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. Gonzaga vs 16. South Dakota St
Salt Lake City
2:00pm Thursday on TBS
Gonzaga had a nearly-perfect regular season with the only blemish coming in their home finale against BYU. The Zags swept through the West Coast Conference Tournament and earned a #1 seed thanks to quality neutral-court wins over Arizona, Florida, and Iowa State. Gonzaga is the top-ranked team in the country based on KenPom’s efficiency metrics, the only team ranking in the Top 10 in offensive and defensive efficiency. From a pure points standpoint, they are in the Top 15 in scoring (85 per game) and points allowed (61 per game) and rank in the Top 10 in rebounding. All five Gonzaga starters average in double-figures, led by Nigel Williams-Goss (16.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.8 APG) and 7-footer Przemek Karnowski (12.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG). The Zags are a good, deep team that got a good draw at the top of the bracket and should be able to make a run to the second weekend, and possibly beyond. No #16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed, and Gonzaga is favored by 25 points over South Dakota State, so even the odds-makers don’t think this one will be close. But South Dakota State boasts the leading scorer in the tournament in Mike Daum (25.3 PPG, 8.2 RPG) who has an inside-outside game reminiscent of Kevin Love. Daum shoots over 41% from beyond the arc but can also go inside with a variety of post moves. In the Summit League Tournament he poured in 33, 18, and 37 points to lead South Dakota State to the title. The Jackrabbits are not afraid to take shots from deep, averaging 25 3-point attempts per game (25th in the nation) and are the nation’s second-best free throw shooting team. In all likelihood, Gonzaga rolls easily, but if the 3s start falling for the Jackrabbits, they have the talent offensively in Daum and Reed Tellinghuisen (11.9 PPG) to keep things interesting.
8. Northwestern vs 9. Vanderbilt
Salt Lake City
4:30pm Thursday on TBS
The best story of the 2017 NCAA Tournament is the Northwestern Wildcats reaching the Tournament for the first time in school history. Northwestern was one of five original D1 members that had never made the Big Dance. This leaves Army, The Citadel, St Francis (NY), and William & Mary as the only founding members of D1 to never reach the NCAA Tournament. Northwestern had an up-and-down season under Chris Collins but scored quality wins over Dayton, Michigan, Maryland, and at Wisconsin and did not lose a game outside the Top 80. Point guard Bryant McIntosh (14.4 PPG, 5.2 APG) has been the catalyst for the offense which contributions from Scottie Lindsey (14.2 PPG) and Vic Law (12.4 PPG, 5.7 RPG). The Wildcats have a relatively efficient offense and have played strong defense while playing at one of the 50 slowest paces in the country. This will be an interesting collision of storylines as Northwestern’s story of making the Dance for the first time meets Vanderbilt’s narrative of being the first 15-loss team to receive an At-Large bid. The Commodores earned a bid by completing a 3-game sweep of Florida and finishing with the most difficult schedule in the nation. Vanderbilt lives and dies by the 3-pointer, ranking 15th in the nation in attempts per game. Matthew Fisher-Davis (13.6 PPG) and Luke Kornet (13.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG) lead the way for Vanderbilt who generally only go 7 deep on their bench. That said, all 7 can shoot the ball and are not afraid to take shots from deep. Riley LeChance (10.5 PPG) is one of the top 3-point shooters in the nation, averaging 49.3% from beyond the arc. This figures to be a relatively low-scoring game due to the pace at which these teams play, and the game could easily devolve into a 3-point shooting contest.
5. Notre Dame vs 12. Princeton
12:15pm Thursday on CBS
The Irish put together a strong run to the ACC Championship Game where they ultimately fell to Duke. The Irish lost only 1 game outside the Top 20 all season and could easily have been a 4-seed. The Irish are led by double-double machine Bonzie Colson (17.5 PPG, 10.2 RPG) who stands only 6’5″ but plays like a big man with a strong interior game but can also step out and knock down 3s. He is a difficult matchup on the defensive end and the Irish offense runs through him. VJ Beachem (15.0 PPG) and Steve Vasturia (13.3 PPG) are both deadly from beyond the arc while Beachem’s game has grown this year and he is capable of driving the ball to the hoop. The Irish don’t have a point guard capable of taking over a game like in previous seasons, but junior Matt Farrell (14.2 PPG, 5.5 APG) has proven to be a quality ball-handler and distributor. The Irish under Mike Brey have always had excellent spacing and shared the ball well. Their motion on offense is outstanding and generates good looks for them. They are also the top free throw shooting team in the nation at nearly 80%, which all points to them having the capacity to go deep in this field. Princeton won the Ivy League by going undefeated in conference play then edging Penn in overtime in the first round of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament then beating defending Champion Yale in the title game. The Tigers are one of the 15 slowest teams in the nation but have a variety of scorers led by Steven Cook (13.7 PPG, 5.1 RPG), Devin Cannady (13.7 PPG), and Myles Stephens (12.6 PPG). The Tigers don’t attempt a ton of 3-pointers but their top 2 scorers all average over 41% from beyond the arc.
