Jesse Conen, Matthew Miller, and Juan Pablo Moreland
Contrary to the popular saying, this month goes in like a lion and out like a lion, as March Madness is upon us and the nation descends into a college basketball frenzy. As 68 teams vie for the title of National Champion, it is a lot for fans to process and can be overwhelming to watch. For the die-hard Nova fans, or the people that picked their brackets based off which mascot sounded cooler, everybody could use some valuable information when watching, picking, and cheering in this tournament. From the first seeds to sleeper picks, this comprehensive guide will cover everything you need to know about this year’s March Madness.
The Golden State Warriors of college basketball come into the tournament with a 29-5 record, an ACC title, and the number one overall rank in the league. Zion Williamson—who has become a household name after his transcendent rookie season that saw the high-flying freshman rack up 22.1 points game (ppg) and 8.9 rebounds per game (rpg)—leads the young squad of talented underclassmen as they look to take the crown in their first, and most likely last, tournament. Freshman RJ Barrett, the number one prospect out of high school, will also prove to be a valuable asset in the tournament if he can consistently put up his average of 22.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Rounding out Duke’s freshman core are local prospect Cam Reddish, whose combination of size and quickness allow him to be a projected lottery pick in next year’s draft, and guard Tre Jones, whose ball-handling, defense, and passing have allowed Duke’s stars to flourish. The only things hampering the Blue Devils from making a championship run would be their lack of senior experience, and the injury of their only big man Marques Bolden, meaning that teams with length and size will be able to exploit this area against them. However, with the most loaded freshman class in college basketball history, Duke is a team that on a good day no team can muster up the strength to stop.
#2 Michigan State
As it was revealed that the Spartans, fresh off a Big Ten conference championship, would be the two seed in Duke’s conference, one could hear the groans that collectively reverberated across Spartan nation. After going through 3-0 against rivals Michigan, the Spartans were handed the harder road while the Wolverines got the “easier” road to a potential Final Four bid. Despite this error from the committee, Tom Izzo’s Michigan State still has a fantastic shot to make it to Minneapolis, especially with the timely return of postman Nick Ward, whose 6’ 9”, 245-pound frame has been essential to the success of the 28-6 Spartans. However, the main highlight of the team is All-American guard Cassius Winston, whose 18.9 points and 7.6 assists per game make him one of the hardest players to guard and contain. Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins, and Ward all provide the assets Duke lacks in size and experience (none are freshman), which could potentially be the key in unravelling the Blue Devils’ Final Four hopes. The biggest gripe against the Spartans would have to be history. Michigan State has not made it out of the first weekend since 2014, and with potential second-round matchups against Louisville or Minnesota, the chance for a repeat is possible. With that said, the best non-one seed team to challenge Duke are the Spartans, who possess everything that Duke is lacking.
Belmont vs Maryland
Dylan Windler and his Belmont Bruins are the first at-large bid from the OVC in 35 years, and on Tuesday they proved they were worth a bid by dispatching a pesky Temple side. Windler who leads the team in points (21.4) and rebounds (10.7), was held to only 5 points against the Owls, showing that his teammates are more than capable of scoring and stepping up in the clutch. The Terrapins, led by projected lottery pick Bruno Fernando, his length and athleticism is hard to match, but Belmont has the potential to pull off a first round upset if they can contain the big man from Maryland.
Minnesota vs Louisville
In what must be an intentional occurrence, Richard Pitino, the coach of Minnesota, is squared up against his dad Rick’s former team in the first round, in what could prove to be a safe upset pick for many bracket-fillers. The reasons being are that Minnesota has a better record, the best player (Amir Coffey, 16.3 ppg), and two double-double machines in Jordan Murphy and Daniel Oturu. Do not be surprised to see this game become a slugfest, with the scoring of Coffey proving to be the difference-maker in this potential upset.
Sleeper Final Four Pick: Virginia Tech
Prior to the start of the season, the Hokies landed in hot water after losing two key players to suspensions and guard Justin Robinson to a foot injury. As a result, coach Buzz Robinson diverted to sophomore wing Nickeil Alexander-Walker for ball-handling duties and has not looked back since. Alexander-Walker (16.6 ppg) and 6’ 10” post-man Kerry Blackshear have become a feared tandem duo in the ACC, overachieving for a team that was predicted to flop miserably considering the adversity they had to face this year. In addition, Robinson is predicted to make his return for the Hokies’ first-round match against St. Louis, potentially making Virginia Tech one of the teams to watch out for in the tournament.
