2023 NCAA Tournament First Round Preview | The Morning Dunk
Our own Nathan Grubel breaks down each region of the bracket in a game-by-game preview highlighting the top NBA Draft prospects in the field.
MARCH MADNESS BABY!!
Welcome to the 2023 NCAA Tournament’s first week of action!
As I did last year, I’ll be breaking down each round of the tournament, region to region and game to game covering the best NBA Draft prospects in the field, while also highlighting the matchups themselves to possibly (hopefully?) give you an edge in filling out your brackets!
This year in particular there are quite a number of sleeper prospects competing in the tournament, not just the big names at the top of the lottery like Brandon Miller and Jarace Walker.
One important note to make is that at least four lottery picks aren’t in college to begin with, as Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson, Amen, and Ausar Thompson all will not be featured during the March Madness coverage.
But this is peak draft season, as a number of guys will show out and have runs that make scouts and evaluators question if they’ve been too low on big boards all season long.
So without further ado, it’s time to EMBRACE THE MADNESS!
1 Alabama vs. 16 Texas A&M-CC/SE Missouri St
Opening the bracket, Alabama earned the top overall seed in the field for good reason. Brandon Miller has not only risen up draft boards since the preseason, but he’s now beginning to challenge Scoot Henderson as the next best prospect after Victor Wembanyama in public circles. The 6’9” wing has transformed into much more than a jump shooter, as he’s improved dramatically since the beginning of the season as a driver, playmaker, and help defender on the interior.
Generally, freshmen don’t carry their respective teams to a championship, but there is depth behind Miller. Fellow freshmen Jaden Bradley, Rylan Griffen, and Noah Clowney all can make an impact, and guards Mark Sears and Jahvon Quinerly provide enough depth and playmaking to organize the offense while still possessing scoring punch of their own.
Given that the game is in Birmingham, there’s little doubt the Tide will Roll in this one and move on.
2 Arizona vs. 15 Princeton
The Arizona Wildcats, the second seed in the South, also have enough talent to potentially make it to a Final Four.
Azuolas Tubelis has been as good as any player in the country all year, averaging close to a double-double as an athletic rim-running big who can face up and make plays off the bounce. His high-low game with Oumar Ballo is one of the best combos in the nation, and college basketball is all about controlling the paint with enough guard play to hit the necessary perimeter shots.
And for guards, Kerr Kriisa, Courtney Ramey, and Pelle Larsson have the juice on both ends. Keep an eye on possible X-factor and 2024 first-round pick Kylan Boswell as a guy who has played well over the last few months. The 6’2” freshman is capable of nailing big shots, and someone will have to step up when the top options run cold.
Another easy pick here; I’d take Arizona to win by a fairly decent margin over Princeton.
3 Baylor vs. 14 UC Santa Barbara
Beware, Baylor, as this could be a potential upset in the making!
We know the names from Waco. Keyonte George has made a name for himself as a second-half takeover machine with his ability to hit tough shots. When he is sharing the ball and playing up to his potential as a guard rebounder and defender, there are fewer guys who can swing a game quite like he can. And of course, Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer help to complete one of the best guard trios in all of college basketball.
But the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos can score the rock too! Led by Ajay Mitchell, this squad scores effectively from the field (nearly 50% shooting as a team), can get to the line, and put some real pressure on opposing defenses. Generally, it takes a star performance from a guard like Mitchell to pull off an upset, and in the tournament when the pace of play slows down, I’ll take a guy who rates out in the 90th percentile in terms of halfcourt offense per Synergy.
The biggest X-factor in this one is Baylor forward Jalen Bridges. If he can knock down triples and offer scoring support from the Bears, he’s the type of versatile threat who can defend multiple positions and clean the glass to help secure tough wins.
In the end, give me UC Santa Barbara in a nail-biter game.
4 Virginia vs. 13 Furman
Jalen Slawson, it’s time to show how far you’ve come as a potential NBA Draft prospect!
The 6’7” combo forward will have to rack up the points while also making timely defensive plays if Furman has any shot of upsetting Virginia. Yes, the Cavaliers and head coach Tony Bennett have been prone to crushing early defeats in the past, but that doesn’t mean I’m calling the upset again!
