NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: South Region

In my fourth and final First Round Preview article for this year’s NCAA Tournament, I’ll now take a look at the South Region, featuring a gauntlet of historic men’s college basketball programs.

The 1-seed in the South is the ACC regular season champion North Carolina Tar Heels, who some believe did not deserve a 1-seed over teams like Duke and Arizona, but here they are. If they can reach the Elite Eight, they could have a really difficult opponent, either 2-seed Kentucky, the SEC regular season and tournament champs, or 3-seed UCLA, who failed to win either Pac-12 titles, but were ranked as high as 3rd in the nation down the stretch.

The popular opinion is that the South Region is the most difficult in this year’s bracket, so the team that gets out of Memphis will have certainly earned their trip to the Final Four. Here is my preview of the First Round in the South Region!

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of KenPom and ESPN*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

South Region

Greenville, SC
#1 North Carolina (27-7) vs #16 Texas Southern (23-11)
Friday 3/17, approx. 4:00 pm TNT

Overview: Despite seven losses, which ties the most losses ever for a 1-seed, North Carolina has an extremely impressive resume. They dominated Wisconsin and Oklahoma State in non-conference play, and then picked up wins over Florida State, Virginia, Louisville, Duke and Notre Dame in ACC play. For those keeping track at home, those are the teams who finished 2nd through 6th in the league, behind the Tar Heels. Texas Southern, under former Indiana and UAB coach Mike Davis, has been known to play a brutal out-of-conference schedule, earning money for the athletic department, and preparing the team for the postseason. Since conference play started, the Tigers are 19-2. UNC struggled against 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast last year, and Texas Southern will not be intimidated.

Key Players: Marcus Paige led this Tar Heel team on their run to the National Championship game last year, and junior guard Joel Berry has nicely taken over that role for this year’s team. Berry is averaging 14.8 points, 3.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Fellow junior Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) is another very important player for UNC. The Tigers have one of the shortest players in the Tournament in 5-7 freshman Demontrae Jefferson, and he is second on the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game. The leading scorer for Texas Southern is junior guard Zach Lofton, who averages 17.0 points a contest.

Why UNC will Win: I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but a 16 has never beaten a 1, and it’s not going to happen here. North Carolina is a popular pick to go all the way, and I think that’s because they do everything well. This team does not have a weakness. Good guards, size, speed, shooting ability, they are the total package, and when they are clicking, their isn’t a team in the nation that can beat them.

Why TXSO will Win: I’m getting a little lazy at this point, but they won’t win. If the Tar Heels have a weakness, it’s that they are susceptible to being denied at the rim, and they struggle with fouls. If Texas Southern can attack the rim on the offensive end and defend the rim well on defense, maybe they can keep this game close.

 

Greenville, SC
#8 Arkansas (25-9) vs #9 Seton Hall (21-11)
Friday 3/17, 1:30 pm TNT

Overview: I must admit, I did not realize how good a season Arkansas was having until they reached the SEC title game as the 3-seed in the conference. I am still shocked that this team didn’t lose double digit games. Even I, a huge college basketball fan, had to look up their roster because I did not know a single player on their team. That’s about as innocuous a season you can have. Meanwhile, it was another really good season in the Big East for Seton Hall, coming on strong down the stretch winning four in a row to end the regular season before losing by two in the Big East Tournament to Villanova. The Pirates are a dangerous team.

Key Players: One of the biggest reasons Seton Hall is dangerous is their biggest player, 6-10 junior Angel Delgado. He is an absolute load to handle in the paint, averaging 15.3 points and a whopping 13.1 rebounds a game. He is one of the best rebounders in the nation. The Pirates have a couple talented perimeter scorers as well in fellow juniors Khadeen Carrington (16.9 PPG) and Desi Rodriguez (15.9 PPG). I said earlier that I didn’t know any of the Razorback players, but they are talented if the stats are to be believed. It would appear that the key players are a couple seniors, 6-3 guard Dusty Hannahs (14.6 PPG, 90.3 FT%) and 6-10 forward Moses Kingsley (11.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG). A couple juniors, guards Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, also average double-figures for Arkansas.

Why ARK will Win: Arkansas has a good record, but they have a spotty resume. They only have four wins against teams in the Field, and two of those games are against Vanderbilt, a 9-seed. If they are going to win this game against a hot Seton Hall team, they will need to stick with what they do best, and that is play up-tempo (which Seton Hall is not great at) and get to the free throw line (where they are one of the 25 best teams in the country in free throw percentage). Do that, and the Razorbacks should win.

Why SHU will Win: As you already know if you’ve been reading my preview articles, I am a believer in momentum this time of year. There are a lot of teams in this tournament that are better than Seton Hall, but there aren’t many playing with the momentum that they are. I believe that Seton Hall has better interior players than Arkansas, and they have better guards than Arkansas. If you make that into an equation, that equals a victory here. Run the offense through Angel Delgado and crash the boards, and the Pirates should have no issues moving on.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#5 Minnesota (24-9) vs #12 Middle Tennessee (30-4)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 4:00 pm TNT

Overview: Richard Pitino, son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, has done a fantastic job with this Golden Gopher team. The Pitino’s are now the first father-son duo to coach in the same NCAA Tournament. It’s been a great season for Minnesota, with wins over Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Maryland and Michigan. It’s one of the best seasons in Minneapolis in a very long time. But it could all go for naught considering the draw that they received in the Tournament, facing a Middle Tennessee team that people have been looking forward to seeing back in the Tournament since the season began. If you remember, the Blue Raiders knocked off national title favorite Michigan State last season in the First Round as a 15-seed. The stars from that game are back this year, and this team had an even better season, earning a 12-seed (and I thought they should have been higher). This will be a fun game.

Key Players: The Gophers have a nice blend of upperclassmen and underclassmen, led by junior guard Nate Mason (15.5 PPG, 5.0 APG) and freshman forward Amir Coffey (12.1 PPG). Those are the leading scorers for Minnesota, and they will need to play well for this team to win. I mentioned the stars for Middle Tennessee last year returning. They are senior forward Reggie Upshaw (21 points versus MSU last season) and junior guard Giddy Potts (19 points, 3-5 from 3PT range against MSU). Those guys are happy to be back, but neither of them are the Blue Raiders’ best player. That is senior Arkansas-transfer JaCorey Williams, who averages 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and had to watch the huge victory over Michigan State last year on the sidelines, sitting out a year due to transfer rules. He will be chomping at the bit for this game.

Why MINN will Win: Middle Tennessee is a great story, and a really good team, but it’s been a wonderful season for Minnesota, and with the Blue Raiders being a trendy upset pick, the Gophers will love to bust a few brackets. Minnesota will be one of the best defensive teams that MTSU will have played this season, so who knows how their talented offense will respond. The Gophers will need to play up-tempo and limit good looks from the perimeter (which Michigan State couldn’t do last year), but if they do those things, they’ll come out on top.

Why MTSU will Win: They beat a really good Michigan State team last year, and if nothing else, that experience will have this team believing that they can beat anybody in this Tournament. Potts and Upshaw know what it’s like to win games in this thing, and the addition of JaCorey Williams only makes them better. Minnesota is an over-seeded team in my estimation, and the Blue Raiders are good on both ends of the floor. As long as they don’t get caught playing the game Minnesota wants them to play, meaning they slow the game down and take good shots (and make them of course), I like the Blue Raiders to win a game for the second straight Tournament.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#4 Butler (23-8) vs #13 Winthrop (26-6)
Thursday 3/16, 1:30 pm TNT

Overview: Another year, another overachieving Butler team. I’m starting to think that Chris Holtmann is just a fantastic coach. This team was expected to be a fringe-Tournament team, possibly winning a few big games in Big East play. Instead, they finished second in the conference, sweeping the season series with the defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats. Their 8-point win in Philly on February 22 is one of the most impressive wins any team has this season. It was a very good season for the Winthrop Eagles as well, returning to the Tournament for the first time since 2010. Two of their six losses this year came in overtime, and they have a win over a major conference team in Illinois, a better win than a lot of 13-seeds or lower have this year.

Key Players: When it comes to short players in this Tournament, none are better than 5-7 senior guard Keon Johnson for the Eagles. Johnson is extremely talented, averaging 22.5 points a game, shooting better than 86 percent from the free throw line and 40.4 percent from 3-point range. He is one of the best scoring guards in this entire Tournament, and he could become a household name when this is all said and done. For Butler, it pretty much comes down to how 6-7 junior guard/forward Kelan Martin plays. He leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game, and in rebounding with 5.7 boards a game. If he plays well, they usually win. If he struggles, they struggle.

Why BUT will Win: Winthrop is a fun team to watch (trust me, this will be a game you’ll want to tune in to), but Butler is just too much for them. Butler is great at controlling the tempo of the game, protecting the ball, and they are very efficient on offense, especially inside the arc, where Winthrop just doesn’t have the size to compete with the Bulldogs. Some may pick this to be an upset, but I like Butler to advance fairly easily.

Why WU will Win: Crazy things happen in March, and really good players have been known to thrive in the spotlight that the NCAA Tournament provides. Winthrop will try to speed this game up and make Butler uncomfortable. If they can do that, they have a shot. Keon Johnson could also just go off, and there might not be anything Butler can do about it.

 

Sacramento, CA
#6 Cincinnati (29-5) vs #11 Kansas State (21-13)
Friday 3/17, 7:27 pm TruTV

Overview: Mick Cronin has led Cincinnati to the Tournament for the 7th consecutive season, and I honestly believe that this might be his best team yet. It was the Bearcats and SMU at the top of the American, and then it was everybody else. They did beat SMU once this season, and they also scored victories over Iowa State and Xavier along the way. They are a Top-10 defensive team, which gives them a chance in any game. Kansas State was able to get past Wake Forest in the First Four, winning 95-88. Since the start of the First Four in 2011, a team from those games has advanced to at least the Round of 32 every season. Could it be K-State?

