The 2017 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament is finally upon us!
This year’s Tournament is extra fun to pick because, although the 68 teams ultimately decided on by the Selection Committee this past Sunday were relatively easy – sorry, Syracuse fans – the depth of quality teams this season is one of the largest ever. It makes for great early-round games, and even more compelling late-round games. There are also several key regular-season rematches in play, and rematches from previous tournaments as well – think: Kansas vs Iowa State, Wichita State vs Kentucky, Louisville vs Michigan, North Carolina vs Duke, Villanova vs Kansas, and Villanova vs North Carolina!
To start, here are a few guidelines I think work, even if they don’t always work for everybody:
No matter how good your head coach is, it’s generally harder for teams with underclassmen to make deep NCAA Tournament runs. Exceptions in recent years include Kentucky in 2011-12 and Duke in 2014-15. Those teams had exceptional freshman talent, including Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, etc. Young players are capable of winning, but usually benefit playing alongside upperclassmen, usually a fortunate, select few who already have tournament experience and success.
How To Pick Sleeper Teams
When it comes to picking sleeper teams, I tend to pick teams who possess:
a) An established, good head coach with a winning track record
b) A team that played a particularly hard out-of-conference schedule, and did relatively well
c) Teams with stand-out talent who lost key players during the regular season and are healthy now or “underachieved” during the regular season but played well down the stretch and “gelled” late
I tend to avoid the trendy “sleeper” team, unless that specific team fits one of the three previous guidelines. In 2013-14, UConn won the National Championship as a No. 7 seed under first-year head coach Kevin Ollie. The Huskies had an underrated strength of schedule (b), and got better as the season went on (c).
The following year I picked No. 7 seed Michigan State because they profiled similarly (hit a, b and c), and had a better head coach in Tom Izzo, to go to the Elite Eight and lose to No. 4 seed Louisville; the Spartans actually ended up making the Final Four, beating the Cardinals in the regional final. Everybody is on No. 7 Michigan this year after last week’s Big Ten Tournament, but with emerging senior G Derrick Walton Jr. and established head coach John Beilein, it’s hard to go against that logic.
I’ll reveal my Final Four picks and National Championship winner prediction at the end. Let’s start with everybody’s favorite topic…
East Region – No. 12 UNC Wilmington over No. 5 Virginia
UNCW is efficient offensively. Their best frontcourt player, sophomore F Devontae Cacok, is shooting 79.9% from the floor, which leads the NCAA and is challenging the all-time record.
UNCW starts three seniors plus sophomore guard C.J. Bryce, the team’s leading scorer at 17.6 points per game. UNCW gave Duke a close game in the Round of 64 of last year’s NCAA Tournament – so this same group has experience playing against a tough ACC draw early.
Key to win for UNCW: The Eagles are 15-0 when senior G Chris Flemmings scores 15+ points.
The Eagles have seven games of 100+ points this season and score 118 points per possession, which are each fourth best in the nation.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett is a known defensive specialist. His teams always makes the other team work on offense, and the Cavaliers play hard at both ends of the floor. UNCW will look to shoot early to neutralize UVA’s protection of the paint. If the Hawks hit shots early, it will force the Cavs to change up on defense, including moving out to defend the perimeter more, and – most likely – play from behind. Something they aren’t used to doing.
Midwest Region – No. 12 Nevada over No. 5 Iowa State
I have three of the No. 12 seeds beating the No. 5 seeds, but of the three No. 5 teams I’m picking against, this is the one I’m most unsure of. Still confident enough in the Wolfpack to roll with them, and I’m positive this is clearly going to be one of the, if not the best game in the Round of 64.
Nevada won four games this season when they trailed by double-digits, most in the nation. It’s easy to fall in love with the resiliency of head coach Eric Musselman’s team, which is an interesting blend of upper and lowerclassmen.
Nevada’s +7.5 free-throw differential is the best in the country. They get to the charity stripe, and they prevent their opponents from getting there.
