Early NCAA Tournament look: Who is poised to make noise in March?

Every week, Mike DeCourcy predicts how your entire NCAA Tournament bracket will look when the sphere is introduced in March.

Here is the most recent version: 

This week, FOX Sports faculty basketball analysts Andy Katz, John Fanta and Michael Cohen took a take a look at DeCourcy’s projections and make some predictions of their very own.

Who are probably the most harmful excessive seeds? Who is poised to be a Cinderella to observe? Who are some center seeds who would not shock one bit in the event that they went on a run? It’s time to take a shot at answering these questions and extra.

Which staff on the 1-, 2- or 3-seed line would you purchase inventory in as probably the most harmful within the NCAA Tournament?

John Fanta: Point guard play. An All-American stage wing. Elite protection. One of the underrated coaches in faculty basketball. UCLA has all of these parts, and the Bruins are a staff that I’m absolutely shopping for getting into the NCAA Tournament. Mick Cronin’s group has held their opponents to 70 factors or fewer in 20 of 23 video games thus far this season and sits within the high 10 in scoring protection at 60.3 factors per recreation. Senior Jaime Jaquez Jr. is one in every of 20 gamers named to the Wooden Award late-season watch record, and for good cause. On high of averaging 16.3 factors and seven.7 rebounds per recreation, the 6-foot-7 veteran averages shut to 2 steals per recreation. Combine Jaquez with one other senior, level guard Tyger Campbell, and you’ve got top-of-the-line duos within the nation. Not solely is Campbell an elite distributor with a 2.46 assist-to-turnover ratio (second within the Pac-12), however he shoots 41% from 3-point vary in Pac-12 play.

Jaylen Clark and David Singleton have each developed, with Clark main the Pac-12 with 58 steals on the season whereas Singleton is a sharpshooter at over 43% from downtown. If five-star freshman Adem Bona is staying on the ground and doing his job for a staff that leads its convention in offensive rebounding, the Bruins haven’t any holes. If you worth match expertise as effectively, UCLA checks these containers. The Bruins are 7-2 within the NCAA Tournament within the final two seasons, with a 2021 run from First Four to Final Four, and a Sweet 16 look final season. 

Adem Bona with a block and a slam

UCLA’s star freshman exhibits he is usually a risk when he stays out of foul bother.

Andy Katz: This is a troublesome one. So many decisions. Want to lean in on Purdue due to Zach Edey’s dominance. I’m excessive on Alabama and Brandon Miller’s capacity to attain at will. And I really feel like somebody from the Big 12 goes to make a deep run. But I’m really going to agree with Fanta right here and go along with UCLA.

The Bruins defend. Period. Think about their loss to Arizona. Sure, they struggled offensively in that recreation, however they saved the Wildcats to the 50s in Tucson. That bodes effectively going ahead. I like Campbell’s big-shot capacity. Jaquez is pushed after being damage for his or her Sweet 16 loss to North Carolina. Clark is an elite defender and a stable two-way participant. There is expertise, measurement and willpower on this crew to make it again to a different Final Four. The Bruins nonetheless have an outdoor shot at being a No. 1 seed, but when they are not, the stress will not be on them as a lot because it has been prior to now. Mick Cronin has already coached in a Final Four, so he is aware of how one can win 4 video games. I had UCLA as a possible champ in October, and I’ve come again to my authentic prediction.

Michael Cohen: It appears like a season when Alabama might make its deepest run underneath fourth-year head coach Nate Oats, who took the Crimson Tide to the Sweet 16 in 2021. That 12 months, Oats’ staff ranked thirtieth in adjusted offensive effectivity and third in adjusted defensive effectivity to supply loads of punch on each ends of the ground. There was balanced scoring from 4 gamers averaging double figures, and Alabama entered March Madness on a scorching streak after profitable the SEC match.

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This 12 months, Oats’ group is even stronger. The Crimson Tide are twentieth in adjusted offensive effectivity and rank third nationally in scoring (83.1 PPG) amongst faculties from energy conferences. Star freshman Miller, who’s averaging 18.8 factors and eight.2 rebounds, offers Alabama the definitive go-to possibility it lacked two seasons in the past. And on the defensive finish, the place the Crimson Tide are fifth in adjusted defensive effectivity, they’re limiting opponents to 26.1% from past the arc and 42.5% on 2-point discipline targets, each of which rank second within the nation.

Alabama has all of the substances to be harmful in March. 

What 4-7 seed might attain the Final Four and it would not shock you?

Fanta: Provided that Mike Miles Jr. is wholesome, I’m rolling with TCU. (He didn’t play in opposition to Kansas State on Tuesday evening.) The junior level guard, who’s one in every of 10 finalists for this 12 months’s Bob Cousy Award, is among the greatest gamers in America and an actual chief for the Horned Frogs.

