Why the #1 seed North Carolina makes the Final Four:
5-5 against the RPI top 50. A catastrophic trip to Northern Iowa. A loss at home to The Most Despised of All Rivals (including a blown lead against, essentially, a 6-man team). These are all reasons why the selection committee could have very easily given North Carolina a 2 seed in this year’s tournament. But instead, they decreed that the Tar Heels, for all their inconsistencies, follies, and foibles, were the best team outside of Kansas, and they awarded them with the #2 overall seed. Why? Because this is a basketball team that just looks good. They look like a good basketball team on the court. They look like a good basketball team on paper, after winning the ACC regular season and tournament titles. And they look like a good basketball team standing around in a room with any other group 18-22 year-old humans, just an assemblage of long, lean, athletic guys with confidence and poise. The eye test favors this squad, and after a brilliant ACC tournament, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which this team loses.
For all the frustrations experienced by one-time-All-American point guard Marcus Paige or the injury woes of center Kennedy Meeks or any of the other problems this team has faced over the season, they will find themselves in the Final Four on the vast majority of brackets because they are simply a great team. Their frontline has tremendous size, and Brice Johnson in particular has turned into one of the best players in the nation, averaging a double-double and leading this team in scoring on 61% shooting. They have nearly unmatchable size and a point guard duo that are among the best in the country. If Joel Barry can continue his excellent play, and Paige can tap into the best version of himself and Johnson and Meeks and Justin Jackson can assert their sheer physical and athletic dominance over the rest of the field, this is a team that has very realistic national title aspirations, despite their tough regional. And lest we forget, they are coached by one of the century’s greatest, 2-time national champion and 7-time Final Four participant, ‘ole Roy Williams.
Why UNC won’t make the Final Four:
First and foremost, through no fault of their own, many analysts have the Tar Hells not even making it out of the Sweet Sixteen. The winner of a probably Kentucky-Indiana second round bloodbath (generally thought to be Kentucky) will await UNC, and will be no picnic to face. The Wildcats have the edge in the backcourt. And let’s take for granted the Tar Heels’ spot IN the Sweet Sixteen. In the very first weekend, they could potentially face one of the nation’s dynamic duos in Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, the anchors of a Providence team that is far more inconsistent than North Carolina. In back-to-back games, it’s quite possible that Joel Barry and Marcus Paige will be thoroughly overmatched, as they could very easily find himself facing up against Dunn and either Tyler Ulis or Yogi Ferrell before even reaching the Elite Eight.
But the Tar Heels themselves, like essentially every team in the nation this year, is not without its own potential for self-inflicted wounds. While a neutral-site win over Virginia and a road win over short-handed Duke are impressive victories in recent weeks, the Tar Heels’ best road win prior to the month of March was against Temple on a neutral court or perhaps against another #10 seed, Syracuse at the Carrier Dome. Marcus Paige, as I’ve mentioned, just isn’t the same this season, only garnering Honorable Mention honors in the ACC, and because of that, guard play may legitimately be an issue in a regional that has great guards like Ulis and Ferrell and Trevon Bluiett of Xavier and the pesky, pressing guards of West Virginia. UNC likes to play fast, but if they find themselves playing a team that likes to grind it out and limit possessions, and that team gets hot from distance, an area UNC has struggle to both produce in and defend against, the Tar Heels could be very susceptible to an upset. A team like Indiana could light them up from deep or a team like Kentucky could slow things down and match up with UNC’s size and athleticism very easily. This is a brutal regional, and I could see any of 5 teams (West Virginia, Xavier, Kentucky, Indiana, Providence) take a swipe at the mighty Tar Heels before all is said and done.
