Top 4 Seeds: (1) Virginia, (2) Villanova, (3) Iowa State, (4) Michigan State
The top seed is Virginia, is coming into the tournament as both the regular season and conference tournament champions. Virginia is a team that suffocates you with their toughness and attention to defense, which is rated 3rd overall in adjusted defense according to kenpom.com (if you've seen me use kenpom.com as my source, it's because it's the best source for statistics). Virginia held the #2 team in adjusted offense, Duke, to 69 points at Cameron Indoor, and 63 points in the tourney final. Virginia more impressively held the #5 team in adjusted offense, Wisconsin, to a mere 48 points at home. The question is whether they can provide the offense to counterbalance their stingy defense. I know that they are in the top 25 in adjusted offense, and I know what Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon can do on offense, but their top scorer, Brogdon, averages a mere 12.6 ppg. In the Wisconsin game on December 4, 2013, Virginia may have held Wisconsin to 48 points, but Wisconsin held Virginia to 38 points, and let's not forget, Wisconsin is not the same defensive team they have been for the past decade. However, lack of offense aside, Virginia's defense alone makes them a trendy pick for the final 4.
Villanova come in as the 2 seed in the East Regional. Villanova themselves have a potent defense that:
a) Is rated 14th in adjusted defense, but more importantly
b) Did that on the 3rd-hardest rated offensive Strength of Schedule.
Outside of the two Creighton games (two throw-away-the-tape games), Villanova has been a very solid defensive team. They held Kansas, the #6 team in terms of adjusted offense, to 59 points back on November 29th at the Paradise Island Jam, and have held 5 of their last 6 opponents to 64 points of under (exception was Xavier, who scored 70). This team could make some noise in the tournament, but I wonder whether their defense can hold a highly powerful offense to a low point total (Like I said, they played Kansas almost 4 months ago).
Coming into the tournament with the 3 seed is Iowa State, winners of the Big 12 conference tournament. A three-headed monster consisting of DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim, and Georges Niang, this Iowa State team is one of the most premier offenses in the tournament. Iowa State can do more than score, too. They are the top team in assists per game, averaging 18.5 of them per game. Can Iowa State defend, though? Although they played the 2nd-hardest offensive Strength of Schedule, they are only 54th in adjusted defense. In their last 4 games, they have allowed 80 or more points in 3 of them (exception being the Big 12 championship game against Baylor, where they allowed 65). Iowa State will go as far as their offense can take them.
The 4 seed is Michigan State, who is coming off a Big Ten tournament championship. Now that the entire core group of Keith Appling, Adreian Payne, and Gary Harris is 100% healthy, Michigan State is starting to look like the final four team they were projected to be. They ran out to a 21-point first half lead against Wisconsin, and had control from beginning to end of the championship game against Michigan. The question is simple. Michigan State's starting lineup has a grand total of 5 games where they had every starter healthy and playing together. Do they have enough chemistry to make a championship run?
Upset Special: (12) Harvard over (5) Cincinnati
Here we go, an upset I actually have in my own bracket! I love what Cincinnati's done this entire season. Mick Cronin should be in the running for Coach of the Year, and Sean Kilpatrick has been a man among boys. However, Harvard is a very solid team that can give any team in the field a game. Although Harvard's numbers aren't THAT great (56th in adjusted offense, 35th in adjusted defense), they have 5 players that average double-figures in scoring. A balance offense like that can give any team fits. I think that all Harvard has to do is let Kilpatrick get his, and then shut down everyone else, which I think they will do effectively. Harvard has been a trendy upset pick for the last couple of days, and there's a good reason why (don't forget, last year as a 14 seed, they upset Steve Alford's 3-seeded New Mexico Lobos, 68-62).
Sweet Sixteen: (1) Virginia, (2) Villanova, (4) Michigan State, (6) North Carolina
Now, a little bit of a spoiler here, I'm mainly going chalk up to the sweet sixteen. Sorry for anybody that wanted a surprise.
I think Virginia takes care of Coastal Carolina and who I project as their round of 32 opponent, George Washington. Villanova runs by UWM and UCONN, and Michigan State destroys both Delaware and Harvard. Not much more to say about those teams.
Now, the interesting team here is North Carolina. I could see this team going to the final four. I can also see this team losing to Providence in the 1st round (I don't care what the media and tournament dub it as, four play-in games do not count as a first round). North Carolina has been the most inconsistent team in all of college basketball. They have wins at home against Kentucky, vs. Louisville on a neutral court, and at then #1 Michigan State. They also have losses at home against Belmont, and at UAB. Who knows what UNC team is going to show up for the big dance, but I'm willing to bet it's going to be the first one. North Carolina just seems to show up against the best teams in the country, and although I really like Iowa State and the three-headed monster of Kane, Ejim, and Niang, I just think that North Carolina is going to show up, play just enough defense, and score effectively against Iowa State and their 54th ranked adjusted defense. I see North Carolina defeating Iowa State and moving on to the Sweet Sixteen.
East Region Champion: Michigan State
I think that the Spartans are going to upset Virginia with their ability to spread the floor and attack both inside with Payne and Dawson, and outside with Appling, Harris, and 6th man Travis Trice will be too much for Virginia, especially since I believe Virginia will struggle to score points.
I'm also a believer in Villanova taking out North Carolina. I think that overall, North Carolina is too shaky of a team at times and in a tournament where you could play badly for a few seconds and end up costing yourself the game, I don't trust North Carolina as much as I trust Villanova. Since North Carolina does NOT have Doug McDermott, I think North Carolina will struggle putting points up on Villanova, and I also believe that Villanova will force a good amount of turnovers and generate some easy fast break points.
This leaves Michigan State vs. Villanova in the Elite Eight. Although Michigan State also doesn't have Doug McDermott, they have the second-best thing to that, a talented, balanced attack. They can score from both outside and inside. Also of note is that Villanova thrives off turning the ball over and getting out in space for easy transition baskets (the Wildcats are averaging 13.7 forced turnovers a game, according to bbstate.com). Although Michigan State averages about 11.3 turnovers per game (89th in the country), but they only averaged 9.3 turnovers during the Big Ten tournament. I thing with the entire starting five finally out on the court at the same time for Michigan State, I think that will have enough firepower to spread Villanova out, starting inside, and using the effectiveness inside to make Villanova crash in and leave open 3's out on the perimeter. I see Michigan State reaching Arlington out of the East Region.