Best seed outlook: On paper, the Midwest seems to be the most open of the four regions, but we still give No. 1 North Carolina the best chances, with a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and an 18 percent likelihood of appearing in the championship match. Those chances are 8 percentage points lower than any other No. 1 team in the field, however, and for good reason: North Carolina’s crime depends on turning each play into a quick break. The Tar Heels fight to get into the free-throw lineup and give up a ton of shots across the perimeter, and that, at a slowed-down, half-court matchup, could be quite problematic.
After getting waxed by Duke to start the season, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent weeks while finding balance on both ends of the ground and largely abstaining from the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is currently in the middle of its best season because Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing college basketball, and they boast a defense which ranks among the top along and in 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 good deal of bracket-pickers. That was not a one off — Auburn also conquer Tennessee eight days before, part of a series of eight straight wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their past 11 games. Having an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficiency) that acquired more of its points from downtown than any 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 a very strong 37 percent likelihood of beating top-seeded North Carolina if the Tar Heels are awaiting Auburn there. The sole kryptonite may be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which beat the Tigers from 27 in late February to sweep their season series.
Don’t wager : No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went into the season ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they appeared to validate that the choice by starting the season 10-0. But a 15-9 record (plus a few key injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament possible. This is a well-balanced group, but to say it does not shoot well from the outside is an understatement — see KU’s 3-for-18 functionality from deep into Saturday’s Big 12 ouster against Iowa State. Add an unfavorable draw that puts them on an expected second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and we provide the Jayhawks just an 8% chance of making out of the Midwest with their championship hopes undamaged.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Ohio State. In case a Big Ten team which has made 11 Final Fours could be a Cinderella, then you’re considering it in these Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s increasing trend to seed underwhelming power-conference colleges this way really messes with the definition) OSU went just 18-13 throughout the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game also has almost two times as many losses as wins since New Year’s. So why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Despite the seed, this is still a dangerous group, one which ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive ratings and has star forward Kaleb Wesson back from suspension. So maybe they’ll give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about the other potential Cinderellas within this region: Seton Hall got a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of those additional low seeds are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a group which did all it could to play its way from this tournament, but has some upset potential no matter.
Player to watch: Cameron Johnson On a group that does not hoist a lot of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as deadly as they come. Following an injury-riddled campaign where he barely made more than one-third of his appearances from beyond the arc, the grad student is canning 46.5 percent of his attempts, which ranks inside the top 25 nationally.
Johnson has thrived 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, standing between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency in transitionoff screens and on spot-ups.
Johnson has raised his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive evaluation (132.5) and accurate shooting percentage (64.6). Unexpectedly, a participant who wasn’t 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)
Have a look at our newest March Madness forecasts.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A previous version of this story misstated the number of Sweet 16s made by Villanova lately. Although the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of the past five seasons, that round was the Round of 32 until 2016 because of NCAA naming conventions.
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