Another year of college basketball comes to a close, and here we sit, on the eve of “The Big Dance”, once again ready to plunge into the greatest sporting event America has to offer. 68 teams enter, and 67 games will determine which one of them will be doing snow angels in confetti bearing their colors, wallowing in their newfound glory, on the platform court at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale in just three short weeks. What a year it has been. We began the season with the Duke Blue Devils anointed as the prohibitive favorites for the crown, the unanimous preseason #1 team in the land, and oh how much has changed since that first poll was released. I’ll get to Duke in a little bit. But here we sit with Villanova, Kansas, UNC, and Gonzaga intent on hanging a banner, looking down at the rest of the field from their lofty perches as the tournament’s #1 seeds and Jim Boeheim relegated to doing SportsCenter interviews because his team was left out of the tournament. Without further ado, let’s dive into some storylines and the bracket itself.
They are who we thought they were?
Can we take a second to congratulate whichever member of the Duke Athletics’ marketing staff came up with the slogan “Uncommon” for this year’s team? He deserves a bonus, because I can’t think of a better word to encapsulate the roller coaster ride of tweets, flashbulbs, tripping incidents, back surgeries, lower leg injuries, shocking losses, and unfathomable ACC tournament runs that was the Duke regular season. Duke was heralded coming into the year as having perhaps the best blend of veteran and diaper dandy talent in a long while, but injuries to Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, along with another knee surgery for the #1 recruit in the class of 2016, Harry Giles, hampered the freshmen’s progress. Add in the fact that essentially the entire Duke roster, Coach K included, spent at least some of this season on the DL, and you find a team that has been trying to get healthy for about the last 3 months. We saw in spots how good the team can be: a 53 point victory over Georgia Tech, and of course the four game run through the ACC tournament in Brooklyn that catapulted the team to a #2 seed and back into the national title conversation. Is this Duke team the collection of McDonald’s All-Americans that we thought it would be at the beginning of the year? Most certainly not, but the most “Uncommon” college basketball season that I can think of just might have an equally “Uncommon” ending.
Will the glass slipper fit?
The task of identifying the “Cinderella” team, the nation’s underdog darlings that make a surprise run in the NCAA tournament, is one of the parts of bracketeering (I just made that word up by the way) that leads millions to pore over KenPom adjusted efficiency rankings, gut feelings, mascot comparisons, and animal handicappers’ picks to get any possible edge about who will ruin everyone else’s brackets. I’m here to burst your bubble and say that this tournament will be one run by the top seeds. Yes, we may have a surprise team in the 8-12 range make a Sweet 16 run, but beyond that, this was a season ruled by the power programs at the top of your brackets like Villanova and UNC: the 1-3 seeds of the tournament. This isn’t to say that I think this bracket will put the chalk in Rock Chalk Jayhawk, and in fact I’ll let you in on my 100% mortal lock of the century guaranteed upset specials (guarantee not guaranteed) as we get to the bracket now.
East Region: The Pilgrimage to Basketball’s Mecca
We begin with the East region, home to the tournament’s #1 overall seed, Villanova, and 15 other teams vying for the right to play in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden. (As an aside: how did MSG get to be basketball’s most famous arena? What cool stuff has happened in there? Kemba walker’s buzzer beater? I guess that was kinda cool.) Duke, Baylor, and Florida, as the 2, 3, and 4 seeds respectively, will look to challenge Villanova’s quest to repeat as champions for the first time since Florida in ’06 and ’07. The media is seemingly willing a Duke Villanova Elite 8 matchup in MSG into existence, and I’ll go along with them, but here’s how we’ll get there.
