2017 NCAA Tournament Preview

It’s that time of year again—March Madness has begun!  This year’s tournament field is as balanced as ever, as there are tons of teams that seem to have the potential to have the potential to make it all the way to cut down the nets in Glendale.  No one team stood out in the regular season, but many teams flashed their mettle and owned their respective schedules, while conference tournaments saw many teams that underwhelmed during the regular season crash the Dance, and they come in hungry to continue their unlikely run towards a national championship.  The unpredictability generated by this year’s match-ups will surely make for a very intriguing, and very dramatic, tournament this year—here’s my detailed outlook on how I think it’ll play out:

 

East Region

First Round

#1 Villanova def. #16 Mount Saint Mary’s

The number one overall seed will not lose in the first round.  Moving on.

 

#8 Wisconsin def. #9 Virginia Tech

In this bloggers humbled opinion, both of these teams are woefully under-seeded, but it is their inconsistencies that put them both in this position.  The Badgers have a really good team, led by Nigel Hayes, which thrives in high-leverage situations, but their shooting problems saw them lose five in a stretch of six games.  The Hokies, meanwhile, have established themselves as an offensive power under the creative mind of Buzz Williams, but their defensive struggles in a very talented ACC caused them to falter in a lot of games that they should have won.  So which team overcomes its liabilities to move on?    Personally, I feel that the trio of star Badgers—Hayes, Ethan Happ, and Bronson Koenig—will provide Greg Gard’s group enough points to overcome the potent Hokies.  Wisco wins.

 

#5 Virginia def. #12 UNC Wilmington

UNC Wilmington gave Duke a huge scare at last year’s tournament, and the Seahawks will get another shot at knocking off an ACC power in this match-up against the Wahoos.  Both teams have strengths that match their opponents—Tony Bennett’s team is known for its stifling defense, whereas Kevin Keatts’s team runs one of the most efficient offenses in Division One—so I expect this one to be a very grinding, taxing game for both sets of players, in the vein of how traditional 5-12 match-ups are.  In the end, though, I think it’ll actually be Virginia’s underappreciated offense, which, though maddeningly slow and inconsistent, has some decent potential, that’ll allow them to sidestep an upset and advance to the next round.

 

#4 Florida def. #13 Eastern Tennessee State

The Gators seem to be one of the more low-key high seeds in the past decade—they aren’t nearly as flashy as their conference brethren, Kentucky, but they’ve overcome some injuries and streaky shooting to establish themselves as the best team in the SEC after the Wildcats while being incredibly efficient on both ends of the court.  Their opponent, the Buccaneers, are very much opportunists.  They thrive on aggressive defense and quick possessions, forcing lots of turnovers and committing many of their own.  Tournament play is more suited to teams that are more balanced and composed, so that in and of itself favors the Gators, and that’s not even counting the talent gap that Mike White’s team has over his opponents.  Florida moves on.

 

#6 Southern Methodist def. #11 Southern California

From a scoring perspective, these teams are both pretty similar—they have great balance throughout their line-up, and when their shots are falling from deep, they’re almost impossible to stop.  That’s where the similarities end, though.  The Mustangs have been incredibly consistent all season long, and in addition to their efficient scoring, they’ve proven to be a great rebounding team that also has a very disciplined defense.  The Trojans played well enough towards the beginning of the season deserve a spot in the final 68, but they are also incredibly streaky— they lost five of their last eight regular season games, with their only victories coming at down-and-out Washington and Washington State— and if they aren’t hitting their shots from outside, they don’t really have any tried and true way to beat their opponents.  After beating Providence, they should suffer a pretty big loss against Tim Jankovich’s sqaud.

 

#3 Baylor def. #14 New Mexico State

The Bears started the season without any votes in pre-seasons polls, which made some sense, considering they lost their two best players to graduation.  Even without them, though, Scott Drew’s crew managed to maintain a top-20 defense in the notoriously high-scoring Big 12, and with the versatile Jonathan Motley leading the offense, they’ve been inconsistent, but they’ve managed to put up enough points to put up a fight against some of the better teams in the country.  The Aggies, meanwhile, have been the model of consistency—they’ve made the tournament in five of the last six years—and have a solid trio of guards, headlined by point guard Ian Baker, that propelled them into the tournament.  NMSU’s shooting ability might give Baylor some trouble, and for that, this one might actually be pretty close, as far as 3-14 games go, but I think that the physicality that the Bears have will be too much to overcome, and that they escape with a W.