Key Players: I cannot believe Troy Caupain is still at Cincinnati, because it feels like he’s been there forever, but he is still one of the most important players to the Bearcats’ success. He does a little bit of everything for the Cats, averaging 10.1 points, 4.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game, while leading the team in minutes. Junior forward Kyle Washington is another key player for Cincy, averaging 13.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. K-State has gotten here thanks to the efforts of senior Wesley Iwundu, who scored 24 points to go along with 7 assists and 6 rebounds in the win over Wake Forest. Sophomore guard Kamau Stokes played well also, tallying 22 points on 5-8 shooting from 3-point range.

Why CIN will Win: I mentioned that this is probably the best team Mick Cronin has had in his tenure at Cincinnati, and they will look to buck the trend of the Bearcats underwhelming in the NCAA Tournament. Cronin is due for a deep run in this thing, and this will be his best chance. They will win here if they can take care of the ball and get hot from 3-point range, as K-State really struggles to force turnovers and defend the arc. Cincinnati can win from inside or outside, so I think they focus on getting open perimeter shots, and shoot their way into the Second Round.

Why KSU will Win: History suggests that a First Four team will go onto the First Round and get a victory, and I really don’t like Providence or USC’s chances against SMU, so that leaves Kansas State to be the First Four’s representative in the Round of 32. They have a game under their belt, so the pressure is off. A team playing with no pressure in the Tournament is a dangerous team. The Wildcats had one of the best shooting performances in school history against Wake. If they can come close to that kind of performance here, they’ll get the victory.

 

Sacramento, CA
#3 UCLA (29-4) vs #14 Kent State (22-13)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV

Overview: This UCLA team is probably the most polarizing team in this entire field, and that may or may not be due to the outspokenness of one named LaVar Ball. I wish I could say he’s a player, but he’s actually the father of star freshman guard Lonzo Ball, and for me, his dad is wrongfully taking the attention away from the magnificence that is Lonzo on a basketball court. This is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and they’ll look to shoot their way to a National Title. Kent State came from out of nowhere to win the MAC title as the 6-seed in the conference, winning four games total, three in three days, to earn their trip to the Dance. Despite their finish in the MAC regular season, this is one of the best teams in the conference, and they will not be a pushover for UCLA.

Key Players: Lonzo Ball has a chance to be the 1st overall pick in the NBA Draft, and for good reason. He does it all for the Bruins, averaging 14.6 points, 7.7 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. Fellow freshman T.J. Leaf is important for UCLA as well, averaging a team-leading 16.2 points per game. And don’t forget about the coach’s son, senior shooting guard Bryce Alford (15.8 PPG, 43.5% 3PT). Kent State has a star of their own in 6-8 senior forward Jimmy Hall. Hall leads the team 18.9 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, and he’ll need to have a great game if the Golden Flashes have a shot at the upset.

Why UCLA will Win: It’s going to take a really good defensive team to knock off the Bruins, and Kent State is not that team. UCLA likes to play fast, and they are extremely efficient. KenPom has them in the top-6 most efficient offenses inside and outside the arc. A team that plays fast and doesn’t miss is a team that is tough to beat. Way too tough for Kent State at least.

Why KENT will Win: It’s not impossible, believe it or not. 14-seeds have beaten 3-seeds before, and honestly, if UCLA struggles at all on offense, they can lose, because they don’t play a lick of defense. You need to outscore the Bruins to beat them, but Kent State is capable of that. They are a great offensive rebounding team, so if they can attack the offensive boards and get a lot of second chance points, they might be able to pull off the shocker.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#7 Dayton (24-7) vs #10 Wichita State (30-4)
Friday 3/17, 7:10 pm CBS

Overview: I feel so bad for Archie Miller and Dayton. They had a fantastic season, winning the A-10 regular season title while picking up great wins over Alabama, Vanderbilt, Rhode Island (twice) and VCU. They deserved a better draw than this. Wichita State has the resume of a 10-seed. They have just one win over Tournament teams, and that was against South Dakota State, a 16-seed. However, advanced analytics LOVE the Shockers. KenPom has Wichita State as the 8th best team in the nation. This team will fuel the argument for the Committee to use more advanced statistics in choosing the NCAA Tournament Field. Unfortunately, that won’t make Dayton feel any better.

Key Players: Don’t automatically count out the Flyers though. They are a very experienced team, led by a trio of seniors that want to go out on the right foot. Charles Cooke, Scoochie Smith and Kendall Pollard are three fantastic players, and they combine for over 43 points a game. They will not be scared of the Shockers. It’s a little strange to see a Wichita State team without Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, but Gregg Marshall has reloaded nicely. The Shockers have five players who average better than nine points a game, and they are led by 6-8 sophomore Markis McDuffie, who averages a team-leading 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He is key to Wichita’s success.

Why DAY will Win: I feel like there isn’t much pressure on Dayton in this game. The majority of people don’t expect them to win, and I think that actually will make them play with a little added motivation. Wichita State does not force many turnovers, so if Dayton can control the ball and play the game at their tempo, they can very easily win this game.

Why WSU will Win: There might be some pressure on the Shockers for the same reason that there isn’t much pressure on Dayton, but this team under Gregg Marshall has rarely buckled under any pressure. This team hasn’t beaten anybody of note, but they are extremely efficient on both ends of the floor. They are extremely good on the perimeter, so if they work the ball and don’t settle for bad shots, they will look like the Wichita State team that everybody expects, and they’ll move on to the next round.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#2 Kentucky (29-5) vs #15 Northern Kentucky (24-10)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:40 pm CBS

Overview: It’s the in-state battle that nobody knew they wanted until now! Okay, I joke a little bit, but maybe a little rivalry can be born from this matchup. John Calipari’s Wildcats went through a lot of growing pains this season, but they are rounding into form at the right time, winning the SEC regular season and tournament titles, and they enter the Dance riding an 11-game winning streak. Northern Kentucky, meanwhile, benefited from some big upsets in the Horizon League Tournament, defeating 5-seed Wright State, 9-seed Youngstown State and 10-seed Milwaukee to earn their spot in the Tournament.

Key Players: Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo are the stars of this team, all freshmen, and all likely NBA lottery picks. They are the three leading scorers for this team (20.4, 16.1 and 13.3 PPG respectively), and they will be key to Kentucky’s success in this Tournament. For the Norse, it’s sophomore forward Drew McDonald who makes things go. He leads the team with 16.4 points and 7.7 boards a game, and he is talented inside and outside the arc. His floor spacing could open things up for the rest of the team.

Why UK will Win: Malik Monk is arguably the best pure scorer in this Tournament. When he is on, he scores in bunches, and he is extremely difficult to contain. But he is very streaky, and is just getting out of a really bad funk. As long as he doesn’t revert back to that, he will score at will against Northern Kentucky, and the Norse won’t stand a chance.

Why NKU will Win: 15-seeds beating 2-seeds, as I’ve mentioned before, is not unprecedented. Especially when the 15-seed is as good offensively as Northern Kentucky is. Kentucky will look to get out and run, but they won’t be successful with that if the Norse can make shots. Make some shots early, get Kentucky out of their comfort zone, and we could see a massive upset.

 

NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: Midwest Region

The Kansas Jayhawks had a fantastic season led by star guard, and likely National Player of the Year, Frank Mason III, and they have been handsomely rewarded for their success, getting the 1-seed in the Midwest Region, which will see the regional semis and finals take place in Kansas City, Missouri, a virtual home arena for the Jayhawks.

There are a lot of differing views of this region, with most experts giving Kansas the easiest path to the Final Four of any of the 1-seeds, while it is my opinion that the Midwest is the toughest region in this year’s Tournament. Outside of Kansas and the 2-seed Louisville, I believe that every other team has one of the toughest possible First Round games they could have had.

This region is home to three regular season champions of major conferences, and two additional teams who won major conference tournaments (and that doesn’t even include Louisville). Here is my preview of the First Round matchups in the Midwest Region.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

Midwest Region

Tulsa, OK
#1 Kansas (28-4) vs #16 NC Central/UC Davis
Friday 3/17, 6:50 pm TNT

Overview: It was an unceremonious exit from the Big 12 Tournament for the Kansas Jayhawks, as they were upset in the quarterfinals by TCU. This came after the Jayhawks won their 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, calling into question whether the motivation was truly there in that TCU game. Nevertheless, this is one of the best teams Bill Self has ever had at Kansas, and they will be a popular pick to go all the way and win the National Title.

Key Players: You can go back to my First Four preview post to see who the key players for NCCU and UC Davis are, but for the Jayhawks, I already mentioned Frank Mason III at the beginning of this article. Mason is averaging 20.8 points and 5.1 rebounds a game this season, and he is the type of player that can carry a team to a title almost by himself. He has lots of help though, and the most polarizing player on this team is future NBA lottery pick, 6-8 freshman forward Josh Jackson. Jackson is a talented defender and a freakish athlete, and he was suspended for the TCU loss. If he plays, the Jayhawks almost certainly win, so he’s a definite factor.

Why KU will Win: Again, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, because a 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed. I don’t see it happening here. Kansas is extremely talented, especially on the offensive end of the floor. A lot of times in March, guard play makes the biggest difference. Well, Kansas has one of the best backcourts in the nation. They move on without an issue.

 

Tulsa, OK
#8 Miami FL (21-11) vs #9 Michigan State (19-14)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:20 pm TNT

Overview: Two teams that are trending in the positive direction will battle for the chance to upset the Kansas Jayhawks in the Second Round of the Tournament. You could argue that things aren’t great for Miami right now, having lost three of four entering the Tourney, but all three losses were to Tournament teams, and it was preceded by wins over Virginia and Duke. The Hurricanes are playing well right now. It has been a wacky season for Tom Izzo’s Spartan team, and they have also lost three of four heading into the Big Dance, but they are finally healthy, and it’s hard to bet against a healthy Michigan State team in March, even after what happened last year.

Key Players: Miami has a collection of very talented players, led by a trio of impressive guards in senior Davon Reed (15.0 PPG), junior Ja’Quan Newton (13.4 PPG) and freshman Bruce Brown (11.9 PPG). Those three will have to play well for Miami to have success. On the other side, the Spartans have one of the most talented freshmen in the country in forward Miles Bridges (16.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG), but another freshman who has come on strong as the season has progressed is center Nick Ward, who is averaging 13.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. He has become the most important player for Michigan State.

