2018 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Best Picks for Every Men's Tournament Matchup
Let me preface all of these picks with this: I trust no one.
This is how it usually goes when I pick my bracket. I'm risk-averse. When I go to Vegas, I sit by the pool. When I'm presented with stock options, I race to the bank and open a savings account. And so when I fill out a bracket, I almost always end up picking the team that I trust the most to win it each year. I might not always be right, but I usually feel good about my picks.
Well, my stomach is turning this year.
Everyone has flaws. I can go up and down the bracket and tell you what's the matter with this team and that one. It's like when my wife sends me to the store to buy avocados, and they're all hard as a rock or so ripe the innards are oozing out. I know I'm not going to win here.
It's going to make the NCAA tournament incredibly fun and unpredictable, but it's probably also going to make most of us burn our brackets by the second weekend.
I always try to use logic when I make my picks, and I can explain each one of these. You'll see that. But this year I'm not sure I buy any of it. This is the year when we'll probably get a wacky champion that no one outside of that team's fanbase will have the balls to pick. Basically, it's like any year Connecticut won it.
If the Huskies were in it, I'd just pick them! They're not, so I'm lost. Thanks a lot, Kevin Ollie.
No. 11 Arizona State over No. 11 Syracuse
Arizona State struggles to guard and rebound, so Syracuse is both a good and bad matchup. Jim Boeheim does not have a good offensive team, but his guys crash the offensive glass, grabbing 35.1 percent of their misses. He also can pick the brain of his former assistant, Washington head coach Mike Hopkins, who led the Huskies to a 68-64 victory over Arizona State earlier this year.
But give me the team with the better guards who are happy to bomb from distance against the zone.
No. 11 UCLA over No. 11 St. Bonaventure
This will be one of the best guard matchups you'll see in the entire tourney, as UCLA's Aaron Holiday will go up against St. Bonaventure's Jaylen Adams. Both teams like to play fast, and I'll take the team with the better offense: UCLA.
No. 16 Radford over No. 16 LIU Brooklyn
The logic here is simple. Radford is ranked 170th at KenPom.com; LIU Brooklyn is ranked 251st. I'll take the favorite.
No. 16 Texas Southern over No. 16 North Carolina Central
Former Indiana coach Mike Davis has built his program on attracting transfers from bigger schools. He's done so again with this group this year, and he'll have the better talent in this game.
First Round, East Regional
No. 1 Villanova over No. 16 Radford
Radford allows its opponents to shoot 38.6 percent of its shots from deep. Villanova likes to shoot threes and is good at it. That's not a good combo for Radford.
No. 8 Virginia Tech over No. 9 Alabama
Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams is 4-2 in first-round games. Alabama, who finished 8-10 in the SEC, is fortunate to be in the tournament. The Crimson Tide's best chance to win is Collin Sexton going nuts, but with four days to prep, Williams should be able to come up with a good game plan.
No. 5 West Virginia over No. 12 Murray State
Since Bob Huggins adopted his current Press Virginia model, his team has gone 2-1 in the opening round with the one loss coming to Stephen F. Austin. SFA was coached by Brad Underwood, a former assistant of Huggs, and played its own brand of pressure defense. For most, the pressing style is a shock to the system. That'll likely be the case for Murray State.
No. 4 Wichita State over No. 13 Marshall
Marshall is coached by Dan D'Antoni, brother of the Houston Rockets coach, and he's adopted his brother's pace-and-space system. Unfortunately for the Thundering Herd, they will be playing a disciplined team in Wichita State. Gregg Marshall always has his team ready for the tourney and has won five straight first-round games. He'll make it six.
No. 6 Florida over No. 11 UCLA
Size and offensive rebounding can give the Gators fits, but UCLA does not have a big, physical front line. This will be a battle of the guards, and while UCLA's Aaron Holiday will be the best player on the floor, the Gators have better all-around guard play. The Bruins are also not good at limiting threes. That's something you have to do against Florida.
