NCAA tournament picks and upsets for the First Round and Final Four, based on NCAA tournament analysis from a wide array of experts.
As much as I love the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I can’t say I watched much college basketball this past season. O.K., I’ll be totally honest: I watched zero games.
It didn’t help that I moved to London in November, but the truth is that I watch very little regular college basketball most seasons, outside of an occasional performance by my alma mater Syracuse. I find living vicariously through Jim Boeheim’s rage therapeutic every once in awhile.
So, my March ritual has become one of reading as many NCAA tournament picks articles as I can between Selection Sunday and Thursday’s opening tip off by people who seem to have watched a ton of games during the regular season. This allows me to put a competitive bracket into a pool and take part in the madness.
I come across plenty of differing views, but I eventually settle on the arguments that make the most sense to me personally and work my way through the field of 64. I’ve also come to trust certain individuals more than others over the years, including some I had the pleasure of working with (name drop warning) when I was a sports editor at the New York Times, including Pete Thamel, Nate Silver and Marc Tracy.
I typically pick a fair amount of upsets in First Round and try to make more sensible picks from there. This keeps it fun without completely killing my chances in the pool. But this year, I’m feeling friskier than usual, which is why I’m bypassing the overall favorite Duke and some of the other more popular championship picks like North Carolina and Virginia and going with Gonzaga to be the last team standing. I know, I’m still picking a No. 1 seed to win it all, but Gonzaga is also the one No. 1 seed most likely to not reach the Final Four, according to most experts. If you’re curious, you can see my full bracket here.
Anyway, I decided to document this entire process this year and share it, as I’m sure I’m not alone in my complete ignorance of the college basketball landscape. But even if you fancy yourself an NCAA tournament expert, you might find something here worth tweaking your bracket for.
Here are the First Round and Final Four picks I’m going with in 2019, based on NCAA tournament analysis from a wide array of experts.
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NCAA tournament picks
East Region NCAA Tournament Picks
Final Four Pick: No. 2 Michigan State
Yes, Michigan State should be in the West. Yes, the committee probably goofed with the Wolverines and the Spartans. But, I think Michigan State’s a tough matchup for Duke, and it may have been Duke that was disadvantaged by this potential Elite Eight pairing. I’m putting the Spartans — shorthanded, or not — in the Final Four. No one has more Quad 1 wins (13) in the country. No one has played better away from home. — Joe Lunardi, ESPN
First Round NCAA Tournament Picks
No. 1 Duke over No. 16 NCC/North Dakota State
UPSET: No. 9 UCF over No. 8 VCU
UCF is coming off an impressive 23-8 season where it went 13-5 in the AAC. The Knights made their biggest statement in early March with wins over 3-seed Houston on the road and 7-seed Cincinnati at home in back-to-back games. They’ve faced NCAA Tournament-level talent all season long. Central Florida has sensational size on the inside with massive 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall and 6-foot-11 Collin Smith at forward. With those two pounding the offensive glass, B.J. Taylor and Aubrey Dawkins can let if fly from the outside, where Taylor shoots 36.8 percent from three-point range, while Dawkins is at 39.2.
Look for UCF’s size to have a major impact defensively too. VCU shoots just 30.7 percent from the three-point line and relies on its ability to get to the rim and score. With Fall averaging 2.5 blocks per game and avoiding foul trouble for most of the season, it could be tough for the Rams to score in the paint, which is why the model gives UCF the victory in 62 percent of simulations. — CBS Sports Staff
No. 5 Miss State over No. 12 Liberty
No. 4 Va. Tech over No. 13 St. Louis
UPSET: No. 11 Belmont over No. 6 Maryland
This is the year longtime coach Rick Byrd earns his first NCAA tournament win. Byrd has 712 wins at Belmont and split the Ohio Valley regular-season title with Murray State before falling to the Racers in the OVC tournament final. The Bruins rank sixth in the country in field-goal percentage (49.9). — Andy Katz, NCAA.com
UPSET: No. 14 Yale over No. 3 LSU
It is refreshing that this year, the jokes will not be about Ivy League elitism but Ivy League corruption: This is a positive development for the democratic sensibility. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the Ivy League remains one of the better midmajor conferences; it has gone 4-6 in opening N.C.A.A. tournament games over the last 10 seasons. This year’s Bulldogs were the league’s best team, per KenPom, and boast an N.B.A. prospect in the junior Miye Oni. Meanwhile, the Tigers might have gotten the star Javonte Smart back from injury, but they lost Coach Will Wade, for the time being, after he was linked to a recruiting scandal. Not the even keel you want heading into the tournament. — Marc Tracy, nytimes.com.
