The best thing I can say about the first two days of this NCAA tournament is that they've left us with an excellent second round. The first round was heavy on chalk—the top-four seeds went 16–0 for the first time since 2007—and light on drama, with Northwestern's first-ever tourney victory (on an epic gaffe by Vanderbilt) and USC's buzzer-beater against SMU going down as the two most memorable moments. While Rob Lowe seemed sufficiently entertained …
… the best of this bracket is still ahead of us. The Round of 32 is ripe with opportunities for this tournament to ramp up the drama, and these are the four games with the greatest chance of elevating the opening weekend:
Entertainment via Mis-seeding: No. 2 Kentucky vs. No. 10 Wichita State, Sunday at 2:40 p.m. ET, Indianapolis
The last NCAA tournament meeting of the Wildcats and Shockers—a 1-vs.-8, second-rounder in which the top-seeded Shockers' undefeated season came to an end, in 2014 in St. Louis—was the greatest first-weekend game I've ever covered. SI named it the 2014 Game of the Year in any sport, and for the retrospective piece I wrote on it that December—"Perfect Mistake"—Kentucky coach John Calipari told me, "It was the most mis-seeded game I've ever coached in. [The Shockers] did not deserve to have to play us then. They had too good of a season." Indeed, the Shockers' reward for starting 2013–14 with a 34–0 record was to get placed in a loaded Midwest Region, with a second-round matchup against a crew of soon-to-be NBA players.
While the 2017 situation isn't a mirror image of 2014, this time Wichita State is an under-seeded No. 10 that Kentucky doesn't deserve to face in the round of 32. The Shockers are ranked sixth—nationally—in adjusted efficiency while the Wildcats are ranked fourth, and the Shockers haven't lost since Jan. 14. Gregg Marshall's team will not be looking for revenge against Kentucky, but rather just to be on the victorious side of yet another crime against sensible seeding.
Entertainment via Mis-seeding, Part II: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 8 Wisconsin, Saturday at 2:40 p.m. ET, Buffalo, N.Y.
In my Bracket Math column prior to the tournament, I used a composite metric that combined six ranking systems (Kenpom, BPI, Sagarin, Massey, Matchup Zone and Dolphin) and then SI's preseason projections which serve as a talent-and-coaching balance to in-season noise. After running that metric through an updated bracket, these are the win odds for the four No. 1 seeds in the second round:
EAST: Villanova (67.8%) vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
WEST: Gonzaga (83.4%) vs. No. 8 Northwestern
SOUTH: North Carolina (81.1%) vs. No. 8 Arkansas
MIDWEST: Kansas (76.2%) vs. No. 9 Michigan State
This reinforces the fact that Villanova received a far-too-tough draw for a team that's the tourney's No. 1 overall seed. The Wildcats have 15.6% lower win odds than the last No. 1 seed, Gonzaga, does in its second-round game. Wisconsin was under-seeded by 1 or 2 lines in the bracket, and the Badgers' heavy focus on the post—they end 24.1% of their possessions on post-ups or passes out of the post, the fifth-highest rate in the nation—is not an ideal matchup for the undersized Wildcats. I still have a hard time imagining a Josh Hart-Jalen Brunson-and-Kris Jenkins-led team going out in the first weekend, so I'm not inclined to pick the upset, but I do expect the final margin to stay within 2–3 possessions.
A Test of the West Coast Conference's Analytic Powers: No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 7 Saint Mary's, Saturday at 7:45 p.m. ET, Salt Lake City
One of the most intriguing subplots of this tournament—intriguing to me, at least—is Las Vegas's skepticism of analytic models' love of the two teams from the WCC, Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. Kenpom.com assigned the Zags by far the highest national-title odds, at 20.5%, with the next-closest contender being Villanova, at 10.0%; meanwhile, most Vegas futures odds pegged the Zags as the fifth-most likely title team, at best. And in this 2-vs.-7 matchup of Arizona and Saint Mary's, kenpom projects the Gaels as a one-point favorite, while every Vegas book has them as a five-point underdog. Will one side be vindicated on Saturday?
Odds-vs.-analytics angle aside, this is a great basketball matchup—a meeting of the college game's two best, foreign big men (Aussie Jock Landale, for Saint Mary's, and Finland's Lauri Markkanen, for Arizona), and a summit of the ballscreen kings of the West Coast. Per Synergy Sports Technology, of the 32 remaining teams in this tournament, the top two in percentage of possessions finished on ballscreens (including passes) are …
1. Saint Mary's, at 33.4% (efficiency: 0.988 PPP)
2. Arizona, at 32.0% (efficiency, 0.992 PPP)
While UCLA achieved its breakthrough by moving away from the ball screen, one of these two West Coast powers is going to reach the second weekend due to its rolling-and-popping prowess.
Last Chance for The 12-or-Lower Club: No. 4 Butler vs. No. 12 Middle Tennessee, Saturday at 7:10 p.m. ET, Milwaukee
Middle Tennessee knocking out No. 5 seed Minnesota on Thursday was not a shock—the Blue Raiders were favored by Vegas—and while they're actually a four-point underdog this time, they still might be the better team. Middle put up 1.21 points per possession on a legit Minnesota defense, and that was with marksman Giddy Potts only playing 23 minutes (and scoring an efficient 15 points) due to foul trouble. If Giddy can stay on the floor for 30 minutes, their lead trio of him and forwards Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams are capable of outscoring a Butler offense that looked stagnant against Winthrop. The Blue Raiders are one of the stronger 12-seeds we've seen this decade, and in a historically upset-light tournament—with zero 13-or-lower seeds in the second round for the first time in a decade—they're the last hope for the Cinderellas.