Best Non-#1 Seed: #3 West Virginia
The Mountaineers are widely renowned for their vaunted press, but they also have guys who can score the basketball and bang in the post, something they have lacked on past teams. This could be the Mountaineers team that finally puts it all together, the best in a long time in Morgantown. In the big wins department, West Virginia has many, proving that they can beat just about anyone, anywhere. They took down Kansas and Oklahoma (on a neutral floor), and swept Baylor, Iowa State, and Texas Tech. Aside from a rough performance against Florida, this team has looked remarkably consistent and has taken down just about every good opponent they have faced at one point or another. Their coach, Bob Huggins, is nearing legend status, but a championship would likely seal the deal. Devin Williams is a strong, skilled, savvy big man. Jaysean Paige is a crafty senior guard who leads the team in scoring. Daxter Miles Jr., Jevon Carter, and Jonathon Holton are all vital parts of the West Virginia press. This team may not have the size or athleticism of North Carolina or the star power of Kentucky, but the results are there, and they’ve been there all season long. This team is not going to bow out early, and they are not going to wilt against higher-seeded competition. They are an incredibly defensible pick to survive this crazy regional and make it to the Final Four.
Honorable Mention: #4 Kentucky
Sweet 16 Sleeper: #9 Providence
Despite what the resume and the metrics and the wins and losses say…Providence has talent. And talent wins basketball games. If there is a more talented inside-outside duo in the country than Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, I’m not sure I can think of it. The duo combines for 37.2 PPG, 13.3 RPG, 7.5 APG, 3.3 SPG, 1.7 BPG, and 2.5 3’s made per game. Why they staggered to a #9 seed this season is a mystery to me, even with some minor injury issues here and there, but we saw how good they can be in games against Villanova and Arizona. If the dynamic duo, and forward Rodney Bullock each have great games against the Tar Heels (after beating USC, of course), then they can certainly win that game and maybe more. Timing is everything in March, and though the arrow isn’t exactly trending sharply upward for this team, if they get hot at the right time, they can absolutely survive the first weekend.
Honorable Mention: #11 Tulsa
Final 4 Sleeper:
Many pundits have picked a big-time UK upset over #1 seed UNC in the Sweet Sixteen. Many pundits have slated the traditional 5-12 upset to come at the expense of the Hoosiers, who face a tough Chattanooga team in Round 1. I am not one of those pundits. Growing up in the state of Indiana, and, as a non-Indiana University fan, I have seen, time and time again, Yogi Ferrell win games that I desperately wanted him to lose, and succeed in situations where I really didn’t want him to succeed. He is one of the greatest point guards, the greatest seniors, and the greatest college basketball players in the country. No way will he let his last game be a loss against Chattanooga. But I don’t think the train stops there. This team has looked fantastic in its run to the Big Ten regular season title, and when their offense is on, there is little chance of slowing them down. Is their offense always “on” away from home? No, and we caught a glimpse of that in their Big Ten loss to Michigan. But a legendary senior point guard, a freshman big man figuring it all out at the right time in Thomas Bryant, and a hyper-athletic wing in Troy Williams lead a squad that can take down anyone when the shots are falling, and against a team like Kentucky, which doesn’t excel at defense, and a team like UNC, which doesn’t guard the perimeter well, a 3- or 4-game run is a real possibility for this Hoosier team, if they can simply outplay their opponents on offense and hold down the fort on defense. Ultimately, Yogi Ferrell is one of those senior players that just seems too good to let it all end before it’s meant to end.
Honorable Mention: #7 Wisconsin
Best First Round Matchup:
#3 West Virginia vs. #14 Stephen F. Austin
Will the outcome of this one be a surprise? I highly doubt it. Will it come down to the wire? Most likely not. But when Ken Pomeroy’s top 2 teams NATIONALLY in forcing turnovers meet one another, it’s bound to be a chaotic mess. So if chaos is something you value in a basketball game, look no further than this matchup of two squads that love to get in your face and turn you over. Who knows if this matchup will lead to ugly or sexy basketball, but I know I can’t wait to find out. Thomas Walkup is a criminally unheralded mid-major star for the Lumberjacks, and it will be interesting to see how close he can take his team to knocking off the Mountaineers.
