With 64 teams that will be whittled down to one champion over the course of three weeks of basketball games played across the country, a completed March Madness NCAA Tournament bracket is a thing of beauty.
At least that’s the case until the first round of games tip-off around lunchtime on Thursday and the majority of brackets become marred with red lines as favorites go down in flames and Cinderellas remain on the floor in the Big Dance.
To keep your bracket as pristine as possible through the weekend and into the Sweet 16, we spoke with sportsbook director Tom Gable of the Borgata in Atlantic City about what he expects to see in the early-round actions across the East, West, South and Midwest regions and get his thoughts on potential upsets and likely locks. Also? A Final Four prediction including a national champion as well as some tips on straight-up wagers.
Overview: Baylor is the No. 1 here and Kentucky is the No. 2 with Purdue as the No. 3 and UCLA as the No. 4. The No. 5, St. Mary’s, just knocked off Gonzaga. That was a key win for them and they’re a great defensive team. They play at a slower pace and their metrics on defense are some of the best in the country. They’ll get the winner of the Wyoming-Indiana play-in game. I think it is going to be an ugly game against St. Mary’s for either Wyoming or Indiana I think the most interesting game here is No. 7 Murray State versus No. 10 San Francisco. I’d say either one of those teams would possibly have a chance to be a sleeper Sweet 16 team if they didn’t have to play Kentucky in the second round. Kentucky is just too good. This is a region where I feel the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds certainly should be able to make it into the Elite Eight and face off there for a Final Four berth. Baylor should have a path they can handle to get to that game against Kentucky. I don’t really see anyone standing in their way. UCLA could maybe give them a problem, but I think Baylor is the better team. I think getting to the Final Four is just going to come down to who is the better team out of Baylor or Kentucky.
Upset Alert: I feel like No. 11 Virginia Tech certainly has the ability to pull off an upset against No. 6 Texas. Virginia Tech is a great 3-point shooting team. Texas likes to slow it down and is a very defensive-minded team. Two contrasting styles. I also have Murray State-San Francisco as a pick’em game. It’s a 7-10 game, but these two teams are pretty evenly matched. I could see it going either way and San Fran could win.
Lock It Up: I don’t think Purdue will have any issue getting past Yale, the lone Ivy League school in the tournament. Offensively, Purdue is one of the best teams in the country. They not as great on defense, but they should have no issue dispatching Yale in if they are hitting their outside shots. If they face Texas in the second round it’ll be interesting because their defense could certainly limit Purdue. But there’s no question Purdue is one of the best offensive teams in the country.
Overview: At three-to-one to win it all, Gonzaga is the No. 1 overall seed but the selection committee really didn’t do them any favors putting them in the West Region. There are a lot of very difficult teams to manage in this region, starting with their second-round matchup which will be against the winner of the Boise State-Memphis game. Both of those teams pose a potential problem for Gonzaga. Boise State is a decent defensive team and they will certainly try to slow down the pace on Gonzaga. Memphis doesn’t always play together, they have tremendous talent and are certainly capable of playing with anybody when they do come together. You also have teams like Arkansas in there looming. They pose a problem for literally everybody in that bracket. Texas Tech is one of the best defensive teams in the country and will be a problem for anyone that they face. They could be a sleeper Final Four pick. Then you have Duke at the bottom as the No. 2 seed in the region. They haven’t really been fantastic lately, but this is still a very hard region for Gonzaga to come out of.
Upset Alert: Arkansas is a very good team even though they lost in the SEC semifinals kind of unexpectedly. But don’t sleep on the University of Vermont. They’re actually a very good basketball team. For a matchup of a No. 4 seed versus a No. 13 seed, the line is only 5.5. I make this a five-point game in my personal power ratings. I think Arkansas will eventually overwhelm UVM with their defense, but Vermont’s a very good team. I also like No. 10 Davidson vs. No. 7 Michigan State. They could certainly pull off an upset of Michigan State in the First Round. I think Davidson could potentially even upset Duke too.
