It’s officially the week of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. The bracket has been released and we’re here to help you make your picks.
We assembled a four-person panel that includes Stadium’s Chinmay Vaidya, Michael Rizzo, Andy Wittry and Michael Bolling. We asked our panel seven questions about the NCAA Tournament bracket, including topics ranging from dark horse teams to national title contenders to the most exciting individual players in the field.
Who will make the Final Four?
Chinmay Vaidya: My Final Four picks are LSU, Kansas State, Nevada and Kentucky. I had Gonzaga instead of LSU in my preseason Final Four picks, but the bracket didn’t work out that way. I think the Tigers know this season might be a lost cause given the situation with Will Wade but they’ll still want to hang a banner. A vacated title is better than not winning one at all. I like the experienced groups in Manhattan and Reno and the young talent in Lexington to round out the Final Four.
Michael Rizzo: Give me Duke, Florida State, Virginia and Kentucky.
Andy Wittry: Duke, Michigan, Virginia and Kentucky.
Michael Bolling: Duke, Michigan, Virginia, Kentucky.
[RELATED: Print Your 2019 NCAA Tournament Bracket]
Who will win the national championship and why?
CV: My national champion is Kentucky. I think everyone overreacted to the first game of the season against Duke and buried the Wildcats too early. Kentucky Coach John Calipari knows his freshmen turn a corner midway through the season and they did exactly that. They’ve got the right mix of youth and experience and they fall inside the championship curve for this season.
MR: I’ll take Virginia to cut down the nets in Minneapolis on April 8. Virginia Coach Tony Bennett’s team is completely healthy coming into the tournament, something they could not say last year. Pair that with both a top-five adjusted offense (2nd) and adjusted defense (5th) via kenpom.com, and I think this team is ready to make a deep run that makes us all forget about last year’s historic upset. It helps that we think karma may be on their side.
AW: Kentucky. Imagine the college basketball season coming full circle and Duke and Kentucky meeting in the national championship game 154 days after the Blue Devils blew out the Wildcats in the Champions Classic. It arguably took two months for Kentucky to round into form as a national title contender but the Wildcats fit the talent profile of former top-100 recruits and future pros, they have elite efficiency on both ends of the floor and good enough 3-point shooting to cut down the nets.
MB: I’m going with Virginia. I had a good amount of money invested in them last season and we all know what happened. Not only does it make for a great story, but these guys have to be playing with that chip on their shoulder. Gotta win the first one though…
Which first-round upset are you most confident in and why?
CV: My theory is that the upsets you pick are the ones that don’t happen, but I’ll roll with No. 12 seed Oregon over No. 5 seed Wisconsin. The Ducks are playing their best basketball right now and even without Bol Bol, Dana Altman has his group clicking. Wisconsin isn’t going to score a ton of points, so Oregon isn’t going to be facing major troubles on that end of the floor. If the Ducks get hot from deep, the Badgers don’t have the firepower to catch up.
MR: Vasa Pusica. Get to know that name because he will be leading Northeastern Huskies to a first-round upset over Bill Self and a Kansas team that is ready for this woeful season to end.
AW: Minnesota over Louisville. Taking a No. 10 seed over a No. 7 seed isn’t the most daring of upset picks but I saw the Gophers win a couple games in person at the Big Ten Tournament and I like the duo of Amir Coffey and Jordan Murphy. Louisville seems to be snakebitten ever since blowing a huge lead at home against Duke.
MB: I like Florida over Nevada. Nevada lost a bunch of games down the stretch and appears vulnerable. Florida is battle-tested playing in a tough SEC with a couple wins over LSU. Should be a great game, but the Gators will get it done.
Which No. 1 seed will lose first?
CV: I think Virginia will lose first. The region isn’t set up too well for them and there’s always the chance they have a lackluster game offensively and can’t catch up after falling into a big hole. I do think the Cavaliers will get out of the first weekend, but they’ll get bounced in the Sweet 16 by Kansas State.
MR: I have to pick Gonzaga here. They have the most troublesome second-round matchup in my eyes. If Syracuse gets past Baylor, the zone can give the Zags some headaches. If all the No. 1 seeds advance to the second weekend, I think Florida State is the toughest team that any No. 1 seed may face (Auburn in the Midwest region is a close second), so give me Gonzaga heading home first and Head Coach Mark Few still searching for his national championship.
