matchup comes against no. 11 seed Saint Mary’s, which tries to throw opponents off their game by playing at an extremely slow tempo. Potentially waiting in the second round is Purdue, which has been successful this season by making more 3s than its opponents.

More importantly, these are the coaches of the teams with the top eight seeds in the South region: Tony Bennett, Rick Barnes, Matt Painter, Bruce Weber, Greg Gard, Mick Cronin, and Kermit Davis. Jay Wright has more Final Four appearances than all of them combined, so if you’re a Villanova fan who believes in coaching narratives, you have to be happy with how things shook out for the Cats.

(But then again, if you’re a Villanova fan, you realize how dumb these narratives are, considering Wright was thought to be a massive choker up until the time he, um, won two national titles in three years.)

Most enticing potential story line: How many technical fouls will be called in the Cincinnati-Iowa game?

I’ve never wanted anything in my life as badly as I want Ted Valentine to officiate an NCAA tournament game between Mick Cronin and Fran McCaffery. I can already feel the tension just reading that sentence back. You know how sometimes a weird play happens, and the refs have to get together to discuss what the ruling should be? And how one ref brings the two coaches together at half court to explain the call to them? Just imagine a controversial call where Valentine brings McCaffery and Cronin together to give them an explanation that neither coach is happy with. Imagine how many times some variation of the phrase “You wanna go, bro?” would be said between those three. They’d start thrusting their chests into one another like they’re in A Night at the Roxbury as they each wait for someone else to make the first move.

By the way, I picture McCaffery being the type to instinctively take his shirt off when he’s about to get in a fight; Valentine as someone who puts on a pair of brass knuckles very slowly just to make a show of it; and Cronin standing off to the side yelling, “You guys are going to be in big trouble when I tell my dad about this!”

Most enticing potential second-round matchup: Purdue vs. Villanova

I already touched on this earlier, but it’s worth fleshing out more: Purdue and Villanova both shoot (and make) a ton of 3s. Villanova ranks fourth in the country with 30 3-point attempts per game despite playing at one of the slowest tempos, which is another way of saying basically every damn shot the Cats take is from behind the 3-point line. Purdue, meanwhile, pulls up from deep 27 times per game. These teams combine to make more than 20 3s per game. Throw in the fact that neither is particularly great defensively, and we have a recipe for one of the most entertaining games of the tournament.

Thing you can say that will make your friends think you’re a college basketball savant: “One thing I’m keeping my eye on in the South region is the tempo at which these games are played.”

The first thing I noticed as the South region was unveiled was that there are a bunch of really, really slow teams. According to KenPom, the South has eight of the 11 slowest teams in the NCAA tournament and eight of the 30 slowest teams in Division I. Mind you, I’m not smart enough to figure out how or why this actually matters. If every team is used to playing slow, I suppose no team has much of an advantage, and all of the tempo talk is irrelevant. But it’s still something you can bust out to make your friends think you are operating on a higher plane than they are as you fill out your bracket.

Midwest Region

Team that got screwed: North Carolina

“Screwed” is definitely too strong of a word, but I’m sticking with it for consistency’s sake. After all, there were legitimate arguments to be made that the Tar Heels didn’t deserve a no. 1 seed at all, much less the third overall no. 1 seed. But they’re still my pick because the no. 2 seed in their region (Kentucky) is a team that already beat them pretty easily this season, and the no. 4 seed (Kansas) would more or less be playing a home game if the two were to meet in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City.

Team that got a cakewalk: Nobody

It’s cowardly not to make a pick, I know. But I swear that the more I look at this region, the less clarity I have. North Carolina and Kentucky are miles ahead of the rest of the Midwest field, but Kentucky won’t exactly be thrilled to have to play either Wofford (which has won 20 straight games) or Seton Hall (which beat Kentucky earlier this season) in the second round. I don’t trust Houston, I really don’t trust Kansas, and Auburn relies so heavily on 3s that the Tigers are as likely to win every game by 20 points as they are to lose by 20.

You know what? I just figured it out—no. 6 seed Iowa State definitely has the easiest draw. The Cyclones tore through the Big 12 tournament and looked completely unstoppable. Now they get Ohio State in the first round? That might as well be a bye. The Buckeyes have no chance whatsoever in that game. NONE.

Most enticing potential story line: Kentucky’s chance at revenge on Luke Maye

Kentucky v North Carolina
Luke Maye
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Two years ago, Maye hit the biggest shot of his career to rip out Kentucky’s heart and propel Carolina to a national championship. It’s almost too perfect that in Maye’s senior season, the Heels and Cats are expected to again meet in the Elite Eight. I’m not saying that a Kentucky win would undo what happened in 2017: There’s no turning back time to make Maye miss that shot, just like there’s no way to take back the destruction of John Higgins’s roofing business.

If these teams do meet, you can be sure that CBS will put salt in Kentucky’s wound by showing Maye’s shot a million times. And can you imagine if the Wildcats find themselves in a close game, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, and PJ Washington blocks Maye at the buzzer to seal a UK win? That would be such a cathartic release for Big Blue Nation that the National Guard would have to be called in to hose everyone down.

Most enticing potential second-round matchup: Kentucky vs. Wofford

If it hasn’t happened already, allow me to use whatever authority I have to officially declare Wofford America’s darling of the 2019 NCAA tournament. The Terriers are riding a 20-game win streak and were the only Division I team not to lose a conference game. They’re led by senior Fletcher Magee, who is averaging 20.5 points per game. They shoot a ton of 3s, they suck on defense, and virtually everyone on their roster will go pro in something other than sports. Wofford is every bit the kind of team that makes neutral fans go nuts for March Madness; Kentucky is basically the 1B to Duke’s 1A of college basketball villains.