Why MIA will Win: It’s been a strange season for Michigan State, and I think if you look at these teams from top to bottom, all things considered, you have to consider Miami the better team. Both squads are better on defense than offense, but I believe the Hurricanes have more options offensively, giving them an advantage in this matchup. They won’t let the Spartans get anything easy because MSU really struggles at the free throw line. Miami ends up making the stops when they need to and they get the win.

Why MSU will Win: Are you going to bet against Izzo in March? Me either. I got burned by them last year, picking them to win it all only for 15-seed Middle Tennessee to play a perfect game and end my bracket pool chances from the get-go. This team is fairly inexperienced, but that could actually be a good thing. They’ll play like they have nothing to lose, and the freshmen Bridges and Ward will have huge games, leading the Spartans into the Second Round.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#5 Iowa State (23-10) vs #12 Nevada (28-6)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:57 pm TruTV

Overview: What a finish to the season for the Iowa State Cyclones. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they had a really good season from the start, including ending Kansas’s 50-plus game home winning streak, but they really turned it on at the end, winning six of their last seven in the regular season, and then winning three games in three days to win the Big 12 Tournament. Iowa State is peaking, and they are a dangerous team. But they can’t get too far ahead of themselves, because Nevada is not going to go down easy. The Wolfpack dominated the Mountain West this season, defeating Colorado State 79-71 in the championship game. This is a trendy upset pick.

Key Players: Iowa State, according to KenPom, is the 2nd most experienced team in this Tournament, and they are led by a talented quartet of senior starters, forwards Naz Mitrou-Long and Deonte Burton (combined 30.3 PPG), shooting guard Matt Thomas (44% 3PT) and star point guard Monte Morris (16.3 PPG, 6.1 APG). Morris is capable of taking over any game he is in. Nevada is extremely good as well, led by a couple potential future NBA players in 6-3 senior guard Marcus Marshall (team-leading 19.8 PPG) and 6-8 sophomore forward Cameron Oliver (15.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.6 BPG). If these two play well, Nevada could shock a lot of people.

Why ISU will Win: Nevada is an extremely talented 12-seed, but Iowa State is one of the hottest teams in the nation right now, and I simply don’t see them losing this game. The Cyclones do a great job taking care of the basketball, and Nevada really struggles with forcing turnovers. That doesn’t bode well for the Wolfpack. Deonte Burton continues his impressive play (over 18 PPG in the Big 12 Tournament), and the Cyclones get past Nevada and into the Second Round.

Why NEV will Win: It’s no secret that sometimes all it takes in the Tournament is for one player to get hot, and the team just rides the wave of that player. Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier single-handedly led UConn to national titles, for just a couple examples. Marcus Marshall is a game-changer in the same mold. Nevada does a fair amount of damage from the perimeter, and Iowa State tends to struggle playing defense out there. The Wolfpack get hot from distance, and win a shootout.

 

Milwaukee, WI
#4 Purdue (25-7) vs #13 Vermont (29-5)
Thursday 3/16, 7:27 pm TruTV

Overview: It was a down year for the Big Ten, but Purdue was clearly the best team in the league from beginning to end. For the Big Ten regular season champs to only get a 4-seed is all you need to know about how poor a season the league had. But don’t let that discourage you from believing in Purdue. They took Villanova and Louisville to the limit early in the season, and they have wins over Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Maryland and Northwestern (twice) to their credit. They are the more talented team in this matchup, but they don’t have the most momentum, as the Vermont Catamounts enter the Tournament on a 21-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the country.

Key Players: Purdue has a Player of the Year candidate in 6-9 sophomore forward Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan. Swanigan had 26 double-doubles this season (!!!!!!!), averaging over 18 points and 12 boards a game. He is an absolute beast in the paint, and he can step out and hit jumpers too. He’s the ultimate weapon. Vermont will have trouble stopping Swanigan, so they’ll need their star point guard, junior Trae Bell-Haynes (11.1 PPG, 3.8 APG) to play well. Freshman forward Anthony Lamb (team-leading 12.6 PPG) might be tasked with defending Swanigan, and while he is an impressive player, he’ll have his hands full.

Why PUR will Win: I mentioned the strong possibility that Vermont won’t be able to defend Swanigan, and it’s because they simply don’t have the size or talent necessary to limit Biggie. Especially when you consider that the Boilermakers have 7-2 Isaac Hass that they can put in there, causing even more matchup problems for the Catamounts. Purdue shoots it extremely well from the outside, but here, they will take advantage of their huge size/strength advantage and overwhelm Vermont.

Why UVM will Win: If you believe in momentum, then you’re probably picking Vermont here. The Catamounts hardly know how to lose, and that can be an invaluable trait for a basketball team. I think Vermont can let Swanigan get his, and focus on limiting the rest of the Boilermakers. That is the way I would attack this game if I were them. Do that, and I think they have a chance to pull the upset.

 

Sacramento, CA
#6 Creighton (25-9) vs #11 Rhode Island (24-9)
Friday 3/17, approx. 4:30 pm TBS

Overview: There are a lot of teams in this year’s field that have basically had two different seasons in one. That might not be more true for a team than it is for Creighton. Star point guard Maurice Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury in a January 16 game against Xavier. Up to and including that game, the Bluejays were 18-1. Without Watson, they are 7-8. They did build some momentum in the Big East Tournament though, reaching the title game, where they fell to Villanova. For Rhode Island, it was a major question if they were going to get into the Tournament as an at-large team. Their profile was shaky at best. Luckily for their fans, Danny Hurley’s squad took it out of the Committee’s hands, defeating VCU 70-63 to win the A-10 and earn the league’s auto-bid. The Rams are finally healthy and playing their best basketball of the season.

Key Players: E.C. Matthews is a stud basketball player who has been ravaged by knee injuries in his career. When healthy, he’s been spectacular. He played in every game this season, averaging a team-leading 14.9 points per game. Senior Hassan Martin is another outstanding player for the Rams, but he too has been slowed a tad by injuries in his career. With these two guys healthy, Rhody is a dangerous team. Creighton really misses Maurice Watson, but they still have some great players. Kansas State-transfer Marcus Foster (18.3 PPG) is an extremely talented scorer, and freshman big man Justin Patton (13.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG) has been a revelation this year, coming out of nowhere to become a potential NBA lottery pick.

Why CRE will Win: I would feel really good about the Bluejays if they still had Watson, but I also think they’d be a much higher seed had he not gotten hurt. Creighton is still one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country, and they like to play fast. That is a lethal combination if they  are making shots. Rhode Island prefers to slow the game down, so if Creighton can play up-tempo and pour in shots like they normally do when they play well, the Rams don’t stand a chance in this one.

Why URI will Win: As I mentioned before, a healthy Rhode Island team is very dangerous. Don’t forget, they were a Top-25 ranked team coming into the season, so the talent is evident. They showed their potential down the stretch, and they enter this game on an eight-game winning streak. They play really tough defense both inside and outside, and if they can slow the game down and play at their pace, and force Creighton to take tough shots, I like the Rams to get the upset and move on to the Round of 32.

 

Sacramento, CA
#3 Oregon (29-5) vs #14 Iona (22-12)
Friday 3/17, 2:00 pm TBS

Overview: The Ducks have had a fantastic season following their trip to the Elite Eight last season. They won the Pac-12 regular season title, and they reached the Pac-12 title game, barely falling to Arizona. It’s been great, but they will now have to overcome some adversity after senior center Chris Boucher tore his ACL in the Pac-12 semis. He is a terrific rim protector, and they will miss him a lot. The Gaels of Iona are back in the Tournament for the second consecutive season, needing overtime to take down Siena in the MAAC title game. Tim Cluess knows how to coach offense, and believe me, this team can score in bunches. They are fun to watch.

Key Players: The Ducks have a bonafide star in 6-7 junior Dillon Brooks. Brooks just has a knack for this game, and he led the team this season with 16.3 points per game while shooting over 41 percent from distance. I mentioned how this team will miss the interior presence of Chris Boucher, and that means that 6-9 Jordan Bell and 6-11 Kavell Bigby-Williams will need to step up to pick up the slack. I mentioned the Gaels’ great offense, and it is led by senior forward Jordan Washington. He was originally supposed to play at Arizona State, but ended up at Iona, and he has been stellar this season, leading the team with 17.9 points and 7.4 boards a game. Washington will likely benefit from the absence of Boucher protecting the rim.

Why ORE will Win: Many people have Oregon as one of the teams capable of winning a title this year, but some are backtracking off of that with the loss of Boucher. The Ducks should be out to prove that they are still one of the best teams in the country, and in this game, they just have way too much talent for Iona to keep up. The Gaels struggle to defend the perimeter, and Oregon can really shoot it. The Ducks get hot from distance and win this one going away.

Why IONA will Win: Iona is a good enough offensive team that if they can get hot, they will simply outscore teams. If Oregon struggles at all, the Gaels may smell blood in the water and take off en route to a massive upset. Iona will look to speed the game up, something Iowa State kept them from doing for the most part in last year’s 94-81 First Round loss to the Cyclones. If Iona can play their game, they’ll have a shot.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#7 Michigan (24-11) vs #10 Oklahoma State (20-12)
Friday 3/17, 12:15 pm CBS

Overview: What an incredible story this Michigan team is right now. Their plane crashed off the runway last Wednesday, delaying their trip to Washington D.C. for the Big Ten Tournament. They were very close to not make the trip, forfeiting their first round game against Illinois. The team decided they wanted to play, and they went on to win four games in four days, defeating Wisconsin on Sunday to win the Big Ten championship. It’s a little different, but this team is starting to remind me of the UConn team that won five games in five days to win the Big East, and then went on to win the National Title. This is a magical story, but it’s one that Oklahoma State would love to end in the First Round of the Tournament. The Cowboys started 0-6 in Big 12 play before winning 10 of their next 11 games. They limp into this game though, having lost their last three games.

Key Players: Michigan point guard Derrick Walton Jr. played out of his mind in the Big Ten Tournament, going for 29 points and 9 assists in the semis against Minnesota, and tallying 22 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in the title game. He has put this team on his back, and they’ll need that to continue if they’re going to make a deep run. However, the best player on the floor in this game, and one of the best players that you know nothing about in this entire Tourney, is Oklahoma State sophomore point guard Jawun Evans. Evans is averaging 19.0 points and 6.2 assists per game this season, and he will be looking to become a household name.

