NCAA tournament primer: Here’s (not quite) all you need to know

All right, we’ve had a few days to digest the NCAA tournament bracket. And, it’s nice to be able to say, to get over our gripes with the selection committee.

Such as — just a harmless example — a fine, high-achieving Illinois State team being left on the outside looking in so that one more big-league scrub could get in. Other than USC fans, assuming there are any, who wouldn’t rather watch the gung-ho Redbirds than the half-interested Trojans?

Or a proven program such as Wichita State, which bested Illinois State for the Missouri Valley title, being insulted with a No. 10 seed. The Shockers won 30 games. They went 17-1 in MVC play and won their conference tournament. But 15-loss Vanderbilt is a No. 9 seed? Is that supposed to be some kind of a sick, twisted joke?

And — for the love of all that’s holy — how is it that Wisconsin, which went 2-0 against Minnesota this season, finished higher in the Big Ten standings and advanced further in the conference tournament, is a No. 8 seed while the Gophers are a No. 5? Any chance the selection-committee members are the geniuses behind Common Core math?

UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball has been at the center of the college basketball conversation all season. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

OK, so maybe we’re still a tiny bit sore.

Let’s just get on with it.


1. South

Top-seeded North Carolina won the ACC regular-season title, and excellence like that can’t be faked. No. 2 Kentucky is, well, Kentucky, kind of like Alabama is Alabama in football. No. 3 UCLA has its best collection of talent since the Final Four years of Darren Collison, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. No. 4 Butler beat defending national champion Villanova, the No. 1 seed in the East, twice this season.

Watch out for

The best No. 6 (Cincinnati) and No. 10 (Wichita State) seeds in the tournament. Some of us have the Shockers taking down Kentucky in the second round.

The big question

Is Lonzo Ball up for this? UCLA’s endlessly hyped freshman point guard might have to contend with, in order, Cincinnati’s hellacious defense, Kentucky’s spectacular backcourt and North Carolina defensive stopper Theo Pinson.

2. East

Villanova is the team with the best statistical probability (15 percent) of winning the tournament, according to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site. Yet No. 2 seed Duke is on a roll and undoubtedly a favorite of bracket pickers (including yours truly). There are outstanding coaches — Baylor’s Scott Drew, Virginia’s Tony Bennett, South Carolina’s Frank Martin, Wisconsin’s Greg Gard, Virginia Tech’s Buzz Williams — up and down the line.

Watch out for

A possible second-round matchup of Duke and Marquette, which is coached by former Blue Devils point guard Steve Wojciechowski. Marquette is the only team other than Butler to beat Villanova this season.

The big question

Can Jay Wright, Josh Hart and the Wildcats find the level they reached last March? They’re not quite there yet.

3. Midwest

How is No. 1 seed Kansas supposed to get to the Final Four? The second round might bring Tom Izzo’s Michigan State March machine. Next up might be Purdue, the Big Ten’s best team, or Big 12 tournament winner Iowa State, which might be an even tougher opponent. After all that, how does a date with Rick Pitino and No. 2 seed Louisville sound?

Watch out for

No. 3 seed Oregon. The Ducks were in contention for a No. 1 seed until they lost the Pac-12 tournament final, which came on the heels of a season-ending injury to key player Chris Boucher. But this still might prove to be the best team in this regional.

The big question

Can Michigan keep its run alive? The Wolverines were dynamite down the stretch and in the Big Ten tournament.


4. West

How well do we really know No. 1 seed Gonzaga? Early-season victories against Florida, Iowa State and Arizona were enormously impressive, but perhaps playing in the less-than-big-time West Coast Conference has dulled the Bulldogs’ quality somewhat. Speaking of Arizona, the Wildcats are the No. 2 seed and playing out of this world. A Notre Dame-Northwestern Elite Eight matchup? Sure, we’ll take it.

Watch out for

The Irish. Led by Mike Brey, the most underrated coach in America, they’re just plain money at this time of year. They can get to the Elite Eight again, maybe even the Final Four. Northwestern? Seems like a reach.

The big question

A Gonzaga-Arizona rematch? Fans in Chicago might not love it, but it would be spectacular. And the Wildcats would have a great shot at revenge.

And now, because we just talked about Gonzaga — and to prepare us for the next section of this preview — let’s enjoy the 40-point explosion by Davidson’s Stephen Curry in the 2008 NCAAs:




The three-point shot is the very lifeblood of March Madness. Other than in No. 1-vs-No. 16 matchups, any team that gets hot from long range can shoot down its opponent. We’ve seen it more times than we can count through the years. By threes made per game, the elite eight ‘‘long shots’’ in the field:

1. Marquette (10.5): Ironically, Wojo wasn’t much of a shooter himself at Duke.

2. Princeton (10.0): Devin Cannady and Spencer Weisz fire at will.

3. Iowa State (10.0): At least Fred Hoiberg’s former team can make them now and then.

4. Vanderbilt (9.9): Luke Kornet is the Commodores’ best-known player, but Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance are the true marksmen.

5. UCLA (9.9): Bryce Alford never met a shot attempt he didn’t like.

6. Iona (9.8): A No. 3-vs.-No. 14 upset? Oregon had better be careful with the Gaels.

7. UNC Wilmington (9.6): A No. 12-vs.-No. 5 upset? They happen all the time. Virginia’s pack-line defense will be stressed.

8. Winthrop (9.5): The Eagles were 10-for-22 in their upset victory at Illinois in November.




Remember, the higher-seeded team isn’t always favored to win. That’s the reality of these four matchups:

South: No. 5 Minnesota vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee

After so much talk for weeks on end about what a great season it has been for the Gophers, they’re actually one-point underdogs against the Blue Raiders, who rocked Michigan State’s world in the first round a year ago.

South: No. 7 Dayton vs. No. 10 Wichita State

The Shockers are favored by six points.

West: No. 8 Northwestern vs. No. 9 Vanderbilt

No respect at all for the Big Ten. The Commodores are one-point favorites.

Midwest: No. 6 Creighton vs. No. 11 Rhode Island

It’s a pick-’em. If that means a game that goes down to the wire, we’ll sure as heck take it.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.