2019 NCAA Tournament: Sweet 16 Picks
The 68-team field for the 2019 NCAA tournament is set, with the selection committee revealing the bracket Sunday night. For just the third time in the 64/65/68-team era one conference claimed three of the four one-seeds, with Duke (East), Virginia (South) and North Carolina (Midwest) representing the ACC on the top line. Rounding out the quartet is WCC regular season champion Gonzaga, the top seed in the West.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
When judging the bracket most immediately look at the one-seeds and the final teams in the field, but the biggest beef may be just how much weight the committee gave to location. In the past there has been criticism in this area, with some believing that geography was being disregarded when the bracket was being put together. Among the infamous examples of this was the 2001 tournament, when Maryland, George Mason and Georgetown were all sent to Boise. Shortly thereafter the pod system was introduced, and in recent years even more efforts have been made to keep the protected seeds (1 through 4) closer to home.
In this year’s bracket Michigan State, the Big Ten regular season co-champion and tournament champion, received the short end of the stick because of this emphasis. Ranked sixth on the NCAA’s seed list the Spartans were placed in the regional that is closest to East Lansing after Tennessee (ranked fifth) was placed in the South. That region was the East, meaning that Tom Izzo’s team was paired with the top overall seed (Duke). Michigan, the lowest-ranked team on the two line, was sent West.
It’s tough to blame Michigan State if it feels hard done by, especially when it beat Michigan three times this season. But with geography being of far greater importance than the “S-curve” method that many seem to prefer, this is the hand that the Spartans have been dealt. Tennessee and North Carolina may also have geography-related issues with the bracket, as the Volunteers are looking at a potential second-round matchup with Cincinnati in Columbus, and the Tar Heels could play 4-seed Kansas in Kansas City should both teams reach the Sweet 16.
As for the bubble, the last four teams in the field were Belmont, Temple, Arizona State and St. John’s, with UNCG, Alabama, TCU and Indiana being the first four left out. UNCG’s chances went up in smoke Saturday night in Las Vegas, as Oregon’s win over Washington in the Pac-12 championship game gave that league a third bid while pulling an available at-large spot off the board. UNCG was 4-6 in Quadrant 1/2 games
The ranking of the first four teams out also shows that NC State wasn’t as close to the field as many believed after its win over Clemson in the second round of the ACC tournament. A non-conference strength of schedule ranking of 353, combined with a 9-9 conference record in which just one of its wins came against an NCAA tournament team (Syracuse), proved to be too much to overcome despite the strength of the ACC. That’s a consequence of this current era of collegiate athletics, as expansion has produced oversized leagues and unbalanced league schedules; one team’s 9-9 league mark may not be as strong as another’s.
With that all out of the way, here’s are some thoughts on each region beginning with the East.
East Region (Washington, D.C.)
Duke is the top overall seed in this year’s bracket, and the Blue Devils will begin their run against either North Carolina Central (the battle of Durham!) or North Dakota State. Zion Williamson being back is huge, but the loss of Marques Bolden could be an issue if he’s unable to return. Duke doesn’t have that much post depth, which could be an issue if it were to run into Mississippi State in the Sweet 16. That being said the Blue Devils received a decent draw on the way to the Final Four.
Upset possibility: 14-seed Yale over 3-seed LSU
The Tigers should be commended for what they’ve achieved this season, as the year began with the murder of forward Wayde Sims. For a team to carry the pain that comes with such a tragic event is unimaginable; and all LSU has done since is go on to win the SEC regular season title. Of course the program is also without its head coach, as Will Wade still refuses to discuss his being caught on a wiretap discussing an alleged payment made to lock down a recruit. That will be an issue for LSU, as will the matchup with a Yale team that not only does a good job of rebounding but also has an NBA prospect of its own in Miye Oni. While I’m not as high on the Bulldogs’ chances of winning this game as others appear to be, Yale has the ability to not just scare LSU but send them home.
Maryland has an opportunity, but can it capitalize?
Maryland received the 6-seed in the East, with the winner of the Belmont/Temple First Four game being the opposition. The Bruins have a high-level talent in senior wing Dylan Windler, and the return of center Nick Muszynski will undoubtedly benefit Rick Byrd’s team offensively due to his ability to both score and distribute the ball in the post. As for Temple, Fran Dunphy’s final team is led by the trio of Shizz Alston Jr., Quinton Rose and Nate Pierre-Louis. Whichever team advances can pose problems for Maryland, thanks to the Terps’ penchant for sluggish starts and turning the ball over. Expecting a team to fix issues that have been around for quite some time within a week is a lot, to say the least.
