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 South Region.
1. North Carolina vs 16. Texas Southern
4:00pm Friday on TNT
North Carolina was considered a lock for a #1 seed after winning the ACC regular season title and despite their loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament the Committee never considered moving them off the 1-line. The Tar Heels have the talent to make a deep run into March. They are a fairly typical North Carolina team with two quality big men in Kennedy Meeks (12.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG) and Isaiah Hicks (12.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG), have an athletic wing in Justin Jackson (18.1 PPG) and a point guard in Joel Berry (14.8 PPG, 3.7 APG) who can distribute as well as knock down shots from beyond the arc. In the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels proved that they will go as Berry goes. UNC is one of the top scoring teams in the nation, the top rebounding team, and the top offensive rebounding team. They are absolutely a Final Four-caliber team and should be able to get to the Elite 8 with relative ease. Texas Southern won the SWAC regular season and conference tournament. The Tigers played all of their non-conference games on the road this season and did challenge themselves with quality road opponents. However, they did not win any of those games and had just 2 wins against teams in the Top 200. Texas Southern is led by the tandem of Zach Lofton (17 PPG) and Demontrae Jefferson (14.9 PPG).
8. Arkansas vs 9. Seton Hall
1:30pm Friday on TNT
These teams are almost polar opposites of each other, which should make for an entertaining game. Arkansas has an offense that can score with anyone, averaging over 80 points per game while Seton Hall has a very efficient defense. On the flip side, Arkansas can’t stop anyone on the defensive end while Seton Hall has struggled at times to score. The Razorbacks have four players averaging in double figures, led by Dusty Hannahs (14.6 PPG) and Daryl Macon (13.4 PPG). Arkansas is a deep team that will roll 9 players and only has one – big man Moses Kingsley (11.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG) – averaging more than 25 minutes per game. Seton Hall boasts the nation’s leading rebounder in Angel Delgado (15.3 PPG, 13.1 RPG) and as a team ranks in the Top 20 in the nation. The Pirates also have four players averaging in double figures, led by Khadeen Carrington (16.9 PPG) and Desi Rodriguez (15.9 PPG). Unlike Arkansas, Seton Hall is not a deep team – their starters are capable scorers but they essentially operate with a 6-man rotation.
5. Minnesota vs 12. Middle Tennessee
4:00pm Thursday on TNT
Richard Pitino was on the hot seat after last season and did a fantastic job with the Golden Gophers this season, getting them to their first NCAA Tournament since 2013 and finishing 4th in the Big Ten. That said, this is absolutely an upset-worthy pick as Middle Tennessee enters the Tournament with high expectations after pulling a massive upset over Michigan State in the first round last year. The Blue Raiders returned their two leading scorers from last year in Giddy Potts (15.8 PPG) and Reggie Upshaw (14.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG). JaCorey Williams sat out last year after transferring from Arkansas and leads the team in scoring and rebounding this season at 17.3 PPG and 7.3 RPG. Middle Tennessee ranks in the Top 60 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency and are a threat to not only pull the upset on Minnesota but also reach the Sweet 16. Minnesota is a strong defensive team, leading the nation in blocks at 6.8 per game, primarily due to Reggie Lynch’s 3.5 blocks per game. The Gophers are also a strong rebounding team and rank in the Top 20 in the nation. They can struggle at times on the offensive end but do have 4 players averaging in double figures, led by Nate Mason (15.5 PPG, 5.0 APG) and Amir Coffey (12.1 PPG, 3.1 APG).
4. Butler vs 13. Winthrop
1:30pm Thursday on TNT
Butler got off to an incredibly strong start to the season and by mid-January had wins over Arizona, Cincinnati, and Villanova. But they also had losses to Indiana State and St John’s. They finished the season going just 5-5 in their last 10, including back-to-back losses to Seton Hall and Xavier to end the season. Butler has the talent to beat good teams with a slow but efficient offense. The downfall for the Bulldogs is that they lack in size – of their regular contributors, the tallest is 6’8″ Tyler Wideman. That may not be a problem against Winthrop, who also plays with a small lineup, but it could present an issue deeper in the tournament (particularly against strong rebounding teams like Minnesota or North Carolina). Butler is led by Kelan Martin (16.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG) and Andrew Chrabascz (11 PPG, 3.2 APG) and ranks in the Top 40 in the nation in shooting percentage. On defense, Butler will have to contain Winthrop’s Keon Johnson (22.5 PPG) who enters as the second highest scorer in the tournament (10th overall in the nation). Winthrop plays fast and can score quickly, averaging 80 points per game though only Johnson and Xavier Cooks (16.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG) average in double figures. If Winthrop can get out and run in transition, they can find open shots and give Butler trouble. The Eagles rank in the Top 25 in the nation in 3-pointers attempted and 3-pointers mad per game, and are not afraid to throw up shots from the outside. If the shots go down, this one has the potential to go the distance.
