Just a few hours separate us from the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That means we are running out of time to speculate about the bracket, the teams within it and the players on those teams. Once the afternoon rolls around, we’ll start getting the answers to the questions we’ve had since Sunday’s selection show. Before we get to that, the clairvoyant Clayton Trutor and I took some time to contemplate this year’s madness.
How far do you expect Cincinnati to advance?
Clayton Trutor (@ClaytonTrutor): Cincinnati will reach the Elite 8. The run we all expected last spring will be arriving a year late. The Bearcats’ cluster of matchups suit Cincinnati-style basketball.
Phil Neuffer (@philneuffer) : There is a clear path for the Bearcats to get to the second weekend for the first time since 2012. They are playing so very close to home in Columbus, Ohio. They have such a tremendous home court advantage (50-3 over the last three season) that if it can travel just a bit, it could help them produce wins against anyone, including No. 2 seed Tennessee in the second round. However, the Bearcats have had so much trouble advancing past the first weekend that I struggle to envision them doing more than just defeating Iowa in round one.
Who is the toughest team in UC’s region?
CT: Virginia. Despite the Cavaliers historic aberration last year, this club is made for March. They play fantastic defense, take good shots and benefit from veteran leadership.
PN: I’d also probably say Virginia, but in the interest of keeping things fresh, let’s look at some of the other teams that the Bearcats could play. I’ve already mentioned the Volunteers, who looked like the best team in college basketball at times this season. They have an incredible offense that features five players averaging at least 10 points per game. That could be an exceptional challenge for the Bearcats in the second round.
Outside of the top four seeds in this region, Villanova would be a difficult matchup for the Bearcats because of how the Wildcats shoot threes, ranking ninth in the country in percentage of points from distance. As we all know, UC’s defensive weakness has been defending the three this year.
Which player needs to step up the most for the Bearcats to make a deep run?
CT: It is all on Jarron Cumberland to put this team on his shoulders. Expect nothing less of him.
PN: Clayton is right that this team can’t win without Cumberland playing like the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year each and every minute. However, that is expected. For them to pull off the unexpected, which would mean a deep run to the later rounds, they need Cumberland to get some help beyond the norm. I think the player who has the best chance of making that difference is Cane Broome. When the Bearcats have fallen short, its because they’ve struggled to find points. Broome has the ability to be a volume scorer and he’s already been on a tear with his three-point shooting. If that continues, then everything should fall into place.
Which first round matchup besides UC’s most intrigues you?
CT: Houston-Georgia State. How will the Coogs respond to the national spotlight against a foe that knows a thing or two about pulling big tournament upsets?
PN: Buffalo-Arizona State. The Bulls have already won 31 games and the underlying metrics love them. However, they haven’t played a team inside KenPom’s top 50 since December. The Sun Devils won’t break that streak, but I’m interested to see the Bulls play a team that isn’t in the Mid-American Conference. I think they are legitimately good and this game can give a good indication of just how far they can go.
What is your biggest upset pick?
CT: Vermont over Florida State. The Duncan brothers are a trio of three-point shooting machines. By the end of this weekend, they will be the best known triumvirate since Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.
PC: UC Irvine over Kansas State. This might be a trendy one, but I think there’s a good reason for that. The Wildcats really aren’t a great team offensively and while the Anteaters aren’t either, they haven’t lost since mid-January. If momentum means anything and if KSU starts slow, this is a game worth keeping an eye on.
Who did you pick to win it all and why?
CT: Virginia. For the aforementioned reasons.
PN: Duke because the Blue Devils have Zion Williamson and every other team does not.