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.

 

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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 Preview: First Four

IT’S HERE! IT’S FINALLY HERE! The 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed on Sunday to much fanfare, and thankfully, to very little surprise. The 68 teams that made the field were the 68 teams that most expected, which is a welcome sight. I usually expect the Selection Committee to make a mistake or two, but they did an extremely good job this season.

Although, you could wait to see how it all plays out before you make that decision! The Tournament will kick off, as it has the last few seasons, with the First Four games in Dayton on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I am here to give you the lowdown on each of those four games. Let’s not waste any more time, here is a preview of this year’s First Four games.

*Any statistics discussed are courtesy of ESPN and KenPom*

2017 NCAA Tournament Bracket

East Region
#16 Mount St. Mary’s (19-15) vs #16 New Orleans (20-11)
Tuesday 3/14, 6:40 pm TruTV

Overview: The first game of this year’s NCAA Tournament will see the Mountaineers of Mount St. Mary’s take on the Privateers of New Orleans. MSM really challenged themselves in their non-conference schedule this year, taking on teams like West Virginia, Iowa State, Arkansas, Michigan and Minnesota. They lost all of those games, but they’ve played good teams. New Orleans didn’t play quite as difficult a schedule, but they tested themselves a few times with games against USC, Northwestern and Oklahoma State. They also have a win over a power conference team, defeating Washington State 70-54 on December 3. Each of these teams is better on the defensive end, so it could come down to whichever team is able to make more stops.

Key Players: Each of these teams is led by a “mighty mite” if you will, Christavious Gill (5-8, 11.6 PPG) for New Orleans and Junior Robinson (5-5, 14.1 PPG) for MSM. They are two of the four shortest players in the Tournament this season, but they are joined by some really good taller players, guard Elijah Long for the Mountaineers (team leading 15.4 PPG) and forward Erik Thomas for New Orleans (19.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG).

Why MSM will Win: The Mountaineers have been playing great after starting their season playing really good teams on the road. Since Christmas, they are 17-4. They also are one of the better teams at forcing turnovers, while New Orleans can be susceptible to giving the ball away. The Mount forces enough turnovers to get the victory.

Why NO will Win: What a story this program is. Following Hurricane Katrina, monetary issues nearly forced them to leave Division I and head to Division III. Over 10 years later, and the Privateers are back in the Tournament for the first time since 1996. And you know who else is good at forcing turnovers? New Orleans is. In fact, they’re 12th in the country in opponent TO percentage. They win the turnover battle, and end up winning the game as well.

 

South Region
#11 Kansas State (20-13) vs #11 Wake Forest (19-13)
Tuesday 3/14, approx. 9:10 pm TruTV

Overview: Two teams that probably earned their way into the field thanks to big wins at the end of the season will battle it out to see who goes on to face 6-seed Cincinnati in the First Round. Kansas State struggled in Big 12 play, going 8-10, but a quarterfinal win over Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament likely pushed the Wildcats over the edge of the Bubble. On the flip-side, Wake Forest lost twice to Clemson and at Syracuse, but their other 10 losses were all to teams who reached the Tournament. The Demon Deacons beat Louisville at home and Virginia Tech on the road in the last week of the regular season, which was enough to earn this at-large bid.

Key Players: Wake is one of the best offensive teams in the nation, and they are led by 6-10 sophomore forward John Collins (18.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG), who may have improved his NBA Draft stock more than any player in the country this season. Kansas State is a more balanced offensive team, with five players averaging over 9 points per game. Seniors Wesley Iwundu (6.4 RPG) and D.J. Johnson (1.5 BPG) add a lot on the defensive end as well for the Wildcats.

Why KSU will Win: Kansas State struggled in the Big 12, but it was probably the toughest league top to bottom this season, so they are definitely battle tested. They are a very good defensive team, and they do a terrific job defending the paint. Wake Forest struggles to get good looks on the interior, and K-State does enough offensively to win a more low-scoring battle than many expect.

