You’ve likely been inundated with Bracket Talk by this point. You’ve heard a million pundits make cases for nearly every team in the field thanks to (star player’s) ability to get hot and tenacious defense and a great coach. It is a big part of what makes this tournament so fun; nearly any one COULD be right, and of course most of us will end up looking silly.
The truth is, this tournament is WIDE WIDE open. The four #1 seeds have a combined 23 losses this season, easily the most since the field expanded to 68 teams. All four of them have lost to at least one team seeded in double-digits or one that failed to make the NCAA tournament field all together (Kansas/Oklahoma State, North Carolina/Northern Iowa, Oregon/UNLV, Boise St, and Stanford, and Virginia to Florida State, Virginia Tech, George Washington and Georgia Tech)
Those are all the equivalent of first weekend losses, add in a neutral court, and one wouldn’t be insane to pick Providence, UConn, St. Joe’s, Cincinnati or Butler to make a mess of this whole thing. And if you are banking on chalk to win your bracket, get daring! Your odds of winning when you go chalk are slim, because so many others will be right with you. Instead, why not roll the dice on some uber-talented teams with lower seeds like Iowa State, Maryland, Purdue, Kentucky, Indiana, Seton Hall, etc.
The focus of our look at the LEFT SIDE of the Bracket isn’t clairvoyant bracket predicitions. Instead, it is a look at overall bracket VALUE, both to win the region and as a National Champion. The odds are borrowed from the best lines from major online sportsbooks – they will vary greatly from site to site, so be sure to shop around if you like any future wagers. A few points can make a BIG difference in the payout.
Here we go – Let the MADNESS Begin!!
SOUTH REGION PREVIEW:
This region is pretty loaded. On the top, you have the #1 overall seed and hottest elite team in the country, Kansas. On the bottom, you have a team everyone assumed was a #1 seed before their two-point championship game loss in the Big East final to Seton Hall. Add in a Miami team that finished one game out of the top spot in ACC and owns wins over Utah, Butler, Duke, Notre Dame (twice), Virginia, Syracuse and Pitt, and a Cal team that has two future pros and has won nine of their last eleven including wins over Oregon by 20 and Oregon State twice – and you have a monster bracket.
There’s some value in the middle seeds as well. Maryland, despite their terrible turnover woes, is still arguably the most talented starting five in the country, Arizona has talent and tournament pedigree, and Iowa as a #7 was once ranked #2 in the COUNTRY.
So where is the best value?
BEST VALUE PLAYS:
Maryland +900 – They obviously have a tough road, but let’s just assume that applied to the entire bracket after the aforementioned roll call. If you have to play Kansas sometime, why not in the Sweet 16? On a neutral court, is that more than a four or five point spread? If Mark Turgeon’s squad can stop kicking the ball around (they are not in the top 250 in turnover ratio), they can beat anyone in the country.
Iowa +1400 – Pretty good payout for a team that swept Purdue and Michigan State home and home this season. Jarrod Utoff and Peter Jok need to play like they did in February and not March. IF they can do that, is it a stretch to think Villanova will go, well, Villanova, in yet another early exit? If they survive the first weekend, I’ve got no fear of them in the Miami/Arizona/Wichita St game – and if nothing else, you have a really nice hedge opportunity.
I would also like Wichita State, but I feel like Vegas is already hip to the Shocker’s value. They are the same +1400 (on Bovada) that Iowa and Arizona are. If that climbs to +2000, I’d take a flyer on the Shocks and that veteran, talented backcourt.
LEAST FAVORITE VALUE:
Kansas +150 – This was my preseason National Champion if you read way back into the Sportsgeek archives. And I feel good about that call, given where they currently sit. It was a good call. But I am not in at +150 in a region with six teams that could beat them potentially. Even the first weekend could be nervy with a peaking UConn team with some talent and moxy. Besides, unless the rest of the bracket falls apart, is KU really going to be much worse than +150 on Monday if you really like the Jayhawks? No rush to get down at this price.
Villanova +375 – Maybe this is the year. Maybe it is. But the WAY this same core group has bowed out the last two years has me skeptical. Does Jalen Brunson make THAT much of a difference? I think Iowa is a nightmare matchup for the Wildcats, so they better root hard for Big Five mate Temple… Either way, I just have too much lingering skepticism to bet Nova. They are a good team, and I might regret it – but their two biggest non-con tests were butt-kickings from Oklahoma and Virginia.
I wanted to go Wichita State all weekend, then the odds makers surprised me with the slim line. So, if you want a crazy long shot, maybe it is Vandy at +4000. I personally think they lose tonight to Wichita, but this Vandy team has a pro-level frontcourt and entered this year with tons of expectations. Can they miraculously live up to them in their final gasp of the season? It’s unlikely, but 40:1 gives some hedge value if they can get through tonight.
ALL SOUTH REGION TEAM:
There are a ton of great players in this region. Here are my five with the most potential to carry their teams a little further than expected (or to cutting down the nets, as expected)
Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State) – If the Shockers make another run, it will be because of their veteran point guard’s excellence. Early injuries took him off a lot of the preseason POY watchlists, but this is still an elite college point guard capable of special things in March.
Jarrod Utoff (Iowa) – He led the Big Ten in scoring and blocks for most of the season. He was a surprising All American candidate and has the ability to carry the ‘Hawks if he can regain his earlier touch.
