We began with 353. Across 49 states and a federal district, 353 universities, teams, groups of kids and young adults, all with dreams.
They were partitioned into 32 conferences, as always, the idea to apportion excellence somewhat evenly over a broad landscape. And for decades, the conference concept had done just that. In the first 40 years of NCAA tournament seeding – a format introduced in 1978-79 – only once did a single league claim three No. 1 seeds. And none of the Big East’s three that year (2009) was the nation’s dominant team.
But in Season 41, the one whose March is about to get Mad, distributions skewed. Balance became imbalance. It was not a season-long storyline, because it was not a season-long trend. But heading into the 2019 NCAA tournament, for quite possibly the first time ever, the three best teams in college basketball come from a single conference: The ACC.
With 353 trimmed to 68, those three teams lead our now–annual 1-68 ranking of national championship contenders – grouped into 10 tiers, ordered from most to least likely to snip nets in Minneapolis on April 8. They are North Carolina, Duke and Virginia, the top three overall seeds, the 2018-19 ACC Triumvirate. And they are Tier 1 of 10 – your 2019 NCAA tournament favorites.
Tier 1: The ACC Triumvirate
(Region, seed and first matchup in parentheses)
1. North Carolina (M1; vs. Iona) — On the surface, Carolina is admittedly a strange choice at No. 1. It has neither Duke’s star power nor Virginia’s numerical might, nor a win over either at full-strength. But these Tar Heels, more so than their fellow ACC rulers, were constructed to win six straight over three weekends against a diverse succession of challengers.
They are No. 1 because of variety and versatility; because they do so many things well that they can win without doing all of them well. They pound the offensive glass, but their offensive might is no longer reliant on it. They break off made baskets like Roy Williams’ best teams of the late 00s did, and share the ball like the 2005 champs did. They have a two-big combo for every situation, a point guard who can score on anybody, an off-guard who can stop anybody, and a 6-foot-9 wing who can shoot over anybody. They have the ideal blend of youth and experience, an upward trajectory, and a Hall of Fame coach. They’re the complete package – and would be more widely recognized as such if they had simply hit five of their 26 3-point attempts in a one-point ACC semifinal loss to Duke instead of four.
2. Duke (E1; vs. play-in winner) — Of the 32 teams that have won national championships since the NCAA introduced a 3-point line in 1986, only six have made less than 35.5 percent of their long-range attempts. Only three have been below 34 percent. None has been worse than 32.9.
In other, simple words: No team has ever won a national title shooting as poorly from the perimeter as the 2018-19 Duke Blue Devils.
Their 30.2 percentage from beyond the arc is the worst in the entire tournament, and is one of several Blue Devil flaws. Among the others are depth and youth. There are more reasons to feel uneasy about a team that will undoubtedly be America’s most popular title pick than many realize.
On the other hand, few players have ever masked flaws as convincingly as Duke’s rim-eviscerating, sprint-winning, rebound-gobbling, shot-swallowing, needle-threading human pogo/wrecking ball/brick wall, Zion Williamson. He makes an absurd 76 percent of his 2-point field goals. He isn’t just the most hyped college basketball player in decades. He’s the most impactful, the clearest-cut National Player of the Year in some time, a supernatural force that can propel the ACC tournament champions to another, bigger crown.
3. Virginia (S1; vs. Gardner-Webb) — Have they evolved since last year’s nightmare? Slightly. Not much. (Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg will have more on this later in the week.) But who says they have to in order to contend for a national title?
Even if you subscribe to the theory that the Cavs’ methodical style makes them more susceptible to upsets – the argument being that fewer possessions = fewer opportunities to exert superiority – that doesn’t apply beyond the NCAA tournament’s first weekend. So free your mind from recency bias. Escape thoughts of last year’s once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Recognize that this is the best program in college basketball over the past six years, and have faith in Virginia.
Tier 2: The true contenders
4. Gonzaga (W1 vs. play-in winner) — With a full-strength Killian Tillie, this is the nation’s best frontcourt. And before a stunning WCC final loss to St. Mary’s, this was a Tier-1 team. Heck, it still might be. Vegas says it is. Gone are the days of Gonzaga skepticism. An 89-87 November win over Duke – which felt like an NBA game in a high school gym – further squashed it. And Tillie returned from a foot injury last week, giving Mark Few his complete eight-man rotation for the Big Dance.