Safe Final Four Pick: Duke
While Michigan State provides a viable challenge for the Blue Devils, Duke simply is too quick, explosive, and efficient to be stopped before the Final Four, and with Zion riding the momentum of his monster ACC Tournament performance (27 ppg, 10 rpg, 77 FG%), it’s hard to bet against the red hot Blue Devils.
After the early-season win over Duke in the finals of the Maui Invitational, the hype for this Gonzaga team was through the roof, as they became candidates for the best mid-major team ever to play college basketball. WCC Player of the Year Rui Hachimura is one of the most dominant players in college basketball, averaging 20.1 points to go along with 6.6 rebounds per game, proving the Bulldogs with the perfect centerpiece for a championship team. The top-ranked offense in the country (according to KenPom.com) is the only one to feature three players above 15 ppg, the other two being forward Brandon Clarke and sharpshooting guard Zach Norvell Jr. Solid role players Josh Perkins and Corey Kispert round out this starting lineup while 6’ 11” Serbian freshman Filip Petrusev provides size off the bench. All in all, this Gonzaga team is exactly what you look for in a title contender, with a superstar (Hachimura), flanked by two scorers (Norvell, Clarke), key role players (Perkins, Kispert, Petrusev), good coaching, and defensive prowess—making them a favorite for the Final Four bid out of the West.
Last year’s national runner ups are back at it again, this time boasting a 28-6 record with a starting five that can compete with anybody in the country. Last year, the Wolverines were led by German Moritz Wagner, who took his talents to the NBA in the offseason. Following that same model, it seems that coach John Beilein’s Wolverines have just restocked on European talent, as they now are led by Big Ten freshman of the year Ignas Brazdeikis, a Lithuanian native who averaged 15.1 ppg this season and can score from anywhere. Jordan Poole (12.8 ppg) is one of the premier shooters in the country, while court general and leader Charles Matthews (12 ppg), has just returned from a foot injury that kept him sidelined for the better part of a month. Zavier Simpson runs point guard unselfishly with 6.6 assists per game, and 7 foot tall Jon Teske is an elite interior defender. If the Wolverines make a run, it will depend on their stingy defense—2nd best in all of college basketball according to KenPom—along with some help from their top-20 ranked offense. Michigan has proven that it can win on the big stage, with blowout wins over North Carolina, Villanova, and Purdue. A team that opened the season 17-0, look for the Maize n’ Blue to make another run this year, with the potential to reach their second Final Four in as many tournaments if they can reach their early season form.
Murray State vs Marquette
This matchup is arguably the most interesting of the first round, as it features two of the top college players in the country, who double as the two top scorers playing in the tournament. Markus Howard of Marquette averaged 25 points per game on the season while surrounded by a multitude of forwards who balance out the floor, allowing the guard to go to work. Howard will face off against Ja Morant, a projected top 3 draft pick who was able to lead his Racers to their conference title and an automatic bid with his 24.6 points and 10 assists per game. This first round matchup will prove to be a battle, but to stay on the safe side, choose Marquette to win as they have shown the consistency needed to succeed throughout the entirety of the season.
Nevada vs Florida
Nevada, who at one point was ranked as high as a two seed by Joe Lunardi, has fallen all the way to seven seed after a series of losses against opponents New Mexico, Utah State, San Diego State. The team now has a chip on its shoulder and could have the potential to pull off a second-round upset against Michigan. Caleb and Cody Martin, twin brothers and forwards for the Wolfpack, leading the underrated lineup that 29-4 and won the regular season title in the MWC. Meanwhile, the Florida Gators are led by guards Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen, who have led the way on both ends of the floor for this veteran squad. A team that has proven itself by beating the #3 seed LSU Tigers in overtime earlier this year, look for a competitive match up between two great guard tandems.
