The NCAA tournament’s important (and not-so-important) details
From the time the bracket is announced on Selection Sunday until the first first-round games tip off on Thursday, we have only 90 hours to find out everything about the bracket. We’re here to help. Not only will we give you some pointers on upsets, sleepers and key players — but we’ll fill you in on mascots and nicknames, fun cities and ages of coaches.
You know, the important things.
Best bet for a 12 vs. 5 upset: South Dakota State over Ohio State
You can make a case for Davidson over Kentucky or New Mexico State over Clemson, too, but South Dakota State is going to create massive problems for Ohio State. The Jackrabbits have lost once since Dec. 15 and have one of the best players in the country in Mike Daum.
Best bet for a double-digit Sweet 16 team: Loyola Chicago
The draw sets up pretty nicely for Porter Moser and the Ramblers. They open with Miami, whose ball-screen-heavy half-court offense will have trouble against Loyola’s defense. Then the 11-seed Ramblers will likely get 3-seed Tennessee — which has gone through offensive lulls this season.
Take a look back at some of the most unexpected upsets and most memorable games in the history of the NCAA tournament.
Guy you want taking the final shot: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
There’s a lot of good options here, from Ty Jerome (Virginia) to Jalen Brunson (Villanova) to Joel Berry (North Carolina) to Keenan Evans (Texas Tech). But Bluiett has done it before — and has balled out on a big stage before. In last season’s NCAA tournament, Bluiett averaged 21.3 points in four games. He can get buckets at all three levels.
Top-three seed to not trust: Tennessee Volunteers
They’ve proven people wrong all season, and they’re very good defensively, but they can go long droughts on the offensive end. Talent-wise, they’re not going to blow teams off the court either.
Mid-major breakout star: Zach Lofton, New Mexico State Chris Jans has the Aggies in the NCAA tournament in his first season at the helm, and Lofton is a major reason. The well-traveled Lofton — he started his career at Illinois State, transferred to Minnesota before being dismissed, then spent a year at Texas Southern before graduate transferring to New Mexico State — has had 10 games of 25-plus points this season. The Aggies can beat Clemson, too.
Name you don’t know yet: Rob Gray, Houston
Maybe the nation’s biggest under-the-radar star the past two seasons, Gray put up 30-plus points on five different occasions this season — including three times in the past month. He’s one of the most efficient scorers in the country and is capable of carrying Kelvin Sampson’s Cougars to a couple wins.
Conference poised for disappointment: SEC
The league received eight bids, but will any of them make it out of the first weekend? We hit on Tennessee earlier, and co-champ Auburn has been struggling lately. Kentucky, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas A&M and Alabama don’t have easy paths to the Sweet 16, either. Florida is a sleeper, but it depends on the Gators hitting difficult shots.
Best head-to-head first-round player matchup from an NBA draft perspective: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Kellan Grady
Another top matchup took place on Tuesday night, when UCLA’s Aaron Holiday went up against St. Bonaventure’s Jaylen Adams. But we’ll take the battle of two freshmen: Kentucky’s Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Davidson’s Grady. Gilgeous-Alexander was already on draft boards, and his stock has only risen. Meanwhile, Grady has opened the eyes of some NBA people with his recent play: 39 points against Saint Bonaventure in February and 19.7 points in the A-10 tourney.
Best head-to-head mascot matchup: Red Raiders (Texas Tech) vs. Lumberjacks (Stephen F. Austin)
On one side is a masked, two-gunned Texan. On the other is a jacked, ax-wielding Texan. Runner-up: Buckeyes (Ohio State) vs. Jackrabbits (South Dakota State). Apparently, Buckeye seeds are poisonous to rabbits. We’ll see.
Nickname matchup least likely to end up in a fight: Aggies (Texas A&M) vs. Friars (Providence) Agricultural students against a religious group of brothers hoping to live in service to society. Better call the fire marshal.
Lone debutante: Lipscomb Bisons
Sure, it’s not as exciting and newsworthy as Northwestern breaking its streak last year, but don’t tell that to Lipscomb, which won eight in a row to end the season and beat 1-seed Florida Gulf Coast in the Atlantic Sun title game. By the way, trust us, it’s Bisons. Not Bison.
Most intriguing potential second-round game: Arizona vs. Kentucky
Both teams seemed to feel a little disrespected by their placement in the bracket, and both teams have been playing with chips on their shoulders late in the season. Kentucky has had its most success with a smaller lineup, while Arizona continues to dominate the paint with two big men — Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic. NBA talent should abound in this one.
Deepest run from a 6-seed or lower: Florida Gators
In each of the past five NCAA tournament, at least one team seeded sixth or lower has reached the Final Four. Florida might be the best bet this season. The Gators have shown they can beat anyone in the country, if they’re making their perimeter shots. Senior guard Chris Chiozza is as tough as they come, and they’re better defensively than people think.
Best pod locations: Boise and Pittsburgh
Out west, Boise is your spot. You have two potential 12 vs. 5 upsets with Kentucky vs. Davidson and Ohio State vs. South Dakota State. You have a potential Kentucky vs. Arizona second-round game. More east, Pittsburgh should be awesome. Duke will either play Dan Hurley (brother of Duke great Bobby Hurley) or Trae Young in the second round, while Alabama vs. Virginia Tech is one of the best first-round games. Collin Sexton vs. Villanova’s Jalen Brunson as a potential second-round game? Yes, please.
Best first-round coaching matchup: Dan Hurley vs. Lon Kruger
Let’s go with two of the better coaches in the tournament. Hurley has been linked with every big-time job under the sun lately, while Kruger has won consistently everywhere he has been. We’ve done too much on Kentucky and Davidson, but John Calipari vs. Bob McKillop will also be interesting.
Marty Smith rolls through Morgantown to see how Bob Huggins, Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. are prepping for their last tournament ride together.
Largest age gap among coaches in a first-round matchup: West Virginia’s Bob Huggins vs. Murray State’s Matt McMahon
Huggins is 64 and heading to his 24th straight NCAA tournament. McMahon is 39 and heading to his first NCAA tournament. He has been a head coach for three seasons.
Jim Boeheim vs. Bobby Hurley would have won, with a 27-year gap, but they’re in the First Four. Leonard Hamilton vs. Cuonzo Martin (23) came close.
Biggest contrast in tempos in a first-round game: Auburn vs. Charleston
Auburn is the fifth-fastest team playing in the NCAA tournament, averaging more than 72 possessions per game. Charleston is the sixth-slowest team in the Big Dance, playing fewer than 65 possessions. The pace battle will be key.
Best bet to win it all: Villanova Wildcats
Jay Wright’s team would have been co-favorites along with Virginia — but then the Cavaliers lost DeAndre Hunter for the tournament. It doesn’t necessarily end Virginia’s Final Four hopes, but Villanova now enters the dance as the favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio.