SI.com's experts have broken down the teams to watch in each region, from the top seeds to the squads most likely to make a Cinderella run.
The field is set for the 2017 NCAA tournament, after Sunday night's selection show revealed the 68 teams that comprise this year's bracket. Defending champion Villanova was named the top overall seed in the tournament, and will play in the East region. The other No. 1 seeds are Kansas in the Midwest region, North Carolina in the South, and Gonzaga in the West.
SI.com's experts have broken down the teams to watch in each region, from the top seeds to the squads most likely to make a Cinderella run. All of those breakdowns can be found below.
Breaking down the West Region of the 2017 NCAA tournament:
State of the No. 1 seed
The Zags rolled through the regular season, piling up non-conference wins against teams like Iowa State, Florida and Arizona (albeit without Alonzo Trier), until Feb. 25, when BYU spoiled senior night in Spokane. GU responded by handily winning the WCC tournament over St. Mary’s. The Zags have been off longer than almost everyone, because the WCC tournament wrapped up last Tuesday; they have talent inside and out, with All-American point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, a Washington transfer, running the show and 7’1”, 300-pound Przemek Karnowski patrolling the paint. Oh, and they bring another 7-footer off the bench in freshman Zach Collins. They’re efficient offensively and smart defensively, and, after blowing their shot at a perfect regular season and hearing the haters, eager to prove they can get Mark Few to his first Final Four. They’ll hear nonstop about that expectation, though, and might fold under that pressure.
Could No. 4 seed West Virginia make a run to the Final Four? Don’t count anything out, though it’ll be tough to get past Notre Dame, Gonzaga and Arizona. It helps to have one of the best defenses in the country. The Mountaineers, with their suffocating full-court press, average 10.4 steals per game, best in the country. They can play at a borderline chaotic pace, which has the ability to send other teams into a frenzy. They’re also battle tested, having come from the Big 12. Remember: Bob Huggins’s guys were this close to sweeping Kansas in the regular season before falling in overtime at KU. Getting to Phoenix would probably help them forget about that loss.
Don’t sleep on Florida Gulf Coast. You probably remember Dunk City from 2013, but the Eagles have become a legit mid-major program, and are making their second consecutive tourney appearance. They have five players who average nine points or more, led by Brandon Goodwin (18.2 ppg, 51.6% from the field). They’ll need everyone to score to knock off the No. 3 seed Seminoles, who play in the nation’s toughest conference (the ACC got nine teams in) and are tournament ready.
Player to watch
Prezmek Karnowski, Gonzaga. Karnowski is the player almost no team has: A 7’1”, 300-pounder who runs the floor well, is a great defender and a terrific passer. He’s the best passing big man in college basketball, a fact, which comes in handy when the Zags put both him and fellow 7-footer Zach Collins on the block. It’s tough to simulate his size in practice and good luck getting around him in the paint. Karnowski only averages 12.6 points and six rebounds per game, but that’s partially because Gonzaga has blown out its share of opponents.
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona. If it weren’t for UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Markkanen (15.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg) would have been the Pac-12 freshman of the year. The Finnish 7-footer kept Arizona afloat while Trier was suspended, and he can stroke it from three (42.3% on 155 attempts).
You’re going to hear a lot about
Northwestern. The No. 8 seed Wildcats are making their first NCAA tournament in school history, and it’s been a long time coming (78 years, to be exact). Northwestern made it dramatic at the end of the regular season, dropping three of four games during a stretch in mid-February before beating Michigan at the buzzer in a game that sealed its trip to the Big Dance. The Wildcats the feel good-story of March—but how long can they last?
In a rematch of one of the early season premiere games, expect Gonzaga and Arizona to meet for a trip to the Final Four. Neither coach has ever been, though Arizona’s Sean Miller has gone to three Elite Eights in the last seven years (he lost twice to Wisconsin in the Frank Kaminsky era). When Gonzaga won 69-62 in December, the Wildcats were without All-Pac-12 guard Alonzo Trier. He’s back now, and the Wildcats are hot after winning the Pac-12 tournament against banged-up Oregon.
Breaking down the Midwest Region of the 2017 NCAA tournament:
State of the No. 1 seed
Kansas was in the running, if not the favorite, for the No. 1 overall seed before a quarterfinal faceplant against TCU in the Big 12 tournament. It was the first time the program had not made the semifinals of the league tournament since 2009. Yes, yes, freshman stud Josh Jackson was suspended for that game. But that in a way neatly encapsulated a season of big successes mixed with multiple disciplinary issues. The Jayhawks are 9–1 in games decided by three points or less—and that only loss was the 85–82 defeat by TCU. They remain a decent bet for the Final Four because they field two veteran guards (Frank Mason, a national player of the year candidate, and Devonte Graham) and a star one-and-done talent in Jackson. But, as ever, we wonder about their vulnerability in the field of 68. The Jayhawks began Selection Sunday with the nation’s ninth-most efficient offense but the 30th-most efficient defense, per kenpom.com. That second number is a little troubling; in the last four seasons, Kansas finished fifth, 22nd, 10th and third in defensive efficiency. A slip-up on that end could precipitate another March disappointment.
