Sleepers, Snubs and Stats: 18 Things to Know About the 2018 NCAA Tournament Bracket
So the tournament didn’t get off to the best start. The selection show’s new format was widely panned; it began with a tedious alphabetical reading of all the automatic qualifying schools, which was literally the only thing that anyone watching could know before tuning in, and while the announcement of the full 68-team field before the actual bracket allowed every bubble question to be answered up front, it meant 20 minutes went by before we knew who anyone would be playing or where.
The good news: nothing this time of year lasts very long. By the time we’ve all caught our breath from shouting about one game’s dramatic finish, our collective attention is already turning toward the development of another. And so it is with Selection Sunday gripes. Once the bracket is revealed, the fun begins immediately. Well, except for those teams left out in the cold.
Anyway, with the big reveal now in the books, here are 18 thoughts on the 2018 NCAA tournament bracket.
1. It feels like there might be some separation after all. Maybe it’s just me, but after a season of talk about how there were no great teams and everything was wide open, the bracket as seeded seems to... make sense. The No. 1 and 2 seeds generally have some separation from the pack. Virginia and Villanova in particular look like they might be great after all; Kansas showed it’s still Kansas; Duke’s once-disjointed defense has started to catch up to its offense; North Carolina is making a strong push after an up-and-down year. On my first run through the bracket, it was hard to avoid a pretty chalky Elite Eight. Here’s hoping things are a bit more unpredictable than that.
2. Kansas looks to have the hardest draw for a No. 1. They would only have to face one of them, but both Duke and Michigan State—the top two teams in the preseason AP poll, a better predictor of tourney success than the end-of-season poll—are in the Jayhawks’ region and represent, based on efficiency metrics, the best teams on both the No. 2 and No. 3 seed lines. By that same measure, Kansas is actually the third best team in the Midwest (a distinction also true of No. 1 seed Xavier in the West), and Auburn is the bracket’s second best No. 4.
3. Villanova has the easiest. This is always a misleading label because no path is really ever all that easy, short of the bracket getting truly busted by an unruly run of upsets. But the three next top seeds in the East (Purdue, Texas Tech, and Wichita State) are all in the middle or back end of their seed lines and none appear to be particularly under-seeded. They’re good teams, but there isn’t necessarily a top title contender among them.
4. The Magic Eight had an anti-West bias. A month ago I made my first attempt at SI.com’s Magic Eight tradition, selecting a group of eight teams (within a set of requirements) from which the national champion would emerge. If the Magic Eight is to be believed (and why wouldn’t it be?) the odds are against the West producing a champ, as only one of its teams made the list, and it’s fourth-seeded Gonzaga. The Midwest has three (Kansas, Duke, Michigan State) and East (Villanova and Purdue) and South (Virginia and Arizona) each have two.
5. Arizona might be left alone to carry the Pac-12 mantle. Only three teams from the league ended up making the field and two of them—Arizona State and UCLA—will be playing games in Dayton just to reach the Round of 64. A year ago the Pac-12 sent just one more team, but three of them were top-three seeds. This year only the Wildcats, a No. 4 seed in the South, are in a good position to reach the second weekend.
6. The Big Ten: low in quantity, but potential for quality. Only four Big Ten teams made the field, the lowest number in a decade. And while none are a No. 1 seed, the league does offer a No. 2 (Purdue), two No. 3s (Michigan and Michigan State), and a strong No. 5 (Ohio State). All four surviving the weekend, leaving the Big Ten with 25% of the Sweet 16, wouldn’t be far-fetched, and would make up for what has been a down year for the conference. But easier said than done.
7. Mid-majors will be missed. A record five major-conference teams with losing records in league play received at-large invites, two more than the previous high. Meanwhile, Saint Mary’s (28–5, 28th in overall efficiency) and Middle Tennessee (27–4, 52nd) were sent to the NIT, the latter snub resulting in the sad scene of Nick King sitting alone in the Blue Raiders’ film room an hour after the field was announced. Middle Tennessee wasn’t even among the first four out. That’s a shame.
8. Yes, the FBI-ensnared bubble teams were all left out too. Many observers were quick to point out that the three teams on the bubble who have been implicated in the FBI’s investigation in recruiting—USC, Louisville, and Oklahoma State—all failed to receive invites. (The latter two were not even among the first four out.) None of those exclusions are eyebrow-raising by the typical standards of such things, but hey, narratives are fun.