Honorable Mention: #4 Kentucky vs. #13 Stony Brook
Top Potential Player Matchup:
In a tournament that has always belonged to the guards, two of the nation’s best point guards are very likely to collide, leading their teams, historic rivals of epic proportions, against one another in a tantalizingly possible Round of 32 matchup. Ferrell, the crafty, sharpshooting, experienced senior who has never sniffed a Final Four, versus Ulis, the under-sized-but-ultra-talented, super-athlete sophomore who is 1 for 1 in Final Four appearances in his college career. Both are their team’s most vital player, and either one can conceivably get the better of the other, depending on the day. And neither will draw any assignment than the opposing point guard, so they will be going at each other for nearly 40 minutes. Should be a fascinating matchup should it come to fruition. And these two guys are too good to not let it come to fruition.
Honorable Mention: Any combination of Marcus Paige, Kris Dunn, Yogi Ferrell, Tyler Ulis, Jaysean Paige and Demetrius Jackson
The easy choice here is Roy, the coach of the top team in this regional who has two titles under his belt. John Calipari would be another defensible pick, who himself a title and 6 Final Four appearances. And perhaps I’m showing too much love here to the Mountaineers already. But how about Bob Huggins, a guy who, unlike Roy Williams and John Calipari, isn’t able to bring in a new batch of potential one-and-done’s year in and year out? Huggins has made 7 Sweet Sixteen’s, 4 Elite Eight’s, and 2 Final Four’s at two different schools, West Virginia and Cincinnati, and he’s done it without the help of having a legendary program at his back with which to draw in all the nation’s best recruits. His last Final Four appearance, in 2010, was marked by that iconic moment of Huggins cradling the head of his star player, Da’Sean Butler after Butler went down with a knee injury in a loss to Duke; Huggins has his best team to return to that destination since that 2010 team. If I had to win one basketball game, I would just as soon consider asking Huggins to be my coach as I would Williams or Calipari. Just a great group of coaches in this regional.
Top 5 Pro Prospects:
1) Jamal Murray, Kentucky
You knew it wouldn’t take long. The first Kentucky player on this list is shooting guard Jamal Murray, an excellent scoring shooting guard who has been shooting the lights out lately. Potentially the best shooter in this draft, Murray will be a great pro and is already a great college player, leading the team in scoring with 20.1 PPG.
2) Kris Dunn, Providence
One of the best point guards in the country, Dunn has excellent size at 6’4”, 220 lbs., and great athleticism and skill. He’s a great college player and there’s no reason why his skills can’t translate to the NBA. He hasn’t been 100% consistent this season, but he’s the type of guy who can take over games on both ends of the floor. He attacks the basket well and can shoot it at an above-average level. This guy is more than ready for the pro ranks.
3) Skal Labissiere, Kentucky
It’s been a disappointing season for the center prospect, once touted as the “best player in this draft not named Ben Simmons.” He hasn’t been able to earn consistent starter’s minutes and has often looked lost or overwhelmed in the post. But his sheer potential alone has him still near the top of draft boards. He’s a great shooter, passer, and all-around scorer at age 19 (he turns 20 the day after the Wildcats take on Stony Brook), and his defensive instincts are already well-developed. It would be huge for him to put up solid numbers in a deep Kentucky run in this tournament.
4) Brice Johnson, UNC
Here’s a guy that just has all the physical tools you could ask for in a forward. He’s a long, lean 6’9” with incredible athleticism and a nose for the ball. He’s got a pretty complete offensive game with a consistent jumper out to about 15 feet, and he’s got great potential as a defender, though he currently could still improve in that area. He’s come on so strong in the latter half of this season, and there’s a lot to like about his game. It’s hard to see him not being successful at the next level.
5) Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
Ulis could jump onto this list (especially if he grows a few inches overnight), but another deadly point guard in Demetrius Jackson has earned this last spot. He’s a smooth, explosive point guard who plays a sound game as both a creator and a scorer. He’s not huge, and his team hasn’t had huge success this year, but with a 6 seed, a team like Notre Dame with a stud point guard could be poised to make a run. The foundation is there for Jackson to continue to develop into a solid pro point guard.