Contact CU Independent Assistant Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.
Very shortly from now, many of us will be looking for large and heavy objects to heave across rooms at each other because of The March Madness Effect. The 2016 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is sure to follow the trend of past competitions — at the end of the day, a lot of predictions and sure outcomes are proven irrelevant by what actually happens. The East region could very well provoke many tears and sad feelings from fans across the country who will see their brackets shattered. Get ready for some upsets.
The Favorite: UNC Tar Heels (28-6, 14-4 First in ACC)
As the No. 1 seed in the East, North Carolina has the potential to advance far into the tournament for a variety of reasons. The first and foremost of which is senior forward Brice Johnson. He averaged 16.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game this season. His frequent double-doubles often proved to be extremely detrimental to the Tar Heels’ opponents chances of winning, and their overall record attests to that. Johnson is flanked by a trio of point-scorers and playmakers in sophomore guard Joel Berry II, senior guard Marcus Paige and sophomore forward Justin Jackson, all of whom averaged at least 12 points per game.
The Tar Heels are a mature, fast team that scores a lot of points in transition. There is a constant lack of selfishness in their play — UNC is fourth in the country in average assists per game with 18.1. North Carolina also averages an impressive 82.4 points per game. The Tar Heels will also be playing close to home. In their first-round matchup against Florida Gulf Coast University, they will play in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is only about 30 minutes away from their campus at Chapel Hill. FGCU has been known in the past to be a low-seeded tournament troublemaker, but in all likelihood UNC should be more than capable of winning the matchup.
Xavier, the No. 2 seed within the East region, will look to suppress No. 15 Weber State in the first round and advance to the Round of 32. The Musketeers have an excellent starting five, led by sophomore guard Trevon Bluiett, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in the regular season.
Xavier was second in the Big East Conference with a 14-4 record and went 27-5 overall. The Musketeers defeated the formidable Butler Bulldogs three times during the regular season and boasted the nation’s seventh-highest Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) in the NCAA.
The Kentucky Wildcats have reached the Final Four in four of the previous five seasons. Expect similar results this year. After finishing 8-2 in its final 10 regular season games and defeating Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament Championship, the Wildcats await the Stony Brook Seawolves in the first round of March Madness.
The Kentucky offense has relied heavily on the services of dynamic freshman guard Jamal Murray and sophomore guard Tyler Ulis. The two young workhorses averaged 35.2 and 36.9 respective minutes per game. Murray led the team with an average of 20.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while Ulis contributed 17.2 points per game. He also was the team’s regular season leader in assists per game, with 7.2.
But Kentucky could find itself battling Indiana in the second round if things go as planned and the Hoosiers are able to defeat the twelfth-seeded Chattanooga in the Round of 64. Indiana will be looking to redeem itself after blowing it in the first round of the Big 10 Conference Tournament to Michigan. But the Hoosiers spread and wear defenses out, evident in their nearly 42 percent conversion rate from three-point range. IU’s floor general comes in senior guard Yogi Ferrell, who averaged 17 points and 3.9 rebounds per game during the regular season.
Some other teams that will be interesting to watch include the Dayton Flyers, who will look to take down a Syracuse Orange team licking its wounds after dropping five of its final six games. In addition, the West Virginia Mountaineers will look to overwhelm Stephen F. Austin State University with their defense, which was excellent in forcing turnovers this past year. The Mountaineers were also the nation’s top offensive rebounding team.
Finally, watch out for Pittsburgh on Friday. Jamie Dixon’s Panthers are looking to take down the Wisconsin Badgers, who are under the leadership of first-year head coach Greg Gard. Junior forward Nigel Hayes is the Badgers’ main offensive weapon, but if the Panthers’ defense can shut him down and force the rest of the offense to produce, the Badgers may be in an adverse situation.
Predictions: UNC’s offense will be hard for any opponent they face to slow down. If the gods of upsets are quiet in the opening rounds, getting the Tar Heels out of their groove after a couple of wins will be tough. But don’t cut out the rest of the pack just yet. UNC could very well find itself matching up against Indiana or Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which would make things very interesting. Xavier might have the most favorable route out of the first few rounds, but again, in March Madness, there are no rules. Truly anything can happen.