In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament kicked off earlier today. Unlike last year’s tournament, when Louisville was considered the clear favorite to win the whole thing, this year March Madness seems to feature a little more parity.
But the biggest story (at least among a group of my friends and I) is that the Virginia Cavaliers did a few things this year that they have never done in my lifetime. They won an outright regular season ACC title, then went on to defeat Florida State, Pitt (who was ranked most of the year), and the seventh-ranked Duke Blue Devils to win the ACC tournament. After Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski got T’ed up for throwing his pen in frustration, he threw everything he had at the Wahoo defense, but it wasn’t enough as UVa claimed a 72-63 win over the Blue Devils. The cherry on top was the Cavs’ earning a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament’s West region hours later. Let’s take a look at the bracket the NCAA put Virginia in, and see what our chances are to get through this region.
Virginia’s best player is senior guard Joe Harris, but the great thing about this team is that there is not one dominant player. Everyone on the team seems capable of going off for a big game, even if others are struggling. Sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon, for instance, hit a miracle three to beat Pitt earlier in the season and has been a high scorer, and freshman point guard London Perrantes has developed a great shooting touch from long range, in addition to being a capable facilitator on offense. Add in forwards Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey, and Anthony Gill, and the Cavaliers are a force down low as well. Perhaps what Virginia does best is play defense; they’ve been among the top three defensive teams statistically all year.
Personally, I think Virginia is virtually assured of a berth in the Sweet Sixteen, as Coastal Carolina doesn’t at all appear capable of beating us, nor do the two teams we might face in the second round, Memphis and George Washington. Virginia has suffered only one truly bad loss this year, to Maryland in the season finale. But even Maryland was ranked 36th in Ken Pomeroy’s power rankings, a popular measure of relative team strength (Maryland, incidentally, is the highest-ranked team not in the NCAA or NIT fields). George Washington, Memphis, and Coastal are ranked 41st, 42nd, and 216th in these rankings, respectively, so I don’t see us losing to them.
Things start to get interesting once they get past the first two rounds. Michigan State is largely thought of as the team to beat in the Hoos’ region, and with good reason. MSU was in the top five in the preseason but hasn’t put up the world’s greatest stats due to injuries. Their team is finally all healthy at the same time, and looks capable of making a deep run. This team is the elephant in the room for UVa. The Spartans play a similar hard-nosed, physical style as Virginia, and are a tick better on offense. If Virginia’s “pack-line” defense can limit their opportunities, I think the Hoos have a chance to win.
If Virginia can get past Michigan State, the region could open up for them. None of the other teams in it are as complete a team as Virginia. 2-seed Villanova is coming off an embarrassing defeat in the finals of their conference tournament to Seton Hall, who was lucky to finish .500 this year. Villanova’s defense is not as good as Virginia’s, but their offensive ranking is similar. I think UVa could hold them down enough to win. 3-seed Iowa State boasts a bona fide star in guard DeAndre Kane, but the Cavaliers’ supporting cast is better. 6-seed UNC has already lost to Virginia this season by double digits, and has seemed just as capable of huge wins (Louisville, Michigan State on the road) as bad losses (Wake Forest, Miami, UAB). If their good side shows up, they could be dangerous. And we don’t even need to talk about 5-seed Cincinnati, since Harvard just upset them in their first-round game.
The East region also doesn’t feature many lower seeds that look capable of going on a Cinderella run. Harvard’s win was impressive, but they don’t have the look of a party crasher to me. I thought St. Joseph’s might be a candidate, but they just lost to UConn, whom I think was overseeded at 7 and would be overmatched against Virginia.
If Virginia indeed makes the Final Four, the possibilities are endless in terms of who they could play. The most likely teams to come out of the South region are probably Florida, UCLA, and Syracuse. Florida is built very similar to UVa; no standout stars, but many good players. They are probably the most complete team in the entire field. Syracuse finally has all their players back (though UVa did beat them by nearly 20 points), and UCLA has many athletic playmakers. Dark-horse contenders from that region include Stephen F. Austin, which some have claimed could go on a Florida Gulf Coast-style run, and Dayton, which just upset 6-seed Ohio State.
Simply put, while I didn’t pick Virginia to win the entire tournament, I certainly think they are capable of it. There isn’t a single team in the field that they can’t possibly beat, and March Madness is about as unpredictable as the stock market. For the record, I do have Virginia in my Final Four, because I think some teams may be tempted to take them a little lightly and regard them as the weakest #1 seed. Those teams will do so at their peril.
If you’re curious, here are my brackets:
Final Four: Florida, Virginia, Wisconsin, Duke
Championship: Florida over Wisconsin
Final Four: UConn, Stanford, Notre Dame, Louisville
Championship: UConn over Notre Dame
Final Four: SMU, Green Bay, Utah, Florida State
Championship: SMU over Utah