This is our NCAA Tournament predictions roundtable. Let’s get right to it because we had a lot to say.
Who is your favorite player from a team seeded 10 or lower?
Belz: I’ll go with a player that nearly wound up at Wisconsin. JaQuori McLaughlin for UC-Santa Barbara is a beast and he was recently selected as an honorable mention AP-All American. He was recognized as the Big West Player of the Year after averaging over 16 points and five assists per game, and is a big reason why the Gauchos are in the tournament for the first time in 10 years. Recruitniks might remember McLaughlin’s name from the 2016 recruiting class in which the Badgers signed D’Mitrik Trice and Aleem Ford. He was a top-100 recruit that took an official visit to Madison before ultimately landing at Oregon State. He wound up transferring to UCSB, and he is a player to watch if the Gauchos are going to pull off the upset of Creighton.
Owen: Since Neal beat me to Preston, I’ll also stick with Ohio and go with Ripon, Wis. native Bennett Vander Plas. He had an impressive game against the Illini earlier this season, and with Preston, Ohio could be a pain in the tournament.
Tyler: I’d have to go with Max Abmas of Oral Roberts. Dude is a walking bucket that can score from anywhere. He led the nation in scoring and should give Ohio State a really tough run in the opening round game. Not sure if they have enough to pull off the upset but I know Abmas will get his in that contest.
J.J.: Going to take the easy route on this one and use a 10 seed. I’m also going to interpret “favorite” as a player you enjoy seeing do well and not necessarily the best player on the court by choosing Cliff Omoruyi of Rutgers. Though the freshman is only working his way into the lineup at around 10-20 minutes a game, it’s pretty cool to see a player I watched dominate the high school scene (Omoruyi attended the Patrick School, a basketball powerhouse in my county) start to make the steps to being a force at the next level as well.
Neal: Though tempting, in the spirit of this exercise, I cannot pick a player from one of the Big Ten or other Power 5 conference teams that ended up with double digit seed. As such Jason Preston from Ohio is my pick. Preston was a monster for the Bobcats this season averaging 16 points, 7 assists and nearly 7 rebounds a game. He also has a 31 point outing against Illinois earlier this season as proof he can complete with the best in the country.
Ryan: Max Abmas from Oral Roberts really stands out to me. Not only does he lead the nation in scoring at 24.2 points per game, he also shoots 48 percent from the field, 43 percent from outside and shoots 90 percent from the line. Abmas had a 33-point game against Oklahoma State earlier this season and has had two 40-point games this season and has played the entirety of 14 games this season and played every minute of the Summit League Championship. He is also only a sophomore. While his team is a 15-seed, playing Ohio State, I expect him to put on a show against the Buckeyes.
Drew: I don’t know how anyone can pick any other player than Grand Canyon’s 7-foot, 270 pound Danish center Asbjørn Midtgaard. The Antelopes big man, who transferred from Wichita State before this season, has been a monster down low averaging 14.0 ppg and 9.9 rpg while blocking 30 shots in 23 games. He has an eFG% of 71.4 (99th percentile in the country) and has only shot four three pointers, missing all of them, the entire year. His name is Danish for “God’s bear,” he listens to Queen and he was on the honor roll all three years at WSU. This guy does it all and hopefully he can matchup well with Iowa’s Luka Garza in the first round.
What’s your favorite upset that you’re picking in your bracket?
Belz: I don’t know if this counts, but I have Colorado making a deep run in the tournament. I could easily see them slip-up against UNC Greensboro or Florida State, but I think the East bracket is completely up for grabs with Isaiah Livers hurt for Michigan, Alabama potentially without Josh Primo, and Florida State also battling recent injuries of their own. Minnesota native McKinley Wright is a playmaker for Colorado that can tilt games in their favor when he is on, and in tournament games sometimes having a guy take over is all that you need in a tight game.
Owen: I’ve got Texas Tech in the Final Four, if that counts. Georgetown as a 12 is another I’ve got winning, setting up an interesting matchup with the winner of Michigan State and UCLA (in my bracket).
Tyler: My favorite upset is UC-Santa Barbara over Creighton. They’ve got multiple transfers from power five schools and have much more length than your average lower level league team. I think UCSB knocks off Creighton and possibly gets to they second round if everyone else’s favorite upset Ohio meets them in the second round.
J.J.: Winthrop is my most confident upset, as the Eagles have been dominating games leading up to the Dance, play at a high tempo with great depth, and are matched up against a Villanova team that’s sputtered since losing starting point guard Collin Gillespie. For a slightly less conventional pick, I think Ohio might pull it out over Virginia. I usually like picking the Cavs to go far, trusting their defense, but COVID looms as a major uncertainty for a UVA team that had to drop out of the ACC tournament, and the Bobcats are the exact sort of team that could give them trouble early on. Jason Preston is a star, and he’s surrounded by other shooters who can score in bunches from deep. If Ohio gets hot beyond the arc, it will be very difficult for Tony Bennett to suffocate the Bobcats with his stifling defense, and just as difficult for a Cavaliers team that traditionally doesn’t score in huge amounts to keep up.
Neal: Does Wisconsin over North Carolina count?? Kidding…As silly as it seems to bet against Villanova in March, the Wildcats have struggled in the two games without Collin Gillespie who is out for the season. Winthrop has just enough firepower to pull off the classic 12 seed over 5 seed upset
Ryan: Ohio over Virginia. The Cavaliers had to cancel their last game of the ACC Tournament against Georgia Tech and has most of its roster in quarantine right now due to contact tracing, and will not be traveling to Indy until Friday. At this point, it’s hard to say who will and who won’t be available against the Bobcats, who have a talented team, led by Jason Preston. All of these factors point to an Ohio upset win.
