2017 NCAA Tournament Preview: Which Team Will Rule March Madness?
The NCAA selection committee chose the 68 schools who advanced to the big dance — the 2017 NCAA men’s basketball tournament — Sunday evening.
Few basketball fans would complain if this year’s March Madness resulted in a rematch of last year’s epic title game between Villanova and North Carolina, won by the Wildcats on Kris Jenkins’ last-second shot.
The sequel could happen: ‘Nova and the Tar Heels were each awarded No. 1 regional seeds on opposite sides of the draw on Sunday.
Alas, filling out your bracket probably won’t be quite as simple as using last year’s sheet. Upsets! Underdogs! Mid-Majors! Buzzer-Beaters! You better study up.
Check out our region-by-region guide of what you need to know to help you fill out your 2017 NCAA tournament bracket.
The Favorite: North Carolina (1)
North Carolina (27-7) rebounded from last year’s crushing title game loss by winning the ACC regular-season championship behind the play of Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Kennedy Meeks. If they stay focused, the Tar Heels should be able to get by Kentucky, UCLA or whichever other team they face in the South regional final. Roy Williams’ team did lose to rival Duke twice, but they beat them once. If the teams meet a fourth time, it will be in the NCAA Championship. Don’t rule it out.
The Dark Horse: Butler (4)
Isn’t Butler (23-8) always the scrappy underdog? Yes, but they now appear in the tournament so often that it’s no surprise to see them with a high-seed. Forward Kelan Martin and guard Tyler Lewis make the Bulldogs offense tick. If the team that beat Villanova, 74-66, on February 22 shows up in March, they could make a run; if the team that lost to Xavier in the Big East quarterfinals last week appears, Butler might be shown the door early.
Most Likely To Be A Cinderella: Wichita State (10)
Bolstered by a staunch defense, Wichita State (30-4)i s back in the NCAA tournament for the sixth straight year. Led by Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp, the Shockers are fourth in the nation in 3-point accuracy. Inexplicably seeded 10th (!), Wichita State has a tough draw with Dayton, Kentucky and UCLA in their half of the region, but nothing scares Gregg Marshall or his team.
Most Likely To Disappoint: Cincinnati (6)
Led by defensive-minded head coach Mick Cronin, Cincinnati (29-5) had another very good season. The Bearcats ranked fourth in the country in scoring defense (60.2 PPG), and eighth in defensive efficiency, but that may not help them against UCLA’s powerful offense in the second round. They’ll need to D-up and score points, a category they ranked 128th in during the regular season.
Players to Watch: Malik Monk, Guard, Kentucky
Kentucky (29-5) is never without NBA-level talent. This season, freshman guard Malik Monk has shown himself to be the best of the Wildcats blue chip talent. Monk plays as though he’s already got plans in the Association. He can help his stock in June’s NBA Draft by carrying his team deep into March Madness.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Steve Alford, UCLA
Ranked in the top 10 for most of the season, UCLA (29-4) had arguably the best player (Lonzo Ball) and the best offense in the country. So, why didn’t they win the Pac-12? Why aren’t they a lock for the Final Four? Why can’t they ever seem to recruit a solid, low-post defender? UCLA boosters and alums might be asking those questions if head coach Steve Alford and the Bruins can’t get themselves at least to the Sweet 16.
The Favorite: Kansas (1)
Heading into the NCAA tournament after winning its 13th consecutive regular-season Big 12 title, Kansas (28-3) seems like a no-brainer pick to make another March run to the Sweet 16 and maybe the Final Four. The three-guard trio of Frank Mason, Josh Jackson and Devonte’ Graham will be difficult to stop, especially in what seems to be the tourney’s weakest region.
The Dark Horse: Iowa State (5)
Riding the momentum they gained from winning the Big 12 tournament, Iowa State (23-10) could very easily advance into the Sweet 16 round. The Cyclones biggest asset is guard Monte Morris, whose mistake-free play has kept them in games against many of the nation’s best teams. If any team in the Midwest can beat Kansas, it’s ISU — just like they did back in early February at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
Most Likely To Be A Cinderella: Vermont (13)
No team enters the tournament hotter than Vermont (29-5). The Catamounts have won 21 consecutive games, and wrapped up the America East title after a perfect regular season. While it’s hard to imagine Vermont packing its bags for a Final Four trip, the Catamounts and forward Anthony Lamb are more disciplined than fourth-seeded Purdue, their first-round opponent. If the Boilermakers don’t rebound well and avoid sloppy turnovers, Vermont could spring the biggest upset of the tournament.
Most Likely To Disappoint: Louisville (2)
The selection committee believes in Louisville (24-8), but should you? Head coach Rick Pitino’s Cardinals always seem to make a run in the tournament, but the team has lost three of its last five games and four of its last nine. Two of those wins were against Syracuse, a team that didn’t make the field. Louisville might not get bounced in the first round, but they seem over-seeded this year.
Player to Watch: Dillon Brooks, G, Oregon
Few players in the nation are as exciting to watch as talented Oregon forward Dillion Brooks. East Coast fans who don’t stay up late enough to watch Pac-12 games should get two or three chances to watch Brooks score and soar; he averaged 16.3 points, 2.9 boards and 2.7 assists per game. Unfortunately, without the help of forward Chris Boucher, who was lost to a torn ACL in the Pac-12 conference tournament, the Ducks might not get much further than that in March.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Tom Izzo, Michigan State
Of course, longtime head coach Tom Izzo isn’t going to lose his job if his ninth-seeded Michigan State (19-14) team can’t beat Miami in the first round. BUT, it would represent the second consecutive first-round exit for the Spartans. Even the best coaches, like Izzo, can start to fade quickly. An NCAA win with this young team would demonstrate that he hasn’t lost his touch.