9. The South Regional could finish with a football score. If we may get ahead of ourselves for a moment, the potential for an Elite Eight meeting between top seeds Virginia (the country’s most efficient defense) and Cincinnati (the No. 2) is delightful. The Hoos rank 351st (out of 351 teams) in tempo. The Hoos allowed 53.4 points per game. The Bearcats allowed 57.1. Neither team has an elite offense. This could be fun, if not necessarily easy to watch. Get your pointing Spider-man memes ready.
10. Rhode Island vs. Oklahoma is a great way to kick off the first round. With all due respect to the First Four in Dayton, the 12:15 p.m. Thursday time slot is when March Madness truly gets underway. The choice of Trae Young’s Sooners against a talented and entertaining Rams team is a great way to kick things off.
11. Kentucky didn’t get screwed. John Calipari had his usual Sunday night phone call, complaining in an ESPN interview about the distance of the Wildcats’ first-round site in Boise and saying he had to ask his players if they even knew in which state they would be playing. But considering Kentucky was a No. 5 seed and thus would be playing at a location where the No. 4 was given geographical preference, the only other option was San Diego, which is hosting two other No. 4/5 seed pods, since Boise is also hosting the fourth 4/5 pod. Auburn and Wichita State are a seed line higher than Kentucky and being sent even farther. It happens.
12. If any of these No. 16 seeds are to pull off a miracle, put your faith in Penn. “Faith,” of course, being a very, very, very relative thing. The Quakers’ road to beating Kansas is at least somewhat rational: the Jayhawks have become a three-point shooting team and Penn defends the arc very well (both in limiting opportunities and opponents’ inaccuracy), and Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike is recovering from a knee strain that forced him to miss the Big 12 tournament. Kenpom.com also gives Penn a win probability of 11%. That’s one-in-nine. Just saying.
13. Stylistically, Wichita State may have the toughest first weekend. The fourth-seeded Shockers must first play uptempo, three-happy Marshall, coached by Dan D’Antoni (brother of Mike), then have a potential one-day turnaround before facing the extreme full-court pressure of West Virginia. That’ll be quite a prep and scouting challenge for Gregg Marshall’s staff.
14. Pittsburgh will look like a green room preview. Five players projected by SI to be lottery picks in this June’s NBA draft will be playing in Pittsburgh: Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter, Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, Oklahoma’s Trae Young and Alabama’s Collin Sexton. Plus Duke’s other three starters (Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr.) and Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson are potential first-rounders as well.
15. The left side No. 4s are tempting. Assuming your bracket has the South and West on the left side, like the official one, that half of the bracket has two No. 4 seeds that hold some appeal as arbitrage/darkhorse Final Four contenders: Arizona, which has national title talent including the country’s best big man, and Gonzaga, which is eighth nationally in overall efficiency—12 spots higher than the next best No. 4 seed, Wichita State. If you’re looking to really mix it up, that may be where to look.
16. If you’re looking for a second weekend crasher, consider Missouri. The Tigers were an NCAA tournament team without Michael Porter Jr., and now they’ve potentially got one of the best players in the country—if he’s healthy. (More on that below.) Plus the No. 1 seed they would draw second round, Xavier, is a relatively vulnerable 59th in defensive efficiency. But first Mizzou will have to beat Florida State without senior forward Jordan Barnett, who was suspended for the Tigers’ first-round game after being arrested on suspicion of DWI over the weekend.
17. Or this could be the year of the 10 seeds. All are major-conference teams that offer some Sweet 16 appeal: Oklahoma (with perhaps the national player of the year), Texas (a top-10 defense and lottery-pick center), Butler (25th nationally in overall efficiency), and Providence (fresh off a Big East finals run where they took Villanova to OT).
18. Something you just read is going to look really dumb. And probably something else too. And another thing. But that’s the fun of March.
If you are wondering what exactly you are reading, this is the Monday Rebound, SI.com’s weekly Monday column on college hoops. It’s a sort of a grab-bag of news and tidbits and opinions largely aimed at catching you up on the weekend’s (and week’s) action and being generally informative. If there’s anything you like or dislike or would want to see more of here, or if you would just like to make fun of my attempts at prognostication, you can find me on Twitter @thedangreene. Thanks for reading.
