Favorite: Florida, thanks to Kansas center Joel Embiid’s back. My favorite team to watch in the country, coach Billy Donovan has his most talented squad since the 2007-08 season. With Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill, Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier, this team is the most talented in the country and has the most chemistry out of anyone in the tournament. It helps that Donovan knows what it takes to win a championship. The Gators have been in the spotlight all season and have taken everyone’s best shot, but Florida has been absolutely dominant all season. They finished the regular season and the conference tournament with just two losses by a combined seven points (six-point loss at Wisconsin, one-point loss at UConn). Florida has been hot all season. It’s their year. They have the confidence, talent, depth, and coaching. Florida is the clear favorite.
Sleeper: New Mexico. This is a team that is 2-2 against top-25 teams this season, but is playing excellent basketball. Their last game? Beat #8 San Diego State to win the Mountain West conference. Senior wingman Cameron Bairstow, who leads the team with 20.3 points per game and is second on the team with 7.3 rebounds per game, is the leader of this team and can score the ball at will. New Mexico has a great big man in 7’0″ junior Alex Kirk, who can rebound the ball exceptionally well and is efficient with the basketball. New Mexico is efficient with the basketball, too, averaging 10.1 turnovers a game, good for 41st in the nation. New Mexico has a great opportunity at hand. With Joel Embiid’s health in question, New Mexico could steal a second-round matchup against Kansas to advance to the Sweet 16.
Best 1st Round Matchup: UCLA vs. Tulsa. UCLA has been playing its best basketball to close out the regular season and beat Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game. Led by sophomore Kyle Anderson, UCLA has flown under-the-radar, thanks to Arizona taking the spotlight in the Pac-12. However, they still can’t take their matchup lightly, as head coach Danny Manning has a team that gives everyone a great fight. Some notable Tulsa games: lost at Creighton by 10, lost at Oklahoma by 10, and lost to Wichita State by 23. So why pick a team that went 0-3 against top-25 teams? All three of those games were before January, and Tulsa has won 15 of their last 17 games. If you look at the stats, UCLA is a much better team on paper. Tulsa plays with so much energy and confidence that even if UCLA is up by double-digits, Tulsa will not give up. Sophomore guard James Woodard is their do-it-all guy, who averages 15.7 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game. Need another reason to consider Tulsa? 20 years ago, Tulsa upset a Steve Lavin-UCLA team in the first round. Déjà vu for Lavin?
Best Potential 2nd Round Matchup: If Joel Embiid is back, it’s New Mexico-Kansas. But no one knows, so for now, I’m picking Florida-Pittsburgh. As much as I love Florida, Pittsburgh is a team that needs to regain their confidence in order to regain their form. Well, getting the upset over UNC in the ACC tournament and the second round matchup against Colorado will give them that necessary confidence. Sophomore point guard James Robinson is one of the least appreciated point guards in the country. Robinson makes few mistakes, can score the ball and makes many great passes to set up his teammates, such as Lamar Patterson. When Maryland hosted Pittsburgh, Patterson does it all, kind of the way TJ Warren does everything for NC State. Florida has played Kentucky three times, so they know how to contain play-makers. But it’s March, and the tournament breeds the best basketball of the year. Patterson can play exceptionally well in the spotlight, and that’s what I expect him to do. That said, Florida advances due to their depth and talent.
Pick: Have I mentioned I love Florida yet? Yeah, they’re the real deal. I still feel that picking the one seed to win it all is so cliché, but if anyone will pull it off, it’s Florida. If you need another reason, watch the SEC championship game. Great teams find a way to win on off nights. And even better teams do it against their most hated rivals.