Reece Beekman is poised and plays with the type of pace you’d want from a lead guard in the tournament. If his jumper is falling, it’s hard to bet against one of the better backcourt defenders in the country when also paired with Kihei Clark.
Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, and Ben Vander Plas help round out a formidable squad, along with Kadin Shedrick, but keep an eye on budding draft prospect Ryan Dunn. The 6’8” wing hasn’t had too many chances to score the basketball, but he’s played technically sound defense, rebounded, and has stepped up to get some bucket when called upon. He could be a difference-maker if key perimeter pieces ahead of him get in foul trouble.
Virginia will move on here.
5 San Diego St vs. 12 Charleston
San Diego St is on massive upset alert from yours truly.
While they have some guards to offer the necessary firepower to come away with a win in Matt Bradley, Lamont Butler, and Darrion Trammell, this team isn’t nearly as effective as it will need to be in order to keep pace and knock off Charleston.
The Cougars are legit. Regardless of the conference of play, this team won 31 games for a reason. Charleston, deep with plenty of experienced guards such as Ryan Larson and Pat Robinson, can move the ball, limit turnovers, and shrink the game down in terms of number of possessions.
If the Aztecs can’t turn the Cougars over and up the pace of the game, I’d pick Charleston’s guards to pick and probe to hit enough shots to pull off the upset.
I’m not taking Charleston as a Cinderella in the field, but I’ll take them to move on in this one.
6 Creighton vs. 11 NC State
Terquavion Smith, I’m looking at you in this one.
From a prospect and talent perspective, there’s no reason why Creighton shouldn’t win this matchup. Ryan Nembhard and Trey Alexander are one of the better backcourts in the country, and they can match the firepower of Smith and Jarkel Joiner on any given night. Baylor Scheierman gives this team a bigger playmaker and shooter on the wing, and Ryan Kalkbrenner protects the rim while finishing at a high level and most importantly NOT fouling out of games.
So how could NC State pull off the upset? If those two guards along with Casey Morsell come out like gangbusters from three-point range, there’s potential for this team to pull out a good win.
But I like Creighton in this one, and look for Alexander to separate himself here and defend both Smith and Joiner at a high level along with doing enough on offense to propel his team to a win. Alexander is a sleeper Top 45 prospect in the upcoming draft.
7 Missouri vs. 10 Utah State
Two prospects stand out here in Missouri’s Kobe Brown and D’Moi Hodge.
Both have been featured by the Draft Deeper crew here at No Ceilings, as Stephen Gillaspie got to see this squad in person and profiled Hodge, while Maxwell Baumbach took a dive into Brown’s shooting improvements from deep this year and how that could translate into a combo forward role in the NBA.
This team plays together, and they LOVE to wreak havoc on both ends. The duo of Brown and Hodge is one that could propel this team to a Sweet Sixteen berth, and certainly close out a win here.
Give me Missouri in a game that may not be too close when all is said and done. Just too big of a gap in high-end talent for me to swing the other way with Utah State, even if Steven Ashworth and Taylor Funk can light it up from deep. They would have to get HOT for the Aggies to pull off the upset.
8 Maryland vs. 9 West Virginia
Lastly, this matchup doesn’t scream must watch but could be a pretty great game in the opening round of this region.
Tre Mitchell will be the best athlete on the floor, and he could be the two-way difference-maker to break this game open for the West Virginia Mountaineers.
But the Terrapins shouldn’t be entirely slept on, as Hakim Hart, Jahmir Young, and Donta Scott are a trio that helped Maryland finish in the top half of the Big Ten.
Many are likely to pick WVU because it’s a battle-tested team coming out of the nation’s best conference this year in the Big 12, but I think the Terps have enough offensively to pull off a close win. Erik Stevenson is the X-factor in this one, as his control over the pace of the game and perimeter shot-making could be the boost needed to take one from Maryland.
1 Houston vs. 16 Northern Kentucky
No Marcus Sasser means trouble for Houston later on in this tournament. For now, though, this squad has enough to beat up on a 16th seed in the field.
Jarace Walker is fourth overall on my personal big board as one of the most complete prospects in the draft. Soft touch, defensive versatility, and playmaking upside fuel his skills package that’s bundled inside his chiseled 6’8” frame. Guys with his size aren’t supposed to move and play like Walker does, and even through some offensive inconsistencies he always finds a way to make the necessary plays to help his team win.