No. 7 Louisville over No. 10 Minnesota
No. 2 Michigan St. over No. 15 Bradley
West Region NCAA Tournament Picks
Final Four Pick: No. 1 Gonzaga
Gonzaga already beat Duke at full strength on a neutral court — when the Bulldogs didn’t have Killian Tillie. Now the Zags do have Tillie — and the No. 1 offense in college basketball. Not just that, but Brandon Clarke is a top-three defender in the sport. Rui Hachimura is a top-15 player in college hoops, too. Zags are loaded. The L to Saint Mary’s in the WCC title game was aberrational. This team can win the national title. — Matt Norlander, CBSSports.com
First Round NCAA Tournament Picks
No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 16 F. Dickinson
No. 8 Syracuse over No. 9 Baylor
They played without Tyus Battle, their leading scorer, in the ACC Tournament. It enabled some of their role players who had been struggling, especially point guard Frank Howard, to get in a little rhythm and find themselves and I think that pushes them forward here. — Pete Thamel, Yahoo Sports
UPSET: No. 12 Murray St. over No. 5 Marquette
Perhaps the most dangerous mid-major vs. the most susceptible power conference team in a No. 5-No. 12 matchup? What could happen here? Even if this one’s obvious to general basketball fans, you should still pick it and don’t overthink it. The reason: Ja Morant (24.6 ppg, 10.0 apg) is an All-American and top-three projected NBA lottery pick. He’s already proven he can excel with high stakes, scoring the game-winning jumper in the Racers’ Ohio Valley tourney semifinal win over Jacksonville State. He followed that up with a 36-point performance in Murray’s upset of Belmont in the title game. Morant will be squaring up against another All-American in Marquette’s Markus Howard (25.0 pp), a 5-10 guard with a ferocious will to score. The reason the Golden Eagles are vulnerable is because they’re not peaking — having lost five of their last six — and over-reliant on Howard. Murray State, on the other hand, feeds off Morant’s contagious selflessness as much as his scoring. — Scott Gleeson, USAToday.com
No. 4 Florida St. over No. 13 Vermont
No. 6 Buffalo over No. 11 AZST/STJOHN
No. 3 Texas Tech over No. 14 N. Kentucky
No. 7 Nevada over No. 10 Florida
Nevada is similar to Iowa State in its wealth of scorers, headlined by seniors Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline; Caleb’s twin brother Cody Martin also averages double digits and improved from beyond the arc in 2018–19. The Wolf Pack are deep and senior-laden. We could be in for a mid-major battle between Gonzaga and Nevada in the West regional final. Nevada lost by one in the Sweet 16 last year, briefly stealing the tournament spotlight again under the direction of energetic coach Eric Musselman. They could advance past the second weekend in 2019. — Michael Shapiro, SI.com
No. 2 Michigan over No. 15 Montana
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South Region NCAA Tournament Picks
Final Four Pick: No. 2 Tennessee
This part of the bracket looks to be ripe for upsets. The top seed in the region, the Virginia Cavaliers, likes to grind down opponents and play at a snail’s pace. But that’s a problem. Since 2011, there have been eight teams seeded No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3 that have also ranked in the bottom 20 nationally for adjusted tempo. One was last year’s Virginia squad. Two others, No. 3 Syracuse in 2014 and No. 2 Virginia in 2015, lost in the Round of 32. Just two of the eight, No. 1 Wisconsin (2015) and No. 3 Michigan (2018), made it to the national title game, though neither won.
That could open the door for No. 2 Tennessee to emerge as the region’s representative in the Final Four. Grant Williams, a national player of the year candidate, is averaging 19.2 points, 7.5 rebounds this season and has improved his true shooting percentage from 54 to 65 percent in just one year. Few players can neutralize him in the post (1.2 points per possession, 98th percentile) and he has enough range to step outside the arc and hit three-point shots (38 percent). He’s also adept at getting himself to the free throw line (7.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, 10th best rate in the nation). Defensively he held opponents to 41 percent shooting around the rim in 2018-19, making him the type of balanced player that can take a team far in the tournament. — Neil Greenberg, Washington Post.com
First Round NCAA Tournament Picks
No. 1 Virginia over No. 16 G-Webb
No. 8 Ole Miss over No. 9 Oklahoma
The Sooners’ appeal to the committee (and to the bracketologists who presaged it) remains elusive. They had a 4-10 record against Quad 1 and a loss in Quad 3. They were 3-10 against the field. Baylor, on the same seed line, was 7-7 against the field. Indiana, which didn’t even make it, was 5-11. The Hoosiers probably didn’t deserve it, but the Sooners at best should be scrambling to make arrangements for a trip to Dayton. — Mike DeCourcey, SportingNews.com
No. 5 Wisconsin over No. 12 Oregon
UPSET: No. 13 UC Irvine over No. 4 Kansas St.
