The March Madness season officially kicked off on Sunday, when the ranking and seeding of all 68 men’s teams who made the NCAA tournament bracket were announced in the annual “Selection Sunday” broadcast show. This is the time where college hoops comes to the forefront of the basketball landscape, with excitement and upsets abound.
Every fan filling out a bracket wants to know the inside scoop — what do all the numbers mean? Who matches up well with who? What team could be this year’s Cinderella? What top seeds are most susceptible to being knocked out early?
We know you don’t have time to watch every team and study them in depth — but here at BBALL BREAKDOWN, we do! So we have compiled information and summaries on each team to help you prepare for the tournament, make the best bracket choices available and enjoy the most exciting time of the year in sports.
Here is our look at the top of the bracket in the South Region, where all three historic programs North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA will look to slug it our for a chance to go to the Final Four.
The following games will be played Friday and Sunday from Greenville, SC.
1. North Carolina Tar Heels vs. 16. Texas Southern Tigers
One of the fastest pace, high octane offenses in the country is built on upperclassmen and a great inside-outside attack, two pieces to bank on during postseason play. KenPom rates the Tar Heels attack as the fourth most efficient offense in the country, and it revolves around Roy Williams’ Carolina Break and secondary offense action. Constantly sprinting the floor and pushing ahead for layups or open threes, the Tar Heels then flow into a bevy of quick-hitting ball screens, off-ball screens, and post-ups before the defense can get set.
Leading the way for their attack are two experienced and savvy point guards, Joel Berry and Nate Britt. Those two give Roy Williams multiple ball handlers to break down defenses and use speed to get into the lane and create. But the Tar Heels aren’t just about speed — their size is equally as impressive. Beefy center Kennedy Meeks is more athletic than he looks, but is a legit defensive anchor, post scorer and throws some incredible outlet passes to start the break. Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson on the wings are versatile and have great combinations of size, athleticism and skilled playmaking on the perimeter.
Just because the Tar Heels have an efficient offense and want to play fast doesn’t mean they’re trying to mask anything defensively. In fact, Carolina was fourth in the stingy ACC in defensive efficiency, giving up the fewest offensive rebounds in the conference. Speaking of which, offensive rebounds are a huge part of the game for the Tar Heels — they’re the best offensive rebounding team in the country, using their great size and length to batter opponents and create extra possessions.
Questions exist for the Tar Heels ability to win away from Chapel Hill. They went 6-5 in true road games this year (their best win was at Wake Forest) and 3-2 in neutral site games. Again, this is an upperclass-laden team that won’t succumb to the moment. But if you’re looking for a top seed to show some vulnerability, it might be the Tar Heels difficulties to win on the road. This is a team with legitimate Final Four odds thanks to their offense and senior leadership. But if they run into another offensive buzzsaw or a team that can somehow combat their depth and athleticism, that would be the best pause to a Tar Heels ascent. — Adam Spinella
Remember the name Mike Davis? That’s right, the former Indiana head coach that led the Hoosiers to be the national runner-up in 2002 has his Tigers back in the big dance for the third time in four years. In seventeen years as a head coach, Davis has been to eight NCAA tourneys, won twenty games on eight occasions and will have his team expertly prepared for a difficult road at pulling together an improbable victory.
The Tigers prey on teams that commit lots of fouls — they shoot free throws more frequently than only five teams in the country. A poor outside shooting team (only 29.6 percent, one of the worst in the nation) they rely on physically bullying teams down low and constantly being the aggressor. All this is a mentality and a toughness of the players Davis recruits — they play small and have undersized forwards in their rotation. The man in the middle, seven-foot Marvin Jones, is the embodiment of that mentality. He’s towards the top in the nation in offensive efficiency, field goal percentage (since he primarily shoots near the rim) and draws fouls at one of the highest rates in the country. They also rely on 5’7” freshman Demontrae Jefferson as their starting point guard. Kid is tough as nails.