Also, Jamal Shead and Tramon Mark are no slouches either in the backcourt. That trio alone should be enough to help the Cougs move on to the next game. X-factors through the tournament run could be Ja’Vier Francis, a 6’8” forward who gives some athletic pop on the interior, and Terrance Arceneaux, a 6’5” guard who prides himself on doing the little things while hitting enough shots from the outside to help get the win.
Houston in a bigger win than people think without Sasser.
2 Texas vs. 15 Colgate
Texas has continued to play as one of the best teams in the country despite the head coaching turmoil.
Without Chris Beard, the Longhorns still made enough noise to win the Big 12 tourney behind the guard play of Marcus Carr, Sir’Jabari Rice, and Tyrese Hunter. Once-2023 draft prospect Dillon Mitchell has played an intriguing role as a small-ball big all year long, and of course, Dylan Disu and Christian Bishop also bolster the interior with efficient finishing and rebounding.
If this team can continue to pour in points when it counts, along with force turnovers to get out on the break, Texas should be able to win this one handily against Colgate.
3 Xavier vs. 14 Kennesaw St
One of the best NBA Draft prospects in this region, Colby Jones has the swagger to carry his team to a win in this one. The 6’6” guard can do a little bit of everything in terms of running the offense, making plays, getting downhill, and scoring from deep.
He has support in the backcourt from Souley Boum and Desmond Claude, plus some necessary muscle up front in Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle. I would be stunned if the Musketeers lost to Kennesaw State, even if Xavier isn’t guaranteed by any stretch to make it further in the tournament than just past this one.
The Atlantic Sun regular season champions are led by Chris Youngblood and Terrell Burden, both of which would have to overcome the size on the perimeter of Jones, Boum, and Claude to pull out the upset.
I’ll take Xavier by a decent margin.
4 Indiana vs. 13 Kent State
There’s some temptation in the public to take a few upsets here, starting with Kent State over Indiana. I personally don’t see that happening, as the Hoosiers have one of the best big men in college basketball in Trayce Jackson-Davis.
This argument isn’t even just about his NBA prospects. Jackson-Davis runs a good portion of the offense for Indiana as a point center who brings the ball up the floor as much as he works in handoffs and post-ups in the halfcourt. He’s efficient and athletic, and he denies his fair share of shots around the basket. Few guys can control the game like he does in all facets.
Throw in star freshman Jalen Hood-Schifino plus role players like Race Thompson and Tamar Bates, and there’s too much talent for Mike Woodson and his guys to get beat in the first round.
5 Miami vs. 12 Drake
I’m very tempted to ride the Tuck Train with my guy Maxwell and take the Drake Bulldogs in an upset.
But the Miami Hurricanes have been one of the best teams in the country for quite a number of weeks, and have given everyone in the ACC fits for two months.
There are plenty of potential NBA players with the Hurricanes, as Isaiah Wong and Jordan Miller captain one of the more potent offensive attacks in this region of the bracket. Wooga Poplar and Norchad Omier (if healthy) can also help with the offensive punch and provide athleticism and rebounding to keep this game out of reach.
Tucker DeVries could have an all-time tournament game and get Drake the win. There are other experienced ball handlers on this team too that could control the tempo, take care of the ball, and get the win off some key shot-making in the second half.
Overall, I’m taking the more talented group and picking Miami to not just win here, but potentially pose some real problems for Indiana in the next round.
6 Iowa State vs. 11 Mississippi St/Pitt
Even though I would love to say don’t sleep on either of Mississippi State or Pitt, Iowa State hasn’t gotten nearly enough love in the Big 12.
Four players bolster the attack for the Cyclones on both ends in Jaren Holmes, Gabe Kalscheur, Caleb Grill, and transfer Osun Osunniyi. This group averages 44 PPG themselves, meaning they’re capable of keeping pace with any teams they square off against in this tournament. If they can shoot up to the level they’re capable of, they’ll be a tough out given the collective experience.
