With the first round of the NCAA tournament set to tip off Thursday, the Blue Zone breaks down each of the four regions, taking a look at all the possible Cinderella stories and heavyweights vying for a place in the Final Four in Houston. Check out our previews for the Midwest, South and East regions as well.
The No. 1 seed: Kansas Jayhawks
The defending national champion Jayhawks come in with a 27-7 record looking to repeat what they did a year ago. They have once again become one of the most dominant programs in college basketball, despite stumbling in the Big 12 tournament final to Texas.
The Jayhawks are led by Big 12 Player of the Year Jalen Wilson, who averages more than 20 points and eight rebounds per game, leading the team in both categories, and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Dajuan Harris Jr. The other starters are no less impressive, with star freshman Gradey Dick alongside Kevin McCullar and KJ Adams Jr, who return from Kansas’ national championship roster from 2021-22.
Concerns about player and coaching health still linger, though, with head coach Bill Self missing the entire Big 12 tournament due to a heart procedure, and McCullar missing the Big 12 title game due to a back injury suffered in the semifinals. McCullar, who averages 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, is an integral part of the Jayhawks’ offense, and his presence was sorely missed in their championship matchup against the Longhorns.
The other contenders: Anyone’s game
No. 5-seed Saint Mary’s will have its hands full with VCU, a top-20 team defensively according to KenPom. The Rams boast one of the highest defensive turnover percentages and defensive efficiencies and have the offense to boot, averaging just more than 70 points per game. The Gaels will have to be strong with the ball and bring their own top-10 defense in order to avoid the upset.
No. 7-seed Northwestern has exploded onto the scene in the past month, boasting wins against then-No. 1 Purdue, as well as wins over other tournament teams in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. The Wildcats have the potential to make a deep run this year, facing a first-round matchup with No. 10-seed Boise State, and a potential second-round game against an injury-riddled UCLA squad.
Gonzaga remains a threat as the No. 3 seed in the region, led by senior forward Drew Timme, the two-time WCC Player of the Year. Though the Bulldogs are without 2022 NBA lottery pick Chet Holmgren, they returned multiple crucial players from their 2020-21 and 2021-22 campaigns and are an ever-present offensive threat, averaging a nation-best 87.5 points per game.
If it can survive the lower half of the bracket, TCU could be the final challenge between Kansas and the Final Four. The Horned Frogs notably beat the Jayhawks in January by 23, in a game where Kansas struggled to get going. TCU additionally has an offense that can rely on multiple different scorers for production on any given night, with three of its five starters averaging more than 12 points per game.
The potential Cinderella: UNC Asheville
Heading into the tournament, the Bulldogs are built to upset. Led by the Big South Defensive Player of the Year in Drew Pember, who averages just above 21 points per game, they have assembled an impressive 27-7 record, winning the Big South championship along the way. The Bulldogs also shoot the three well, with two players above 40% on the year. The dynamic duo of Pember and senior guard Taijon Jones have combined for more than 36 points and 14 rebounds per game.
UNC Asheville’s first-round matchup is against an injury-riddled UCLA, who is without its top defensive player and third-leading scorer in Jaylen Clark, and potentially without starting center Adem Bona. The Bulldogs will have to contain Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA's leading scorer and Pac-12 Player of the Year, who comes in averaging just above 17 points and eight rebounds per game. If they can do that — and a couple teams have shown they can — they stand a chance of upsetting the second-seeded Bruins.
The regional narrative: Top-heavy, but with upset potential
This region is filled with competitive matchups from top to bottom, and it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge from the region as champions. If many predictions hold, it will be Kansas and Gonzaga playing for a spot in the Final Four. Expect this region to be full of instant classics.
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