Villanova will beat Mount St. Mary’s (it’s ok to write that one in Sharpie, Seth Davis) and face Virginia Tech after they beat Wisconsin. The Hokies boast a talented offensive club that will present matchup problems, like Zach LeDay, to Wisconsin and shoot the 3 well enough to move on. I’m identifying the Virginia vs UNC Wilmington and Florida vs East Tennessee State games as my annual “this section of the bracket goes to madness” section in which we get a couple of upsets and consequently a double digit seed moving on to the Sweet 16. I like UNC Wilmington, behind its efficient offense, to squeak past a Virginia team that is tremendous defensively but has its problems scoring. The problem with Virginia is that the Cavaliers are the ultimate front-running team: once they’re up 12-4 at the under 8:00 timeout in the 1st half, it’s impossible to come back on them because they’ll slow the game to a crawl and make just enough shots at the end of the shot clock to beat you. I think the Seahawks’ efficient offense does just enough as it wouldn’t surprise me if the first team to 55 wins this game. I like ETSU over Florida in spite of the fact that Florida is a really solid team because they’ve faded down the stretch somewhat after losing their interior force, John Egbunu. Madness ensues and we have UNC-Wilmington and ETSU in the second round. The ponies of SMU will dispatch the winner of Providence and USC to take on Baylor, who will defeat New Mexico St. Wojo, Steve Wojciechowski, a Coach K disciple, and Marquette will shoot the 3 just well enough to get past Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC player of the year, and the Gamecocks to face Duke in the second round. I think Virginia Tech will give Villanova a game, but the Wildcats move on to take on UNC Wilmington, fresh off their victory over ETSU. I like SMU to get the better of Baylor, a team that peaked way too early and also wears highlighter-yellow uniforms, and take on Duke in the other Sweet 16 matchup in the Big Apple. Villanova eases past Wilmington, and Duke plays just enough defense to overcome a versatile but short-handed SMU team to set up the matchup with the defending champs. If it’s possible for any team to match up well with the tournament’s #1 overall team, I think Duke matches up decently with Villanova. Duke has gotten hurt this season by teams that drive the ball relentlessly to the basket and have enough quality big guys to scoop up rebounds and work a pick and roll effectively. Villanova isn’t a big team and relies a lot on the 3-point shot to score its points. Duke defends the 3 much better than you would think, and as a consequence, Allen, Kennard, and especially Tatum score enough for Duke to get to the Final 4 in a thriller.
West Region: Is Gonzaga for real?
The Zags (I think they’re actually the Bulldogs) look to finally break through and make the Final 4 after going undefeated almost the entire year before tripping over BYU in their final regular season game to finish the season with one loss. They face the likes of Arizona, the 2 seed fresh off of their Pac-12 Tournament victory, along with Florida State, and West Virginia. The Zags will best the Jackrabbits of South Dakota State to face Northwestern (have you heard that this is their first year in the tournament? Just a joke, if you’ve watched any ESPN since the bracket was released, the half of ESPN that went to Northwestern won’t let you forget it) after it dispatches a 15-loss(!) Vanderbilt team in the SAT bowl. Some are speculating that Notre Dame may be ripe for an upset by Princeton, but I don’t see it. The Irish are talented and don’t turn the ball over. They make it through to set up a really intriguing game with West Virginia in the second round. These teams were supposed to play each other in the second round last year too, but West Virginia went and lost to 14-seeded Stephen F. Austin, and thus it never coalesced. A hobbled Xavier team will make turtle soup out of Maryland and move on to face the Seminoles after FSU beats FGCU. The Eagles are another trendy upset pick, but I think this is mostly due to the fact that people remember their improbable Dunk City run to the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed a few years ago. FSU is too big and too talented for that to happen. In a matchup of mid-major tournament darlings, I like St Mary’s to just squeak past a VCU team that I don’t know enough about to face Arizona in the second round. As we head towards the Sweet 16, Gonzaga is too talented to lose to Northwestern, and will move on to face Notre Dame in San Jose. The Irish are the kryptonite to Press Virginia’s Superman (that’s West Virginia’s nickname. Someone very creative gave it to them because they press a lot) in that they have great ball handlers, shoot well, and will hit their free throws down the stretch. Florida State is no Maryland, and will prove too much for the Musketeers of Xavier to handle, as they reach the Sweet 16. They will meet Arizona as they dispatch St. Mary’s in the round of 32. I went back and forth for a while about this Notre Dame Gonzaga game and I ended up going with Notre Dame. Although I think Gonzaga is very talented, I think the Irish present matchup problems to them as they do to basically every team. For every time Karnowski, Gonzaga’s big man, can take advantage of the size difference over Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame’s All-ACC 6’5″ center, Colson will be able to drag Karnowski or another Gonzaga big out to the 3-point line on defense and shoot just well enough for the Irish and Mike Brey, a low key really good tournament coach, to reach their third straight Elite 8. The Irish will meet the Wildcats as Markannen poses just enough problems to get past a Jekyll and Hyde Florida State team. I don’t think lightning strikes twice for the Irish, however, as Sean Miller gets the proverbial monkey off his back and gets to the Final 4 in the Wildcats’ home state of Arizona.