Why UM will Win: This team’s story could be featured in a movie one day, it’s that bizarre and that amazing. But if that’s going to be the case, it can’t end with a loss in the First Round. The Wolverines have one of the most efficient offenses in the nation, and that does not bode well for an Oklahoma State team that is downright putrid on defense. They are especially bad on the interior, while Michigan loves to attack the rim. The Wolverines will dominate the paint and move on to another chapter in the story.

Why OSU will Win: For as good as Michigan’s offense is, Oklahoma State’s is better. KenPom says that the Cowboys have the most efficient offense in the nation this year, and they are battle tested having played in the toughest conference in the country. Win or lose, you are going to know the name Jawun Evans after this game. The Cowboys will run Michigan to death, Evans will go off for 30-plus, and Oklahoma State ruins any future movie plans based on this Michigan team.

 

Indianapolis, IN
#2 Louisville (24-8) vs #15 Jacksonville State (20-14)
Friday 3/17, approx. 2:45 pm CBS

Overview: First off, I have a confession to make. It was not until watching the OVC title game that I learned that Jacksonville State is located in Jacksonville, Alabama, not Jacksonville, Florida. And I bet I just taught you all something as well! Anyway, the Gamecocks were able to knock off #1 Belmont and #2 UT Martin to earn their first trip to the Big Dance in school history. They don’t stand much of a chance here against Louisville though. The Cardinals have been a top team all season long, and they will be looking to rebound from a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament.

Key Players: A pair of talented guards do the majority of the damage for Louisville. Their leading scorer is 6-3 sophomore Donovan Mitchell, averaging 15.7 points per game. He is also a fantastic defender, notching 2.1 steals a game. His partner in crime is 6-2 junior Quentin Snider, who averages 12.7 points and a team-leading 4.1 assists per contest. Four different players average double-figures for the Gamecocks, led by junior guard Malcolm Drumwright (12.6 PPG). 7-0 junior Norbertas Giga will be tasked with dealing with the deep Louisville frontcourt, and I believe he is capable, averaging a team-leading 8.1 rebounds per game.

Why LOU will Win: Despite earning a 2-seed in the Tournament, I think Rick Pitino is probably a little disappointed with the regular season, and will look for his team to make up for it with a deep run in the Tournament. The Cardinals aren’t very efficient offensively, but they are balanced, and they will quickly be able to figure out where they are having success, and exploit that against an inferior team.

Why JSU will Win: We have seen 15-seeds beat 2-seeds before, and while it usually comes from out of nowhere, it’s almost always impossible to predict. There is no part of this matchup where I would give JSU the advantage, but they call it March Madness for a reason. Maybe Louisville has a cold shooting night, and the Gamecocks are able to take advantage and steal the game. Stranger things have happened, right?

 

 

 

 

 

 

NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: East Region

I started with the West Region, and now we move up the bracket to the East, which is led by the #1 overall seed in this year’s Tournament, the defending National Champion Villanova Wildcats. Jay Wright’s squad lost its leader in Ryan Arcidiacono and it’s best interior presence in Daniel Ochefu, yet despite that, this season’s team might actually be better.

Josh Hart is a NPoY candidate, Kris Jenkins can still hit the big shot, and Jalen Brunson has taken a massive leap forward, showing the promise that had many expecting him to be a one-and-done coming out of high school. There hasn’t been a repeat champion since Florida in 2006 and 2007, but the Cats are the team best positioned to get it done since.

They will have their fair share of roadblocks though, including a potential Elite Eight matchup with the hottest team in the country, the ACC Champion Duke Blue Devils. A Second Round meeting with grossly under-seeded Wisconsin could be tricky for Nova as well.

The team that emerges from Madison Square Garden unscathed will head to Phoenix to take on the winner of the previously previewed West Region. Here is a preview of the First Round in the East.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

East Region

Buffalo, NY
#1 Villanova (31-3) vs #16 Mount St. Mary’s/New Orleans
Thursday 3/16, 7:10 pm CBS

Overview: I am on record as saying that I believe this year’s Villanova team is better than the one that won last year’s National Championship game over North Carolina. The Wildcats have an extremely impressive resume, with wins over Purdue, Virginia, Notre Dame and Wake Forest out of conference, and a dominating season in the Big East, winning the regular season and tournament titles. They were beaten twice by Butler, so if they can avoid the Bulldogs, they should be good to go!

Key Players: I mentioned potential National Player of the Year Josh Hart earlier, but he is still the most important player for this team. Hart is averaging 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, while shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Hart struggled with his jump shot last season, and it is evident that he has improved in that area this year, turning himself into a potential 1st round NBA Draft pick. You also know about Kris Jenkins and Jalen Brunson, but another extremely important player for Nova is 6-9 senior forward Darryl Reynolds. The Cats do not have very much depth, especially on the interior, so Reynolds needs to stay out of foul trouble and stay healthy, two things that have been easier said than done at times this season.

Why NOVA will Win: I won’t even put a note here about the potential for MSM or NO to win, because as of this writing we’re not sure who will be facing Villanova, and let’s be real, they won’t beat them anyway. But Villanova will win this game because they are on a mission to prove to everybody that they are every bit as good this year as the team that took home the championship last year. This team has way too much talent to slip up and become the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed.

 

Buffalo, NY
#8 Wisconsin (25-9) vs #9 Virginia Tech (22-10)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:40 pm CBS

Overview: Overall, I was very happy with the job the Selection Committee did this season. All of the teams that most deserved to get in are here, but they did misfire on some seedings. Maybe none more so than Wisconsin as an 8-seed. The Badgers had a rough stretch at the end of the year, losing five of their last seven games in the regular season, and their non-conference strength of schedule left a lot to be desired. They also were able to gain some momentum in the Big Ten Tournament, destroying Northwestern and falling to Michigan in the title game, but they definitely deserved a higher seed. They will not have an easy First Round game though, taking on Buzz Williams’s Virginia Tech team that had a very good season in the tough ACC. The Hokies went an impressive 10-8 in conference play which included wins over Duke and rival Virginia. VT is a very good offensive club, and will challenge the Badgers.

Key Players: Wisconsin is a very experienced squad, with seniors Bronson Koenig (14.1 PPG) and Nigel Hayes (13.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG) already having 14 NCAA Tourney games under their belts, but the best player on this team is sophomore forward Ethan Happ (13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 1.9 SPG). Happ finished 6th in KenPom’s POTY ranking, and he is a dominant post player that can create problems for any team. Unfortunately for Virginia Tech, they lost star forward Chris Clarke to an injury late in the regular season, severely hampering their hopes for a deep Tournament run. They still do have four other players who average double-figures, led by 6-7 senior forward Zach LeDay (16.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG).

Why WISC will Win: The experience factor should play a huge role here. Koenig and Hayes have been to the Final Four twice in their careers already, and this team just seems to up the intensity come Tournament time. The Badgers are great on defense this season, and they’ll be able to force missed shots, clean up on the boards, and do enough on the offensive end to win fairly easily over the Hokies.

Why VT will Win: I don’t think there are many people who believe Virginia Tech can defeat Wisconsin. The Badgers are better than an 8-seed, and the Hokies are kind of getting screwed because of that. Don’t sleep on them though. They are a very good offensive team, in the Top-20 in 2-point and 3-point percentage (according to KenPom). If they get hot, Wisconsin might not have enough on the offensive end to keep up with the Hokies.

 

Orlando, FL
#5 Virginia (22-10) vs #12 UNC Wilmington (29-5)
Thursday 3/16, 12:40 pm TruTV

Overview: Virginia is once again one of the best defensive teams in the nation. Tony Bennett knows how to teach defense, and it is extremely difficult to score against them. They even held North Carolina to 43 points in one of their meetings this year. That is crazy. The issue for the Cavs is that unlike the past few years, they really struggle on offense. They play at a snail’s pace, so if they aren’t making shots, they don’t give themselves enough opportunities. UNC Wilmington opened up last season’s Tournament with a near upset of 4-seed Duke, giving the Blue Devils everything they could handle. They have returned three of the top four scorers from last year’s team, and they will be extremely motivated to finish the deal this year with another shot to upset a top ACC team.

Key Players: Four UNC Wilmington players average double-figures, led by sophomore CJ Bryce (17.6 PPG) and seniors Denzel Ingram (14.5 PPG) and Chris Flemmings (15.8 PPG). The trio scored 51 combined points in the game against Duke in last year’s Tournament. I mentioned Virginia’s struggles on the offensive end, but when they have good games, they get a significant output from freshman guard Kyle Guy. He averages just 7.8 points per game, but he has had some big games down the stretch, including a 19 point output in a 53-43 win over UNC on February 27. They will need Guy to score if they are going to get the win here.

Why UVA will Win: If you can hold North Carolina to 43 points, you should have no issues beating a team like UNC Wilmington. The Seahawks are better on the interior, but that is where Virginia thrives on defense. They will force UNCW into taking bad perimeter shots, and will be able to get enough done on the offensive end of the floor to escape with a victory.

Why UNCW will Win: They really felt like they should have beaten Duke last year, and that will motivate them in their return to the Dance this season. If the Seahawks can make some shots and get an early lead, they can win this game. Virginia doesn’t have the firepower to make a comeback. UNC Wilmington will make some shots early, build a lead, and force Virginia to play a game that they don’t want to play. The Seahawks will hold on down the stretch, and move on to the Second Round.

 

Orlando, FL
#4 Florida (24-8) vs #13 East Tennessee State (27-7)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 3:10 pm TruTV

Overview: Mike White has done a fantastic job in his second season in Gainesville, leading the Gators to an impressive 24-win season, which included multiple 7-plus game winning streaks and victories over Seton Hall, Miami, Arkansas (twice) and Kentucky. Florida is one of the best defensive teams in the country, but they can also shoot the lights out of any gym they play in. They lost three of their last four entering the Tournament, but this is still a team that can make a deep run. On the other side is East Tennessee State, who was a team considered to be very dangerous if they could win the SoCon and reach the Tournament. The Buccaneers are loaded with talented players, most of which have come from other programs. Head Coach Steve Forbes is very well regarded in basketball circles, and could be on his way to a higher-profile job if he can lead his team to a victory or two in this postseason.