If Mississippi State is able to pull off the win against the Pitt Panthers, I could see an upset because of the interior presence of Tolu Smith and DJ Jeffries, but either way, I’ll roll with Iowa State’s starting lineup to move on past this game and (spoiler alert) get to the Sweet 16!
7 Texas A&M vs. 10 Penn St
Wade Taylor IV could very well be the best guard in the tournament. And I do not exaggerate when I say that.
Despite not being on NBA radars due to his lack of plus size, the 6’0” guard leads the Aggies in scoring, assists, and steals, and never seems afraid of the moment. Texas A&M won 25 games in the SEC, and they wouldn’t have reached that mark without his spectacular play all year. With defenders behind him like Henry Coleman on the frontline, this team could make some real noise.
But Penn State is not a squad to be messed with at this point in the season. Booty Ball is HERE! Jalen Pickett is one of the most unconventional guards in the tournament, but also incredibly productive just like Taylor. His scoring, rebounding, and playmaking help keep the Nittany Lions afloat, and with shooters like Seth Lundy and Andrew Funk, this team has the pieces to continue pulling off upsets.
I’m going to pick Texas A&M by a HAIR, but don’t be surprised if this is an upset in the field.
8 Iowa vs. 9 Auburn
I would assume everyone is hopping in to pick Iowa because Kris Murray has done enough to become a household name.
The 6’8” draft prospect who is also the twin brother of Keegan Murray has upped his game to meet expectations this season. A plus scorer, deadly spot-up shooter, and excellent positional rebounder, Murray can shoulder the offensive burden and carry his team to a few wins in the tournament.
Bruce Pearl has had teams in the tournament before, however, so I wouldn’t count out Auburn just yet. Winning in March is about post play and timely shooting from the guards. Johni Broome is a hyper-efficient interior finisher, shot blocker, and transition threat, while Wendell Green and KD Johnson can get hot in a hurry. If Allen Flanigan and Jaylin Williams show up, this could be one heck of a fun matchup.
I’ll take Auburn in an upset here, but if Kris Murray goes off for 30 and 15 to move on, that wouldn’t surprise me either.
1 Kansas vs. 16 Howard
There’s little reason why the Kansas Jayhawks shouldn’t win it all.
By NBA Draft standards, there’s little room to argue a case against a Final Four appearance. Gradey Dick is a potential lottery pick, Jalen Wilson has some fans in the first round, and Dajuan Harris and KJ Adams have value of their own in the second round potentially as well.
This team has plenty of shot-making to put points on the board. Not to mention there’s real perimeter defensive upside and timely playmaking on that end. But Kansas doesn’t have traditional size up front to deal with any of the more loaded frontcourts in the country.
The Jayhawks shouldn’t have to face a team with that much size for a while, so I would expect this unit to move forward easily in the first round.
One word of congratulations is in order for Howard though for making it to this point. Just a few seasons ago, this team was 4-29 before being turned around into a 22-12 squad in the MEAC. Head coach Kenneth Blakeney has a balanced team in terms of offense and defense; this is just a bad matchup.
2 UCLA vs. 15 UNC Asheville
Can Drew Pember break onto some more draft boards after a solid outing against one of the hottest teams in the country?
Even after some tough mudding at the end of the regular season due to injuries, the Bruins have enough talent to win some rounds here in the tournament. No Jaylen Clark and Adem Bona means the defense takes a major hit for UCLA. But Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez, and Amari Bailey can score with the best of them.
If Pember can hold his own against the UCLA forwards while also shooting and rebounding up to his capabilities (21.2 PPG and 9.4 RPG on 46.3/37.3/83.4 shooting splits), there’s a real case for him to earn Top 60 consideration as we get closer to June and more prospects pull their names out of the running.
I would be shocked if UCLA lost this one, but Pember is as real of a mid-major prospect as you’ll find across the country as stated numerous times by No Ceilings’s own Maxwell Baumbach. I’m curious to see what he can do here.
3 Gonzaga vs. 14 Grand Canyon
Gonzaga hasn’t been as dominant as it has in past years, but there’s still enough talent to make a deeper run than expected.
Obviously, the offense will continue to run through Drew Timme in the post, but Julian Strawther and Nolan Hickman have bolstered the offense enough from the perimeter in recent weeks and months. Not to mention, Rasir Bolton and Anton Watson can offer different roles within the offense both outside and inside respectively.
