by Paul West
After a regular season with no clear top dog but also a relatively small bubble, the 2017 March Madness tournament holds some interesting matchups and a lot of potential upsets. The East Region holds a couple of games that could go either way, and arguably the strongest 2 seed in the tournament.
1 Villanova vs. 16 Mount S. Mary’s/New Orleans
The Villanova Wildcats are in the midst of a new-found winning tradition, fueled by tough two-way play and game-changing guards. Foremost among said guards is senior Josh Hart, the only the third player ever two win his second Big East Tournament MVP; he’s the kind of player that can carry a team to a Final Four, and the Wildcats are a legitimate threat to repeat last year’s March Madness title. They’ll face the winner of the play-in game between the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers, champions of the NEC, and the New Orleans Privateers, champions of the Southland Conference. Unfortunately, neither team is likely to take down the tournament’s top overall seed. Pick: Villanova
2 Duke vs. 15 Troy
The Duke Blue Devils are peaking late, and they’re starting to look like one of the best teams in the country. Their team defense has vastly improved from earlier in the year, and they have a handful of scoring threats. Eyes are always on Grayson Allen, their mercurial limb-swinging sharpshooter; but 6’6″ sophomore Luke Kennard is a quick, crafty lefty who’s damn near impossible to guard one on one and leads them in scoring with 20.1 points a game. Meanwhile, 6’8″ freshman Jayson Tatum has emerged as another matchup nightmare; he’s averaging 16.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists a game. The Troy Trojans (yes, really) are also coming into the tournament hot, having won a tough game against Texas State to win the Sun Belt Conference; they’re 49th in the country with 79 points a game, and they have a bunch of players 6’5″ or taller. If they can create second-shot opportunities and hassle Duke in the paint, Duke’s relative lack of depth could be a problem; but if Duke continues to stay locked in on offense, it won’t matter. Pick: Duke
3 Baylor vs. 14 New Mexico State
The Baylor Bears might be a little too highly seeded, but they’ve got nine wins against the RPI top 50. They’re stingy on defense, only allowing 62.7 points a game, and they defend the three point line well and can be stifling on defense; unfortunately, they don’t doesn’t create extra possessions, and sometimes their own possessions are downright ghastly. Combine that with a poor turnover margin, and you don’t exactly have a recipe for a deep run. The New Mexico State Aggies haven’t played much of a tough schedule, but they have scoring depth and some size. If the Bears’ throw it up & get it style of play doesn’t work, this could be an upset. Pick: New Mexico State
4 Florida vs. 13 East Tennessee State
The Florida Gators looked a lot more dangerous earlier in the season, especially when they beat Kentucky 88-66; but now, the seem like they might be over-seeded. They’re trending in the wrong direction, having lost two of three and lost consecutive games to Vanderbilt–first to close the regular season, and then in the SEC Tournament. The East Tennessee State Buccaneers are Southern Conference champs, and they’re big, talented and athletic. They average 79.9 points a game and 14.8 assists a game, and they could be another double-digit seed to make it through to the weekend. Pick: East Tennessee State
5 Virginia vs. 12 UNC-Wilmington
The Virginia Cavaliers are a tough team to predict. They still employ their signature defense, a gap-closing pack line which cuts down opposing players’ ability to drive the lanes. But they’ve lost Malcolm Brogdon, a scoring threat whose air of calm helped manage the team’s energy even as he took over the offense–and they’ve also lost Justin Anderson, Anthony Gill and Jeff Withey, who gave them the interior presence to prevent teams from getting second chances on offense and all now play professional ball. Before Brogdon, Joe Harris was the level-headed and underrated scoring threat that could take over the offense when needed. Sensing a theme here? This year’s Cavaliers can still lock it down on defense, but they have trouble when it comes to scoring the basketball. Senior point guard London Perrantes has been asked to take over a larger role an an anemic offense, but this belies his true value as a crafty, efficient playmaker who can hit threes in big moments but not in high volume. The x-factor for the Cavs are two freshman: Ty Jerome, who can score off the dribble and has decent shooting range, and Kyle Guy, an athletic energizer who can score in bunches and plays as if he’s never seen a shot he didn’t like. The Wahoos will need to further integrate their shooters into the plan, or they won’t be able to build a run into next weekend. Tony Bennett–a sagacious, stabilizing strategist who helps his players maximize their talents–has his work cut out for him. The UNC-Wilmington Seahawks have a balanced lineup with depth, multiple scoring threats and a willingness to share the ball; they’re tenth in the nation in scoring, with 85 points a game, and 29th in the nation with 16.1 assists a game. They had Duke on the ropes on their last tournament appearance, just a year ago; and their tournament experience will mean that they’re less likely to be overwhelmed by the stage. This is one of the most interesting matchups in this region, and it’s a pure strength vs. strength affair. If you’re looking for a possible 12-5 upset, this is one to consider. Pick: UNC-Wilmington (sorry, Casey)
6 SMU vs. 11 Providence/USC
The SMU Mustangs are an athletic, physical squad that slows the game down and crashes the boards. They’re led by Semi Ojeleye, a 6’7″ junior forward who averages 19 points and 6.7 rebounds per game; and despite their default pace of play, when they get out in transition they can put up points. They had a weak non-conference schedule, and only went 3-2 against the BPI top 50; so whether they can hang with elite squads remains to be seen. They also lack depth, but they’re still widely considered a potential dark horse. They’ll play the winner of a play-in game between the Providence Friars and USC Trojans, who took UCLA down to the wire in the Pac-12 tournament. The Friars are big and physical, and the Trojans are super athletic. Pick: SMU
7 South Carolina vs. 10 Marquette
The South Carolina Gamecocks get a virtual home game in the first round, playing in Greenville, South Carolina agains the Marquette Golden Eagles. The Gamecocks are led by 6’5″ senior guard Sindarius Thornwell, averaging 21 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game; unfortunately, they haven’t got much else to rely on on offense. Marquette held its own in a tough Big East, beating Villanova and sweeping Xavier and Creighton; they shoot it well from downtown, and they average 82.5 points in a game, 17th in the country. They’re also 20th in assists, with 16.5 a game. If not for South Carolina’s home-court advantage, this would seem to be an easy call in their favor. Pick: Marquette
8 Wisconsin vs. 9 Virginia Tech
The Virginia Tech Hokies have beaten a bunch of tournament teams, including Duke, Syracuse, and Virginia. They average 79.1 points a game, and 15.3 assists a game. They’re also 320th in the country in rebounding, and 229th in points allowed. The Wisconsin Badgers are a strong defensive squad that crashes the boards but can be challenged on offense. The Badgers are reeling a bit; they were beaten handily by Michigan in the Big Ten final game, and they’ll have to rely on leadership and physicality if they’re going to make a run. Seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig have been to the big dance before, and they’ll have to be difference makers. 6’10” sophomore Ethan Happ, who was their best player for long stretches this season, will also have to play big. This one’s a crapshoot, and neither team seems likely to make it through the second weekend. Pick: Virginia Tech
Upset alert: This quarter of the bracket looks rife with possible upsets, but the biggest one that seems likely is New Mexico State over Baylor. The most intriguing matchup, however, looks like the 5-12 between UVA and UNC-Wilmington.
Sleeper team: If East Tennessee State makes it through Florida, their physicality could be a problem for a few rounds. And if USC ever gets it together, with that talent…
You might not have heard of: Semi Ojeleye, who leads a potentially bracket-busting SMU squad in scoring.
Who makes the Final Four? Duke. They’ve got a trio of high-level scorers, they’ve got one of the best postseason coaches in college basketball history, and they’ve begun to play just enough defense to make a difference.