The Favorite: Duke (2)
WHAT? Yes, this is the power of the ACC tournament. Despite an inconsistent regular season that saw them finish fifth in the conference, Duke (27-8) has been given a second-seed in the tourney — and the mantle of NCAA-favorite in Vegas. Never mind that the Blue Devils are in the same region as top-seeded, defending national champs Villanova. Truth: forward Jayson Tatum is playing the best basketball in the country right now and the backcourt of Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard can be impossible to guard in the half-court. The biggest surprise will be if Duke and ‘Nova don’t face each other in the regional title game in New York, where the Blue Devils just completed a four-day run to the ACC title.
The Dark Horse: Florida (4)
If any team can prevent a Villanova-Duke regional final, it’s Florida (24-8). The Gators are a battle-tested squad, having played a challenging non-conference schedule that included matchups with Gonzaga, Miami, Duke and Florida State. If KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry are filling it up, Florida can make a run.
Most Likely To Be A Cinderella: SMU (6)
SMU (30-4) shoots and rebounds well, and they have won 16 consecutive games, including an AAC title game rout over Cincinnati. The inside-outside tandem of Semi Ojeleye and Shake Milton can keep any game close. The Mustangs will be challenged by the winner of the Providence-USC play-in game, but there isn’t a team in this region they can’t stay with for 40 minutes.
Most Likely To Disappoint: USC (11)
Head coach Andy Enfield has taken USC (24-9) to two consecutive NCAA tournaments, but this year’s team could just as easily have found itself in the NIT instead. The Trojans will need to play disciplined basketball to get past Providence. It’s a lot more likely that they’ll be looking forward to the 2017-18 season.
Players to Watch: Johnathan Motley, Forward, Baylor
Baylor (25-7) was one of the biggest surprises in the country this season, but the Bears would have hibernated through March if not for their NBA-ready forward Johnathan Motley. The 6-10 junior averaged 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. If Motley is on, Baylor could challenge Duke and ’Nova for the regional title. He’s that good.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Tony Bennett, Virginia
While Virginia head coach Tony Bennett has helped lift the Cavaliers’ program into the upper-levels of the ACC, the on-court product continues to seem closer to Ben Howland’s tenure at UCLA: defense-first and offense-yeeech. Unfortunately, Bennett hasn’t recruited the Kevin Love/Russell Westbrook-level star that might help his team get to a Final Four. If Virginia gets bounced early, Bennett may start to feel the heat — and hear the clock ticking.
The Favorite: Gonzaga (1)
Gonzaga (32-1) has arguably been the nation’s best and most consistent team this season. The Bulldogs play great defense and don’t allow teams to pressure them into mistakes — qualities befitting a Final Four team. With guard Nigel Williams-Goss, center Przemek Karnowski and forward Zach Collins, head coach Mark Few has talent that few teams can match. There is no team in the region — or the nation — that the Bulldogs can’t beat on any court.
The Dark Horse: West Virginia (4)
Facing West Virginia (26-8) is every team’s nightmare. The Mountaineers force more turnovers per possession than any team in college basketball, meaning that any team with shaky guard play won’t beat them. Head coach Bob Huggins gins up his charges and sends them out to devour the opponents’ offensive flow. Pressure like that can jumpstart a run to the Final Four, especially with talent like Jevon Carter leading the charge.
Most Likely To Be A Cinderella: Princeton (12)
This version of Princeton (23-6) isn’t much different than the Tigers’ teams that gave NCAA powerhouses fits through the 1990s. That means that the No. 12 seed could very easily knock off No. 5 Notre Dame and set-up a war of the tempos with West Virginia in the second round. More than 40 percent of the Princeton offense comes from the 3-point shot. That’s a tricky problem for any defense to solve.
Most Likely To Disappoint: Maryland (6)
Sixth-seeded Maryland (24-8) has lost four of their last six games and six of 10. The Terrapins had a decent year in the Big 10, but they just don’t have enough talent past sophomore Melo Trimble. Xavier will present a first-round challenge that might send Mark Turgeon’s team home after just one game.
Player to Watch: Lauri Markkanen, Forward, Arizona
Pac-12 champion Arizona (30-4) has the best chance of stopping Gonzaga’s run through the West, and much of that is because of 7-foot marksman Lauri Markkanen. While Markkanen’s sky-scraping height makes him unusual for a shooter, his 43.4 three-point shooting percentage makes him dangerous. Together with guard Allonzo Trier, Markkanen gives the Wildcats a duo that could very easily land them a home state Final Four appearance.
Coach on the Hot Seat: Chris Collins, Northwestern
Finally. Thanks to head coach Chris Collins, Northwestern (23-11) made the NCAA tournament for the first time. Ever. The Wildcats were the only NCAA team from a major conference to never have experienced March Madness. Now that he’s done the impossible, Collins will likely become a target of schools who want a coach with that sort of track record. If he can somehow get his team past Vanderbilt, Collins might have a dozen contract offers by next weekend.