From an NBA Draft perspective, Strawther hasn’t gotten enough buzz as a potential first-round pick, but this tournament could swing that more in his direction. Strawther is viewed more as an off-ball complementary player, but he has the perfect stage to show he’s capable of taking a leap as a one-on-one threat.
Rayshon Harrison has legitimate skill as a scorer, as the 6’4” guard could earn some fans with flashes of improved shooting from deep. But he’s the type of one-man offensive force who could make life difficult for any opponent who doesn’t take him or his team seriously.
That being said, I can’t imagine coach Mark Few and the Bulldogs losing here. Give me Gonzaga.
4 UConn vs. 13 Iona
UConn has a real shot to make it to the Final Four.
So long as Tristen Newton continues to run the offense and provide triple-double types of outputs for the Huskies, I trust the rest of the team to do their jobs.
Jordan Hawkins has earned Top 20 draft buzz due to his sharpshooting from deep, Andre Jackson is one of the best athletes in the tournament, and few teams have an interior combo like Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan. The X-factor for UConn is Alex Karaban, a stretch forward who has shown some ability to handle the ball a little bit and bring it up the floor.
As for Iona, head coach Rick Pitino has a mid-major darling in Walter Clayton Jr. The 6’2” sophomore guard is a BUCKET from everywhere on the floor, and his touch is second to none. He is the type of player who could average 25+ in the tournament and make life really interesting leading a Cinderella on a further than expected run.
I believe UConn is too good to be upset this early on, but I also expect Clayton to make this one a better matchup than expected.
5 Saint Mary’s vs. 12 VCU
Jayden Nunn is the best-known prospect in this game, especially after helping his team win the Atlantic 10 tournament in an upset over Dayton.
Even though he didn’t have the breakout season many expected, he still shot 44% from the field and 40% from three on the year while showing upside as a shifty scoring guard. Jalen DeLoach is another potential prospect to monitor in the frontcourt.
As for Saint Mary’s, Logan Johnson is this team’s leader, but the long-term prospect to keep an eye on is freshman guard Aiden Mahaney. The 6’3” lefty keeps himself involved in the offense, both on and off the ball. A crafty scorer inside the arc, pick-and-roll playmaker, and spot-up shooter, Mahaney could have a breakout run in the tournament that puts him on draft radars next season.
I’m tempted to ride with the hot hand and take VCU in a close one, but Saint Mary’s has too many high-level shooters to get upset this early. I’ll take the Gaels here.
6 TCU vs. 11 Arizona St/Nevada
There’s an interesting case to be made for either Arizona State or Nevada as teams who could pull off the upset given the experienced backcourt threats they both possess, but I can’t do it.
I can’t bet against Mike Miles.
One of the most dangerous guards in the entire tournament field, it seems as though he’s been forgotten about when it comes to this year’s draft. Why he hasn’t earned more consideration closer to the first round is a tad puzzling to me, as he’s young for his junior class, can hit every shot off the bounce you’d need him to take, has improved as a passer in college, and thanks to his solid build can hold his own defensively despite not having plus height and length.
In the backcourt with him, Damion Baugh has a few fans in the draft community as a late sleeper, not to mention one of this team’s best prospects in senior Emanuel Miller, older brother of G-League Ignite standout Leonard Miller.
Coached by Jamie Dixon, I’d be hard-pressed to pick an upset here. So I’ll go with the Horned Frogs in a close one regardless of who wins the First Four matchup.
7 Northwestern vs. 10 Boise St
Neither player is lighting up mainstream draft boards, but both Tyson Degenhart and Marcus Shaver are at the very least interesting college guards who have helped Boise State maintain success in the Mountain West.
Degenhart in particular, as called out by No Ceilings’ own Evan Wheeler in his personal big board rankings, has promise as a 6’7” sophomore with an efficient scoring package inside the arc and an improving jumper from beyond it.
Can both players overcome the excellent story in the Big Ten that’s been Northwestern basketball? I don’t think it’s an insurmountable ask.
Outside of guard Boo Buie, there’s no one on the Wildcats that strikes fear in terms of offensive firepower. But this is one of the best defensive teams in the country, and with experience combined with toughness, that’s a recipe for success in March.
