In the end, there wasn’t a whole lot of mystery. The No. 1 seed candidates had whittled to six or seven. The bubble had all but evaporated. When the 2017 NCAA tournament bracket was revealed on Sunday night, the only suspense was in the details—who was going where, to play against whom.
Now you’ve got a bracket to fill out. While there are countless so-called experts lining up to give you their advice, you know deep down that they are just guessing, just like you. So keep that in mind as I take you on this spin through the bracket, region-by-region. I’ll offer some thoughts on what the committee did, but mostly, I want to look ahead. I am nothing if not forward thinking. If you want to see my bracket picks, they’ll be posted Wednesday on SI.com. Be forewarned: I love swinging for the fences. If you want to play it safe, this is not the bracket for you. No blaming!
• Let’s just take a moment to reflect on the amazing job Jay Wright has done at Villanova the last couple of years. It wasn’t too long ago—actually, it was three years ago—that people were wondering whether Wright knew how to win in March. Now, after losing two starters from last season’s champs, he has his Wildcats back as the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s a huge problem Nova doesn’t have a big man like Daniel Ochefu. There are no quality big men in college basketball anymore. And in case you haven’t noticed, Jalen Brunson is a better point guard now than Ryan Arcidiacono was at the end of last season.
• Along those lines, I think Nova got a pretty favorable draw in the top half of this region. The Wildcats are one of the few teams in this tournament that are comfortable winning games by scores of 85–80 or 55–50. They will potentially have to do it the low-scoring way in back-to-back games against Wisconsin and Virginia, two teams that know how to grind the tempo. Those teams are used to having a toughness advantage, physical and mental, but no team gets that edge over Villanova. So I see a pretty easy ride into the Elite Eight.
• If you’re hunting for first-round upsets, there are a couple of really good possibilities in UNC Wilmington-Virginia and Florida-East Tennessee State. UNC Wilmington played Duke tough in the first round last year before losing, and it features a starting lineup that includes three seniors plus sophomore guard C.J. Bryce, the team’s leading scorer at 17.6 points per game. Given Virginia’s offensive woes, that could be a tough matchup. I didn’t pull the trigger on that one, but I did pick the Buccaneers to upset Florida. The Gators are a little over-seeded after having lost their best interior defender, John Egbunu, to a season-ending ACL. Mid-major teams are often lacking for size, but the Bucs have a strong inside presence in Hanner Mosquera-Perea, who transferred from Indiana after wearing out his welcome there. ETSU is the seventh-most experienced team in the country. That counts for a lot this time of year.
• If you want to shoot the moon and try for a Final Four longshot, SMU is your team. I think the Mustangs match up great with Baylor in a potential second-round game. Baylor started hot but has been stumbling down the stretch, and the Bears won’t have their usual physical advantage in that one.
• South Carolina was another one of those seemingly quality teams that really stumbled down the stretch. The Gamecocks just have to work too hard to score, especially in the frontcourt. Marquette, on the other hand, got better as the season went on, including a home win over Villanova. The Golden Eagles are the best three-point shooting team in the Big East, and they have a legit center in Luke Fischer. Good little 10–7 upset pick here.
• As you probably know, I was quite surprised Duke did not get a No. 1 seed. The Blue Devils had the best wins of any team in the field, and they also beat North Carolina twice. If nothing else, that should have put Duke ahead of the Tar Heels on the overall seed list, but apparently those eight losses (including a really bad one at home to NC State) were a bridge too far for this committee. Still, the Blue Devils served some serious notice at the ACC tournament in Brooklyn that they are ready to win a national championship.
• And so we will all root for what we deserve—an epic meeting between the last two NCAA champions in the World’s Most Famous Arena with a trip to the Final Four on the line. I think Duke is one of the few teams that can match up with—indeed, can overmatch—Villanova’s outstanding perimeter. Duke can get a little too reliant on three-point shots, and Grayson Allen is still battling injury and inconsistency. But Duke has been getting terrific contributions from freshmen Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson. Its seven-man rotation is set. And I believe this team has been steeled by all the tumult and adversity it has encountered this season. If this is the regional final, I believe Duke will win, but most of all, I really, really want to see this game.
• That Notre Dame-Princeton game is interesting. Princeton went undefeated in the Ivy this season and then won the conference tournament. The Tigers have two seniors, one junior and no freshmen in their starting lineup. They’re an efficient offensive team that rarely shoots free throws, almost never turns it over, and plays a very slow tempo. In other words, they’re a walk-it-up version of Notre Dame. I think the Irish have too much speed and offensive firepower, and they’ll benefit from the extra scouting time when it comes to guarding Princeton’s offense. So it’s a stylistically fun matchup, but I’m not feeling an upset here.