Upset watch: Rhode Island over Creighton
The streaking Atlantic-10 tournament champions might not have been in the field without winning that event. Creighton and possibly Oregon might have wished they hadn’t. The Rams have the 32nd most efficient defense in the country and defend the three-point line incredibly well: Danny Hurley’s crew ranked second in the country by allowing opponents to shoot just 29% from long range during the season. That’s a difficult matchup for a Creighton team boosted significantly by its 40% shooting from distance this season. And without Chris Boucher (torn ACL) in the middle, Oregon may be a much more perimeter-oriented offensive attack. Having faced Cincinnati and Duke already this season, Rhode Island won’t be overwhelmed by the moment or the opponents in its way. And that may propel it into round of 32, or beyond.
Toughest draw: Purdue
It’s not easy or very rewarding to be the Big Ten regular season champion, it seems. The Boilermakers could muster only a No. 4 seed, and while they get the geographically favorable positioning in Milwaukee, that about ends the list of favorableness. First comes Vermont, the America East champion which as of Sunday right ranks ahead of teams like Iowa and Illinois in the kenpom.com overall ratings. Should Purdue subdue the Catamounts and seeds hold elsewhere, next up is Iowa State, which won the Big 12 tournament and has lost just once since Feb. 7. And beyond that is a possible Sweet 16 showdown with Kansas, which some oddsmakers have installed as the favorite to win the national championship. Given the selection committee’s appraisal of the league, it’s a bad year to be the best team in the Big Ten.
Player to Watch: Michigan’s Derrick Walton, Jr.
Is the 6’1” senior guard on track to be one of the most impactful performers in March? Put it this way: Before Jan. 21, Walton, Jr. had scored 20 points in a game just four times. He had 20-plus in five straight games after that and then hit for 29 and 22 in the Big Ten tournament semifinals and final. He’s averaged 18.7 points over his last 15 games. He’s also played fewer than 36 minutes in a game only twice since late January. The Wolverines and their floor leader come into the field of 68 as sizzling as any squad. The question is how much they have left after winning four games in four days in Washington, D.C. If there is plenty remaining in the tank, then they have more than enough offensive firepower to keep pace with Oklahoma State and severely challenge Louisville’s defense.
Most intriguing matchup: Marcus Marshall vs. Monte Morris
And not just because we are huge fans of alliteration. The Iowa State-Nevada first round matchup will feature a high-level showdown of lead guards who are productive and play mostly error free. The 6’3” Marshall is the Wolf Pack’s leading scorer (19.8 points per game), ranks second on the team in assists (3.6 per game) and has committed just 55 turnovers in 1,200 minutes of playing time. The 6’3” Morris, meanwhile, leads the Cyclones in scoring (16.8) and assists (6.1) and has committed a mere 35 turnovers in 1,167 minutes. It’s doubtful that either will be harassed into an error-filled effort. But if either guard has a generally inefficient night, that could portend an early exit from the bracket.
Coach who needs it the most: Michigan State’s Tom Izzo
Easy, easy, this isn’t hot-seat talk or anything remotely close to it. But for the sake of Izzo’s sanity, as well as the momentum of his program moving forward, a Sweet 16 run would be a boon. You might recall the Spartans suffering one of the biggest NCAA tournament upsets of all time a year ago, losing to 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee in the first round. Consecutive opening-game defeats would be a tough pill to swallow. Beat Miami and a Kansas team that looks maybe a teensy bit vulnerable, though, and suddenly we’re all once again talking about Izzo’s March magic.
Player with the most to prove: Oregon’s Dillon Brooks
Due to his own injuries, the season has not gone as smoothly as planned for the 6’7” junior forward. Due to the injury to Boucher, the NCAA tournament may not go as smoothly as planned for his team. But now we’ll see how capable Brooks is of carrying a team. He’s done it before, and he’s averaged 20.5 points per game since Feb. 2. He appears to be performing at the All-America level everyone anticipated. He will have to maintain that level, or maybe ramp it up a notch, if the Ducks are to make a Final Four run.