I will reluctantly take Northwestern in a win here, but don’t be surprised if Degenhart and Shaver pull off an upset for the Broncos.
8 Arkansas vs. 9 Illinois
Last but certainly not least, the most fascinating game of the day on Thursday!
Arkansas and Illinois are two teams that could potentially go on a run of their own to the Sweet 16 or beyond. And yet, they have to square off on the 8/9 line.
With draft prospects aplenty, this game has the goods for scouts and executives.
For Arkansas, Nick Smith and Anthony Black remain potential lottery picks, while Jordan Walsh and Ricky Council offer some second-round options on the wing.
And as far as Illinois is concerned, this and any other matchup will be about how far Terrence Shannon Jr. and Coleman Hawkins can take their squad.
Both have the offensive pop, defensive chops, and experience to navigate a pressure-packed game such as this one between two talented squads. For Shannon, showing he can run an offense against a talented group like the Hogs while pouring in points of his own and locking down his man on the other end could be just what the doctor ordered as far as bringing his draft stock up come June.
In regards to Hawkins, he’s also shown a willingness to bring the ball up the floor and act as an initiator in the halfcourt. An inconsistent shooter, Hawkins’ talent is legit as a face-up big who can score, pass, and rebound.
This one comes down to matchups, and for that reason, I will reluctantly take Illinois here. Shannon and fellow guard Sencire Harris can lock up both backcourt options for Arkansas, and x-factor Matthew Mayer could get hot at the right time to put the Fighting Illini over the edge.
1 Purdue vs. 16 Texas Southern/Fairleigh Dickinson
Purdue has been one of the most consistent teams in all of college basketball, and I doubt that changes here.
Zach Edey is the most dominant force in amateur hoops, as the 7’4” center seems to walk away more often than not with 30+ point double-doubles while also having impressive block numbers of his own. He’s the type of low-post anchor that teams can crutch on in March.
Pair him with backcourt threats Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith, and the Boilermakers have an inside-out game that few can match.
Regardless of who wins the First Four matchup for the 16 seed in the East, I will pick Purdue to win by a mile behind Edey and company.
2 Marquette vs. 15 Vermont
Another one of this year’s most consistent squads, Marquette snuck up and surprised some people in the Big East.
They weren’t projected to be one of the best teams in the country, but head coach Shaka Smart proved that attention to detail, ball control, and defensive effort can go a long way in winning basketball games.
And no one embodies that more than the leader of the team, junior guard Tyler Kolek, who could find himself on NBA Draft radars next season. One of the best passers in the country, Kolek is a smooth operator in pick-and-roll, a crafty pull-up scorer, and a better defender than given credit for being. He may not be the best athlete at his position, but high-feel guards like him with legitimate passing and shooting touch tend to succeed in some capacity in making it to the next level.
Throw in forwards Olivier-Maxence Prosper and Oso Ighodaro, along with microwave-scoring guard Kam Jones, and this is a team that could make a run at the Final Four.
Vermont has no one who can equalize the talent gap between both teams. I’ll take Marquette and move on.
3 Kansas St vs. 14 Montana St
One of the Big 12’s best stories this season, Kansas State has some real prospects to watch for in this one.
Keyontae Johnson has fully returned from a medical scare while he was at Florida, and has re-emerged as a draftable wing prospect due to his size, strength, and shooting/off-ball scoring ability. Nae’Qwan Tomlin also has fans in the draft community as a raw yet gifted forward prospect who moves like a wing, blocks shots, and has started to put together a shooting stroke from the outside.
Along with Markquis Nowell and Desi Sills, it’s hard for many teams to match the firepower that the Wildcats can put on the floor. RaeQuan Battle and Jubrile Belo are fun watches on Montana State (I actually think Battle could be a real Top 100 prospect next year, possibly higher), but neither is likely enough to overcome this battle-tested Kansas State bunch.
Let’s roll with the Wildcats and keep trucking.
4 Tennessee vs. 13 Louisiana
Without Zakai Zeigler in the mix, this Tennessee team has lacked enough juice to put enough points on the board offensively.