4. West Virginia vs 13. Bucknell
2:45pm Thursday on CBS
Press Virginia has been an incredibly streaky team this year. They have gone on runs where their full court pressure generates turnovers and they blow teams out of the building. They have also run into slumps where they struggled significantly. As such, they finished with a disjointed resume with 5 Top 25 wins but 3 sub-100 losses, including losing to Temple on a neutral court and Oklahoma at home. Bob Huggins will go 10 deep on his bench to keep his players fresh and the Mountaineers put forth a solid team effort, averaging 82 points per game. They also rank in the Top 15 in the nation in assists (16.7 per game) and lead the nation in steals (10.4 per game). Junior Jevon Carter (13.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.9 APG, 2.6 SPG) leads the Mountaineers in most statistical categories while Esa Ahmad (11.2 PPG) is their only other double-digit scorer. The key to this game will be ball protection and turnovers. WVU averages 12 turnovers per game while Bucknell averages 13. The Bison play at a similarly fast pace to the Mountaineers which should lead to an entertaining up-and-down game. Bucknell likes to take the ball inside with their two big men Zach Thomas (16 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.5 APG) and Nana Foulland (14.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG). The Bison have a solid backcourt with Kimbal Mackenzie (11.5 PPG) and Stephen Brown (10.9 PPG, 4.8 APG) and if they are able to successfully get the ball up the court, should be able to get good looks against West Virginia’s zone. The Mountaineers have struggled recently in tournament openers, losing to Stephen F Austin in the first round last year and narrowly escaping Buffalo the year prior. Bucknell is not a team prone to relying on the 3-ball but Thomas, Mackenzie and Brown all average over 40% from downtown.
6. Maryland vs 11. Xavier
6:50pm Thursday on TNT
Both of these schools failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations, and find themselves facing off in a first-round game. Maryland had high hopes of competing for the Big Ten title but took some bizarre losses, including losing at home to Nebraska, Iowa, and Pitt. The offense ran through point guard Melo Trimble (17.0 PPG, 3.7 APG) and ran hot and cold as Trimble did. Anthony Cowan (10.5 PPG, 3.7 APG) and Justin Jackson (10.4 PPG, 6.1 APG) were the only other double-digit scorers for the slow-paced Terrapins. Maryland enters the Tournament having lost 6 of their last 10 including a 1-and-done showing in the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, DC. Xavier is a team that has battled through injuries this season and now appears to be getting back on the right track with leading scorer Trevon Bluiett (18.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG) back in the lineup. The Musketeers topped Butler in the Big East Tournament before falling to Creighton in a closely-fought semifinal. The Terps and Musketeers both rank in the Top 40 in offensive efficiency and in the Top 75 in defensive efficiency. This should be a closely matched game with NBA-caliber players in Trimble and Bluiett taking shots on both sides.
3. Florida State vs 14. Florida Gulf Coast
9:20pm Thursday on TNT
This has become a chic upset pick this year thanks to the close proximity of the game to Florida Gulf Coast’s campus. However, the trend is due more to the name brand of FGCU than their performance this season. The Atlantic Sun Champions have not been mediocre defensively but do rank in the Top 50 in the nation in scoring. Led by Brandon Goodwin (18.2 PPG, 4.0 APG) and Zach Johnson (11.8 PPG, 2.0 APG), FGCU finished the season winning 12 of their last 13. They rank 5th in the nation in field goal percentage. However, Florida State also ranks in the Top 20 in scoring (83 PPG), field goal percentage and ranks in the Top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Seminoles are led by Dwayne Bacon (16.9 PPG), Jonathan Isaac (11.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG), and Xavier Rathan-Mayes (10.4 PPG, 4.8 APG) and have size, length and athleticism like FGCU has only seen a few times this year. Florida State had the 2nd-most Top 25 victories in the nation with 6 and an impressive 11 Top 50 wins. Don’t believe the hype, this is the best team Leonard Hamilton has had in quite some time and is capable of making a deep run in March.
7. St Mary’s vs 10. VCU
Salt Lake City
7:20pm Thursday on TBS
St Mary’s started the year ranked in the Top 25 and held serve throughout the season, finishing with a 28-4 record with 3 of those losses coming to Gonzaga. The Gaels play at a snail’s pace, ranking next-to-last in the nation in tempo ahead of only Virginia. Their tempo will certainly frustrate VCU whose trademarked HAVOC pressure is designed to speed up the game. St Mary’s boasts a large front line led by 6’11” Australian Jock Landale (16.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG). In addition to the slow, methodical offense, St Mary’s usually gets good looks from the field and are one of the best shooting teams in the nation at 49.6%. In addition to the inside presence of Landale, Calvin Hermanson (13.0 PPG) and Emmett Naar (9.5 PPG, 5.8 APG) both shoot over 43% from beyond the arc. VCU’s press has not been as effective this year and the Rams are averaging just 7.6 steals per game, ranking 36th in the nation. VCU is led by JaQuan Lewis (14.7 PPG, 4.6 APG) and Justin Tillman (12.4 PPG, 8.8 RPG) but don’t have the size to match up with St Mary’s on the inside. VCU has only one player over 6’7″, Ahmed Hamdy-Mohamed, who is 6’9″ and averages just 12 minutes per game.
2. Arizona vs 15. North Dakota
Salt Lake City
9:50pm Thursday on TBS
Arizona tied Oregon for the Pac-12 regular season title the defeated the Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship. The Wildcats have gone to another level since sophomnore guard Allonzo Trier returned from injury in late January. Trier quickly became the team’s leading scorer at 17.3 PPG and provided a strong complement to 7-foot Finnish freshman Lauri Markkanen (15.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG). Both Trier and Markkanen are shooting over 41% from beyond the arc, making the Wildcats a threat to make a deep run in the tournament with their bench that can go 9 deep and with 6 players averaging over 9 points per game. North Dakota won the Big Sky and clinched their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since their D1 transition period ended in 2012. Like a typical Big Sky team, the Fighting Hawks play fast and loose with a lot of offense (81 points per game) but not a lot of defense. Quinton Hooker (19.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.6 APG) leads the Hawks trio of scorers accompanied by Geno Crandall (15.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.3 APG, 2.1 SPG) and Corey Baldwin (10.3 PPG). North Dakota has a 7-footer on the roster in Carson Shanks but he only averages 12 minutes per game and it would be a stretch to ask for him to match up with Markkanen on defense.