Why WAKE will Win: I mentioned that the Deacons are really good on the offensive end. KenPom has them rated as the 8th most efficient offensive team in the country. John Collins is the best player on the floor, and he’ll flex his muscle, going for over 20 points, and late success from the free throw line, where Wake shoots over 77 percent (12th in NCAA), keeps K-State from making a comeback. Wake Forest moves on to face Cincinnati.

 

Midwest Region
#16 NC Central (25-8) vs #16 UC Davis (22-12)
Wednesday 3/15, 6:40 pm TruTV

Overview: UC Davis is one of five teams making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament this year, and the Aggies needed to upset UC Irvine in the Big West finals to get here. You might be surprised to see a 25-8 team in the First Four, but NC Central was the only team in the MEAC ranked inside of KenPom’s Top-300. There’s only 351 D-I teams, so the competition Central has faced this season has not been the best, hence their placement here.

Key Players: The best player on the court will be NC Central senior guard Patrick Cole, who does just about everything for the Eagles (19.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 5.7 APG). UC Davis is led by a senior guard as well, 6-4 Brynton Lamar (16.1 PPG). Lamar scored 20 points in the Big West final to get the Aggies to this point.

Why NCCU will Win: Don’t get stuck on the competition that the Eagles have faced this season, this is a pretty good team, and they deserve to be here. Head Coach LeVelle Moton has been discussed as a potential option for NC State’s coaching search, and he’ll have his team ready to go. They are one of the best teams in the nation at defending the 3-point arc (3rd in the nation according to KenPom), which is where UC Davis does most of their damage. Davis has trouble getting open looks from the perimeter, and NC Central is able to outscore them because of that and pick up the victory.

Why UCD will Win: Simply put, the Aggies have faced tougher competition this season, and that experience will do wonders for them here. They tend to struggle on offense, but they have a lot of size, which NC Central really does not. They have some height, but they don’t use it well. That advantage allows UC Davis to win a low-scoring affair.

 

East Region
#11 Providence (20-12) vs #11 USC (24-9)
Wednesday 3/15, approx. 9:10 pm TruTV

Overview: Talk about two teams that had polar opposite seasons. Providence was barely on the Tournament radar as recently as February 8, when they lost to Seton Hall in overtime, dropping them to 14-11 overall, 4-8 in the Big East. The Friars proceeded to rattle off six straight wins to end the regular season, including wins over Butler, Xavier, Marquette and Creighton, all Tournament teams. Meanwhile, it was a fantastic start to the season for the Trojans, going a perfect 13-0 in non-conference play, including wins over Texas A&M, BYU and SMU. However, USC struggled down the stretch, losing four of their last six, and going just 1-5 against the Pac-12’s other three Tourney teams.

Key Players: Providence is led by a pair of juniors with Tournament experience, point guard Kyron Cartwright (11.4 PPG, 6.7 APG) and forward Rodney Bullock (15.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG). The Friars are extremely athletic, but the Trojans might be even more athletic. They are led by a couple really long, talented sophomore forwards, 6-10 Bennie Boatwright and 6-11 Chimeize Metu, who both average over 14.5 PPG. Boatwright missed 17 games this season, but he is healthy now, and that is huge for USC.

Why PROV will Win: Momentum could play a huge factor in this game. It’s no question that Providence is the hotter team in this matchup. The Friars don’t have the size or length that USC has, so they will play this game on the perimeter. A good outside shooting team going up against a poor perimeter defense. Advantage Providence. They make enough shots to get the win and move on to the First Round.

Why USC will Win: You can easily argue that USC is the more talented team, and sometimes, that’s all it takes. But on top of that, the Trojans have a massive size advantage, and if they can post up their big men and attack with their guards, they can dominate Providence on the interior and get the victory.

That does it for my preview of the First Four games in this season’s NCAA Tournament. It’s looking like we may be snowed in here in Southeast PA on Tuesday, so there’s no excuse for you to not tune in to at least the games on Tuesday night. We usually get some pretty exciting games in the First Four, making it a perfect appetizer for the First Round on Thursday and Friday!

