2024 NCAA Tournament bracket picks: Why CJ Moore has UConn winning the title – The Athletic

By CJ MooreMar 17, 2024Supported By

(Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.)

Since Florida repeated as national champs in 2007, no defending champion has advanced past the Sweet 16. That ends this year.

 

Connecticut is the most complete team in college basketball, and it’s going to end that streak and repeat as national champions. That was my pre-bracket prediction and I’m sticking with it, but the selection committee really has me uneasy about that prediction. The Huskies received no favors as the top overall seed. You could argue that UConn has the toughest path to Phoenix as any of the top seeds. Iowa State has the best defense in college basketball. Illinois has one of the best offenses and was a team pre-bracket that I was pretty sure I would push through to the Final Four, and Auburn is the candidate to be this season’s UConn.

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My other pre-bracket rule: Fade the Big 12. The league is the most physical in the country and its teams, outside of Iowa State, are entering the NCAA Tournament bruised and battered. And if you look through the all-conference teams in the Big 12, the talent is not comparable to past years. There aren’t a lot of pros, and the talent is down. There are still a lot of good teams, but for most of the year it felt like Houston was the only great one. And Houston is a shell of itself right now.

Sometimes it’s a curse to watch a lot of college basketball because it leads to going too chalky. Last season, that would have gotten you in real trouble. This year the top is stronger. It’s not just the eye test. Adjusted efficiency margins at KenPom.com suggest this as well. For instance, last season’s No. 1 entering the tournament (Houston) would be this season’s No. 3. Last season’s No. 2 (UCLA) would fall to No. 6 this year. The numbers a year ago were hinting at possible chaos. This year we could get a more chalky Final Four.

Now, maybe you’ve come here for help with your bracket. My advice: If you’re convinced that UConn is the best team, then pick the Huskies. But if you’re not, there’s a lot of value in picking Purdue. The Boilermakers have been one of the best two teams in the country all season, but a lot of people are going to pick an early upset because Matt Painter’s team has lost in the first round in two of the last three tournaments — including No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson last year. This is not the same Purdue team. That one featured freshmen guards who were wearing down. Now Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer are sophomores, and Smith, in particular, has made a big leap and is one of the best point guards in the country. He also has playmaking help in Southern Illinois transfer guard Lance Jones.

I’m sticking with UConn, but I’ve got Purdue in the championship game.

Let’s get to the nitty gritty now. Here is a region-by-region breakdown.

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East Region

• The second round is the first possible pothole for UConn. Northwestern took Purdue to overtime twice this season and has one of the best-scoring guards in America in Boo Buie. His ability to punish drop coverage is why I’m hesitant to take Florida Atlantic in the first round. FAU’s defense is designed to give up jump shots in the mid-range. Buie doesn’t take a lot of mid-range jumpers, but he’s one of the best pick-and-roll scorers in the country and has an effective field-goal percentage of 58.6 on shots off the dribble, per Synergy.

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The Owls have performed their best coming off their lowest points, and losing to Temple in the AAC tournament was a low. Dusty May’s team will be motivated and also potentially a scary matchup for UConn, as the Owls also play their best against top competition — they knocked off Arizona in Las Vegas just before Christmas.

• Auburn is way underseeded if you’re a believer in metrics. The Tigers rank No. 4 at KenPom.com, and as stated earlier, they’re a good candidate to be the UConn of this tournament. UConn was also No. 4 at KenPom going into last year’s bracket and also was a No. 4 seed with the defending national champs (Kansas) as its No. 1 seed in its region.

The Tigers have double-digit wins in 26 of their 27 wins. Last season, UConn had double-digit wins in 19 of its 25 victories heading into the NCAA Tournament and then won all of its tourney games by double digits. This is potential pothole No. 2 for the Huskies, assuming Auburn can get past Yale (Ivy League was one of the best mid-major leagues this year) and San Diego State, which has one of college basketball’s best scoring bigs in Jaedon LeDee.

• One smart upset pick in this region could be Duquesne over BYU. The Dukes hold their opponents to 31.7 percent 3-point shooting, and BYU lives and dies by the 3. Dayton is probably the closest equivalent to BYU on Duquesne’s schedule; Duquesne got swept by Dayton in the regular season but just upset the Flyers in the A-10 tournament.