Midwest Region: (Rock) Chalk?
The Jayhawks, behind National Player of the Year candidate Frank Mason III, headline the Midwest region ahead of Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, who should be well rested after not playing any postseason games last year, Oregon, and Purdue. I fell into a trap a number of years ago of always thinking Kansas was going to win the title just because their bird mascot looks kinda cool and they’re always a 1 seed, but I’m not eating the birdseed this year. HOWEVA (in Stephen A Smith voice), they won’t become the first 1 seed to lose to a 16, and will face Miami after the Canes blow away a strange Michigan State team in the 8-9 game. I always mess up picking Iowa State’s games, so bear with me: I think they won’t fall victim to Nevada, and will make it through to the second round to face Purdue (this means of course that they will be upset and my bracket will spontaneously combust), which does just enough to get past the Catamounts (I think those are just fancy cats) of Vermont. Choo choo. A hobbled Creighton team that lost the NCAA’s assist leader, Maurice Watson Jr, to an ACL injury earlier this year, will fall to a veteran Rhode Island team that has come on strong at the end of the year after having been ranked in the Top 25 to start the year. Speaking of hobbled, the ACL monster bit Chris Boucher, Oregon’s shot blocking big man, but the Ducks are too talented to lose to Iona in the first round. Michigan and Oklahoma State will play a first-to-87 game in which defense will be optional. I like Michigan’s story, and I think Derrick Walton will provide enough veteran leadership to squeak past Oklahoma State to play Louisville in the second round. In my first shocking upset of the tournament, I like Miami to beat Kansas. The reality is that 1 seeds often don’t go as far as we think, and I see this matchup being problematic for Kansas: Miami is a veteran club that will clamp down on defense and slow the game down. They have three quality offensive players in Davon Reed, Kamari Murphy, and Bruce Brown that will compete with Kansas, and for some reason I just don’t trust the Jayhawks this year. In spite of rolling through the Big 12, they seem to be shrouded in controversy following the Josh Jackson story and their early exit from the Big 12 tournament (even though Jackson didn’t play). I like the Canes to upset the Jayhawks as Miami backs into the Sweet 16. Iowa State and Purdue is an intriguing second round matchup because there’s such a contrast in size: the Cyclones like to play small ball, whereas Purdue boasts Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, two enormous big men. I think Iowa State wins the battle in a testament to how weak the Big 10 was this year and moves on. In spite of losing Boucher to injury, I think Oregon has too much firepower, particularly in Dillon Brooks, to lose to Rhode Island, and so they march on to take on their avian friends from Louisville, who clamp down on Michigan’s offense to end the Wolverines’ season. In a matchup of oscillating weather patterns, the Cyclones get the better of the Hurricanes behind the Kansas City crowd to move on to the Elite 8. In what should be a tremendous contest, particularly between Oregon’s offense and Louisville’s elite defense, I think the Cardinals get the win. Louisville has a great formula for winning in March in that they boast two potent guards that can slash or shoot their way past you, and they have long, athletic players that guard like crazy. Pitino moves on to the Elite 8 after breaking out the white suit for the Sweet 16. I also like the Cardinals to clamp down on Iowa State in the regional final and make their way to the Final Four.
