NCAA Tournament: The Cinderella, best first-round matchup and player to watch in each region


By Shannon Ryan - Chicago Tribune



The teams, players and games to watch in each region of the NCAA Tournament.

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EAST

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GET TO KNOW NO. 1

Villanova (30-4, RPI 2, SOS 19)

Jay Wright’s squad aims to get back to the Final Four for the third time in 10 seasons — and maybe duplicate the 2016 national championship. The Wildcats won the Big East tournament for the third time in four seasons and lead the nation in scoring with 87.1 points per game. National player of the year candidate Jalen Brunson directs an offense with a multitude of scorers; six average at least 10 points. NBA scouts rave about Mikal Bridges, a 6-foot-7 wing with a 7-1 wingspan who averages 18 points. Bracketologists are calling Villanova’s path to the Final Four the easiest among No. 1 seeds.

CINDERELLA

No. 11 St. Bonaventure

Despite getting tossed in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament, the Bonnies earned an at-large bid thanks to a strong RPI (tied for 23rd), road record (9-4) and victories against three top-50 opponents (Rhode Island, Buffalo and Syracuse). They have to advance from the play-in game against UCLA and then would face No. 6 Florida. The Bonnies’ guards are tough enough to keep them rolling, led by senior Jaylen Adams (19.8 points per game).

BEST FIRST-ROUND MATCHUP

No. 4 Wichita State vs. No. 13 Marshall

The Shockers aren’t the underdog and they’re not the top seed either — both of which they’ve experienced as their national reputation has risen over the years. Marshall coach Dan D’Antoni — like his older brother Mike — likes his team to zip up and down the court, and the Thundering Herd could cause some trouble for Wichita State.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jalen Brunson, Villanova

The junior guard has been integral to the Wildcats offense since his arrival as Illinois’ 2015 Mr. Basketball, and he’s having his best season. Brunson averages 19.4 points, 4.7 assists to 1.9 turnovers, shoots 53.1 percent from the field and hits 41.3 percent on 3-pointers.

Collin Sexton, Alabama

The freshman guard made everyone forget about Oklahoma freshman Trae Young, at least momentarily, during the SEC tournament. Sexton, who averages 19 points, scored 79 in three tournament games — including 31 in an upset of Auburn — and hit 58.8 percent of his 3-pointers.

Carsen Edwards, Purdue

With 40 points against Illinois on Feb. 22, the sophomore guard became the first Boilermaker to reach that mark since Glenn Robinson in 1994. Edwards leads Purdue with 18.5 points per game and has eight games with at least 25 points.

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MIDWEST

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GET TO KNOW NO. 1

Kansas (27-7, RPI 5, SOS 3)

This might be one of coach Bill Self’s least-touted teams, and he still guided the Jayhawks to Big 12 regular-season and tournament championships. Kansas lost four home games — more than any team during Self’s tenure in Lawrence — but the Jayhawks know how to stage a comeback, beating West Virginia three times that way. Udoka Azubuike, a 7-foot sophomore center, missed the Big 12 tournament with a knee injury but has blossomed this season, averaging 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds. With No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Michigan State in the region, it’s not a clear path to San Antonio for the Jayhawks.

CINDERELLA

No. 11 Arizona State

The Sun Devils earned double-digit wins over two No. 1 seeds, beating Xavier and Kansas, and own top-50 wins against USC and UCLA. Entering the tournament on a 1-5 stretch, they need to get their mojo back, but they have the talent to beat Syracuse in a First Four game and No. 6 TCU. No. 3 Michigan State looms as a probable second-round opponent. Senior guard Tra Holder rises to the occasion in big games: 40 points against Xavier, 29 versus Kansas and 31 against Arizona.

BEST FIRST-ROUND MATCHUP

No. 5 Clemson vs. No. 12 New Mexico State

Love defense? This is the game for you. Clemson gives up only 65.8 points per game, while the Aggies hold opponents to 63.9. The Tigers’ production fell with the season-ending knee injury to Donte Grantham in January. New Mexico State’sZach Lofton shoots 40 percent on 3s and could be the difference if he gets hot.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Miles Bridges, Michigan State

Bridges returned to East Lansing for his sophomore season instead of turning pro. On a team loaded with options, he’s still averaging 16.9 points (the same as last season). The Spartans have had some sluggish stretches, and Bridges needs to help smooth them out.

Devonte’ Graham, Kansas

The senior guard and Big 12 Player of the Year is the Jayhawks’ catalyst, averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 assists and hitting 41.1 percent of his 3-pointers. Against West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament championship, he had 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting with 13 assists.

Trae Young, Oklahoma

The freshman point guard led the nation in scoring (27.4 points per game) and assists (8.8). The Sooners cooled off to the point they were a bubble team, but Young could do damage in the tournament. He scored at least 30 points in nine games and scored 40 or more four times, with a high of 48 against Oklahoma State.

