NCAA March Madness has well and truly gripped the US college basketball scene, with Selection Sunday finalising the 2018 NCAA Tournament field. A total of 9 Australians across 8 teams will take in the 'Big Dance', with three teams securing automatic bids after winning their conference tournaments, while a further 5 have received invitations to join them.
Saint Mary's with Jock Landale and a loaded Australian roster were not invited, with their weak non-conference schedule and failure to reach the WCC Tournament final against Gonzaga ultimately proving their undoing.
Aussies in the 2018 NCAA Tournament
#4 Arizona | Keanu Pinder - Pac-12 Champions
#12 New Mexico State | Gabe Hadley - WAC Champions
#14 Montana | Fabijan Krslovic - Big Sky Champions
#2 Duke | Jack White
#6 Miami | Dejan Vasiljevic & Deng Gak
#6 Florida | Gorjok Gak
#6 TCU | Kouat Noi
#8 Creighton | Jacob Epperson
Of the three teams booking direct entry into the 2018 NCAA Tournament, only Fabijan Krslovic has played a key starting role for his side. The senior 6'8 forward delivered a 10 point and 11 rebound double-double in the Grizzlie's Big Sky Championship win over Eastern Washington - a side boasting a three active Australians on the roster who will now miss out on taking a trip to the big dance. Krslovic is entrenched as parting of the Grizzlies starting line-up has averaged 7.5 points and 5.1 rebounds over the season, but increased his output to 13 points and 8.3 rebounds in helping guide his side return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 5 years.
Arizona repeated as Pac-12 champions with Keanu Pinder playing 9 minutes off the bench, continuing his substitute role for the Wildcats as he looks to end his college career on a high. New Mexico State won their fifth straight WAC Championship, earning a victory over Grand Canyon and Australian's Matt Jackson and Gerard Martin. Freshman Gabe Hadley will make his first trip to the Big Dance and be hoping for an opportunity to see minutes.
As was widely expected, Duke, Miami, Florida, TCU and Creighton all earned at-large bids for very good seasons.
Aussies in the Bracket
This is how all the teams boasting Australians were drawn.
#6 Florida (Gak) vs #11 St Bonaventure or UCLA
#2 Duke (White) vs #15 Iona
#6 TCU (Noi) vs #11 Arizona State or Syracuse
#12 New Mexico State (Hadley) vs #4 Clemson
#4 Arizona (Pinder) vs #13 Buffalo
#6 Miami (Vasiljevic & Gak) vs #11 Loyola-Chicago
#8 Creighton (Epperson) vs #9 Kansas State
#14 Montana (Krslovic) vs #3 Michigan
Assessing the draw
It is hard not to look past #2 seed Duke as having the best chance at making the Final Four in 2018 out of the Midwest. With a star-studded line-up and Jack White firmly in the rotation, the Blue Devils would be confident of their chances heading into March Madness. A tantalising Elite Eight match-up with TCU is a real possibility, and if it pans out, an Aussie will play in the Final Four this year. However Duke will have to first get past Iona and the winner of Rhode Island and Oklahoma, while TCU has to wait to find out their first round opponent, and if they progress, Michigan State will prove a difficult task in the second round. It is quite foreseeable that either Duke or TCU come a way as Mid West champions. North Carolina or #1 Xavier potentially await them should they progress to the Final Four.
As a #14 seed, Montana has their work cut out for them, entering the opening round as underdogs against #3 Michigan. If they cause an upset, they could get lucky in taking on the winner of #6 Houston and #11 South Dakota State. Yet North Carolina would be likely waiting for them in the Sweet Sixteen could they become a Cinderella story, a scenario that is not as far-fetched as some may believe.
In the South, Arizona heads into the tournament with confidence riding high after winning the Pac-12. Yet should they take care of business against Buffalo as one would expect, they will next likely have to take Kentucky, before a potential Elite Eight date with #1 seed Virginia. Epperson and his Creighton side will possibly be in the way of Virginia should they get past Kansas State, all very difficult games in what looms as a very tough bracket. Vasiljevic and Miami could benefit from some of the expected carnage, with a round 2 fixture against #3 Tennessee a stern test that will be sure to determine just how far they could go.
As the lone team with an Australian on the roster in the East, #6 Florida will have to rediscover their form quickly if they want to go deep into the tournament. Getting past their opening round opponent in the winner of a First Four contest between UCLA and St Bonaventure will be tough, and then Texas Tech is expected to be their next opponent in the second round. It will be tough for them to get through to the Sweet Sixteen and a potential date with #2 Purdue.
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