All of Josiah Jordan-James, Zeigler as mentioned, and Julian Phillips have missed time over the last month, leading to inconsistent performances and some disappointing losses. Santiago Vescovi has come up with some hero-ball moments, but it’s going to take playing up a few levels for Rick Barnes and crew to advance where they’d like to in this tournament.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns have ZERO problems putting points on the board, shooting 48.4% from the field as a TEAM, including 37.8% from deep. Led by Jordan Brown up front, this team has a number of interior and perimeter guys to make shots and force the issue offensively. And the key to beating the Volunteers is spreading them thin and not funneling everything through the inside.
I’m going to make an upset pick here and take Louisiana in a barn burner of a game.
5 Duke vs. 12 Oral Roberts
There’s quite a bit riding on a decent tournament run for some of Duke’s prospects to win back over some scouts in the draft community.
Dereck Lively has been a beast over the last month and a half, posting impressive block rate numbers, rebounding, and acting as a great short-roll playmaker in the halfcourt. His continued growth as an athletic rim-running force has helped the Blue Devils find a better identity defensively.
Kyle Filipowski, meanwhile, has been one of the best freshmen in the country by counting stats. Arguably Duke’s most consistent offensive threat all year long, Filipowski can space the floor as much as he can take his man off the bounce, and get layups or floaters to go around the rim. He’s a fairly mobile 7-footer with a better handle than advertised, and also brings effort on the boards.
If Tyrese Proctor, Jeremy Roach, and most importantly Dariq Whitehead can provide better two-way play to support the frontcourt (including Mark Mitchell who is one of my favorite glue guys in all of college basketball), this team could make a deep run here in March.
So for all of those selfish NBA Draft reasons, I’m taking them in a matchup against Oral Roberts as I just don’t see a Max Abmas-led team having enough firepower to contend with the red-hot Blue Devils.
6 Kentucky vs. 11 Providence
I smell a potential upset brewing.
Kentucky has been up and down all year, and even though they have a FORCE inside in Oscar Tshiebwe, along with budding scorers in Jacob Toppin and Cason Wallace, there’s a chance the best player on the floor TODAY is on the other side in Bryce Hopkins.
The once-Kentucky recruit transferred to Providence after last season and has a real revenge opportunity on his hands. The 6’6” combo forward lit up the Big East all year to the tune of 16.1 PPG and 8.5 RPG on 45.7/37.8/76.3 shooting splits. There really aren’t too many great options to guard Hopkins outside of Wallace, and even he may not be enough if Hopkins can get him in the post and go to work.
In total, the Friars boast FIVE double-digit scorers and have one heck of a diversified offensive group. With the way Providence can spread out Kentucky, along with having a guy who could outperform everyone here (with real motivation to do so), this is an upset pick I’m going to call out here.
Give me Providence over Kentucky.
7 Michigan St vs. 10 USC
I really love USC’s chances here in this one.
With plenty of experience in Drew Peterson and Boogie Ellis, this team has a great combination of perimeter skill (throw in Kobe Johnson and Tre White as well), along with improving size in Josh Morgan, Kijani Wright, and Vincent Iwuchukwu.
Andy Enfield will have his guys ready to face off against one of the best coaches in the tournament’s history in Tom Izzo. Despite the sound guard play from Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard, I’m buying the offensive diversity the Trojans possess.
Joey Hauser and Malik Hall could certainly turn the tide for the Spartans given their size and experience, but I’m going to make a talent bet here even if my head says go with the proven commodity at head coach.
I’ll take USC in another upset pick.
8 Memphis vs. 9 FAU
Kendric Davis has yet to play in the NCAA Tournament, and given his performance in Memphis’ upset win over Houston, I’d say he’s ready to go off.
Davis is one of the most dynamic scoring guards in college basketball, as he can score from all three levels. Not the greatest passer or decision-maker, there are fewer guards you’d want in a one-on-one situation late in the season than Davis. And with a frontcourt mate in Deandre Williams who can shoulder the burden on the interior, there just isn’t enough size and defensive versatility on FAU to deal with this highly talented duo.
It’s Penny’s time to start racking up some NCAA Tournament wins. Give me Memphis to move on.
VCU was #1 seed in Atlantic 10 tourney and deserved to move on out of that.