But the fact that the Zags have only played one tourney team since Dec. 15 isn’t irrelevant. When competition ramps up, can Brandon Clarke shoot 70 percent, and the collective a Division I-high 62.3 percent inside the arc? Can the guards puncture stronger defensive shells off the dribble? And can a team whose tallest healthy contributor is 6-foot-8 keep mammoth major-conference opponents off the glass? (Duke and North Carolina each rebounded more than 46 percent of their own misses against the Zags earlier this season.)
The point of asking those questions isn’t to presume negative answers. It’s to point out that they are, in fact, still questions, unanswered by WCC play. Gonzaga can win a national championship. But it hasn’t proven as much as the ACC Triumvirate.
5. Kentucky (M2; vs. Abilene Christian) — Can we, once and for all, bottle up the wrongheaded take that John Calipari is a great recruiter but mediocre basketball coach and launch that take into the sun?
There was a time not too long ago when this Kentucky team looked set to whiff on the lottery, and produce only one first-round NBA draft pick, for the first time under Coach Cal. And at that same time, the Wildcats did not look like true contenders. But the young core – PJ Washington, Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro and Ashton Hagans – has developed as individuals and a unit. Kentucky is peaking at the right time. There’s no Anthony Davis- or Karl-Anthony Towns-level talent that would equate this year’s team to Calipari’s best. But the 2011 Final Four squad might be a decent comparison.
6. Tennessee (S2; vs. Colgate) — If you believe experience is necessary in March – and last year’s Final Four, with only three freshman starters across four participants, would support that belief – Tennessee is your squad. The top six players in Rick Barnes’ rotation are upperclassmen. The moxie that accompanies their maturity was on display in the last three minutes of an SEC semifinal that felt like a Final Four duel. The Vols erased an eight-point deficit to knock off Kentucky. And charismatic star Admiral Schofield’s message to his team in the midst of that comeback – “Why shy away now?” – might as well apply to Tennessee’s postseason run as well.
7. Florida State (W4; vs. Vermont) — The Seminoles are deep and balanced beyond belief. Eight players average at least than six points per game, with the leader of the eight coming off the bench. They have a 7-foot-4 dude who moves decently well; a skilled 6-foot-10 change-of-pace when he doesn’t move well enough; a seemingly endless stable of long-tentacled wings who reach into offense’s dreams and make them nightmares; a couple tough upperclassmen guards; and an underrated coach who’s 70 going on 50.
They’re one of two teams to beat Virginia (the other is Vegas’ title pick). They’re 14-2 in their last 16. They’re a better, more seasoned version of last year’s Noles, who sunk top-seeded Xavier and Gonzaga. They’re a legitimate national title contender.
8. Michigan State (E2; vs. Bradley) —They’re big. They’re strong. They’re old. They’re tough. Unfortunately, they aren’t healthy. Junior center Nick Ward doesn’t yet look himself. There’s a Joshua Langford-sized hole in the wing rotation. And one of the players doing his best to fill it, Kyle Ahrens, was stretchered off during the Big Ten title game with an ankle injury. Sparty can hang with anybody in the country, and should still snap the longest second-weekend drought of Tom Izzo’s career. But it lacks the top gear of its Tier 1 and 2 brethren.
9. Texas Tech (W3; vs. Northern Kentucky) — An anomalous Big 12 quarterfinal loss to West Virginia aside, Tech played Final Four-caliber basketball over the season’s final month-plus. Already the nation’s most bucketproof defense, the Red Raiders scored 1.27 points per possession over their final seven regular-season games, which included a visit from Kansas and a trip to Iowa State. Chris Beard should be the coach of the year, Jarrett Culver will be a lottery pick, and shooters and shot-blockers surround him. The only reason for hesitancy: Tech hasn’t played a fellow Final Four contender since December.
