NCAA Tournament Preview: Regional Breakdown

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Jake Dicker breaks down NCAA men's basketball tournament by region.

The best tournament in sports gets underway this week. Here’s everything you need to know.


No. 1 seed: UConn

What to know: Huskies in great shape to return to the Final Four

Dan Hurley is a man on a mission, and his squad is in position to become the first repeat NCAA Tournament champions since Florida in 2007. Since then, no reigning champ has advanced past the Sweet 16. This group, despite losing three starters from last year’s championship team, can change that. UConn comes into the tournament at 31-3 with the No. 1 ranked adjusted offensive efficiency. Those 31 wins include three over Marquette, three over tournament snub St. John’s, and single wins over No. 1 seed North Carolina, Creighton, Texas, and Gonzaga.  Their greatest asset is depth. Stephon Castle is a pro prospect, as is Donovan Clingan. Alex Karaban (39.5 3P%) and Cam Spencer (44.4 3P%) will light you up from deep and Tristen Newton will do a little bit of it all.

That being said, the committee did UConn zero favors as it’s No. 1 overall seed. The Huskies have location on their side, playing in Brooklyn and Boston, but the draw is tough – No. 2 Iowa State, No. 3 Illinois, No. 4 Auburn. That’s three more conference tournament champions, teams that are playing their best ball of the year at the right time. As the Big 12 tournament champion, including a dominant win over Houston in the final, Iowa State was thought to firmly be in play for the final No. 1 seed following Purdue’s loss to Wisconsin and North Carolina’s loss to NC State. Instead, the Cyclones are the tournament’s No. 8 overall seed, landing them in the East. 

Who can make an unlikely run?: Auburn

If you’re a metrics guy, the Tigers are your team. Auburn is the only team in the country that currently sits within the top-10 of both Kenpom’s adjusted offensive (10) AND defensive (4) efficiency rankings. If you’re a NET guy, the Tigers are 5th in those rankings behind Houston, UConn, Purdue, and Arizona. All five of their conference losses came to tournament teams. Four of those games were played on the road. The Tigers are eerily similar to last year’s UConn team, and may be the defending champs’ biggest challenge in the East should they both survive the first weekend. 

Who is on upset watch?: Washington State

Indiana State is out, Missouri Valley Conference champion Drake is in, and the Bulldogs are ready to make noise. Drake junior forward Tucker DeVries (21.8 PPG) is going to be the best player on the floor, and sometimes that’s all you need. Washington State was voted to finish 10th in the Pac-12 preseason media poll and has turned in a phenomenal season, but the ride may end here. 

Final Four prediction: UConn


No. 1 seed: North Carolina

What to know: Script-writers set up potential Hollywood matchup in Los Angeles 

The West could deliver the most anticipated game of the entire tournament if North Carolina and Arizona play for a trip to the Final Four. The big storyline, of course, is Caleb Love. After three years at North Carolina including a Cinderella run to the 2022 National Championship Game as a No. 8 seed, Love is in year-one at Arizona. The divorce in Chapel Hill wasn’t smooth by any means, as UNC stuck with their current No. 1 option RJ Davis following a rocky 2023. Love intended to transfer to Michigan but ran into academic issues, resulting in his move to Tucson.  This matchup would be must-see-TV. 

The 8/9 game is going to be great. No. 9 Michigan State was a preseason favorite, ranked No. 4 in the initial AP Poll. The year clearly did not go as planned, but you can’t have March without Tom Izzo. Sparty will be a popular pick, but I like No. 8 Mississippi State to take care of business.  

Who can make an unlikely run?: New Mexico

26-9, No. 22 in the NET, playing in a conference that received SIX bids… and New Mexico is an 11-seed. That doesn’t add up. Given the bracket, it seems UNM had to win their conference tournament to get into the field. The committee got it wrong. The Lobos being left out of the tournament would’ve been a shame, but they took care of business in the Mountain West and take on No. 6 Clemson in the Round of 64. Unlike the committee, Vegas knows exactly who New Mexico is and has them as -130 favorites on the money-line. If they get past Clemson, the Lobos will take on the winner of No. 3 Baylor/No. 14 Colgate. The second weekend is not out of the question for head coach Richard Pitino. 

