The undisputed most thrilling part of the college basketball season has officially begun. As the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament kicked off last Tuesday, the scene is set for the wild ride that March always seems to bring us.
Although my personal favorite team — the University of California, Irvine Anteaters — didn’t make it to the “Big Dance” once again, I took the time to fill out my own bracket. Here are the four teams I have selected to make up this year’s Final Four.
East — No. 1 Villanova University (2017 finish: Loss to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Second Round)
The Wildcats took home the trophy back in 2016, but have been one of the most respected programs in the country for more than a decade. With a 30-4 record this season, including no double-digit losses, Villanova has proven to be one of the toughest teams to beat this season.
Playing out of the Big East, the Wildcats had impressive conference sweeps of Xavier University and Seton Hall University, and non-conference wins against Gonzaga University and the University of Tennessee. Being 3-0 against ranked opponents doesn’t hurt Villanova’s confidence either.
Some worry about the Wildcats’ ability to get to the free-throw line when it matters. Although the team shoots 13.4 attempts from the charity stripe per game, let’s be real — Villanova could take less than five free throws per game and still make it to the Final Four.
As the top seed in the East, the Wildcats’ road to the Final Four shouldn’t be too difficult. Breeze past Radford University, hold off freshman guard Collin Sexton and the University of Alabama and Villanova should see itself making it to the Sweet 16 with ease.
The first real test for the Wildcats won’t come until they meet Purdue University in the Elite Eight, but even then, I wouldn’t be too worried.
In fact, leave all the worrying to opponents trying to stop Villanova star junior guard Jalen Brunson, in what could very well be his last go-around in the world’s biggest tournament.
Midwest — No. 2 Duke University (2017 finish: Loss to University of South Carolina in Second Round)
I’ll admit it, I’m a little biased here.
Senior guard Grayson Allen is by far my favorite player in college basketball. I really don’t know why and sometimes I even hate myself for it, but something about the kid intrigues me. Whether he’s tripping somebody or putting up 37 points on Michigan State University — yes, that really happened — you can’t deny that Duke’s lone senior has some uncanny talent.
Mix that talent with the likes of future NBA studs freshman forwards Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., and you’ve got yourself a team that can do some damage this March. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of the winningest coaches ever, so you’d be Mike Tyson-crazy to count out a team that boasts “Coach K” at the helm.
I see 26-7 Duke getting spooked in a narrow victory against the University of Rhode Island in the Second Round, but bouncing back to take down Michigan State. In the Elite Eight, the University of Kansas will be the toughest opponent Duke has seen all year, but Blue Devils basketball is defined by big wins in big moments.
Duke’s biggest Achilles’ heel comes from its own cockiness. We saw it during last week’s ACC Tournament, where the Blue Devils waited till the last three minutes against the University of North Carolina to show up and start playing some honorable basketball. If Duke doesn’t respect its opponents as much as the opponents respect Duke, another early exit could be in the forecast.
On a side note, I predict that Allen will go the entire tournament without a signature tripping or butt-checking incident.
South — No. 1 University of Virginia (2017 finish: Loss to University of Florida in Second Round)
Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
The 2018 ACC champions have what it takes to buckle down on the defensive end and pull out stops when they need them most. The Cavaliers give up only 53.4 points per game, and are 6-0 against ranked opponents.
But you don’t grab the nation’s best record of 31-2 by just playing defense. The Wahoos can hoop on both sides of the floor, much in thanks to sophomore guard Kyle Guy.
The kid averages 14.1 points, 2.58 rebounds and 1.48 assists per contest, and absolutely lit up North Carolina in the ACC Championship with his 16 point trophy-earning performance.
When making picks during March Madness, it’s important to take into account how well a team has been playing lately. Virginia is 20-1 in 2018 and is one of the hottest teams in sports right now. Nobody in the South Region is going to give the Wahoos a run for their money.
In fact, until the Final Four, the only Cavalier win that won’t be by double-digits will be the battle against either University of Kentucky or University of Arizona in the Sweet 16.
West — No. 5 Ohio State University (2017 finish: Didn’t make national tournament)
Yep, you read that right. No bracket is complete without a good Cinderella story.
My most “out there” pick for this Madness session comes from the land of the Buckeyes. Why? Honestly, I told myself I was going to have Ohio State go far after I saw them embarrass the then-country’s best Michigan State back in a 80-64 Jan. 7 win.
Since that blow-out upset, the Buckeyes have fallen off a little bit.
A 27-point loss to Gonzaga and losses to the Pennsylvania State University concern me. But hey, the Nittany Lions were still probably just a little salty from football season, right?
However, in all seriousness, I am remaining with my gut instincts on this one. Redshirt junior forward Keita Bates-Diop can put points on the board as easily as any other player in the NCAA. Bates-Diop averages 19.4 points, 8.78 rebounds and 1.69 blocks per game. That’s Bagley-level of dominance in the paint.
The road to the Final Four is not easy for Ohio State. The Buckeyes will have to take down powerhouses Gonzaga and Xavier just to make it to the Elite Eight, where they will most likely face the University of Michigan. But even at the No. 5 seed, the Buckeyes have proven that they can roll with the big dogs, after wins over Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue earlier this year.
So there you have it: Villanova, Duke, Virginia and Ohio State. In case anyone was curious, I believe the championship will ultimately be won by Virginia in a single-digit defeat against Duke.
Good luck to everybody who made a bracket this year. Get ready for the headaches.