No. 3 Texas Tech over No. 14 Stephen F. Austin
Texas Tech star Keenan Evans looked to be back to his old self at the Big 12 tournament. Evans hurt his toe on Feb. 17 against Baylor, and Tech lost four straight. If he's right, the Red Raiders have enough offense to be a dangerous team.
No. 7 Arkansas over No. 10 Butler
The Razorbacks were hot coming down the stretch, winning eight of their last 11. Butler is always a tough out, but Arkansas has three veteran guards (Jaylen Barford, Daryl Macon and Anton Beard) and a possible future lottery pick in the post (Daniel Gafford). Butler is well-equipped to handle Arkansas' press, but Gafford will give the Bulldogs fits.
No. 2 Purdue over No. 15 Cal State Fullerton
Cal State Fullerton has one player taller than 6'7" in its rotation. That'd be 6'9" senior Arkim Robertson. To beat Purdue, you have to be able to check giant Isaac Haas one-on-one, and the Titans just don't have the personnel to get that done.
First Round, Midwest Regional
No. 1 Kansas over No. 16 Pennsylvania
Penn is good at running teams off the three-point line, and its opponents shoot only 29.6 percent from deep, which ranks second-best nationally. That could be a problem for Kansas, who is more reliant on threes than any team Bill Self has ever coached. But the one time Penn played someone on KU's level, the Quakers got blown out, losing 90-62 to Villanova back on Nov. 29.
No. 8 Seton Hall over No. 9 NC State
Seton Hall has better talent than its seed line and started playing well down the stretch after a four-game losing streak in February. The Pirates won four of their last six, and the losses (Villanova and Butler) came by a combined two points. NC State just lost to Boston College. It's not always smart to trust momentum coming into the tourney, but I'm going with that here.
No. 12 New Mexico State over No. 5 Clemson
Clemson is 7-6 since losing senior forward Donte Grantham to a torn ACL. You could argue that had Clemson played the entire season without Grantham, it wouldn't be seeded this high. The committee did the Tigers no favors by pairing them with New Mexico State. The Aggies have an elite defense and a major-conference level guard in Zach Lofton. Lofton, who is at his fourth school in six years, has the talent to take over a game. This just makes too much sense as a classic 12-5 upset.
No. 4 Auburn over No. 13 Charleston
This is another tempting game to pull the upset pick. Auburn thrives off forcing turnovers, and Charleston is one of the least turnover-prone teams in the country. But I'll bet on Bruce Pearl, who was 4-2 in first-round games when he was at Tennessee.
No. 11 Arizona State over No. 6 TCU
The Horned Frogs struggled against the Big 12's more perimeter-oriented teams, getting swept by Oklahoma and Kansas. TCU's ability to offensive rebound could give the Sun Devils problems, but I think ASU's guards can control this one. If the Sun Devils are able to hit the reset button and get back to playing like they were in November and December, they have the guard play to go on a run.
No. 3 Michigan State over No. 14 Bucknell
Bucknell has just two wins over KenPom top 100 teams: Vermont and Northeastern. Against major-conference teams, the Bison are 0-3. It's tough to see them knocking off a team with one of the most talented rosters in the country.
No. 7 Rhode Island over No. 10 Oklahoma
Oklahoma looked like a team ready to get its season over with at the Big 12 tournament. I just didn't like the body language and vibe around the Sooners. Rhode Island won a game in last year's tourney against a team that was limping into the tournament (Creighton), and the selection committee did it a favor again.
No. 2 Duke over No. 15 Iona
Iona is not a good rebounding team, and that's a scary flaw against Duke. The Blue Devils lead the country in offensive rebounding rate. Look for Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. to eat against the Gaels.
First Round, West Regional
No. 1 Xavier over No. 16 Texas Southern
The good news for Texas Southern is it is used to playing this level of competition. Mike Davis always plays one of the toughest nonconference schedules in college basketball. The bad news is the Tigers went 0-13 in the nonconference.