Region finalists: Kansas and Oregon
State of the No. 1 seed
At least internally, Villanova should be feeling pretty good about itself. The Wildcats enter the tournament playing elite basketball, having just about barnstormed through the Big East yet again. Josh Hart is having his expected All-America season (18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game), Kris Jenkins is still a confident bomber (37.2% from three), and Jalen Brunson has emerged as a steady, difference-making point guard in his sophomore season (14.8 points, 4.5 assists per game, and 39.6% from three). No reigning champion has entered the NCAA tournament looking like such a threat to repeat since Florida in 2007, which pulled off the feat (and was also the No. 1 seed overall). That’s good, because considering the road ahead, the Wildcats will need every cylinder firing fully.
Upset watch: UNC Wilmington vs. Virginia
Eyes always beeline to the 5-12 game when eyeing potential upsets, and in the East that attention is warranted. Yes, Virginia enters the tournament with the nation’s most efficient defense and a top-10 overall ranking on Kenpom. But the Cavaliers can struggle offensively, and as Notre Dame showed in the ACC quarterfinals, a team that moves the ball well can find gaps in this iteration of the Pack Line. In UNC Wilmington, the Hoos have drawn a stylistically opposed opponent: the Seahawks push tempo where Virginia plods, and their defense often relies on full-court pressure. If Kevin Keatts’s squad can control the game’s flow and force turnovers to score before Virginia’s defense is fully set, the East may deliver the 5-12 not-quite-shocker we’ve all come to expect.
Toughest draw: Villanova
This is all relative, but considering Villanova was the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, the committee sure set it up for a particularly hard path to Phoenix. Should the Wildcats get past either New Orleans or Mount St. Mary’s, they could then face a Wisconsin team ranked 23rd in overall efficiency on Kenpom, with an All-America caliber big man in Ethan Happ who could team with Nigel Hayes to give Villanova headaches inside. Awaiting the next weekend could be the region’s No. 4 seed, Florida, which ranks ninth nationally in the same efficiency metrics and boasts the country’s fourth-stingiest per-possession defense. And in the Elite Eight, the Wildcats would likely draw either Baylor, whose rugged frontline would present obvious matchup problems, or a loaded and hot Duke team that many thought may have played its way to a No. 1 seed of its own after beating Louisville (an eventual No. 2 seed), North Carolina (a No. 1), and Notre Dame (a No. 5) in consecutive days to win the ACC tournament. Villanova has coolly cruised through much of its post-championship season, but every step through the East will be arduous.
Player to watch: Johnathan Motley, Baylor
The Bears’ surprise rise to the top of the polls in January was made possible by the transformation of 6’ 10” junior forward Johnathan Motley from quality supporting player to capable leading man. Motley is a long, skilled big with the nation’s 23rd-best offensive rebounding rate who narrowly missed averaging a double-double (17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds per game) while playing in what many believe to be the best conference in the country. If Baylor is again to make a somewhat unexpected ascension from a region where much of the talk will center on Villanova and Duke, Motley will be a major reason why.
Most intriguing matchup: SMU vs. Baylor
We’re getting ahead of ourselves (but not too far ahead of ourselves; that’s for a few spots later), but should the Bears and Mustangs meet in the second round, it could be as rugged and bruising a battle as the mascots’ names suggest. The Lone Star State’s two best teams both play at a deliberate pace and dominate the offensive glass, but SMU does a better job rebounding defensively and is a much more dangerous team from outside, shooting a collective 40.6% from three, and play a position-less style (every starter is between 6’ 6” and 6’ 8”) that can flummox opponents. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Motley go against Semi Ojeleye?
Wild card: Virginia
At the risk of redundancy, the Cavaliers are a very difficult team to pin down. Their defense is stifling and frustrating and full of wrinkles and discipline that can give team fits, but when it slacks at all or their offense sputters, they can be extremely vulnerable. As understandable as it would be to see Virginia fall in its opener, one can also imagine Tony Bennett’s team smothering UNC-Wilmington into a halfcourt slog and then miring Florida in the same. And since this is a team that beat Louisville twice and just two weeks ago held North Carolina to its worst per-possession offensive performance of the season, Villanova would not be safe in that scenario either. If the Cavaliers survive the first round, they could stick around for a while.
Getting ahead of ourselves...
Bracket pool motivations aside, no one much likes rooting for chalk. But if the seeds hold in the East, we could get an absolute treat of a regional final between Villanova and Duke. Last season’s champion and this season’s preseason No. 1, meeting at Madison Square Garden with a trip to the Final Four on the line, just as both teams seem to be peaking into top form? Sign us up.
And the winner is...
Villanova. Again, this region sets up as a minefield. Should the Wildcats even make it to the Elite Eight, they may have to face an absolutely stacked Duke squad that is finally healthy and approaching its versatile, virtually limitless potential. But Jay Wright’s team will not be daunted. Last year it dispatched No. 1 overall seed Kansas in the South Region final, after being dogged by pre-tourney speculation whether, after a series of early exits, it would even be playing on the second weekend. The Wildcats have been there before and know how to do it. And they’ll do it again.