 

#7 South Carolina def. #10 Marquette

This is going to be a really good game.  On one side we have the Gamecocks, a team with one of the best defenses in the country, yet has lots of trouble scoring.  They are led by their vociferous coach, Frank Martin, and their star forward, Sindarius Thornwell.  On the other we have the Golden Eagles, which are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation and have an incredible transition game, but their defense can be… pretty atrocious.  Each team’s strength corresponds with the others—so who will win?  In the end, I think Martin’s tournament experience, and the fact that this is basically a home game from the Gamecocks, will allow them to advance.

 

#2 Duke def. #15 Troy

The Trojans are not a bad team, by any means—there’s no place for bad here in the tournament, and besides, with leading scorer Jordon Varnado (16.8 PPG, 53.5 FG%), the Sun Belt team actually has a decent offense—but they finished in the middle of the pack in a middling conference and are coming up against a Blue Devil team that is heating up at the right time, having just won the ACC Tournament in relatively convincing fashion.  This one should be somewhat high scoring, but I don’t expect Mike Krzyzewski’s crew to have much trouble.

 

Second Round

#1 Villanova def. #8 Wisconsin

Both of these teams have core players that excel in the big time and coaches that understand what it takes to get big wins in the NCAA tournament, having both been coaches for teams that made it to a national championship game.  So in virtually every facet of the game on paper, neither team has an advantage, meaning it will all come down to execution, and, if this season’s results mean anything (they do), that means that there’ll be one clear winner.  Josh Hart leads the Wildcats on to the Sweet 16.

 

#5 Virginia def. #4 Florida

Neither of these teams come into the tournament with any sort of momentum—the Gators struggled to put away Mississippi State before losing three of their last five regular season games, and Virginia was 5-5 in its last ten.  The problem with both squad’s was their ability to put the ball in the basket.  The thing is, though, is that Virginia was, with the exception of Virginia Tech, playing some decent defenses in their games, whereas the Gators were not.  And now they have to play the best D in all of basketball.  I can’t see them having much success.  Tony Bennett’s team takes this one.

 

#6 SMU def. #3 Baylor

Both of these teams are really similar in a lot of ways—they’re both from Texas, they’re both incredibly physical, and they both have ferocious defenses.  The difference maker in this one for me will be the match-up between Baylor’s star, Motley, and former Duke transfer, and SMU’s leading scorer, Semi Ojeleye; whichever one can provide his team with more of a spark on the offense will allow his team to pull this one out.  I think the victor of that battle will be Ojeleye, and SMU advances to claim the title of the best college team in Texas.

 

#2 Duke def. #7 South Carolina

South Carolina will definitely have deserved their victory in the previous round, but the reasons that I felt they had an advantage over Marquette are virtually gone in this game—the Blue Devils have a far better defense than the Golden Eagles, and their offense is more balanced, and explosive, than anything the Big East school could offer.  Besides that, having the game in South Carolina doesn’t give the Gamecocks much of a “home court” advantage over a team from North Carolina.  The Dukies advance.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Villanova def. #5 Virginia

This is a game where I think that the Wahoos lack of an offense will really come back to bite them—‘Nova doesn’t have an elite defense, but they are a model of consistency on the offensive side of the ball, and I think that Jay Wright and his coaching staff will have a game plan that helps neutralize some of Virginia’s ferocity.  At least, enough to propel the defending champs into the next round without having to sweat too much.

 

#2 Duke def. #6 SMU

Both of these teams entered the tournament on a high note, having both won their respective conference tournaments, and it’ll be exciting to see the rhythm that each team will surely be in after reaching this point.  The Mustangs defense is very good—good enough to lead them to an upset—but I ultimately think that their offense relies a bit too much on their shooting.  If they’re not 100% on, the Blue Devils will be able to capitalize, through their own star shooters or the interior presence that is Amile Jefferson.  In the end, I just can’t see the Mustangs being consistent enough from behind the arc to win this game.  Duke advances.

 

Elite 8

#2 Duke def. #1 Villanova

A game between two elite teams with great coaches, incredible offensive firepower, and decent defenses, I think this one will come down to who can get a couple of stops when time is of the essence.  Villanova has much better defensive statistics, but they’ve struggled a bit with teams that are willing to be more physical with them, and Duke has proven that they are more than adept at shutting down offenses that revolve around efficient guard play (Notre Dame twice, Virginia, North Carolina).  For that reason, I see the Blue Devils moving on to Arizona.