Be sure to stay tuned to the Facebook page as I’ll be posting previews for each Region of the Tournament over the next few days in anticipation of the First Round, which will kickoff Thursday at 12:15 pm!

Conference Tourney Preview: March 1

Isn’t that date just a beautiful sight? March Madness is here folks, and it couldn’t come fast enough! This has been one of the wildest, craziest, most wacky college basketball seasons in recent memory, and starting this week for some teams and next week for the rest, it is postseason time, and it’s about to get really crazy.

I just get this feeling, based on how the season has gone, that some truly wild is going to happen. Maybe a 10 or 11-seed in a conference makes a run to a title and earns an auto-bid to the big dance. Maybe a team with little-to-no shot at making the Tournament goes on an epic run next week and steals a bid from an at-large. I think of a team like LSU or Ohio State, or maybe a Houston or an Evansville. Maybe this will finally be the year that a 16-seed knocks off a 1-seed in the Round of 64. It’s never happened, but after everything that has occurred this season, I find it hard to not think of that as a possibility.

Today officially marks the beginning of the 2016 postseason for college basketball, as several conference tournaments will get underway tonight. The following is a short preview of each of the conference tourney’s getting underway this week.

America East Tournament
March 2, 7, 12
Higher seeds host all games
Championship Game: Sat March 12, 11:00 am ESPN2
The America East Championship Game figures to be one of the more highly anticipated lower conference title games this season. The 1 and 2-seeds in the tourney, Stony Brook and Albany respectively, have met in the conference tournament in each of the last six seasons, including the last two in the Title Game, with Albany winning both. Stony Brook forward Jameel Warney is not only the best player in the America East, but he is one of the best players in all of America. He has yet to reach the NCAA Tournament in his college career, and it would be a shame if he doesn’t get to showcase his talent in front of a huge audience. Stony Brook is the clear favorite to win this conference, and I’ll be shocked if it’s anybody but them in the end.

Atlantic Sun Tournament
March 1, 3, 6
Higher seeds host all games
Championship Game: Sun March 6, 12:30 pm ESPN2
The winner of the Atlantic Sun will most likely be a 15 or 16 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean that they lack quality teams. In 2013, the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles shocked the world by advancing to the Sweet 16 as a 15-seed out of the Atlantic Sun. The Eagles are the 4-seed in this year’s conference tourney, with the 1-seed and odds-on favorite being the North Florida Ospreys, who are looking to return to the Tournament for a second consecutive season. Last year was North Florida’s first ever trip to the Big Dance, and they unfortunately went down in a First Four game to Robert Morris. They will have a few tough teams in their way though, with NJIT and Jacksonville joining FGCU as teams that could very easily spoil the party for North Florida.

Big South Tournament
March 3-6
Buies Creek, NC
Championship Game: Sun March 6, 2:30 pm ESPN2
You could easily argue for any of the top four teams in this conference being the favorite to win the title. Winthrop and High Point finished the regular season tied at the top with a 13-5 conference record, with Coastal Carolina and UNC Asheville finishing just a game behind. High Point will be the 1-seed and Coastal Carolina the 3-seed. The top five teams get a bye to the quarterfinals (4-seed UNC Asheville will take on 5-seed Liberty, while the other three teams await first round results). The player to watch in this conference is High Point forward John Brown, one of the most athletic players in the country. He could be a possible 2nd round pick in this year’s NBA Draft, and he’ll look to showcase his skills here en route to a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Winthrop, Coastal Carolina and UNC Asheville have all played in the tourney in recent years, and that experience factor could push any of them to a Big South title.

CAA Tournament
March 4-7
Baltimore, MD
Championship Game: Mon March 7, 7:00 pm NBC Sports Network
Another exciting regular season race saw UNC Wilmington and Hofstra each finish 14-4 in conference play to share the regular season title. Three other teams, James Madison, William & Mary and Towson, each finished 11-7 in CAA play, not far behind the top two. Hofstra is the 1-seed, and if they win their quarterfinal, they will play the winner of William & Mary vs James Madison, while UNC Wilmington is the 2-seed, and if they win their quarterfinal, they’ll take on either Towson or Northeastern, last season’s CAA Champion. KenPom ranks James Madison as the best team in the CAA, but they have UNC Wilmington and Hofstra not far behind. Any of those three teams would be a good pick to win the CAA Tournament.

