This series of articles will break down each region of the tournament, calling out potential double-digit upsets and schools that will likely advance out of the region to give you the best odds of winning your bracket pool.
Cinderella Picks –South Dakota State and Providence
In a region where the (1) seed is likely over-seeded (Xavier), anything can happen in this region. Be prepared.
South Dakota State (12)
The (5)-(12) matchup is one of the more likely spots for a sizable upset, and I like the Jackrabbits for a few reasons. First, the game will be played in Boise, which seems like a relatively unfair advantage for SDST despite its inferior seed. Next, SDST features a player who could drop 30 and carry the team on its back in Mike Daum, who is averaging a double-double this season and close to 24 PPG. Finally, the Jackrabbits average 84.9 PPG as a team, and in these NCAA Tournament games, hot shooting frequently beats better talent. OSU has had a solid year, defeating Big-10 powerhouses in Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue, but struggled in its recent game against Penn State that might have carry-over effects.
If you watched any of the Big East Tournament, you likely saw the heart and passion that this Providence squad plays with. Although unquantifiable in metrics, this team played three straight overtime games despite being largely overmatched in each of them and winning two of the games. Led by experienced guards and a solid defense, Providence should have little difficulty being an overrated Texas A&M and will keep it close against the defending champion UNC team that has looked shaky away from the friendly confines of Chapel Hill this year. Providence’s ceiling is likely a Sweet 16 trip, but pay attention to this team before you pick UNC to come out of this region.
Team(s) to Advance Out of Region – Michigan, Gonzaga
Like Kentucky, Michigan is another program that is hot and peaking at the right time, winning 11 straight and a conference tournament championship. The Wolverines looked impressive in the Big Ten Tournament and are led by Moritz Wagner, a German-born big that wears his emotion on his sleeve. It cannot be overstated how impressive going 13-5 in a difficult Big 10 conference is and Michigan has the talented guards who can force turnovers and take over a game. Michigan made the Sweet 16 last year and arguably should have advanced beyond that before stumbling down the stretch to Oregon. Look for Michigan under Coach John Beilein to make it at least to the Elite Eight in what will likely be a very popular pick to come out of the region.
Raise your hand if you had Gonzaga in the final last year. Didn’t think so. It is time to stop overlooking this school that has made the NCAA Tournament in 18 out of the past 19 seasons. The two names to watch: Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie, both bigs that have more offensive moves that many current NBA players. Although losing some key players from its near-title run last year, this Zags team is returning key contributors and has reloaded to boost its defense and three-point shooting. Talent is not an issue here. I anticipate Xavier being the (1) seed with the earliest exit out of the Tournament. Look for Gonzaga to make some noise again and potentially emerge out of the West.
Pick to Win Region: Gonzaga