It’s been three decades since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, and five years since the play-in game model was expanded to create the “First Four.”
Adding teams sure hasn’t watered down the competition.
Some of the most competitive tournaments have happened in the last few years, at least in terms of average margin of victory. In fact, the 67 games during the 2012 edition were decided by fewer than 10 points per game, making it one of the closest tournaments in history.
This year could trump all of them.
Sure, Kentucky is a juggernaut. But the rest of the field is wide open, and there are plenty of lower seeds that could make a deep March run. And that means plenty of brackets could go bust by the time the first full slate of games on Thursday have reached their conclusions.
So who are the best bets and upset alerts? And which region is wide open, and in which one — other than the Midwest, of course — is the top seed secure? The Associated Press takes a look:
BEST BETS: Start with the No. 1 seeds. They ought to breeze through their opening games, and not just because No. 16 seeds have never won. Kentucky, Villanova, Wisconsin and Duke have been the class of college hoops all season, and all of them are playing well right now.
There are plenty of sure things seeded deeper down the bracket, though.
Third-seeded Notre Dame should have little trouble with Northeastern after its run to the ACC Tournament title. In fact, the Fighting Irish have become a trendy pick to reach the Elite Eight in the Midwest and a matchup with the mighty Wildcats.
“We enjoyed winning the ACC championship for a couple days,” Irish star Jerian Grant said, “but with leaders like me and Pat (Connaughton), I felt like we were able to get the team to focus on new goals. … Now we’re focused on doing something new.”
Iowa State, meanwhile, is another third-seeded best bet. The Cyclones are coming off a dramatic Big 12 Tournament championship, drew a favorable opening game against UAB in the South and should be heavily favored against SMU or UCLA, regardless of which team advances.
UPSET SPECIALS: This may be the year that the No. 5 seeds gain their revenge. All of them — West Virginia, Arkansas, Northern Iowa and Utah — are reasonable favorites, with the Mountaineers getting the shortest odds from the handicappers in Las Vegas.
Perhaps a better upset special is Eastern Washington, a No. 13 seed in the South. The Eagles are close to home in Portland, Oregon, while No. 4 seed Georgetown will travel cross-country. They feature the nation’s top scorer in Tyler Harvey and a fun, high-scoring offense.
No. 11 seed Texas could make a run, too, despite being among the last at-large picks. The Longhorns have a huge front line that could give sixth-seeded Butler all kinds of trouble.
“Regardless of how your year has gone, and some teams maybe have had surprising years, some teams maybe haven’t had the year they’d liked to have had, but when you get into this tournament, it’s a new start for everybody,” Longhorns coach Rick Barnes said.
GREAT WIDE OPEN: Top-seeded Duke got no favors with its draw in the South Region.
After the Blue Devils take care of their opening-round game, they’ll have to tangle with San Diego State or St. John’s. And beyond that, Utah looms as a potential pothole. Iowa State may be the tournament’s top 3-seed, and No. 2 seed Gonzaga is pining to finally reach the Final Four.
The other wide open region is the East, where Villanova is on the top line. Second-seeded Virginia had a strong case to a No. 1 seed in its own right, and Oklahoma and Louisville are dangerous. Most agree that Northern Iowa deserved far better than a No. 5 seed after winning the Missouri Valley Tournament, and even sixth-seeded Providence could make a run.
STRAIGHT CHALK: Kentucky is the obvious pick to emerge out of the Midwest Region, given its perfect record and the fact that the Wildcats will play their games in Louisville and Cleveland.
The West is another region where chalk could reign, though.
Wisconsin played well during its run to the Big Ten Tournament title, and Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker are an experienced handful. The Badgers also have a reasonably easy road to the Sweet 16, though their path gets a whole lot tougher should they make it that far.
That’s because second-seeded Arizona looms in their region. The Wildcats will also be heavy favorites to advance to the Sweet 16, and they would face the Badgers for a spot in the Final Four in Los Angeles before a crowd that could be heavily in their favor.
“Being a No. 1, you know, that doesn’t mean anything to me,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said earlier this week. “Been in too many of these things.”
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