The NCAA Tournament brackets are set, and if you are looking for a big-picture theme in this field of 68, “magnetic attraction” is as good an answer as I can offer.
Teams with similar styles, identities or brand names — in some cases, combinations of two or three of those qualities — have been grouped together in the four NCAA Tournament regions.
In another article here at CBB Today, I wrote about how the South Region has the teams which have endured very long Final Four droughts. Beyond that point, though, the top half of the South bracket — Virginia’s half of that bracket as opposed to Tennessee’s bottom half — features teams with similar styles.
Virginia, fourth-seeded Kansas State, and fifth-seeded Wisconsin — the three highest seeds which could get to the Elite 8 from that part of the South bracket — are all cut from the same cloth. Wisconsin is still playing the style of ball Tony Bennett’s father, Dick Bennett, brought to Madison decades ago. Bruce Weber has reinvented himself with an attention to lockdown defense at Kansas State.
Maybe this part of the South bracket will get busted up. Maybe Ole Miss will “get its UMBC on” and stun Virginia with shotmaking skill. Maybe Ole Miss and Oregon will meet in the Sweet 16… but most likely, you will see teams with similar styles playing in the Round of 32 and the Sweet 16.
The other three regions have their own themes or characteristics.
The East Region theme is its ACC-dominant flavor, including programs no longer in the ACC.
The East has Duke, Virginia Tech and Louisville among its top seven seeds. Then include Maryland as the 6 seed. Imagine those four teams making the regional in Washington, D.C. That would basically be an ACC Tournament semifinal doubleheader with supreme intensity. Obviously, any Sweet 16 game is a huge deal, but the moment is magnified when the programs are blue-bloods or have great familiarity with each other. Duke-Virginia Tech in a possible Sweet 16 game with lots of Hokie fans in D.C. would be an uproarious, frenzied game… and Justin Robinson might join Zion Williamson on the floor. ELECTRIC!
The Midwest Region theme: “Stay tuned for the latest episode of Blue Bloods, here on CBS.”
North Carolina-Kansas. North Carolina or Kansas versus Kentucky. Maybe Kansas won’t get to the Sweet 16, but if it does, three members of college basketball royalty will compete for a spot in the Final Four. Last year, the Midwest Region featured Kansas versus Duke in the regional final. In 2012, North Carolina was the 1 seed in the Midwest and played second-seeded Kansas in the Elite 8. The committee must love Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg. “Blue Bloods” airs bonus episodes on CBS in March, and they last more than one hour. (No whiskey is consumed on camera, though.)
It will be up to Iowa State or Houston — in that subsection of the Midwest bracket — to create a rebellion against college basketball’s ruling class.
The West Region theme is very similar to the South Region’s rock-fight theme. A lot of teams which hang their hat on defense will be grouped together, especially in the bottom half of that bracket with Michigan and Texas Tech.
Remember this about Michigan: It shot the cover off the ball in a virtually flawless offensive performance in the Sweet 16 against Texas A&M last year, but Michigan won five games to make the national championship game in 2018. In the four non-A&M games Michigan won, its cumulative 3-point shooting line was 24 of 96, 25 percent. Against Montana, Houston, Florida State, and Loyola-Chicago, Michigan never shot better than 31.5 percent from 3-point range. Michigan was 17 of 68 against Montana, Houston and Florida State to make the Final Four. Against Loyola, Michigan shot exactly at 25 percent — 7 of 28 — in the national semifinals.
The Wolverines had to be at their very best on defense in order to make that run… and they were.
This year, it seems Michigan will have to make the Final Four the same way.
The Wolverines are not likely to score well in this tournament.
Much as Virginia versus Wisconsin or Kansas State would create a rock fight in the Sweet 16, Michigan is staring at multiple rock fights if it wants to make the Final Four. Florida is not a particularly good team, but the Gators play high-level defense. Florida can’t shoot, and it lacks a low-post scorer, but the Gators have defended well all season. A Florida-Michigan game, if it happens, will be played in the high 50s or low 60s.
The same is likely to be true if Michigan survives the first weekend and meets Texas Tech in the Sweet 16. Chris Beard has elevated Texas Tech by getting his players to buy in at the defensive end of the floor. Yes, Jarrett Culver looks like an NBA lottery pick and could go off in this tournament, but Texas Tech’s outlook is bright because defense travels. The bottom half of the West bracket features a lot of ruthless defenses. Even in the top half of the bracket, Florida State’s long and muscular defense — which shut down Virginia in the ACC Tournament semifinals — and Gonzaga shot-blocker Brandon Clarke bring a lot of defensive prowess to the West.
This doesn’t even mention Syracuse’s notoriously tough 2-3 zone, which always seems to flummox higher seeds in March these days.
ACC flavor in the East. Rock fights and supreme defense in the South and West. Blue Bloods on CBS in the Midwest. These are your main themes at the 2019 NCAA Tournament.
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