The NCAA Tournament got off to a flying start in the first round, with 12 underdogs posting outright wins — the most since 2001. 

Unfortunately, the underdogs’ success was short-lived. In the second round, they went just 1-15 and 5-11 against the spread.

For only the fifth time since 1979, the top two seeds in each region advanced to the Sweet 16.

Connecticut is the favorite to reach the Final Four, with the defending champion’s odds as high as -305 at one sportsbook. 

Can the Huskies make it to the final weekend in the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year? And which other three teams are most likely to join them?

Let’s look at each side of the bracket before making our Final Four predictions.

National Championship odds

School bet365 FanDuel BetMGM BetRivers
Connecticut +220 +210 +200 +200
Purdue +600 +600 +650 +600
Houston +500 +600 +500 +600
Arizona +850 +850 +800 +900
Tennessee +1200 +1100 +1200 +1200
North Carolina +1200 +1300 +1000 +1200
Marquette +1600 +1600 +1600 +1800
Iowa State +1800 +2000 +1800 +2000
Creighton +2500 +2300 +2500 +1400
Duke +2500 +2300 +2500 +1400
Gonzaga +2800 +3200 +2800 +3300
Illinois +2800 +3200 +2800 +3300
Alabama +3300 +3600 +4000 +4000
San Diego State +6500 +7500 +6600 +8000
Clemson +8000 +8500 +8000 +8000
North Carolina State +10000 +12000 +10000 +10000
Odds as of Monday, March 25

East Region

Despite being the top overall seed in the tournament, the Huskies found themselves in arguably the most challenging region with two other Final Four teams (Florida Atlantic and San Diego State) from a year ago.

As if that wasn’t enough, UConn’s bracket included three Power 6 teams (Auburn, Illinois, and Iowa State), all of which won their conference tournaments.

The good news for the Huskies is they didn’t have to face FAU after the Owls lost, 77-65, to Northwestern in the first round. 

Connecticut later took care of business, defeating Northwestern, 75-58, as a 13-point favorite.

Next up for the Huskies is a San Diego State team they defeated, 76-59, in the national championship last year. 

The Aztecs returned two starters and 52% of its player minutes from a season ago. 

While they have shown themselves to be a better offensive team this season, ranking 53rd in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metric, I don’t see them faring any better against this juggernaut Huskies team.

To beat the Huskies, you have to score the basketball with an extremely high level of efficiency, and after surveying the remaining schools, the only team that can do so is Illinois.

The Illini, who ranks first in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency (126.8 points per 100 possessions), love to score in transition with the high-flying Terrence Shannon Jr. on the break.

If they can get past Iowa State in the Sweet 16, I think they are a live underdog to pull off the upset against UConn in the Elite Eight. 

Pick: Illinois to win the East Region (+650 at DraftKings)

West Region

In the West region, top-seeded North Carolina is the favorite to reach the Final Four at +120 odds. However, the Tar Heels will face a stiff test in the Sweet 16 when they take on Alabama.

Like Illinois, the Crimson Tide have an elite offense. They’re currently fourth in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive rankings.

Although Alabama scored 109 points in the first round against the College of Charleston, I was more impressed with its defense in the second-round win over Grand Canyon.

The Tide limited GCU to just 2-of-20 shooting from behind the arc. Alabama won, 72-61, in a game many expected to be high-scoring. 

If Alabama can win in a slower-paced game, it might have enough to get past North Carolina in the Sweet 16. 

While Arizona will be a popular pick in the West, I can’t get past their two regular-season losses to Washington State. 

Pac-12 teams haven’t necessarily had the best showings in the NCAA Tournament, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Wildcats struggle against a physical Clemson team in the Sweet 16.

Pick: Alabama to win the West Region (+500 at BetMGM)

South Region

The best Sweet 16 game in the South is No. 1 Houston vs. No. 4 Duke. The Blue Devils looked dominant in their 93-55 second-round victory over James Madison. 

However, it could have been a very different game had JMU’s best player, Terrence Edwards Jr., not picked up two fouls with more than 18 minutes remaining in the first half.

I thought it was a terrible job by the referees to involve themselves in the game so early in the proceedings. 

Houston should get much more leeway and respect as a Power 6 school, and I expect the Blue Devils to struggle to play against the Cougars’ blitz-style defense. 

If we look elsewhere in the region, the most complete team for my money is Marquette because of point guard Tyler Kolek, who leads the nation with 7.9 assists per game.

Quality guard play is needed to make a deep run in the tournament, and Kolek’s court vision allows him to handle any pressure a defense can throw at him. 

I already have a futures ticket on Marquette to win the tournament at 30-1, and given what I’ve seen thus far, I see no reason to deviate from that selection. 

Pick: Marquette to win the South Region (+225 at Bet365)

Midwest Region

When CBS announced that the schools would make the tournament, it was surprising to see that the Big East received only three bids. One week later, all three teams from the conference were still alive and had a chance to win a national title.

When I look back at the futures I played before the start of the season, Creighton was one of the teams I had circled at 60-to-1. 

The Bluejays will face the Volunteers in the Sweet 16, and according to our Action Labs database, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes is just 1-8 against the spread in his last nine tournament games.

Let’s not forget Barnes had Kevin Durant at Texas and still failed to get out of the second round after losing to USC, 87-68, as a 2.5-point favorite. Barnes isn’t exactly a coach I’m looking to back to make a Final Four run. 

Tennessee will face a dangerous Creighton team that returned three starters and 61% of its player minutes. 

The Bluejays narrowly missed out on a Final Four appearance last year when San Diego State’s Darrion Trammell made one of two free throws with 1.2 seconds left in the second half of their Elite Eight matchup to give the Aztecs a 57-56 victory. 

I think the Bluejays can go even farther this year, and I like their chances of getting past Tennessee in the Sweet 16. 

The other side of the bracket features a formidable Purdue team that undoubtedly will be a tough out. 

However, Creighton has a 7-foot-1 center in Ryan Kalkbrenner, who could match up well against Purdue’s Zach Edey. 

Thus far in the tournament, Purdue’s opponents haven’t had the size to really make Edey work defensively, so he hasn’t had to play with any foul trouble. 

Betting on March Madness 2024?

To be successful against Purdue, you have to be able to go right after Edey, and Creighton is one of the few teams that can challenge him. 

I jumped on the Bluejays early on in the season to win the national title, so I can’t abandon them at this juncture to reach the Final Four.

Pick: Creighton to win the Midwest Region (+450 at Caesars)

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