• Drake will be a popular 10-7 upset pick because it’ll have the best player on the floor in Tucker DeVries, who will be looking for tourney redemption. Last season, Drake led Miami by eight with under five minutes to go and ended up blowing the late lead, and DeVries scored three points on 1-of-13 shooting in that game. Washington State relies a lot on scoring inside the arc and was the second-best offensive-rebounding team in the Pac-12. Drake’s 2-point defense — allowing 51.9 percent — is not great, but it is the best defensive-rebounding team in the country.

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Iowa State will have the best homecourt advantage the opening weekend. Iowa State fans love to travel to see their Cyclones, and it’s a short drive to Omaha. They just took over the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City.

• Illinois has won seven of eight games entering the tournament, with that one loss coming to Purdue. The Illini have the positional size to match up with UConn. Their defense — 91st at KenPom — is suspect, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at the roster. Terrence Shannon Jr. can be a lockdown defender on the perimeter when he wants to be, and Coleman Hawkins is one of the most versatile defenders in the country. Shannon is averaging 31.8 points over his last four games, and he might be the toughest wing in college basketball to defend. (It’s him or Dalton Knecht.)

I’m not sure Illinois has the defensive discipline to handle all of the movement and off-ball screening action from UConn, but I was tempted to make this upset pick. If UConn ends up repeating, the Final Four could end up an easier two games than the second weekend. UConn doesn’t play through Donovan Clingan in the post a lot, but this could be a game to give him the ball a lot, as he has a size and strength advantage on Hawkins. (The Illini do have behemoth Dain Dainja off the bench.) Clingan’s rim protection will also be important, as Shannon and Marcus Domask both live in the paint.

If Tyler Kolek is healthy, Marquette can make the Final Four. (Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

South Region

• Nebraska has never won a NCAA Tournament game, but this is the year! The key will be trying to keep Texas A&M off the offensive glass. The Aggies are the best offensive-rebounding team in the country. Nebraska ranks 223rd in defensive rebounding rate. Whoever wins this game is a good candidate to upset Houston.

• Houston is the most vulnerable No. 1 seed with J’Wan Roberts getting injured in the Big 12 tournament. Roberts, who hurt his shin in the semis, did play in the final but lasted only 13 minutes. The Cougars are also missing their two best bench players, and Kelvin Sampson doesn’t have a lot of confidence in his reserves right now.

One of the best weapons to have against Houston’s ball-screen defense is a pick-and-pop, playmaking five and Nebraska has that in Rienk Mast. If it’s Texas A&M advancing in the first round, the Aggies can match Houston’s physicality. And while Houston’s a great offensive-rebounding team, it’s not great right now on the defensive glass, especially since losing backup center Joseph Tugler. The Aggies struggled shooting the ball most of the season, but they’re averaging 83 points and are 5-1 since inserting Manny Obaseki into the starting lineup.

I’ve gone back and forth on who will win Nebraska-A&M. My initial gut pick was Nebraska, but I’m wavering and would probably change my pick if I hadn’t already submitted my bracket! But forgot the wavering. The Huskers are not only going to win their first tourney game in school history; they’re making the Sweet 16.

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• Wisconsin and Duke have tricky first-round matchups, and Vermont or James Madison would be worthwhile upset picks. I was hesitant because I’ve got Houston losing and feel like this is a strong 4-5 region. My logic for picking Wisconsin is that Duke’s interior defense is soft. Wisconsin’s Steven Crowl is playing well and will be a matchup problem for Duke in the post. Wisconsin is 15-6 when he scores in double figures.

• Texas Tech is another Big 12 team hurt by injuries. Starting center Warren Washington has missed eight of the last nine games, and he went scoreless in 13 minutes in his one appearance during that stretch. Starting wing Darrion Williams, one of Texas Tech’s most important pieces, also sat out the Houston game with an ankle injury. I’d expect both to play, but NC State is already a tricky matchup with the red-hot DJ Burns. I was going to pick against the Wolfpack in the opening round because I figured they’d be a tired team, but the health of the Red Raiders worries me more.

• Marquette will have a challenging second-round game, whether it’s Florida, Colorado or Boise State. Both the Gators and Buffaloes are talented, and the Broncos went 13-5 in a challenging Mountain West and had the league’s best offense in conference play. Also, there’s the concern of Tyler Kolek and his oblique injury.

