Best seed outlook: On paper, the Midwest seems to be the most open of the four areas, but we still give No. 1 North Carolina the best chances, with a 35 percent probability of reaching the Final Four and an 18 percent probability of appearing in the championship game. Those odds are 8 percentage points lower compared to any other No. 1 team in the field, however, and for good reason: North Carolina’s offense is dependent on turning each play right into a quick break. The Tar Heels fight to get into the free-throw lineup and give up a ton of shots along the perimeter, and that, at a slowed-down, half-court matchup, can be quite problematic.
After getting chased by Duke to start the season, No. 2 Kentucky has caught fire in recent weeks while finding balance on the two ends of the floor and largely abstaining in the 3-point line. No. 3 Houston, meanwhile, is in the middle of its very best season because Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon were revolutionizing school basketball, and they boast a defense that ranks among the very best together and in the perimeter.
Sneaky Final Four pick: No. 5 Auburn. When the Tigers steamrolled Tennessee 84-64 in Sunday’s SEC title game, it likely got the focus of a good deal of bracket-pickers. That wasn’t a one-off — Auburn also conquer Tennessee eight days earlier, part of a string of eight straight wins for the Tigers, and 10 in their last 11 games. With an explosive offense (No. 8 in KenPom efficacy ) that acquired more of its points from downtown compared to any other team in the NCAA field, Auburn can heat up in a hurry. We give the Tigers nearly a coin-flip’s odds of making the Sweet 16 — and an extremely strong 37 percent chance of beating top-seeded North Carolina if the Tar Heels are waiting for Auburn there. The only kryptonite may be a hypothetical regional-final matchup with No. 2 seed Kentucky, which beat the Tigers by 27 in late February to sweep their season collection.
Don’t wager on: No. 4 Kansas. The Jayhawks went to the year ranked No. 1 in the AP’s preseason poll, and they seemed to validate the option by starting the season 10-0. But a 15-9 record (and some key injuries) since then have cast doubt on Kansas’s NCAA Tournament possible. This really is a well-balanced team, but to state it doesn’t shoot well from the exterior is a understatement — see KU’s 3-for-18 functionality from deep in Saturday’s Big 12 ouster from Iowa State. Insert a negative draw that puts them onto a potential second-round collision course with Auburn (see above), and we give the Jayhawks only an 8 percent chance of making from the Midwest with their championship hopes undamaged.
Cinderella watch: No. 11 Ohio State. If a Big Ten team that has made 11 Final Fours could be a Cinderella, then you’re looking at it in those Buckeyes. (Hey, the committee’s rising tendency to con underwhelming power-conference colleges this way really messes with the definition.) OSU went only 18-13 throughout the regular season, was defeated in its second Big Ten tournament game also contains almost twice as many losses as wins because New Year’s. Why are the Buckeyes a potential Cinderella? Regardless of the seed, this remains a dangerous team, one that ranks 27th in Pomeroy’s corrected defensive evaluations and has star forwards Kaleb Wesson back out of suspension. So perhaps they will give Big 12 champ Iowa State trouble. But mainly this tells you something about the other potential Cinderellas in this region: Seton Hall got a very tough first-round matchup with underseeded Wofford; none of the other low seeds are world-beaters. That leaves the Buckeyes, a group that did all it could to play its way from the tournament, but includes some upset potential regardless.
Player to watch: UNC, Cameron Johnson On a group that doesn’t hoist a lot of shots from the perimeter, Johnson is as lethal as they are come. Following an injury-riddled campaign in which he barely made more than one third of his looks from outside the arc, the graduate student is canning 46.5 percent of his attempts, which ranks within the top 25 nationwide.
Johnson has thrived in North Carolina’s every-possession-is-a-transition-opportunity plot this year. He’s blossomed into one of the best scorers in the ACC, standing between the 85th and 100th percentiles in scoring efficiency in transitionoff displays and on spot-ups.
Johnson has elevated his game in conference play, boasting the ACC’s top offensive evaluation (132.5) and true shooting percentage (64.6). Suddenly, a player who was not viewed as a bonded professional now projects for a second-round pick.
Likeliest first-round upsets: No. 9 Washington over No. 8 Utah State (49 percent); No. 10 Seton Hall over No. 7 Wofford (37 percent); No. 11 Ohio State over No. 6 Iowa State (33 percent)
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CORRECTION (March 18, 2019, 3:10 p.m.): A previous version of this story misstated the amount of Sweet 16s created by Villanova lately. Though the Wildcats have reached the NCAA Tournament’s »third round » in four of their past five seasons, that round was the Round of 32 until 2016 because of NCAA naming conventions.