No. 8 Missouri over No. 9 Florida State
The Seminoles have struggled defending the three-point line this year, allowing opponents to shoot 36.4 percent. Cuonzo Martin has adopted the space-and-pace model, and now he has Michael Porter Jr. back to give him another perimeter threat. I'm making this pick assuming Porter will fare better than his 5-of-17 return in the SEC tournament against Georgia.
No. 5 Ohio State over No. 12 South Dakota State
The Jackrabbits have a chance to go on a run because they have Mike Daum, one of the best scorers in the country. But they struggled with the athleticism of bigger schools in the nonconference, and that could be the hurdle here. I'm not sure they can handle Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate or Keita Bates-Diop.
No. 4 Gonzaga over No. 13 UNC Greensboro
I watched the Southern Conference final between UNC Greensboro and East Tennessee State, and while it's probably not fair to judge a team off just one game, it didn't look like the Spartans had the offensive firepower to hang with Gonzaga. The Zags are also under-seeded because of their conference. If they were coming out of the Pac-12 instead of the WCC, they'd probably be on the two line.
No. 6 Houston over No. 11 San Diego State
The Aztecs have won nine straight games and are a scary draw. But Houston is playing in its first NCAA tournament since 2010, and Kelvin Sampson is not going to allow his players to overlook anyone. Both teams are excellent defensively. I trust Houston's guards, particularly star Rob Gray, to make enough plays down the stretch in what could be a close game.
No. 3 Michigan over No. 14 Montana
John Beilein has the best defensive team he's ever coached, and his offense is starting to look like the usual Beilein offense. The Wolverines had a long layoff because of the goofy Big Ten tourney relocation to New York, but giving Beilein more practice time should only work out in Michigan's favor.
No. 10 Providence over No. 7 Texas A&M
Texas A&M freshman TJ Starks came on strong late in the season, but guard play continues to be an issue for this program. Starks could be overwhelmed going up against Providence senior Kyron Cartwright, who will be playing in his fourth NCAA tournament. I'm betting on the experience of the Friars.
No. 2 North Carolina over No. 15 Lipscomb
Roy Williams has never lost a game in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Sorry Lipscomb. Ol' Roy in the first round is a given.
First Round, South Regional
No. 1 Virginia over No. 16 UMBC
UMBC played two power-five schools this year (Arizona and Maryland) and lost those games by a combined 46 points. The Retrievers also have a crummy offense, ranking 208th in adjusted offensive efficiency. That's not beating one of the all-time great defenses.
No. 8 Creighton over No. 9 Kansas State
Kansas State is limping into the tournament with injuries to stars Dean Wade and Barry Brown. If Creighton is similar to one Big 12 team, it's Kansas. The Jayhawks beat the Wildcats all three times this season. With a healthy Wade and Brown, this would be a coin flip. With those two possibly not at their best, Creighton advances.
No. 12 Davidson over No. 5 Kentucky
Davidson coach Bob McKillop's teams always run beautiful offense and execute at a high level. Defensively, his Wildcats try to keep the ball out of the paint and allow opponents to bomb away from three. While the numbers show Kentucky is a solid three-point shooting team (36.1 percent), I don't trust UK's shooters. I also think the execution of Davidson will give the Baby 'Cats of UK trouble. For the first time since Steph Curry was in school, Davidson will make it out of the first round.
No. 4 Arizona over No. 13 Buffalo
Buffalo has a stretch 4 in Jeremy Harris who will force Deandre Ayton to get out on the floor and guard on the perimeter. But Harris is 6'7", and his poor soul is likely the one who will have to deal with Ayton on the other end. Bulls fans, pray for your boy Harris.
