DATA DEPENDENT: Quick Guide to March Madness and beyond.

It’s here. That annual sense of chaos and anxiety. Yes, there’s excitement but that’s only after the first game has started and some sort of order looms in the horizon (exactly 14 days later). After a year off, March Madness is set to make its glorious return. It’s time to welcome back  morning to night basketball. Bleary eyes. The inevitable FOMO when you gotta run to the bathroom. The competing bouts of elation and deflation. Did I mention how glorious it all is?

For the most part, people in the know have Gonzaga as the favorites to win it all and a truly special team to stick the finish of a historically dominant season. Most teams, in most sports, stumble at the finish. It’s not hard to picture the Zags winning it all but it’s even easier picturing them falling short. If going undefeatd through a season then winning the Big Dance is that easy, more teams would have done it. And there have been some great college teams in the past.

That said, according to sportsbettingdime.com, Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, and Illinois are favorites to make it to the Final Four. They are followed by Iowa, Houston, Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, and Oklahoma State.

Let’s roll up the sleeves and try to make sense of the Madness.

(NOTE: Alongside each team’s name is it’s AP Top 25 Rank/Points Per Game/Opponents Point Per Game/Basketball Power Index Ranking)

WEST

Gonzaga (1/92.1ppg/69.1 oppg/1) vs TBA

  • Going into the tournament, Gonzaga has won 30 straight games, the majority of which they’ve won by double digits. They are so stacked with talent and their swashbuckling style of play suits them to a tee. Regardless of whether they face Norfolk State or Appalaching State, expect them to stomp into the next round. (Gonzaga wins.)

Oklahoma (–/74.8 ppg/69.2 oppg/30) vs Missouri (–/73.6 ppg/ 71.9 oppg/61) 

  • Pretty evenly matched.The Sooners have victories over Alabama, Kansas, Texas, and West Virginia. They should prevail over Missou though only just. (Oklahoma wins.)

Creighton (19/77.0 ppg/68.3 oppg/13) vs UC Santa Barbara (–/76.5 ppg/62.8 oppg/61)   

  • Most experts have this as one of the early first round candidates. It’s hard to argue against considering the stupor Creighton seemed to be stuck in during the end of the season, especially in their blowout loss to Georgetown in the Big East tournament finals. The Gauchos are good enough defensively to keep Creighton off balance. (UCSB wins.)

Virginia (15/68.6 ppg/60.5 oppg/11) vs Ohio (–/80.9 ppg/73.3 oppg/98)

University of Southern California (23/74/8 ppg/65.1 oppg/16) vs TBA.

  • Virginia won the ACC while Ohio won the MAAC. Another even matchup. Virginia’s offense runs through their frontcourt of Jay Huff, Sam Hauser, and Trey Murphy III. If Ohio can shut them down, their chances improve significantly. (Virginia wins.)
  • One name. Evan Mobley aka the Pac-12 Player of the Year aka the reason USC will go on to the next round. Doesn’t matter who they play. (USC wins.)

Kansas (12/73.1 ppg/65.8 oppg/20) vs Eastern Washington (–/78.0 ppg/69.4 oppg/103)

  • The Jayhawks have had a very COVID-year. That being said, big man David McCormack has grown into his role very nicely, justifying Bill Self’s decision to stay with him. It’s not the greatest Kansas team but they are solid enough to defeat the Eastern Washington Eagles. (Kansas wins.)

Oregon (–/74.4 ppg/67.4 oppg/34) vs VCU (–/71.7 ppg/65.2 oppg/55)

  • This is an interesting matchup. Oregon is the Pac-12 regular season champ and has won 11 of their last 12. They’re led by Chris Duarte, a hard-driving, board-crashing guard who can get a stop when he needs one. He’s complemented by Will Richardson who can light it up, given the chance. Yet VCU is a very good offensive team themselves and an elite defensive team. Their sole weakness — and it’s a doozy — is that they turn over the ball on 21% of their possessions. Ouch. That don’t fly in March. (Oregon wins.)

Iowa (8/83.8 ppg/71.9 oppg/5) vs Grand Canyon (–/75.6 ppg/61.1 oppg/74)

  • The Hawkeyes are banged up. They’re missing jack Nudge and Joe Wieskamp, the latter being a particularly significnat loss. Still, they have Luka Garza (maybe a Wooden Award winner). That will be more than enough to ease past GC. (Iowa wins.)

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EAST

Michigan (4/76.3 ppg/65.4 oppg/6) vs. TBA

  • The Wolverines are playing like a well-oiled machine with an express ticket to the Final Four. They’re big. They’re long. They’re physical. Their offense is top-notch and their defense is grind-it-out gritty. That being said, they did lose to Illinois and Michigan State. But that’s for another day since they aren’t facing anyone of that caliber in the first round. (Michigan wins.)

LSU (–/82.1 ppg/75.3 oppg/24) vs St. Bonaventure (–/70.5 ppg/60.4 oppg/25)

  • LSU are a dangerous team. They’ve got serious offensive weapons in Cam Thomas, Javonte Smart, and Darius Days. They can certainly hang with the big boys on any given day. That said, the Bonnies are not far behind and can’t be take lightly. Everything starts with defense for them. If St. Bonaventure won, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise. (LSU wins.)