10. Michigan (W2; vs. Montana) — The offense, statistically, is better than last season’s. Freshman Iggy Brazdeikis arrived as an already-certified baller. Zavier Simpson has reinvented the sky hook as a 6-foot, below-the-rim point guard. And the defense – the second-stingiest in Division I in adjusted efficiency terms, Michigan’s fourth consecutive year-over-year improvement – rubber-stamps John Beilein’s latest evolution as a coach.
The big difference, however, between this team and last year’s national runner-up is the absence of a big German. Mo Wagner was a matchup nightmare that forced opponents out of their defensive comfort zones. These Wolverines don’t have an individual who does that.
Tier 3: The fringe Final Four contenders
11. Virginia Tech (E4; vs. Saint Louis) — The Hokies would be more fun and more dangerous with point guard Justin Robinson – who remains out indefinitely with a foot injury. But doubt a water-bottle-karate-chopping coach and a 39.4-percent, high-volume 3-point shooting team at your own risk.
12. Purdue (S3; vs. Old Dominion)
13. Auburn (M5; vs. New Mexico State) — The eye test labels the Tigers “streaky as hell.” The numbers connect the dots. Bruce Pearl’s guard-oriented team launches almost 50 percent of its field goals from beyond the 3-point line – and makes 38 percent of them. It also forces turnovers more often than anybody else in the country, on more than a quarter of opponent possessions. Two high-variance strategies producing frequent fluctuations in performance? Yep, checks out.
So when Auburn is good, as it was at the SEC tournament, it’s really good. And when it’s not? No need to go there, because these rankings are about ceilings, not floors. Auburn’s is high.
14. Houston (M3; vs. Georgia State) — Last year’s Cougs were a 30-foot buzzer-beater away from halting Michigan’s run to the national championship before it really got started. This year’s Cougs lost two of their top three scorers … and got better.
15. Kansas (M4; vs. Northeastern) — All five starters, and seven of nine rotation players, are newcomers. Would-be cornerstones are injured (Udoka Azubuike), ineligible (Silvio De Sousa) and no longer with the team (Lagerald Vick). The byproduct of the upheaval was the end of the streak, and is, frankly, an inconsistent, mediocre-by-Jayhawk-standards team – because it’s a team Bill Self never expected to put on the floor.
16 Kansas State (S4; vs. UC Irvine) — Dean Wade’s status – questionable with a foot injury – significantly mutes K-State’s upside. The Wildcats can win without him, as they did en route to last year’s Elite Eight. But the 6-foot-10 stretch-five – the team’s best shooter, and arguably its best facilitator – makes the (104th-ranked) offense far more potent.
Tier 4: The wiretapped
17. LSU (E3; vs. Yale) – On the eve of its outright SEC regular-season title clincher, LSU suspended head coach Will Wade after a Yahoo Sports report revealed the FBI had intercepted calls between Wade and a middleman discussing a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. That recruit, (presumably) current Tiger guard Javonte Smart, was held out of one game, but returned for the SEC tournament. The Wade situation, however, remains at a standstill.
How will it affect the Tigers in the NCAA tourney? That’s anybody’s guess. For what it’s worth, LSU lost its SEC quarterfinal to unranked Florida. Interim coach Tony Benford, in his only prior head coaching gig, never finished above .500 in five seasons at North Texas. And these Tigers weren’t as good as their outright conference title would suggest in the first place. They won it with offense, and their offense sustains itself on ferocious rebounding. Keep them to one shot – as Yale might just be able to do – and they’re a relatively ordinary team.
Tier 5: The lurkers
18. Iowa State (M6; vs. Ohio State) — If the Cyclones can win two games and get to Hilton South – the cite of their Big 12 tournament triumph – for the regional … watch out.
19. Villanova (S6; vs. Saint Mary’s) — Buried beneath the many glorious offshoots from last year’s triumph was an inconvenient one: The players expected to step from secondary roles into primary roles stepped instead to the NBA. The departures of Omari Spellman and Donte DiVincenzo accelerated the developmental treadmills under the entire roster. Those two were supposed to be the guys; instead, the guys are last year’s fifth and sixth options. The Wildcats have neither the talent nor the polish required for a repeat run.