• I've got Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16. Remember, the Eagles darn near won at Michigan State in the third game of the season, and they also gave Baylor a tough fight in Waco before losing by nine. One of the reasons I picked FGCU to go this far is because I think that second-round matchup will be favorable. Xavier really struggled down the stretch after losing it starting point guard, Edmond Sumner, to an injury. In fact, if the Musketeers had not squeaked by Butler in the Big East tournament, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have even made the field. Maryland likewise lost six of 10 down the stretch, not because of injuries but because the Terps feature a starting lineup that includes three freshmen, and they appeared to hit the proverbial wall in early February. Maryland, of course, has an exquisite point guard in Melo Trimble, but it can’t be a one-man team if it is going to make it to the second weekend.
• For the record, I’m not a big West Virginia guy. The Mountaineers have a lethal fullcourt press, but if they go up against a team that can take care of the ball, then they have to score and defend in the halfcourt, where they are not quite as effective. Bucknell is not great in that department (200th in the country in turnover percentage), and I figure the Bison will be overwhelmed athletically in this game. But if West Virginia gets Notre Dame in the second round, I think the Irish will have a big advantage.
• For a team that only lost four games (two without its best player), earned a share of its conference regular season championship and then won the league tournament, Arizona is kinda sorta hard to figure. The Wildcats tend to go through poor shooting spells (Lauri Markkanen went through an especially bad slump the last three weeks of the regular season), and their point guard play can be suspect at times. I didn’t like the way they got embarrassed by 27 points at Oregon, or the way UCLA beasted them on the glass in McKale. The thing I love most about this team is its three-headed monster in the frontcourt. And keep in mind that besides those top three teams, the Pac-12 was really weak this season. All that said, I can see why the Wildcats are the hot pick to make it to the Final Four out of this region. Unlike Gonzaga, which will probably face either West Virginia or Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen, I don’t see a whole lot of resistance to Arizona in this part of the bracket. And we all know Sean Miller is due.
• As for Gonzaga, I kind of feel like Lucy is holding the football for me again, but I’m willing to take another kick. I don’t think this is Mark Few’s most talented team, but it certainly is his most balanced. Gonzaga is the only team in the tournament that checks every box. That includes having a big, strong, classic back-to-the-basket center in 7’1” 300-pound senior Przemek Karnowski. I’m not saying he’s the second coming of Shaq, but who else has a player like that? Karnowski is so good that the team’s best pro prospect, 7’0” freshman center Zach Collins, comes off the bench. Throw in the upperclass leadership of Nigel Williams-Goss at the point (another pro prospect) and the Zags have all the makings of a Final Four squad. No, I don’t like that they have had so many easy wins in the West Coast Conference, but I’ve watched this team all season long, and I believe this program is ready to make its long-awaited breakthrough.
• I want to start this one in the bottom half of the bracket, where we have a terrific first-round matchup in Michigan-Oklahoma State. If you like offensive basketball—and I know you do—then this is the game for you. Oklahoma State is first in the country in offensive efficiency. Michigan is fifth. The difference is Oklahoma State likes to play fast (64th nationally in tempo) while the Wolverines tend to slow things down (339th). Oklahoma State has a phenomenal under-the-radar player in sophomore point guard Juwan Evans, who leads the Big 12 assists (6.2) and is second in points (19.). I actually think Michigan will be happy to run in this one, and I also think the Wolverines have benefited from a tightened defense over the last month as well as a striking improvement of senior point guard Derrick Walton. So I’ll go with Michigan, but from a competitive and aesthetic standpoint, this is my favorite first-round game.
• I also thought long and hard about picking Michigan to beat Louisville in round two, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. We all know Rick Pitino is a great coach, but I think a lot of people don’t realize what a smart tactician he is. Plus, Pitino can deploy a pair of dynamic guards himself in Quentin Snyder and Donovan Mitchell. Finally, Louisville is the best defensive team in the country, and their forwards are more capable than most of guarding ball screens behind the three-point line.
• Moving up the bracket, I love Rhode Island to beat Creighton. The Bluejays are another team that limped to the finish line following the loss of their starting point guard, Maurice Watson, to an ACL injury. The Rams, meanwhile, closed strong, getting healthier down the stretch and winning the Atlantic 10 conference tournament in convincing fashion. Remember, Rhode Island began the season in the top 25 and fell out after a few early losses to good teams. Part of the Rams’ struggles early on was due to the play of 6’5” junior guard E.C. Matthews, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury. Matthews was just returning to form when the team’s best inside scorer and rebounder, Hassan Martin, got hurt and missed five games. So Creighton is a soft No. 6 seed and Rhode Island is an underrated No. 11. That’s a formula for an upset-in-name-only if ever there was one.