Colorado (22/73.0 ppg/63.3 oppg/17) vs Georgetown (–/71.4 ppg/70.7 oppg/63)

  • This matchup is widely perceived as a potential upset. Colorado knows how to win and is pretty efficient in doing so. They’re the better team, especially if you go by regular season numbers. That being said, the Hoyas are the hotter team at the moment. But as they say in the European football world, “Form is temporary; class is permanent.” (Colorado wins.)

Florida State (14/78.9 ppg/70.3 oppg/21) vs UNC Greensboro (–/73.6 ppg/70.3 oppg/89)

  • Florida State has a defense designed to confuse. Their constant switching throws new faces at their opponents and makes it hard to find a rhythm. UNC Greensboro is one man team, him being Isaiah Miller. After him, nobody else is scoring in double digits. That’s a recipe for an early exit. (Florida State wins.)

BYU (24/78.7 ppg/68.5 oppg/29) vs TBA

  • BYU is sort of an in-between team, not quite elite but not quite the doormat. Matt Haarms, Brandon Averette, and Alex Barcello split the responsibilities. Meanwhile, Michigan State has been an enigma. They’ve beaten teams such as Illinois, Ohio State, and MIchigan, yet they can really suck at other times. (BYU wins.)

Texas (9.75.2 ppg/68.8 oppg/22) vs Abilene Christian (–/68.8 ppg/65.0 oppg/9)

  • Having just won their first Big 12 tournament title, the Longhorns are eager to build on that success. Abiliene Christian is the perfect way to tee up the next round. (Texas wins.)

University of Connecticut (–/72.5 ppg/64.6 oppg/22) vs Maryland (–/68.8 ppg/65.0 oppg/43)

  • Maryland is another team that relies on its defense just as much as its offense.  At the center of that is Darryl Morsell, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Not to be outdone, UConn has Isaiah Whaley, the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. They also up the ante with one Big East Sixth Man of the Year, Tyler Polley. This game is a toss up. (Too close to call.)

Alabama (5/79.6 ppg/69.8 oppg/9) vs Iona (–/72.2 ppg/65.9 oppg/138)

  • Alabama is a long and athletic team. They can dominate on both ends of the court as well as on the break. Iona are a great story and, to their credit, in the tourney for the fifth year running. That said, they don’t have the guns to take down our favorite to win it all. (Alabama wins.)

MID-WEST

Illinois (2/81.1 ppg/68.6 oppg/4) vs Drexel (–/71.5 ppg/66.8 oppg/130)

  • The Fighting Illini are a lock for the Final Four. They are one of the best defensive teams in the game. On offense, they are led by Ayo Dosunmu, a guard who can be lethal in transition. Drexel were seeded sixth in the Colonial tournament and went on a run to bag the trophy in the end. That’s not gonna happen here. (Illinois wins.)

Loyola Chicago (17/71.5 ppg/55.5 oppg/23) vs Georgia Tech (–/75.5 ppg/70.0 oppg/35)

  • This may be the matchup of the entire first round. Loyola has the top-ranked defense in the nation in terms of efficiency and were a Final Four team in 2018. They may have found the solution to the 3-point barrage currently plaguing American basketball. Georgia Tech comes into the game as one of the hottest teams in the ACC, winners of 6 straight. (Loyola Chicago wins.)

Tennessee (–/72.5 ppg/63.2 oppg/12) vs Oregon State (–/70.7 ppg/68.3 oppg/87)

  • Tennessee is a pretty complete team. That said, their offense can be middling. Oregon State went on an impressive run in the Pac-12 tournament and ended up winning it all. Question is: Which will win the day – competence or momentum? (Tennessee wins.)

Oklahoma State (11/77.1 ppg/72.9 oppg/36) vs Liberty (–/74.4 ppg/59.6 oppg/36)

  • Oklahoma State have won 11 games on the trot. They are led by Cade Cunningham. He’s viewed as the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. Alongside him, Kalib Boone may be the engine that keeps the team moving in the right direction. Liberty are a very good defensive team and have had good showings against top teams. (Oklahoma State wins.)

San Diego State (16/74.1 ppg/60.6 oppg/15) vs Syracuse (–/75.8 ppg/70.7 oppg/33)

  • At the helm of San Diego State is the Mountain West Coach of the Year, Brian Dutcher. Matt Mitchell is the conference’s Player of the Year. He’s an able scorer who is also a tough defender. As a team, San Diego State have shown that they know how to win and use their above average defense to their advantage. Syracuse come into the tournament this year a bit weaker than during past campaigns. Buddy Boeheum is the key for the Orangemen. If he’s allowed to dominate a game, Syracuse can make a limited run which means there’s a potential upset here. (San Diego State wins.)

