The Madness is almost here and if you’re looking for some advice when putting those finishing touches on your bracket, you’ve come to the right place.
The 2023 college basketball season has been full of upsets, controversies and constantly evolving basketball teams. To help break it all down and make sense of what was an insane season I’ve enlisted the help of DNVR Buffs’ college basketball expert, Will Darkey.
Jake Schwanitz: Give me a player out of each bracket that can completely take over and carry their team to a Final Four run
Will Darkey: The obvious answer for the South region is Alabama’s Brandon Miller. The freshman forward exploded onto the scene this season, taking home SEC player of the year honors. His elite shooting mixed with incredible length and athleticism poses a mismatch for virtually every other team in the field of 67. He should be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft this June, so it will be interesting to see how he performs under the lights of the big dance.
For the Midwest region, I’m going with Houston guard Marcus Sasser. While he is currently dealing with a groin injury, Sasser would be the key to a Final Four run for the Cougars this year. The veteran guard missed March last season, and while Houston made a run, they came up short of the Final Four. Sasser is the star guard that could put the Cougars over the hump and into the final weekend of the season.
For the South region, the easy answer would be Jalen Wilson of the one-seed Jayhawks. However, I’m actually going to go with Jaime Jaquez on the two-seed Bruins. UCLA got devastating news a week ago when Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Jaylen Clark injured his Achilles tendon, and now star center Adem Bona could be out with an injury also. These injuries this close to the tourney are going to force Jaquez to step up into a major role, but he has the talent to put the Bruins on his back and produce a Final Four run.
For the West region, I’m going to take Purdue’s Zach Edey. The 7-foot-4 unicorn could be a matchup nightmare for opponents depending on the type of whistle he gets during the tourney. Big Ten referees struggled to call correct fouls all season with a player like Edey, and when Purdue is given ACC referees or SEC referees in a random Sweet 16 game, the soon-to-be player of the year could get a favorable whistle that will help make him an unstoppable force.
Jake: Is it Alabama’s tournament to lose?
Will: I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s theirs to lose. With the women’s bracket, I would consider that tournament South Carolina’s to lose. But with the men’s field, we’ve been on a roller coaster of chaos and unpredictable outcomes for four months now. Alabama has somewhat emerged as the favorite to take home the title, but I would not consider them a runaway favorite. I’d place them in the conversation with Kansas and Houston as the big three that should be viewed as the most likely candidates to cut down the nets in Houston.
Jake: Which three first-round games would you consider a must-watch?
Will: The game I’m most excited to watch in the first round is Memphis vs FAU. All of the 8/9 games are loaded this year, but this feels like the most intriguing one to me. Memphis, an old team coached by former Memphis Tiger Penny Hardaway, versus Florida Atlantic who is having the best season in their program’s history and was seeded far too low in my opinion. I think it will be an incredible 40 minutes of basketball.
Another game that will surely be fireworks is seven-seed Texas A&M versus 10-seed Penn State in the Midwest. Two of the hottest teams in the country square off in the first round and it will surely be decided by which team is the hottest. Texas A&M boasts an elite defense that pushed them all the way to the SEC Championship, and Penn State has used some clutch shooting down the stretch to pick up five Quad 1 wins in the past three weeks. Some high-level basketball should be played in this 7/10.
A really intriguing storyline comes in the 6/11 matchup between Kentucky/Providence. Providence’s best player, Byrce Hopkins, transferred out of Kentucky last season after a lack of playing time. He has since averaged close to 18 points in the Big East and has a prime revenge spot set up in the first round of the big dance. Both teams have been inconsistent this year which could result in a toss-up of a game, but I like the fire that 11-seed Providence’s best player could be coming out with. Don’t be shocked if Hopkins puts up 35+ in a crazy entertaining game.
Jake: Who is your favorite 12 seed to pull off the first-round upset?