20. Wofford (M7; vs. Seton Hall) — Fletcher Magee might be the greatest shooter in college basketball history. At the very least, he’s currently the closest thing college hoops has to JJ Redick. And … uh … his team’s 3-point percentage (41.6) is higher than his (41.3).
21. Buffalo (W6; vs. Arizona State/St. John’s) — Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel wrote a fantastic feature on Bulls head coach Nate Oats, who six years after teaching high school math is one of the hottest commodities in college basketball. And his trio of seniors, led by CJ Massinburg, will make 30-win Buffalo a tough out.
22. Nevada (W7; vs. Florida) — The Pack have played one tournament team all year. Their reputation continues to live off last year’s inconceivable comeback against Cincinnati and a preseason top-10 ranking. They’ll go as the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline go, which will be fast and furious, but could very well result in a first-round wreck.
23. Louisville (E7; vs. Minnesota) — Not only did the NCAA (break bracketing principles to) give us Kid Pitino vs. School That Fired Dad Pitino In Disgrace. It conveniently put it at 12:15 ET on Thursday – 6:15 Eastern European Time – all but asking Rick to auction off an all-expenses-paid trip to Greece to watch the game with him. All proceeds go to charity. Guarantee the bidding would reach five figures.
24. Wisconsin (S5; vs. Oregon) — Ethan Happ is one of the best players in college basketball – and has been since the Obama presidency. The 6-foot-10 senior is the best, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. But he’s also one of the most perplexing. He’s not significantly better than his sophomore self. He’s had a few stinkers in February and March. He’s deteriorated as a shooter rather than improved. And his 46.5-percent free throw mark makes him a liability in crunch time. Greg Gard occasionally has to bench his offense’s focal point late in close games. That’s a recipe for March Sadness.
9. 1993: North Carolina 77, Michigan 71
This would spell the conclusion of the “Fab Five” era at Michigan, and it did not end gracefully. The Wolverines were making their second straight appearance in the national championship game after losing by 20 points to Duke in 1992. This result was even more heartbreaking.
With 11 seconds left and Michigan trailing the Tar Heels by two, leading scorer and future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Chris Webber found himself trapped in a corner and called a timeout his team didn’t have. The colossal error gave North Carolina two free throws and possession of the ball, essentially ending the game.
While UNC had only two future NBA journeymen on its roster in Eric Montross and George Lynch, Michigan boasted future stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard in addition to talented contributors Ray Jackson and Jimmy King (with future Lakers GM Rob Pelinka coming off the bench as a sharpshooter). Webber’s mistake is a source of much angst for Michigan fans, but it made for one of the most memorable March Madness moments ever and bookmarked both an exciting game and an unforgettable era.
Photo credit: NCAA Photos via Getty Images
8. 1957: North Carolina 54, Kansas 53 (3 OT)
UNC finished off an undefeated season and nabbed its first NCAA tournament title by overcoming a favored Kansas team that featured national player of the year Wilt Chamberlain down low. Despite the towering presence of the 7-foot Chamberlain, who had a sizable height advantage over everyone on North Carolina’s roster, the Tar Heels managed to win their second straight triple-overtime game following a nail-biter in the national semifinal over Michigan State.
Kansas overcame an early 12-point deficit – practically an insurmountable advantage in this low-scoring era – to take a late lead before the Tar Heels tied it up in the final minute. After two periods of overtime in which some miserable offense led to four total points being scored (which affects this game’s place in this ranking), UNC center Joe Quigg made two free throws in the closing seconds to seal the game.
Photo credit: Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images
7. 1987: Indiana 74, Syracuse 73
Junior college transfer Keith Smart helped Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight win his third and final national championship by scoring 12 of Indiana’s 15 final points, including the game winner with less than 5 seconds left on a pull-up jumper along the left baseline. He also stepped in front of Syracuse’s full-court desperation heave to clinch the tightly contested contest, which featured 19 lead changes and 10 ties.