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• I will admit that I got a little excited during the Selection Show in picking Nevada and Rhode Island to make the Sweet Sixteen. Yes, Oregon lost Chris Boucher, its terrific shot blocker and rebounder, but Boucher had been relegated to reserve status because of the strong overall play of Jordan Bell. And in Dillon Brooks, the Ducks have the type of player who can take over a game with his scoring. Both Iowa State and Purdue had solid seasons, with Iowa State capturing the Big 12 conference championship (although the Cyclones didn’t have to play Kansas because TCU knocked out the Jayhawks when they were playing without stud frosh Josh Jackson). Don’t get me wrong, I think Nevada is a terrific team which won both the Mountain West regular season and conference tournament, but the main reason to pick them to go that far is because, well, March happens.
• Until Duke got hot and healthy the last two weeks, I was sure I was going to pick Kansas to win the national championship. The Jayhawks played a lot of close games this season. You can read that one of two ways. Either they too often play to the level of competition and are therefore due to get clipped, or they have a steely will that refuses to lose. I’ll go with the latter. It’s not often we can say the national player of the year is the second-best player on his own team, but that is the case now with Frank Mason and Josh Jackson. Oh, and please stop saying that the Jayhawks have no big men. Very few teams have big men, and KU does have a serviceable one in Landen Lucas and a capable reserve in sophomore Carlton Bragg. Meanwhile, their four-guard lineup is well-tailored to today’s game. Throw in the fact that the regional is being played in Kansas City, and it is very, very difficult to pick anyone else from this region to go to the Final Four. So I didn’t.
• I see nothing but smooth sailing for North Carolina to get to the regional final. This is not a team you want to pick to be upset. Butler is the weakest of the four seeds, and neither Arkansas nor Seton Hall strikes me as capable of keeping up with the Heels. North Carolina has two dynamic players in point guard Joel Berry and junior swingman Justin Jackson, but what really sets this team apart is its frontcourt depth. If Berry didn’t get into foul trouble in the second half of the ACC semifinal against Duke (his fourth foul was a phantom call if ever there was one), then the Heels might have won that game by double digits. I’ve got them losing in the regional final to UCLA, but if you want to pick them to go to Phoenix and win the whole thing, I’m not going to try to talk you out of it.
• I’ve been touting Middle Tennessee all season, and I’m not going to stop now. Minnesota has had a terrific season, but I believe the Golden Gophers are way over-seeded as a No. 5, and they lost their lone senior, 6’4” guard Akeem Springs, to an Achilles injury during the Big Ten tournament. Butler, meanwhile, has also had a terrific season, but the Bulldogs strike me as one of those high-floor, low-ceiling teams that tend to get clipped in the NCAA tournament by a hot-shooting midmajor. Middle Tennessee returned its core nucleus from the squad that shocked Michigan State in the first round last year, and they added 6’8” senior forward JaCorey Williams, a transfer from Arkansas who leads the team in scoring. They are ready to do some damage and get to the Sweet Sixteen.
• Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin is ticked off about his team’s No. 6 seed, but the Bearcats are going to have their hands full with either Kansas State or Wake Forest in the first round. That said, the difference between this Cincinnati team and past editions is that it is capable of putting up a ton of points while still maintaining its gritty, defense-oriented culture. Unfortunately, not only did the Bearcats get a surprisingly low seed, they also got put into the toughest region and quadrant in the entire bracket. Surely you don’t think the committee was looking to extract a little revenge on Cronin for his snarky comments a week ago?
• Are the basketball gods really going to deliver us a Kentucky-UCLA rematch in the Sweet Sixteen? The Bruins’ 97–92 win in Rupp Arena on Dec. 3 was the statement game of the season. As you can tell by the final score, it was also highly entertaining. Both teams have improved in all the right ways since then. The Wildcats are getting more production from their seniors, and the Bruins have tightened things up on the defensive end. My analysis of UCLA always goes back to its home game against Oregon on Feb. 9, when the Bruins fell behind by 19 points late in the first half. That was the moment they were staring into the abyss, and they responded the way champions should. Steve Alford junked his zone defense, his players played man-to-man with superb intensity, and they managed to come back and win by three. They also won at Arizona two weeks later in Tucson, where the Wildcats had won 69 of their previous 70 games. So that shows me that as good as this team is on offense, it has the ability to reach the top shelf with its defense and competitive will. So UCLA is my pick to come out of this region and make the Final Four. In a season where scoring has been at a premium, you could do a lot worse than betting on UCLA’s hot hands.