Key Players: Florida’s leading scorer is 6-2 sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen, who averages 13.9 points per game, shooting a shade under 40 percent from 3-point range. A very important player off the bench for the Gators is junior point guard Chris Chiozza. He is the only true point guard on this team, and he is capable of a triple-double, going for 12 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Missouri earlier this season. ETSU has more talent than your typical mid-major team, and they are led by 6-3 junior college-transfer T.J. Cromer, who is averaging 19.1 points per game. In the SoCon semis against Samford, Cromer dropped 43 points, going 9-12 from 3-point range and 10-11 from the free throw stripe. He shot just one 3-pointer in the title game, but still went for 23 points, and was a perfect 11-11 from the FT line.

Why UF will Win: ETSU will not be a pushover, but Florida is a better team than a lot of people realize. The fact that they lost to Vanderbilt three times this year makes people question how good this team is, and they will be without center John Egbunu who was lost for the season to a knee injury, but this is still a talented team that can make a deep run in this Tournament. They will refuse to give the Bucs any clean looks on offense, frustrating them to the point where they force the issue, which is exactly what the Gators want.

Why ETSU will Win: This team has the resume of a 13-seed, but the talent of a 10-seed, or possibly even higher. Cromer is capable of taking over any game that he plays in, and I expect him to be out to become one of the stars of this Tournament. Cromer goes for over 25 points, and the Gators struggle offensively against a sneaky good Bucs defense. ETSU pulls the upset and moves on to the next round.

 

Tulsa, OK
#6 SMU (30-4) vs #11 Providence/USC
Friday 3/17, approx. 3:10 pm TruTV

Overview: I had another seeding gripe here, but not as big as the one with Wisconsin. I know the American Conference had a down year, but this SMU team is scary good, and they go 30-4, and they’re a 6-seed? They should be at least a 5-seed, if not a 4-seed. The regular season and tournament champs in the AAC are one of the best teams that you don’t know very much about. They have won 16 games in a row as they enter the postseason, but they’ll have to sit back and wait until Wednesday night to find out who they’ll be playing on Friday afternoon.

Key Players: You can look back to my First Four preview to see who the key players are for Providence and USC, but for the Mustangs, the best player in Duke-transfer, 6-7 junior Semi Ojeleye, and he is an outstanding basketball player. Ojeleye averages 18.9 points and 6.8 rebounds a game this season, and he is capable of carrying this team to a Final Four. He, and they, are that good, trust me.

Why SMU will Win: I don’t see either Providence or USC stopping an SMU team that is just on an absolute roll right now. Ojeleye and Ben Moore are great interior players, but Ojeleye can shoot the jumper too, and the Mustangs do a lot of damage from the outside. They are 5th in the nation in 3-point percentage according to KenPom. The talent will be too much, and SMU will get hot from the outside en route to an easier victory than some may expect from a 6/11 matchup.

Why PROV/USC will Win: Well, one of SMU’s four losses this season came on Black Friday in Los Angeles, when the Trojans came away with the 78-73 win. That absolutely means that they have a shot to knock out the Mustangs, but this is a different SMU team now than it was back in November. That being said, USC’s size could cause problems for the relatively undersized Mustangs. Providence plays a similar style to SMU, and is a similar team from top-to-bottom, but less talented, so I think it’s less likely that Providence will be able to defeat SMU.

 

Tulsa, OK
#3 Baylor (25-7) vs #14 New Mexico State (28-5)
Friday 3/17, 12:40 pm TruTV

Overview: At one point this season, the Baylor Bears were the #1 ranked team in the country. They started 15-0 with wins over Oregon, VCU, Michigan State, Louisville, Xavier and Iowa State. That is nuts. They were finally defeated by West Virginia, but then won five more games to put them at 20-1. If you look above, you can then figure out that they finished the season 5-6, including a loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 quarterfinals. It was a tale of two seasons for the Bears, and they are limping into the Tournament. There were two good teams in the WAC this year, and it was the #2 team (but the team that KenPom believes is better), New Mexico State, who won the title game over #1 CSU Bakersfield to get into the Field of 68. Head Coach Paul Weir has done a great job in his first year with the Aggies, getting this team to the Tournament for the fifth time in the last six seasons.

Key Players: Baylor is an extremely long and athletic club, and that starts with 6-10 junior Johnathan Motley, who is averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game this season. His frontcourt mate, 7-0 junior Jo Lual-Acuil is one of the best shot blockers in the nation, averaging 2.6 blocks a game. They have talent in the backcourt as well, led by second-leading scorer Manu Lecomte (12.4 PPG). The Aggies best player is 6-0 senior guard Ian Baker, who has been a significant contributor for this team for all four of his seasons in Las Cruces. This year, Baker is averaging a team-leading 16.6 points and 4.1 assists per game.

Why BAY will Win: This is not a great matchup for New Mexico State. They are a good team, and I might have picked them to win against a different 3-seed, but the Aggies do most of their damage in the paint, which is where Baylor has a bunch of large human beings who are very adept at denying chances at the rim. This is mostly a matchup thing, because Baylor has not played well as of late, but they will lock down the interior and get the victory.

Why NMSU will Win: Two years ago, 14-seed Georgia State upset 3-seed Baylor in a First Round game that took place in an early afternoon game. When it comes to the matchup, the Aggies don’t stand a chance. But history tends to repeat itself, and crazy things happen in March.

 

Greenville, SC
#7 South Carolina (22-10) vs #10 Marquette (19-12)
Friday 3/17, approx. 9:50 pm TBS

Overview: South Carolina has done the same thing two seasons in a row. They start off really well, and then fade down the stretch. This season, a win over Florida put them at 15-3 and 5-0 in the SEC. They finished 7-7 with two losses to Alabama and a loss to Ole Miss. Frank Martin’s squad is the 3rd most efficient defensive team in the nation (according to KenPom), but they have a heck of a time putting up points. It was an up and down season for Marquette, with some really big highs (a win over #1 Villanova) and some really bad lows (a loss to St. John’s). The Golden Eagles really know how to put the ball through the hoop, but teams tend to have an easy time scoring against them as well. That means this game could come down to SC’s offense versus Marquette’s defense.

Key Players: The best player on the floor in this game will be South Carolina’s 6-5 senior guard Sindarius Thornwell (21.0 PPG). For as bad as the Gamecocks are on offense at times, Thornwell is more than capable of getting hot and taking over a game. The Golden Eagles are very balanced on the offensive end, with five players averaging double-figures. Senior guard JaJuan Johnson wreaks havoc on the defensive end as well (1.9 steals per game), while 6-11 senior Luke Fischer is the team’s best rebounder, grabbing 5.9 boards per contest.

Why SCAR will Win: You cannot ignore the struggles for the Gamecocks down the stretch of the season, but with a player as good as Sindarius Thornwell, you can’t count them out, especially in a 7/10 matchup that equates to a toss-up on most occasions. Marquette wants to play fast, so to win, South Carolina will need to make some shots and play really good defense. They are usually pretty good at one of those two things. Marquette struggles to get into a groove offensively, and Thornwell hits some late free throws to seal the win for the Gamecocks.

Why MARQ will Win: They normally say that defense wins championships, but when it comes to March Madness, it’s usually the teams that get hot offensively who go on to make deep runs. Marquette is a Top-10 offensive team this year, and they have been able to score against some really good defensive teams. According to KenPom, they are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation, and they get hot from distance and blitz South Carolina, moving on to the Second Round.

 

Greenville, SC
#2 Duke (27-8) vs #15 Troy (22-14)
Friday 3/17, 7:20 pm TBS

Overview: About a month and a half ago, the question was how far down the seed-line was Duke going to fall, and will they every realize the potential or live up to the expectations that everybody bestowed upon them heading into the season. Now, after winning four games in four days, including three against Top-25 teams, to win the ACC Championship, and people started talking about this team possibly being a 1-seed. That was a little far fetched, but what isn’t is having the Blue Devils as one of the favorites to win this whole thing. The Troy Trojans made an impressive run in the Sun Belt Tournament, winning four games in five days as the 6-seed. They are very good on the offensive end of the floor, but have their struggles defensively.

Key Players: I could just start listing Duke players here, because they have so many good ones, but the key is Grayson Allen, the most hated player in basketball. He’s a terrible human being (he no longer gets the benefit of the doubt from me), but when he’s right, he is one of the best basketball players in the country. Coach K has Allen coming off the bench right now, and that appears to have helped get him back on track. He was scoreless against Clemson, but scored 18 points each in the games against Louisville and North Carolina. Duke needs Grayson to be Grayson if they are going to win a title. For the Trojans, 6-6 sophomore Jordan Varnado is the one to watch, leading the team with 16.5 points and 7.1 rebounds a game.

Why DUKE will Win: They are clicking at the perfect time, showing flashes of what had everyone picking them as the title favorites prior to the season. They are healthy, they are talented, and they are simply winning basketball games. I feel like Troy could play really well, and still lose by double-digits. The Trojans struggle on defense, and you have to play defense to have any prayer of beating the Blue Devils. Duke wins going away.

Why TROY will Win: I just said you have to play defense to beat Duke, but what happens if Duke has an off night? The Blue Devils biggest weakness is their interior defense, and Troy shoots it better inside the 3-point arc. The Trojans do a good job getting to the rim, they get Duke in foul trouble, and they make enough plays down the stretch to pull off one of the biggest shockers in Tourney history!

 

NCAA Tournament First Round Preview: West Region

I’m going to start of my Regional previews with the West Region, and it’s for no other reason than that each of the eight First Round games in this region will take place on Thursday. So it makes sense for me to get this one out there first.

The West Region is led by the #4 overall seed, the 32-1 Gonzaga Bulldogs, who despite what some people may say, more than deserved to be a 1-seed. They did not play in a very difficult conference this season, but they challenged themselves out of conference, and if you go an entire regular season losing just one game, you deserve to be a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.