Horizon League Tournament
March 5-8
Detroit, MI
Championship Game: Tue March 8, 7:00 pm ESPN/ESPN2
The Horizon League always seems to have at least one really good mid-major team, and more often than not, that team is able to win the league and head to the Big Dance. One of the reasons for that is the top two teams in the regular season standings get a bye to the semifinals of the conference tournament. That is something I wish more lower-level conferences would do, to try to ensure that they send one of their best teams to the NCAA Tournament. This year, Valparaiso is the clear favorite after finishing 16-2 in conference play, and 26-5 overall. They have wins over Iona, Rhode Island and Oregon State, and KenPom ranks them as the 4th most efficient defensive team in the nation. Their toughest challenge will be the Oakland Golden Grizzlies, who finished tied with Wright State at 13-5 in Horizon play. Oakland is the 2-seed by way of tiebreakers, and they feature one of the best players in the country in guard Kay Felder. Felder is averaging 24.4 points and 9.4 assists a game this season, and if they get to the NCAA Tournament, Felder has the potential to become a superstar.

MAAC Tournament
March 3-7
Albany, NY
Championship Game: Mon March 7, 7:00 pm ESPN
The team you want to know in the MAAC is the Monmouth Hawks, and not just because they have the most entertaining bench in the history of basketball. Monmouth scored non-conference wins this year over likely tournament teams Notre Dame and USC, as well as victories over UCLA and Georgetown. There is a real possibility that if Monmouth falls in the MAAC Tournament they could get an at-large bid to the dance. So, if you are a fan of a Bubble team, you should be rooting hard for Monmouth to win the MAAC. They are the clear favorite, but the Iona Gaels, the 2-seed in the MAAC, are a very good team in their own right, and I could easily see them advancing to the NCAA Tournament. Iona defeated Monmouth by 16 points on the road in their last meeting, and if they meet again in the conference title game, Iona might be the favorite to win it.

Missouri Valley Tournament
March 3-6
St. Louis, MO
Championship Game: Sun March 6, 2:00 pm CBS
Arch Madness, as they like to call it, will have a clear favorite this season in the experienced Wichita State Shockers. This is the last year for stars Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker to try and make some more magic. They played in the Final Four as freshmen, and helped lead the Shockers to an undefeated regular season the following year. They finished four games ahead of Evansville and Illinois State in the regular season standings, and I expect them to be extremely determined to get another MVC title before their time in Wichita is done. There are a couple teams who could stand in their way, including the aforementioned Illinois State Redbirds, who were one of the teams to defeat Wichita State this season, and the Northern Iowa Panthers, who have experience, a road win over the Shockers and victories against North Carolina and Iowa State to their name this season. Beyond those two teams, Evansville might be the most talented team in the conference that isn’t Wichita State, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see the Aces pull off a conference championship. Wichita State is a definite bid-stealer, so Bubble teams should be rooting hard for the Shockers to take the MWC crown.

Northeast Tournament
March 2, 5, 8
Higher seeds host all games
Championship Game: Tue March 8, 7:00 pm ESPN/ESPN2
The Northeast Conference is one of the weakest in the country this season, and you can expect a lot of close games in this tourney. Seven of the eight teams that made the Northeast Tournament finished the season .500 or better in conference play. It is almost a sure bet that whoever comes out of the conference will be placed in a First Four game in Dayton. Wagner is the 1-seed in the conference tourney, and they are the only team in the conference who hasn’t lost double-digit games this year. They are also the only team in the conference ranked in KenPom’s Top-250. They will be the favorite to get the league’s auto-bid, but don’t be surprised to see some madness occur in the Northeast.