When Jamie Dixon’s staff is forcing turnovers — averaging greater than 16 takeaways per recreation — they’re actually troublesome to beat. Experience is a theme with this staff, and so they’ve developed an offensive stability with 4 gamers exterior their high three scorers averaging between 7.4 and eight.1 factors per recreation. Emanuel Miller is a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-7, and he shoots 55% from the ground. Senior guard Damion Baugh has elevated his manufacturing as effectively, totaling double-figures in seven consecutive video games, whereas redshirt junior Shahada Wells has hit double-figures in 4 of his final 5 video games. 

Defense was all the time a given — the Horned Frogs rank fifteenth in KenPom adjusted defensive effectivity — however the enchancment offensively is of word. If they will get absolutely wholesome, their greatest basketball might very effectively be forward of them. With a 5-5 document in quadrant one and 4-0 in quadrant two, I actually belief their capacity to compete with and beat the elite. With a veteran core of gamers and an alpha in Miles, TCU will not be a staff you need to see in your area should you’re a 1-seed. There’s nothing nice about enjoying them.

Cohen: Rutgers might give the Big Ten a possible darkish horse alongside presumptive No. 1 seed Purdue, which hasn’t reached the Final Four since 1980. The Scarlet Knights have arguably the single-best win in faculty basketball this season when head coach Steve Pikiell marched his staff into Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana, and upset the top-ranked Boilermakers, 65-64, in early January. It marked the second consecutive season during which the Scarlet Knights upset the No. 1 staff within the nation after knocking off top-ranked Purdue at dwelling final season. Mental and bodily toughness is not a problem for Rutgers.

The underlying statistics are equally sturdy. As ever, Pikiell’s group is harassing opponents defensively and ranks second nationally in adjusted defensive effectivity. The Scarlet Knights have allowed 70 or extra factors simply 3 times all season — twice to Iowa, as soon as to Michigan State — and give up a miserly common of 58.4 PPG, second to Tennessee amongst groups from energy conferences.

Concerns about Rutgers’ capacity to attain are legitimate. Pikiell’s staff ranks 119th in adjusted offensive effectivity after cracking the highest 100 every of the final three years. There are solely two Scarlet Knights averaging in double figures this season, however an skilled backcourt led by senior guards Caleb McConnell (9.8 factors, 5.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists) and Paul Mulcahy (9.3 factors, 3.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists) offsets its modest offensive output with supreme management and poise.

Katz: Indiana. The Hoosiers are being carried by Trayce Jackson-Davis and have a celebrity in Jalen Hood-Schifino. I do not care what occurs in the remainder of the Big Ten season. I’ve seen Indiana at its greatest in opposition to North Carolina up shut and I watched the Purdue recreation — I’m all in on the potential of this group. The Hoosiers’ protection will get higher as soon as Xavier Johnson returns. They’ve bought a little bit of a chip after the disappointing recreation in opposition to Saint Mary’s within the NCAA spherical of 64. TJD has the flexibility to go off for 30. He was the nation’s main rebounder within the month of January. He is among the greatest defenders. I’m all in on Indiana as a sleeper to make a deep run.  

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Which staff in an 8-9 recreation might beat a 1-seed within the second spherical? 

Cohen: Michigan State would catch an opposing coach’s eye if the Spartans stay on the 8-9 line come Selection Sunday. Facing a Tom Izzo-coached staff in March is a harmful proposition contemplating his penchant for reaching each the second weekend of the match (14 occasions in 24 appearances) and the Final Four (eight journeys and counting). It’s price noting, nonetheless, that Izzo has fallen wanting the Sweet 16 in 5 of his final six postseason appearances relationship to 2016.

This 12 months’s Michigan State staff is one thing of an enigma. The roster contains simply 10 scholarship gamers, as Izzo stays steadfast in his distaste for the switch portal. Nagging accidents to versatile ahead Malik Hall (9.3 factors, 4.6 rebounds) additional sophisticated the rotation. The Spartans gained seven video games in a row from early December via early January, and so they had misplaced 5 of their final seven getting into Tuesday’s date with Maryland.

A one-point loss to then-No. 2 Gonzaga, a double-overtime win over then-No. 4 Kentucky, a one-point loss to then-No. 1 Purdue and a 13-point win over then-No. 23 Rutgers confirmed how powerful Izzo’s group might be.

Michigan State’s Tyson Walker places on the jets

Michigan State's Tyson Walker puts on the jets

Could the Spartans be harmful in March?

Katz: Iowa or Maryland. Let’s see the place the Hawkeyes and the Terps land, however each have the capabilities to knock off a No. 1 seed (it simply would not be Purdue). Iowa can shoot and rating with any staff within the nation. The Hawkeyes would possibly allow you to rating within the 70s and 80s, however you are going to should sustain. Kris Murray can go off for 25-30. Maryland has a lead guard in Jahmir Young, who will go into the NCAA Tournament as one of many hardest playmakers to maintain out of the lane or off the 3-point line. The Terps are enjoying with extra confidence and have discovered how one can win away from dwelling.