Drew: I’ve got Ohio beating UVa, for the reasons Ryan listed above, AND going to the Sweet 16. I also like Utah State to make some noise and make the Sweet 16 as well. Big man Neemias Queta is a difference maker on defense and gobbles up rebounds on both ends. He’s going to make life hell for Texas Tech, who try to make a living in the paint on offense, in the first round.
How far do you have Wisconsin going?
Belz: It depends on if we see Jekyll or Hyde to be quite honest. This Wisconsin team has the talent and experience to compete with anyone in the tournament, but has also struggled when it matters most this season. I think they will get by UNC, but based on their inability to beat the top teams so far this year, I’m going to guess that Baylor knocks them out.
Owen: I have them making the Elite 8 before losing to Texas Tech. The concept of what this team should be and what they are isn’t always in simpaticos, but if they play to their potential, they’re going to be a real tough out for about anybody.
Tyler: I have talked myself into them winning over UNC and giving Baylor a tough game but ultimately not finishing the job and falling in the round of 32.
J.J.: I’ll be honest. I really don’t like the Badgers round one matchup against North Carolina. UNC had been playing some of it’s best basketball heading into the tournament- dominating rival Duke, boat racing Notre Dame, and taking a very good Florida State team down to the wire before their upset bid fell short. The Tar Heels are an eight seed with the talent of a one seed, but more importantly they’re a team that excels at offensive rebounding- something has killed Wisconsin again and again this season. My heart thinks the Badgers can get hot and pull out a run to the second weekend or further, but my brain tells me that they got the worst case scenario with their first round matchup.
Neal: Insert The Rock eye roll gif. The Badgers could absolutely catch fire and play into the second weekend. The Badgers have run into enough hot shooting teams in the tournament over the past two decades some comeuppance might be due. However, I expect them to squeak out a win over North Carolina, then lose a heartbreaker in the last few minutes to Baylor that looks an awful lot like the last few loses against Purdue and Iowa.
Ryan: It depends on which Wisconsin team shows up in Indy. I could see them drop a heart breaker to UNC on Friday and I could also see them going on a tear and going deep into the tournament. Realistically, I think Wisconsin will end up winning on Friday, but then drop a tough loss reminiscent of it’s recent losses when it meets Baylor in the second round. However, I hope I am wrong and that they make a deep run.
Drew: I have them beating UNC and losing to Baylor. I’d love to be wrong, but Baylor is really good and while they’ve struggled recently on defense they are normally solid on that end. All I know for sure is I will have an elevated blood pressure during any games they do play.
What does your Final Four look like?
Belz: Gonzaga, Colorado, Baylor, Illinois
Owen: Gonzaga, Florida State, Texas Tech and Illinois
Tyler: Gonzaga, Texas, Baylor, Illinois
J.J.: Kansas, Alabama, Baylor, Illinois
Neal: Gonzaga, Florida St, Purdue and Illinois
Ryan: Gonzaga, Alabama, Baylor and Illinois
Drew: Gonzaga, Texas, Baylor, Illinois
Who is winning it all and why?
Belz: Gonzaga. They have been so close lately, and I think this is their most talented team. Illinois and Baylor are also in contention, but I think those three are the primary candidates. At this point, until somebody can dethrone Gonzaga this year, I think the Zags have to be the pick for me.
Owen: I’ve got Gonzaga over Illinois. I think they’re the most talented team in the country, and the mix of Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert and the depth of the Zags is going to be too much for the Illini. I do believe, regardless of the winner, that both teams end up in the 80’s before this is all said and done.
Tyler: Illinois. I just think they’ve got that it factor in them. Something about the roster makeup is special, and they’re incredibly fun to watch. Also I have a 14 to 1 future ticket on them so I may be a little biased, but I am the biggest Illini fan currently.
J.J.: I have Baylor taking home the championship. Though disappointing conference tournament loss has stemmed some of the Bears steam as a popular pick to win it all, don’t I think the early exit takes away from the fact that Baylor has been dominating games against ranked teams all year. Their only two losses have been at the hands of a COVID break slump (against a very good Kansas team as well) and the brilliance of projected first overall pick Cade Cunningham, whose performance in Kansas City could have taken down any team. Plus, I’m always somewhat weary of teams who’ve won their conference tournament- only one of the last five national champions also took home their respective conference tournament honors.
Neal: Gonzaga has been nearly untouchable all season long. I think this is the year they finally win it all.
Ryan: I’m going with Gonzaga over Illinois in the final. The Zags are just too talented and can score at will, putting up 80 on a bad night. While Gonzaga hasn’t played a ranked conference opponent all season, they did win their four games against ranked teams (Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia) by an average of 12.75 points.
Drew: The Zags are a historically good team, coming into the NCAA Tournament as the best team over the last two decades based on adjusted efficiency margins. They can score inside and outside, they have a dominant big, a marksman shooter and an electric freshman ball-handler. There are no weaknesses on this team and anybody that beats them will have to do so with a combination of extreme luck and otherworldly play from one of their players. It’s boring to pick the best team to win the NCAA Tournament, but they’re the best team for a reason.