No talk about bubbles here. Now that the 68 teams for the NCAA Tournament have been revealed, The Tribune’s Tony Jones gives his best of each region.
Top Seed • This is Xavier’s best chance at reaching a Final Four, even with North Carolina lurking elsewhere in the bracket. Trevon Bluiett is one of college basketball’s special offensive talents. J.P. Macura has long been one of the best guards in the Big East, Xavier is deep, athletic and talented throughout the roster.
Sleeper • I wouldn’t want to be the team playing No. 11 seed San Diego State right now. Senior Trey Kell is one of the better point guards in the West. Malik Pope is living up to his potential. Watch for Jalen McDaniels, the redshirt freshman who has the look of a potential future NBA player. With guards and athleticism up front, San Diego State is a team that won’t be an easy out.
Best Potential Game • If Xavier and Gonzaga meet in the Sweet 16, that matchup could produce one of those classic NCAA Tournament games that people talk about every season. Gonzaga is coming off a Final Four appearance, and it’s gotten better through the season, while Xavier joined Villanova as one of the best teams in the Big East.
Best Player • Keita Bates-Diop is one of the best small forwards in the country and if Ohio State is to go far in this field, he’s got to play like it. Defensively, he can guard multiple positions. Offensively, he can score in the paint, or hurt opposing defenses on the perimeter. He’d better be on his game, because he’s the one dynamic weapon the Buckeyes have offensively.
Top Seed • This may not be a typically dominant Kansas team, but it was good enough for another Big 12 title, and the right to play two rounds in Kansas City. These Jayhawks aren’t as dynamic as they used to be; after all, they did lose to Arizona State at home. But they are great defensively, steady offensively and DeVonte’ Graham is one of the most experienced and best lead guards in the country.
Sleeper • College basketball is a guard’s game, and Rhode Island has guards in spades. E.C. Matthews and Stanford Robinson are the best of the lot, and Matthews was once a pro prospect until injuries hit. But Danny Hurley’s squad is tough and battle-tested. A potential second round matchup with Duke would be great to watch.
Best Potential Game • Everyone is rooting for a Sweet 16 matchup between Duke and Michigan State. That would potentially be the best game in the tournament before the Final Four. They are two of the best teams in the country, and there would be at least four potential NBA lottery picks in the fray.
Best Player • Who to pick? Marvin Bagley or Wendell Carter? Or Miles Bridges or Jaren Jackson Jr.? Let’s go with Bagley, who is almost a lock to be a top-five NBA Draft pick. He’s had a sensational freshman season, and is Duke’s top offensive option.
Top Seed • Villanova may be the favorite to win it all. Nova combines defense with depth and the ability to space teams out offensively and shoot the ball from the perimeter. Jaylen Brunson is probably the best pure point guard in the country. Mikal Bridges has a chance to be a lottery pick. Don’t be shocked if Villanova makes it through the region relatively unscathed.
Sleeper • Florida had a big November, then tapered off in SEC play. But they have great guards and they can shoot the ball, and they have a lot of veterans returning from the team that made a Final 8 run last March. As a No. 6 seed, they should not be discounted.
Best Game • UCLA and St. Bonaventure is on paper one of the more talented first four games the NCAA Tournament has had. Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley are one of the best backcourts nobody has heard of. Adams locking horns with UCLA guard Aaron Holiday is one of the best point guard matchups of the first round.
Best Player • It’s hard to pick between Brunson or Bridges, or Collin Sexton of Alabama. The selection, though, is Brunson. He’s been special this season with his ability to make big shots and big plays whenever Villanova needs it. Expect him to make a big impact on the tournament as a whole.
Top Seed • Virginia has always been great defensively in Tony Bennett’s tenure. The difference this season? He has legitimate NBA talent to supplement his unique style. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter are all players you could potentially see at the next level. And Devon Hall isn’t bad, either. Virginia has been the best team in the country for a reason.
Sleeper • How often do we call Kentucky a sleeper? This has been one of John Calipari’s better coaching jobs, taking a team not ready from prime time and developing it over the course of the season. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the best point guards in the country, and Kevin Knox could be a lottery pick. This Kentucky team isn’t as dominant as it’s been in the past. But it’s dangerous.
Best Game • Kentucky and Arizona in the second round will be a heavyweight matchup, and a great way for the tournament to rid itself of at least one program caught in current storm of NCAA and FBI troubles. So, we get to see good basketball, and someone gets eliminated — a win-win for the tournament committee.
Top Player • DeAndre Ayton will either be the first or second pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Even in a region that features Mo Bamba, this is an easy pick. Ayton’s been dominant in his one season of college basketball, and has the makings of a franchise player at the next level.