Sleeper Final Four Pick: Florida State
Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State Seminoles are 13-2 in their last 15 games and are one of the hottest teams in the nation. After powering their way to the ACC championship, Florida State lost to the most talented team in the country in Duke. Florida State surprised many last season when they upset Gonzaga in the sweet 16 and ended up reaching the Elite 8 as a nine seed, causing many to wonder if they were underseeded. Now, a four seed, the core of that team remains intact, and their senior leadership should have Florida State poised to win at least two games in this year’s tournament. Florida State has major upsides in their depth, consistency and defense but the one major concern is not having one star player. With no players averaging more than 11 points per game, Florida State doesn’t have one player that can consistently make big time plays. But, if players like Terrence Mann can become that star they need in the tournament, than Florida State has the ability to upset Gonzaga again, and dance their way into Minneapolis.
Safe Final Four Pick: Gonzaga
Simply put, Gonzaga is a machine designed to score against any defense they come up against, as proven by their Division-1 leading 88.8 points per game. Hachimura, Norvell, and Clarke all remember the bitter Sweet Sixteen exit last year to Florida State and are back better than ever to prove that Gonzaga has legitimate title aspirations.
North Carolina enters the tournament as somewhat of an under-the-radar team following their ACC semifinal loss to Duke, but they feature one of the most well-rounded lineups in the country. Coby White, the explosive guard with a trademark afro is the heart of the team, and a main contributor towards the Tar Heels’ 15 wins out of the last 17 games. White has averaged 16.3 points and 4.2 assists per game, second only to 6’ 9” wing Cameron Johnson’s 16.9 ppg. Johnson, an elite shooter, creates an unguardable duo working with White, who constantly uses his speed to drive and kick to the open shooter on the perimeter. Last year’s hero Luke Maye and Nassir Little bolster the starting line by providing rebounding and scoring respectively, adding to the strengths of this year’s Tar Heels. UNC, who tied for the regular season ACC title, are owners of the seventh best offense and tenth best defense in college basketball, summing up how ths team truly is the most balanced in the tournament. The biggest gripe on UNC is that against teams given a 1 or 2 seed, they went 3-4 throughout the season, not a great percentage for a team looking to make a deep tournament run. However, it’s hard to not pick the Tar Heels to make the Final Four, as they are consistent and well-rounded, a great recipe for success.
After getting embarrassed by Duke in the first game of the season, it was unsure whether or not Kentucky would have the talent to meet expectations, but they bounced back and went 27-5 over the remainder of the year, silencing critics. With key wins against North Carolina, Kansas and Tennessee, the Wildcats were able to comfortably secure a #2 seed. Averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds in his last 10 games is sophomore forward P.J. Washington, who has played a major role in getting Kentucky to this spot along with projected first round pick Keldon Johnson, sharpshooter Tyler Herro and all SEC defender Ashton Hagans. Kentucky has NBA talent all over the roster, but not a lot of experience. Also, Stanford transfer Reid Travis is just returning from a serious knee sprain and should contribute greatly in the scoring and rebounding departments. Despite these strengths, on paper Kentucky seems to be the weakest top-2 seed. 3 of their 5 starters being freshmen and with only one legitimate senior, they lack experience and leadership, a flaw that could lead to a first weekend exit. Picking either Wofford or Seton Hall over Kentucky is not the likely pick, but it is a major possibility with Kentucky’s lack of leadership. Hall of Fame Coach John Calipari should be able to get the Wildcats to the Elite 8 or even the Final Four, but don’t be surprised if an early exit is on the menu for the blue bloods.
Wofford vs Seton Hall
Wofford vs. Seton Hall is one of the toughest picks of the entire first round for several reasons. The first is Myles Powell. Seton Hall’s 6’ 2” guard has the ability to go off for 30 points on any given night while also distributing the rock like very few other guards in the country. He can score from everywhere, averaging 22.9 on the season, and will be a problem for any defense that he faces in this year’s tournament. Wofford, on the other hand are one of the top mid-major teams in the country and should cause problems for Seton Hall. Riding a 21 game win streak, the Terriers look to continue that with the help of senior guard Fletcher Magee, who is just behind Powell scoring 20.9 ppg. In addition, Wofford shoots the 3 pointer at a 42% clip and hold their opponents to 65 points per game, both key parts of any team looking to make a deep run in the tourney. These two stats are promising for the Terriers chances, but look for this to be one of the more interesting matchups of the 1st round, as a Powell offensive explosion could prove a wild card.