Davis loaded up on a difficult non-conference schedule in hopes of getting the Tigers some experience playing against big name programs that could pay off this time of year. They have losses against Arizona, Louisville, Cincinnati, Baylor and TCU on their sheet, and hung in there with LSU on the road. They need their stingy defense and physical play to show up, as well as some miraculous shooting from three, if they want to move on to the next round. — Adam Spinella
8. Arkansas Razorbacks vs. 9. Seton Hall Pirates
Coach Mike Anderson’s team was squarely in the field prior to the SEC tournament; nevertheless, Arkansas added to their resume with wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt before falling to Kentucky in the championship game. Arkansas plays a fast, physical style. They were 33rd in points per game and a lowly 222nd in points allowed. They get into the open floor, have multiple shooters and use their speed to win shootouts.
Their offense is 26th in KenPom and is lead by Moses Kingsley, a projected second round pick. Kingsley is a 6-foot-10 big man who can shoot the three and rebounds well. The Razorbacks leading scorer is Dusty Hannahs, a sharpshooter who can also create off the dribble.
Their weakness is defense, where they’re 96th in efficiency. This has hurt them against top teams as they gave up 97 to Kentucky, 81 to Florida, 85 to Minnesota and 99 to Oklahoma State. While they won 25 games, the Razorbacks don’t have a great win to their credit, making it hard to trust them. Their offense is strong enough to beat Seton Hall, a team that struggles to score, but their defense is too weak to think they could knock off top-seed North Carolina in the South Region. —Eli Horowitz
These Pirates will absolutely pound you inside. They are physical, strong and filled with those who can fill up the box score in a hurry. Leading the way is Khadeem Carrington (17 pts, 3 asst), a versatile guard who plays multiple positions and is best in transition. Angelo Delgado (15 pts, 13 reb) controls the paint and the glass, letting Seton Hall run in transition and leverage the strengths of Carrington. He’s also an efficient finisher on the interior.
Just because they have two standout pieces that compliment each other doesn’t mean the Pirates don’t get significant contributions elsewhere. Swing forward Desi Rodriguez can play with pace at the four-spot, or he can spend time on the perimeter and stretch defenses with a 36 percent three-point shot. Madison Jones is one of the best on-ball thieves in the country, and he creates easy offense for this group as well. They like to run in transition after stops, rebounds or steals, but their offense isn’t their calling card. The Pirates are a top-forty defense on KenPom and rarely give up offensive rebounds — they’re good at defending the three and can limit opponents’ chances to crawl back in games once the Pirates grab a lead.
All that is contingent on free throw shooting, the Achilles heel of this Seton Hall team. Kevin Willard has them excelling in many ways, but a team that has five of their regular seven players south of 70 percent from the line may be susceptible to giving up an early lead. Without that depth, the Pirates are going to have a difficult road ahead if they want to knock off North Carolina and move to the Sweet Sixteen. — Adam Spinella
The following games will be played Thursday and Saturday from Milwaukee, WI
5. Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. 12. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Minnesota enters the tournament on the strength of its 18th ranked KenPom defense. The Golden Gopher defense is led by center Reggie Lynch, whose 14.6 percent block rate ranked second in the country this year. Lynch’s rim protection makes points in the paint tough to come by against Minnesota.
On the perimeter, Minnesota’s quick defense makes things nearly as hard for opposing offenses. Minnesota limited their opponents’ three-point attempts well this year. When opponents did get off three-pointers, they only shot 30.5 percent, the eleventh best rate in the country. Minnesota’s quick guards allow the team to play an aggressive defensive scheme while still closely contesting shots at every spot on the court.
Offensively, Minnesota was a poor shooting team this year, which limited their offense all year long. Where they do excel is in dribble penetration. The defensive quickness on Minnesota has translated well to offense, where Nate Mason excels at getting to the paint and breaking down opposing defenses.
Minnesota’s ultimate downfall may be its depth. The team lost its highest volume outside shooter in Akeem Springs in the Big Ten Tournament, and then trotted out a six man rotation in its only game without Springs. Minnesota’s lack of depth will likely limit their ability to go deep in this year’s tournament. — Matt Way
A year after knocking off Michigan State as a 15 seed, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders return to the tournament looking to upset another Big Ten team in the round of 64. Middle Tennessee’s excellent 30-4 record this season earned them a 12 seed and a first round matchup against Minnesota.
Despite Middle Tennessee’s status as a 12 seed, the public is rightfully recognizing that they are a legitimate threat to even good power conference teams. Their matchup is currently a Pick ‘Em in Vegas. KenPom gives the Blue Raiders a 45 percent chance to win.
