Rating the region: There’s not exactly a lot of recent NCAA tournament pedigree here. No. 1 Virginia’s last Final Four was 1984. No. 2 Tennessee has never reached the Final Four. No. 3 Purdue hasn’t made the Final Four since 1980. No. 4 Kansas State made the 1964 Final Four. You get the point. Not a lot of recent history to rely on here. Surely, Villanova lurks as a No. 6 seed. But this isn’t the Villanova that casual fans remember. This is the worst of the four regions.
Contenders to cut down the nets in Louisville: No. 1 UVA, No. 2 Tennessee, No. 3 Purdue, No. 4 Kansas State, No. 7 Cincinnati and No. 12 Oregon.
Pretenders who will be bounced early despite high seeds: You will see plenty of UMBC’s historic upset of No. 1 UVA last season. But the Cavaliers’ NCAA performance has been sordid long before that. They scored 39 against Florida in 2017, choked away a big lead to a bad Syracuse team in 2016 and lost to a lower-seeded Michigan State team the two years before that. So, yeah, there’s history there. No. 2 Tennessee can’t be too excited to see No. 7 Cincinnati in the second round, as that’s like looking in the mirror.
Cinderellas: It’s become a cliché to mock the Pac-12, but don’t sleep on No. 12 Oregon. They are as well coached as any team in the country. They’ve won eight straight and junior guard Payton Pritchard has been on a roll. They have a path available for a deep NCAA run. No. 11 St. Mary’s is a smart first-round upset pick over Villanova, which simply doesn’t have the depth.
Team that doesn’t belong: No. 10 Iowa has been a mess down the stretch. They’ve lost four of six games, including to Rutgers and Nebraska. If they hadn’t had a spree of buzzer beaters earlier in the season, they wouldn’t be here. Plus, the Hawkeyes have a bad matchup against under-seeded Cincinnati.
Chances of a 1-16 upset: Well, considering that UMBC broke a 135-game streak against Virginia, there will be a lot of eyes on No. 16 Gardner-Webb against the top-seeded Cavs. With De’Andre Hunter healthy this year, it’s hard to imagine history repeating itself.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett will try to avoid another upset this year. (AP)
Best potential round-of-32 game: No. 7 Cincinnati and No. 2 Tennessee would be a game for sharp elbows and violent box outs. Two teams with rugged DNAs would make for a memorable slugfest. The Bearcats got robbed on their seed, as the committee didn’t give the AAC much respect. Tennessee can’t love its draw. Both with come in a little ticked off.
Best potential Sweet 16 game: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 12 Oregon: We have a hunch the Ducks make a run here. And wouldn’t this be delicious? Virginia with a tricky matchup against a double-digit seed. Let the pucker power begin.
Best potential regional final game: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Tennessee: This would be an intriguing matchup of two hard-nosed, veteran teams with coaches who have tortured NCAA tournament histories. Rick Barnes hasn’t made the Final Four since 2003 at Texas. Tony Bennett has rewritten the book on NCAA heartbreak. Each has their best team at their current stop. Hunter vs. Grant Williams would be a lot of fun.
Best coach: Villanova’s Jay Wright certainly has shown some savvy in the NCAA tournament over the years. He’s won two national titles and will be unflappable on the sidelines. But after Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, there’s a huge talent drop off that even Wright’s sideline acumen can’t compensate for.
Underrated coach: Old Dominion’s Jeff Jones is an old hand. He’s coaching in his eighth NCAA tournament over his career at UVA, American and ODU. He also won an NIT at Virginia. Don’t underestimate the power of a March storyline, as Jones has been battling prostate cancer and will be one of the opening round’s feel-good stories.
Best player: Virginia’s Hunter is a likely top-10 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. He’s a potent defender and is averaging 15.1 points per game. After he missed the NCAA’s with a wrist injury last year, expect him to be focused and motivated.
Best player you haven’t heard of: Saint Mary’s star guard Jordan Ford (21.3 ppg) is the caliber of player who can carry them on a deep run. Ford’s 17 points helped lead St. Mary’s to a stunning upset of Gonzaga in the WCC final and could well keep the momentum going.
X-Factor: Purdue guard Carsen Edwards is averaging 23.0 points per game, and he came back to school to help lead the Boilermakers to the Final Four. Don’t sleep on the Boilermakers, who lost to Minnesota twice in 10 days but still have the size and pieces to make a run.
Welcome March sight: The hopeful return of Kansas State star forward Dean Wade. He’s battled injuries his entire career, including missing three games in the NCAA tournament last season. Wade has been dealing with a foot injury and Bruce Weber told Yahoo Sports on “Tourney Bracket Live” on Sunday that he’ll be evaluated tomorrow. “I hope we have him.” (Wait for the Wade news before you fill your bracket.)
Best part of this bracket: This region will go to whoever avoids pucker power. UVA has more NCAA ghosts than the horror movie section on Netflix. Tennessee has a tough path. Purdue hasn’t exactly been a tournament overachiever under Matt Painter. The tension makes the bracket.
Pete’s Pick: Tennessee. The Vols are old, rugged and steady. Look for Rick Barnes to put an exclamation point on this epic season in Knoxville.
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