No. 11 Loyola of Chicago over No. 6 Miami
The Ramblers won at Florida this year, and now it's time to pick on the Sunshine State again. Similar to its Missouri Valley brother Northern Iowa, Loyola slows the pace, shoots the heck out of the ball and plays solid defense, ranking 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency. This will probably be a trendy upset pick and for good reason. That recipe has worked in March for Northern Iowa. Why not Loyola?
No. 3 Tennessee over No. 14 Wright State
Rick Barnes has lost 11 times in the round of 64 in his career, so you could bet on some history here and say he loses again. It's also probably worth noting the guy has been to 23 NCAA tournaments. One of the most underrated coaches of all time will advance to the second round.
No. 10 Texas over No. 7 Nevada
Nevada went 0-2 against the Big 12 this year and will be up against a Texas team that is playing its best basketball. The Longhorns have found some outside scoring recently from Jacob Young. Mo Bamba, who had a late-season toe injury, will benefit from the long layoff. The length of San Diego State gave Nevada problems—the Aztecs beat them twice over seven days—and UT's length will be the difference in this one.
No. 2 Cincinnati over No. 15 Georgia State
The last time Georgia State was in the tournament, Ron Hunter's son R.J. made him fall out of his chair. Hunter has another dynamic scorer in D'Marcus Simonds, but he isn't R.J. and doesn't have enough help to beat Cincy's terrific defense.
Second Round, East Regional
No. 1 Villanova over No. 8 Virginia Tech
This could be a scary game for Villanova as Virginia Tech has performed best against elite teams this year. The Hokies have wins over Virginia, Duke and North Carolina. This is also the spot where the Wildcats lost last year to Wisconsin. But Jay Wright is not letting that happen two years in a row.
No. 5 West Virginia over No. 4 Wichita State
This could be the best game of the second round. Both of these teams are good enough to reach a Final Four. Wichita State is one of the best execution teams in the country on the offensive end and a team that should be well-equipped to handle WVU’s press. But where the Shockers struggle is on defense, particularly against penetrating guards. The Mountaineers have two good ones in Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles Jr. They also have a big man, Sagaba Konate, to deal with Shaq Morris. Those three WVU stars will be the difference.
No. 3 Texas Tech over No. 6 Florida
The recipe to beat the Gators is to be disciplined defensively and not let their guards go off. Texas Tech is one of the best half-court defensive teams in the country. If the Gators are able to push the pace, they’ll have a shot. But I bet Chris Beard’s motion offense wears them down.
No. 2 Purdue over No. 7 Arkansas
I was really close to picking Arkansas here, because Daniel Gafford has the size and strength to at least have a chance at checking Isaac Haas. Purdue also has trouble against quicker penetrating guards, and Arkansas has the answer there too. But the Boilermakers had plenty of time to get rested after Big Ten tournament, and I think that layoff will do them wonders. Arkansas also is not good at preventing threes, and that’s something you have to do well against Purdue.
Second Round, Midwest Regional
No. 1 Kansas over No. 8 Seton Hall
This is a scary matchup for Kansas, especially if Udoka Azubuike is not back or is limited in any way. Angel Delgado will be a tough matchup for KU's backup bigs. The Jayhawks do have some hope, however, now that Silvio De Sousa looks to be a more dependable option. Also, Seton Hall struggles with teams that spread it out and shoot a lot of threes like Kansas does. Against Villanova, Marquette and Creighton, the Pirates went 1-5.
No. 12 New Mexico State over No. 4 Auburn
The Aggies have the athletes to match up against Auburn, and Chris Jans spent a lot of years working under Gregg Marshall. His team is not going to be intimated by the stage or the opponent. NMSU already beat Miami this year and nearly took out USC. The Tigers are also reliant on the three ball, and the Aggies hold D-1 opponents to 30.8 percent shooting from deep. Meet this year's tourney darling.