Reminder that the names of the regionals make no damn sense: There are only three teams from the Midwest in the Midwest regional.

There are 15 teams from Midwestern states in the tournament field. Three of them (Kansas, Iowa State, and Ohio State) were placed in the Midwest regional. The NCAA selection committee supposedly places a massive emphasis on location when it slots the teams, yet the Big Ten and Big 12—the two power conferences with footholds in the Midwest—sent a combined 14 schools to the 2019 tournament, and just three of them were assigned to the Midwest regional. Do what you want with this information.

Pepperdine v Gonzaga
Rui Hachimura
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

West Region

Team that got screwed: Marquette

The Golden Eagles’ most likely path to the Sweet 16 requires going through the best non-Duke NBA prospect in the country (Ja Morant) and an ACC team (Florida State) whose only losses in almost two months have come against no. 1 seeds. Oof.

Team that got a cakewalk: Gonzaga

The top-seeded Zags landed in the same region as the worst no. 2 seed in the field (Michigan), though that’s counterbalanced by Texas Tech being the tourney’s best no. 3 seed and Florida State being the best no. 4 seed. (Not to mention that Michigan is still pretty damn good.) So I don’t necessarily think Gonzaga is a lock to make it to Minneapolis. It’s more that its path to the Final Four goes through Salt Lake City and Anaheim, and the only other schools in the West regional that are based in either the Mountain or Pacific time zones are a no. 7 seed (Nevada), a no. 11 seed (Arizona State), and a no. 15 seed (Montana). Now, I admittedly focus heavily on location and time zones when it comes to the tournament. But I think they are significant, and the NCAA clearly agrees, otherwise it wouldn’t make location the no. 1 determining factor when slotting teams in the bracket. Another thing worth mentioning that might not actually matter much: Gonzaga made its only Final Four appearance in school history (2017) after playing earlier rounds in Salt Lake City and California.

Most enticing potential story line: Who will emerge as the Kemba candidate of the West?

Here are my power rankings of the guys in the West regional who are best equipped to single-handedly carry their team’s offense en route to an improbable tourney run:

1. Ja Morant (Murray State)
2. Markus Howard (Marquette)
3. Jarrett Culver (Texas Tech)
4. CJ Massinburg (Buffalo)
5. Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s)
6. Tyus Battle (Syracuse)
7. Caleb Martin (Nevada)
8. Anthony Lamb (Vermont)
9. Luguentz Dort (Arizona State)
10. Iggy Brazdeikis (Michigan)

Most enticing potential second-round matchup: Syracuse vs. Gonzaga

Syracuse has made the Sweet 16 in each of its past two trips to the NCAA tournament despite being a double-digit seed on both occasions. This, of course, is thanks largely to Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. It’s like a knuckleball: It gets absolutely crushed when it’s not working, but can look like the most devastating thing you’ve ever seen when it is. Other schools play zone defense and plenty of coaches are capable of squeezing every ounce of talent out of their teams. But no coach in America has consistently taken turds into the NCAA tournament and turned them into unhittable knuckleballs like Boeheim has, which is why Syracuse is always a fascinating team to keep an eye on in March. It’s also why I’d be more worried about a second-round game against the Orange than any other potential matchup on the road to the Final Four if I were a Gonzaga fan.

Team that everyone will think is good but actually kind of sucks: Nevada

I sat proudly in the driver’s seat of the Muss Bus at the start of the season, so it’s with a heavy heart that I must report the Wolf Pack have been booty for most of this season. Now I don’t want to get too carried away here, because Nevada won 29 games. But if you paid attention to the trajectory of the Pack’s season, the program shouldn’t exactly inspire confidence heading into the NCAA tournament. After Nevada came back to beat Arizona State in December, there was a non-zero chance that the Wolf Pack might run the table and enter March Madness undefeated. That was something they were on their way to doing before they LOST BY 27 POINTS TO A MOUNTAIN WEST TEAM THAT FINISHED 14-18.

Loyola v Nevada
Eric Musselman
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I could honestly stop there. Do you have any idea how many teams have made the Sweet 16 after losing by 25-plus-points to sub-.500 Mountain West teams early in the season? I don’t even need to bother looking it up—I’d bet my left nut the answer is zero. But wait, there’s more! There’s also the fact Nevada has had to erase double-digit deficits in what feels like every single one of their victories this season. There’s the fact the Wolf Pack have only two wins over NCAA tournament teams, and those teams are a no. 8 seed (Utah State) and a no. 11 seed (Arizona State). And there’s the fact the last time Nevada took the floor, its best player went 3-for-10 shooting and fouled out in 24 minutes as the Pack lost in the Mountain West tournament ... against a team that didn’t even make the CBI … for the second time this season.

If Nevada hadn’t reached the Sweet 16 a season ago—which, as a reminder, required an overtime win against Texas in the first round and a ridiculous 22-point comeback in 11 minutes against Cincinnati in the second round—nobody would give any thought to the Pack’s chances this year. But because they had a ton of hype entering the season (no. 7 in the preseason AP poll!) and went on to win 29 games, a bunch of suckers are going to pick Nevada as their dark horse to come out of the West. Those suckers are going to be severely disappointed when Michigan wipes the floor with the Pack in the second round (assuming Nevada can even get past Florida in the first round).

(Or at least, this was going to be the case before I ruined everything by jinxing it. Promise me you’ll do your part to delete this from the internet as soon as you see Eric Musselman running around the court in Anaheim, waving his shirt above his head as he celebrates his first career Final Four appearance.)