The NCAA Tournament officially gets underway on Tuesday night.

Let’s dance.

IDENTIFYING THE TEAMS WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO WIN IT: In 15 of the last 16 years, the national champion has been ranked among the top 35 in both offensive and defensive efficiency by KenPom. The only exception was UConn in 2014, and even then the Huskies were rated just outside the top 35 defensively.

The 35-35 standard eliminates a lot of terrific teams in this year’s field including Illinois, Iowa State, Kentucky, Alabama, BYU, Gonzaga, Kansas and Baylor.

In alphabetical order, here are the 10 teams that have a top 35 offense and a top 35 defense:

North Carolina

FINE-TUNING THIS: Since the 2002 NCAA Tournament teams ranked inside the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency at KenPom have won the national championship every year except one. (The exception was that 2014 UConn squad, which was a No. 7 seed.) Other than that, the best bet is taking a team that’s rated among the top 20 in offense and defense.

Using that history, here are the four most qualified candidates to win the 2024 title: UConn, Houston, Auburn and Arizona.

But it must be pointed out that four others are very close. The near misses in the 20-20 standard are Purdue, North Carolina, Creighton and Marquette. Purdue is 21st defensively. UNC is 24th offensively. Creighton is 24th defensively. And Marquette is 21st defensively.

BE SELECTIVE IN CHOOSING UPSETS: There were a bunch of upset wins in the 2023 tournament. By definition, I consider an upset to be a victory by a team that entered the game at least two seed lines below the losing team. San Diego State was the perfect example of that in a ‘23 tournament that had 14 upsets along the way based on a two-line difference (at least) in seeding. The Washington Post tells us that, since 1985, when the men’s tournament expanded to 64 teams, we’ve seen an average of 12 such upsets per tourney.

That said, the higher-rated team has won at a rate around 67 percent. With history as our guide, here are the seeds that have come through with upsets since 1985 based on simulation-based probability:

  • Winning in the first round: No. 10 seeds 45 percent, followed by No. 11 seeds (42%), No. 12 (32%), and No. 13 (22%.)
  • Advancing to the Sweet 16: No. 11 seeds 17%, No. 10 seeds 15%, No. 12 seeds 12%.
  • Reaching the Elite Eight: No. 5 seeds 14%, No. 6 seeds 11%, No. 7 seeds 9%. But this is important: it’s possible for a No. 4 seed to spring an upset in the Sweet 16 because they could be playing a No. 1 seed in that round. (An example in this year’s tournament would be No. 4 Auburn meeting top-seed UConn in a Sweet 16 showdown.) Since 1985, No. 4 seeds have a win probability of 19 percent when competing in the Elite 8.
  • Making the Final Four: Since 1985, we’ve seen 76 percent of the Final Four slots taken by teams seeded first through fourth. That includes a 34% success rate by No. 1 seeds, and a 20% success rate by No. 2s. But after that, the biggest threats to crash the Final Four have been No. 5 seeds (7%), No. 6 seeds (4%) and No. 7s (3%.)
  • Reaching the title game: Historically, the No. 1 seeds (21%) and No. 2 seeds (11%) have gotten to the championship game most frequently. After that it’s No. 3 and No. 4 seeds (5%) and No. 5s (3%.)
  • Winning it all: In percentage of probability, the best shots go to No. 1 seeds (12%) and No. 2 seeds (5%).

LIKELY POOL FOR MAKING THE FINAL FOUR: As you contemplate your brackets, consult this note from Vinny Iyer at Sporting News: “Just look at the results of the last 15 NCAA Tournaments. From Kansas cutting down the nets in 2008 to Connecticut winning it for a fourth time overall last year, only six of 60 teams (10 percent) that went into those tourneys ranked outside the top 20 in KenPom advanced to the Final Four.”