 

Midwest Region

First Round

#1 Kansas def. #16 University of California, Davis

The Aggies really aren’t all that strong on the offensive end of the court, but they really figured out how to play some solid defense as the season wound down, and that which allowed them to win their conference tournament should allow them to win their First Four game.  That’s really all there is to say here, though.  Bill Self’s Jayhawks are too tall, too strong, and too deep for the the California school.  Kansas moves on.

 

#8 Miami (FL) def. #9 Michigan State

By name only, both of these teams underwhelmed a little bit—Miami had the talent to make a push for the top 4 in the ACC, but they fell to 8th and only won one tournament game before being shellacked by North Carolina, while the young Spartans were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and sometimes had some difficulties executing Tom Izzo’s trademark defense.  I see the Hurricanes, who are led by senior guard Davon Reed, will leverage their experience to force the Sparty into enough mistakes to allow Jim Larranaga and company to move on.

 

#5 Iowa State def. #12 Nevada

The Wolf Pack were by far the class of the Mountain West Conference, putting up lots of points in a very pro-style offensive game-plan put in place by former Sacramento Kings coach.  They have the firepower to pull off what would be a traditional upset, but their opponents, the Cyclones, have an even better one, led by senior point guard Monte Morris.  Steve Prohm’s team is also on a bit of a hot streak, coming into the tourney having won the Big 12 tournament.  For those reasons, I believe that ISU will be able to avoid the upset in this high-scoring affair.

 

#4 Purdue def. #13 Vermont

I was really tempted to pick upset here—outside of Caleb Swanigan, nobody on the Big Ten champion’s roster has really been all that impressive, and the Catamounts have the longest win streak in the country at 21 games.  There’s just one problem for them- Swanigan.  One of two human double-double’s, the big man’s strength and versatility will draw a lot of attention from Vermont’s defense, which will open up a lot of easy shots for his teammates, and even then, they still might not be able to stop the big Boilermaker.  Purdue squeaks through to the next round.

 

#11 Rhode Island def. #6 Creighton

It’s unfortunate that the committee had to pair a decent amount of the better, smaller schools together—this game is one of those cases, and Dayton playing Wichita State is another example.  The teams have had different trajectories as the season played out—the Rams were ranked in the pre-season but started incredibly slow before recovering to win the Atlantic 10 tournament, whereas the Bluejays started fast before stuttering after point guard Maurice Watson’s injury.  Ultimately, I think that injury will be too much for Greg McDermott’s team to overcome, and Rhody’s strong guard play will carry them to a first round upset.

 

#3 Oregon def. #14 Iona

Iona are actually a sneaky good 14 seed—they played Florida State tough for a half early in their season, beat MWC champion Nevada, and prevented the infamous Monmouth bench mob from making the tournament for the second year running.  They also score a lot of points, with their offense ranking 30th in the nation.  Their big issue is that they also give up a lot of points; that’s definitely not something that they’re going to be able to overcome against the Ducks, who have at least three guys that can score consistently on the Gaels small line-up, even with senior Chris Boucher.  Expect Dana Altman’s team to have an easy time here.

 

#7 Michigan def. #10 Oklahoma State

These are two of the streakiest teams of the season—both started remarkably poorly, but managed to turn up the heat as the season came to a close, with the Wolverines snagging an automatic bid by winning the Big Ten tournament and OSU winning big games against…  well…  bottom-feeding Big 12 teams.  That’s the difference between them here.  Michigan has managed to stop, and score on, teams that have more talent than them, whereas the Cowboys plateaued the Big 12’s best, losing its last three regular season games.  I expect this one to be high scoring, but also for Michigan to have a fairly easy time of moving on.

 

#2 Louisville def. #15 Jacksonville State

I disagree with the committee’s seeding of Louisville hear, but nobody can deny that the Cardinals are a force to be reckon with.  They have a vicious defense—it’s shown some leaks lately, but is the 6th best in the country, as rated by KenPom.com—and a balanced offense led by guard Donovan Mitchell.  The Gamecocks have a halfway decent offense, but they were inconsistent in the Ohio Valley Conference, and their offense is not good enough to put a scare into a team as strong and lengthy as Rick Pitino’s is.  Louisville locks up a second round place.

