Top seed prognosis: On paper, the Midwest seems to be the most open of those four regions, but we nevertheless give No. 1 North Carolina the best odds, using a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and also an 18 percent probability of appearing in the national championship match. Those odds are at least 8 percentage points lower than every other No. 1 team in the area, though, and for good reason: North Carolina’s crime is dependent on turning every play into a quick break. The Tar Heels struggle to get to the free-throw lineup and give up a slew of shots along the perimeter, and that, at a slowed-down, half-court matchup, can be quite problematic.
After getting chased by Duke to start the season, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent weeks while discovering balance on both ends of the floor and largely abstaining in the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is 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 very best along and in the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four select: No. 5 Auburn. When the Tigers steamrolled Tennessee 84-64 in Sunday’s SEC title game, it likely got the focus of a good deal of bracket-pickers. That was not a one off — Auburn also beat Tennessee eight days before, a portion of a string of eight consecutive wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their last 11 games. With an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficiency) that got more of its points from downtown than any other group in the NCAA field, Auburn can heat up in a hurry. We provide the Tigers nearly a coin-flip’s likelihood of making the Sweet 16 — and a very strong 37 percent likelihood of beating top-seeded North Carolina when the Tar Heels are waiting for Auburn there. The sole kryptonite may be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which defeat the Tigers from 27 in late February to sweep their season collection.
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 option by starting the season 10-0. But a 15-9 record (plus a few critical injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament potential. This is a well-balanced team, but to state it doesn’t shoot well from the exterior is an understatement — see KU’s 3-for-18 performance from deep into Saturday’s Big 12 ouster against Iowa State. Add an unfavorable draw that puts them on a potential second-round crash course with Auburn (see above), and also we give the Jayhawks only an 8 percent chance of making from the Midwest with their championship hopes intact.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Ohio State. In case a Big Ten team which has made 11 Final Fours could be a Cinderella, then you are looking at it in those Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s increasing tendency to con underwhelming power-conference schools this way really messes with the definition.) OSU went just 18-13 throughout the regular season, was defeated its second Big Ten tournament game and has nearly twice as many losses as wins since New Year’s. Why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Regardless of the seed, this remains a dangerous group, one which ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s corrected defensive ratings and contains celebrity forward Kaleb Wesson back out of suspension. So maybe they’ll give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But this tells you something about another prospective Cinderellas in this region: Seton Hall obtained a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of those additional low seeds here are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a team that did all it could to perform its way out of this tournament, but includes some upset potential no matter.
Player to watch: Cameron Johnson, UNC On a group that does not hoist a ton of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as lethal as they are come. Following an injury-riddled effort where he made more than one-third of his appearances from beyond 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 season. He’s blossomed into one of the best scorers in the ACC, standing between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficacy in transition, off displays and on spot-ups.
Johnson has elevated his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive rating (132.5) and accurate shooting percentage (64.6). Unexpectedly, a player who wasn’t viewed as a guaranteed professional now jobs for 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 March Madness predictions.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A former version of this story misstated the number of Sweet 16s made by Villanova lately. Though the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of their previous five seasons, that round was the Round of 32 until 2016 due to NCAA naming conventions.
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