Here are the top 20 teams at Ken Pom in order: UConn, Houston, Purdue, Auburn, Iowa State, Arizona, Tennessee, Duke, North Carolina, Illinois, Creighton, Marquette, Alabama, Baylor, Gonzaga, BYU, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Kentucky, Saint Mary’s.

IN FIRST-ROUND UPSETS, NO. 11 SEEDS ARE A BETTER WAGER THAN NO. 12 SEEDS. As usual, No. 12 seeds have gotten the most buzz as a first-round upset possibility but No. 11 seeds have actually been more successful. Since 2011, when the field expanded to 68 teams, No. 12 seeds have an 18-30 record against No. 5 seeds in the round of 64. And No. 11 seeds are 25-23.

TOUGHEST PATH: The Midwest, and No. 1 seed Purdue. Most pundits consider the East the most difficult region to navigate. And top overall seed UConn will be tested in the East region. But after taking a closer look, I think Purdue faces considerable peril in the Midwest. First of all, the Boilermakers find ways to lose in the tournament in recent seasons, having been knocked off by a No. 16 seed last year (Fairleigh Dickinson), a No. 15 seed (St. Peters) in 2022, and a No. 13 seed (North Texas in 2021.) Assuming Purdue avoids losing in the first round, a tough matchup awaits in the second round, especially if TCU advances over Utah State. Coach Jamie Dixon’s are physically and relentless defensively, ranking 31st nationally by KenPom among 362 teams. Another possible opponent is Kansas in the Sweet 16, but KU will be less imposing without injured leading scorer Kevin McCullar. That said, the Jayhawks are sixth in the nation in height and rank 10th in the KenPom defensive rankings. The Jayhawks don’t foul a lot, and a big part of the Purdue offense is getting to the free-throw line. In the bottom half of the Midwest, danger lurks in a potential Elite Eight matchup against Creighton or Tennessee. Vols aren’t tall – which could be a problem against Purdue’s massive Zach Edey – but rank 4th overall in the KenPom defensive rankings. They do a great job of defending two-point shots. Creighton can counteract Zedey’s height with the 7-1 St. Louisan Ryan Kalkbrenner. The Blue Jays foul less than any team in the nation and allow a two-point shooting percentage of 45.7%. That’s 20th overall. Another significant factor: the Boilermakers don’t force many turnovers, and potential opponents are very good at limiting turnovers on the offensive end.

But I understand why anyone would choose the East as the toughest region. That corner of the bracket includes Auburn, Iowa State, Illinois, BYU, San Diego State and live underdog Drake. But UConn would be the most complete team still standing once the tournament reaches the Sweet 16. From that point, Auburn or Iowa State could pose a threat to the Huskies on the second weekend. Where the East comes up short (overall) is a lack of strength in the bottom eight seeds. But the strength in the region’s top half is imposing.

THE EASIEST PATH: The West, and No. 1 seed North Carolina. I don’t have full trust in UNC, but the West isn’t intimidating. If the Tar Heels can get past the second round and the winner of the Mississippi State vs. Michigan State, next would likely be No. 4 seed Alabama (which is loose defensively) or No. 5 seed Saint Mary’s which is still missing injured forward Joshua Jefferson.

On the bottom half of the region, No. 2 seed Arizona has potentially easy draws in erratic Baylor and a slumping Clemson. Arizona is also vulnerable and is hardly a lock against in a second-round matchup against Dayton or Nevada. A regional final pitting UNC vs. Arizona would be fun to watch.


1. Only three Big East teams are in the field: UConn, Creighton and Marquette. The Big East is a powerhouse this season, ranked at No. 2 overall by Ken Pom in the conference rankings behind the Big 12. The conference that had the overall No. 1 seed and two other top-three seeds got only one more team into the tournament than the eighth-ranked Atlantic 10 did. Seton Hall became the first team in the 45-year history of the Big East to finish five games above .500 in conference play and get excluded from the NCAA tournament. The snub was especially egregious considering Seton Hall’s wins over UConn and Marquette and a 3-2 record against bubble teams St. John’s and Providence. And St. John’s was ranked 25th nationally by Ken Pom.