Orange freshman Derrick Coleman blew a chance to give Syracuse some more breathing room in the final moments when he missed the front end of a one-and-one directly before Smart’s last-gasp heroics. Coleman went on to become the No. 1 pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, but is largely regarded as a bust after appearing in just one All-Star Game in 1994.
Photo credit: Bettman via Getty Images
6. 1989: Michigan 70, Seton Hall 69 (OT)
Senior Glen Rice set a record that still stands for most points scored in a single NCAA tournament (189), averaging 31.5 points per game to lead Michigan. But it was Rumeal Robinson who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the nickname of “Mr. Clutch” after the point guard walked up to the charity stripe with three seconds left in overtime and the Wolverines down by one, then proceeded to knock down a pair of free throws to ice the game.
Seton Hall had its own potential hero in John Morton, whose three-pointer with 25 seconds left in regulation tied the game and sent it to overtime. But Michigan held strong in the extra period to complete a remarkable coaching job by Steve Fisher, who had just been thrown into the fire of March Madness for his first games as a collegiate head coach.
Predecessor Bill Frieder was dismissed after announcing he would depart to coach Arizona State after the season was over, which prompted athletic director Bo Schembechler to push him out the door early. In deciding to relocate to Tempe, where he totaled three NCAA tournament victories in eight seasons, Frieder squandered a chance at finishing the job with a championship-caliber team.
Photo credit: Getty Images
5. 1985: Villanova 66, Georgetown 64
The lowest-seeded team to ever win it all had to take down defending national champion and No. 1 seed Georgetown to do it. The Hoyas had won their first five tourney games by an average of 15.6 points behind future NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, but No. 8 seed Villanova shocked its Big East rivals on April Fool’s Day.
In the last game in Division I history contested without a shot clock, the Wildcats took their time in crafting what would come to be known as the Perfect Game. They took just 18 shots in the first half, making 13 to stake a one-point lead heading into halftime. Their offense was even more deliberate in the second half, converting 9 out of 10 shots to shoot 78.6 percent overall for the game — a tournament record.
Harold Jensen’s jumper with 2:40 left put Villanova up 55-54, and after Georgetown turned it over on the ensuing possession, the Wildcats closed out the school’s first title at the free-throw line. It was a fairy tale ending for the biggest Cinderella to ever be crowned the champions of the Big Dance, but points must be taken off for an agonizing pace of play and lack of any standout classic moment.
Photo credit: Villanova University/Collegiate Images/Getty Images
4. 2008: Kansas 75, Memphis 68 (OT)
This game is remembered for Mario Chalmers’ buzzer-beating three at the top of the key — or as Kansas fans refer to it, Mario’s Miracle. But some might not remember that shot only tied the game to send it to overtime, where the Jayhawks rode the momentum by scoring the period’s first six points to take control and coast to the finish line.
It was a stunning collapse by Memphis, which led by nine with 2:12 remaining in regulation. Leading up to that comeback, freshman Derrick Rose played like the No. 1 draft pick he’d become later that summer, capping a 14-point binge in eight minutes by nailing a ridiculous fadeaway that the play-by-play announcer instantly called “the shot of the tournament.”
It wasn’t. The Tigers — ranked 339th of the country’s 341 teams with 59 percent free-throw shooting, according to ESPN — sunk just 1 out of 5 free throws in the game’s final 90 seconds to open the door for the true shot of the tournament, courtesy of Chalmers.
Photo credit: Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images
3. 1982: North Carolina 63, Georgetown 62
The 1982 championship served as a reminder that even though college basketball features some of the country’s premier athletes, these players are still young guys with somewhat limited game experience. In this instance, one of the most star-studded finals of all time ended in one of the most bone-headed plays to ever decide a championship.
After 19-year-old Michael Jordan hit a jumper with 17 seconds left to give UNC a one-point lead, Georgetown guard Fred Brown got confused when Carolina’s James Worthy jumped into the backcourt and delivered the ball right to him.
With no three-point line enacted at the time, that should’ve been all she wrote for Georgetown. But Worthy, a future Los Angeles Laker legend, inexplicably missed both free throws to give the Hoyas another shot. It was wasted when a desperation heave fell short, as the Tar Heels clinched their first title under coach Dean Smith.