The most-dissected 23 minutes anyone played off the bench this past week were those of Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., the celebrated forward prospect and likely top-five NBA draft pick who had not seen game action since playing two minutes in the Tigers’ season opener in November. He left that game with what turned out to be herniated discs in his back, for which he underwent surgery. With a three-to-four-month recovery timetable and the potential of damaging his NBA career before it begins, most presumed Porter would never see the floor as a collegian again.
But after weeks of will-he-won’t-he speculation following his being cleared for practice, Porter returned for the surprisingly NCAA tourney-bound Tigers in the SEC quarterfinals against Georgia. The results were mixed: he was able to play substantially off the bench, and the Mizzou staff showed his was more than a token appearance, as he was featured to the extent of using a team-high 36% of the team’s possessions. Yet he didn’t quite look himself, shooting 5-for-17 from the field in a surprising loss; Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin even conceded to reporters that Porter, while having the same mindset as before his injury, was “maybe a step slow.”
This much is understandable. It was, after all, his first game back after a nearly four-month layoff following major surgery. As much as Mizzou fans would have loved to see Porter fulfill all those preseason dreams immediately upon returning, working one’s way back in such circumstances is a process. A deeper SEC tournament run would have had the added benefit of allowing Porter to shake off that much more rust, but at least now the speculation is over, and perhaps any jitters gone with them, before the stakes get higher this week. “I’m glad he actually got it out of the way,” Martin said after the game, “and we can move forward.”
1. Gonzaga: If the Bulldogs do indeed move to the Mountain West, this season was a finale in the WCC, as they won their sixth straight league tournament and regular season crowns, having totaled 16 tournament titles and 18 regular season ones since 1999. In the more immediate future, as the No. 4 in the West, they may be the bracket’s most under-seeded team.
2. Marshall: Thirty-one years had passed since the last time the Thundering Herd earned a tourney berth before Dan D’Antoni’s squad won the Conference USA tournament this weekend. As you might expect of a D’Antoni-coached team, Marshall plays fast (the country’s third-shortest average offensive possession time) and loves the three (45.6% of its field goal attempts).
3. Penn: The hosts of the first-ever “Ivy Madness” were also its victors, beating Harvard at the Palestra on Sunday to earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 2007—a strong turnaround by third-year coach Steve Donahue, who took over a nine-win team in 2015. The last time Donahue, who struggled at Boston College from 2011–14, coached in the tourney, he led Cornell to the 2010 Sweet 16.
4. UMBC: Speaking of turnarounds, two years ago the Retrievers were 7–25 and 334th out of 351 teams in overall efficiency. Two years after hiring Ryan Odom from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, UMBC won the America East to claim its second-ever NCAA bid on a dramatic buzzer-beater from star guard Jairus Lyles.
5. Davidson: The Wildcats ruined Notre Dame’s Selection Sunday by knocking off Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10 finals, earning the ninth NCAA tournament bid of coach Bob McKillop’s 29-year tenure. Watch out for 6’8” senior forward Peyton Aldridge (21.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg) as a potential tourney breakout.
Top of the Classes
Senior: Joel Hernandez, LIU Brooklyn guard
The Blackbirds’ lone game this week was Tuesday’s NEC championship, in which Hernandez scored 32 points while adding seven rebounds, three steals, and two blocks to make sure his collegiate career ended with his first NCAA tournament appearance.
Junior: Roland Griffin, Iona forward
A career-high 29 points (including 11-of-11 free-throw shooting) and eight rebounds off the bench helped the Gaels beat Fairfield to win the MAAC, earning a date in the dance with the Blue Devils.
Sophomore: Malik Newman, Kansas forward
The Big 12 tournament’s Most Outstanding Player averaged 24.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.3 steals in the Jayhawks’ three wins to win the event.
Freshman: Deandre Ayton, Arizona forward
The 7’1” phenom closed his brief Pac-12 career in style, averaging 24.7 points, 12.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 blocks, and 1.3 steals during the Wildcats’ three-game run to the conference title.
Bests of the Best
Each week, we’ll get to know a standout player a little better by asking them about some of the best things in the world. This week we welcome Purdue guard Carsen Edwards, who is averaging 18.5 points and 3.0 assists and shooting 41.2% from three for the Boilermakers. So, Carsen, tell us about the best...
