I always bet (a term I’m undoubtedly using figuratively) on the talent.That’s why I’m rolling with the Wildcats in my 2018 NCAA Tournament bracket. No, not the ones from Kentucky, but the pair that play their home games in Philadelphia and Tuscon, Ariz.
MORE: Printable NCAA Tournament bracket This year, I’m picking No. 1 Villanova and fourth-seeded Arizona to face off in the national championship game April 2. Sure, teamwork makes the dream work and a college basketball team is only as good as the sum of its parts, but I’m banking on Arizona freshman big man Deandre Ayton and Villanova junior point guard Jalen Brunson to brighten the shine of the lesser stars in their constellations all the way to the title game in San Antonio.
Here’s how I see both teams getting there in my bracket: Arizona
vs. No. 13 Buffalo (First round)
After losing an assistant in the preseason and sitting out a late-season game amid the FBI’s investigation into bribery among the recruiting ranks, Arizona coach Sean Miller has had the most tumultuous of his nine campaigns at Arizona. Sure, 43-year-old Buffalo coach Nate Oats is one of the brightest minds in the game and could be in line to take a job at a power conference school, but none of that will matter once the ball goes up in the air in Boise, Idaho. The Wildcats are just too good.
vs. No. 5 Kentucky (Second round)
Maybe the juiciest second-round matchup in the entire tournament, the game between two conference champions could feature two premier coaches in Miller and John Calipari and as many as six future first-round NBA Draft choices in Arizona’s Ayton, Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo. But Cal’s cats are just learning how to play winning basketball. Miller’s won a regular-season league title and has built the type of winning habits throughout the season to advance to the Sweet 16.
vs. No. 1 Virginia (Sweet 16)
Defense wins championships and the Cavaliers are the best in the nation on that end of the floor. However, the last time I checked, the team that scores the most points still wins. Arizona is averaging 80.9 points per game and Virginia is limiting teams to 53.4 a contest. If the Wildcats can crack 70, they should win easily. I’m thinking they’re more than capable of hitting that mark. Virginia eclipsed 70 points just twice in regular-season ACC play.
vs. No. 10 Texas (Elite Eight)
I have Texas in the Elite Eight, but it’s more due to the ease of the Longhorns’ path than my belief in them as a contender. They’ll collect wins against Nevada, Cincinnati and Miami then get embarrassed by Arizona. The Longhorns haven’t won four games in a row since the start of the season, but those came against Northwestern State, New Hampshire, Lipscomb and Butler.
vs. No. 2 Michigan (Final Four)
The Wolverines have won back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles, but like football games in the trenches, basketball games are often won and lost on the boards. The Wolverines were ranked seventh in defensive rebounds and 11th in offensive rebounds in their league. Arizona led the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding and rebounding margin. The Wildcats are just too rugged for the Wolverines.
MORE BRACKET PICKS: Bender | Fagan
vs. No. 16 LIU-Brooklyn (First round)
LIU-Brooklyn’s Joel Hernandez is one of the feel-good stories coming into the NCAA Tournament. The 6-3, 180-pound senior stepped up and showed out to lead his 18-16 team to a surprise victory in the Northeastern Conference tournament. Enjoy him in the play-in game against Radford on Tuesday because it’ll be rough one for him and the rest of his squad when they take on Villanova.
vs. No. 9 Alabama (Second round)
The point guard matchup between Brunson and Alabama freshman Collin Sexton, a likely lottery pick, will be one for the ages. The Crimson Tide’s 91.08 defensive rating will keep them in the game, especially early as Brunson figures out how to maneuver against Alabama’s long, athletic defenders such as Herb Jones and Dazon Ingram. It’ll be the Crimson Tide’s inability to mount a balanced scoring attack that will be their undoing just as it was in the SEC semifinals against Kentucky.
vs. No. 5 West Virginia (Sweet 16)
Brunson won’t go for 20-plus points with the Mountaineers’ Jevon Carter, arguably the best on-the-ball defender in the nation hounding him, but that’s the beauty of the SN Player of the Year’s game. He can be just as effective creating opportunities for others. West Virginia’s patented full-court pressure won’t crack grizzled veterans such as Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth, both of whom will have big games.
vs. No. 3 Texas Tech (Elite Eight)
Will the Red Raiders look like the squad that won seven in a row in what might be the nation’s most competitive conference in the nation, or the team that followed that streak with four straight losses? Unfortunately for Red Raiders supporters, the answer will be both. Expect a gargantuan effort from Texas Tech senior Keenan Evans, but it won’t be enough to unnerve Villanova.
vs. No. 2 Duke (Final Four)
Duke is talented. Duke can rebound. Duke can score. Duke cannot defend on the perimeter and Trevon Duval is simply too shaky as a primary ball-handler, averaging 2.7 turnovers per game (Brunson averages 1.7 per while playing more minutes), and not dependable enough at the free-throw line (57.8 percent) to be depended on late in what will be a close contest.
Arizona vs. Villanova (National championship)
No offense to any of Villanova’s post players, but Ayton’s going to score at will. If that were Villanova’s only issue, concerning the nimble 7-1, 250-pounder, it might have a shot. It’s his defense on the perimeter in pick-and-roll situations that will complicate matters for Brunson as a scorer and a distributor, stifling Villanova’s offense. Arizona’s length, namely Trier and Alkins, both of whom stand 6-5, when it goes with a big backcourt that will give Villanova problems it can’t solve.