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Riley Thomas’ NCAA Tournament Bracket: Sweet Redemption for Houston

After spending far too much time on March Madness brackets, it’s time to finally commit to my picks. Let’s be honest, hitting a perfect bracket is impossible. I will probably fall short of the impractical dream, but hey, it’s worth a shot!

The 2023 NCAA Tournament features plenty of exciting first-round matchups with upset potential. A handful of under-the-radar teams have great potential for deep runs. We should be in store for another fantastic tournament. Check out my March Madness predictions.

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Riley Thomas bracket, first round.

South Region

Analysis: Out of the four regions, this seems like the easiest one to work through. Alabama will roll through the region as the tournament’s top overall seed. The road will be quite favorable after San Diego State and Arizona both fall early.

Charleston is an excellent No. 12 seed with 31 wins and is only a five-point underdog against the Aztecs, per college basketball lines. My bold predictions sit at the bottom of the region, with No. 6 Creighton taking out No. 3 Baylor and No. 7 Missouri toppling No. 2 Arizona in the second round. Creighton is 13th in Kenpom ratings, and Missouri’s high-scoring offense can hang with Arizona’s potent offense.

The Crimson Tide will pull a tough Elite Eight matchup with Creighton. The Bluejays will finally show their massive potential with a deep run, but they will fall short against Alabama. The Tide’s deep rotation will prove to be too much as they advance to the Final Four.

  • Pick: Alabama (+170)

East Region

Analysis: No. 1 Purdue pulled some brutal matchups after the first round. Since 2010, at least one No. 1 seed has lost before the Sweet 16 in nine of 12 tournaments. Look for the Boilermakers to bow out in the second round against the red-hot No. 8 Memphis Tigers.

No. 13 Louisiana over No. 4 Tennessee is the only other major surprise. The Volunteers have a scoring problem, and the Ragin’ Cajuns feature a star big man in Jordan Brown. We could sit here and tell you to follow all March Madness expert picks, but at the end of the day, this roller-coaster tournament is unpredictable. Louisiana is simply a gut feeling, and sometimes it’s fine to follow your intuition.

No. 5 Duke and No. 2 Marquette will clash in the Elite Eight. Both teams are playing as well as anyone right now. Ultimately, I love the Golden Eagles’ backcourt led by Tyler Kolek and Kam Jones. Plus, coach Shaka Smart has Final Four experience while Duke coach Jon Scheyer is in his first season.

  • Pick: Marquette (+450)

Midwest Region

Analysis: The Midwest Region could be chaos – and I think it will be. No. 12 Drake is a terrifying mid-major with an NBA talent in wing Tucker DebVries. No. 13 Kent State features an excellent backcourt led by Sincere Carry. Plus, both teams are great defensively. I like both to meet in the second round, with Drake advancing to the Sweet 16. Las Vegas odds have a Drake Sweet 16 appearance at +450. It’s not as crazy as you think.

— KJ (@Kjpistons) March 4, 2023

Mississippi State or Pittsburgh will continue the chaos, taking out No. 6 Iowa State. At least one First Four team typically comes out of the first round. Ultimately, I expect the region to settle down with Houston taking out Drake, and Texas advancing to the Elite Eight

This regional final between Houston and Texas will be a treat. Two complete teams with title aspirations. The Longhorns’ guards against the Cougars’ ferocious defense. Assuming Marcus Sasser is healthy, Houston will have a homecoming in the Final Four thanks to a rebounding advantage.

  • Pick: Houston (+160)

West Region

Analysis: The West is hands down the toughest region to sort through. This is an absolute buzzsaw, featuring five teams within Kenpom rating’s top 11: Kansas, UCLA, Gonzaga, UConn and Saint Mary’s. According to NCAA basketball odds, four teams are +450 or lower to make the Final Four.

My only “upset” is No. 10 Boise State over No. 7 Northwestern, which is a toss-up. This could get chalky with several complete teams clashing. Kansas’ perimeter defense is good enough to get past UConn in the Sweet 16, and Gonzaga continues to improve, led by the nation’s top offense.

The Zags typically underachieve, but this is the season I think they do the opposite. The offense is clicking, the defense is making strides and exceptional 3-point shooting around Drew Timme will prove to be difficult to stop. Gonzaga will meet Houston in the Final Four.

  • Pick: Gonzaga (+375)

Final Four

Analysis: At this stage, we have No. 1 Alabama against No. 2 Marquette and No. 1 Houston clashing with No. 3 Gonzaga. The Golden Eagles’ historical run will come to an end here. The Crimson Tide have a far better defense, ranking third in efficiency to Marquette at 47. Alabama’s length can dominate this matchup, and freshman phenom Brandon Miller will be a matchup nightmare for the Golden Eagles.

Gonzaga’s top offense facing Houston’s elite defense would be must-see TV. How would the Cougars defend Timme? Could the Bulldogs’ guards keep up with Houston’s backcourt? The Cougars have a sneaky athletic frontcourt with great length. Timme could struggle, and the Zags have little chance if that happens. The Bulldogs are also 76th in defensive efficiency. Houston is the more complete team.

  • Picks: Alabama and Houston

NCAA Championship Game

Analysis: I understand why some will hesitate about Houston cutting down the nets. The Cougars have been close, including back-to-back losses in the national championship by Phi Slama Jama in 1983 and 1984.

However, Houston has the tools to take down Alabama. Freshman forward Jarace Walker, who is a projected NBA lottery pick, is an elite defender that matches up perfectly with the Tide’s Miller. In addition, the Cougs are capable of outrebounding Alabama as one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding squads. These are college basketball’s best teams by a wide margin. This would be a final to remember.

Ultimately, I’m going with the storybook ending, as the Cougs will win it all at +600.

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  • Pick: Houston (+600)
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