The South Region is clearly the sexiest of the four regions, as all three blue bloods in the region, No. 1 North Carolina, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 UCLA, are among the most decorated teams in college basketball history. Two of the most entertaining games of this college basketball season involved those three teams—UCLA’s 97–92 win at Kentucky and Kentucky’s 103–100 victory over North Carolina.
Memphis hosts the South Regional final, and that city has always been one of the country’s most dedicated college basketball strongholds. How delicious would having the Tar Heels, Wildcats and Bruins along with four-seed Butler be for a weekend of entertaining basketball?
State of the No. 1 seed
North Carolina fell to Duke in the ACC semifinals, 93–83. That loss doesn’t sound any significant alarm bells for the Tar Heels. UNC is deep, experienced and hungry after being on the brink of the national title last season. It has a top five offense and top 25 defense, according to kenpom.com. The Tar Heels are the hardest team to pick against in this bracket.
Toughest draw: No. 2 Kentucky
Talking to Sean Miller the other day, he mentioned off the cuff that the two teams he’d be petrified to see in the NCAA tournament are Dayton and Wichita State because of their experience. He saw the Shockers last year, and it didn’t go well for Arizona. He follows Dayton closely because his brother Archie coaches the Flyers.
John Calipari can’t like seeing those two tournament-seasoned mid-majors sitting across from him in the second round. This is No. 7 Dayton’s fourth NCAA tournament in a row and No. 10 Wichita’s sixth straight. It will be a rock fight for Kentucky to get out of Indianapolis.
Upset watch: No. 12 Middle Tennessee State over No. 5 Minnesota
Don’t expect a huge point spread in this game, as Middle Tennessee is one of the country’s best mid-major teams. The Blue Raiders added Arkansas transfer JaCorey Williams (17.3 points per game) to an already loaded team that includes star junior Giddy Potts (15.8 ppg) and senior Reggie Upshaw (14.5 ppg). Those veterans led Middle Tennessee to a stunning upset over No. 2 Michigan State last year. There’s no doubt that this team is better, which gives the Blue Raiders all the ingredients to pull another NCAA tournament upset.
Minnesota’s lack of NCAA tournament experience and coach Richard Pitino’s first trip to the dance make this matchup the region’s most compelling game. It would be hard to consider it a huge upset if Middle Tennessee wins.
Under the radar player: Winthrop point guard Keon Johnson
Johnson is the Big South Player of the Year and has the quintessential trappings of a player who could emerge as a March darling. He’s just 5’7” and 160 pounds, which makes him endearing. And he’s averaging 22.5 points per game and shooting 40% from 3-point range. Be wary, Butler. He’s got the profile of a player who could go off for a 40-point game.
NBA prospect to watch: Wake Forest forward John Collins
Obviously Kentucky’s freshman class could be here. So could UCLA’s two star freshmen and half of North Carolina’s roster. But perhaps no player has made a bigger leap in the eyes of the NBA this season than the Demon Deacons’ Collins. The 6’10”, 235-pound sophomore has gone from 7.3 points per game to 18.9, and his rebounding has jumped from 3.9 per game to 9.8. Collins is not the kind of player No. 6 Cincinnati will be thrilled to see in its first round game. (That’s provided Wake Forest gets through Kansas State in the play-in game).
Star power: The coaches
There’s plenty of elite players in this region, as Kentucky’s Malik Monk, UNC’s Justin Jackson and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball are all among the brightest stars in the game. But consider the talent on the sideline for a minute. UNC’s Roy Williams and Kentucky’s John Calipari are Hall of Famers. Then there’s an intriguing crew that could end up being prominent faces for the next generation: Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Dayton’s Archie Miller, Butler’s Chris Holtmann, Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin and Minnesota’s Richard Pitino. Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey and Middle Tennessee’s Kermit Davis are both speculated as candidates for bigger jobs. That’s some serious sideline juice.
One-man show: UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball
Ball has emerged as perhaps the country’s most captivating player this year. He’s resuscitated the UCLA program with his selflessness (7.7 assists per game), shooting (14.6 points per game) and limitless 3-point range. (His overbearing father has also made the Bruins a talk radio topic du jour, as he’s compared his son favorably to Steph Curry and spoken openly that he wants him to play for the Lakers). This will be Ball’s only NCAA tournament appearance before he settles into a top three draft slot. Catch him while you can.
Regional final prediction: No. 1 North Carolina over No. 3 UCLA
The Tar Heels are the best team in the field, and there’s too much youth and too many potential pratfalls to see Kentucky getting out of this region. Look for Carolina blue to be the right hue from the blue blood region.