Senior G Marcus Marshall is consistent. He had 42 straight games with a double-double before that streak ended on February 1. Marshall made four three-point shots in a game at least 16 times this season, and his 113 total three-point field goals are second most in Mountain West history behind Jimmer Fredette (BYU 2010-11).
Cameron Oliver is the first player since Duke’s Shane Battier (2000-01) to have 250 rebounds, 75 blocks and 50 made three-point FGs in a season; Lindsey Drew, son of former NBA player Larry Drew, is the 2nd Division I player in the last 20 seasons to have at least 300 rebounds, 250 assists and 50 steals by his sophomore season.
South Region – No. 13 Winthrop over No. 4 Butler
Winthrop senior G Keon Johnson has seven 30-point games this season.
Winthrop has made at least 10 three-point FGs in 17 games this season, including the Big South Conference Tournament championship game.
Since February 1, Winthrop is averaging 84.5 PPG, 10th best in the nation.
Winthrop was tested out of conference, and played Florida State (L 100-86), Dayton (L 83-67) tough.
Butler’s upperclassmen are averaging 57.2 PPG, which is cause for concern. The Bulldogs are also tenacious on the defensive end, make teams work on every possession and rebound. They also limit turnovers. So, what is the cause for concern? Butler’s body of work this year was weak. Their win against Indiana, who then was the No. 9 ranked team in the nation, doesn’t look so good now. Vanderbilt is a solid team, but they finished the season with 15 losses and are probably over-seeded as a No. 9 seed in the West Region. Their two victories against AP No. 1 Villanova are impressive, but how good are the Wildcats this season in comparison to last season?
The Bulldogs are an efficient ball-moving squad, but lack athletes to match up against more talented teams in the field. They are the weakest of the four No. 4 seeds, and the Big East had an overall down season; those top six teams beat up on each other as the season went on, and because the Committee trusts the conference, they selected seven representatives this season (Marquette, Providence being the other two). The top four teams in the Big East preseason poll in order were: Villanova, Xavier, Creighton and Seton Hall. The two matchups in the Big East Tournament semifinals? No. 1 Villanova vs No. 5 Seton Hall and No. 7 Xavier vs No. 6 Creighton, despite the injuries to Musketeers sophomore G Edmond Sumner (torn ACL) and Blue Jays senior G Maurice Watson Jr. (knee), who at the time led the nation with 8.8 assists per game.
Winthrop, like UNCW, is going to shoot early and attempt to grab an early lead. The Bulldogs will grind and slow the game down, but do they have the shooting talent to keep up? The Bulldogs have never lost an NCAA Tournament game as the better-seeded team, so I’m willing to roll the dice.
Other Upsets I Like:
East Region – No. 11 Providence/USC (First Four winner) over No. 6 SMU
Probably the most unpopular of any upset picks because No. 6 SMU finished the season as the No. 11 team in the AP Poll, and rolled through The American Athletic Conference Tournament, defeating Cincinnati in the championship game. The Mustangs are a popular, trendy pick because of their size, versatility, and junior F Semi Ojeleye, who won the 2016-17 AAC Player of the Year after transferring from Duke; he averaged 18.9 PPG this season.
My concerns? SMU isn’t deep; head coach Tim Jankovich plays five and six-man rotations, and historically non-deep teams get bounced early in the NCAA Tournament. The AAC was a weak conference this season with UConn underperforming expectations drastically after being ranked in the AP Top 25 preseason poll. SMU’s best wins came on February 12 and March 12 against Cincinnati. Out of conference, the best teams they played were Michigan, USC and TCU – with only one win against Jamie Dixon’s Horned Frogs. Between Providence and USC, I like the Trojans more as my super under-the-radar sleeper team.