Fanta: Are you guys forgetting that Creighton was a preseason top-10 staff? I think about the Bluejays as an absolute STEAL of a solution for this query! After dropping six in a row earlier this season, a lot of the reward round Greg McDermott’s staff had gone away. But that dropping skid coincided with the sickness of star heart Ryan Kalkbrenner. The Jays are 0-3 with out their massive man, however 15-5 with him on the ground. In reality, since he returned to the lineup on Dec. 22, the analytics website BartTorvik.com ranks the Jays because the fifth-best staff in faculty basketball.

The cause to like Creighton? They do not require anyone participant to be nice offensively to win. All 5 starters common between 11.5 and 15.2 factors per recreation. Ryan Nembhard and Trey Alexander handle the backcourt whereas South Dakota State switch Baylor Scheierman leads the Jays with 57 made threes and 10 double-doubles. When stretch ahead Arthur Kaluma stays inside himself, he has the dimensions and athleticism to wreak havoc on each ends of the ground.

I’d put the Jays’ beginning 5 up in opposition to any in America, and that is why they’re tremendous harmful in the event that they land in an 8-9 recreation. Their stability and protection is why Creighton has gained six straight video games to cancel out the slide from earlier this 12 months. During the six-game surge, the Jays have notched top-20 wins over Providence and Xavier whereas outsourcing opponents by a median of 14.5 PPG. They’ve shot 48% from the ground with 91 assists to 55 turnovers within the stretch as effectively. This staff is enjoying at a stage that few can duplicate constantly. 

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Give us an early Cinderella candidate to watch that is at present projected to make the sphere?

Katz: New Mexico. The Lobos have the guards in Jaelen House, Jamal Mashburn Jr., and the bigs in Morris Udeze and Josiah Allick to trigger issues for any staff. The Lobos can run the ground, rating and play with a freedom that may do effectively for them within the NCAA Tournament. They will are available in with low expectations however have the products to succeed in the second weekend.

Fanta: Look for MACtion to make headlines within the NCAA Tournament this 12 months. Whoever wins the league could have a fantastic shot to win a primaryspherical recreation, and I say “whoever” as a result of there are a number of candidates on the high. Akron has gained eight in a row, Kent State remains to be enjoying effectively and Toledo is driving a seven-game profitable streak. 

For the sake of the argument, let us take a look at the Zips, who made the NCAA Tournament final season. They gave UCLA an actual battle however fell simply brief 57-53 out West. Former Illinois coach John Groce has discovered a resurgence operating the Zips, and he is bought a bucket-getter in senior guard Xavier Castaneda, who’s scored 32 factors in three of Akron’s final 5 video games. With a double-double machine in Enrique Freeman manning the submit, they have a 1-2 punch that may maintain them in any recreation.

They do want to sluggish it down, coming in at No. 312 in tempo, however that is not one thing that issues me. Rather, it may result in a Cinderella hanging in a recreation. The Zips additionally take excellent care of the basketball and lead the MAC with 8.8 made triples per recreation. I’m shopping for them to interrupt via this March, and if not them, the Flashes or Rockets ought to be a classy choose in your bracket!

Cohen: How about Oral Roberts? Head coach Paul Mills took the Golden Eagles to the Sweet 16 in 2021 when hot-handed guard Max Abmas poured in 29 factors to upset second-seeded Ohio State within the first spherical, 26 factors to topple seventh-seeded Florida within the second spherical and 25 extra in a two-point loss to third-seeded Arkansas. Abmas grew to become a family identify for his exceptional long-range taking pictures (10-for-25 in these three video games) and fearless drives to the rim.

Two years later, Abmas remains to be pacing the Golden Eagles with 22.3 factors per recreation to rank fifth nationally in scoring. Mills’ squad has begun the season 21-4 general and 12-0 within the Summit League whereas sitting second within the nation behind Gonzaga with a median of 85.2 PPG. Oral Roberts gained invaluable expertise in opposition to NCAA tournament-caliber groups in losses to Saint Mary’s (78-70), Houston (83-45) and New Mexico (82-75) that offered stiffer exams than anybody within the convention. 

Maybe Abmas has yet one more run left in him. 

Andy Katz is a longtime faculty basketball author, analyst and host. He might be seen on the Big Ten Network, in addition to March Madness and NCAA.com, and he hosts the podcast “March Madness 365.” Katz labored at ESPN for almost twenty years and, previous to that, in newspapers for 9 years.

John Fanta is a nationwide faculty basketball broadcaster and author for FOX Sports. He covers the game in quite a lot of capacities, from calling video games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to offering commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.

Michael Cohen covers faculty soccer and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Cohen13.

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