6. Cincinnati vs 11. Kansas St/Wake Forest
7:27 Friday on truTV
As I type this Kansas State is closing out Wake Forest in their First Four Play-in Game. The team that some thought did not deserve to be in the field will now get a shot at Cincinnati on Friday night. While the Committee made a strange choice to send one of the teams from the Play-In game all the way to Sacramento, they set the schedule so that K-State and Wake could play Tuesday night then get an extra day of travel before playing Cincinnati on Friday. The Bearcats lost a rubber match to SMU in the AAC Championship. In typical Cincinnati fashion this is a long and athletic team that is stifling defensively. The Bearcats play slow but have four players averaging in double-figures, led by Jacob Evans (13.7 PPG) and Kyle Washington (13.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG). Their 5.2 blocks per game ranks in the Top 20 in the nation. By the numbers, Kansas State also has an efficient defense, but they gave up 88 points to Wake Forest on Tuesday night. That said, their offense which averages 72 points per game filled the bucket with 95 against Wake’s porous defense. Cincinnati is a much more stout defensive team and that figures to be a slower-paced game. Kansas State is not a very deep team, generally only going 7 deep for extended minutes, but they have 4 players averaging in double-figures. Wesley Iwundu (12.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG) leads the way with Kamau Stokes (11.9 PPG, 4.2 APG), Barry Brown (11.8 PPG) and DJ Johnson (11.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG) consistently contributing. Wake Forest was a good team that just couldn’t beat any quality opponent until the end of the season when they topped Louisville. The Deacs did not take a bad loss all year, but were a true bubble team that also lacked in good wins. Sophomore center John Collins (19.2 PPG, 9.8 RPG) was a dominant force inside with Bryant Crawford (16.2 PPG, 5.5 APG) forming a dangerous inside-outside tandem. In the end, Wake’s lack of defensive prowess did them in but the future is bright for Danny Manning’s team who made the Tournament for the first time since 2010.
3. UCLA vs 14. Kent St
9:57 Friday on truTV
UCLA is a fun and fast team that leads the nation in scoring (90.4 PPG) and assists (21.5 APG). Incredibly, six Bruins average in double figures, led by forward TJ Leaf (16.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG) and Bryce Alford (15.8 PPG). The story of UCLA however is point guard Lonzo Ball who leads the nation in assists at 7.8 per game but also pours in 14.6 PPG and acounts for 6.1 RPG and has the most quoteable father of any college hoops player. The Bruins lead the nation in field goal percentage and are in the Top 10 in 3-point shooting with t4 of their top 5 scorers averaging over 42% from beyond the arc. This is a dangerous team that is capable of making a deep run in the tournament. Kent State won the MAC for the first time since 2008 after a run to the title game from the #6 seed in the tournament that included 3 wins by less than 6 points and a 116-106 overtime victory over Central Michigan in the first round. The Golden Flashes are led by Jimmy Hall (18.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG) and Jaylin Walker (15.6 PPG) and rank in the Top 10 in the nation in rebounding and second in the nation in offensive rebounding. Unfortunately, they are not a great outside shooting team and to hang with UCLA they are going to have to put the ball in the bucket. A lot of Kent State’s offense comes from second-chance points, which will be harder to come by against a strong rebounding team like UCLA.
7. Dayton vs 10. Wichita St
7:10pm Friday on CBS
Dayton won the A-10 regular season title but have lost two in a row entering the tournament after dropping their season finale to George Washington then losing to Davidson in their A-10 Tournament opener. The Flyers ranked in the Top 50 in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season and made up for their lack of size with a deep bench and a team rebounding effort. The Flyers have three capable scorers in Charles Cooke (16.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG), Kendall Pollard (14.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and Scoochie Smith (13.5 PPG, 4.5 APG). Wichita State is arguably the most under-seeded team in the field after rolling to a 30-4 overall record and winning the Missouri Valley Conference. The trouble with the Shockers was that their only wins against Top 50 competition came against Illinois St and their only other Top 100 win was over Colorado St. To their credit, the Shockers tried to challenge themselves in non-conference play but lost to Louisville, Michigan St, and Oklahoma St. Wichita St has won 15 in a row entering the tournament including a 41-point shellacking of Illinois St and a 20-point win over the Redbirds in the MVC title game. Wichita St ranks in the Top 20 in the nation in scoring, rebounds, assists, points allowed, and both offensive and defensive efficiency. They don’t have a singular star player but put forth a team effort, going 10 deep on their bench. Markis McDuffie (11.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG), Landry Sharnet (11.1 PPG, 3.3 APG), and Darral Willis Jr (10.2 PPG, 5.3 RPG) are the only players averaging in double figures. Only 4 Shockers average more than 20 minutes per game with none over 26, a hallmark of their roster depth. Gregg Marshall’s team is capable of making a run in this tournament but will have to get past Kentucky who ended the Shockers perfect season in the second round back in 2014.
2. Kentucky vs 15. Northern Kentucky
9:40pm Friday on CBS
The Wildcats were the regular season and SEC Tournament Champions and have rounded into form over the last month of the season, looking like the dominant force many expected them to be. Unfortunately, John Calipari’s team also got one of the toughest draws of the Tournament with a potential second round game against a 30-4 Wichita St team, a potential Sweet 16 against UCLA then a potential regional final against North Carolina. That’sa brutal field to navigate, but the Wildcats enter the field having won 11 in a row after an early February drubbing at Florida. Freshman sensation Malik Monk (20.4 PPG) is one of just 5 players in the Tournament averaging over 20 per game, and fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox has found his groove, averaging 17.5 PPG over the last month. Kentucky ranks in the Top 15 in the nation in scoring (86 per game), rebounding (40 per game), and blocked shots (5 per game). This is certainly a team capable of a deep run but they have a difficult road out of the bottom half of the South Regional. Northern Kentucky won the Horizon League Tournament and qualified for the NCAA Tournament in their first year of eligibility after serving their probation for transitioning into Division 1. The Norse are led by Drew McDonald (16.4 PPG, 7.7 RPG) and Lavone Holland II (14.3 PPG, 4.1 APG). This will be a fun matchup against their in-state foes, but the Norse will be overmatched by Kentucky’s athleticism.