 

Second Round

#1 Kansas def. #8 Miami (FL)

Miami had an advantage over a young, turnover-prone Michigan State team in their first game; they’ll have no such advantage in this one.  They’ll have to work extra hard to try and get points against the disciplined Jayhawks defense, and then work even harder to prevent the electric freshman Josh Jackson from putting up 40.  In the end, I just think that Bill Self has too deep of a team for the Hurricanes to overcome them.  Kansas advances.

 

#5 Iowa State def. #4 Purdue

This game will see a clash of teams with contrasting styles—Iowa State has been fast-paced since Fred Hoiberg was head coach, and the Boilermakers concentrate more on a more methodical, inside-out type offense.  Typically, in tournament games like this, the team that is able to take better care of the basketball will pull it out.  Purdue’s turnovers allowed Arkansas-Little Rock to upset them last season, and their issues with keeping possession remain in this year’s squad, and the Cyclones’ fast pace will give them even more trouble than most teams.  ISU moves on.

 

#11 Rhode Island def. #3 Oregon

There are two reasons why this is my only real major upset—the first is that I want to see how far down my roommate, who is a die-hard Oregon fan, scrolls down on this post—and the second is that I actually think that the Rams have a shot at pulling this off.  Boucher was an integral part of Oregon’s interior presence, and while his absence doesn’t mean that the Ducks don’t have an advantage in the paint (they still do), it lessens the burden on the Rhody’s interior players and allows their guards, especially senior EC Matthews, to get penetration.  Dillon Brooks will probably have a huge game here, but I think that the Rams, who were very highly ranked as this season began, really found out how to play as a unit as the season drew to a close, and that camaraderie, and the efficient offense that they’ve morphed into, will be enough to see them pull off the win over the Ducks.

 

#7 Michigan def. #2 Louisville

For me, this one is all about momentum.  Louisville had a fantastic regular season, but they struggled towards the end of their regular season, especially against teams that had a good interior game.  Michigan’s frontcourt duo, Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson, were a major part of why the Wolverines were able to knock off bigger, more talented teams en route to the Big 10 tournament championship.  Big Blue will still need a bit of luck from their perimeter players to get an upset here, but with the attention focused on Wagner and Wilson, I feel that they can do it.  Michigan advances.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Kansas def. #5 Iowa State

In a match-up that will surely have fans around the country salivating, the Jayhawks will have a chance to avenge their loss to the Cyclones that snapped their record-setting home winning streak.  I think that it will be a chance they take—Bill Self will have his team fired up for this one, and I think that the experience of Mason, combined with the flashiness of Jackson, should provide enough of a spark to get a victory.  If ISU can keep their turnovers low and drain around 40-45% of their shots from deep, they might have a chance, but otherwise, you can bet on the Jayhawks to overcome their conference rivals.

 

#7 Michigan def. #11 Rhode Island

This is the lowest seed pairing I have in the Sweet 16, and it’ll come in a game where the participants will have knocked off two giants of the game.  Both teams will have some distinct similarities coming into this one—they’ll both be tired from what are sure to be marathon victories, and they both have solid guard play.  The difference-maker, then, will be each team’s post presence.  In that area, the Wolverines have a distinct advantage—the pair of Wagner and Wilson both average over 10 points per game, and I think the Rams might have trouble slowing them down.  Michigan wins.

 

Elite 8

#1 Kansas def. #7 Michigan

Michigan will have made it this far on the virtue of their interior presence, and they actually have an advantage in the paint in this one, too.  The problem is that they don’t have enough wing players to contain the Jayhawks—Kansas’s top four scorers are all guards, and if any of them are afforded even a split second for an open look, they’ll tear the Wolverines apart (the four average 41% behind the arc, which is… pretty good).  John Belein has some good guards, but not enough to stop Kansas.  They’ll get into the Final Four without too much stress.

 

South Region

First Round

#1 North Carolina def. #16 Texas Southern

No offense to Texas Southern, but they are probably the least consistent of all of the 16 seeds in this tournament.  They’re squaring off against a North Carolina that was consistent enough to win the regular season title in perhaps the best league in college basketball, the ACC.  This will be no contest—the Tar Heels cruise on.