USC is finally healthy. Bennie Boatwright missed 15 games this season, right at the middle point of the Trojans season. Despite losing Boatwright, USC finished with 24 wins, most since 2006-07, the last time the team made the Sweet 16. Since coming back, Boatwright has averaged 16.3 PPG, and is shooting 93.1% from the FT line, the best of ANY major conference player during that time frame. 6-foot-11 sophomore F Chimezie Metu provides needed size in the middle, and finished this season with 50+ blocks. Junior G Jordan McLaughlin owns a 41.5% three-point shooting %. The Trojans won 11 games when trailing by 10+ points this season, most in the country.
Head coach Andy Enfield famously led No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet 16 in 2013. He gets the most out of talent come this time of the year. USC has talent, and a chip on their shoulder after being the last team into the field of 68.
South Region – No. 12 Middle Tennessee State over No. 5 Minnesota
This is another popular upset pick after Middle Tennessee State, as a No. 15 seed, upset No. 2 Michigan State – who should have been a No. 1 seed after winning last year’s Big Ten conference tournament – in the Round of 64 last year. That was arguably, and I truthfully believe, the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament. I had the Spartans winning it all, that’s how much I loved them.
Minnesota lost senior G Akeem Springs to an Achilles injury during the Big Ten tournament, which is a huge blow. Springs is the glue guy on an efficient-shooting team, and is a great shooter himself. Minnesota was one of the best teams in the country after January (7-0 in February), but they’re over-seeded as a No. 5 seed, and with Middle Tennessee returning several starters from last year’s team that beat Izzo’s title favorite, including senior F Reggie Upshaw and junior G Giddy Potts. The Blue Raiders lineup was also bolstered by Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams, a 6-foot-8 senior F, who led the team in PPG (17.3) and rebounds per game (7.3).
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Several teams, Final Four and National Championship favorites, have some very legitimate concerns.
East Region — No. 1 Villanova (No. 1 overall seed)
Starting with the No. 1 overall team in the field. They’re efficient offensively and defensively, boast this year’s potential National Player of the Year, senior G Josh Hart, and are coming off last year’s championship run, so what’s not to like? First, it’s hard repeating. Only one program in the last 25+ seasons did it, and that was Florida as a No. 3 seed in 2005-06 and, coincidentally, the No. 1 overall seed in 2006-07. Second, the Wildcats play much smaller than the rest of the field. Between Hart, sophomore G Jalen Brunson – who has started every game this season – and senior F Kris Jenkins (6-foot-6), there isn’t much size here, and that may bite them this year after being fortunate last year.
The matchup that jumps off the page as a potential trap game is against No. 8 seed Wisconsin in the Round of 32. First-Team All-Big Ten sophomore F Ethan Happ led the Badgers in points, rebounds, steals and blocks this season, and his 6-10 frame in the middle is exactly what the Wildcats would struggle to matchup with. That, and the Badgers have senior G Nigel Hayes, averaging 13.5 PPG this season, who has experience leading Wisconsin teams deep in the tournament. In 2013-14, the Badgers made the Final Four and lost to Kentucky, in 2014-15 the Badgers fell to Duke in the National Championship Game, and in 2015-16 the Badgers lost to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16.
No. 4 Florida in a potential Sweet 16 game isn’t as tough with the loss of 6-foot-11 junior C John Egbunu to an anterior cruciate ligament tear, but the Gators still defend just as big and just as tough as the Wildcats; they finished 4th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. If Florida can get by East Tennessee State in the Round of 64, and then by the Virginia-UNCW winner in the Round of 32, they can do what few teams in the bracket can make Villanova do… work.
A matchup with No. 2 Duke in the East Regional Final at Madison Square Garden? That goes without saying. 6-foot-10 freshman F Harry Giles is the guy who will give Villanova fits, but freshman G Jayson Tatum, sophomore G Luke Kennard and junior G Grayson Allen in the Kyle Korver role as a sixth man for the Blue Devils off the bench is tough to matchup with. Tatum can get to the rim at will sometimes, Kennard is an efficient three-point shooter – making at least one in 38 consecutive games – and Allen has been controversial this season due to the tripping incidents, but he is a difference maker and spreads the floor against second units.