AW: I hate picking Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs are my choice. Their region includes three of the top 10 defenses in the country – Texas Tech, Michigan and Florida State – plus a potential meeting with Syracuse in the second round. The Orange’s zone has taken out some really good teams in recent years – No. 1 seed Indiana in 2013, No. 1 seed Virginia in ’16 and No. 3 seed Michigan State last year – so a potential path to the Final Four for Gonzaga that could include games against Syracuse, Florida State and Michigan/Texas Tech in succession is daunting.
MB: I will go with Gonzaga. They will be running into Jim Boeheim and the ‘Cuse zone defense, which is known to give people hell in the NCAA Tournament. Just like last season versus Michigan State, I think Syracuse knocks off the Zags in the second round.
Which region is the toughest?
CV: The toughest region, for me, is the Midwest. You have three blue bloods in North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas with a 31-win Houston team rounding out the top four seeds. Auburn and Iowa State are playing their best basketball right now. Wofford, Utah State, Washington and Seton Hall are the feistiest group of No. 7-10 seeds across the board. Every single second-round game in this region should be a major test.
MR: This came down to the South and the Midwest, but I’m picking the Midwest. North Carolina, Kentucky, Houston, Auburn, and Iowa State are all teams that I could see in the Final Four. Wofford and Fletcher Magee, Washington and its zone, Seton Hall and Myles Powell, and Utah State and Sam Merrill are all teams that will be tough outs. This is a bracket that could give us some chaos. I love chaos.
AW: The Midwest. This was an easy choice for me. It has legit national title contenders at the top in No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 2 seed Kentucky, plus regular season or conference tournament champions at the No. 3, No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, No. 8 and No. 9 seed lines. According to kenpom.com, it has seven top 20 teams – North Carolina, Kentucky, Auburn, Houston, Iowa State, Wofford and Kansas. Good luck.
MB: The East is loaded. Duke and Michigan State on a collision course is something. But I think the South is the toughest. I could see every game besides the 1/16 & 2/15 matchups going either way.
Who’s your dark horse team and why?
CV: My dark horse team is Cincinnati. The Bearcats are horrendously under-seeded and they’re going to play in Columbus for the first weekend. Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin has a tough unit that plays physically. Cincinnati is ranked 28th in defensive efficiency, which is a little lower than normal. Still, the regional pod sets up well for the Bearcats to make a run to the Sweet 16.
MR: One dark horse team I can see making a run is the Auburn Tigers. They are healthy and seem to be peaking at the right time (see: SEC Tournament). Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl has six guys who shoot 36 percent or better from deep and two bonafide stars in Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. The Tigers are a No. 5 seed I would not want to see in my region.
AW: I’m taking a close look at the No. 6 seeds this year. I bet we get two in the Sweet 16. I’ll go with Iowa State, the No. 6 seed in the Midwest. The Cyclones are a really tough team to figure out, they could have a no-show against Ohio State in the first round or you could look up and they’re in the Elite Eight. Coming off of a Big 12 Tournament title, I’ll take the Cyclones to reach the second weekend.
MB: LSU is such an interesting story. The cloud hanging over the program is one that might be the reason why I eat this prediction, but I think they have something to rally around. If they can block out the noise that will certainly increase with each potential win. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them give Duke a run for their money.
What individual player on a team seeded No. 5 or higher is most capable of carrying his team to the second weekend?
CV: Ja Morant and the Murray State Racers are a fun No. 12 seed to pick here. They’ll take on a star on the other side in Marquette’s Markus Howard, but I like Morant to carry the Racers to the second weekend. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and the Racers are playing great basketball right now. Morant got his taste of big moments in the OVC conference tournament. He’ll be hungry for more in the Big Dance.
MR: Everyone knows about Ja Morant already, but you could make a legitimate case that Morant wasn’t even the best player in the OVC this year. Belmont’s Dylan Windler is one of my favorite players in the entire field. The man is averaging 25.4 points and 12.1 rebounds a game since February and I will have the Bruins penciled into my Sweet 16.
AW: This might conflict with my national title pick, but I’ll take Myles Powell of Seton Hall. He’s scored at least 17 points in his last 13 games, including 20-plus in his last seven. Powell has scored at least 30 points five times since January 30 and he’s an efficient scorer at all three levels. Sure, a potential meeting with No. 2 seed Kentucky lurks in the second round, but Seton Hall has already beaten the Wildcats on a neutral floor once this season and Powell had 28 points with six 3-pointers in that game.
MB: It’ll take three wins but give me Shamorie Ponds of St. John’s. The Johnnies barely snuck in the dance via the First Four, but Ponds is a legitimate threat to go for 30 on any given night. St. John’s may not be well-respected in this field, but it’s a talented team. If its best player gets going, who knows what they’re capable of?