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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Expert NCAA Tournament bracket picks: Shane’s March Madness selections

It’s funny to see the word “expert” next to my picks in this post. No one is a bracket expert. If anyone claims to be, March Madness will gladly give them a swift kick off of their pedestal the next chance it gets.

We can all predict an upset or miss out on the team who will underperform. Your guess is as good as mine. That’s not what you want to read after clicking on this post, so let me reassure you: anyone can guess, but I’m at least offering an educated guess.

I’ve spent the last few months buried up to my brain in RPI, KenPom, analytics, and percentages. If there’s a factoid or stat to be learned about the teams in this bracket, I’ve come across it in my internet travels. Based on all that information, this is how I see the next month unfolding.

Even if these picks are wrong, at least I can explain how I came to all of my decisions. And when they are wrong and I’m trying to explain myself, you’re welcome to laugh at me and brag about how great your bracket was this year.

Here are my 2018 NCAA Tournament picks. Click to enlarge.

Shane bracket final

Below is a region-by-region breakdown of my choices.

South Region

The tournament’s top seed, Virginia, sits atop the South Region, with 3rd and 4th round games being played in Atlanta. The Hoos earned that seed by finishing a tough schedule at 31-2. The Cavaliers’ only losses came at West Virginia and in overtime versus rival Virginia Tech. While Virginia slowly mowed through the rest of its schedule, the Cavaliers played earth-shattering defense. Virginia posted the second-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the KenPom era (since 2002). Suffocating opponents to that degree is enough to send Virginia to the Final Four.

The Hoos’ biggest hurdle would likely come in the Sweet Sixteen, playing underseeded Arizona. The Wildcats won the Pac-12 regular season and conference championships. Three of Arizona’s seven losses this season came on consecutive days in a nightmare trip to the Bahamas for a tournament the week of Thanksgiving. More recently, thanks to Deandre Ayton’s emergence as the best big in college hoops, Arizona has been playing at an elite level. No one has the answer for Ayton, but Virginia’s Pack Line defense will have the best chance. Virginia could look to shut down Arizona’s guards and force Ayton to win the game on his own. He’s capable, but if Virginia is making shots on offense, combined with their defensive prowess, the Cavaliers are too much to handle.

Kentucky has gained momentum as a team on the rise. With an entire roster of underclassmen, John Calipari has needed to build his team on the fly all year. Facing one of America’s most underappreciated coaches, Bob McKillop, and his well-disciplined Davidson team, will be a test. With Arizona waiting after that, it’s hard to see Big Blue surviving the weekend.

One of the tournament’s best chances at a Cinderella story sits at the bottom of the South Region. Loyola-Chicago plays a slow-paced, incredibly patient offense that pays off, to the tune of the 8th-best effective field goal percentage in the nation. Defined styles can win games in the NCAA Tournament. The Ramblers can stick to their guns and grind their way to the Sweet Sixteen.

East Region

Villanova was treated to an interesting draw as the top seed in their region. After a first-round win, they’ll face either borderline superhero Collin Sexton or the only team to be Virginia in Charlottesville all season. Neither is a cupcake second-round game. Should they win and advance, the next round could bring along West Virginia’s deathly pressure defense or a Wichita State team pegged by many during the preseason as a Final Four contender.

The Shockers match-up well with Villanova in a few ways, but mostly in the frontcourt. Shaquille Morris and Darral Willis both ranked in the top six of the AAC in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. In the AAC Tournament, both of Houston’s centers fouled out versus the Shockers. Villanova doesn’t have an answer inside behind Omari Spellman, but has the offensive punch to survive if need be.

Purdue, however, offers an even tougher match-up. Isaac Haas is every bit of 7-foot-2 and 290 pounds and is backed up by Matt Haarms, who is also 7-foot-2. Spellman stands just 6-foot-9 and plays every minute of legitimate center for Villanova. The Villanova guards are good enough to make up for that difference in some games, but Purdue’s twin towers require a ton of attention. Not to mention, the rest of the Boilermakers are capable of shooting, slashing, and controlling the ball. Carsen Edwards is ready to fully breakout and become a superstar. Purdue is the most complete team Villanova will face all year.

The Boilermakers have a few landmines on their half of the bracket as well. Texas Tech plays elite defense, yet has been hampered by an injury to star guard Keenan Evans. His health is paramount to the Red Raiders’ chances to make a run.