Midwest Region – No. 1 Kansas
Another No. 1 seed I like, but don’t love. It’s hard to imagine another team with a potential National Player of the Year candidate, senior G Frank Mason III, stud freshman F Josh Jackson – a projected top five pick in this year’s NBA Draft – and a supporting cast that has at least six players averaging 7+ PPG this season, you would think they’re the prohibitive favorites. Head coach Bill Self’s team also went 4-0 against top-five teams in the AP Poll this season, a program record.
One of the Jayhawks’ biggest concerns is that they look to get up and down too much, as opposed to settling, slowing down the game and playing in the half court. NCAA Tournament games slow down more than people realize. Kansas is an interesting combination of players, players who have been on teams that made tournament runs and those who haven’t. I expect Kansas’ games to be high scoring, but high-scoring games are exactly where the Jayhawks get into the most trouble. Three of the Jayhawks’ four losses this season came when two scenarios occurred: a) when they scored 70+ points (26-3 overall) and b) when they played in games decided by five points or less (9-3). Their only loss when they scored less than 70 happened on January 24 at West Virginia; they finished that game with 69.
The program has also had its share of distractions this season. Kansas sophomore F Carlton Bragg Jr., an important 6-foot-10 player in the middle, was arrested in December and charged with misdemeanor battery, and in January was charged with a misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia, according to the Kansas City Star. Jackson was suspended for the first game in the Big 12 Tournament following a traffic citation. The result? Kansas lost to TCU in the quarterfinals, but that may be a blessing in disguise. The Jayhawks were the 3rd AP No. 1 team to lose in its conference tournament in the last 10 seasons. The other two? North Carolina in 2008-09 and Kentucky in 2011-12, who both went on to win the National Championship.
The looming matchups that should concern Kansas are No. 8 Miami in the Round of 32, No. 12 Nevada, No. 5 Iowa State – broken down before – or No. 4 Purdue in the Sweet 16, and No. 7 Michigan or No. 2 Louisville potentially in the Elite Eight. Miami has head coach Jim Larranaga, who famously coached No. 11 seed George Mason on that Cinderella Final Four run in 2006, senior G Davon Reed, who was named to the ACC All-Defensive Team and electric freshman G Bruce Brown, who helped the Hurricanes defeat UNC (30 points), Virginia in overtime, and Duke (25 points) during the regular season. Reed is capable of slowing down Mason III, who is the engine of this Kansas train. Purdue boasts sophomore F Caleb Swanigan, who admittedly is a matchup nightmare for any team. Walton Jr. found his game down the stretch and during Michigan’s four-day conference tournament championship run. Louisville struggled slightly during the season when junior G Quentin Snider went down with a hip injury, but the Cardinals are always dangerous; head coach Rick Pitino is a master tactician this time of the year.
South Region – No. 3 UCLA
I absolutely am head over heels in love with freshman G Lonzo Ball, and he is going to be a slam dunk – no pun intended – player at the next level. His athleticism is freakish, his court vision is unparalleled, and his ability to do multiple things on the offensive end truly makes him one of the elite talents to come out at point guard in a long time. Ball is the only player in the nation to make at least 70% of his two-point FGs and 40% of his three-point FGs, and is now tops in APG. The Bruins have an unprecedented six players who average 10+ PPG, including senior G Bryce Alford and freshman F T.J. Leaf.
UCLA is a trendy Final Four pick because there isn’t any way they can’t score; the Bruins are truthfully one of the most high-powered, efficient scoring groups in quite a few seasons. That said, the Bruins do not play any defense, and they struggle to find shots in the half court once the game slows down. This bracket provides a big test in a potential Round of 32 game against Cincinnati. Further away, a veteran No. 7 seed Dayton also slows the game down, but doesn’t have the talent to hang with the Bruins. No. 10 seed Wichita State – severely under-seeded – and No. 2 Kentucky love to shoot and get up and down, which plays right into what UCLA loves to do. The Shockers and Wildcats also roll eight-deep.
