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. Our previews start in the East Region.
1. Villanova vs 16. Mount St Mary’s/New Orleans
7:10pm Thursday on CBS
The defending National Champions received the top overall seed in the 2017 Tournament. Villanova ran through the regular season and Big East Tournament, posting a 31-3 record and featuring the second most efficient offense in the nation. Seniors Josh Hart (18.9 PPG, 6.5 RPG) and Kris Jenkins (13.4 PPG), along with sophomore guard Jalen Brunson (14.8 PPG, 4.2 APG) have led the way for the Wildcats. Though Villanova is not a great rebounding team, they make up for it by being one of the best shooting teams in the nation, tied for 6th at 49.7% from the field. On top of that, the Wildcats are also the second-best free throw shooting team in the nation (79.4%) which is always a key factor in March. New Orleans and Mount St Mary’s were both regular season and conference tournament champions in the Southland and Northeastern Conference, respectively. However, due to the relative lack of strength of their respective leagues, they were given the two lowest seeds in the Tournament. New Orleans is appearing in their first NCAA Tournament since 1996 after beating Texas A&M-Corpus Cristi in the Southland Championship. The Privateers are led by senior forward Erik Thomas (19.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG). Though they do not have a pure distributor, they share the ball well as a team and rank in the Top 50 in the nation with 16 assists per game. Mount St Mary’s won the NEC for the second time in the last 4 years led by the backcourt tandem of Elijah Long (15.4 PPG, 4.4 APG) and Junior Robinson (14.1 PPG). The Mount is not a very deep team and essentially operates with a 6-man rotation. They also are lacking in size and rank in the bottom 10 in the nation in rebounding.
8. Wisconsin vs 9. Virginia Tech
9:40pm Thursday on CBS
This game has the interesting sub-storyline of former Marquette coach Buzz Williams going up against former in-state rival Wisconsin. After Wisconsin made a run to the Big Ten Championship Game, it was a bit surprising to see the Badgers appear on the 8-seed line. A lot was expected out of Wisconsin this season after their run to the Sweet 16 last year (their 5th Sweet 16 in the last 6 years). They were looking good in early February with a 10-1 record in Big Ten play, but lost 5 of their next 6 to stumble to the finish before their run in the conference tournament. Wisconsin’s offense ranks well from an efficiency standpoint (40th in the nation) but is essentially reliant on three players. The trio of Bronson Koenig (14.1 PPG), Ethan Happ (13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG), and Nigel Hayes (13.5 PPG) accounts for most of Wisconsin’s scoring. Where Wisconsin wins is on the defensive end where they are allowing just 61.1 points per game and rank in the Top 10 in defensive efficiency. The Badgers will get a good test from Virginia Tech, who ranks 21st in offensive efficiency. The Hokies are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade. Virginia Tech is not a deep team with 5 players averaging over 29 minutes per night, after starting guard Chris Clarke tore his ACL mid-season. They do have quality scoring depth with four players averaging over 10 points per game and are one of the best shooting teams in the nation at 49% from the field. Senior forward Zach LeDay (16.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG) and senior guard Seth Allen (13.4 PPG, 3.3 APG) are the primary catalysts for the Hokies. Allen ranks in the Top 50 in the nation in 3-point shooting at 45.1% from beyond the arc.
5. Virginia vs 12. UNC-Wilmington
12:40pm Thursday on truTV
This will be a trendy upset pick because of the dramatic contrast in styles between the two teams. Virginia plays at the slowest tempo (BY FAR) of any team in the nation and has the most efficient defense. Conversely, Wilmington plays an up-tempo game and ranks in the Top 20 in offensive efficiency. Wilmington is an experienced team that almost knocked off Duke in the first round last year. Seniors Chris Flemmings (15.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG) and Denzel Ingram (14.5 PPG) along with sophomores CJ Bryce (17.6 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.0 APG) and Devontae Cacok (12.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG) lead the way for the 10th-highest scoring team in the nation. The Seahawks do not have a lot of size and typically play a 4-guard lineup and attempt 26 3s per game, the most of any team in the tournament. The downfall of Wilmington last year was the sheer number of fouls they committed. This year the Seahawks average 20 per game and have had 21 foul-outs on the season. For a team with only 5 players averaging over 24 minutes per game, the foul situation can become a hindrance quickly. As an aside – Wilmington head coach Kevin Keatts’ name has been floated as a candidate at NC State and a win over an ACC team in the NCAA Tournament may vault his name to the top of the list. Virginia is a team still trying to find itself offensively, which can be dangerous against an efficient team like Wilmington. Point guard London Perrantes (12.5 PPG, 3.8 APG) is the catalyst of the offense and is the only player averaging over 30 minutes per night. Nine other players average at least 10 minutes per game and none besides Perrantes average in double-figures. Where Virginia will have the advantage is on the inside. Wilmington does not have the size to match up on the interior and Virginia will likely clean house on the boards and get a number of easy second-chance looks. If Wilmington is going to pull the upset, they are going to need to hit shots from beyond the arch, which can be difficult against Virginia’s stifling defense.
4. Florida vs 13. East Tennessee St
3:10 Thursday on truTV
If you’re looking for a pod where total insanity could happen, the early games in Orlando are a good bet. While Wilmington has the outside shooters to give Virginia problems, East Tennessee State should provide a challenging matchup for Florida. The Gators will have a home crowd advantage playing in Orlando and were very good by efficiency metrics ranking in the Top 40 in offense and Top 5 in defense. Both teams will play with some pace and this figures to be an offensive-minded game. Florida averaged 78 PPG, led by KeVaughn Allen (13.9 PPG), Canyon Berry (12.1 PPG), and Devin Robinson (10.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG). The Gators are a deep team and definitely have more size on the inside the ETSU. However, that size advantage will be mitigated if ETSU gets open looks. The Buccaneers share the ball well, averaging 15 assists per game, and rank in the Top 10 in the nation in field goal percentage at 49.1%. Florida’s main defensive task will be to contain TJ Cromer (19.1 PPG, 3.2 APG), who went for 41 in the SoCon semis against Samford and put up 23 in the conference championship against UNC-Greensboro.
