The 2017 NCAA Tournament is upon us. A relatively uneventful Selection Sunday saw the 68 teams that pretty much everyone not working at ESPN thought should make the field actually make it. There were some interesting seeding choices by the Committee, but the field is set and all 68 teams know their potential path to the National Championship. This was my 7th year of making bracket projections and I am happy to say that I topped ESPN’s Joe Lunardi for the 4th time in 7 years (I have topped CBS’s Jerry Palm all 7 years). The prediction phase is now over and we move on to actual tournament play. Today’s preview covers the Midwest Region.
1. Kansas vs 16. NC Central/UC Davis
6:50pm Friday on TNT
For the 13th consecutive season the Kansas Jayhawks won at least a share of the Big XII regular season title. Kansas was bounced in their Big XII Tournament opener by TCU, but don’t put too much stock in that game as they played it without star freshman Josh Jackson (16.4 PPG, 7.2 RPG). Kansas also features one of five 20-point per game scorers in the Tournament in guard Frank Mason (20.8 PPG, 5.1 APG) who was a National Player of the Year finalist. Kansas ranks in the Top 30 in the nation in points per game, assists per game, and both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Jayhawks should absolutely be considered a national title contender. North Carolina Central was the MEAC regular season and tournament champions – one of just two teams from the MEAC to finish the season with a winning record. The Eagles rely almost exclusively on Patrick Cole (19.5 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 5.7 APG) and Dajuan Graf (14.3 PPG, 5.2 APG). UC Davis went back and forth with UC Irvine all season atop the Big West with Irvine prevailing in the regular season finale and earning the top seed in the conference tournament but Davis getting revenge in the conference championship game and earning their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since moving up to Division 1 in 2004. Davis is also not a high-scoring team that relies heavily on Brynton Lemar (16.1 PPG), Chima Moneke (14.4 PPG, 9.4 RPG), and Siler Schneider (10.5 PPG).
8. Miami vs 9. Michigan St
9:20pm Friday on TNT
If you’re looking for a first round game to be played in the 50s, it could easily be this one. Both Miami and Michigan State rank in the Top 35 in the nation and defensive efficiency and play at a relatively slow offensive pace. The Hurricanes average just 69 points per game and Sparty just 72. This is a matchup of two great tactical coaches in Miami’s Jim Larranaga and Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. The Hurricanes have played a Syracuse-esque style this season, packing it in with a 2-3 zone on the defensive end and running one of the 15 slowest offenses in the nation. The U is led by Davon Reed (15 PPG) and Ja’Quan Newton (13.4 PPG). This is also a non-traditional Izzo team which features 4 freshmen in the starting lineup. Miles Bridges (16.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG) and Nick Ward (13.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG) lead the way for Michigan State who has lost 3 of their last 4 entering the Tournament. Michigan State is one of the best teams in the nation at sharing the ball, averaging 17 assists per game led by point guard Cassius Winston’s 5.1 APG.
5. Iowa St vs 12. Nevada
9:57pm Thursday on truTV
Iowa State has been a bit of a hard team to gauge this season. The Cyclones started the season slow and were just 6-5 in Big XII play after a loss to Texas in early February. From there, Iowa State caught fire and won 9 of their last 10, including a Big XII Tournament title. The Cyclones have some marquee wins on their resume including a win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse and beating both Baylor and West Virginia. Iowa St is a senior-laden team with a deep bench and is one of the highest scoring teams in the nation with Monte Morris (16.3 PPG, 6.1 APG), Mazareth Mitrou-Long (15.5 PPG), and Deonte Burton (14.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG). Iowa St also ranks in the Top 15 in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage and in the Top 10 with 10 made 3s per game. This game has all the makings of a shootout as Nevada can score right with Iowa State, averaging 9.2 made 3s per game and ranking in the Top 40 in 3-point shooting percentage. Both teams average over 80 points per game and the Wolfpack have four players averaging over 14 PPG in Marcus Marshall (19.8 PPG, 3.6 APG), Cameron Oliver (15.8 PPG, 8.7 RPG), Jordan Caroline (14.8 PPG, 9.2 PPG), and DJ Fenner (14.1 PPG). Nevada can absolutely hang with Iowa State on the offensive end, which will make this a game worth staying up to watch on Thursday night.
4. Purdue vs 13. Vermont
7:27 Thursday on truTV
Statistically, Purdue has all the makings of a team capable of making a deep run in march. The Boilermakers rank in the Top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, are one of the better rebounding teams in the nation and are third in assists (18.2 per game). They have a National Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan (18.5 PPG, 12.6 RPG). Purdue also has 3 other starters averaging in double figures in Isaac Haas (12.8 PPG), Vince Edwards (12.2 PPG, 3.2 APG), and Carsen Edwards (10.4 PPG). However, Purdue has been bounced in the first round in overtime each of the last two seasons. Last year, the Boilers were topped in a 5-12 upset by Arkansas-Little Rock in double overtime. That said, it will be utterly shocking if this Vermont team upsets this Purdue team.Vermont does not have a player over 6’8″ while Purdue has 4, including Swanigan. Vermont ran through the America East Conference with a perfect record and have won 21 in a row. However, the Catamounts lost all 4 of their games against Top 100 competition and did not beat a team ranked in the Top 120 but also did not lose to a team outside the Top 140. Anthony Lamb leads their trip of scorers with 12.6 PPG, followed by Payton Henson (11.4 PPG) and Trae Bell-Haynes (11.1 PPG). Vermont ranks in the Top 10 in the nation in field goal percentage at 49.6%. If Vermont is going to pull off this upset, they will need to shoot the lights out against a Purdue team that is loaded with capable scorers and has a distinct size advantage.
