Despite bowing out early in the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana was awarded the East Regional’s top seed, and their opening round matchup against the play-in winner (either Long Island or James Madison) should be little more than an exhibition. The Hoosiers simply have too much depth, talent and superior coaching. The Hoosiers road then becomes considerably more difficult however, with a second-round meeting versus either N.C. State or Temple, the 8-9 seeds. N.C. State, in particular, has the makings of a tough matchup, with a starting five as talented as any nationally. In the other sub-regional bracket, 5th-seeded UNLV takes on the 12th-seeded Cal Golden Bears. The Runnin’ Rebels are loaded with talent, especially freshman Anthony Bennett. Cal’s defense holds the key to advancement, and coach Mike Montgomery has plenty of NCAA experience. 4th-seed Syracuse has a history of overlooking first-round opponents, and this season’s foe is Montana, the 13-seed. It’s difficult to believe that Jim Boeheim won’t have the Orangemen prepared however. On the other side of the East bracket. #2-seed Miami, fresh off their program-defining ACC Championship, faces an under-publicized Pacific squad. The Hurricanes surely didn’t make it this far to come up lacking now. Their potential next opponent will be either Illinois, the #7-seed, or #10-seed Colorado. An upset (at least seed-wise) by the Buffaloes wouldn’t come as a shocker. The other East sub-regional features an interesting matchup between the Marquette Golden Eagles and Davidson. Both are deliberate, walk-it-up teams, and the team that finds their shooting eye more successfully should advance to play either 6th-seeded Butler or Bucknell, the 11-seed. Butler’s recent NCAA experience should give them an advantage, and coach Brad Stevens ALWAYS has the Bulldogs ready.
Being a No. 1 seed has advantages, and one of them is usually playing close to home early on. Such is the case with Kansas, who open in Kansas City against the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky. This should be as easy a “no-brainer” as the first-round offers. The always entertaining 8-9 matchup features Roy Williams’ always-dangerous North Carolina squad against a nearly equally tough team, Villanova. The Tar Heels have been living and dying by the three-pointer recently, and how well ‘Nova defends the trifecta should hold the key. Shaka Smart’s swarming band of VCU Rams takes on the Akron Zips in the 5-12 matchup, which promises plenty of up-and-down action. In the other sub-regional contest, Michigan, playing virtually at home in Auburn Hills, should spoil South Dakota State’s second-ever Tournament appearance, although the Jackrabbits gave Baylor all they could handle last season. The South Regional’s other half features an interesting mixture of past champions (Georgetown, Florida, UCLA) and relative newcomers (Northwestern State, Florida Gulf Coast). The Hoyas welcome FGC to the Party, and it could get ugly. Their next opponent comes from either the San Diego State Aztecs or Oklahoma. SD State has made some noise in the Tournament in recent years, and should handle the Sooners. Florida’s upset loss in the SEC Tourney relegated the Gators to a three-seed and a meeting with 14th-seeded NW State. Billy Donovan’s talent-laden squad will be eager to atone for losing to Ole Miss. The young and talented UCLA Bruins, sixth-seeded but playing without injured Jordan Adams, will more than have their hands full against 11th-seeded Minnesota. An upset here is almost expected.
Mark Few’s Zags finally earned a top seed after years of “close but no cigar” assignments. Talented, experienced and extremely well-coached, expect them to dispatch of Southern fairly easily. The 8-9 matchup promises both a competitive game between Pittsburgh and Wichita State, as well as a tough matchup with Gonzaga in Round 2. Pitt’s size and depth should prevail. One of the first-round’s more unlikely matchups occurs with fifth-seeded defensively-minded Wisconsin taking on the freewheeling Ole Miss Rebels. Marshall Henderson of the Rebels is talented and fearless, but he’s also never faced a defense like Bo Ryan’s, and the Badgers should persevere. Hard-playing Kansas State will face the winner of the play-in game between Boise State and La Salle. Bruce Weber’s ‘Cats were embarrassed in the Big-12 title game and will be itching for some payback. The West’s other sub-regional tips off with Big Ten champion Ohio State matched up with the Iona Gaels in Dayton; that’s in Ohio by the way. Thad Matta’s talented group will then take on either Notre Dame or Iowa State. An upset by Fred Hoiberg’s Cyclones wouldn’t surprise most observers. In the opposite sub-regional, Steve Alford’s New Mexico team has been touted as a sleeper nearly all season, and going against Ivy League champion Harvard gives them the opportunity to prove it. Next up for the Lobos should be the 6th-seeded Arizona Wildcats, although they will have to get by a hungry Belmont squad that’s 0-5 in NCAA Tournament play and is ready to change that zero.
Probably the strongest region overall, the Midwest features no less than six former national champions and four former National Coaches of the Year. The tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the Louisville Cardinals, captured the Big East Tournament title and is as well-suited as anyone to hoist the trophy on April 8 in Atlanta. Their first test comes against North Carolina A&T, which they should pass easily. Up next comes the winner of Colorado State-Missouri, with Missouri probably favored, but they’ve got a history of under-achieving in March. The PAC-12 champion Oregon Ducks, disappointed at receiving only a 12th-seed, will be looking to make the doubters believe, but they have to get by Oklahoma State and super-freshman Marcus Smart first. The Ducks interior play should help them advance. The Billikens of Saint Louis come in with their highest seed ever, a No. 4, and coach Jim Crews’ savvy, experienced squad should have no trouble with New Mexico State. The Midwest’s other sub-regional gives us the #2-seeded Duke Blue Devils and 15th-seed Albany, one of the tournament’s biggest mismatches. Coach K’s team then will have to take on either Creighton and Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott or the Cincinnati Bearcats. This should be among the more entertaining first-round matchups, with Creighton able to score against anyone but offering very little defensive resistance, while Cincy is almost their polar opposite, defensively strong but offensively-challenged. Josh Pastner’s 6th-seeded Memphis squad will have to rely on their elite athleticism against play-in winner St. Mary’s, an intelligent, make-few-mistakes squad led by the Australian do-it-all Matthew Dellavedova. An upset here would not be out of the question. Tom Izzo has been here a few times before, and his Michigan State Spartans should prevail, although not overwhelmingly against 14th-seeded Valparaiso.