If Bruno Fernando, Anthony Cowan Jr. and company can pull this off, there’s the enticing prospect of playing the Sweet 16 (and Elite 8) not too far from campus. With the combination of the geography of this bracket and the roster (does Fernando come back for another season? Jalen Smith?), this sets up to be an opportunity that Maryland cannot afford to let slip from its grasp. I’m just not sure if they’ll be able to take advantage, unfortunately.
My Sweet 16: I went chalk here, with the top four seeds all reaching the nation’s capital. The Yale/LSU and Saint Louis/Virginia Tech first round games are intriguing, but ultimately the top four seeds get through the first weekend.
West Region (Anaheim, California)
Gonzaga is the fourth one-seed in the field, and also in the West are two teams in 2-seed Michigan and 4-seed Florida State who were in the region last year. In fact, as a 9-seed Florida State beat Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 before falling to Michigan in the Elite 8. Mark Few’s Bulldogs are the only team to be a full-strength Duke this season, doing so at the Maui Invitational (without Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall), but Gonzaga’s run through the WCC has led to some questioning just how ready they are for high-level competition. Texas Tech, which reached the Elite 8 last season, is the three seed in the West with Marquette and Buffalo being the five and six seeds.
Upset possibility: 10-seed Florida over 7-seed Nevada
To be fair this would be an upset only because Florida has underachieved for much of this season. Nevada is the oldest team in the field, and with the plethora of transfers on this roster the expectation in the fall was that Eric Musselman would be able to make full use of this deep roster. But that hasn’t been the case, as the Wolf Pack have used a rotation that goes about seven deep with seniors Caleb and Cody Martin and Jordan Caroline leading the way. Florida has some experience as well in seniors KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson and Kevarrius Hayes, but will they have the consistency? There seems to be at least one team that, after underwhelming in the regular season, gets hot at the right time and goes on a run. The Gators are capable of doing just that.
As for the other double-digit seeds, 12-seed Murray State will be a trendy upset pick thanks to the presence of Ja Morant at the point. But this matchup with Marquette isn’t a great one. First, Marquette has its own high-scoring guard in Markus Howard. Secondly, the Golden Eagles have depth on the perimeter and can use either Sacar Anim or Joseph Chartouny to defend Morant throughout the course of the game. Lastly, Murray State will also have to contend with a front court led by the Hauser brothers (Sam and Joey) and Theo John. This game should be entertaining, but I like Marquette to advance.
Of the two 11-seeds I give Arizona State the better odds of winning a game beyond Dayton, and a matchup between Bobby Hurley and his last employer (Buffalo) would be intriguing. But Buffalo has been outstanding all season long, and after whipping Arizona last March Nate Oats’ team is capable of getting out of the first weekend.
My Sweet 16: More chalk here. But this is a region where the surprises come next weekend in Anaheim. Gonzaga matched up better with Florida State this season than it did last due in large part to the addition of Brandon Clarke, but I really like the way that Leonard Hamilton’s team has played over the last month. And Texas Tech taking on Michigan would be an absolute slugfest, with the Red Raiders having the projected lottery pick in Jarrett Culver.
South Region (Louisville, Kentucky)
One year removed from making history with its first-round loss to UMBC as a 1-seed, Virginia is back on the top line. And they’ve been paired with the best 16-seed in the field, Gardner-Webb. Unlike last season Tony Bennett’s team is completely healthy (De’Andre Hunter didn’t play vs. UMBC) this time around, and there are more options on the offensive end of the floor as a result. Having Kihei Clark affords Ty Jerome the opportunity to play off the ball, and Kyle Guy is a big-shot maker. The Cavaliers will have some pressure on them due to the lack of a Final Four trip during this run of success, and this group could be similar to the 2016 Villanova squad that broke through and went on to win the title.
Tennessee, Purdue and Kansas State round out the top four seeds, with Kansas State unsure as to whether or not Dean Wade (foot) will be able to play. If he can’t go that first round matchup with UC Irvine gets even trickier than it already was; the Anteaters defend at a high level and are very balanced offensively.