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2. 1983: N.C. State 54, Houston 52
Though the 1985 Villanova Wildcats were the lowest seed to ever win the NCAA Tournament, many (myself included) consider the North Carolina State Wolfpack squad from two years earlier to be the greatest underdog story in March Madness history.
Their opponents, the Houston Wildcats, were loaded with talent in the form of Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, who’d combine to make 22 All-Star teams in the NBA. “Phi Slama Jama” changed the way the game was played, ushering in an era of athleticism and highlight-reel dunks.
But it was the Lorenzo Charles of the “Cardiac Pack” who thundered home the most important dunk of the tournament, a game-ending alley-oop of sorts born from Dereck Whittenburg’s desperate heave from 30 feet out. That provided perhaps the most iconic moment in tournament lore, sending coach Jim Valvano on a desperate quest to find anyone who’d hug him.
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1. 2016: Villanova 77, North Carolina 74
It’s not just recency bias. The roller coaster of a game between these two blue-bloods in 2016 was the best title decider in NCAA basketball history — and the only one to end on a three-pointer at the buzzer.
To set the stage: Villanova entered having stunned No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the Elite Eight, then demoralized Oklahoma and national player of the year Buddy Hield with the biggest blowout in Final Four history, a 95-51 laugher. Meanwhile, North Carolina won both the ACC regular season title and conference tournament before running roughshod through their side of the bracket, winning all five matchups by double digits with an average margin of 16.2 points to tie a record with their 19th Final Four (which they broke this year).
Senior point guard Marcus Paige led the Tar Heels on a furious comeback that cemented his place in Carolina lore, loss or not. Villanova led by 10 with less than five minutes left, but UNC cut that down to three on a trey from Paige with 1:30 left. A minute later, he rebounded his own missed layup to bring the Heels to within one. Then, on Carolina’s final possession, he knocked down a miraculous, double-clutch three-pointer to tie things up.
The Wildcats came right back at the Heels, however, unfazed by the dizzying sequence. Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled down the court and shovel passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched from well beyond the arc as time expired.
As Villanova coach Jay Wright coolly put it: Bang.
Photo credit: Matt Marriott/NCAA Photos via Getty Images
Tier 6: Boeheim in March
25. Syracuse (W8; vs. Baylor) — Jim Boeheim has, somewhat secretly, been a very ordinary regular-season coach over the past five years. His teams have been shallow and inconsistent. Their average ACC finish over that span? Ninth, at 9-9.
Yet Boeheim hasn’t lost a first-round NCAA tournament game since 2006. The five superficially middling years have yielded multiple March upsets, two Sweet 16s and a Final Four. There are logical explanations – the zone that befuddles unfamiliar opponents on short notice, for example; and Boeheim’s record in close games. But just as convincing is some strange, intangible Orange voodoo that, for example, made Michigan State shoot 17-of-66 in last year’s Round of 32. Syracuse hasn’t been a better team than a few immediately below it on this list. But it’s Syracuse.
Tier 7: Meh
26. Florida (W10; vs. Nevada) — The Gators looked like a Sweet 16 squad in Nashville. And in two losses to close the regular season. And at various other points throughout a disappointing but deceiving 15-loss season. The two-senior, three-frosh backcourt rotation could spur a second-weekend run.
27. Cincinnati (S7; vs. Iowa)
28. Mississippi State (E5; vs. Liberty)
29. Maryland (E6; vs. Belmont/Temple)
Tier 8: Major mediocrity, mid-major intrigue
30. Marquette (W5; vs. Murray State) — Before losing five of six to close the season, the Golden Eagles were overrated. Now they’re just … uh, how should we say this … not very good.
31. Utah State (M8; vs. Washington)
32. Minnesota (E10; vs. Louisville) — The day Richard Pitino made 6-foot-8 junior Amir Coffey a point guard is the day Minnesota became a problem. Unfortunately, Coffey has only one (1) 30-percent-or-better 3-point shooter around him.