Lock It Up: I really like No. 3 Texas Tech over No. 14 Montana State. Texas Tech is just a great team They are one of the best teams defensively and I don’t see Montana State getting many points at all. I could certainly see them being held in the 50s. The game also has a low total at 129.5, but I still think I’d play the under.
Overview: Arizona is the No. 1 seed here and Villanova is a No. 2. I feel like Tennessee should have gotten the No. 2 seed, but they are No. 3. They just won the SEC tournament and they’re a dangerous team. I have them power-ranked above Auburn, and they’re a No. 2 seed in the Midwest. My point in saying that is Tennessee is capable of making it to the Elite Eight. Villanova is a very, very complete team and they’re efficient on offense. I think they’re the best foul-shooting team in the country. That’s a big deal come tournament time. The thing I worry about with Villanova is head coach Jay Wright plays six or seven guys every game and that’s it. He has a very tight rotation and I worry about fatigue, especially as they get into the latter stages of the tournament. Arizona certainly is the class of this region. They’re dealing with an injury to their starting point guard and they’re hoping to have him back. I don’t think they’ll really need him for the first round or even the second. This is a very talented team on both ends of the floor. At No. 5, I really like Houston overall. They made it to the Final Four last year and certainly have the potential to match up with Arizona in the Sweet 16. But I see Arizona more than likely coming out of this region. Tennessee has a chance as does Villanova, but I think the class of the region by far is Arizona.
Upset Alert: Chattanooga as the No. 13 seed could certainly pull off a first-round upset of No. 4 Illinois. They’re a very good squad. Michigan at No. 11 is the lower seed going up against No. 6 Colorado State, but Michigan is the rightful favorite in that game. It certainly would not be a surprise if the No. 11 beats the No. 6 there in the First Round.
Lock It Up: I think Villanova will blow out Delaware. There’s also the Tennessee-Longwood game. Longwood is a decent squad for a mid-major. But they don’t have the firepower to hang with Tennessee. Tennessee should certainly win that by double digits.
Overview: Looking at the four regions, I think No. 1 Kansas probably has the easiest time of any of the top seeds based on who’s in the Midwest. I don’t feel like Auburn should be a No. 2 seed. When you take Auburn out of their home gym, they’re not the same team. When they go on the road, they play down to their competition. They were really lucky to escape with a few wins on the road this year against inferior opponents like Missouri and Georgia. Wisconsin should get by Colgate and then the winner of LSU-Iowa State. LSU just fired their coach right before the tournament and Iowa State has been leaking oil for a while. The game that I’m most interested in seeing in this region is the matchup between No. 4 Providence and No. 13 South Dakota State. South Dakota State is the top 3-point shooting team in the country in Division 1 basketball. Not many people know that. They also shoot well from all over the court. Providence was the Big East regular-season champion, but I’ve been trying to fade them all year because their analytics don’t look great.
Upset Alert: South Dakota State is absolutely capable of beating Providence. If they do, that’ll set up a second-round game against Iowa. Those two teams would just shoot threes at each other all game. South Dakota State can score 80 points as soon as they get off the bus. Defensively, they’re not that great. But they can score. Providence was the Big East regular-season champion, but I’ve been trying to fade them all year because their analytics don’t look great. Their metrics don’t look great. They’ve been a lot luckier than they should have been. They had more wins than they should have.
Lock It Up: Kansas in the first round and the rest of the region. I definitely think Kansas should be able to get to the Final Four. I don’t believe any of these teams, even Auburn and Wisconsin, are really in Kansas’ class.
I like Arizona in the South but I could also see Tennessee coming out of there as well. I like Kansas out of the Midwest but a longshot like Iowa could potentially do it. I actually like Kentucky to come out of the East over Baylor. They’re not as good as last year’s team. The West is difficult. I think Arkansas certainly has a chance to do it and Gonzaga obviously has a real shot to do it as well. They are the best team in the country I feel. Texas Tech has a decent shot at it too. Duke is a longshot. I think Gonzaga or Arkansas would be the best bet.
If I had to pick a final, I’d say Arizona versus Kentucky and Arizona ending up as champions.