No. 3 Michigan State over No. 11 Arizona State
The Sun Devils rank 267th in defensive rebounding percentage and struggle against big front lines. Michigan State has one of the biggest and baddest front lines in the country, and the Spartans are fifth in offensive rebounding rate. This is a terrible matchup for the Sun Devils.
No. 2 Duke over No. 7 Rhode Island
Rhode Island does a good job of running teams off the three-point line, but its interior defense is suspect. URI opponents make 50.3 percent of their twos. Usually a defense that runs teams off the three-point line would be a tough matchup for Duke, but not this year's team. The Devils pound the rock inside, and Rhode Island is too small up front to deal with Bagley and Carter.
Second Round, West Regional
No. 1 Xavier over No. 8 Missouri
Missouri has struggled with point guard play all season, and Xavier will test a floor leader by mixing defenses. If Michael Porter Jr. were 100 percent, this would be a scary matchup for the Musketeers. But it's not realistic to expect Porter to kill it yet, and Xavier is always a difficult team to prep for in just one day.
No. 4 Gonzaga over No. 5 Ohio State
The Buckeyes overachieved this season and are a fantastic story. No one expected in the preseason that they were going to compete for a Big Ten title. Gonzaga, as I stated earlier, is more like a No. 2 seed. The Zags, for instance, rank eighth over at KenPom.com.
The big matchup problem for the Buckeyes will be Killian Tillie or Johnathan Williams, depending on who Chris Holtmann decides to put Kaleb Wesson on. The big freshman is not going to be able to check Tillie or Williams on the perimeter. Tillie is hot too, knocking down 13 of his 14 three-point attempts in the WCC tournament.
No. 3 Michigan over No. 6 Houston
Houston is reliant on the scoring of Rob Gray, and Michigan has the answer for that in sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson. Simpson put the clamps on opposing point guards in the Big Ten tournament, holding the starting PGs to a collective 25.9 percent shooting during Michigan's run to the title. If he's able to slow Gray, the Cougars are in trouble.
No. 2 North Carolina over No. 10 Providence
This would be a rematch of a second-round game two years ago when North Carolina beat Providence 85-66. This Carolina squad does not have that kind of firepower, but the Heels still have Joel Berry II. The veteran point guard was able to push the pace in that game, and he's 11-1 in his career as a starter in NCAA tournament games.
Second Round, South Regional
No. 1 Virginia over No. 8 Creighton
The Bluejays like to run and gun, and if there's a team in the Big East that plays a comparable style to Virginia, it'd probably be Providence. The Friars took two of three from the Jays this year. This will be a close game, but Virginia's ability to control pace will be the difference.
No. 4 Arizona over No. 12 Davidson
Arizona's front line is likely to overwhelm its first two opponents. The Wildcats just don't have the size and length to deal with both Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic.
No. 3 Tennessee over No. 11 Loyola of Chicago
Loyola of Chicago wants to play a slow, half-court game, and Tennessee will have no issues with that. The Vols prefer that pace as well. Look for the Vols to play through Grant Williams. Loyola just doesn't have enough big bodies to throw at Williams.
No. 2 Cincinnati over No. 10 Texas
Cincinnati's defense will chew you up and spit you out if you're not a great executing team and struggle shooting it outside. Texas has young guards and isn't a great shooting team. This will likely be a low-scoring game, but the Bearcats will make enough shots to survive.
Sweet 16, East Regional
No. 1 Villanova over No. 5 West Virginia
West Virginia has been one of the best teams in the country over the first 30 or so minutes of regulation this year. It’s that final stretch that the Mountaineers seem to unravel. Similar to Kansas, Villanova has the guard play to beat the press and take quality shots. KU beat WVU three times.
No. 2 Purdue over No. 3 Texas Tech
The way to beat the Boilermakers is spread them out and attack their guards. That’s just not the way Texas Tech operates. The Red Raiders run a motion offense and pick defenses apart with back cuts. Purdue has the discipline to handle that kind of offense. This could be a low-scoring game, but the Boilermakers will make enough shots to prevail.