Sleeper Final Four Pick: Iowa State
The Cyclones have seen maybe one of the better program turnarounds in history, going from an average team to Big 12 conference champions under coach Steve Prohm. Senior Marial Shayok leads the way averaging 18.6 ppg, while the length of this squad has helped them to be one of the most staunch defensive teams in basketball. Not a great three-point shooting team, the Cyclones have one of the best 2 point FG% in the tournament at 55%, showing that they play efficiently on both sides of the ball. In the weakest area of the bracket, Iowa State has the potential to reach the Sweet Sixteen or farther, as they have the right combination of experience, starpower, and efficiency.
Safe Final Four Pick: UNC
It would be a shock not to see the Tar Heels dance into Minneapolis, as despite the stumble against Duke in the conference tournament, everything is clicking for the most balanced team in the league. White and Johnson are firing on all cylinders and nobody in their region has the firepower to stop them.
After last year’s historic exit to #16 UMBC, Virginia has a chip on their shoulder to prove that they are not flukes when it comes to tournament time. With a 29-3 record and the ACC title, all while playing their now trademark defense-first brand of basketball, the Cavaliers look geared to make a solid run through this year’s tournament. Only having the 192nd ranked offense in the NCAA, Virginia’s scoring is balanced across three players, none of whom are freshmen and all have tournament experience. Sharpshooter Kyle Guy leads the way with 15.6 ppg, followed closely by De’Andre Hunter (15.1 ppg) and Ty Jerome (13.0)—all of whom double as great defensive players. Virginia is first in points allowed per game, a dangerous style of play as if a team with solid three-point shooting has a good day, the Cavaliers do not have an explosive enough offense to counter such an occurrence. Thus, it is imperative for Virginia’s success to make sure every team is met with the number one defense in the country, and to not take pushovers for granted.
Led by the electrifying duo of Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, the Volunteers are arguably the most experienced squad in the tournament. A very well rounded team, Tennessee opened the season with a very impressive win over Gonzaga, showcasing their ability to grind out wins against superior opponents. Jordan Bone is a high-caliber point guard and 6’ 11” Kyle Alexander brings height to the starting lineup, both serving as fantastic role pieces to the stars of Schofield and Williams. KenPom.com holds Tennessee at their third ranked offense, and they can score in bunches when they get going. Tennessee is definitely a Final Four hopeful, and with a manageable bracket, they can reach heights some would have never imagined years ago.
Villanova vs St. Mary’s
Our hometown team Villanova, winners of 2 of the last 3 National Championships have struggled at times during the 2019 campaign. Losses to Furman and Penn last fall did not bode well for their hopes of once again cutting down the nets in Minnesota, but they quickly turned their season around by winning both the Big East regular season and conference tournament. This year, they are led by upperclassmen Eric Paschall and Phil Booth, and of course the sage head coaching of Jay Wright. Villanova have the talent and experience to bust some brackets this year, but face their first test on Thursday against St. Mary’s. Saint Mary’s is a gritty defensive minded team that surprised America when they beat Gonzaga in the WCC championship. Many have Gonzaga pegged to go far in this year’s tournament showing that St. Mary’s can likely beat any challenger that comes their way, and so it is important for Nova not to go into cruise control before they meet the Gaels.
Sleeper Final Four Pick: Villanova
It’s odd to consider the college basketball juggernauts Villanova a sleeper, but this season they lost a lot of talent to the NBA and had to find a new identity in the Big East. After winning the conference they landed as a sixth seed, setting up a potential second round matchup against Carsen Edwards and his inconsistent Purdue. Villanova has proven time and time again that they are a tournament team, and so it is not completely unlikely for Jay Wright’s Wildcats to go on a run and make their way into the Final Four.
Safe Final Four Pick: Tennessee
Tennessee holds many of the traits that have led teams to deep tournament runs before, including senior experience and offensive prowess. The duo of Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams will give any defense in this region a handful and so they are the safest pick to take all the way to Minneapolis.
Writer’s National Champion Pick- This year is finally Gonzaga’s year, as they have their best team ever, a star player in Hachimura to rely on, and are top 15 in offensive and defensive efficiency—a quality that 16 of the last 17 champs have possessed.