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SOUTH

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GET TO KNOW NO. 1

Virginia (31-2, RPI 1, SOS 13)

Coach Tony Bennett’sCavaliers once again boast the nation’s most intimidating defense, allowing only 53.4 points per game. The Cavaliers allow 0.84 points per possession and haven’t permitted an opponent to reach 70 points. Virginia held Clemson — a No. 5 NCAA Tournament seed — to 13 second-half points in a 61-36 victory in January. On offense, sophomore guard Kyle Guy — who returned from a sprained MCL in the ACC tournament — leads a balanced scoring attack with 14.1 points per game. As the ACC regular-season and tournament champions, the Cavaliers were the clear-cut overall No. 1 seed.

CINDERELLA

No. 11 Loyola

The Ramblers are back in the tournament for the first time since 1985. They share the ball, utilize spacing on offense and have a bulldog defense. With an offense that ranks third nationally in field-goal shooting (50.7 percent) and a defense that ranks fifth, giving up only 62.2 points per game, the Ramblers could pull off some upsets. No. 6 Miami is a similar team that plays with precision and solid guard play.

BEST FIRST-ROUND MATCHUP

No. 8 Creighton vs. No. 9 Kansas State

This game pits Creighton senior guard Marcus Foster against his former team. Foster transferred after two seasons with the Wildcats and is enjoying a banner season, averaging a team-high 20.3 points for the Bluejays.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Deandre Ayton, Arizona

The 7-foot-1 freshman center and national player of the year candidate will be one of the top picks in the NBA draft. The Bahamian star recorded 22 double-doubles this season, averaging 19.9 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks for the fourth-seeded Wildcats.

Gary Clark, Cincinnati

The senior forward was the American Athletic Conference player of the year on the strength of impressive all-around production. Though he ranked just 17th in the conference in scoring (12.8 points per game), Clark had 12 double-doubles, led the conference with 8.4 rebounds per game and shot 51.6 percent from the field for the second-seeded Bearcats.

Devon Hall, Virginia

Known for their defense, the Cavaliers have three reliable scorers in Hall, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. Hall, a senior guard, averages 12 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists. He scored 15 points to help take down North Carolina for the ACC tournament championship.

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WEST

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GET TO KNOW NO. 1

Xavier (28-5, RPI 3, SOS 20)

The Musketeers are celebrating their first No. 1 seed despite an upset loss in the Big East tournament to Providence. They don’t get counted with the blue bloods of college basketball, but they’ve been a model of consistency since 2009 under coach Chris Mack with three Sweet 16 runs and last season’s Elite Eight appearance. Xavier ranks in the top 20 nationally in scoring (84.3 points per game) and shooting percentage (49.1) and is led by a pair of experienced senior guards in Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura. The Musketeers’ road might be the toughest among No. 1 seeds with last year’s finalists, No. 2 North Carolina and No. 4 Gonzaga, plus a red-hot Big Ten tournament champion in No. 3 Michigan.

CINDERELLA

No. 10 Providence

The Friars should have caught everyone’s attention in the Big East tournament. They showed they’re fighters, coming back from 17 down to beat Xavier in the semifinals and overcoming a double-digit deficit against Villanova to force overtime in the championship game. They beat Creighton twice and Butler in the regular season. No. 7 Texas A&M’s size will be a challenge in the first round, as would facing experienced North Carolina in the second round.

BEST FIRST-ROUND MATCHUP

No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 South Dakota State

Both teams feature elite players. Junior forward Keita Bates-Diop was the Big Ten player of the year and leads the Buckeyes with 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. South Dakota State’sJim Daum had an All-America-caliber season with 23.8 points per game. The Buckeyes are sputtering with three losses in five games, while the Jackrabbits have won 11 straight.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier

Bluiett tested the NBA waters the previous two years but returned to Xavier for his senior season. He’s closing out his career as one of the best to play for the Musketeers, averaging 19.5 points and 5.7 rebounds and shooting 42.3 percent on 3-pointers.

Luke Maye, North Carolina

The junior forward and former walk-on is best known for hitting a buzzer-beater to beat Kentucky and send the Tar Heels to the Final Four last year. He went from averaging 5.5 points as a reserve last season to being a crucial piece of the offense; his 17.1 points per game are tied for the team high with senior point guard Joel Berry.

Rob Gray, Houston

Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis, an assistant track and field coach at Houston, impressed Gray’s family on his recruiting visit, and the rest is history. The senior guard has helped lead the Cougars to one of their best seasons in years with 18.6 points per game. He scored 24 of his game-high 33 in the second half to beat Wichita State in the AAC semifinals.

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By Shannon Ryan

Chicago Tribune

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