6. Creighton vs 11. Rhode Island
4:30pm Friday on TBS
Creighton started the season on an absolute tear, and was 18-1 in mid-January when point guard Mo Watson tore his ACL. The Bluejays stumbled a bit and struggled to find their rhythm after that, going just 5-7 to end the season but started to put things together in the Big East Tournament where they made a run to the Championship Game. The Jays still have a trio of scorers in Marcus Foster (18.3 PPG), Justin Patton (13.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG), and Khyri Thomas (12.4 PPG) and rank in the Top 20 in the nation in scoring, assists, and 3-point shooting. Creighton is efficient on both ends of the floor and plays at a fun, fast pace, ranking in the Top 50 in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and tempo. Rhode Island is long and athletic and should present a good challenge. The Rams are one of the hottest teams in the nation – winners of 8 in a row (including the A-10 Championship in Pittsburgh) after committing bubble seppuku against Fordham. While Creighton excels on the offensive end, Rhode Island has been stout defensively, holding teams under 65 points per game. The Rams are not afraid to go inside with the tandem of Hassan Martin (14.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG) and Kuran Iverson (9.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG) but also have a quality backcourt with E.C. Matthews (14.9 PPG) and Jared Terrell (12.5 PPG). The Rams successfully navigated VCU’s HAVOC press in the A-10 Championship by slowing down the game and will need to do the same against a Creighton team that likes to play fast.
3. Oregon vs 14. Iona
2:00pm Friday on TBS
These two teams both average 80 points per game and this could easily turn into a track meet. Oregon is adjusting to life without forward Chris Boucher who tore his ACL in the Pac-12 Tournament. Even without Boucher, the Ducks are still an extremely talented team capable of making a deep run in the tournament. They are fast and physical with good size all around and are aggressive defensively. Dillon Brooks (16.3 PPG) leads the Ducks and is capable of taking games over at any time. Tyler Dorsey (13.3 PPG) and Dylan Ennis (11.8 PPG) make up a quality backcourt while Jordan Bell (10.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.1 BPG) is a force on the inside on both ends. The Boucher-less Ducks gave Arizona all they could handle in the Pac-12 Championship and should absolutely be considered contenders in the Midwest Region. Iona won the MAAC for the second straight year but got a tough draw with Oregon. The Gaels have 6 players averaging over 9 points per game, led by Jordan Washington (17.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and Jon Severe (11.3 PPG). Iona typically plays a 4-guard lineup which would put them at a distinct size disadvantage against Oregon, but they will go 8 deep on their bench and are a good shooting team, particularly from 3-point range where they rank 20th in the nation. If Iona is going to hang with Oregon (which could be a challenge considering the Gaels rank in the 200s in defensive efficiency), they will need the shots to fall from the outside.
7. Michigan vs 10. Oklahoma St
12:15pm Friday on CBS
Michigan was the best story of Championship Week. After their plane skidded off the runway in Michigan (thankfully no one was hurt) they were late in arriving to Washington DC and had to play their first round game in warm-up jerseys and street shoes. After beating Illinois, the Wolverines went on a run and knocked off 3 of the top 4 seeds to win the Big Ten Championship. Michigan has a lot of size on the front line but has not been a great rebounding team this year. The Wolverines have been led by their backcourt of Derrick Walton, Jr (15.2 PPG, 4.7 APG) and Zak Irvin (12.8 PPG, 3.0 APG). Moritz Wagner (12.0 PPG, 4.2 RPG) and DJ Wilson (10.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG) are both over 6’10” but haven’t dominated the glass like one would expect. Where Michigan excels is in their shooting, ranking in the Top 25 in both field goal percentage and free throw shooting. A year after finishing dead last in the Big XII, Oklahoma St is back in the Tournament thanks to first year coach Brad Underwood who is a tournament veteran having scored upsets twice while coaching Stephen F Austin. The Cowboys rank in the Top 10 in the nation in scoring at 86 points per game and are first in offensive efficiency. The trio of Jawun Evans (19.0 PPG, 6.2 APG), Jeffrey Carroll (17.4 PPG, 6.6 RPG), and Phil Forte III (13.3 PPG) has been nearly unstoppable. Unfortunately, the Cowboys also haven’t been able to stop anyone, ranking in the bottom 50 in the nation in points against. This game has all the makings of a shootout as Oklahoma State also ranks 4th in the nation in free throw shooting and in the Top 20 in 3-point shooting.
2. Louisville vs 15. Jacksonville St
2:45pm Friday on CBS
Louisville is…yet another typical Louisville team. They are at their best when they are getting out in transition and can get easy shots around the rim. Donovan Mitchell (15.7 PPG), Quentin Snider (12.7 PPG, 4.1 APG), and Deng Adel (11.9 PPG) lead the way for the Cardinals but all shoot under 42% from the field and run hot and cold. When they’re hot, Louisville can play with anyone in the nation. When they’re cold, the Cardinals will struggle. Duke went to a 2-3 zone in the ACC Tournament and forced Louisville into a funk of outside shooting which enabled the Blue Devils to come back from a 12-point second half deficit. The Cardinals are loaded with size on the inside and are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. That said, Louisville is fast and physical and defensively stout and should be able to get out of Indianapolis to set up an physical streetfight with Oregon in the Sweet 16. Jacksonville State made the Tournament for the first time in school history after coming from the #4 seed to win the Ohio Valley Tournament. The Gamecocks have some size in their lineup and boast four scorers averaging in double-digits, led by Malcolm Drumwright (12.6 PPG) and Greg Tucker (11.3 PPG). They have a pair of capable big men in Norbertas Giga (10.4 PPG, 8.1 RPG) and Christian Cunningham (8.4 PPG, 8.2 RPG) but as a team average only 70 points per game which won’t be nearly enough to keep up with Louisville.