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Well folks, it's here.
The day we've all been waiting roughly 365 days for. Well, correction, the day we've really waited over 700 days for at this point is here: That's right, it's the first full day of the first "normal" NCAA Tournament in two years.
There is no cancelled event like 2020 (which is really crazy to think about, even still). No limited capacity like 2021. This year we're getting wall-to-wall hoops, from Buffalo, NY to Portland, Oregon, starting tonight and ending with a champion being crowned in New Orleans in early.
Since the bracket was released a few days ago, we've had plenty of coverage of tournament here at Aaron Torres Online, but today, it's officially put pen to paper.
It's time to make my Final Four and national title picks.
If you listen to the Aaron Torres Pod, you hear me go game-by-game on the most recent episode and make my picks there. Now, let's do it in writing here.
West Region: Texas Tech over Gonzaga
You know that section of "US Weekly" every week, "Stars they're just like us." Well trust me, it's the same for those of us who cover college hoops - we're just like you. We watch, watch, watch all season, and then the bracket comes out and immediately hate all of our picks.
With that said, I'm sticking with my guns (awful pun clearly intended) and rocking with Texas Tech to win this region. Yes, they haven't been great in the last month at 3-3 overall, but that's also a byproduct, in my opinion, of the Big 12 meatgrinder. Everyone plays everyone else (at least) twice, and everyone knows each other. There's no hiding, there's no avoiding good teams for most of the season, or any playing them at home like in other leagues. Everyone knows everyone and there are no secrets, and to me, Tech just got caught up in that.
So now that's out of the way, let's get into the "why I like Texas Tech" and well, there are a couple reasons. One, they have a manageable draw to the Sweet 16 and put simply, once they get there, I just can't imagine Duke having much success against their suffocating defense.
Speaking of that defense, I think it gives Gonzaga fits. Yes, I know that these two teams played earlier and Gonzaga took care of Texas Tech, but in that game, Texas Tech was without second leading scorer TJ Shannon. And that was also before Bryson Williams became the Bryson Williams we've seen the last two months or so.
Point being, this is a completely different team, including on the defensive end. There, Texas Tech is in the Top 20 nationally in field goal percentage defense, scoring defense and two-point defense, and put simply, Gonzaga simply isn't scoring in the 80's or 90's on them.
For the second time in the last four years, give me Texas Tech to beat Gonzaga and win the West Regional.
East Region: Kentucky over UCLA
Pseudo-random side tangent: One thing that always drives me crazy is when in late February and early March the media always tries to push the narrative "This tournament is SO WIDE OPEN!" In my opinion most years its total crap.
But this year, I think there's something to it. And look no further than the East Region. Seriously, this is no disrespect to Baylor, but does anyone really think they're the "best" team in this bracket? Both Kentucky and Purdue had paths to No. 1 seeds just a week ago, and UCLA is a dangerous team who brought back everyone from last year's Final Four team in 2022.
So really, I don't love Baylor in this bracket. And instead, am picking Kentucky to beat UCLA in this region to go to the Final Four.
If you listen to the Aaron Torres Pod you know that I think Virginia Tech could actually give Purdue fits in the second round, and have picked the Hokies to pull of an upset. It sets up a nice path for UK to get to the Elite Eight. On the other side, once we get to a Sweet 16, I think UCLA is simply the better team than Baylor (although they better not sleep on a tough first round matchup with Akron).
Once we get to next Sunday, I just think Kentucky has more weapons (ironically UCLA's best weapon - Johnny Juzang - began his career at Kentucky), and is a team that can win in more ways.
Give me UK advancing to the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
South Region: Arizona over Villanova
So again, if you listen to the Aaron Torres Podcast, you know that my hottest bracket take was this: The Villanova-Tennessee Sweet 16 game could determine this entire NCAA Tournament. I know it sounds crazy, but let me explain.
I truly believe that Villanova and Tennessee enter this tournament as two of the 5-7 best teams in the sport. They will meet in the Sweet 16, and I believe, meet Arizona in the Elite Eight. Here's where it gets tricky: I think either Villanova or Tennessee can beat each other in the Sweet 16. But I believe only Tennessee can beat Arizona if they were to advance to the Elite Eight. The size of Arizona would simply be too overwhelming for Jay Wright's club.
Therefore, if Villanova beats Tennessee, I believe Arizona is going to the Final Four and likely (based on the draw) playing for a title. If Tennessee wins, they have the size and toughness to beat Arizona and go to New Orleans (and yes, I'm aware they already beat Arizona once this season).
So really this region comes down to the semifinal, not the final, and unfortunately for UT fans, I'll take Villanova over Tennessee. To me it's a toss-up and it wouldn't shock me if the Vols got the win. But Villanova's experienced guards going up against a pair of freshmen would scare me if I was a Vols fan.
Because of it I've got Villanova over Tennessee, and then Arizona over Villanova, with the Wildcats (the Arizona variety) playing for a title.
Midwest Region: Iowa over Auburn
I mean, what can I really say about this region other than that it's a total mess: No. 1 seed Kansas has been consistently good but never great all year. No. 2 seed Auburn has been up and down for a month. No. 3 seed Wisconsin has a banged up star player in Johnny Davis. And No. 4 seed Providence is a trendy Round 1 upset pick.
Therefore, yes, like most of America I'm rolling with No. 5 seed Iowa.
Yes I know, I know, it's super trendy, which at this point scares me. But I've said for weeks that the Hawkeyes are built for March better this year than at any other time in the Fran McCaffrey era (including last year when they had National Player of the Year Luka Garza). They're smaller, quicker and more athletic than ever before, but still super efficient on offense. Oh, and Keegan Murray might be the single most unguardable player in college hoops this year averaging 23.6 points per game. He can and does beat you in so many ways.
Give me the Hawkeyes to make their first Final Four since 1980, by getting past the Auburn Tigers (I like their draw) in the Elite Eight.
National Championship: Arizona over Kentucky
After a pair of semifinals in which Kentucky gets by Texas Tech and Arizona beats Iowa, we get a rematch of the 1997 national title game: Arizona vs. Kentucky.
And unfortunately for Kentucky fans, I expect it to go a bit like 1997 - give me Arizona to win the title.
The bottom line is that from Day 1 this season, literally Day 1, the fear for Kentucky has been that it runs into a team that is simply bigger and more athletic than them in the post. It happened against Duke on the opening night of the season, and unfortunately, it will happen here too. As I've been saying for weeks: When they walk into the gym, there isn't a more physically impressive team than Arizona. They have a pair of long and big 7-footers down low (Christian Koloko and Oumar Ballo), a 6'10 power forward (Azulas Tubelis) and even their guards - Dalen Terry and Benn Mathurin - are big too, standing in the 6'6 to 6'7 range.
Yes, I worry about Kerr Kriisa's ankle, and in some ways, worry about his return too, and how he will re-mesh with a team that played well last week in the Pac-12 Tournament without him.
But in winning the Pac-12 without their starting point guard, it showed me just how talented this team is.
I have Arizona cutting down the nets in New Orleans and winning the school's second national title.
Enjoy the tournament everyone!
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