It’s March Madness, the greatest time of the year. Looking for some help with your bracket? Don’t know which teams to believe in, in this crazy college hoops season? We’ve got your back. We’re breaking down every first-round game in the field of 68, plus looking ahead at which teams will make the run to the Final Four.
4. Purdue (25-7, 14-4/Big Ten)– The Boilermakers won the Big Ten outright for the first time since 1996, thanks to first-team All-American candidate Caleb Swanigan, a beastly 6-9 big man who averaged 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds per game.
Swanigan is one of the nation’s best bigs (if not the best), but he’s made even better by the presence of 7-2 junior Isaac Haas (12.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg). Throw in 6-8 forward Vince Edwards, and this is the most effective front court in the country.
All of Purdue’s numbers reflect how good this team is. The Boilers rank 3rd in assists per game (18.2), 35th in points per game (85.1) and 65th in rebounds (37.9). Purdue nearly knocked off Louisville and Villanova in the non-conference schedule, and they beat Notre Dame. No matter how far “down” the Big Ten might be, this is still one of the best teams in the country.
13. Vermont (29-5, 16-0/America East)
For the first time since their classic upset of Syracuse in 2005, Vermonters feel as though their Catamounts have a chance to pull off an upset come March Madness.
This group was one of the best mid-major performers all season long, going 29-5, and a perfect 19-0 in conference, including a 56-53 win over Albany for the America East title.
Vermont got it done with defense, allowing just 61.6 points per game, which ranked 11th nationally. Three players average in double figures in scoring, led by Anthony Lamb, at 12.6 ppg and 5.4 rebounds per.
The Catamounts didn’t fare very well against high-major competition during the non-conference season, getting blown out by Providence and South Carolina. They also lost to Houston (72-71) and Butler (81-69).
So, should you pick Vermont to pull the upset?
Here’s one last thing to consider, via ESPN:
From 2004-16, 23 teams made the NCAA Tournament after going undefeated in conference play. Twenty-two of them won at least one NCAA Tournament game (only exception — 2008 Cornell).
Since 2009, all 12 teams that made the NCAA Tournament after going undefeated in conference play won at least one game. Vermont and Princeton will try to add to that streak this week.
PREDICTION: This is a tough draw for Vermont. The Catamounts are a very good team, maybe the best the America East has put forth in a decade, but Purdue is simply too big and too skilled to compete with. They’ll cruise in Round 1, but we’ve got them falling to an upstart Nevada squad in Round 2. If that doesn’t happen, the Boilers have what it takes to challenge Kansas and make a deep tourney run.