NCAAM Preview: Region-by-Region NCAA Tournament

March Madness has finally arrived. After all the November tournaments, non-conference cupcake games, conference rivalries, bracketology projections, and conference tournaments, the Big Dance is back.

In each region I will make one upset pick, give you the four teams headed to the Sweet 16, and provide an in-depth breakdown of the Elite 8 matchup.

EAST REGION:

Upset Pick: 12 Liberty over 5 Mississippi State

The Flames play at one of the slowest paces in all of college basketball. Liberty ranks 342nd in possessions per game. The Flames’ strategy will be to muddy the game up and keep it as low-scoring as possible, a strategy that favors the mid-major against the more talented power five team.

Liberty features five players with at least 44 made 3-pointers on the season, and making outside shots is always part of the recipe for a tournament upset.

Finally, keep an eye on Liberty’s Scottie James. James averages 13 points per game and over eight rebounds, on an astounding 67 percent shooting from the field.

Sweet 16 Matchups:

1 Duke vs. 4 Virginia Tech

2 Michigan State vs. 3 LSU

Elite 8 Matchup:

1 Duke vs. 2 Michigan State

I know, I’ve already taken chalk and we’re only in the East Region. But Duke lost only once all season at full strength, and there’s a reason for that. The Blue Devils have more star power than any other team in the country.

Coach K’s team will matchup in the regional final against Michigan State. The Spartans have struggled in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, failing to reach the Sweet 16 in three straight seasons.

But this year MSU is healthy at the right time, plus Tom Izzo has heard the criticism in recent years and will have his guys ready for a deep run.

The Spartans are at their best when they can use the size of Xavier Tillmon, Kenny Goins, and Nick Ward on the offensive glass. But Zion Williamson’s size will be too much to handle, in addition to the playmaking of Tre Jones and RJ Barrett.

The Blue Devils are back in the Final Four.

WEST REGION:

Upset Pick: 12 Murray State over 5 Marquette

Full disclosure, I really like Marquette star Markus Howard. Howard averages 25 points per game on 40 percent shooting. But he appeared to suffer a wrist injury in the Golden Eagles Big East Semifinal loss to Seton Hall last week, a game in which Howard managed to shoot just 1-of-15.

Although Howard says he’s good to go, there’s no way of knowing how he’ll look until he steps on the floor.

Meanwhile, Murray State is led by Ja Morant, averaging 24.6 points per contest on 50 percent from the floor. You’ve probably heard Morant’s story by now: he was lightly-recruited out of high school, but has managed to play his way to a top 5 pick in June’s NBA Draft.

Thursday’s game could be Morant’s only chance to show off on a national scale before the draft. I expect him to have one of the games of his life, ensuring he gets another shot at the spotlight in the second round on Saturday.

Sweet 16 Matchups:

1 Gonzaga vs. 4 Florida State

6 Buffalo vs. 7 Nevada

Elite 8 Matchup:

1 Gonzaga vs. 6 Buffalo

This year’s Gonzaga Bulldogs team is really, really good. The casual fan probably hasn’t seen Rui Hachimura play this year, the Zags forward and future NBA talent, who’s averaging 20 points a game on over 60 percent shooting. Hachimura is big and imposing on the defense end, but athletic enough on the offensive end.

In total, the Zags have four players who average in double figures.

I expect the bottom half of the west to wreck the most havoc in the tournament. Buffalo and Nevada both entered the season with high expectations, but struggled to stay motivated at times in conference play. As a result, the teams are underseeded, and I see them taking advantage of that fact en route to the regional final.

Like Gonzaga, the Bulls are a balanced scoring attack, three players average at least 14 a game, led by C.J. Massinburg at 18 per contest.

The Zags and Bulls also struggle from beyond the arc, shooting in the mid-30 percent from deep.

In the end I like Gonzaga’s size and experience to get them to the Final Four.

SOUTH REGION

Upset Pick: 13 UC Irvine over 4 Kansas State

The Anteaters last lost on January 16th against Long Beach State. One of the hottest teams in the country, UC Irvine features five players who are 6’9 or taller.

Bad news for Kansas State, the Wildcats will likely be without 6’8 senior Dean Wade for the tournament.

KState is a different team without Wade, as the Wildcats miss his combination of size, experience, and offensive versatility.

Sweet 16 Matchups:

1 Virginia vs. 5 Wisconsin

7 Cincinnati vs. 2 Tennessee

Elite 8 Matchup:

1 Virginia vs. 2 Tennessee

UVA shakes off last year’s embarrassing first round loss to 16 seed UMBC, with a trip to the Final Four.

When the Cavaliers get hot from the outside, they’re one of the toughest teams to beat in college basketball.

On the other side, Tennessee features star power in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, but the Volunteers lack depth outside of their two top players, and Rick Barnes’ club is not a very good 3-point shooting team.

MIDWEST REGION:

Upset Pick: 11 Ohio State over 6 Iowa State

OSU was ranked in the top 15 in the preason, but an inconsistent regular season saw the Buckeyes barely make the tournament. With that said, Ohio State still has talent. The question is if they can put all the pieces together.

The matchup comes down to Kaleb Wesson for OSU. Iowa State is a guard-heavy lineup, and the Cyclones won’t have an answer for 6’9 270 pound Wesson.

Sweet 16 Matchups:

1 North Carolina vs. 5 Auburn

2 Kentucky vs. 3 Houston

Elite 8 Matchup:

1 North Carolina vs. 2 Kentucky

Two of the most storied programs in college basketball add another chapter to their history.

North Carolina’s mix of young guns, Coby White and Nassir Little, plus veterans Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye, propel the Tar Heels to another Final Four.

FINAL FOUR:

1 Duke vs. 1 Gonzaga

1 Virginia vs. 1 North Carolina

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP:

1 Duke vs. 1 Virginia

Duke wins the national championship behind four future pros.

Graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. Fan of all sports and a long-suffering Jets fan who will defend Sam Darnold at all times. Also, an above average golfer.