It’s every hoop-heads favourite time of the year; the NCCA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament starts Tuesday, March 15. This past Sunday the selection committee made the tough decisions and seeded the 68 teams that will be participating in this year’s tournament. The 2015-2016 regular season can be summed up in one word: parity. For proof, look no further than the recent conference tournaments where 22 top seeds were eliminated. Of course parity makes this tournament even harder to predict than previous years. With that in mind, the following contains predictions for each regional champion, final four results and the national championship game.
South Region Champion: Villanova
Villanova is ranked #2 in the South region but from top to bottom they are the strongest team. Although they will have to overcome overall tournament #1 seed Kansas, Villanova’s ability to play five players that are flat-out scorers will buoy them throughout the tournament. Led by Josh Hart, the Wildcats bolster seven players that average double figures in points per 36 minutes and eight players that average 17 minutes per game or better. In a grueling tournament, not many things trump depth, and few teams in the tournament can match the depth of Villanova.
West Region Champion: Oklahoma
Buddy Hield. Buddy Hield. Buddy Hield. The Oklahoma Sooners have lived and died by the play of the favourite for the Naismith National Player of the Year Award. In his bid for the Naismith, Hield has done everything Oklahoma could have asked of him and more. He finished second in the NCAA in scoring at 25 points per game, but also tallied 5.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game. He did this while shooting 46% from beyond the three-point line. Overall, the Sooners have four players that shot over 40% from three-point range, with another four players shooting 32% or better. Oklahoma can shoot themselves out of any situation and did so routinely throughout the season (including Hield’s last-second game winner in the Big-12 tournament that was waived off by the refs). Look no further than the Golden State Warriors to know the value of the three-pointer in basketball. Hield should continue a historic season with a trip to the final four.
East Region Champion: North Carolina
This year’s North Carolina Tar Heels have been flirting with the top spot in the NCAA all season, at one point even holding the #1 ranking. Their recipe for success is fairly simple, and rare in contemporary college basketball, lean on your upperclassmen for scoring and distributing. Senior Brice Johnson has been a man possessed all season for the Tar Heels and is sure to be an All-American pick. Johnson averaged a double-double on the year (16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game) to go along with 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals. Marcus Paige, another senior, has acted as the team leader and lead the team in assists while finishing third in points. Kennedy Meeks, a junior, has routinely guarded the opposing teams best big and shot 56% from the field throughout the season. North Carolina plays a group of experienced players, coached by Hall of Famer Roy Williams, and that experience should be the difference throughout the tournament.
Midwest Region Champion: Virginia
If the old adage that “defense wins championships” is true, then the Virginia Cavaliers should be your two-time defending NCAA champions. Even though they did not win the whole shebang the last two years, perhaps another cliché will hold true and the third time will be the charm for this squad. Lead by Malcolm Brogdon, the Cavaliers will once again play their patented pack line defense to fluster opposing offenses and keep the pace of play to their liking. Virginia had the top rated defense amongst major college programs throughout the season, but it isn’t just their defence that will be the difference. By slowing the pace, Virginia is able to use the lethal outside-in combination of Brogdon (18.7 points per game) and Anthony Gill (13.3 points on 56% shooting from the field). By turning defense into offense, and controlling how every game is played, Virginia should be able to make their way through the tough Midwest.
Final Four Game 1: Oklahoma def. Villanova
The depth of Villanova vs. the star power of Buddy Hield and the Oklahoma Sooners. This promises to be a great offensive game between two teams that like to rack up points. At the end of the day the NCAA tournament is where legends are made or cemented. Buddy Hield will hope to do so in this game. Oklahoma, and their stud senior, will stay hot from beyond the three-point line and shoot the balanced Villanova Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament.
Final Four Game 2: Virginia def. North Carolina
This ACC battle promises to be close from beginning to end. These teams played each other twice this season. They each won one game. The two games were decided by a total of nine points. This is a group of players, coaches and personnel that know each other very well and this game will be evidence of that. Expect the game to be paced slowly, which always benefits the defensive minded Virginia squad. Of the two, Virginia has also been the most consistent team all season. Look for them to barely get the win in what could be a classic.
NCAA Championship Game: Virginia def. Oklahoma
A case of offense vs. defense makes for a very intriguing matchup. Oklahoma average 80.4 points per game this season, a mark that placed them 24th in the NCAA; however, they will be running into that vaunted, and oft-mentioned, Virginia defense that only allowed 59.7 points per game. Virginia was able to produce this astounding mark with a SOS (strength of schedule) that ranked second and an RPI (which measures wins and losses vs. SOS) that ranked third in the country. While Oklahoma has the sixth ranked RPI and finished 12th in SOS, what this indicates is that Oklahoma won’t throw anything at Virginia that they haven’t already seen, and overcome. Virginia will stifle Oklahoma’s great shooting and ride their phenomenal defense to their first NCAA championship.