Who is on upset watch?: Saint Mary’s

Outside of New Mexico, the most intriguing double-digit seed in the West is No. 12 Grand Canyon who drew No. 5 Saint Mary’s. GCU earned their way to the tournament by taking care of business in a fairly weak Western Athletic Conference and winning the conference tournament. Tyon Grant-Walker is the real deal.  Like the WAC, the WCC was less than impressive this season, but per usual, Saint Mary’s was near/at the top of the conference. It’s your typical Saint Mary’s squad; experienced and deep. Seven players average over 15 minutes per game and five players average double-digit points per game. Aidan Maheney is the main point of attack, but the Gaels can beat you from almost anywhere on the court. Oh, and they’ve lost once since Christmas. 

Final Four prediction: Arizona


No. 1 seed: Houston

What to know: Who’s healthy?

When healthy, Houston is one of the two best teams in the country next to UConn. Kelvin Sampson’s team prides themselves on their No. 1 ranked defense. Jamal Shead is one of the most dynamic guards in the country, but the Cougars struggle to shoot the ball. If LJ Cryer (39.0 3P%) isn’t hitting from deep, things get dicey.  I get concerned with Houston when it comes to the end of games. Collectively, the Cougs shoot under 70% from the charity stripe. Missing the front-end of 1-and-1’s is how you lose games in March.

No. 2 Marquette’s Tyler Kolek missed the Big East tournament due to injury but should be good to go. With Kolek on the floor, Marquette presents one of the most dynamic offenses in the country. Oso Ighadoro is a matchup nightmare and Kam Jones is playing with a chop on his shoulder after being left off of All-Big East teams entirely by the conference’s coaches. Kentucky is potentially the most naturally talented team in the country.

Is the three-headed monster of Antonio Reaves, Reed Sheppard, and Rob Dillingham enough to carry Kentucky to Phoenix? It’s not impossible, but relying heavily on two true-freshmen in March can have its issues.

Who can make an unlikely run?: Sorry South, this one is straightforward.

I’d be very surprised if it was not a top-three seed representing the South region at the Final Four. I liked Florida as a dark-horse Final Four candidate heading into Sunday, but the Gators will be without starting center Micah Handlogten who suffered a gruesome season-ending injury against Auburn in the SEC title game. As the nation’s leading rebounding team, he’s about the last guy you can afford to lose.

No. 1 Houston is in a tier above the rest of the region and No. 2 Marquette is getting healthy. No.3 Kentucky is talented enough to get hot at the right time. No. 4 Duke and No. 5 Wisconsin are too inconsistent for my liking and the middle of the pack seems, well, very middle of the pack. I can’t get myself around to the idea that one of those teams can make a deep run. 

Who is on upset watch?: Wisconsin

The obvious pick here is No. 12 James Madison over No. 5 Wisconsin. JMU (31-3, 15-3 Sun Belt) made headlines early, taking down No. 4 Michigan State on the road in their first contest of the year. If they weren’t on your radar then, they should be now. The Dukes are criminally underseeded. They meet a Wisconsin team that started the Big Ten season 8-1 and finished it 11-9. Tale of two seasons. Leading scorer AJ Storr (16.9 PPG) seems to have the Badgers back on track, as they beat Purdue on their way to the Big Ten championship game, but you never know which version of Greg Gard’s squad you’re going to get. 

Final Four prediction: Houston


No. 1 seed: Purdue

What to know: Holy competition

The Midwest is stacked. The advanced numbers say it’s one of the weaker regions, but on eye-test alone, it’s a gauntlet. Purdue, Tennessee, Creighton, and Kansas are all capable of representing the region in Phoenix. Zach Edey is going to become the first back-to-back NPOY since Ralph Sampson. Dalton Knecht is going to be the runner up. There’s so much star power here, and some incredible teams.