South Region: Daggumit that’s a tough draw
Ole Roy commandeered the Tar Heels to another #1 seed, and luckily they wouldn’t have to see Kris Jenkins until the Championship game this year. The South is packed with marquee names in Kentucky, UCLA, and Butler that look to dethrone the Heels from their top spot in the region. The sweet tea-powered offense of the Heels won’t lose to a 16 seed, and they meet Seton Hall, fresh off of their roles as extras in Pirates of the Caribbean 5, in the second round. In a strange choice of seeding, the Golden Gophers were given a 5 seed and matched up against Middle Tennessee State, that team you know because they beat Michigan State last year, in this region. Doing their best Bill Murray impression, the Blue Raiders dispatch the Gophers so Bushwood Country Club is spick and span for the second round in a 5-12 upset. One of the many facts of NCAA tournament life is that Butler doesn’t lose in the first round, and thus they move past the Winthrop Eagles to take on Middle Tennessee. I like Kansas State, fresh off a win over Wake Forest in the First 4, to beat Cincinnati and continue the trend of at least one First 4 team making it to the Round of 32. Apologies, Mick Cronin. The Wildcats will meet UCLA, fresh off of defeating Kent State by an approximate final score of 882-66, in the second round. Wichita State, a 6 seed in a 10 seed’s clothing, gets the better of the Flyers to “upset” Dayton, moving on to face Kentucky in the second round. Resetting, Carolina proves too much for Seton Hall and moves on to face Butler in the Sweet 16 as, just like last year, the slipper will only fit for one night for Middle Tennessee. UCLA will once again prove too hot to handle as they blaze past Kansas State to head to the Sweet 16 in Memphis. Wichita State and Kentucky should be a tremendous second round game. The Shockers are the 8th best team in the country per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency metric, and Kentucky is also in the top 10. I think the big stage overwhelms the freshmen of Kentucky as John Calipari can’t coach his way past imposter Tom Crean’s Shockers. They get revenge for the Wildcats’ win in 2014. Carolina is simply a better team than Butler and will move on to the Elite 8. UCLA and Wichita State should be interesting once again, but I think UCLA’s offensive firepower will push them past Wichita State and propel them to face UNC in the regional final as LaVar Ball proclaims Lonzo the second coming of Magic Johnson. In what should be a tremendous regional final, UNC demonstrates the need for defense in the NCAA tournament as it does just enough to mitigate the UCLA offense, holding them to a meager 80 points and moving on to Phoenix.
Final Four: Who gets hot in the desert?
To recap, I have Duke, Arizona, Louisville, and UNC, programs that are truly the sport’s blue bloods, in the Final Four. As I mentioned earlier, I see this as a year the cream of the crop rules in the end. Both semifinal matchups should be tremendous, and I see Duke, behind a tremendous defensive performance from Amile Jefferson with the assist from Harry Giles off the bench, doing just enough to stop Markkanen and the Wildcats and getting back to the National Championship game. Louisville and UNC should be a great test to see how well Carolina handles an elite defensive team, but I think UNC, a complete team, gets the better of Pitino and, daggumit, we might just have a Tobacco Road showdown in the tournament for the first time in forever (no, actually). This Final would likely cause the sports media world to self-destruct out of pure hype, but I think, both with my brain and my Duke-fan heart, that Duke gets the better of Carolina one more time behind its versatile offense as it finds its rhythm just in time to claim the 2017 National Championship. I don’t know how we got here, but we’re sure in for a tremendous NCAA tournament. Happy bracketeering, everyone, and Go Duke.