The final “First Four” game has been played and the 64-team field is set. In just a few hours, the tipoff to one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year will take place as the NCAA Men’s Division I College Basketball Tournament 2019, also known as March Madness, has arrived (games begin Today, Thursday at 12:15 PM ET).
Much like how we talk about the Super Bowl, March Madness boasts a unique culture that transcends the sport itself. Primarily, this is done through the idea of filling out a bracket and choosing which teams will advance and how far. Many offices have March Madness pools and if you’re thinking, “I know nothing about college basketball,” that’s okay, because even those who follow the sport year round for their jobs, don’t get it right come tournament time.
Part of the reason for this is the unpredictability and the “any given Sunday” nature that has permeated March Madness perhaps more than any other sport. You could say an unofficial motto for the tournament is “expect the unexpected” because there really are no sure things. Not even the #1 seed is safe anymore as last year proved when UMBC, an unknown but now a household name, defeated top-seeded Virginia and it wasn’t particularly close (74-54). Anything can and most often will happen in this tournament, so if you are filling out a bracket, don’t feel bad or be surprised when like a good deal of the rest of us, you end up wanting to ball it up and throw it in the trash after the first round or two of games.
While nothing is certain and top seeds are known to fall, some level of research and analysis can be beneficial in not just filling out your bracket but in making your early March Madness predictions and betting pick for overall tournament winner. So now that we have got that out of the way, let’s delve into this year’s field, starting at the top: the #1s.
#1 Seeds: Duke, Gonzaga, Virginia and North Carolina
It should come as no surprise that when you look at Bovada Sportsbook’s odds to win it all, that the top four seeds are the top four favorites, with Duke pulling at +220, Gonzaga at +500, Virginia at +550 and North Carolina at +700. When it comes to making your Madness picks, sticking with one of #1s to go all the way is never a bad idea.
Since 1985, there have been 34 national championships with 68 teams playing in them. Of those 68 teams, 32 have gone to a #1 seed, which is just under half. Only eight title games have been played that didn’t feature at least one top seed, the most recent of which came in 2014. Just seven times, the national championship game has featured two #1 seeds, the most recent of which was in 2017 as UNC defeated Gonzaga. Since the tournament’s expansion in 1985, 20 of the 34 champions have been top seeds.
That is just a little more than half which makes betting a #1 not as much of a sure thing as people might think. Every year, people fall back on that and tend to pick one of the top four to go all the way. Such is the case again this year as according to ESPN’s People’s Bracket (based on how people have filled out their brackets), 70 percent of ESPN brackets have #1 Duke going all the way and playing #1 North Carolina in the championship.
If you want to be somewhat contrarian to the rest of the country, a flyer on Gonzaga or Virginia is also not a bad option. Though, be cautious with Virginia as last year’s first-round exit isn’t far from mind, especially with the Cavaliers losing early in the ACC Tournament just a few days ago.
In Virginia’s favor is the return, in time for this NCAA tournament, of their point guard Justin Robinson from an injury to his foot.
March Madness #2 Seeds: Michigan State, Michigan, Tennessee & Kentucky
Historically, there is a significant drop-off from the #1s to the #2 seeds in terms of performance as just five national championships have been won by the lower seed, which is just 25 percent of how often the #1s win. That said, sometimes, #2 seeds are teams every bit as worth a #1 seed and much like their counterparts, can be dangerous in a tournament format.
All four of this year’s #2s fit that bill, especially Kentucky, a team in line for a top seed up until perhaps the final week of the season when they lost to fellow #2 Tennessee in the SEC Tournament semifinal. These two SEC powerhouses both made significant cases as to why they could be the ones hoisting the trophy at the end of the tournament and the odds support that. After the four #1s, Kentucky (+1200) is next in line as a favorite to win who is tied with Michigan State (+1200) and followed closely behind by Tennessee and Michigan, both at +1600 (16/1).
Only Michigan State won their conference tournaments, which is somewhat of a rarity to have just one #2 win. It is not necessarily a knock against their case here but it is worth keeping an eye on as for as good as a team has been all season, what they have done closest to March Madness time often plays a role in how they will perform.
#3 & #4 Seeds: Texas Tech, Purdue, Houston, LSU & Florida State, Virginia Tech, Kansas and Kansas State
There are some notable names here that could go far in a tournament run, namely Kansas, who earlier in the season would have been a sure fire #1 seed. The Jayhawks have struggled but their tournament pedigree speaks for itself and it would not be surprising to see them, as a #4 have a nice run. Texas Tech, the next in the March Madness outright winner betting with the trusted USA oddsmakers after all the #1s and #2s (+2200), had a pretty solid season as well. So did Kansas State, who could surprise in a lengthy run of their own.
Most surprising is once again, we have two sets of seeds where none of them are conference championships. In fact, Duke, who won the ACC, and Michigan State, who won the Big Ten, are the only conference champions among the first 16 seeded teams. It is quite interesting and something to keep an eye on as we go further down this list. Because that means the conference champions are seeded in the middle of the pack, but with each of them coming off recent success, they could be poised to create some magic in March Madness.
Best of the Rest: The Conference Champions
Not every conference or conference champion is equal as some of the smaller conferences that receive automatic bids feature good teams, but ones that when up against power conference foes tend not to fare well. Our focus here is on those power conferences and how their champions stack up this year.
#5 Auburn (+3300) – After surprising many with their SEC Championship victory over Tennessee, Auburn has to be one that at least piques interest at this point and one that could be expected to have at least a Sweet 16/Elite 8 run.
#6 Iowa State (+4000) – Another surprising conference champion, Iowa State, seeded fifth, upset top seed Kansas State before defeating Kansas in the finals, both teams now ranked ahead of the Cyclones. Iowa State is another one that could go deep given the recent roll they are on.
#6 Villanova (+5000) – How the mighty have fallen. Last year’s national champion returns to the tournament in defense of the title, doing so after winning the Big East conference. Sounds great right? Only problem is the Big East was not as good as it has been in recent memory and neither was Villanova. It seems the magic may have run out for the Wildcats. That said, Villanova’s early exits in the past have come when they have been much higher seeded and famously, their first national title, came when they were an eight seed.
#12 Oregon (+15000) – Another conference that has fallen on hard times is the Pac-12 as their champion Oregon is seeded just 12th. The conference did still manage three bids but it’s going to be an uphill journey for any of them to really get far in this deep field. The Ducks have a tough matchup against Wisconsin in the first round but it’s a 12-5 and in the history of March Madness, there has been no more consistent upset (outside of #8 vs #7) than the #12 seed over the #5 seed.
Check back often for our March Madness predictions and previews as part of our continued coverage of the 2019 tournament.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.