March Madness bracket 2024: Upset predictions, sleepers, Final Four pick in East Region

Duquesne is making its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1977. Some of us – not saying who – were in high school then. A five-decade drought was inconceivable at the time. This program had been the college home of the great Sihugo Green, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, and Chuck Cooper, the first Black player in NBA history.

With Green and the Ricketts brothers, Dave and Dick, the Dukes reached the finals of the NIT in both 1954 and 1955, winning the second at a time when the prestige of the tournament was near to the NCAAs.

It’s more than just that, however. Coach Keith Dambrot was the man hired in 2017 to attempt to reanimate a program that had only eight winning seasons in the 40 years since Norm Nixon shot the Dukes into the NCAA field by winning what was then the Eastern 8 (or, formally, the Eastern Collegiate Basketball League).

Dambrot had won 305 games in 13 seasons at Akron, reaching the NCAAs as Mid-American Conference champion three times. Duquesne offered him a substantial raise, and it happens that Dambrot’s father had played for the Dukes. He accepted the massive challenge, and his program was making steady progress before the pandemic. Things bottomed out in 2021-22, with only six wins, but the past two teams reached the 20-victory mark. This one broke through to Madness by defeating A-10 power Dayton in the quarterfinals, then outlasting Saint Bonaventure and VCU.

It’s more than that, also. Dambrot is 65 and is deciding whether to retire to spend time with his wife, Donna, who is battling breast cancer. She went through a double-mastectomy in early February, and he took time away from the team to be with her. He intended to miss a road game at Rhode Island, but she insisted she felt well enough for him to leave and coach the game. The Dukes won by 14 on their way to a 10-8 finish in league play.

He has not made a public about his intent. But if this is to be it, it is one lovely way to head into retirement.

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All-East Region team

F – Jaedon Ledee, San Diego State

G – Tristen Newton, Connecticut

G – Boo Buie, Northwestern

G – Terrence Shannon, Illinois

C – Johni Broome, Auburn

Boo Buie

(Getty Images)

Best East Region first-round game

No. 8 Florida Atlantic vs. No. 9 Northwestern

It’s a lot of the same guys, but FAU has not been the same team this season that reached the 2023 Final Four as one of the greatest surprises of a stunning NCAA Tournament. Many have criticized the Owls for not playing at that same level, but the group that took out Kansas State and Tennessee last season ought to at least be able to take out a 15-19 Temple team in an elimination game. They ought to be able to win a league in which the contenders were USF, Charlotte and UAB. They were not – not in the regular season, and not in the tournament, which is why UAB made it into the field.

Northwestern took down Purdue at home and pushed the Boilers to overtime on the road at Mackey Arena. They would represent the best story in this region were it not for the Dukes. This is the first time in its athletic history that Northwestern reached the NCAAs in consecutive seasons.

Like, ever.

Point guard Boo Buie is largely responsible for this. He averages 19.2 points and 5.1 assists and is the greatest reason Northwestern has been able to survive injures to 7-foot center Matthew Nicholson and shooting guard Ty Berr.

SN EXPERT BRACKETS: DeCourcy | Bender | Iyer

Seeded too high

No. 5 San Diego State. From the moment the Aztecs popped up as a No. 4 on the NCAA Tournament bracket reveal in late February, it was apparent they would be treated generously by the committee. Nothing they did before that warranted such extravagance. Nothing they’ve done since indicated they should maintain that position.

They were 4-9 in Quad 1 games, 10-10 against the first two quadrants. They played road games against the other five NCAA Tournament teams from the Mountain West. They went 0-5.

And despite their obvious affection for the Aztecs, the committee dumped on the seeds of every other Mountain West tournament selection. My projection of every one of those teams was off by at least one line, and Nevada was off by three.

If the committee loved the team that finished fifth in the league, why did they loathe everyone else?

HISTORY OF UPSETS BY SEED:
16 vs. 1 | 15 vs. 2 | 14 vs. 3 | 13 vs. 4 | 12 vs. 5

Seeded too low

No. 13 Yale. Most everything about Yale’s resume indicated it was superior to UAB, notably a predictive metrics average (KenPom, BPI) of 75 compared to the Blazers’ 111. That did not seem close at all. Yale had a 3-2 record in Quadrant 2 games, compared to 7-3, but the Bulldogs prevailed in a highly competitive Ivy League. UAB didn’t have to beat either the acknowledged best team (FAU) or league champion (USF) in the American to earn an automatic bid from its conference.

Upset special

No. 10 Drake over No. 7 Washington State. There was a lot of lamentation about Indiana State not making the field after winning the Missouri Valley Conference. Well, you have Drake to blame. Because they not only took the automatic bid away from the Sycamores, they took away their at-large case, as well.

If you’re going to earn an at-large bid from a mid-major conference, you’re going to have to be special. And not even taking the season series from the best team in your league does not add up to “special.” There’s a reason Indiana State could not get that done, and it’s Drake.

Drake won 28 of 35 games and is one of the best shooting teams in Division I.

MORE: Bracket busters to watch in 2024 March Madness

Best potential game

No. 6 BYU vs. No. 3 Illinois, possible second round.

The Illini have the No. 3 offense in Division I. Terrence Shannon is faster and more powerful with the basketball in transition than anyone else in college basketball. They scored 90 or more points in five of their past eight games.

You sold? Well, BYU has the No. 11 offense out of 362 teams.

So, yes, this is one you’ll definitely want to see.

PRINTABLE: Download a 2024 March Madness bracket here

Johni Broome

(Getty Images)

Best potential player matchup

Johni Broome, Auburn vs. Jaedon Ledee, San Diego State, possible second round.

Ledee and Broome both were All-America selections by The Sporting News; Ledee was on the second team, Broome on the third. They are vastly different players, with Ledee more adept at driving the basketball from the foul line to attack the rim and Broome one of the most powerful forces in the sport.

They will intersect often, so long as their teams do. It should be a blast to watch them battle.

SN AWARDS: Men’s 2024 All-America teams | Player of the Year | Coach of the Year

Get to know

Washington State coach Kyle Smith.

One might say Kyle Smith wanted to be a Power 5 coach in the worst way, because after a decade split between Columbia and San Francisco, he accepted the assignment to coach the Cougars. In the past, only the greatest coaches have been able to win in Pullman, including George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson and Tony Bennett.

So what does that say about Smith? Now that WSU is going to be dropping down to the WCC (hey, given the No. 5 seeds for Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s this year, maybe it’s not that steep a decline) it might be time for Smith to find another new home.

It’s what nearly all of the Coogs’ best coaches did, eventually.

Don’t be surprised if …

UConn wins every game it plays in this region by double digits. That’s what the Huskies did through six games in last year’s NCAA Tournament, and lately through eight of their past 10 victories. It’s not only hard to beat UConn, it’s hard to hang with them.

MORE: Watch the 2024 NCAA Tournament with Sling TV

Sleeper team

Drake. The Bulldogs came oh-so-close to winning in last year’s first round, leading the Final Four-bound Miami Hurricanes by five points inside the final 4 minutes of the game before losing by seven. So they know how to play in this tournament. Now it’s just another step to learn how to win.

Final Four pick

Connecticut. Let’s be honest: If you’d asked a member of the UConn program (whose drink was spiked with truth serum), they would say they are happy to have Iowa State as their No. 2 seed. It doesn’t mean, in any way, the Cyclones are not terrific. Surely you’ve seen by now what was the final score of their Big 12 final against Houston. But the other No. 2 seeds have more imposing personnel on the front end. It’s going to take a sensation effort from Iowa State to overcome the Huskies’ talent and geographic advantages and defeat them.

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