Every year, one of the First Four participants then wins in the round of 64. Both UCLA and St. Bonaventure are paced by excellent guard play and will match-up nicely with Chris Chiozza and the Gators. Florida has seemed out of sorts all season and is ripe for an upset.

West Region

If there’s one region ripe for the taking, it’s the West. There are six to eight teams in this region capable of making a run to the Final Four. Missouri is an X-factor with a healthy Michael Porter Jr. Ohio State can ride Keita Bates-Diop as far as he can carry the Buckeyes. Gonzaga is one of the most balanced teams in this tournament, with eight players capable of hurting you in any given game. Houston is a confident team that has been impressive all season. Michigan looked great in the last several weeks, and John Beilein is one of the best coaches in the game, yet the Wolverines may have peaked too soon. Xavier is the weakest top seed, but not to be taken lightly; Trevon Bluiett is fully capable of taking over the entire month of March.

North Carolina, at the end of the day, seems most likely to survive a topsy-turvy bracket. The Heels are paced by seniors who have been to back-to-back national championship games. Joel Berry can shoot Carolina to a win, Luke May can dominate the paint, or the supporting cast can shine on any given day. I see a rematch of last year’s title game in the Elite Eight, with the same result as last April. North Carolina has a gear that no one else in this West Region can hit. If the Tar Heels can hit their peak, they head to the Final Four.

Midwest Region

The top-heavy Midwest Region feels a lot like last season’s South Region, which housed North Carolina, Kentucky, and UCLA as its top three seeds. This Midwest Region features Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State on its top three lines. Kansas’ best game can match any team in the nation. When the Jayhawks play four guards and it seems like all four can’t miss a jump shot, Kansas is deadly. When they’ve struggled to make shots, the Jayhawks’ offense looks flat and pedestrian. Kansas lost games this season when the Jayhawk guards forced threes and failed to operate within the flow of the offense. That kind of game is likely to recur against top level defenses.

Duke is perhaps the most talented team in the entire field, but has two potentially fatal flaws. Coach K has been backed into playing only zone defense this season. The Blue Devils proved incapable of playing effective man-to-man. The zone has been better, yet is far from perfect. Teams have been able to exploit the center of the zone at the high post for tons of scoring.

Duke’s other problem is the erratic play of Trevon Duval. The freshman point guard has been an abysmal shooter this season, making just 27 percent beyond the arc on 89 attempts. He’s barely been better on 2-point jump shots at just 33 percent. Duval has also had turnover problems, coughing the ball up 11 times in just two ACC Tournament games. Making matters worse, Duke’s bench is so shallow that Coach K has no adequate options to replace Duval.

Of the three teams, Michigan State may have the fewest flaws. Unlike Kansas, who has only two big men to play, or Duke, who ranks 340th in bench minutes played, Michigan State’s roster is deep. Izzo has stars to count on and role players in spades at his disposal. Sparty can play bully-ball with Nick Ward in the middle, spread things out with Jaren Jackson, and move Miles Bridges anywhere and he’ll score. Cassius Winston has developed into a reliable point guard and Joshua Langford is a top notch shooter. Off the bench, if they need to hold a lead, Tum Tum Nairn is a seasoned veteran point guard. Need a stop and a three? Matt McQuaid can get both. Gavin Schilling and Kenny Goins are upperclassmen who know their role — defending and rebounding. Michigan State can beat you in a variety of ways, which is exactly why the Spartans are capable of hurdling Duke and Kansas in one weekend.

Final Four

We only saw Michigan State and Purdue play once this season, with Sparty fortunate enough to host the game in East Lansing. Michigan State won on a game-winning three from Miles Bridges. Replay that game on a neutral floor and Purdue could have enough to turn the tables. Purdue has the size to bang with the Spartans and the perimeter talent to dictate the pace and style of the game.

Virginia beat UNC twice this season, once at home and once in the ACC Tournament final. Beating a team three times in one season is never easy, yet the Hoos might just have the recipe to beat the Heels. Virginia’s pace makes North Carolina very uncomfortable. The Tar Heels scored just 49 points in Charlottesville. Virginia matches up well with almost everyone, and Carolina is no exception.

In the end, Virginia’s defense is too effective to deny. We’ve seen good Virginia teams that play slow and defend well, but never this well. With three guards all capable of getting hot, these Cavaliers are less likely to be bounced on a cold shooting night than their predecessors. This Virginia team doesn’t over rely on one scorer or one aspect of their game to get wins. The Hoos’ style might not be fun, but it works.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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