Trends in 2019, Bracket-Style

The 2019 edition of the bracket was rolled out Sunday. And like clockwork, the fans that we are have to dissect every corner and crevice of the 68 participants in the field. For the first time ever, three schools from the same conference will sport a "1" by their names. It speaks to the dominant top end of the ACC that Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina will be the top names in their respective regions. But it's not the only storyline to look forward to before Thursday's tip. Heck, Fran Dunphy may end his Temple career in Dayton. Here are four things I (and most other folks) noticed about this year's pairings.

Big Ten Crowds Together

The Big Ten received the most teams, but probably the least favors from the committee. In all, eight programs find their name on the NCAA bracket. However, the spread of those teams isn't very broad. Three teams were settled in the South Region, where Purdue and Iowa could meet in the regionals semis (Wisconsin sits alone on the top side of the region). But that's nothing compared to the three squads the landed out East.

Watching some of the analysis later on, I heard an answer from former tournament head Greg Shaheen that I never realized. If two conference team members have not met twice or more in a season, they can be slotted to meet in the 2nd round of the full tournament. That's what could face Michigan State and Minnesota. The Spartans hold the 2-seed in the East, while the Golden Gophers are the 10-seed. Oh yeah, and sitting in that same half of the region is 6-seed Maryland.

Sometimes, there can be too much of a good thing. Others, that good thing is packed too tight in the forest to differentiate from the trees.

Quack Attack For Bucky Badger?

Speaking of Wisconsin, I'll stop short of saying that the Badgers got a bad draw. However, they do have an interesting matchup. Oregon started this season as a top-15 team and held on to a national AP ranking through November. Just after Thanksgiving, though, the Ducks lost at home to SWAC road warriors Texas Southern. That, coupled with a loss at Houston in their next game, pushed Oregon permanently out of the national rankings.

The news got worse for the Ducks as they lost star freshman center Bol Bol after nine game. On February 23rd, they say at 15-12. Then, the switched was flipped. The squad culminated an8-game winning streak by winning four games in four days and lifting the Pac-12 tournament trophy. Now, with the knowledge that they would not have made the field without being conference tourney champs, this group is the definition of a team playing with house money. It doesn't always translate into NCAA success, but the Badgers will have to work to make sure that train doesn't keep rolling.

Star vs. Star on the Horizon

In my opinion, the best matchup of the first "full" round boils down to an individual battle. As the season has developed, we've seen a few players have break out campaigns. The one that may be the most surprising is coming from Marquette junior guard Markus Howard. It's not like Howard had no track record of past success, averaging 20.4 ppg last season. But the last few months have really raised his profile. Including a 53-point effort (at Creighton) and two 45-point games (against tournament teams Buffalo and Kansas State), he's upped his average to 25.0 ppg. I do realize that Howard is battling a wrist injury, but he did tally 51 points in two Big East tournament games this weekend.

The second biggest profile rise over the season could arguably be laid at the feet of Murray State's Ja Morant. The Racers' sophomore star made folks notice last season with his freshman line (12.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 6.3 apg). He turned heads, though, with a number of high-flying, thunderous dunks, as well as an improved line (24.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, and an NCAA-leading 10.0 apg). This growth and his athleticism made the case to many that Morant will be a top-five pick in June's NBA draft. Can the country's second-most dynamic player (behind Zion Williamson) shoulder his team to a win or two in the bracket?

A Pretty Level Dance Floor

Usually, there's an argument for which region is the strongest and which one is the weakest. Everyone will have their opinions (many based on rooting interest) regarding this, and we'll hear them over the next couple of days. For me, though, I'm not quite seeing it this time around. If the committee did one thing better than most years, it's even out the top seeds. I believe each region is pretty level on the "tough road" scale. If seeds hold:

* In the East, Duke would have to face a Buzz Williams-coached team in Virginia Tech. In another conference matchup prior to the Elite Eight (see the Big Ten above), the Hokies beat the Blue Devils just three weeks ago. On the other side, Big Ten champion Michigan State might face SEC regular season champ LSU. Due to recent developments in the pay-for-play style scandal, the Tigers will be without head coach Will Wade. We'll see if that actually lets the Bayou Bengals focus more on hoops than on outside noise.

* Down South, Virginia is slated to face Big XII regular season co-champ Kansas State. Despite the fade from the top of the national picture, the Wildcats returned a bevy of players that were a win away from last season Final Four. Meanwhile, the bottom of the region has Tennessee and Big Ten co-champ Purdue. The Boilermakers are 14-3 since January 11th. And if West Lafayette isn't celebrating a Sweet 16 berth, there's always the defending national champions (6-seed Villanova) waiting in the wings.

* The Midwest is where North Carolina will try to emerge from. If everything goes to form, the Tar Heels will be facing a wall of emotion. Roy Williams would be facing Kansas, the place where he coached for 15 seasons. Oh, and the game would take place in Kansas City, only a 45-minute drive from the Lawrence campus. The crowd at Sprint Center would be closer to 50-50, but I'd be stunned if that was the case at the Power & Light District located across the street.

Kentucky anchors the other half of the region. They could see Houston in the regional semis, with coach Kelvin Sampson continuing his road to on-court redemption. If the Cougars falter, it will probably be due to a hot-shooting Iowa State squad that just beat KU in the Big XXI tournament title game. And, trust me, as an ISU alum and a K.C. native, a Cyclone re-appearance at Sprint Center would be well-received.

* Out West, Gonzaga has another shot at getting to a national semifinals. Some believe this is a pretty straightforward road to U.S. Bank Stadium. I disagree. The 4-seed is Florida State, a team that made an Elite Eight run last March. The 3-seed is Texas Tech, who finished as Big XII co-champs on the back of last season's run of their own to Elite Eight (only to lose to Villanova). The 2-seed is Michigan, who defeated FSU in last year's regional final on the path to a national championship game appearance. Many of the players from those squads returned for another go-'round ... and they all want to finish their undone business of a year ago.

Duke is the favorite. That's certain. However, as we saw in many of the conference tournaments, favorites can be turned on their ear in a brief 40 minutes of game time. Who'll raise the trophy. We'll just have to sit through the chaos to find out. Hope you brought your popcorn.

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