In the immediate aftermath of the bracket reveal, the popular opinion was that the West is the weakest region in this year’s Tournament. But just because the region is considered “weak” overall, doesn’t mean that the team to make it out of San Jose didn’t earn their trip to the Final Four just as much as the teams in the other three regions. Without any further delay, here is a preview of the First Round in the West Region.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of KenPom and ESPN*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

West Region

Salt Lake City, UT
#1 Gonzaga (32-1) vs #16 South Dakota State (18-16)
Thursday 3/16, 2:00 pm TBS

Overview: The Zags had a really good shot to enter the Tournament undefeated, but BYU had other ideas, defeating them 79-71 in the Bulldogs’ regular season finale. They rebounded though, winning the conference title beating Saint Mary’s, the WCC’s only other Tourney team, for a third time in the finals. Don’t let the past fool you, this team is legit. South Dakota State is in the Tournament for the second straight year after defeating Omaha in the Summit League title game 79-77. The Jackrabbits enter the Dance as the team with the most losses in the Field.

Key Players: Washington-transfer Nigel Williams-Goss is the leader for the Zags, and not only that, but he’s easily one of the best players in the entire nation. Williams-Goss averages a team-leading 16.9 points and 4.8 assists per game. He has lots of help though, as four teammates also averages double-figures, including senior center Przemek Karnowski (12.6 PPG) and freshman big man, and future NBA’er, Zach Collins (10.2 PPG in just 17.1 MPG). The fact that a probable 1st rounder in the NBA Draft comes off the bench for Mark Few is all you need to know about this team’s talent. South Dakota State does have a star of their own though in 6-9 sophomore Mike Daum. Daum is 2nd in the nation in scoring at 25.3 points per game, and he put up 37 points in the title game victory over Omaha.

Why GONZ will Win: The most simple answer is because no 16-seed has ever beaten a 1-seed. I believe it will happen one day, but I don’t see it happening here. This team is a legit National Title contender. SDSU is an extremely poor defensive team, and Gonzaga just has too much firepower. They are 2nd in the nation in effective FG percentage according to KenPom, and they’ll be too much for the Jackrabbits to handle. Gonzaga easily moves on.

Why SDSU will Win: I just said a 16-seed has to beat a 1-seed at some point, so why not South Dakota State? As a legitimate point, there haven’t been many 16-seeds in history with a player as talented as Mike Daum. He could certainly go off for another huge game, and if that happens, it’s possible that the Jackrabbits could keep it close, and maybe even pull off one of the biggest upsets in history.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#8 Northwestern (23-11) vs #9 Vanderbilt (19-15)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 4:30 pm TBS

Overview: One of the best stories of this entire basketball season is Northwestern finally reaching the NCAA Tournament. The school that hosted the very first NCAA Tournament is dancing for the very first time. They are the last major conference team to play in an NCAA Tournament, and don’t think just making it here is all they wanted. This team believes they can make a run in this thing, and so do I. They drew a tough First Round matchup though in Vanderbilt, a team much better than their record suggests. 15 losses is the most for an at-large team in Tournament history, but Vandy got in based on their strength of schedule (17th according to KenPom) and a number of big wins, knocking off Big 12 champion Iowa State and defeating Florida three times!

Key Players: The straw that stirs the drink for the Chris Collins’s Wildcats is junior point guard Bryant McIntosh (14.4 PPG, 5.7 APG). McIntosh and fellow junior Scottie Lindsey (14.2 PPG) have been on a mission to get this team into the Tournament, and they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to make sure this team makes a great showing in their first trip. Vanderbilt is an extremely talented team as well, led by a couple upperclassmen in senior big man Luke Kornet (13.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG) and junior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.6 PPG, 37% 3PT). Fisher-Davis has struggled down the stretch, and he’ll need to play well if they’re going to win this game.

Why NW will Win: The Wildcats have finally gotten here, and I have a hard time believing that they aren’t going to make the most of it, and that means getting at least one victory. This team is extremely balanced, talented in the paint and on the perimeter. Bryant McIntosh is probably the best player on the floor, and he leads a group of guards that I believe has the clear advantage in this game. They will make enough shots down the stretch to win a tight one.

Why VAND will Win: Northwestern is a great story, but it’s certainly possible that Vanderbilt is the better team. The Big Ten had a down year, and Vandy beat Florida three times, a team that is better than just about every team Northwestern played this season. Luke Kornet is a big man that likes to play on the perimeter, and the floor spacing Vandy brings will open up driving lanes, allowing the Commodores to get to the free throw line, where they shoot over 77 percent, and win a close game, ending the dream season for Northwestern.

 

Buffalo, NY
#5 Notre Dame (25-9) vs #12 Princeton (23-6)
Thursday 3/16, 12:15 pm CBS

Overview: The first game of the Tournament this year will pit the only team to reach the Elite Eight in each of the last two seasons against the winners of the very first Ivy League Tournament. Coming into the season, Notre Dame was expected to have a drop-off, picked to finish 7th in the ACC. Instead, Mike Brey reminded everyone why he is one of the best coaches in basketball, leading the Irish to the ACC title game. They’re going to be tested here though by a very experienced Princeton team. The Tigers have a little momentum (19-game winning streak, second longest in the nation entering the postseason) and history on their side as well. The Ivy League representative in the Tournament has won a game three out of the last four seasons.

Key Players: Bonzie Colson is one of the best rebounders in the nation (10.2 per game, best in the ACC), and he also leads the Irish in scoring at 17.2 points per game. Oh yeah, and he’s only 6-5. He does have a 7-2 wingspan though, which definitely helps. ND also has one of the most improved players in the country in point guard Matt Farrell. Farrell came on late last season, playing well in the NCAA Tournament. He put a full season of success together this year, and I’m sure that will carry over to the postseason. I mentioned Princeton’s experience earlier, and they are led by seniors Spencer Weisz (team leading 32.9 minutes per game) and Steven Cook (13.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG). Cook shoots over 42 percent from 3-point range, one of three starters who shoot better than 40 percent from behind the arc.

Why ND will Win: Once again, the Irish are an overlooked team heading into the Tournament. They feel slighted by Committee giving them a 5-seed, and will play with a chip on their shoulders because of it. I don’t think Princeton has a player that can deal with the matchup problem that is Bonzie Colson. Colson and company have way too much talent, and they will overwhelm the Ivy League champs. Notre Dame wins this one going away.

Why PRIN will Win: 12-seeds over 5-seeds is always a favorite upset pick in the Tourney. Over the last five Tournaments, 12-seeds are 10-10 in the First Round. Only four times since the field expanded to 64-plus teams in 1985 has no 12-seed advanced to the Round of 32. What else does Princeton have going for them? There isn’t science to back this up, but a fair amount of upsets in the Tournament tend to happen in the early afternoon games. This game will lead off the First Round, and the Tigers will be fired up to start the Tourney off with a bang. If they can find a way to pressure the Irish on defense while keeping them off the free throw line (ND is the best FT shooting team in the nation), they can score the upset.

 

Buffalo, NY
#4 West Virginia (26-8) vs #13 Bucknell (26-8)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 2:45 pm CBS

Overview: Early going in the season, I, along with a fair amount of experts, pegged West Virginia as a team that could contend for a National Championship. After that, the season had its ups and downs, with the Mountaineers scoring victories over Virginia, Kansas, Baylor, and Iowa State twice, but also losing Texas Tech and Oklahoma, and blowing a 12-point lead with less than three minutes left in a game at Kansas. On the other side, we have a Bucknell team that dominated the Patriot League, going 15-3 in conference play, defeating Lehigh in the championship game, the team that was responsible for two of the Bison’s three conference losses. This is a very young team, as out of the nine players who average over 10 minutes a game, zero are seniors.

Key Players: A couple junior forwards are the ones to watch out for on the Bucknell side. 6-7 Zach Thomas (16.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG) and 6-9 Nana Foulland (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) are the top two scorers and rebounders for the Bison. West Virginia plays a suffocating style of defense, and that is spearheaded by senior Tarik Phillip and junior Jevon Carter, who average 1.8 and 2.6 steals per game respectively. The Mountaineers have a very balanced scoring attack, with just two players averaging double-figures.

Why WVU will Win: A team with good guard play can give West Virginia problems. They thrive on being able to force turnovers and score quickly off of them. Bucknell’s guard play is not the best, and they are in the bottom half of the nation in offensive turnover percentage. That does not bode well for them. “Press Virginia” will do exactly that, and win this game going away.

Why BUCK will Win: The West Virginia team we have seen lately has not been the same one that many pegged as a title contender at the beginning of the season. If the Bison can limit turnovers and be able to set up their offense, they can dominate WVa on the interior. Big games from Thomas and Foulland are enough to fuel Bucknell to the upset.

 

Orlando, FL
#6 Maryland (24-8) vs #11 Xavier (21-13)
Thursday 3/16, 6:50 pm TNT

Overview: It’s been a tale of two seasons for both of the teams in this game. Maryland started an impressive 20-2 this season, but limped down the stretch going 4-6 over their last 10 games, including a quarterfinal loss to N’Western in the Big Ten Tournament. I believe a 6-seed was a little high for them. Xavier started well also, going 15-6 to start their year. Then star point guard Edmond Sumner suffered a season-ending knee injury. They were able to win their first three games after the injury, but then fellow star guard Trevon Bluiett was injured. He missed just two games, but the team ended up losing six of their last seven, before picking up a couple wins in the Big East Tournament.

Key Players: The Musketeers really miss Edmond Sumner, but they do still have junior Trevon Bluiett, who averages a team-leading 18.1 points per game. The only other Xavier player not injured who averages double-figures is guard J.P. Macura at 14.5 points per game. Maryland is lead by one of the most talented guards in the country in junior Melo Trimble (17.0 PPG). He has five NCAA Tournament games to his credit, and that experience could play a major factor for the Terps.

Why MARY will Win: Xavier, despite having very good outside shooters, tend to try to do their most damage on the interior. Maryland has a lot of size, and it is tough to get good looks in the paint against them. Melo Trimble will be the best player on the floor, and he will take over this game and hit a late shot to send Maryland to the Second Round.

Why XAV will Win: They struggled down the stretch, but they picked up some steam in the Big East Tournament, knocking off Butler and nearly beating Creighton. Trevon Bluiett has a penchant for hitting the big shot. I think this will be a very close, low scoring game, and it could come down to which team has the ball last. If it comes down to one shot, I want Bluiett taking the shot. He hits it, and the Musketeers advance.