Upset possibility: 12-seed Oregon over 5-seed Wisconsin
Oregon has been on fire of late, winning eight straight including four at the Pac-12 tournament to punch its ticket. And the shift has been on the defensive end of the floor, as Dana Altman’s team has used full court pressure and a variety of looks in the half court to shut down opponents. Oregon has options on the perimeter, led by Payton Pritchard, and inside the presence of Kenny Wooten and Francis Okoro will help them deal with Ethan Happ and Nate Reuvers. Not only do I think Oregon wins this game, but I think they get to the second weekend. Losing Bol Bol early in the season hurt, but eventually Oregon was able to figure out how it needed to play to be successful.
UC Irvine and 14-seed Old Dominion are also capable of springing an upset in the first round, with the Monarchs facing Purdue. Carsen Edwards is outstanding, and Purdue exceeded expectations by winning a share of the Big Ten regular season title. But the Boilermakers aren’t invincible, and playing against a stingy team like ODU that can slow tempo to a crawl can be tough. And in B.J. Stith and Ahmad Caver, ODU has two quality guards that most of the nation doesn’t hear enough about.
My Sweet 16: Virginia, Oregon, Villanova and Tennessee. This feels like the region that could produce a major surprise, and while Oregon hails from a higher-profile league the Ducks would qualify. Villanova could have some issues with Saint Mary’s, but ultimately their seniors do enough to get the Wildcats out of the first weekend. Tennessee didn’t look all that good against Auburn, but that said more about the matchup (Auburn has won each meeting over the last two seasons) than it did Tennessee’s chances of reaching the Final Four.
Midwest Region (Kansas City, Missouri)
North Carolina is the top seed in the Midwest, and the Tar Heels could have to deal with a Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas in the Jayhawks’ back yard if both teams get out of the first weekend. Seniors Cam Johnson, Luke Maye and Kenny Williams provide the leadership for Roy Williams’ team, and point guard Coby White has in the eyes of some surpassed Nassir Little as the team’s best NBA prospect. North Carolina may end up posting the highest margin of victory for a 1-seed in this tournament; North Carolina likes to run, and while Iona has improved somewhat defensively they are still an offense-first team that isn’t particularly deep. Uh oh, Gaels.
Rounding out the top four seeds are Kentucky, Houston and Kansas, and there are four teams in the top eight seeds that won their conference tournaments in 5-seed Auburn, 6-seed Iowa State, 7-seed Wofford and 8-seed Utah State. Wofford received the highest seed ever for a Southern Conference team, and they’ll face 10-seed Seton Hall in the first round. Fletcher Magee vs. Myles Powell…don’t miss it.
Upset possibility: 13-seed Northeastern over 4-seed Kansas
This year’s Kansas squad isn’t as good as what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the Bill Self era, thanks to the combination of injuries (Udoka Azubuike) and NCAA issues (Silvio De Sousa) in the front court, and LaGerald Vick won’t be back after leaving the team last month. Dedric Lawson is an elite talent in the front court, and Kansas still has options, but Northeastern has a shot here. Vasa Pusica is a tough point guard, and Bill Coen’s team defends well while also boasting four double-digit scorers on the perimeter. Didn’t pick this upset on my bracket, but it’s a game to keep an eye on.
Among the other double-digit seeds Seton Hall, a tough group that exceeded expectations after losing an very good senior class last season, can make some noise. If they get past Wofford, Kentucky would likely be next, and the Pirates beat the Wildcats on a Myles Cale three in December. Kentucky’s a different team now but so are the Pirates, as players such as Cale and Sandro Mamukelashvili have stepped up to aid star guard Myles Powell. 12-seed New Mexico State has an interesting matchup with Auburn, as the Aggies defend and rebound well and are balanced offensively, and 14-seed Georgia State doesn’t lack for talent either with D’Marcus Simonds being a bona fide NBA prospect.
My Sweet 16: North Carolina, Auburn, Iowa State and Kentucky. Taking the two powerhouses and two teams in Auburn and Iowa State that enter the tournament playing their best basketball of the season.
Raphielle’s been writing about college sports for more than a decade, making the move to college basketball alone in 2013. Beginning his work with the former website CollegeHoops.net in 2003, Raphielle spent 3 years writing for NBCSports.com beginning 2013, covering CBB and the Olympics. In 2016, Raphielle joined Heavy.com. If there’s a game on, there’s a strong likelihood that he’s watching it.