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NCAA Men’s Tournament Preview: Top-seeds Purdue, Houston face tough roads

The brackets are all set for the 2023 NCAA Men’s Division I basketball tournament and all that’s left to do is wait for the madness to begin.

Here’s a look at what you need to know in each of the four regions in advance of the big dance.

South Region

Favourites to watch for

Going chalk isn’t exactly original, but the top three seeds in the South Region all have legitimate cases to make a run to the Final Four.

The No. 1 overall seeded Alabama Crimson Tide are a complete-looking team, capable of dominating games on both ends of the floor, ranking 19th and third overall in offensive and defensive efficiency, respectively, according to the KenPom rankings.

No. 2 Arizona features a prolific offence thanks to the many skilled veterans the Wildcats boast. With junior big man Azuolas Tubelis nearly averaging a double-double this season — 19.8 points and 9.1 rebounds — Zona could make some serious noise in the tournament, as long as its middling defence and the team’s lack of depth outside of a core group of seven doesn’t come back to bite them.

The third-seeded Baylor Bears are led by dynamic freshman guard Keyonte George and feature the No. 2 ranked offence according to KenPom. This is a team with lots of depth, especially on the offensive end, and features a three-point attack that rivals that of Alabama’s with junior and senior guards LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler capable of lighting it up from distance. Compared to other top teams in the field, the Bears’ defence leaves a lot to be desired, but their offence is capable of completely burying opponents.

Big storyline

The big storyline to watch in this region, and probably the entire tournament, is the handling that Alabama has done with top NBA draft prospect Brandon Miller, whose name has been connected to the shooting death of Jamea Harris in Tuscaloosa in January. Dismissed Tide player Darius Miles has been charged with capital murder in the case and police allege Miller delivered the gun used in the shooting to Miles, who then allegedly provided it to another man.

Miller hasn’t been charged with a crime yet. However, the optics of the situation appear questionable and has led some to wonder why he’s still playing when there’s still an ongoing investigation into a serious matter that he is alleged to have been involved in.

It’s a cloud that will hang over Miller, Alabama and the entire tournament for as long as the Crimson Tide stay in it.

Potential upset

If you’re looking for a first-round upset to try for on your bracket in the South you may want to give No. 13 Furman knocking off No. 4 Virginia a try.

The Paladins broke a 43-year tournament drought claiming both the Southern Conference’s regular-season and tournament titles largely on the strength of their offence. Ranked 33rd in KenPom, there’s potential for Furman to knock off the Cavaliers because there’s a real possibility that Virginia simply won’t be able to keep up with the Paladins’ attack.

NBA prospects to watch

The biggest prospect to watch in the South Region is Miller on Alabama. A possible top-three pick in the draft, Miller is a three-level scorer with length, athleticism and shooting ability, making him appear to be a prototypical NBA wing.

Fellow Tide freshman Noah Clowney also looks like someone to watch as a six-foot-10 energy big with the potential to grow into a player who could stretch the floor with more work as a shooter.

Other NBA prospects to watch in the south include Tubelis (Arizona), George (Baylor), Arthur Kaluma (Creighton) and Terquavion Smith (NC State).

East Region

Favourites to watch for

Led by Toronto native Zach Edey, the No. 1 Purdue Boilermakers look to have everything going for them as they enter the tournament. They feature the Big Ten Player of the Year in Edey, won the Big Ten regular season title and also went on a run to win the Big Ten Tournament and now enter the big dance with plenty of confidence and momentum on their side.

Additionally, Purdue features a top-10 offence, according to KenPom, largely thanks to Edey, who at seven-foot-four and 305 pounds is all but unstoppable if he can get the ball in a good post position.

The No. 2 Marquette Golden Eagles are also a strong team on a hot streak, closing the regular season on a six-game winning streak to win the Big East title and then going on to win the Big East Tournament. With star point guard and Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek running the show, Marquette has become one of the best offences in college basketball.

Other teams to watch for in the East Region are the blue blood programs with No. 5 Duke peaking at the right time having won nine straight, including its run to the ACC Tournament title, as well as Nos. 6 and 7 Kentucky and Michigan State.