West Virginia (13/77.3 ppg/72.1 oppg/27) vs Morehead State (–/68.8 ppg/63.4 oppg/154)

  • West Virginia has thrown opponents a different look this season. Rather than constantly pressuring the ball with the press in order to generate offense, they’ve turned into a shot-making team. Everything runs through Miles McBride, offensively and defensively. Morehead State has the most wins since January 1. They’re a solid and dangerous team that relies on its defense. They are big and long. This may be a tough matchup for West Virginia. It can also be a walkover. (West Virginia wins.)

Clemson (–/65.3 ppg/62.0 oppg/38) vs Rutgers (–/70.0 ppg/68.2 oppg/45)

  • Clemson has been as hot as they’ve been cold this season, making them an enigma. They’re a mediocre shooting team that is plagued by turnovers, never a recipe for success. To their annual credit, Rutgers has survived one of the best conferences in the game. Ron Harper Jr. is their primary scorer and he is complemented by Geo Maker and Jacob Young. This game is a very good candidate for a first round upset. (Rutgers wins.)

Houston (6/77.6 ppg/57.9 oppg/3) vs Cleveland (–/71.5 ppg/70.6 oppg/186)

  • Houston are having a great year and are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the game. They somehow don’t shoot a high percentage but are a fantastic offensive team. Cleveland State are in the midst of a rebuild and should be dispatched accordingly. (Houston wins.)

SOUTH

Baylor (3/84.4 ppg/66.4 oppg/2) vs Hartford (–/65.9 ppg/63.3 oppg/120)

  • Baylor are the best 3-point shooting teamin the country. On top of that, they’re amongst the top scoring teams around. Topping that off, they’re an elite defending team. Leading the way is Jared Butler, a scoring threat as well as an able defender. Hartford’s post-season run stops here, unfortunately. (Baylor wins.)

North Carolina (–/75.7 ppg/69.4 oppg/25) vs Wisconsin (–/69.6 ppg/64.3 oppg/19)

  • North Carolina are not the Tarheels of the past, but they are still a solid team. They register a whopping offensive rebounding percentage. On the whole, they are a balanced team and not spectacular. They do have size to their advantage. Wisconsin are an experienced squad who have been competent and unspectacular. They’ve struggled for consistency all year. That being said, they come out of the Big Ten and that says a lot. Tight game here. (Wisconsin wins.)

Villanova (18/75.5 ppg/67.1 oppg/7) vs Winthrop (–/79.5 ppg/66.8 oppg/85)

  • This is another popular upset candidate amoung the smart set. Villanova were chugging along on the way to Elite Eight status when Collin Gillespie, one of the best point guards in the country, went down with a torn MCL. Since then, it’s been a slog for the Wildcats. Winthrop can score and score and score. Like most dangerous teams, the can put up points in a hurry. (Villanova wins.)

Purdue (20/71.1 ppg/66.3 oppg/26) vs North Texas (–/69.8 ppg/61.2 oppg/68)

  • Purdue have a star big man in Trevion Williams. They also have a 7-4 freshman in Zach Edey. For the Boilermakers, size is their advantage. Some say they’ve outperformed, but that’s a stretch. North Texas are a solid squad, good defensively, solid offensively, and are on a four game win-streak. They also turn the ball over a ton, something that will get punished against better competition. (Purdue wins.) 

Texas Tech (21/73.0 ppg/63.4 oppg/8) vs Utah State (–/73.3 ppg/62.3 oppg/49)

  • Texas Tech have been on a pretty good NCAA run the past few years. This is another solid team. They’re led by Mac McClung (an explosive scorer) and Terrence Shannon Jr. (a scorer and defender). Utah State is a good team, though they’ve fallen off on the offensive end. Neemias Queta is a two-time MWC Defensive Player of the Year. (Texas Tech wins.)

Arkansas (10/82.4 ppg/70.7 oppg/14) vs Colgate (–/86.3 ppg/68.6 oppg/44)

  • Arkansas is an AP Top 25 team. Colgate has never won an NCAA tournament game in four appearances. They’re not about to win one now. (Arkansas wins.)

Florida (–/74.0 ppg/69.8 oppg/32) vs Virginia Tech (25/72.1 ppg/65.5 oppg/39)

  • Florida has struggled for consistency all season. That doesn’t bode well for their chances in March. They may pull this one out (though it’s tight one) but they won’t be going far. Virginia Tech has a decent squad that works hard, hustles, and isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Look for them to exploit Florida’s inconsistency. (Virginia Tech wins.)

Ohio State (7/70.3 ppg/70.3 oppg/10) vs Oral Roberts (–/81.8 ppg/75.8 oppg/155)

  • Ohio State are a very good team that knows how to put points on the board… lots of them. They’re led by E.J. Liddel, a versatile big man who can post up or drift further from the basket if necessary. Alongside Liddel, Duane Washington Jr. can shoot from a distance and likes the three. Defense may be an issue down the road. Oral Roberts have an elite scorer in Max Abmas. He leads the nation in scoring with 24.7 ppg. Expect Oral Roberts to put up a good fight, but in the end, Ohio State is just the better team. (Ohio State wins.)

That’s our roundup for the opening salvo of March Madness. It’s a good feeling to have imposed some order on the chaos. Now, the question is: will even half of our picks pan out? Check back in a week’s time.

WORDS: Marc Landas


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