Top seed outlook: On paper, the Midwest appears to be the most open of the four regions, but we still give No. 1 North Carolina the best odds, with a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and also an 18 percent probability of appearing in the national championship game. Those odds are 8 percentage points lower than any other No. 1 team in the area, though, and for good reason: North Carolina’s offense is dependent on turning every play into a quick break. The Tar Heels fight to get into the free-throw lineup and give up a slew of shots across the perimeter, which, in a slowed-down, half-court matchup, could be rather problematic.
After getting waxed by Duke to open the summer, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent months while finding balance on the two ends of the ground and largely abstaining in the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is currently in the midst of its very best season because Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing school basketball, and they boast a defense which ranks among the top together and inside the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four select: No. 5 Auburn. Whenever the Tigers steamrolled Tennessee 84-64 in Sunday’s SEC title game, it probably got the focus of a lot of bracket-pickers. That was not a one-off — Auburn also conquer Tennessee eight days before, part of a string of eight straight wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their past 11 games. With an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficiency) that got more of its points from downtown compared to every other team in the NCAA field, Auburn can heat up in a hurry. We give the Tigers almost a coin-flip’s odds of making the Sweet 16 — and also an extremely strong 37 percent chance of beating top-seeded North Carolina if the Tar Heels are awaiting Auburn there. The sole kryptonite might be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which beat the Tigers by 27 in late February to sweep their season series.
Don’t wager on: No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went into the year ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they seemed to validate that the option by starting the season 10-0. However a 15-9 record (plus some critical injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament potential. This is a well-balanced team, but to state it does not shoot well from the outside is a understatement — watch KU’s 3-for-18 functionality from deep into Saturday’s Big 12 ouster from Iowa State. Add a negative draw that puts them on an expected second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and we give the Jayhawks only an 8 percent chance of making from the Midwest with their championship hopes undamaged.
Cinderella see: No. 11 Ohio State. In case a Big Ten team which has made 11 Final Fours could be a Cinderella, then you’re looking at it in those Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s rising trend to seed underwhelming power-conference schools this way really messes with the definition) OSU went only 18-13 during the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game and has almost two times as many losses as wins because New Year’s. So why are the Buckeyes a possible Cinderella? Despite the seed, this is still a dangerous group, one that ranks 27th from Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive evaluations and has celebrity forward Kaleb Wesson back out of suspension. So perhaps they will give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about another potential Cinderellas in this region: Seton Hall obtained a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of the other low seeds here are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a team which did all it could to play its way out of this tournament, but includes some mad potential regardless.
Player to watch: Cameron Johnson On a group that doesn’t hoist a lot of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as lethal as they come. Following an injury-riddled campaign where he made greater than one-third of his looks from outside the arc, the graduate student is canning 46.5 percent of his efforts, which positions inside the top 25 nationwide.
Johnson has flourished in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity plot this year. He has blossomed into one of the best scorers in the ACC, ranking between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency in transitionoff displays and on spot-ups.
Johnson has elevated his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive evaluation (132.5) and accurate shooting percentage (64.6). Unexpectedly, a participant who was not viewed as a bonded professional now jobs to be a second-round pick.
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Washington over No. 8 Utah State (49 percent); No. 10 Seton Hall over No. 7 Wofford (37 percent); No. 11 Ohio State over No. 6 Iowa State (33 percent)
Check out our newest March Madness forecasts.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A former version of this story misstated the amount of Sweet 16s created by Villanova lately. Although the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of the previous five seasons, that around was the Round of 32 until 2016 due to NCAA naming conventions.
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