The 2019 NCAA tournament bracket has been released, and for the next 72 hours March Madness pool enthusiasts and hoopheads alike will be filling out brackets and diving into debates over which teams will be cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. With the path to the Final Four set, we’re sizing up the players, teams and games to watch in each region. What to make of the West, the only region whose No. 1 seed doesn’t hail from the ACC?
State of the No. 1 Seed: Gonzaga
Gonzaga earned a spot on the top line despite its stunning loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC final, and the Zags will be hoping they already got their bad night out of the way this month. The Bulldogs’ case comes down to their offense, which ranks first in kenpom.com’s efficiency rankings, first in effective field goal percentage and first in two-point percentage. They also shoot well enough from the outside without relying on the three, and have a senior point guard in Josh Perkins who has been a four-year starter. The frontcourt, though, is where this team gets particularly scary. Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura are an elite tandem down low—Clarke makes a whopping 71.2% of his twos and is one of the country’s best offensive rebounders, while Hachimura averages 20.1 points and can even knock down the occasional three.
Gonzaga’s path to Minneapolis has some obstacles. For one thing, it could potentially see a rematch with the team that beat it last March, No. 4 seed Florida State. The Seminoles’ length gave the Zags a lot of problems in that game, though this iteration of the Bulldogs is better (and notably, they didn’t have the 6'8" Clarke in 2018, and 6'10" Killian Tillie sat out with injury). If Gonzaga reaches the Elite Eight, odds are it would see either Texas Tech or Michigan, two elite defensive teams who would make the Bulldogs earn every bucket.
Who Has the Toughest Draw: Michigan
The Wolverines may have avoided the ACC's three elite squads until the Final Four by drawing into the same region as Gonzaga, but they have some serious hurdles to clear before they would even get a shot at the Bulldogs in Anaheim. Should Michigan take care of Montana, it could face one of two polar opposite challenges in the second and third rounds: Nevada spent most of the regular season as a top-20 team, but its late fade dropped it back to the No. 7 seed; meanwhile, No. 10 seed Florida is happy to slow it down and bang bodies like the Wolverines do. Michigan's defense is a powerhouse, second on kenpom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings only to ... Texas Tech, which was slotted into the West's No. 3 seed. Add in Florida State (one of the nation's tallest teams) and Buffalo (one of its fastest), and it becomes clear that the Wolverines were dropped into a region of extremes, any one of which could be too much for the great John Beilein to solve on short notice.
Team That Could Bust Your Bracket: Buffalo
The Bulls are tied with Houston for the nation’s best record at 31–3 entering the tournament, and with road wins over Syracuse and West Virginia, they are no more afraid of high-major competition than they were last March, when they sent Arizona and No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton home in the first round. With an average possession length of just 14.4 seconds, Buffalo has the fastest offense in the field, and it doesn't sacrifice ball security for that speed, with a 15.5% turnover rate that ranks 19th in the country, per KenPom. Seniors Nick Perkins, Jeremy Harris and CJ Massinburg (the team’s leading scorer at 18.3 points per game) are more than poised enough to stare down the elite defenses on the Bulls’ side of the region and forge on to Anaheim.
Most Intriguing Matchup: No. 5 Marquette vs. No. 12 Murray State
This should be appointment television for anyone with even a passing interest in March Madness. Not only does this 5–12 matchup look incredibly fun on paper in terms of upset potential and style of play, but it features two of the most exciting players in college basketball: Marquette’s Markus Howard and Murray State’s Ja Morant. Howard is an explosive scorer who averages 25.0 points per game, has multiple 50-point performances in his career and scored 40 points in a single half back in December, while Morant is a 6'3" scoring sensation and likely NBA lottery pick who averages 24.6 points and 10.0 assists, can do this and was described by SI.com’s Jeremy Woo as a “turbo-charged sophomore string bean.”
Both teams are known for their offense more than their defense and play at fairly quick tempos; the Golden Eagles (namely Howard and brothers Sam and Joey Hauser) prefer to take a lot of threes while the Racers, true to their name, thrive on the run in transition. Expect some fireworks.
Player to Watch: Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
Culver had a passenger-seat view to an Elite Eight run as a freshman last March, and this season he has shined as the Red Raiders' do-everything swingman and offensive heartbeat, averaging 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game. When Texas Tech hit its late-January lull, the culprit was the team's lackluster three-point shooting; after Culver hit four out of five in a tight win over Arkansas at home, the team lost just once the rest of the regular season. Culver takes on an even bigger load when the offense's gears get jammed, which isn't always a good thing, but his length makes him a funky one-on-one matchup for opponents' top defenders. A strong March could cement his status as a top-10 NBA draft pick.
Regional Finalists: Gonzaga and Texas Tech
Offense can go a long way in the NCAA tournament—just ask last season’s Villanova team—and being the most efficient in the country at it is no small thing. The Zags lead the country in points per possession in the half-court offense, which is important in an NCAA tournament setting when games can become a grind. Meanwhile, the Red Raiders have been one of the nation’s hottest teams over the last month and a half, and their recent burst of offense and improved three-point shooting leads us to give them the edge in a hypothetical Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan—one that would pit the nation’s most efficient defenses against each other.
The Bulldogs have too much offense and too much size inside to wilt in the second weekend the way they did last year.