But I’ve been high on the Golden Eagles all season, and they’ve felt like a team that will peak in March after getting upset in the second round last season by Michigan State. Usually, when a veteran team has a loss like that and returns most of its core, it’s a safe bet that the team goes on a run. (See 2019 Virginia for the most extreme example.)

• Kentucky and Illini are the two teams in this bracket that give off the most 2024 Miami vibes. Both are electric on offense and suspect on defense. I trust the Illini more because they’re older. If Marquette-Kentucky happens in the Sweet 16, it’ll be super watchable and likely fast-paced. Wish we knew exactly how healthy Kolek will be, but Marquette is a nightmare matchup for Kentucky’s defense. Kentucky’s ball-screen defense has been brutal for much of the season, and Kolek and Oso Ighodaro are one of the best pick-and-roll tandems in the country. Marquette also can guard.

• Shaka Smart is 0-3 against Wisconsin as the coach at Marquette, including a 75-64 loss in Madison this year. That was one of the worst games of the season for Kolek and Ighodaro. The Badgers dared Kolek to shoot and took away Ighodaro on the roll. Ighodaro finished with just five points on five shots, and Kolek went 1-of-5 from distance.

Since Jan. 15, the only two teams to beat Marquette are Creighton and Connecticut. Marquette was not quite in the right headspace early in the season when it lost that game but it’s quietly been one of the best teams in the country the last two months and still played pretty well with Kolek sidelined. Smart is finally going to get a win in this rivalry game, sending Marquette to its first Final Four since 2003.

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West Region

This is the region best set up for chaos, so let’s get weird.

• Mississippi State just upset Tennessee in the SEC tournament and has the bodies to throw at North Carolina’s Armando Bacot. Chris Jans is one of the best defensive coaches in the country, and his team is holding opponents to 29.4 percent shooting from deep. He’ll be sure to limit the looks for RJ Davis and Cormac Ryan.

The Bulldogs will tempt Elliot Cadeau into shooting. He’s seen the dork defense before — when teams sag off him on the perimeter — sometimes he’s baited into shooting. He’s made just 8-of-44 3s all season. Jans has one of the hottest scorers in the country too, with freshman guard Josh Hubbard averaging 25.4 points over his last eight. A smart game plan and a hot Hubbard are the difference in the second round. And if it’s Sparty playing the Heels, that’s a core that went on a surprise run last year.

• Grand Canyon has one of the best talents in this region in Tyon Grant-Foster, the former Kansas/DePaul wing who sat out the last two years with a heart problem and returned to the floor this season to average 19.8 points per game. I went to see Grant-Foster play for the first time when he was the top-rated juco recruit at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa. He’s always had the talent, and Bryce Drew has brought out the best of him. This is one of the most heartwarming stories in college basketball. Grand Canyon has a talented roster around him too, but I’m picking this upset with my heart. It’d be cool to see Grant-Foster have his moment on this stage.

• New Mexico was the most talented team in the Mountain West but battled injuries and inconsistent play and finished sixth in the conference standings. But the Lobos got hot this weekend, winning the MWC tournament, and they’re healthy now and metric darlings. They rank No. 23 at KenPom, so that’d suggest they’re underseeded. They have a potential second-round matchup with Baylor, which has an elite offense but has been mediocre defensively the last two seasons.

The Lobos aren’t a great matchup for Arizona in the Sweet 16. When the Wildcats have struggled this year, it’s been against teams that can take advantage of Oumar Ballo in the pick-and-roll. The Lobos P&R handlers finish the second-most possessions of anyone in college hoops, per Synergy. They have one of the best guard trios in the country in Donovan Dent, Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. They also have Nelly Junior Joseph, who is big and strong enough to deal with Ballo on the blocks.

• I’m not sure there’s a team I feel comfortable picking in the Final Four in this region. This is the region where it feels like the selection committee messed up. UNC and Arizona have the easier paths to the Elite Eight, and I’m probably dumb not picking either to get there. But, again, this feels like the spot for chaos. And the team that could benefit is Alabama, which had the hottest offense in college basketball for about the first seven weeks of the calendar year.