 

Orlando, FL
#3 Florida State (25-8) vs #14 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:20 pm TNT

Overview: A little in-state Tourney battle, and it’s taking place in their state! I am a fan of this “coincidence.” Florida State earned this high a bid at the beginning of ACC play, going 6-1 to start conference play, with all but the first one against ranked teams (wins over Virginia, Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville in that span). They had struggles after that, losing to teams like Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Pitt. On the other side, Dunk City is back in the Tournament! You probably remember FGCU from their Sweet 16 run as a 15-seed in 2013, the birth of Dunk City. Believe it or not, they have more dunks this season than they did that year. The Eagles were not playing at full strength for a portion of this season, but they are at their fullest right now, and they are probably better than a typical 14-seed.

Key Players: The Seminoles are one of the most athletic teams in the country, led by star freshman and future 1st round NBA Draft pick, 6-10 Jonathan Isaac (11.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.5 BPG). He has some fantastic teammates as well in guards Xavier Rathan-Mayes (10.4 PPG, 4.8 APG) and Dwayne Bacon (team-leading 16.9 PPG). 6-8 senior forward Marc-Eddy Norelia is a beast for FGCU, but he missed 10 games during the season due to personal issues (team was 6-4 in those games, including single-digit losses to Baylor and Michigan State). He is back (which is HUGE for the Eagles), and in his absence, UCF-transfer Brandon Goodwin became a star in his own right, averaging 18.4 points per game.

Why FSU will Win: For as talented as FGCU is, they don’t even come close to what the Seminoles have to offer. Florida State is great on both sides of the floor, and they should have an easy time playing their style against the Eagles. FSU will run the Eagles to death and simply outscore them en route to victory. No fun for Dunk City this year.

Why FGCU will Win: This team will come into this game thinking that they are the better team. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to push a team over the edge. For as talented as Florida State is, they have really struggled at times away from Tallahassee. Orlando isn’t very far, but it’s still not Tallahassee. Dunk City will prove to be alive and well, getting the Florida crowd on their side, rekindling some of the magic from 2013, and pulling off the huge upset.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#7 Saint Mary’s (28-4) vs #10 VCU (26-8)
Thursday 3/16, 7:20 pm TBS

Overview: When you talk about teams that are flying under the radar, Saint Mary’s is one of the first teams that comes to mind this year. They have just four losses this season, and three of them are to Gonzaga, who as it was noted earlier, is an extremely good team. The Gaels did not play a difficult schedule this year, but they know how to win, and KenPom has them as the 14th best team in the country. VCU has flown under the radar a little bit this year as well, finishing second in the A-10 in both the regular season and the tournament. Will Wade is one of the biggest names in coaching right now in terms of major conference openings, and he has done a great job with this team.

Key Players: Saint Mary’s has a player named Jock Landale, and he is a 6-11 junior who is averaging 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, and he finished second in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings. So yeah, he’s extremely good. VCU has some talented players as well, with senior JeQuan Lewis (14.7 PPG, 4.6 APG, 1.7 SPG) and junior Justin Tillman (12.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG) leading the way. They also have a monster in the middle, 6-7 senior Mo Alie-Cox, who I think has been at VCU for 18 years. At least it’s felt like that long.

Why SMC will Win: You can knock the Gaels for playing an easy schedule, but you can’t knock them for losing to Gonzaga three times. They are a much better team than most people realize, led by one of the most efficient offenses in the nation. They are in the Top-15 in the country in both 2-point and 3-point percentage, so it’s not like you can just take one of them away and expect to beat them. They will slow the game down, play their pace, work through their star Landale, and get the victory.

Why VCU will Win: This is going to be a low scoring game, as both teams are better on the defensive side of the ball. Athleticism is going to be a major advantage for the Rams, and I think if they can force some missed shots and get out and run, they can beat Saint Mary’s.

 

Salt Lake City, UT
#2 Arizona (30-4) vs #15 North Dakota (22-9)
Thursday 3/16, approx. 9:50 pm TBS

Overview: A few weeks ago if you asked people who the best team in the Pac-12 was, most probably said Oregon or UCLA. Arizona laughs at those people now, having beaten the Bruins and the Ducks in consecutive nights to win the Pac-12 Tournament and earn the 2-seed in the West. This team’s strength of schedule was not strong, but here are the four teams they lost to: Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon, UCLA. All teams on the top four seed lines in this Tournament. They are totally healthy right now, and peaking at the perfect time. North Dakota is in the Tournament for the first time in school history, needing overtime to defeat Weber State in the Big Sky title game.

Key Players: Allonzo Trier might be the best player for Arizona, and he missed the first 19 games of the season. Trier is averaging 17.3 points per game, and his return has transformed this team. Lauri Markkanen is another player you should pay attention to on the Wildcats. The 7-0 freshman is drawing Dirk Nowitzki comparisons, and it’s spot on. 6-0 senior guard Quinton Hooker is the man for the Fighting Hawks, averaging 19.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.8 steals per game.

Why AZ will Win: They are playing their best basketball right now, and a lot of times, it’s the teams that get hot down the stretch who go on to make deep runs in the Tournament. North Dakota isn’t great on defense, and they tend to struggle to guard the 3-point arc most of all. Arizona has a bunch of great shooters. They will make more than 10 from behind the 3-point line en route to a huge win.

Why UND will Win: It’s going to be tough for the Hawks to even compete in this game, as Arizona is considered by most to be the favorite to advance to the Final Four out of this region. Arizona likes to slow the pace on offense and set up in the half court, while North Dakota would much rather speed the game up. If they can force some missed shots and push the tempo, maybe North Dakota has a shot to shock the world.

 

Final Four Preview: Syracuse

It has been quite a whirlwind season for the Syracuse Orange. Legendary coach Jim Boeheim was suspended for nine game due to academic sanctions, and the team struggled mightily without him. Upon his return, they started to turn the corner, and looked like a Tournament team. That was before ending the season losing five of six games, putting their tourney hopes in serious doubt.

In one of a few shockers, Syracuse safely earned a 10-seed in the Big Dance. Many didn’t think Syracuse belonged in the field, and they have clearly been playing with a chip on their shoulder, as they’ve won four games en route to this year’s Final Four. The Orange are the first 10-seed to reach the Final Four, and just the 4th double digit seed to get this far. They’ll match-up with conference foe North Carolina in the National Semis, and they have a legitimate chance to win this whole thing. The following is a look at how Syracuse got here, and why they have a chance to cut down the nets in a few days.

First Round
Def. 7-seed Dayton 70-51
Syracuse made a little bit of a statement in the First Round, quite easily dispatching the 7-seeded Dayton Flyers, winning by 19. Dayton shot just 6-22 from three-point range and 9-19 from the free throw line, helping lead to their downfall. Freshman Malachi Richardson led the way for Syracuse with 21 points, and junior Tyler Roberson notched a double-double with 10 points and 18 rebounds.

Second Round
Def. 15-seed Middle Tennessee 75-50
A fairly large number of people expected Syracuse to defeat Dayton, but just about everyone expected their Second Round opponent to be Michigan State. When the Spartans were upset by Middle Tennessee, Syracuse knew they had a fantastic opportunity to advance to the second weekend of the Tournament, which they did. Senior Michael Gbinije was the catalyst for the Orange, scoring 23 points to lead the way.

Sweet 16
Def. 11-seed Gonzaga 63-60
Syracuse would again benefit from a big upset, meeting 11-seed Gonzaga in the Regional Semis. The Zags controlled most of this game, and looked to have a trip to the Elite Eight all but wrapped up. But a late charge from Syracuse and a few blown opportunities at the end for Gonzaga was enough for the Orange to come away with a 3-point victory and a trip to the Midwest Region final. Freshman Tyler Lydon blocked a Josh Perkins attempt with about 1 second left on the clock to seal the victory.

Elite Eight
Def. 1-seed Virginia 68-62
The friendly match-ups were over for Syracuse, and many expected their magical run to end against 1-seed Virginia. For a second straight game, Syracuse looked dead in the water midway through the second half. But they were able to muster up another late surge, coming back from a 14-point halftime deficit to take the lead with less than five minutes to go. From there they were able to hold off the Cavaliers and advance to the Final Four. It was a very uncharacteristic meltdown from Tony Bennett’s squad, but you have to credit Syracuse for contributing to that meltdown. It was another big game for freshman Malachi Richardson, who scored 23 points to lead the way for the Orange.

How They Got Here: Jim Boeheim
Like him or hate him (most people hate him), Jim Boeheim is an extremely good basketball coach. His players played some really good games, and were able to execute a couple amazing comebacks, but when you look at how they were able to pull this off, you look at the coaching. Boeheim made some genius decisions in the Gonzaga and Virginia games. Syracuse runs a 2-3 zone defense almost religiously, and they rarely pressure in the full court. But down double-digits against both the Zags and Virginia, Boeheim picked the perfect time to dial up the pressure, leading those teams to rush and turn the ball over a ton, helping his team make two incredible comebacks. They players executed the plan, but Boeheim cleary out-coached Mark Few and Tony Bennett, and you have to credit him for it. I don’t think Syracuse would be here if it wasn’t for Boeheim.

Why They’ll be National Champs:
You expect the chip on their shoulder to just disappear? It won’t, especially with some of Jim Boeheim’s recent comments. He has his team thinking that they deserve to be here while nobody else thinks they do. That could be all the motivation that they need to go out and win the National Championship. North Carolina is a tough match-up, and the Tar Heels beat Syracuse twice during the regular season. But the second meeting, which was each team’s second-to-last game of the season, went down to the wire in Chapel Hill, with UNC winning 75-70. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone can give teams fits, and a lot of times, it forces teams to hit perimeter jump shots to beat it. If Syracuse can force UNC to shoot from the perimeter (in a shooting grave of a stadium, as I’ve discussed previously), I think they can win this game, and then do the same thing to either Nova or Oklahoma in the title game. I don’t think it’s far-fetched at all to think that Syracuse can win the National Championship.