Purdue is going to be a popular pick to bow out early given previous March results, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Edey is contributing a whopping 24.4 points and 11.7 rebounds, and sophomore guards Braden Smith (12.5 PPG) and Fletcher Loyer (10.4 PPG) have taken massive strides forward. Lance Jones (12.2 PPG) has been quite the portal addition out of Southern Illinois. Edey presents a challenge that nobody in this region (outside of Tennessee whom Purdue beat on November 21) has seen all-year, and one you cannot simulate in practice. If you can stop Edey, you can stop Purdue. If you can’t, good luck. Creighton matches up well, currently ranked in the top-25 in both offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency. They stretch the floor as well as anyone in the country and limit the runs on the defensive end. 

No. 12 McNeese State to defeat Mark Few and No. 5 Gonzaga may be the most popular upset pick in the entire bracket next to JMU/Wisconsin in the South region. I’m not a fan. What Will Wade has done at McNeese is nothing short of remarkable. It’s the quickest turnaround from 20 losses to 20 wins in NCAA history; one season. If Gonzaga is careless with the ball, McNeese may see the second round. They’re one of the best teams in the country when it comes to applying defensive pressure and turning that into points. Remember the name Shahada Wells. Despite this not being your typical Gonzaga squad, there’s enough talent and experience to win a first round game. I like the Zags. 

Who can make an unlikely run?: Oregon

The top of this region is so strong, so let’s roll with a double-digit seed who is clicking at the right time. No. 11 Oregon is coming off of a Pac-12 Tournament championship and playing their best basketball since rattling off five-straight conference wins in late December/early January. The Ducks took down Arizona in the semifinals before beating Colorado to earn their automatic bid to the tournament. Their difference maker is N’Faly Dante. Since 2/17, Dante is averaging 17.7 PPG and 9.2 RPG. Jackson Shelstad is one of the best freshmen in the country and Jermaine Couisnard took over for Jaylen Clark as the Pac-12’s best on-ball defender.

Oregon matches up with No. 6 South Carolina in the Round of 64. With one of the more impressive head-to-head resumes in the country, South Carolina has wins over Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida. The metrics aren’t SC’s best friend, as the Gamecocks rank outside the top-40 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, but have found ways to win big games. That being said, I expect Oregon will turn their recent success into at least a one-more March win. Their bigger challenge will come in the Round of 32 against Greg McDermott and No. 3 Creighton.

Who is on upset watch?: Kansas

No. 4 Kansas takes on No. 13 Samford, champions of the Southern Conference. With Samford, you’re going to get about 25 three-point attempts per game and 40 minutes of intense defense. It’s a philosophy called “Bucky Ball”, in honor of head coach Bucky McMillan. Run fast, play hard, and wear out your opponent. Every player on the floor can knock down a three if needed, but it starts with Achor Achor. If this is your first exposure to Samford, your eyes are not deceiving you. Achor is Samford’s anchor. When he goes, the Bulldogs go. His name is atop nearly every team leaders list for the Bulldogs: points, rebounds, field goal %. 

2023-24 has been a bit of a roller-coaster for Kansas, starting the year hot as can be before coming back to Earth throughout Big 12 play. The Jayhawks highlighted the offseason by landing former Michigan second-team All-American Hunter Dickinson. He’s been as good as advertised. Highly-touted Towson transfer Nick Timberlake has not. Dickinson and fifth-year senior Kevin McCullar missed the Big 12 Tournament but are both expected to be active for the Round of 64, massive news given that Kansas has virtually no bench.

Samford’s best win was at Belmont. The resume isn’t flashy, but this is the best season in program history (29-5) and their third straight year of 20+ wins. The goal is going to be to wear out Kansas’s starting five and make guys who have struggled mightily off the bench since October, beat you. It’s a tough task, but Samford is disciplined enough, and has good enough shooters, to win on any given day.

Final Four prediction: Creighton

National Championship: UConn over Houston