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The Crimson Tide shoot a ton of 3s, and with that can come some variance. They also have a crummy defense. And they’re in that Kentucky/Illini category of electric offense and suspect defense. Put Illinois in this region and I’d feel great putting the Illini in the Final Four. I’m not so comfortable going with the Crimson Tide, but it’s a team that is probably better than its record. Most will see 11 losses and get scared. Most will see losers of four of their final six and get scared. But the tournament is often a reset, and teams that play unique styles are often good candidates to go on runs. Think some of Jim Boeheim’s mediocre Syracuse teams of the past.

Caleb Furst and Purdue beat Tennessee in November in Hawaii. Could they meet again in the Elite Eight. (Steven Erler / USA Today)

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Midwest Region

• Gonzaga and Kansas are both going to be popular Round 1 upset picks. McNeese State is 30-3 and coached by former LSU coach Will Wade. I was tempted. The Cowboys dominated the Southland, but that’s one of the worst leagues in college basketball. Mark Few hasn’t lost in the first round since 2008 and his team has a major size advantage.

Kansas has a confidence problem and has been the second-worst 3-point shooting team in college basketball the last six weeks. But Samford is actually a good matchup for the Jayhawks in their vulnerable state. Because the Bulldogs press, it’ll allow Kansas to get out in the open floor. That’s where Dajuan Harris Jr., Kevin McCullar Jr., KJ Adams and Johnny Furphy thrive. A fast-paced game will be a welcome change from the sometimes slog of the Big 12.

• Oregon coach Dana Altman is one of the best postseason coaches. The Ducks have made the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 and a No. 12 in their last two tourney appearances. Altman is known for mixing defenses and confusing opponents in the postseason, and center N’Faly Dante, who missed the first half of the season, is playing his best ball of the year. South Carolina coach Lamont Paris will be coaching in only his second NCAA Tournament game. The Gamecocks are also No. 49 at KenPom, so this will likely be close to a coin flip in Vegas. Feels like a good spot to pick an upset.

• Tennessee has one of the easiest second-round matchups no matter if it’s Virginia, Colorado State or Texas. That first weekend should help the Vols get their swagger back after losing two straight coming into the tournament. The key for Tennessee will be getting some offense from someone in addition to Dalton Knecht and Zakai Zeigler. Both Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi are in major slumps.

Creighton-Tennessee could be a great Sweet 16 game, but here’s betting the Vols look like themselves again the first weekend and ride that confidence to the Elite Eight. That’s where it gets tricky if they play Purdue, who beat them 71-67 in the opening round of the Maui Invitational in a game where neither team played that great. That was before Zeigler, coming off offseason knee surgery, looked like himself, but Zach Edey dominated. Not sure the Vols have an answer for slowing Edey, and the Vols couldn’t beat Purdue with Braden Smith having one of his worst games (six points, one assist, three turnovers). Purdue could end up reliving Honolulu, beating Tennessee and Marquette on its way to the national title game.

• Purdue has the easiest path to the Elite Eight of all the No. 1 seeds, and for that reason it might be a smart champion pick. In my bracket, we get the national championship between the two teams who have been at the top of the rankings for most of the year and a game I’ve wanted to see. If it happens, UConn has the big in Clingan to slow Edey, and UConn has better talent around its star big man. I don’t love UConn’s path, but if we get this game, the Huskies are the more complete team. Purdue relies a ton on Smith and Edey, but all five of UConn’s starters could go for 20-plus any given night.

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More NCAA Tournament Coverage

  • NCAA Tournament Midwest Region analysis: Can Purdue bounce back from last year’s embarrassing upset?
  • NCAA Tournament South Region analysis: Is Houston primed to return to Final Four? 
  • NCAA Tournament East Region analysis: Can UConn emerge and repeat as champions?

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*TRADE.

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(Photo of Donovan Clingan: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)

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C.J. Moore, a staff writer for The Athletic, has been on the college basketball beat since 2011. He has worked at Bleacher Report as the site’s national college basketball writer and also covered the sport for CBSSports.com and Basketball Prospectus. He is the coauthor of “Beyond the Streak,” a behind-the-scenes look at Kansas basketball’s record-setting Big 12 title run. Follow CJ on Twitter @cjmoorehoops

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