The event that many sports fans across the country have been anxiously awaiting is right around the corner. March Madness will officially begin with the First Four games held March 19-20 in Dayton, Ohio. But before that can happen, there are still teams out there with games to win, conference championships to chase, and cases to make for why they should be in.
As many people begin to start thinking about what brackets will look like and who they think might make it all the way to Minneapolis for the Final Four, here are a few different areas that I’ll break down and give predictions on, including my projected Final Four, projected mid-major sleepers, and how Samford might be able to fit into this whole equation.
Final Four: The way I see it play out now, my final four includes Virginia, Tennessee, Duke and Gonzaga. All four of these teams have proven to be efficient across the board and possess the star power and personnel to make a deep run in the tournament.
Virginia’s only two losses of the season have both been to Duke. No one else in the country has a better defense than the Cavaliers, who limit their opponents to 54.1 points per game. Virginia also has an average margin of victory of 19.5 points, showing they know how to win convincingly. They are also extremely efficient with the basketball, having the fewest turnovers of any team in the country. They have seven wins over teams currently ranked in the top 25, and have been extremely successful in what has been another strong season overall for the ACC. Their excellent guard play with the combination of De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome should prove key for the Cavaliers. Another key for them will be avoiding a massive first-round upset. Brackets across the country last year were quickly destroyed when the Cavaliers lost to UMBC in one of the biggest first round upsets in recent history.
Although some people currently project the Volunteers as a two-seed, I expect Tennessee to beat Kentucky in the SEC Tournament and take over as a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Vols, who currently hold a record of 26-3, including 14-2 in SEC play, have five players who are averaging in double figures, including Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Williams and Schofield rank first and second respectively in the SEC in points per game, while Williams leads the team in points per game, rebounds per game, and steals per game. This Tennessee team has experience and can definitely score the basketball, ranking 16th in the country in points per game with 82. Some may question their defensive efficiency, as they rank 71st in the country in points given up. However, I think they will come out battle-tested after having played in what is looking to be an exciting SEC conference tournament.
Gonzaga always seems to be in this conversation, or at least for being considered a one-seed. Currently ranked as the No. 1 team in the country, the Zags have rolled through conference play, with their only losses of the season coming in back-to-back games against Tennessee and North Carolina. They lead the country with 89.8 points per game, rank first in field goal percentage, rank sixth in total rebounds, tied for 10th in fewest turnovers per game, and second in total assists. The Zags are a complete team across the board and definitely have the experience and talent to make it to the Final Four.
Coming into this season, the Duke Blue Devils were surrounding by the buzz drawn from the team’s star-studded class of freshmen including Zion Williamson, R.J Barrett, and Cam Reddish. Those three have contributed mightily to the Blue Devils’ success on the court this season. Barrett and Williams lead the ACC in scoring per game, with 23.1 and 21.6 points per game respectively. Both highly-touted freshmen, along with Cam Reddish, are projected to be top picks in the upcoming NBA draft this summer. The roster has talent from top to bottom that definitely has the potential for a deep run in the tournament. Two interesting things to watch for in the tournament will be Zion’s health and the ability to consistently hit the 3-point shot. Having missed a few games after leaving with an injury just seconds into the game against North Carolina, Zion Williamson will need to be on the floor and healthy if the Blue Devils plan on making it to the Final Four. He is a game changer, period.
Mid-Major Sleepers: One of the best parts each year about March Madness is the uncertainty of it all and the possibility that a team can come from out of nowhere and make an unforeseen run. Here are a few teams that I would definitely keep my eye on.
Wofford: Having seen them play in person, I can tell you that the Terriers play at a fast-paced tempo, move the ball extremely well, and shoot the ball lights out. Wofford is the favorite to win the Southern Conference Tournament after having finished the regular season 18-0 in conference play. The Terriers rank second in the country in 3-point percentage and are tied for 14th in points per game. Senior guard Fletcher Magee leads the country in made 3-point baskets, and he along with the rest of the perimeter shooting Wofford has could prove dangerous come tournament time. Having played a tough slate of non-conference games this season has also helped them prepare for the types of teams they will face down the road.
Belmont: Second to only Gonzaga in points per game with 88.3, the Bruins rank among the top 10 in multiple other offensive categories. Belmont moves the ball extremely well, ranking first in the country in assists per game at right around 20. Having not played any ranked teams this season, it will be interesting to see how they fare when playing tougher competition. They definitely have the system/personnel to give teams problems, as they will look to score in multiple different ways. Defense may be an issue against high-scoring teams, as they allow an average of 74 points per game, good for 248th in the country.
Buffalo: I anticipate Buffalo and Virginia meeting in the Elite Eight and the Bulls potentially giving the Cavaliers problems. Buffalo is ranked sixth in the country in points per game with 85.1. It will be interesting to see how they fare against the best defense in the country in Virginia. Buffalo is a team that also likes to attack the glass, which will be important in a game where possessions can be few and far between.
Samford: So, some of you may be asking, “How would Samford be able to make the tournament and how would they match up?” The answer to the first part is plain and simple. To make the NCAA Tournament, the Bulldogs would have to win next week’s Southern Conference Tournament in Asheville, North Carolina. That would be quite a tough task, seeing that both Wofford and Furman are the clear favorites to prevail and earn the conference’s bid.
If Samford was to somehow win the tournament and receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament, I see the Bulldogs being seeded somewhere around 14/15. This would pair them up with a three or four seed which would be a steep task. However, there are a few aspects to like about the Bulldogs’ game.
First, the post play of Ruben Guerrero and Robert Allen has been great all season, with Allen really catching on in the second half of the season. Both average close to eight rebounds per game and present a tough challenge for opposing teams. The Bulldogs have four players (Guerrero, Sharkey, Gordon, Austin) that double figures in scoring, and any of those players can go off on any given night. Point guard Josh Sharkey ranks third in the country in total assists, and the offense runs and flows through him. He is Samford’s floor general and really can make things happen when the ball is in his hands.
One thing is for sure about Samford; they are a tough team that will battle with the best of them. Having played multiple ranked opponents closely this year, coach Scott Padgett’s team knows what it takes to win and has faced top talent this year. If they were to make the NCAA Tournament, they might be a dangerous team thanks to their resiliency.