by Joseph Declan Moran
Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2019 – 10:18 a.m. CST
Now that we have officially arrived at March Madness, here are my final picks for the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, set to begin today.
THE FIRST FOUR
I was fortunate to have correctly picked all four games, which were too close to call. Four No. 11 seeds and four No. 16 seeds, all hoping to make their way to the first round today and tomorrow.
Four of those eight – Fairleigh Dickinson, Prairie View A&M, Belmont and North Carolina Central – had never won a game in the Big Dance before. Northeast Conference Champ FDU won its first game ever by defeating Prairie View, thus earning the right to play No. 1 seed Gonzaga today.
While Belmont of the Ohio Valley Conference was looking to end its NCAA Tournament winless streak of seven straight, Temple was trying to extend its coach’s career by one game. Seventy-year-old Fran Dunphy walked away sooner than he wanted, ending a distinguished 30-year coaching career. The Bruins will meet Maryland this afternoon in the No. 6 versus No. 11 game.
And the third time was not the charm in the First Four for North Carolina Central, champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The Eagles lost again in the First Four to Summit League champion North Dakota State, which won a tournament game for just the second time in its history. North Carolina Central is 0-4 all-time in NCAA Tournament play.
And St. John’s, the last team selected for this year’s tournament and won its last game in 2000, were beaten by Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State Sun Devils, whose last win in the tourney was in 2009. Hurley will now play his old team, Buffalo, tomorrow facing the man he hired, Nate Oates.
FIRST ROUND UPSETS
While No. 5 versus No. 12 upsets are always trendy, recently the No. 6 versus No. 11 upsets have been as prevalent, if not more. Keep in mind that three No. 11s have gone on to the Final Four: VCU, George Mason and last year, Loyola.
Speaking of No. 6 versus No. 11 upsets, I am taking Belmont over Maryland. The Terrapins, the fifth-place team in the Big Ten, was one and done in the conference’s tournament in Chicago. Generally, teams that don’t advance in their tournaments don’t advance in the Dance. Also, Maryland and the other Big Ten teams will be hurt by the conference’s 20-game regular season schedule. Add the conference tournament to the regular season and most of the teams won’t have anything left for the NCAA Tournament. Belmont went to the finals of the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, losing to Murray State. This is the first time in 32 years the OVC has sent an at-large team to the Big Dance. Both teams are heavy with underclassmen. The Terrapins have an inside-outside attack featuring Bruno Fernando and Anthony Cowan. The Bruins are the 18th most accurate three-point shooting team in America and led by senior guard Dylan Windler. The Bruins win two in a row on their way to the Sweet 16.
Liberty, Liberty, Liberty, Liberty. That may be a catchy jingle for a car insurance commercial, but it also may be what the folks in Lynchburg, Virginia, will be singing this weekend when the Liberty Flames defeat Ben Howland’s Mississippi State Bulldogs in the No. 5 versus No. 12 game. Coached by Ritchie McKay, the Flames’ last appearance was in the 2013 First Four, but have won five straight and played a tough non conference schedule this year that included Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, UCLA and Navy, winning the last two. Howland, who has taken Northern Arizona, Pitt and UCLA to the tournament during his career, now has the Bulldogs in the tournament for the first time in 10 years. This could be the best upset special in this bracket.
In the No. 14 versus No. 3, look for Yale to pull the upset over LSU. The Elis have wins over Miami and Cal, in addition to playing Vermont, Duke and Memphis this season. LSU will be without head coach Will Wade, suspended by the university indefinitely as part of the FBI shoe investigation. Tony Benford will helm the Tigers as the scandal hangs like a cloud over LSU and other teams in the tournament.
In what could be considered a minor upset, No. 9 seed University of Central Florida, under Coach K protege Johnny Dawkins, will dispatch VCU. UCF’s last tournament appearance was in 1982. Dawkins will lose the teacher-student battle when he faces Duke in the round of 16.
Another No. 9 seed, Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma Sooners, does not have Trae Young this year, but a heavy upperclass-laden roster that beat Wofford, Florida, Creighton and Vanderbilt, but still finished 7-11 in the Big 12, losing in the first round of the conference’s tournament. Still, I like Kruger’s tournament experience in this matchup with Ole Miss.
In another No. 5 versus No. 12 matchup, I see Wisconsin losing to a hot Oregon team that has size and speed. Guard Payton Pritchard might be too much to handle for the Badgers in senior forward Ethan Happ’s last game as a collegian.
Another West Coast team playing its best ball right now is St. Mary’s, which defeated No. 1 Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference Tournament to earn the automatic bid to the Dance. The Gaels upset No. 6 Villanova in another No. 6 versus No. 11 upset last year. The Wildcats won the regular season and Big East Conference tournament titles, but might not have enough against the Gaels, who I have going to the Elite Eight. This is also the first time in six years that Villanova is not a No. 2 seed.
The No. 13 versus No. 4 game between Colonial Athletic Association champion Northeastern and Kansas could open some eyes. While this is the 30th straight appearance for the Jayhawks in the tournament, not a lot went right this season as they lost Udoka Azubuike to injury, Lagerald Vick to an indefinite leave of absence and Silvio DeSousa to the FBI scandal. Kansas has been touched by this investigation, as has LSU, Auburn and other schools. Northeastern is on a seven-game winning streak. It has an upperclass-laden lineup, led by senior guard Vasa Pusica, most valuable player in the Colonial tournament. While Kansas has won 12 straight first-round games, that streak could come to an end today.
Keep an eye on the Auburn (No. 5) – New Mexico State (No. 12) game. The Tigers are another team touched by the FBI scandal as Bruce Pearl assistant Chuck Person pleaded guilty to conspiracy earlier this week. The cloud over the program could certainly be as much a distraction as the altitude in Salt Lake City, where the game will be played.
One of the more trendy No. 5 versus No. 12 upset picks this week has been the Marquette-Murray State matchup. The great story line of Ja Morant and Markus Howard has the networks excited today. While Marquette did not finish the season well, losing five of its last six games, its nonconference schedule prepared the team well for the postseason, with games against Indiana, Louisville, Kansas, Kansas State, Wisconsin, Buffalo and the very tough Big East schedule. Howard, whose left wrist has given him problems in the last two games, can carry a team on his back like Steph Curry did for Davidson several years ago. Murray State’s nonconference schedule included both Auburn and Alabama. The Racers lost both of those games. Marquette will have to be careful with the ball as Murray State has ball hawks. It is also important to keep in mind that Morant averaged more minutes than any player in the OVC. I have Marquette advancing and upsetting No. 4 Florida State, but losing the Vatican Championship to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16.
Duke, Virginia Tech, Belmont, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Marquette, Texas Tech, Nevada, Virginia, Oregon, St. Mary’s, Tennessee, North Carolina, Auburn, Houston and Kentucky.
Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga, Nevada, Virginia, St. Mary’s, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Duke, Gonzaga, Kentucky and Virginia.
Duke over Gonzaga. Kentucky over Virginia.
NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Duke over Kentucky.
Enjoy the Madness, everyone.
The NCAA Basketball Tournament remains the best sporting event in America. Bar none!