Why They Won’t Win the Title:
From a talent perspective, Syracuse is easily the most over-matched team remaining in the field. Michael Gbinije is an extremely good player, Trevor Cooney is experienced and Malachi Richardson is starting to blossom as a star player, but compared to North Carolina, Villanova and Oklahoma, Syracuse is on a much lower level. When it gets to this point, the cream usually rises to the top, and I don’t think Syracuse is the cream here. On the court, North Carolina has the perfect team to attack and win against the Orange’s zone defense. Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson can shoot over the top, and Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson can get to the middle and run the baseline, which could lead to some really easy buckets. Syracuse is going to have a tough time slowing down the Tar Heels, and that could end up meaning the end of this magical run.

Final Four Preview: Villanova

In 2009, Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats made their first trip to the Final Four since winning the National Championship in 1985, riding a red hot point guard named Scotty Reynolds. Villanova has been one of the best programs in the nation in subsequent years, but they have been marred by postseason struggles.

Entering the 2016 Tournament, Villanova had failed to reach the second weekend of the Big Dance since that Final Four trip in ’09. Despite a very impressive season, many were writing off the Wildcats, citing their inability to win when it counts. Well, those people are eating their words now, as Villanova has silenced its critics, reaching the 2016 Final Four as the South Region Champions. Here is a look at how they got here, and why they might be the ones cutting down the nets on April 4.

First Round
Def. 15-seed UNC Asheville 86-56
Villanova has been a slow-starting team for much of this season, and they allowed UNC Asheville to stay in this one for a little while. But the Wildcats were able to pull away big time in the second half en route to a 30-point opening game victory. It was a very balanced effort from Nova, but they were led by senior big man Daniel Ochefu, who had 17 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks.

Second Round
Def. 7-seed Iowa 87-68
Many were looking forward to a Villanova-Temple match-up here in the Second Round, but when Iowa knocked off the Owls at the buzzer, they moved on instead. As a Temple fan, I am glad they lost, because Iowa ran into a juggernaut in this game. Villanova went ahead early, and never looked back. They led 56-29 at halftime, putting it on cruise control in the second half, winning by 19 and finally getting back to the second weekend of the Tournament. They shot just under 60 percent from the field, including going 10-19 from 3-point range, and were led by 19 points from junior guard Josh Hart.

Sweet 16
Def. 3-seed Miami 92-69
While the Wildcats had cruised to this point, many expected them to at least have some difficulties with a very good Miami team. That was not the case, as this was the moment that Villanova cemented itself as a legitimate National Championship contender. Nova was the better team from the tip-off, and they dominated from start to finish, winning by 23. If you thought their 59 percent from the field against Iowa was good, wait til you hear what they did in this game. Villanova shot over 62.5 percent (!!!!!) from the field, including an astounding 10-15 from behind the arc (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!). Miami didn’t stand a chance in this one.

Elite Eight
Def. 1-seed Kansas 64-59
Villanova had been shooting the lights out to this point, but there were doubts about whether or not they could win a game in which they weren’t shooting well, especially against the #1 overall team in the field and the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing, the Kansas Jayhawks. The people doubting Villanova forgot just how tenacious they are on defense, as they held senior star Perry Ellis to just four points in a 64-59 victory, sending Nova back to the Final Four. Villanova shot just over 40 percent from the field in this one, and just 4-18 from 3-point range, but they got it done on the defensive end. Freshman Mikal Bridges had 5 steals, including a crucial one near the end of the game with Kansas looking to tie it up.

How They Got Here: Balance
In their first three games in this tournament, it was the offense and the impeccable shooting that was in the spotlight for the Wildcats. In the Elite Eight against Kansas, it was their smothering defense that got them the victory. You can look at a number of reasons why Villanova has made it this far, but it comes down to this: if they need to make shots to win, they can, and if they need to lock you down defensively to win, they still can. There aren’t many teams in college basketball this year that are capable of performing really well on both ends of the floor like Villanova can. KenPom has Villanova rated in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, one of only two teams that can boast that right now (Virginia is the other). This team is among the best in the nation on both ends of the floor, and they’ve showcased that during the first two weekends of this tournament.

Why They’ll be National Champions:
Top to bottom, I’d say the eye test would favor North Carolina as the favorite to win the National Championship, but if you look at all the factors, including (and most importantly in this case) the teams they’ve played so far, it’s hard not to choose Villanova as the favorite to cut down the nets in NRG Stadium. Not only have the Wildcats looked mighty impressive, but look at who they’ve beaten to get here. An Iowa team that was once ranked in the top-5 this season, a Miami team that was at the top of the ACC all year (a conference with two teams in the Final Four), and the undisputed Big 12 Champions, Kansas, who also entered their game with Nova riding a 17-game winning streak. They’ve proven that they belong here, and I have a hard time not pegging them the favorites. If they shoot the ball well, it’s hard to outscore them, and if they aren’t hitting their shots, a lot of times their defense is good enough to make sure you don’t hit yours either. They’ll cut down the nets because I believe that they are the best team in the Final Four.

Why They Won’t Win the Title: 
Despite everything that I just said in that last blurb, I’d imagine that the last team Villanova fans wanted to see in the National Semifinals was Oklahoma. These two teams played a non-conference game back on December 7 at Pearl Harbor, with Oklahoma absolutely dominating the game, winning by 23 points (and it wasn’t that close). The Sooners made everything and the Wildcats made nothing. Now, this Villanova team is vastly different from the one that played in that game on December 7, and they won’t have to travel quite as far for this one, but if Oklahoma has another thing going for them, it’s Buddy Hield. Hield is proving why he should be the Player of the Year, and there might not be anything Villanova can do to keep him from willing Oklahoma to victory on Saturday.

Final Four Preview: North Carolina

It doesn’t happen often, but all four 1-seeds in this year’s NCAA Men’s Tournament advanced to the Elite Eight, leaving many to believe that all four could improbably reach the Final Four. It was a crazy season, but it was looking like it could be a chalk finish.

As we should have expected, that didn’t happen. Instead, only one 1-seed was able to advance to the Final Four, and it was the North Carolina Tar Heels out of the East Region. We’re first going to look at how they got to this point, then we’ll discuss why they can win it all, as well as why they might not.

First Round
Def. 16-seed Florida Gulf Coast 83-67
It wasn’t a great start to the Tournament for the Tar Heels, as they led by just one point at halftime of their opener in Raleigh, 41-40. The FGCU Eagles, who defeated Fairleigh Dickinson in a First Four game, played inspired in the first half, looking far from a typical 16-seed. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the UNC locker room at halftime, because whatever Roy Williams said to his team definitely worked, as they opened the second half on fire, separating themselves en route to a 16-point victory. Brice Johnson dominated the game with 18 points and a season-high 8 blocks.

Second Round
Def. 9-seed Providence 85-66
It was another lackluster first half for the Tar Heels, as they led by just four points at the break. They again flipped a switch in the second half, distancing themselves and holding off the Friars despite a 29-point performance from Kris Dunn. Brice Johnson tallied a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and UNC got a big game off the bench from Isaiah Hicks, who scored 13 points with 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks.

Sweet 16
Def. 5-seed Indiana 101-86
After struggling early in each of their first two tourney games, North Carolina came out firing in this one, and led wire-to-wire in a high-scoring affair with the Hoosiers. Many thought Indiana would give UNC a lot of problems, but the Tar Heels were well prepared for this one, getting great performances from their stars Brice Johnson (20 pts, 10 reb) and Marcus Paige (21 pts, 6-9 3pt, 6 ast).

Elite Eight
Def. 6-seed Notre Dame 88-74
Most experts said that Notre Dame would have to play one of their best games of the season if they were going to defeat North Carolina for a second time this season. Notre Dame might have played one of their best games of the season, but it still wasn’t enough to get them a victory. Brice Johnson had his best game of the tournament, scoring 25 points to go along with 12 rebounds, leading the Tar Heels to a 14-point win.

Why They Got Here: Paige and Johnson
The Tar Heels have been considered one of the deeper teams in basketball this season, but they become arguably the best team in the nation when seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson are at the top of their games. Paige missed the start of the season with an injured hand, and even after he came back, he struggled with his jump shot for much of the season. Luckily for UNC, Paige has figured out the issue. He’s averaging 14 points per game in this tournament, and he’s 13-27 from distance. He is a great floor general, and teams now have to worry about stopping him. They can’t worry too much about stopping him though, because the Tar Heels have Brice Johnson playing some of his best basketball of the season. The First Team AP All-American is averaging 21 points a game in the Tournament, and he has been a force in the paint and in the mid-range game. He’s becoming nearly impossible to stop, and he could definitely lead the Tar Heels to a title.

Why They’ll be National Champions:
North Carolina is the best team remaining, and it’s really hard to argue that. They have looked really good at times in all four of their tourney games, and it’s hard to see anybody being able to stop Brice Johnson enough to beat this team. Even if they can contain Johnson, North Carolina has so many other players who are capable of stepping up. Nate Britt, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, all players who have stepped up for the Tar Heels at different points this season. Another reason they could win this thing, believe it or not, is the venue. In past Tournament games at Houston’s NRG Stadium, teams have had a very difficult time shooting the ball. One of the uglier National Championship games in recent memory, UConn versus Butler in 2011, was held in NRG Stadium. Of the four teams remaining, North Carolina is the one that is least dependent on outside shooting. That screams advantage Tar Heels.

Why They Won’t Win the Title: 
While North Carolina has looked very good in this tournament, they have had, without question, the easiest road of the four teams. The highest seed they played was 5-seed Indiana, benefiting from early losses for 2-seed Xavier, 3-seed West Virginia and 4-seed Kentucky. They get another low seed in the Final Four when they take on Midwest Regional winners, 10-seed Syracuse, a team that North Carolina beat twice this season. Many see that and think victory for the Tar Heels, but it is very difficult to beat a team three times in the same season, let alone a Syracuse team playing with a chip on their shoulder having barely made the field. Their second meeting came in the last week of the regular season in Chapel Hill, with North Carolina barely escaping with a 75-70 win. The Tar Heels are the clear favorite in this game, but Syracuse knows their playing with house money, and the pressure is totally on UNC. If they struggle under the pressure, the Orange could sneak up and pull off another upset.