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 greatest chances, with a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and also an 18 percent likelihood of appearing in the championship game. Those odds are 8 percentage points lower compared to any other No. 1 team in the field, however, and for good reason: North Carolina’s crime depends on turning each play into a fast break. The Tar Heels struggle to get into the free-throw lineup and give up a slew of shots across the perimeter, and that, at a slowed-down, half-court matchup, could be quite problematic.
After getting waxed by Duke to open the season, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent months while finding equilibrium on both ends of the ground and mostly abstaining from the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is in the midst of its very best season since Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing school basketball, and they boast a defense which ranks among the very best together and inside the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four select: No. 5 Auburn. When 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 wasn’t a one off — Auburn also conquer Tennessee eight days earlier, part of a series of eight consecutive wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their past 11 games. Having an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficiency) that got 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 nearly a coin-flip’s likelihood of making the Sweet 16 — and also an extremely solid 37 percent chance of beating top-seeded North Carolina if the Tar Heels are awaiting Auburn there. The only kryptonite may be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which defeat the Tigers by 27 in late February to sweep their season collection.
Don’t bet on: No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went into the season ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they appeared to validate 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 really is a well-balanced group, but to say it does not shoot well from the outside is an understatement — watch KU’s 3-for-18 functionality from deep in Saturday’s Big 12 ouster against Iowa State. Add a negative draw that puts them on a potential second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and we give the Jayhawks just an 8 percent chance of making out of the Midwest with their championship hopes intact.
Cinderella see: No. 11 Ohio State. In case a Big Ten team that has made 11 Final Fours could be a Cinderella, then you are looking at it in these Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s increasing tendency to seed underwhelming power-conference schools this manner really contrasts with the definition) OSU went only 18-13 throughout the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game and has nearly twice as many losses as wins because New Year’s. Why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Regardless of the seed, this is still a dangerous group, one which ranks 27th from Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive evaluations and has celebrity forward Kaleb Wesson back from suspension. So maybe they will give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about another prospective Cinderellas within this region: Seton Hall got an extremely tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of the additional low seeds here are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a group that did all it could to perform its way from the tournament, but includes some mad potential no matter.
Player to watch: Cameron Johnson On a team that does not hoist a lot of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as lethal as they are come. Following an injury-riddled campaign in which he barely made more than one-third of his looks from outside the arc, the grad student is canning 46.5 percent of his efforts, which positions inside the top 25 nationally.
Johnson has thrived in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity plot this season. He has blossomed into one of the best scorers in the ACC, ranking between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency in transition, off screens and on spot-ups.
Johnson has elevated his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive rating (132.5) and true shooting percentage (64.6). Suddenly, a participant who wasn’t seen as a guaranteed 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)
Check out our March Madness predictions.
CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A former version of this story misstated the amount of Sweet 16s made by Villanova in recent seasons. Although the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s”third round” in four of the previous five seasons, that around was the Round of 32 before 2016 because of NCAA naming conventions.
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