 

#8 Arkansas def. #9 Seton Hall

Both of these teams have been overshadowed by the big guns in their respective conferences—Kentucky and Villanova—but each bring something special to the table.  The Razorbacks are a force with the ball, averaging a touch over 80 points per game, while the Pirates are great at crashing the boards, finishing at 20th best in the nation in rebounds per game.  Unfortunately for Seton Hall, they tend to get sloppy a bit on both ends of the floor, as demonstrated in the fact that they allow more points per possession than they score, and that’s not something conducive to tournament wins.  The Pigs pip the Pirates to party on.

 

#12 Middle Tennessee State def. #5 Minnesota

I actually feel bad for Minnesota—Richard Pitino’s team staged a remarkable turnaround from last season to develop into one of the Big Ten’s better teams, but they ended up getting over-seeded, leading to some national criticism, and get matched up with a Blue Raiders team that has demonstrated it knows exactly how to counter the style of play that’s prevalent in the Big Ten.  This year’s MTSU team has been even more consistent than last year’s, and they definitely have the talent, and the know-how, to knock off the Golden Gophers in this one, something that I feel they’ll be able to pull off.

 

#4 Butler def. #13 Winthrop

The Eagles can certainly pull off an upset here—they’re really good at perimeter defense, and their dynamite guard, Keon Johnson, can go off at any moment.  On the other hand, while I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bulldogs this year, but it’s hard to deny the balance that they have in both aspects of the game, and they’ve managed to put things together in big games, as they’ve beaten both Arizona and Villanova.  Chris Holtmann’s team will have a tough time in this one, but I still expect Butler to bounce their opponents.

 

#6 Cincinnati def. #11 Kansas State

The Wildcats will make it through to this match-up by virtue of their balanced offensive approach and the coaching nous of former Illinois head man Bruce Weber.  The issue with Weber’s team, though, is that there isn’t really anybody that can scare the Bearcats on defense, and you can rest assured that Mick Cronin and his team’s fourth-ranked defense will find a way to nip any potential momentum in the bud.  This should be a low-scoring game that Cincy pulls out to move to the next round.

 

#3 UCLA def. #14 Kent State

If this were simply a one-on-one between stars, the Golden Flashes might have a chance in this one, as Jimmy Hall certainly has the all-around talent to match-up against famous frosh Lonzo Ball.  Unfortunately for the MAC representative, the Bruins are a whole hell of a lot deeper than that.  Outside of Ball, they have the coach’s son, Bryce Alford, and a host of frontcourt players that allowed the team to average a national-best 90.4 points per game.  This should be an easy one—UCLA won’t have any problems here.

 

#10 Wichita State def. #7 Dayton

It’s a true tragedy that these two teams are slated to play each other in the first round—they have two of the better stories in basketball.  Gregg Marshall’s Shockers are proving to be a tournament regular now, walloping team after team in the Missouri Valley Conference and thriving as a strong shooting and defensive team, while Archie Miller’s Flyers have are a jack-of-all-trades type team that is good at everything and bad at nothing.  In the end, though, I think that Wichita State’s defense is energetic enough to get stops to pull off an “upset” in this one—they’ll move on.

 

#2 Kentucky def. #15 Northern Kentucky

In a logistical sense, this is probably a dream match-up for the Norse—they get a chance to show off their incredible nickname on a national stage while squaring off against an in-state opponent.  Other than that, though, there really isn’t much to be enthused about if you’re an NKU fan.  John Calipari’s team is loaded with future lottery picks that will be way too much for their smaller neighbors to handle.  The Wildcats win in a landslide.

 

Second Round

#1 North Carolina def. #8 Arkansas

The Razorback offense is really something—they can beat you inside, outside, in a half-court set or in transition—and they’ve really been finding their rhythm as we come into tourney time.  Unfortunately for them, they’re coming up against one of the few teams that gets more offensive possessions per game than they do and scores more points per game, the Tar Heels.  That’s not even factoring in the fact that UNC has put up those numbers in what is arguably the country’s strongest conference, while Arkansas played in the meh SEC.  Roy Williams and company move on.

 

#12 Middle Tennessee State def. #4 Butler

Like I said earlier, I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bulldogs this year—they’re really good, but there isn’t one particular thing that they’re really good it.  The Blue Raiders, however, play some incredible lockdown defense—they rank 21st in the nation in points allowed per game—and they should be able to limit enough of Butler’s offense to give them a fighting chance.  If they can get some contributions from some players outside of leading scorer JaCorey Williams, I think they’re good enough to pull off this upset, and, in my opinion, they will.

