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WEST BRACKET - #2 IOWA HAWKEYES
The Iowa Hawkeyes come into the Big Dance with a 21-8 regular season record (14-6 in Big Ten play) and a respectable finish in a super competitive Big 10 conference tourney, losing to champion Illinois (currently the #1 seed in the Midwest bracket) in the semi-finals. This is the Hawkeyes' highest seed since 1987, when they made it all the way to the Elite 8, and they have drawn #15 seed WAC champion Grand Canyon, tipoff set for Saturday at 6:25 p.m. EST. The last time the Hawkeyes made the tournament, in 2019, they were a #10 seed and defeated Cincinnati in the first round before losing to #2 seed Tennessee in the Round of 32. But these Hawkeyes truly have some firepower. They finished the season 2nd in the nation in total points scored, 45th in field goal percentage (46.9%) and 14th in three-point percentage (38.6%).
The Hawkeyes are led by 6’11” senior Luka Garza, who is averaging 23.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. Iowa doesn’t just shoot the ball well either. They crash the boards to the tune of over 40 rebounds per game, good for 14th best in the nation. This team also does an excellent job at controlling tempo in a given game. Only Garza, junior Joe Weiskamp and senior Jordan Bohannon average double digit points though, so second-chance opportunities are key to an offense that still finished 2nd in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. The defense is a concern, however, as Iowa gave up the 3rd most points in conference. I believe Iowa will move past the Antelopes of Grand Canyon in the first round, and then
possibly facing a dangerous Oregon team in the Round of 32. It should be somewhat clear sailing if they survive the second round en route to the Elite 8, where they could potentially face the #1 seeded and undefeated Zags, who beat Fran McCaffery's bunch by 10 points (99-89) back on December 19th.
Where to watch: Saturday, 6:25 p.m. EST on TBS (@ Farmers Coliseum)
The Odds: Iowa -14 (-1250 ML) vs. Grand Canyon, 145 O/U
Prediction: Iowa to the Round of 32
SOUTH BRACKET - #2 OHIO STATE BUCKEYES
The Ohio State Buckeyes come into the tournament with a 21-9 regular season record (12-8 in Big Ten play) and surprised spectators by winning three games in three days in the Big Ten conference tournament, upsetting top seed Michigan and then taking conference champ Illinois to overtime in the finals. While then Buckeyes' last Final Four appearance was in 2012, this year's Final Four hopefuls are led by junior Duane Washington Jr. and sophomore EJ Liddell. Ohio St. will likely be without senior leader Kyle Young, whoever, who left their quarterfinal game vs. Purdue with a concussion after receiving an elbow to the head. Buckeyes head coach Chris Holtmannn didn't have a definitive answer to Young's status as of this Tuesday, March 16th, adding that “I don’t know if we will have any real updates on Kyle for a little bit now.” Young has now missed the team's last two games and on the season he ranks second on the team in 3PT%, third in FT%, second in FG%, third in blocks per game and third in rebounds per game overall.
The Buckeyes are a solid offensive team overall, but they do not excel in any one particular offensive category. They do, however, have the fourth best offensive efficiency rating in the nation and are eighth in total points scored. This team proved in its conference tourney that it has a bench that can step up and run with powerhouse programs, even on extremely short rest. The Buckeyes have developed a bad habit of blowing big leads though, and all three of their opponents in the Big Ten conference tournament came down to the wire after coughing up double-digit leads. This is a scrappy team, but I also believe it's a team ripe for upset after stringing together some pretty unlikely performances in Big Ten tourney play after dropping four straight to many of the same teams during the regular season. #15 Oral Roberts and #7 Florida (a possible Round of 32 opponent) are both three-point machines. Virginia Tech, another possible second round foe, is one of the most balanced and efficient teams in the tournament. The road isn't as clear as it seems, even for a Sweet 16 appearance, and I believe the overachieving ends soon for OSU.
Where to watch: Friday, 3:00 p.m. EST on CBS (@ Mackey Arena)
The Odds: Ohio St -16 (-1667 ML) vs. Oral Roberts, 156 O/U
Prediction: Ohio St to the Round of 32
EAST BRACKET - #2 ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
The Alabama Crimson Tide come into the tournament with a 24-6 regular season record and "Kings of the SEC" after a thrilling one-point victory over the late-surging LSU Tigers. They are also the only team of the Power Five conferences to win both its regular season and conference tournament titles Rising star head coach Nate Oats took over this program in 2019 and suddenly the Tide began to dominate at not just football, but the sport of basketball, too. This 'Bama group, currently on a six-game winning streak, is led by its guard duo of sophomore Jaden Shackleford and senior Herbert Jones - and man, is this is a fun group to watch. The Crimson Tide aren't anything spectacular on the offensive side, but they will suffocate you on defense and have the 2nd best defensive efficiency rating in the country. They also run at the 9th fastest tempo and hold the ball on average less than half of the 30 second shot clock. In addition to that they clean the glass at an average of 40 rebounds per game, so Tide opponents' only chance to beat them is to try and slow the pace and shoot at a (very) high clip. That recipe could actually come in the form of BYU in the Round of 32, but if the Tide can roll past the Cougars in a potential Sweet 16 matchup, then buck likely stops vs Michigan’s equally-stellar defense yet outstanding offense to boot. Having said this, don't look past the fact that Alabama has to get past Rick Pitino’s Iona Gaels first. Also don't forget that, in 1987, an unheralded Providence team coached by Pitino upset highly-touted Alabama in the first round.
Where to watch: Saturday, 4:00 p.m. EST on TBS (@ Hinkle Fieldhouse)
The Odds: Alabama -16.5 (-2000 ML) vs. Iona, 147 O/U
Prediction: Alabama to the Elite Eight
MIDWEST BRACKET - #2 HOUSTON COUGARS
The Houston Cougars dominated the American Athletic Conference with a 24-3 overall record (14-3 in conference play) and their #2 seed is the highest since the Phi Slama Jama squad of 1984 which lost in the title game to Georgetown. In their conference tourney the Cougars blew the doors off Cincinnati by 37 points after beating a white-hot Memphis team in the semi-finals. Houston has been a juggernaut all season long, and though the competition has not been “Big Ten” caliber, this team does boast impressive wins against both Memphis and a ranked Texas Tech team. Houston is led by junior Quentin Grimes and senior Justin Gorham, and they've gotten regular contributions from sophomore Marcus Sasser and senior Dejon Jarreau. Houston is coming into the Big Dance on a seven-game win streak and they're best in the country defensively in effective field goal percentage and 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Cougars are not the biggest team in basketball by a long shot, sure, but they crash the boards harder than any other team in the country, touting the second best offensive rebound percentage in the nation and averaging over 41 boards per game (Grimes, a 6’5” guard, is also the second best rebounder on the team). Longer, more athletic teams will be the Cougars' kryptonite, and unless they go through a shooting slump - which has happened before at times this season and led to losses to inferior programs such as Tulsa and East Carolina - they should be just fine. The good news for Houston is that they have arguably the easiest path to the Sweet 16 out of all the #2 seeds and could face arguable the most vulnerable #1 seed in the tournament in the Elite 8 with Illinois. Head coach Kelvin Sampson is the most tenured coach in the tourney (coaching since 1979) and will keep the Cougars focused on each team in front of them.
Where to watch: Friday, 7:15 p.m. EST on truTV (@ Assembly Hall)
The Odds: Houston -20 (-3335 ML) vs. Cleveland St., 135 O/U
Prediction: Houston to the Final Four