33. Baylor (W9; vs. Syracuse)
34. Seton Hall (M10; vs. Wofford)
35. VCU (E8; vs. UCF) — Leading scorer Marcus Evans is expected to play after leaving VCU’s A-10 quarterfinal loss with a knee injury. With or without him, this will not be a pleasant two hours for UCF. The Rams guard like their life depends on it.
36. Ole Miss (S8; vs. Oklahoma)
37. St. Mary’s (S11; vs. Villanova)
38. Oregon (S12; vs. Wisconsin) — A week ago, the Ducks weren’t anywhere near the tourney. Now they’re 1-point favorites over Wisconsin! (Ken Pomeroy has the line at Wisconsin -5, the second-largest disparity between his numbers and Vegas’.)
39. UCF (E9; vs. VCU) — 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall’s tourney debut – Friday at 9:40 ET, unfortunately – is must-watch television. VCU’s tallest starter is 6-foot-8.
40. Ohio State (M11; vs. Iowa State)
41. New Mexico State — The Aggies play 10 guys, bombard the offensive and defensive boards, and are growing antsy for a tourney win. This is their ninth invite to the Big Dance since 2007. They’ve yet to score a second date.
42. Oklahoma (S9; vs. Ole Miss)
43. Belmont (E11; First Four vs. Temple) — Rick Byrd has won 804 career games … and zero in the Division I NCAA tournament. That changes on Tuesday!
44. Iowa (S10; vs. Cincinnati)
45. Murray State (W12; vs. Marquette) — The Smart Basketball Man take is that this is “more than a one-man team.” But … nah. If there’s a one-man team in the 2019 NCAA tournament, it’s the Racers. (And that one man is Ja Morant, whose name you’ll hear a lot this week, over the next few months, and possibly over the next decade.)
46. Arizona State (W11; First Four vs. St. John’s)
47. Vermont (W13; vs. Florida State) — A popular upset pick spoiled by a brutal draw.
48. Temple (E11; First Four vs. Belmont)
49. Washington — I will unrelentingly stan for this year’s Pac-12 over the 2011-12 mess as the worst power conference ever. Three bids flattered it. It was hideous. (As is Washington’s offense.)
51. St. John’s (W11; First Four vs. Arizona State)
53. UC Irvine (S13; vs. Kansas State) — Irvine’s joint-top scorer in a Big West final blowout of Fullerton? His last name is Welp, and he looks like the high school math whiz whose friends convinced him to play JV to make up numbers. Except he’s 6-foot-9 and can ball. As can the five upperclassmen who comprise the starting lineup. The Anteaters are potentially frisky.
54. Northeastern (M13; vs. Kansas) — Not going to ask you to remember the name Vasa Pusica, or to type it into a search bar just yet. But make mental note; register it; store it away, just in case.
Tier 9: Long-shot Cinderellas
55. Saint Louis (E13; vs. Virginia Tech)
56. Georgia State (M14; vs. Houston) — Four experienced 40-plus percent 3-point shooters around lead guard D’Marcus Simonds sounds like a recipe for an upset. Houston, beware.
57. Northern Kentucky (W14; vs. Texas Tech)
58. Old Dominion (S14; vs. Purdue)
59. Montana (W15; vs. Michigan)
60. Bradley (E15; vs. Michigan State) — Barred (and later reversed course under media pressure) a longtime beat reporter for “not promoting the Bradley brand” – which, uh, was non-existent until the petty ploy! So … congrats, Bradley! You now have a brand!
61. Colgate (S15; vs. Tennessee)
Tier 10: No-shot Cinderellas
62. Gardner-Webb (S16; vs. Virginia)
63. Iona (M16; vs. North Carolina)
64. North Dakota State (E16; First Four vs. NC Central)
65. Abilene Christian (M15; vs. Kentucky)
66. Fairleigh Dickinson (W16; First Four vs. Prairie View AM)
67. Prairie View AM (W16; First Four vs. Fairleigh Dickinson)
68 North Carolina Central (E16; First Four vs. North Dakota State) — The upset of Norfolk State that punched Central’s ticket was its first win over a KenPom top-300 foe all season. And that would include any intrasquad scrimmages. The Eagles themselves rank 303.