 

#3 UCLA def. #6 Cincinnati

This is a quintessential offense-versus-defense match-up, and in a tournament environment, which typically favors more slow-paced, balanced teams, it would actually make sense to take the Bearcats in this one.  However, Cincy hasn’t faced a team all season that comes anywhere close to matching the amount of firepower that UCLA has on their roster.  Will the Bruins be at their high-flying best?  No, they will not.  But they’ll certainly put up enough points to get this one out of the reach of their opponents and move on to the next round.

 

#2 Kentucky def. #10 Wichita State

The Shockers have long been known as a giant-killer—in recent years, they’ve knocked off highly-ranked Gonzaga, Ohio State, Kansas, and Arizona in the tournament, usually by forcing a high amount of turnovers and relying on their battle-tested backcourt to lead them to victory.  However, with this year’s team not retaining much from those past years, and having lost all their games against so-called “elite” teams, the deck is stacked against them this season.  Kentucky will find a way to take care of the ball enough to avoid an upset and move on to the next round.

 

Sweet 16

#1 North Carolina def. #12 Middle Tennessee State

The Blue Raiders will have gotten here by relying on their excellent defense to prevent two teams that don’t really have any super-dependable scoring options from getting in a good rhythm.  The same thing cannot be said for North Carolina; Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, and Isiah Hicks are bound to go off on any given night, and as good as MTSU are on defense, they haven’t faced a team with as many true scorers as this Tar Heels team.  UNC will move on.

 

#3 UCLA def. #2 Kentucky

This might be the best Sweet 16 game in recent memory—a battle between two of the country’s most endowed programs, both headlined by star freshmen (Ball and Malik Monk).  I was originally tempted to pick the Wildcats in this one—as much as I touted UCLA’s balance in the last round, I think that Coach Cal’s team has enough athleticism to contain most of their scorers—but the ‘Cats have had the most trouble this season with teams that push the pace, and we all know that Steve Alford’s crew will want to do that.  Besides, the Bruins have already proven that they can beat Kentucky, having done so earlier this year, in Lexington.  UCLA will win in a shoot-out.

 

Elite 8

#3 UCLA def. #1 North Carolina

Both teams have exceptional coaches, really great guard play, and some shaky defenses, especially in the paint.  That would seem to favor the Tar Heels, who could plant Jackson in the paint and pound the ball down low all day.  However, in the Tar Heels’ most significant losses—against Georgia Tech, Miami, and Duke—their opponents went non-stop on both ends of the court, forcing them into uncharacteristic mistakes that they turned into points, allowing them to overcome the onslaught of offensive options the Chapel Hill school is blessed with.  That’s an approach that I think that the Bruins can pull off well enough to carry them into their first Final Four since 2008.

 

West Region

First Round

#1 Gonzaga def. #16 South Dakota State

The Jackrabbits have been one of the better mid-major tournament teams recently—over the past five years, they’ve given big scares to Baylor (2012), Vanderbilt (2015 NIT), and Maryland (2016).  This year, however, they’re facing a Bulldog team that is simply too big, too strong, and too deep to have much of a chance.  They’ll keep it closer than the other 16 seeds, but not by much; the Zags will advance with ease.

 

#8 Northwestern def. #9 Vanderbilt

A battle of the nerds!  The Wildcats are making their first tournament appearance in history, riding on the backs of juniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey.  The Commodores, meanwhile, used their exceptional three-point shooting, and two clutch victories over Florida, to sneak their way into the Dance.  Bryce Drew’s team are, however, somewhat streaky with their shooting—that’s why they have 15 losses, the most ever for an at-large tournament team—and Northwestern’s defense is actually pretty damn good, ranking 34th in the nation.  For that reason, I think that the Wildcats not only make their first tournament this year, but win their first game.  Chris Collins’s club moves on.

 

#5 Notre Dame def. #12 Princeton

A battle of the lesser nerds!  Princeton had one of the greater Ivy League seasons in recent memory, going undefeated in conference play before sweeping through the conference tournament.  They’re actually pretty similar to the Irish, too—they possess the ball well, score a lot of points from three-point land, and play decent defense.  They’ve got a really good shot at a win here.  The reason that I feel Notre Dame avoids the upset, though, is Bonzie Colson.  The Tigers haven’t seen anybody like him this season, and I think that he’ll have enough of an impact to force the Irish through to the second round.