This was a pedestrian year for the Wildcats and Spartans by the standards normally set by them but they made it in, and you should bank against two legends like John Calipari and Tom Izzo at your own peril.

Big storyline

The East Region features a number of hot teams right now that look like they’re heading for a collision course with one another — including a potential Sweet 16 matchup between No. 1 Purdue and No. 5 Duke on the horizon. If momentum really is a thing from game to game we could be in for a potential instant classic during the second week of the tournament.

Potential upset

Looking at a 4-13 matchup again, there’s big potential with No. 13 Louisiana taking down No. 4 Tennessee and the reason is very simple, the Ragin’ Cajuns will have the best player in that game in six-foot-11 senior forward Jordan Brown.

A former 2018 McDonald’s High School All-American and five-star recruit, Brown has bounced around college basketball, first playing for Nevada before transferring to Arizona where he won Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year in the 2020-21 season and then transferring again to his father’s alumni where he’s since stuck.

As a 23-year-old senior the sheen on Brown has left as a surefire NBA prospect, but he’s been averaging 19.4 points per game on 57 per cent shooting this season and knows how to pass out of double teams effectively. A signature moment for him like leading a program to its first NCAA Tournament win since 1992 could get him back on the NBA’s radar.

Another upset team to look out for is No. 9 Florida Atlantic. Though the nature of the 8-9 matchup is a toss-up, it’s likely not a lot will be known about the Owls, who are making just their second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. No. 8 Memphis has a lot more name recognition, but Florida Atlantic isn’t to be underestimated with bench dynamo Johnell Davis leading the way.

NBA prospects to watch

Despite all the accolades, Edey’s NBA draft stock looks relatively low, probably because men his size just don’t play well in today’s NBA. With that said, however, he is the prime attraction on one of the top teams in the tournament so he’s a possible pro prospect worth keeping an eye on.

Other potential NBA guys to watch for in the East Region include Julian Phillips (Tennessee), Kyle Filipowski (Duke) and Cason Wallace (Kentucky).

Midwest Region

Favourites to watch for

The No. 1 seeded Houston Cougars are the top-ranked team in the KenPom rankings and there’s a case to be made that they should’ve been the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament over Alabama, but their loss to Memphis in the AAC Tournament likely prevented that from happening.

The Cougars do have some concerns as AAC Player of the Year Marcus Sasser missed the championship game with a groin strain, but this is such a deep and balanced team they could still make a big run without him. The squad also boasts AAC Freshman of the Year and surefire lottery pick Jarace Walker, whose size and athleticism could very well overwhelm opponents and take over games.

Two other teams to keep an eye on are Nos. 3 and 4 Xavier and Indiana, respectively.

The Musketeers were one of the best teams in the Big East this season, both finishing second in the regular season and losing in the conference championship game to Marquette. They pass the ball exceptionally well and play efficiently on offence, two factors that will take them far in the tournament and could help mitigate the inevitable dry spell on offence that every team experiences during a game.

As for the Hoosiers, freshman point guard Jalen Hood-Schifino lived up to his five-star billing, being named Big Ten Freshman of the year, while senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis is among the best players in college basketball right now. The college game usually doesn’t come down to individual talent, but tournament games can be won by individuals taking over moments, and Indiana has a couple of guys that can steal that spotlight.

Big storyline

As good as the Cougars are, it would seem the selection committee didn’t think to honour that very much because they have a rough road to make it to the Final Four, where they would be playing at home.

Before that, however, on their side of the bracket there’s danger in the form of potentially having to go through No. 9 Auburn in Birmingham in the second round, then Sweet 16 matchups against the likes of Miami or Indiana, and the Elite Eight could see the Cougars need to get past a tough Xavier squad or even a balanced No. 2 seed Texas.

It’s a tough path for Houston to make it to the Final Four, but if they can do it then they should be well prepared to win it all.

Potential upset

Looking at a classic 5-12 matchup upset here, No. 12 Drake has a real shot against No. 5 Miami.

As good as the Hurricanes were this season — ACC regular-season champions — they look like they could be vulnerable with the injury to starting forward Norchad Omier, the team’s third-leading scorer (13.6 points per game) and top rebounder (9.7 rebounds per game).