According to Kenpom, Cincinnati was the 11th best team in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, as the Bearcats allowed 60.8 PPG this season, the 5th best mark overall, and held 18 opponents under 60 points this season, 10th best overall. Cincy’s 1.58 assist-to-turnover ratio is 4th in the nation, and their 10 turnovers per game are 10th fewest. The Bearcats only used three different starting lineups this season. Although Cincy doesn’t have a go-to player, sophomore F Jacob Evans III and senior G Kevin Johnson – a transfer from NC State – have provided a formidable duo dictating game tempos. Collectively, this group isn’t explosive, but they don’t beat themselves – their style of play is very comparable to a Big East team. UCLA was the 3rd best team in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, however just 78th on the other end of the floor, according to Kenpom. That potential Round of 32 game is a good test to see how exactly the rest of the tournament will play out. Will star freshmen and run-and-gun teams continue a more offensive trend that started last season, or will the grind of the tournament start to test the flashier offensive teams and expose weaknesses that don’t necessarily reveal themselves during the course of the regular season?
No. 2 Kentucky boasts elite freshman guards Malik Monk (20.4 PPG) and De’Aaron Fox (16.1 PPG), and arguably head coach John Calipari’s most – surprisingly – efficient defensive squad, 8th according to Kenpom, to date. A Sweet 16 matchup would be a rematch of their December 12 game, one the Bruins won 97-92 in a thriller. The Wildcats’ 85.9 PPG are the 5th most in the nation, and the most for any UK team since 1995-96 (91.4, won the National Championship). The final test in this region would be No. 1 seed UNC and their roster of returning stars, including Junior F Justin Jackson, who recorded 16 games of 20+ points this season – most since Tyler Hansbrough in 2008-09, coincidentally the last time UNC won the National Championship – junior G Joel Berry III, junior F Theo Pinson, and senior forwards Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks. The Tar Heels came within one shot of forcing OT in last year’s Championship Game. They’re as deep as UCLA, and are a more defensive-efficient team, 25th according to Kenpom.
UCLA is a prime candidate to do what Duke did two years ago, win a championship with stud freshmen and efficient-shooting veteran guards, but it’s up to what head coach Steve Alford does as the tournament progresses. Can he make adjustments necessary to put his talented young team in position to win, or will slower games reveal the Bruins took advantage of a weak Pac-12 regular-season slate?
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Breaking Down the Supposed “Wild, Wild” West:
Historically on Selection Sunday, the West Region – or whichever region houses the 4th No. 1 seed – is always criticized as the weakest region collectively, and that comes with the territory. This year, many experts expect the West Region to be the region filled with upsets, and that’s simply not the case.
First, as much as Gonzaga has been shaky and never been past the Elite Eight under head coach Mark Few, the Bulldogs have a good draw to the Sweet 16, at the very least. The eight-nine game in this region is Northwestern, making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in program history, and No. 9 Vanderbilt, a 15-loss team. Gonzaga has most of the components necessary to at least make the second weekend – the Bulldogs have size with 7-foot-1 senior C Przemek Karnowski, an efficient junior G Nigel Williams-Goss and tournament experience. They’re second in the nation in FG% (.518) and opponent FG%, (.368), and played a good out-of-conference schedule with wins against Florida, Iowa State and the next team, Arizona.
No. 2 seed Arizona won the Pac-12 conference tournament title, beating UCLA and Oregon in back-to-back games. The Wildcats are fully loaded, led by sophomore G Alonzo Trier, who missed the first 19 games this season due to performance-enhancing drug suspension, and 7-foot freshman F Lauri Markkanen. Since returning, he has led the Wildcats with 17.3 PPG, and was named Most Outstanding Player in the conference tournament. Markkanen is a legitimate borderline top-10 NBA prospect; given a player of his size, he has rare ball-handling ability, NBA three-point range and an inside-outside game that will immediately draw comparisons to Knicks PF Kristaps Porzingis. Head coach Sean Miller isn’t afraid to deploy his big men in different game situations, and their combination of skill and toughness is why they’re consistently among the top teams in the nation entering the tournament. That said, Miller and Few are in the same boat – good coaches who have yet to break through and reach the Final Four. Outside of maybe Duke, Arizona has the easiest road to the Final Four.