 

#4 West Virginia def. #13 Bucknell

The Bison are one of the most accurate shooting teams in the entire country, and they actually have a victory over one of the major tournament teams, Vanderbilt.  They also have a pretty decent defense that is among the best 20% in the country.  Unfortunately, they’re not only playing a defense that is better than theirs, that will be able to limit their scoring opportunities with a full-court press, but an offense that is as proficient as it is balanced, averaging 82 points per game with no one player above 14.  Expect Bob Huggins’s team to push on to the next round.

 

#6 Maryland def. #11 Xavier

Both of these teams have underachieved this year—the Musketeers, despite a great coach in Chris Mack and a solid leading scorer in Trevon Bluiett, had some troubles after sophomore Edward Sumner tore his ACL, whereas the Terrapins had issues getting scoring from anybody outside of Melo Trimble.  Ultimately, I think who wins this game will come down to a battle between those two guards, Bluiett and Trimble, and based on his performances in last year’s tournament, I have more confidence in the Maryland man to elevate his game enough to take his team to the next round.  Maryland wins.

 

#3 Florida State def. #14 Florida Gulf Coast

This one must be a real treat for Florida fans, to get to see two in-state teams duke it out in Orlando.  “Dunk City” is still in force for FGCU, and their athleticism would cause a lot of problems for teams that rely on strong defense and rebounding in the paint.  Unfortunately for them, Leonard Hamilton has built himself a team of incredibly versatile players, led by leading scorer Dwayne Bacon, that is perhaps the most athletic team in the country.  That negates any real advantage that the Eagles have on offense, and they don’t have enough skill on defense to contain Bacon and his teammates.  The Seminoles win with ease.

 

#7 Saint Mary’s def. #10 Virginia Commonwealth

It’s unfortunate that one of these mid-majors has to say goodbye in the first round of the tournament—both of them are underrated, and execute their own unique styles to absolute perfection.  That being said, the Gaels are by far the more balanced team—headlined by center Jock Landale, Randy Bennett’s team would have been a bona-fide power in the West Coast Conference were it not for Gonzaga.  Will Wade’s bunch have a chance if they can find a shooting rhythm and use their trademark press effectively, but I simply think that St. Mary’s is too deep here.  They’ll win this one.

 

#2 Arizona def. #15 North Dakota

The Fighting Hawks were the class of the Big Sky, and senior guard Quinton Hooker, who averages almost 20 points per game, is really talented.  The only problem is that he is really the only player than can match up with the Wildcats—in every other way, Sean Miller’s team are better shooters, better defenders, and generally more athletic than their opponents.  They should be able to breeze through to the next round.

 

Second Round

#1 Gonzaga def. #8 Northwestern

The Wildcats and their fans will surely be ecstatic that they’ll have made it to the second round, but I fear that it’ll be quickly dampened by the Zags.  Northwestern’s strength is on the perimeter, and the Bulldogs have proven themselves to be pretty adept at containing good guards (their wins against Saint Mary’s prove that), and I don’t think that anybody really matches up to Mark Few’s big center, Przemek Karnowski, on Northwestern’s roster.  I expect Gonzaga to ride his shoulders in a game that should be an easy victory for the top seed.

 

#5 Notre Dame def. #4 West Virginia

The Mountaineers have given really good teams fits with their “Press Virginia” defense; their biggest wins, at home against Kansas and Baylor, saw them force more than two times the amount of turnovers as their opponents.  The issue with their opportunistic style is that when they come up against teams that take relatively good care of the basketball and are good free throw shooters, they have to rely more on their inconsistent offense.  Unfortunately for Bob Huggins, the Irish team he’ll square off against is exactly that; it’ll be close, but I expect Mike Brey’s team to win here.

 

#3 Florida State def. #6 Maryland

The Seminoles have, in my opinion, been fairly inconsistent in the second half of their season, but if there is any “elite” team that epitomizes that for the whole year, it’s the Terps.  Trimble has struggled to find his shot because of how often he is double-teamed, and in big games, his supporting cast hasn’t been able to pick up the slack.  FSU has enough athleticism to contain the high-scoring Trimble, and I just can’t see the rest of the Terrapins scoring on, or stopping, any of Leonard Hamilton’s players enough to really give them a chance in this one.  Florida State wins, and it won’t be close.