Will: I like Drake’s chances. Their starting five boasts four seniors, but the most notable player is sophomore forward Tucker DeVries. DeVries, son of head coach Darian DeVries, ran away with the Missouri Valley Player of the Year award behind an 18 ppg season. He is a crafty power forward that could cause problems down low if Miami is without their starting big man Norchard Omier. Drake also ranks out really well across advanced metrics, as they are pegged as the 20th-best player in the country on Bart Torvik since February 1st; compare that to Miami, who’s been the 39th-best team in the country over that time. Give me the Bulldogs to advance to the Round of 32.
Jake: Which team was seeded lower than you expected and could cause some damage because of their seeding?
Will: I think after beating Virginia in the ACC Championship, Duke could have gotten a 4 seed. But, alas, the Selection Committee kept them at a 5. That feels too low for the hottest team in the country. The one knock on the Blue Devils is inexperience across the board, but my counter to that is the inexperience that clearly showed through in the first half of the season has been worked out and is in the distance of the rearview mirror. This starting five is stacked to the brim with five-star players and has found its groove down the home stretch. If I’m being completely honest this is the most confidence I’ve had in advancing the Blue Devils since their Zion Williamson-led team in 2019. Scheyer knows what he’s doing at the helm and is going to make his presence known in his first year.
Jake: Which mid-major has the best chance to go on a run?
Will: I’m going to consider Memphis as a mid-major for this question. The Tigers are a team I like to beat Florida Atlantic, and then be the first giant slayer and take down 1 seed Purdue in the second round. Penny Hardaway’s tenure at Memphis has been harshly critiqued due to his lack of success with high-end talent, but this is the year that he silences the doubters. DeAndre Williams is a grown man that can shut down Edey and cause problems inside, and Kendric Davis is elite enough to propel this team past the best in the country – heck, he did so just a couple of days ago against the #2 overall seed Houston Cougars. Pencil it in now: Memphis will be in at least the Sweet 16.
Jake: Who is your double-digit seed darling to make a Cinderella run into the second weekend?
Will: I’m riding 13-seed Kent State til the wheels fall off. The Golden Flashes play a relentless style of defense that can suffocate opponents. Kent State proved themselves in a solid MAC conference this year, dethroning a Toledo team that was on a 17-game win streak going into the conference championship. But it’s the non-conference performances that jump off the page. Kent State played Houston and Gonzaga down to the wire back in late November. Both of these matchups being true road contests and the Golden Flashes staying competitive for the full 40 gives me confidence for what their ceiling could be on a neutral court in March.
Jake: How do you see the 8-9 games and how are you approaching picking a winner for each matchup?
Will: Memphis versus Florida Atlantic: I know I have brought up this game three times now, but that’s just how good I think it’ll be. Florida Atlantic has been a great story out of the C-USA this season and should be applauded for their 30-win season. However, this just feels like the year Penny Hardaway and his Tigers break through and make their mark on this tourney. Give me Memphis in a thrilling game.
Auburn versus Iowa: Iowa is an incredible offense, but an incredibly mediocre defense. This game is also being played in Birmingham, AL, which is just a hop, skip and a jump away from War Eagle Nation. In a tournament full of neutral site games, I love finding semi-homecourt advantages like what we have here in this 8/9 to help sway my decision. Auburn’s rabid defense backed by a strong presence of fans could be too much for an Iowa team that relies too heavily on simply outscoring a team to win. I like Auburn.
Maryland versus West Virginia: A lovely 8/9 for the first game of the tournament. Kevin Willard had a great first season as the Terrapin’s new coach, but the games aren’t in College Park anymore. Maryland struggled to find any success outside of their home gym this season. Paired with West Virginia, who has been battle-tested through the gauntlet that was Big 12 conference play this year, I like Bob Huggins and the Mountaineers to kick off the dismantling of the mediocre Big Ten in the big dance.
Arkansas versus Illinois: An incredibly intriguing matchup here. Two teams that underperformed in the regular season, but have the talent to beat almost anyone in the country. I like seeing the resume that a coach has created in the tournament over time, and coach Musselman of the Razorbacks has a beautiful one. He has reached the Elite 8 in the past two years. Juxtaposed with Brad Underwood, whose Fighting Illini have had early exits in two straight tourneys. I’m all aboard the Muss Bus for this 8/9 game and riding the Arkansas Razorbacks into the second round.