Zaga-Zona is a surprisingly fine top two, but the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds in this region both have flaws. High-powered Florida State won many games scoring 100+ points, but their desire to play defense is suspect. Historically, the Seminoles don’t make deep runs, and struggle with teams that can play at both ends of the floor. And as good as Jonathan Isaac is (he’s really freaking good), he’s just another one-and-done NBA prospect who is doomed to have an early exit. West Virginia is the polar opposite. Head coach Bob Huggins’ group utilizes a high octane full-court press, which forces turnovers – WVU leads the nation with 10.8 steals per game, and has forced the most dating back to the 2008-09 season. The problem? Nobody in Morgantown scores. Only two players average double figures in scoring, and neither – no disrespect to junior G Jevon Carter and sophomore F Esa Ahmad – is good enough to lead this team as the best player on a deep tournament run.
This leaves the rest of the region as a mish-mosh. Maryland starts three freshman, although junior G Melo Trimble is a sneaky dark horse to ride to the second weekend. St. Mary’s and VCU are fine tier two mid-major teams, but neither boasts the elite talent necessary to upend Arizona. The best chance of challenging the top two in the West lies with Notre Dame. Head coach Mike Brey has transformed this program into a consistently under-seeded powerhouse that peaks in early-mid March. Junior F Bonzie Colson, who leads the Fighting Irish with 17.5 PPG, is the nation’s 2nd leading rebounder (10.2 RPG) among players 6-foot-5 and shorter. The Irish are the standard bearer for disciplined basketball; their 9.4 turnovers per game are 2nd fewest in the nation. Although the Irish are top heavy, they have four players – Colson, senior F V.J. Beachem, senior G Steve Vasturia and junior G Matt Farrell – who average 13+ PPG. Brey’s teams have reached the Elite Eight in the past two tournaments, the only program to do so. This team benefits from the continuity of last year’s tournament run, which came as a No. 6 seed. Their No. 5 seed this year is slightly more generous, but there’s a real credible path to the Final Four.
Sleepers, Dark Horses, Bold Predictions, and Final Four Picks:
*Deep breath* After 4,000+ words…
East Region Sleeper: No. 8 Wisconsin
East Region Dark Horses: No. 6 SMU, No. 12 UNCW
East Region Bold Prediction: No. 11 USC (First Four winner) advances to the Sweet 16
East Region Final: No. 2 Duke over No. 1 Villanova
Midwest Region Sleeper: No. 7 Michigan (Do they even count?)
Midwest Region Dark Horses: No. 11 Rhode Island, No. 12 Nevada
Midwest Region Bold Prediction: Larranaga outcoaches Self, No. 8 Miami stuns No. 1 Kansas in the Round of 32
Midwest Region Final: No. 2 Louisville over No. 4 Purdue
South Region Sleeper: No. 6 Cincinnati
South Region Dark Horses: No. 10 Wichita State, No. 12 Middle Tennessee State
South Region Bold Prediction: No. 6 Cincy mucks the game, stuns No. 3 UCLA in the Round of 32
South Region Final: No. 1 North Carolina over No. 2 Kentucky
West Region Sleeper: No. 7 St. Mary’s
West Region Dark Horses: No. 9 Vanderbilt, No. 10 VCU
West Region Bold Prediction: Head coach Leonard Hamilton, No. 3 Florida State – a popular upset pick – reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010-11.
West Regional Final: No. 2 Arizona over No. 5 Notre Dame
Final Four Prediction: Duke over Arizona; North Carolina over Louisville
National Championship Game Prediction: North Carolina vs Duke IV; Tar Heels cut down the nets.
Most Outstanding Player Prediction: F Justin Jackson