6. SMU vs 11. Providence/USC
3:10pm Friday on truTV
SMU won the American Athletic Conference in a rubber match against Cincinnati. The Mustangs are led by Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye (18.9 PPG, 6.8 RPG) and have four players averaging in double-figures. SMU ranks in the Top 30 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency and are one of the 25 slowest-paced teams in the country. The Mustangs are a relatively small team and don’t have a player over 6’9″ but they make up for it with a strong team rebounding effort and rank in the Top 50 in the nation in rebounding. Providence and USC were two of the last four teams into the field and will play their play-in game on Wednesday night in Dayton. Their game will be strength-on-strength and weakness-on-weakness as Providence’s defense and USC’s offense both rank in the Top 50 in the nation. Conversely, Providence’s offense has been relatively inefficient as has the Trojans defense. Providence has four players averaging in double figures, led by Rodney Bullock (15.7 PPG, 6.4 RPG) and Emmit Holt (12.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG). Friars point guard Kyron Cartwright ranks in the Top 5 in the nation in assists at 6.7 per game. Providence will be giving up a lot of size on the inside as their tallest player is 6’9″ while USC boasts 4 players over 6’10” including their two leading scorers. For the Trojans, the tandem of 6’10” Bennie Boatwright (14.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG) and 6’11” Chimezie Metu (14.5 PPG, 7.8 RPG) is the focal point of the offense. Boatwright is not just an inside player though as he has attempted over 100 3s this season and shoots 93% from the free throw line. Point guard Jordan McLaughlin (13.1 PPG, 5.5 APG) ranks in the Top 30 in the nation in assists, keying a Trojans offense that averages nearly 80 points per game.
3. Baylor vs 14. New Mexico St
12:40 Friday on truTV
Baylor peaked as high as the top-ranked team in the nation for a period of time but cooled off as the calendar flipped to February and lost 6 of their last 11 (including 2 losses to Kansas State which likely got the Wildcats into the Big Dance). Baylor has one of the tallest teams in the nation with 6’10” Johnathan Motley (17.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG) and 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil, Jr (9.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG). Baylor ranks in the Top 25 in the nation in both offensive and defensive efficiency and plays at one of the 15 slowest paces in the country. New Mexico State typically has a very large front line but this year has opted for a smaller lineup. The Aggies won the WAC for the 5th time in 6 years due in part to an offense that averaged 79 points per game. Ian Baker (16.6 PPG, 4.1 APG) led the way with Braxton Huggins (13.6 PPG) and Eli Chuha (12.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG) contributing. Despite rolling out a relatively small lineup, the Aggies crash the boards hard and ranked in the Top 25 in rebounds per game and in offensive rebounding.
7. South Carolina vs 10. Marquette
9:50pm Friday on TBS
South Carolina will have a decided homecourt advantage with this game being played in Greenville, but the storyline of this pod will be the potential second-round matchup between Duke and former Duke player and assistant Steve Wojciechowski. South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell (21.0 PPG) was the 22nd-leading scorer in the nation but the second highest that made the Tournament. Outside of Thornwell, the Gamecocks do not have a lot of scoring depth and are mostly an average team. South Carolina has been able to win this season with a stifling defense that ranks in the top 20 in the nation in opponent shooting percentage and in defensive efficiency. Marquette presents an interesting challenge as the Eagles are the top 3-point shooting team in the nation at 43% while South Carolina ranks 5th in the nation in 3-point defense, holding opponents to just 29.3%. Marquette ranks in the Top 20 in the nation in scoring (82.5 PPG) and assists (16.5 APG). The Eagles don’t have a singular star like South Carolina but instead their starting five all average in double digits, led by Markus Howard (13.2 PPG) and Jajuan Johnson (11.8 PPG). In total, Marquette is the team summation of what Wojo was as a player – they play fast, share the ball, and can shoot the lights out from downtown. That’s always a dangerous combination in the Tournament if the shots go down from deep.
2. Duke vs 15. Troy
7:20pm Friday on TBS
Many thought that Duke should be in the conversation for a #1 seed but they were awarded the 2-seed in the East which gives them a regional final in Madison Square Garden (essentially Cameron North). Duke battled through a plethora of injuries this season and went on an unprecedented 4 wins in 4 days run to win the ACC Championship. Luke Kennard (20.1 PPG) is one of just five players who enter the tournament averaging over 20 points per game. Freshman Jayson Tatum (16.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG) has emerged as the elite wing prospect everyone thought he was entering the season and has absolutely taken over games in the second half. Grayson Allen (14.1 PPG, 3.5 APG) has been maligned in the media and taken on more of a distributive role in the offense while freshman point guard Frank Jackson has emerged over the last month and has averaged 13.2 points per game in that span. As a team, Duke ranks in the Top 35 in the nation in scoring, shooting percentage, free throw shooting, offensive efficiency and 3-point defense. Troy won the Sun Belt Tournament from the #6 seed and is making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003. The Trojans also feature a high-scoring offense at 79 points per game but have struggled defensively this season. Like Duke they are not a very deep team and will usually only go 7 deep on their bench. Troy is also not a very big team and does not have a player over 6’8″. Sophomore forward Jordon Varnado (16.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG) is their primary scorer with Wesley Person (14.8 PPG) and Jeremy Hollimon (12.1 PPG) also averaging in double figures. Troy averages 24 3-point attempts per game, which will stress Duke’s perimeter defense.