Sweet 16, Midwest Regional
No. 1 Kansas over No. 12 New Mexico State
This is where double-digit seeds typically meet their end. The Aggies have legit size and athletes, but I'm not sure center Johnathon Wilkins will be able to handle KU's behemoth center Udoka Azubuike. By this point in the tournament, Azubuike, who sprained his knee before the Big 12 tourney, should be closer to himself. And if that's the case, it'll be tough for the Aggies to get past him.
No. 3 Michigan State over No. 2 Duke
This is a rematch of the epic battle at the Champions Classic in November. Duke had to play much of that game without Marvin Bagley, but Grayson Allen bailed the Devils out by going off for 37 points. While Bagley is a difference-maker, it's not likely that version of Allen shows up again. Also, MSU is one of the most accurate three-point shooting teams in the country, knocking down 41.3 percent of its threes. The Spartans were 9-of-25 in that game. Expect them to shoot better this time around and make Duke pay for playing zone.
Sweet 16, West Regional
No. 3 Michigan over No. 2 North Carolina
The line in this game would probably not be more than a point in favor of North Carolina. The Heels rank seventh at KenPom.com, and the Wolverines rank 10th. But those numbers take into account the entire season. Michigan's offense took some time to get humming as John Beilein had to work in some new pieces. The Wolverines rank 29th in adjusted offensive efficiency. But over the last nine games, they have scored 116.1 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 10th-best nationally in efficiency (non-adjusted) if they scored at that rate all season.
So Beilein now has an elite offense and defense. That's what it is going to take for someone to finally keep Berry out of the Final Four.
No. 4 Gonzaga over No. 1 Xavier
These two teams met in the Elite Eight last year, and Gonzaga won 83-59. This is probably a better Xavier team, and Gonzaga doesn't have quite the firepower as last season, but the drop-off is less than you'd think. The Zags are still really talented, and Mark Few has already proved he knows how to deal with the defenses Chris Mack will throw at him. I'll take the Zags.
Sweet 16, South Regional
No. 1 Virginia over No. 4 Arizona
Arizona's guards do not always do the best job of feeding Deandre Ayton, and Virginia is excellent at taking away its opponents' strengths. The Wildcats are going to have to make a bunch of threes to win this game, because even when Ayton does get it, it's likely he'll get double-teamed right away. The Wildcats just don't have enough shooters to make Virginia pay.
No. 3 Tennessee over No. 2 Cincinnati
If you like slow, grind-it-out, defensive slugfests, this game is for you!
This is not going to be the most visually pleasing tourney game, but I'll bet it's a close game with plenty of drama down the stretch. I like Tennessee's ability to shoot the three (38.4 percent) over Cincy's (35.7 percent), and in a game where scoring in the paint will be a chore, that could be the difference.
Elite 8, East Regional
No. 1 Villanova over No. 2 Purdue
These teams are similar. Both are well-coached with veterans on their rosters, and they like to take a lot of threes. They also rank first and second in adjusted offensive efficiency. (Nova is first.) Villanova simply has a tad better talent, and I think that’ll be the difference. I’m not sure Purdue has anyone to match up with Nova star wing Mikal Bridges.
Elite 8, Midwest Regional
No. 3 Michigan State over No. 1 Kansas
The Big 12 did not have many teams that could make Kansas pay for playing small. Baylor is the only league team that typically plays two true low-post guys, and KU split with the Bears. Oklahoma State has size and athletes and gave KU trouble, sweeping the regular-season series.
Michigan State’s front line is better than anything KU has seen this season. The Spartans also present problems for the Jayhawks with their ability to crash the glass. It’s rare that a No. 3 seed has better talent than the No. 1 seed, but that’s the case here. Sparty will likely be favored in Vegas if this game happens. I’m going with the favorite.