...place to eat back home. “Whataburger. It has pretty good burgers. I get the barbecue chicken strip sandwich and a red Fanta. I get that pretty much every time.”
...show to binge-watch. “I’m a big reality TV show guy. I watch a lot of Love & Hip Hop on VH1 and Siesta Key on MTV. And I watch Atlanta, on FX. Those are my favorite shows probably. I enjoy staying up to date with them.”
...animal to be reincarnated as. “Probably a cheetah, or a lion. Something like that, one of those wild cats. They’re just fast and they’re normally the dominant animal. I think that’s pretty cool.”
...decoration in your room. “I have an Ed Sheeran poster. It’s a Rolling Stone magazine cover. I’m a big Ed Sheeran guy. I like his music a lot. I want to see him live one day.”
Social Media Post of the Week
As the scandal turns...
Rick Pitino spoke with ESPN again and, you’ll never guess, but he wants to coach again and is upset with Louisville’s board of trustees. Or rather, its “board of traitors.” Yeah.
Among other things, Pitino told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman that he has “been assassinated by the Southern District of N.Y. without any wiretap or shred of evidence.” But that’s not really the case, as the federal indictment against Christian Dawkins and Merl Code explains that Dawkins was recorded detailing—in the presence of another Louisville basketball coach—how Pitino called Code to request Adidas make payments to the family of recruit Brian Bowen. Dawkins may have been embellishing, lying, or otherwise wrong, but that is at least a shred of evidence, especially since the government tracked the subsequent payments being made.
But the most intriguing Pitino-related news comes, improbably, from the Twitter account of Jay Williams. With Georgia having fired Mark Fox this weekend, Williams tweeted that he was hearing Pitino’s name in connection with the Bulldogs from “a lot of trusted sources.” Were it to actually come to fruition, that would be quite a shocker—even if Pitino does get another chance at a major coaching job, or a coaching job at all, one would imagine it would come after more dust has settled in the still-unfolding FBI investigation and the cases against Dawkins and Code, which could potentially make Pitino’s role clear one way or another. But it wouldn’t be the coaching carousel without wild rumors and speculation. We’re off to a fast start.
Elsewhere in the FBI investigation, North Carolina State was subpoenaed in the case, a school spokesman announced last week after it had been reported by The Washington Post. According to Raleigh’s News & Observer, the school spokesman said that the subpoena sought records rather than personal interviews and occurred in January.
Assigned Viewing: Rhode Island vs. Oklahoma, Thursday at 12:15 p.m. ET on CBS
The most important opening-weekend advice is actually to make sure you’ve relocated TruTV in your cable lineup before you're frantically scrambling to find it to catch an exciting finish before it’s too late. Other than that, you know by now how to watch the NCAA tournament. Any game you’re watching is also in one way or another updating you on the other games being played simultaneously, which are also being broadcast nationally. So there’s not much for me to tell you to do.
While correctly pinpointing which of the 32 games on the tournament’s first Thursday and Friday will be particularly rewarding is pretty much impossible, this opener is the matchup at which I’m tossing my dart, for reasons explained above.
Before You’re Dismissed...
• If your bracket cravings have yet to be satiated, check out SI’s regional breakdowns.
• Notre Dame was the last team out of the NCAA tournament, losing its spot when Davidson won the Atlantic 10 on Sunday afternoon. And while the Irish were rewarded with a No. 1 seed in the NIT, they were also stuck with a potential second round matchup with Penn State, the second-best team in the field (after Saint Mary’s) in terms of efficiency.
• The first Big East tournament game I ever went to was an MSG-shaking Saturday night championship game between UConn and Pittsburgh in 2004. Back then those teams seemed to meet in high-stakes clashes all the time. Now they’re both trying to fire their coaches for cause. Both programs have a long climb to get back to where they were.
• ”Who knows?” That was Tubby Smith’s answer when asked by Mark Giannotto of the Memphis News whether he thought he had coached his last game at Memphis. On Friday Smith’s attorney suggested Memphis alum Penny Hardaway, who reportedly wants to be the Tigers’ next coach, is to blame for local players not signing with the program. The offseason is already shaping up to be a doozy.
• Whether this was your first time or you’ve been following along every week, in which case you are probably my dad, thanks for reading the Monday Rebound this season. See you around.