Since both programs rank 296th or lower in tempo, per KenPom.com, few would’ve expected a high-scoring contest anyway. However, an injury to Kansas State standout Dean Wade further complicates the outlook for the Big 12 champion. UC Irvine, which enters March Madness on a 16-game winning streak, boasts the nation’s best two-point defense. Opponents have connected on just 40.4 percent of their attempts inside the arc.
Lately, though, the Anteaters have also defended the perimeter wonderfully. Their last 10 opponents have combined to shoot a paltry 30.3 percent. Meanwhile, K-State hasn’t cracked 40 percent from beyond the arc in six consecutive outings. Wade’s absence will sting. — David Kenyon, BleacherReport.com
No. 6 Villanova over No. 11 Saint Marys
No. 3 Purdue over No. 14 Old Dominion
UPSET: No. 10 Iowa over No. 7 Cincinnati
The Hawkeyes enter the tournament with the 15th best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country (117.2 points per 100 possessions) per Pomeroy’s rankings and are adept at getting themselves to the free throw line — free throw attempts accounted for 42 percent of all Iowa’s field goals, the 14th highest share in the nation. Cincinnati’s defense, by comparison, ranks 114th (31 percent) for putting opponents on the free throw line.
The Bearcats also struggle to slow down spot-up shooters, a strength of Iowa. This season, the Hawkeyes scored 1.1 points per possession on spot-up attempts, placing them in the 95th percentile on these plays. Cincinnati’s defense against these plays put it in the 78th percentile. — Neil Greenberg, Washington Post
No. 2 Tennessee over No. 15 Colgate
Midwest Region NCAA Tournament Picks
Final Four Pick: No. 1 North Carolina
Like Gonzaga, UNC could benefit from big early upsets that take out top contenders. No. 4 Kansas and No. 5 Auburn both have tough first-round matchups that could clear the Tar Heels’ path to the Elite Eight. No. 2 Kentucky won’t have an easy road, either. Wofford (or high scoring Myles Powell and Seton Hall) would be next, plus there’s a 31-3 Houston team seeded third.
For all the attention Duke has received since Zion’s return, UNC lost by only one point in the ACC tournament and beat the Blue Devils twice earlier in the season. After an early exit last year, UNC will be back in the Final Four. — Andy Katz, NCAA.com
First Round NCAA Tournament Picks
No. 1 North Carolina over No. 16 Iona
No. 8 Utah St. over No. 9 Washington
UPSET: No. 12 New Mexico State over No. 5 Auburn
The Aggies won 30 games in 2018-19. That’s damn impressive. They also went nearly perfect in their conference with a 15-1 mark. They didn’t shy from competition, nearly upsetting Kansas in the regular season. They have a pretty good upset resume. New Mexico state is one of the best rebounding and defensive teams in the nation, two things that are vastly important in tournament games where everything is magnified.
The 5-seeded Auburn Tigers are an attractive team on the surface, but they haven’t been good under the spotlight, losing twice to Old Miss, twice to Kentucky, to LSU, to Mississippi State and to Duke. They did, however, take care of Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final. All of those teams are admittedly much better than NMSU, but their track record in big games isn’t reliable this season. — Evan Macy, PhillyVoice.com
No. 4 Kansas over No. 13 Northeastern
UPSET: No. 11 Ohio St. over No. 6 Iowa St.
If a Big Ten team that has made 11 Final Fours can be a Cinderella, then you’re looking at it in these Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s increasing tendency to seed underwhelming power-conference schools this way really messes with the definition.) OSU went only 18-13 during the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game and has almost twice as many losses as wins since New Year’s. So why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Despite the seed, this is still a dangerous team, one that ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive ratings and has star forward Kaleb Wesson back from suspension. So maybe they’ll give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about the other potential Cinderellas in this region: Seton Hall got a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of the other low seeds here are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a team that did all it could to play its way out of the tournament, but has some upset potential regardless. — Neil Paine and Josh Planos, fivethirtyeight.com
No. 3 Houston over No. 14 Georgia St.
No. 7 Wofford over No. 10 Seton Hall
No. 2 Kentucky over No. 15 Abilene Chr.