This could open the door for the Bulldogs, led by their sophomore scoring machine Tucker DeVries. Son of Drake head coach Darian DeVries, Tucker is averaging 19 points per game and at six-foot-seven with range from all over the court Miami will have a tough time trying to stop him, especially if he expands his game by going inside — something that could be there if Omier is out.

Ultimately, the Hurricanes probably have the best player in the game in ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong, but DeVries has had some big nights before this season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again.

NBA prospects to watch

With the injury to Sasser, this could be a big tournament for Walker to assert himself as a top-10-or-better draft pick by taking the reins of the Cougars and leading them on a deep tournament run.

Listed at six-foot-eight and 235 points, Walker is the ideal size for the modern NBA combo forward and has the athleticism and strength to be a Swiss Army Knife player who can do just about everything on a basketball court.

Sasser also looks like a lock as an NBA pick in this coming draft, but his range appears to be more in the late first round, early second round.

Other names to be on the lookout for in the Midwest Region are Colby Jones (Xavier), Hood-Schifino (Indiana), Jackson-Davis (Indiana) and Kris Murray (Iowa).

West Region

Favourites to watch for

The defending national champion Kansas Jayhawks are back in the dance as a No. 1 seed and are looking to be the first team to defend the title since Florida went back-to-back in 2006 and 2007.

Though a much different team than last year, Kansas still won the Big 12 regular-season title and Jalen Wilson, a returning player from last year’s championship squad, was named Big 12 Player of the Year.

Following Kansas is another blue blood program in No. 2 UCLA. The top-ranked defence in college basketball, according to KenPom, this is a veteran group with players like Jaime Jacquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell keeping the ship steady enough on offence to allow its stingy effort on the other end win ball games. Getting stops is always important in the tournament, and just about no one does that better than the Bruins. As such, they look like very tough competitors, especially because they’ll be starting their tournament in California.

And rounding out the top three seeds of the West division is the now-perennial powerhouse Gonzaga Bulldogs. Though coming close many years in the past, Mark Few’s team has still yet to get the job done, but this year’s edition could just be the one.

Led by program legend Drew Timme, the Zags are the top-ranked offence in college hoops this season, according to KenPom, and even scored a signature win this season against Alabama.

Big storyline

The prospect of Gonzaga, the best offence, versus UCLA, the best defence, in the Sweet 16 is extremely enticing and one everyone should be cheering for.

Other than that, the West appears to be a relatively cut-and-dried bracket where going chalk will likely end in good results.

Potential upset

Yet another 4-13 matchup for you, this time it’s the No. 13 Iona Gaels possibly knocking off No. 4 UConn.

With rumours swirling that Rick Pitino would be making a return to the Big East, this matchup has a great backdrop to it in addition to the fact the Huskies could be in for a tough matchup stylistically.

Iona defends well, particularly the three-point line, while much of UConn’s offence is predicated around taking threes.

If Pitino really is making a return to the Big East, then scoring an upset win over one of the conference’s top teams would be a great way for him to re-introduce himself.

NBA prospects to watch

If you’re an NBA fan, the team you should be watching is the No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks and their dynamic freshman guard duo of Nick Smith and Anthony Black.

Smith is a lightning-quick ball-handler with scoring instincts while Black is a big guard (six-foot-seven, 200 pounds) with great vision and defensive chops.

Both players are in the Nos. 5-10 range of the NBA Draft but could solidify a possible top five or top six billing for themselves with a good showing in the high-pressure situation they’re about to face.

More names you should look out for in the West Region are Gradey Dick (Kansas), Wilson (Kansas), Jaquez (UCLA), Julian Strawther (Gonzaga), Timme (Gonzaga), Jordan Hawkins (UConn), Andre Jackson (UConn), Adama Sanogo (UConn), Terrence Shannon (Illinois) and Coleman Hawkins (Illinois).

Final Four Prediction

The Final Four we’re predicting will see Alabama emerge from the South to take on Marquette from the East, while the other side of the bracket will have Houston survive the gauntlet in the Midwest to face Gonzaga from the West.

The National Championship Game will feature Alabama facing Gonzaga with Few and the Bulldogs finally breaking through to win it all.


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