Elite 8, West Regional
No. 4 Gonzaga over No. 3 Michigan
The key to guarding Michigan is having a big man who can handle guarding ball screens and is comfortable floating to the perimeter to check Moritz Wagner. If you’d allow me to pick any big man in the country to do that job, Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie would be near the top of my list.
Defensively, Wagner might have some problems chasing Tillie around. The Gonzaga big man can score from the blocks and is also an excellent shooter, knocking down 50 percent of his threes this year. He’s going to become a well-known star in this tournament.
Elite 8, South Regional
No. 1 Virginia over No. 3 Tennessee
The South Regional is going to be exhausting for the offenses. This will be another grind-it-out game. The difference between this Virginia team and Tony Bennett's past clubs is this is arguably his best shooting team and the defense is just a smidgen better. Basically, every year Bennett has a team good enough to make the Final Four, and eventually he's going to get in. This bracket sets up nicely for the tourney's overall top seed, and this will be the team that finally gets it done for Bennett.
Final Four: No. 4 Gonzaga over No. 1 Virginia
Have I mentioned yet how much I love Killian Tillie?
A year ago, Gonzaga overwhelmed teams with its deep and talented frontcourt, and somehow, even after he graduated Przemek Karnowski and lost Zach Collins to the NBA, Mark Few still has one of the best frontcourts in America. Tillie is turning into a star, Johnathan Williams is the best version of himself as a senior, and Rui Hachimura is the most talented big man to come off the bench in college basketball.
Virginia does an excellent job of double-teaming in the post, but the Gonzaga big men are more effective attacking from the perimeter or mid-range area. Both of these teams are well-coached, and Virginia's defense is awesome. But at some point, the Hoos are going to meet a team in the tourney that figures out a way to score. The Zags are pretty good defensively too, and I like their talent over Virginia's. So for the second straight year, Gonzaga will be playing for a national championship.
Final Four: No. 1 Villanova over No. 3 Michigan State
On paper, this looks like a game that Michigan State should be the favorite. The Spartans are bigger and more talented up front, and Villanova’s biggest weakness is a lack of rim protection.
But that hurts Nova more against drivers than post-up big men, and the one thing the Spartans don’t do enough is slash. This game would be an opportunity for Miles Bridges to show he can do that, but too often this year Bridges has settled for jumpers. He’ll also be checked by a fellow Bridges (Mikal, no relation) in this game, and Mikal is arguably the best two-way wing in college basketball. The other big advantage for Nova is at point guard.
Cassius Winston is a really good shooter and passer, but I don’t think he has the defensive chops to handle National Player of the Year favorite Jalen Brunson. Brunson also could disrupt Sparty’s flow by making Winston uncomfortable. So while Michigan State has the advantage up front, Brunson and Mikal Bridges will make up for it.
National Championship Game: No. 1 Villanova over No. 4 Gonzaga
This would be the perfect path for Villanova to a national title. As I said earlier, Nova’s biggest weakness this year is a lack of rim protection, and so Jay Wright is going to want to avoid a team that can drive it downhill and use its quickness to get to the rim.
If the Wildcats have to go through Radford, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Purdue, Michigan State and Gonzaga to win the title, only West Virginia presents an issue there. And the Mountaineers often get trigger-happy from the perimeter.
The challenge with Gonzaga is the quickness and versatility of Killian Tillie, Johnathan Williams and Rui Hachimura, but Nova’s big men don’t have an issue guarding out on the floor.
On the other end, I’m not sure Gonzaga will be able to handle all of the playmakers for Villanova. The Wildcats have four guards/wings (Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Phil Booth) all capable of going off for 20-plus points.
These teams played earlier this season on Dec. 5 at Madison Square Garden, and Bridges went off for 28 points and Booth scored 20. And Nova won 88-72. It’ll be closer this time around. Tillie is a better player than he was then. But the winner will be the same, giving Jay Wright two titles in what’s been a special three-year run.
Stats via KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.