When Middle Tennessee take the court against Minnesota, viewers may recognize two of their starters – junior Giddy Potts and senior Reggie Upshaw were the Blue Raiders’ leading scorers in their upset victory against Michigan State last year. New to the equation is Middle Tennessee’s leading scorer, Arkansas-transfer Jacorey Williams. Williams used 31 percent of possessions for the Blue Raiders when he was on the floor this season, and he did so on solid efficiency.
Defensively, Middle Tennessee plays aggressive perimeter defense and hits the defensive boards hard – allowing opponents to rebound only 20 percent of their misses. That defensive rebounding rate was good enough for 12th-best in the entire country.
For Middle Tennessee to pull of a second consecutive upset over a Big Ten team, they will need to continue that excellent defensive rebounding. Minnesota is a fairly long, athletic team and could present interior problems for the Blue Raiders. Middle Tennessee will also need to find a way to avoid Reggie Lynch, one of the best shot blockers in the country. — Matt Way
4. Butler Bulldogs vs. 13. Winthrop Eagles
You never know which Butler team will show up. They’ve got the makings of a team that could make the Final Four, or that could be bounced in the first round. Their resume reveals as much: two wins over conference foes Villanova and Xavier are crown jewels in their season to date, as well as a neutral site thumping of Arizona. But then they have some ugly losses, including to an 11-20 Indiana State team on the road and a home loss to Georgetown. That makes the Bulldogs a difficult team to predict moving forward.
What is Butler elite at? Taking care of the basketball and scoring on the interior. The Bulldogs feature skilled passing, great sets and the ability to stretch the defense and open up the rim for attacking. Tyler Lewis, the senior point guard, is a great one-two combo with freshman driver Kamar Baldwin at the guard spot. Lewis can facilitate and get into the paint while pulling the strings of the offense. Baldwin just attacks and looks to score, giving Butler their best perimeter offense available. Both are able to take care of the ball. Meanwhile, both forwards Chrabascz (64 3FGA) and Martin (166 3FGA) will pick apart defenses inside and out, leveraging the matchups that defenses give them to score in the most efficient way.
On the other end of the floor is where Butler has to earn their money. They allow teams to shoot above 50 percent inside the arc, and that number was close to 53 percent in the Big East. In losses, the Bulldogs allow opponents to shoot 59 percent from two. Why? Center Tyler Wideman is not a rim protector (24 blocks on the season) and both Martin and Chrabascz are a bit slow at the forward spots. Teams that can spread them out and get into the paint off the bounce typically have success against Butler.
At the end of the day, Butler coach Chris Holtmann runs a great program, is detail-oriented and will let his seniors and upperclassmen carry them. Holtmann, a candidate for National Coach of the Year, will have a few tricks up his sleeve with his versatile group this March if they can get past the opening weekend. One bonus: everybody shoots their free throws well (a mark of teams that can win close games). But you never know what Butler team is going to show up… — Adam Spinella
America is going to fall in love with this team, led by an underdog personified. Five-foot-seven point guard Keon Johnson averages 22.5 points per game to lead the Eagles, and he’s a joy to watch play. He’s got seven thirty-point outings in his senior season alone, including 38 on 21 shots in a huge win against Illinois earlier this year. For all you out there who think tiny mid-major guards cannot hold their own against a traditional power, go watch him in that Illinois game. Johnson was 14-29 (48 percent) from three in the Big South conference tournament, propelling his team to victory. He’s a dangerous senior that will do whatever it takes to get his team to move forward.
Anchoring the paint behind Johnson is big man Xavier Cooks, one of the best rebounders in the nation and the team’s leader in assists — a rare combination. Cooks is a shaggy looking 6’8” that has some serious explosive athleticism. The Aussie has been the best pro prospect for Winthrop, despite not being their leading scorer or the engine that drives the car (that’d be Johnson, unquestionably). He plays inside and out, dominates the glass, takes big men off the bounce, skies for alley-oops — these two are a fun tandem to watch. Around them are shooters ready, willing and able to pull the trigger.
Don’t fall in love with them for their offensive output and their heart alone — Winthrop has statistically been one of the hardest teams to score on in the country, particularly from three. If they don’t let Butler get hot from deep against them, that could be their recipe for an upset. — Adam Spinella