2. Six teams from the Mountain West? Really? It’s the seventh-ranked conference according to Ken Pom. Utah State, Nevada and Colorado State each had a lower NCAA NET ranking than Indiana State of the Missouri Valley Conference. The other three Mountain West entries are solid: San Diego State, New Mexico and Boise State. For the recreational gamblers out there, consider this: going into this year’s tournament Mountain West teams are 23-46-2 against the spread in the big dance over the last 20 seasons. It’s even worse if we remove San Diego State’s run to the national championship game (and a loss) in 2022. Without that, Mountain West reps are 19-44-2 against the spread over the past 20 NCAA Tournaments.

3. Snubbing Indiana State. Look, the NCAA Net exists for a reason. It is supposedly an unbiased, fair-to-all metric system that encompasses every data point to grade a team’s NCAA Tournament resume. Indiana State is 28th in The Net and became the highest-rated team in Net history to get left out of the tournament. Does that Net matter? If it’s supposed to be a meaningful measuring device, then Indiana State belongs. If the selection committee chooses to ignore the Net ratings, then what’s the point? Get rid of it.

4. Giving an at-large bid to Virginia. This is a joke. The Cavaliers are 54th in the Net ratings. They had a .500 record – same as Indiana State – in games against Quad 1 and Quad 2 opponents. VA also sputtered into the tournament with a 4-5 record in its last nine games. Virginia also got the nod over ACC brother Pittsburgh – despite Pitt being ranked 40th in the Net and beating Virginia by 11 points at VA during the season. What about Ken Pom? Virginia is 69th compared to 45th for Indiana State, 40th for Pitt, 25th for St. John’s, 31st for Wake Forest and 43rd for Oklahoma. Seton Hall may have had a flaw or two on its resume, but the Pirates still ranked ahead of Virginia at Ken Pom. (Predictably, Virginia was a disaster and an eyesore in a humiliating play-in loss to Colorado State on Tuesday night.)

5. Some of the individual-team seedings were nonsensical. OK, choose North Carolina over Iowa State for the final No. 1 seed. That’s questionable but not ridiculous. But how could the committee rank Iowa State as the worst No. 2 seed? Iowa State deserved better. Did the committee take note of the Cyclones’ 28-point beatdown of No. 1 seed Houston in the Big 12 title game?

How the hell can Auburn be given a No. 4 seed? Understand that the Tigers are ranked fourth in the nation by Ken Pom, and fifth overall by the Net and by Bart Torvik. Auburn has an argument to be a No. 2 seed – or even No. 1 – but was dissed by the committee.

A total of 17 at-large teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament field were ranked higher than South Carolina at Ken Pom. But all received a better seed than the Gamecocks. Why? Among other things, South Carolina had losses of 31 and 40 points to Auburn and got blasted by 27 points in a loss to Alabama.

San Diego State had the worst Quad 1 record of any of the six Mountain West teams in the tourney, going 4-9 … and still was gifted with a No. 5 seed.


Elite Eight

UConn wins the East.
Arizona captures the West.
Houston triumphs in the South.
Tennessee takes the Midwest.

Final Four

UConn over Arizona.

Houston over Tennessee.

(I do have concerns over Houston’s shooting, which has too many cold spells. The Cougars rank 229th nationally in effective field goal percentage. I initially had Creighton as a Final Four team, but … the Blue Jays are overly dependent on the 3-point shot and that could lead to an unexpected exit. All it takes is one poor shooting night. Only 46.3 percent of Creighton’s points come from two-point baskets which ranks 315th nationally. And the Blue Jays get only 14.3% of their points from free throws; that ranks 352nd.)


UConn makes it two in a row. That hasn’t happened since Florida won consecutive titles in 2006-2007.

Thanks for reading …


A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb

For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link.

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.