 

#2 Arizona def. #7 Saint Mary’s

This one should be a really exciting game.  In the Gaels’ four losses this season, they’ve shot a combined 38% from the field, which is… not very good.  Arizona’s defense allows teams to average about 41.5% from the field, which is good, but not good enough to avoid a good day from Saint Mary’s shooters to gift them a win.  So how does Arizona avoid an upset?  By driving the lane.  That’s where they were most effective in their biggest wins, and if Landale has any weakness, it’s that he’s not quick enough to stop quick, penetrating guards.  Sean Miller has plenty of those, and I expect the Wildcats to space out their offense and take down the Gaels with speed.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Gonzaga def. #5 Notre Dame

In my heart, I feel that my Irish can pull off a victory in this game; in reality, though, I just can’t see it happening.  Mike Brey’s team will need to have a lights out shooting night to counter the absolute dominance that the Zags are sure to wreak in the paint against ND’s small frontcourt, and considering that Mark Few’s best all-around player, Nigel Williams-Goss, is a point guard, I expect at least one of the Irish shooters to struggle.  Expect Williams-Goss and the duo of Karnowski and Zach Collins to wreak enough havoc in Notre Dame’s ranks for the top seed to advance.

 

#2 Arizona def. #3 Florida State

Florida State has been significantly more talented than each of the last two teams that it’s faced; that’s not the case here.  As the Wildcats demonstrated in their Pac 12 tournament championship victory over Oregon, the Wildcats have four or five players that can both put the ball in the basket or play lock-down defense.  That isn’t to say that the Seminoles can’t do the same—they certainly can—but I think that the inconsistencies that flared up late in FSU’s season, especially on defense, will be their downfall in this one.  Arizona moves on.

 

Elite 8

#2 Arizona def. #1 Gonzaga

Yes, I recognize that the Bulldogs have already beaten Arizona this year, on a neutral floor, nonetheless.  But loss came during one of the worst 5-game stretches of the season for the Wildcats, who also lost to Butler and struggled with Santa Clara during that period.  Now, Sean Miller’s team has seen freshman star Lauri Markkanen mature into Dirk Nowtizki-lite and has also regained star guard Allonzo Trier from suspension.  Both players will give the team an offensive boost that they didn’t have in their first game against Mark Few and company, and in their recent win against UCLA, Arizona proved they can shut down a dynamic guard like Williams-Goss.  Karnowski won’t have enough offense in him to see this team on; Arizona goes home with a win.

 

Final Four

#2 Duke def. #2 Arizona

Trier versus Kennard.  Markkanen versus Jefferson.  Those match-ups are pretty much scratches in this battle of East versus West.  Guess who’s unaccounted for, though?  Yup—Grayson Allen.  The controversial star doesn’t really seem to have anybody that matches up very well with him on the Arizona roster, so he should be able to do his thing without getting in any skirmishes.  I expect him, along with youngster Jayson Tatum, to carry his team on to the championship.

 

#3 UCLA def. #1 Kansas

I could almost copy and paste my reasoning for why I think the Bruins will beat Kentucky here, but I’ll change a couple things around, just for the sake of it—Kansas is a really balanced team with a really good offense and a meh defense, but their worst games came against teams, such as Iowa State and West Virginia, pushed the ball hard on both ends of the court.  The Jayhawks will keep it a little bit closer than the Wildcats did, because I feel Frank Mason may have a couple tricks up his… shorts?  But in the end, I think UCLA will move on to the title game.

 

National Championship

#2 Duke def. #3 UCLA

Up to this point, my rationale for why UCLA has been able to win its games is because it has the athletes, and the scorers, to execute a style of play that gave its opponents the most trouble during the regular season.  Here, though, they come up against a Duke team who has actually been undone more by stronger, more physical teams— their biggest losses, for example, came against Louisville and Florida State, who both have more length than the Blue Devils.  That isn’t to say that they won’t have an issue with the Bruins— the teams that beat Duke also have shot extraordinarily well, and Steve Alford’s team led Division One in field goal percentage this year— but UCLA’s pace won’t be as big of a problem as it was for their past opponents.  They also have a more balanced attack, with Jefferson and Tatum capable of getting inside the paint to score.  That’s a major weakness for the Bruins, and that’s the reason I feel they’ll ultimately fall— this will be an exciting, high-scoring game, and one that will, I believe, end with Duke hoisting the 6th national title in program history.

Have any questions, comments, or debates about any of my picks?  Contact me here, or tweet me at here.

 

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