Melo Trimble (Maryland) – Speaking of point guards, if you need one to win in March (Tyus Jones, Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker, Steph Curry) than maybe Melo is your guy. He doesn’t score like the last three, but is certainly capable of carrying the Terps – who have more surrounding talent than the last three did, deep into March
Jaylen Brown (Cal) – His numbers aren’t eye-popping at just 15 and 5.5, but he is a projected Top Ten pick, and more than a few have introduced themselves to the nation on this stage over the years…
Sheldon McClelland (Miami) – He is about an anonymous as an All ACC player can be, much like most of his Miami teammates. I am not sold on Miami, but looking at McClelland and Angel Rodriguez, perhaps I should be…
Kansas is the favorite in this bracket, but I’ll go with Maryland in an upset to get to the Final Four. My first round upsets to watch are Hawaii over Cal. The Warriors almost got Oklahoma over Christmas (3 point loss) and Cal is very young. Don’t be surprised if Hawaii gets the first big surprise of the tourney. I also like Wichita State over Arizona (assuming they get to play them… darn play-in game)
WEST REGION PREVIEW:
Oregon is a surprise #1 seed out West, showing the Committee’s overall respect and affinity for the Pac 12. Perhaps the rest of us were just sleeping, but seeing Oregon as #1, Cal as a #4 and Oregon State as a #7 were all surprised to me. I imagine Oregon will be the one seed most often projected to get knocked off, but that might be a mistake. Every bracket is good and fraught with peril, but Oregon has an easier path than Carolina and Kansas.
The #2 seed is a talented Oklahoma team that has been ranked #1 in the nation this year, but they have also lost games in seven consecutive weeks since reaching that lofty platform. The #3 and #4 are Texas A&M and Duke respectively, and both have some real warts. The middle seeds have one of the least-scary groups of any bracket with Baylor, Texas, Oregon State, St. Josephs and Cincinnati. Compare that to other brackets which house Big Ten champ Indiana, former top five Iowa, dangerous Iowa State, Big East Champ Seton Hall, etc.
So where is the VALUE in the West?
BEST VALUE PLAYS:
Oregon +350 – Oddly enough, the best value might be the top seed. They have a manageable bracket and no super-scary Kentucky or Iowa State or Maryland/Cal lurking in the Sweet 16. Duke has massive depth issues and may not even survive to meet them, and they’ve already handled Baylor pretty easily this season – and that was before Oregon really gelled and got hot. They aren’t the most recognizable team, a combination of playing out West and having exceeded modest expectations, but they are talented and just ripped through the Pac 12, winning 14 of their last 16 and eight straight to close the season.
Duke +700 – I know. I know. They have no depth. But Duke NEVER has depth. It is as much a function of Coach K’s rotation preference as it is talent. They have a McDonald’s All American on the bench rotting in Chase Jeter. Remember their no-depth roster LAST year? Luckily a “bench warmer” named Grayson Allen (also a MickeyD’s All Star) came off the bench to the rescue. So I don’t by the NO depth issue as an absolute death sentence. They still have one of the more dynamic offensive teams in the field and I really like their matchup with Baylor. Head to head with Oregon? Winnable game. Duke is probably no more than a 3 or 4 point dog at most.
I don’t think Duke is the FAVORITE but any stretch, but +700 is decent value.
Oklahoma +230 – It’s weird, because Oklahoma IS my pick to win the West. But +230 isn’t great value. I don’t think this line will shrink too much if Duke/Oregon are in the Sweet 16, so no rush to get down on Oklahoma. I want to see them knock down some shots on a neutral floor this weekend before going all in with the Sooners with real money. But, yes, they are my official pick to win the West.
Texas A&M +400 – I just don’t think this is a Final Four team. I know they finished strong, but they and Kentucky absolutely should be flipped in the bracket seeding and THEN things would be really interesting. Indiana becomes a nice Final Four sleeper value pick, and Kentucky becomes the Vegas favorite in the South. But alas, we have the Aggies, but I don’t think for long. I like a Northern Iowa upset this weekend.
Northern Iowa +5000 – The Panthers have something special brewing. They had a DREADFUL start to the NVC, losing six of their first seven. Since then, they have reeled off 12 of 13 including two wins over Wichita State (one on the road, one neutral court). This looks more and more like the team that beat Iowa State and North Carolina in December.
ALL WEST REGION TEAM:
Buddy Hield (Oklahoma) – We should probably list Buddy Love twice, as he is far and away the best player in this region. The presumptive Wooden Award winner should enjoy a nice long tournament run to display his shot making magic. He could carry Oklahoma all the way to a Championship. He’s that special.
Gary Payton Jr. (Oregon State) – I think Oregon State is over-seeded, but that doesn’t diminish the defensive brilliance of GP2. Watching him matchup with Buddy should be an absolute blast if the Beavers can win their first tourney game in two decades in their opener against the HAVOC of VCU.
Grayson Allen (Duke) – Most people would list Brandon Ingram here, and he may be more crucial to the long-term hopes of the Devils to defend their crown. But can you really take your eyes off Allen? Not if you are a fan, and especially not if you are an unsuspecting opponent running down the court….
Wes Washpun (Northern Iowa) – I really like the Panthers chances to make some noise. If Washpun can match the 21 and 28 he dropped in wins against UNC and Iowa State, the Panthers have a chance.
Tyler Dorsey (Oregon) – He’s one of the best two-way players out west, though there is a decent chance you haven’t heard much about him. Don’t worry, NBA scout have. Look for him to give Grayson Allen FITS if they meet next weekend.
I like Oklahoma in this region, though I am not convinced Duke can’t get it together and surprise people. The depth issue isn’t as huge as portrayed, as most rotations shrink to seven or eight players in the tournament. Duke has won five titles with the same recipe. Northern Iowa is my sleeper, and UNI over Texas is my favorite first round upset on the whole board. My other upset to watch is Green Bay over Texas A&M and Yale over Baylor. I feel pretty confident AT LEAST one will happen.