Eli’s NCAA Tournament Bracket: Final Four, National Champion Picks

Written By Eli Hershkovich on March 16, 2023
Bracket Winners

We’re 13 hours away from the Round of 64 tipping off and seeing which March Madness odds will start paying out. With that in mind, here are my bracket picks, highlighting the Final Four entrants, along with which programs will cut down the nets in Houston on Monday, April 3. Click on any of the odds below to place a wager.

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Bracket Picks: Houston, We Have Liftoff

Removing your bias and honing in on individual matchups are a critical factor for having success with your bracket picks. Occasionally, you’ll overthink a game here or there, yet that’s why making multiple brackets isn’t a bad idea.

The one I’m focusing on, for this particular piece, represents more of a “contrarian” approach. We haven’t seen this level of extreme parity since the 2013-14 campaign. That year, only one Final Four team won its conference tournament.

No. 7 seed UConn subsequently faced 8-seed Kentucky in the national championship game — a pair of underachieving teams in the regular season that inevitably flipped a switch.

Without further ado, let’s tip things off with South Region odds before sifting through the rest of my bracket picks.

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South: Arizona Wildcats ()

Here’s the one and only conference tournament champ I believe will win a regional final. Unfortunately, I can’t get there with the youth of the Alabama Crimson Tide (). Look out for Hall of Famer Bob Huggins to take advantage of that this weekend.

Tommy Lloyd’s bunch owns the fourth-rated adjusted offensive efficiency (per KenPom) — paced by Azuolas Tubelis, an elite rim-runner while tallying the 53rd-highest shot rate across D-I. Arizona’s shot selection in Lloyd’s motion structure is among the most proficient in the country as well. It’s exemplified by its third-rated effective field goal percentage.

Couple that with plenty of contested shotmakers, as Texas transfer Courtney Ramey leads the way (40.9% 3FG). This notion represents a vital attribute for any contender. Former North Carolina forward Brady Manek was a prime example of it on the Tar Heels’ run to the 2022 title game.

While the Wildcats’ defensive metrics don’t appear worthy of this achievement on the surface, their pick-and-roll coverage grades out well on both ShotQuality and Synergy. That would be a notable edge versus either Baylor or Creighton in a possible Sweet 16 clash. In fact, we witnessed it in the Maui Invitational — despite the Bluejays’ dubious backdoor cover.

Nevertheless, the Wildcats’ susceptible perimeter defense could finally catch up to them on April 1. More on that on our South Region odds page.

East: Kentucky Wildcats ()

Unsurprisingly, the East Region odds are full of chaotic scenarios. In the initial pod, No. 1 seed Purdue () would square off against Memphis or Florida Atlantic via the 8-9 game. The Tigers’ pressure defense creates a massive liability for the Boilermakers’ freshman-laden, turnover prone backcourt. Meanwhile, the the Owls’ athletic guards could exploit their counterparts in drop coverage, as we saw throughout the latter portion of Big 10 play. Dusty May runs an efficient screen-centric offense to boot.

Not only would Memphis’ frontcourt length pose a handful of concerns for 7-foot-4 Zach Edey at the other end, but FAU touts 7-foot-1 Vladislav Golden to also throw at Edey. The same goes for Oral Roberts’ Connor Vanover if Max Abmas carries the Golden Eagles that far.

No. 2 seed Marquette (versus Vermont ), No. 3 Kansas State (versus Montana State ), and No. 5 Duke (versus Oral Roberts ">) are all on upset alert in the opening round. Even though the sizable Vols should blitz past Louisiana, the loss of two-way lead guard Zakai Zeigler (torn ACL), is too much to ignore beyond that point.

Thus, I’m left with 6-seed Kentucky. The Wildcats are finally healthy for arguably the first time this season. Freshman point guard Cason Wallace, 3-point marksman C.J. Fredrick, and Sahvir Wheeler, who’s been relegated to the backup role behind Wallace, are expected to see the court against Providence.

Since Feb. 18, the Wildcats have manufactured the third-ranked AdjO nationally. Their top-25 defensive rating stands out as well. Similar to another SEC program below, their preseason market rating exhibited their potential.

No team has ever won a national championship after losing its first conference tournament game. John Calipari’s squad fits that category, yet no one said it was going it accomplish that feat.

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Midwest: Houston Cougars ()

Let the record show that I wagered on Texas national title futures in July. However, no one seems to be weighing the coaching variable enough. Rodney Terry was tenured on the Longhorns’ staff under Rick Barnes (2002-11) before Terry pulled the strings himself at Fresno State and UTEP, respectively.

Don’t forget, Chris Beard, who recently accepted the Ole Miss job after getting canned at Texas for domestic violence allegations on Dec. 12, went 10-6 against the spread in his 16 career tournament games. Granted, you should never acknowledge a trend without context — nor should you ever bet on one solely because of a “record.” But Beard’s in-game adjustments were unrivaled, thanks to his defensive acumen.

On top of that, consider the Longhorns’ pre-tournament market perception among the Midwest Region odds (), especially after claiming the Big 12 tournament crown. They may even battle a perimeter-oriented Penn State attack in the second round, which is a horrifying proposition versus their no-middle defense. Therefore, I’ll pass on a high-variance coaching situation with their fairly high implied probability (22.2%).

Enter the chalky Cougars (). Like many programs, Houston remains tight-lipped on injury info this time of year. But according to a source, Marcus Sasser (groin) will “be good to go for this weekend.” He’s a 2022-23 First-Team All-American.

Speaking of chance, it’s plausible that Sasser could reaggravate the injury during warm-ups or in the midst of a given matchup. I’m willing to buy my source’s premise for the purpose of bracket picks, though.

Although the Kelvin Sampson’s defense wasn’t as domineering in AAC play as it was in years past, it boasts the fourth-rated adjusted defensive efficiency in the country. This metric is a fine measuring stick, Given that the majority of the teams at the top of the pod — yet to experience the Cougars’ havoc-driven wrath — already struggle versus ball pressure, their path is less cloudy than Texas.

Houston’s gang rebounding on the offensive glass (No. 4 nationally) is also problematic for each of their likely opponents. Five-star frosh Jerrace Walker combines to do the dirty work with the veteran big man J’Wan Roberts.

West: Arkansas Razorbacks ()

I already broke down why the Hogs are my only longshot Final Four bet. UCLA was ranked atop my college basketball power rankings prior to Jaylen Clark’s season-ending Achilles injury. I’m still relatively bullish on the Bruins, but their transition defense takes a hit without Clark, the 2022-23 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. That should be accounted for against Gonzaga (), TCU (), and Arkansas — a trio of uptempo teams. Overall, they’re letting up 0.11 PPP more when Clark is on the bench.

Moreover, five-star freshman Adem Bona is dealing with a nagging shoulder injury. Mick Cronin’s unit notched a -19.84 net rating differential when the 6-foot-10, 235-pound Bona wasn’t the court in Pac-12 play.

2022-23 National Champion: Houston ()

In the KenPom era, no team has ever won the national championship with an AdjD rating outside of the top 20. Don’t expect that trend to come to a halt on April 3. But first things first. March. Is. Here.

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