OVC Tournament
March 2-5
Nashville, TN
Championship Game: Sat March 5, 6:00 pm ESPN2
The Ohio Valley Conference is another conference that sends it’s top two teams straight to the semifinals, but with a little wrinkle. The conference is split into two divisions,and the 1st place team in each division gets the double bye. UT-Martin is the beneficiary of the rule this year, as they get a spot in the semifinal despite having the 5th best conference record. The other bye goes to Belmont, who will enter the postseason as the most experienced team in the conference, having won the OVC title in four of the last five seasons. Head Coach Rick Byrd has a sterling postseason record, and it will take a monumental effort in my eyes to keep Belmont from another conference title and another chance in the NCAA Tournament. If any team can do it, I think it would be the 3-seed Morehead State Eagles, who are actually the highest ranked team in the conference by KenPom.

Patriot League Tournament
March 1, 3, 6, 9
Higher seeds host all games
Championship Game: Wed March 9, 7:30 pm CBS Sports Network
This is another conference that will likely have their representative playing in a First Four game, but that doesn’t make the conference tourney games any less exciting. Bucknell has been the top team in the conference for much of the season, but the Lehigh Mountain Hawks have made an incredible run down the stretch. Lehigh, who owns the league’s last NCAA Tournament win when they knocked off Duke as a 15-seed in 2012, lost their first seven games of the season and entered February at 6-14 on the season. They have since rattled off nine straight wins, and will enter the conference tournament as the 2-seed, and possibly the favorite. One of their nine February wins was an 80-65 blowout win on the road over 1-seed Bucknell. They are led by junior forward Tim Kempton, who is without a doubt the best player in the conference. He has scored in double digits in all but two games this season. If Lehigh continues this magical run with a Patriot League title, expect Kempton to be a big reason why.

Southern Tournament
March 4-7
Asheville, NC
Championship Game: Mon March 7, 9:00 pm ESPN2
It will be a relative disappointment if any team other than Chattanooga gets the Southern auto-bid to the Big Dance. The Mocs are easily the best team in the conference, ranked 110th in the nation by KenPom, and they have wins this season over Georgia, Illinois and Dayton. They have proven that they can beat major conference teams, and they will be a trendy pick to pull off an upset in the NCAA Tournament. That is if they make it. Their biggest roadblock will be East Tennessee State, who is led by Cincinnati-transfer Ge’Lawn Guyn. Guyn played in two NCAA Tournament games in his time at Cincinnati, so he knows what it feels like to accomplish making the Field of 68. That kind of experience could be a huge difference maker this time of year.

Summit League Tournament
March 5-8
Sioux Falls, SD
Championship Game: Tue March 8, 9:00 pm ESPN2
The Summit League was a two horse race for the majority of the season, and those two horses finished in a dead heat. IPFW and South Dakota State each finished the season 12-4 in conference play, with the Mastodons (That’s IPFW for those who don’t know) winning the tiebreaker and earning the 1-seed in the Summit League tourney. The two teams split their season series, but most rankings and advanced statistics say that South Dakota State is the better team. KenPom ranks them 69th in the country, and they are 40th in the RPI, which is way higher than I would’ve expected. Jackrabbit freshman Mike Daum might be the the best player in the conference, and I expect him to lead them to a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

WCC Tournament
March 4-5, 7-8
Las Vegas, NV
Championship Game: Tue March 8, 9:oo pm ESPN
It is really strange to say this, but Gonzaga needs to win the West Coast Conference Tournament if they want to play in their 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament. The Zags went 1-3 this season against Saint Mary’s and BYU, the 1 and 3-seeds in the conference tournament respectively. A possible semifinal match-up between Gonzaga and BYU, a rubber match between those teams, is likely a Tournament elimination game. Saint Mary’s has been the best and most consistent team in the WCC this year, but they have a scary possible semifinal match-up against Pepperdine, who handed the Gaels two of their four losses this season. There is the potential for some madness in this tournament, but the game most will want to see is Saint Mary’s versus Gonzaga. I am in the camp that believes that’s what we will see, with the Bulldogs’ tourney hopes hanging in the balance.

It’s “Win or Go Home” time in college basketball, and I hope you are all as excited as I am!