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 South Region looks like this year’s ‘group of death,’ with UNC, UCLA and Kentucky in the same region along with Middle Tennessee State, an under-seeded Wichita State, and Seton Hall buried as the 9 seed.
1 North Carolina vs. 16 Texas Southern
Even if they’re not the top overall seed, the North Carolina Tar Heels are arguably the biggest threat to win the national title. They score 84.9 points per game, and they’re second in the country with 18.2 assists a game. They’re first in the nation in rebounding, pulling down a whopping 43.5 a game. 6’8″ Junior Justin Jackson leads the team in scoring, but it’s junior guard Joel Berry II who’s their clutch shooter; meanwhile, 6’10” senior Kennedy Meeks and 6’9″ senior Isaiah Hicks head a platoon of talented big men who control the paint. They won the ACC regular season title before losing to Duke in the championship game; if anything, this will give them a chip on their shoulders going into the big dance. The Texas Southern Tigers won the SWAC’s regular season and conference titles; they’re tenacious, and will battle gamely early on, but lack the post presence to really challenge UNC. Pick: North Carolina
2 Kentucky vs. 15 North Kentucky
The Kentucky Wildcats are, as usual, stacked with talent. 6’3″ guard Malik Monk is a scoring flurry waiting to happen; and coach John Calipari is as good as it gets with regard to getting extremely talented players to buy into a highly functional system. If there’s a problem with the Wildcats, it’s that they have height but not mass on the interior and they can struggle to protect the rim against big front lines. But they’re starting to figure it out, and and they have senior leadership on the floor in the person of Dominique Hawkins. The Northern Kentucky Norse won the Horizon League Tournament as an underdog, and they’ve won 10 of their last 12 games. 6’7″, 250-pound Drew McDonald, averaging 16.7 points and 7.7 rebounds a game, will have to play big and sustain possessions for their outside shooters if the Norse are going to have a chance. Pick: Kentucky
3 UCLA vs. 14 Kent State
The UCLA Bruins can get up and down the floor. They average 90.4 points and 21.5 assists a game, both tops in the country; they’re also 26th in the country in rebounding, pulling down 26.2 a game. 6’6″ freshman guard Lonzo Ball a stupefying talent, averaging 6.1 rebounds and 7.7 assists along with 14.6 points; and he doesn’t even lead the team in scoring. The Bruins’ leading scorer is 6’10” T.J. Leaf, a bouncy, rangy athlete who averages 16.2 a game along with 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 assists. Senior guard Bryce Alford averages 15.8 points a game, and seven-foot junior center Thomas Welsh leads the team with 8.8 boards to go with 10.7 points. There were times this season when the Bruins were widely seen as the best team in the country; they’re probably the most dangerous 3 seed in this bracket. The Kent State Golden Flashes finished fourth in the Mid-American East Conference, but heated up and won the tournament; they’re seventh in the country with 40.4 rebounds a game, and they score 76.9 points a game. Even considering the fact that UCLA isn’t exactly staunch on defense, the Flashes won’t likely be able to keep pace. Pick: UCLA
4 Butler vs. 13 Winthrop
The Butler Bulldogs have come a long way since they were a scrappy, unheralded underdog; now, they’re on the verge of being considered a perennial powerhouse in the enormous, talent-laden Big East. The Bulldogs swept Villanova this season, but they’ve also got some curious results and no one aspect of their game jumps off the screen–except their versatility. The Winthrop Eagles won the Big South in both the regular season and the conference tournament; they’re experienced, they score 79.7 a game, and they pull down 37.4 boards a game. 5’7″ senior guard Keon Johnson scores 22.5 a game, and jacks up threes with both skill and abandon; if he heats up and the Eagles get to flying, this could be an upset. Pick: Winthrop
5 Minnesota vs. 12 Middle Tennessee State
The Minnesota Golden Gophers are a tenacious team that can be hard to put away, but the loss of senior Akeem Springs, who tore his achilles on Friday, will be hard to overcome. 6’6″ Jordan Murphy a rebounds beyond his size, and the Gophers as a team attack the glass and defend well. The Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders are a team that slows the pace and is stifling on defense; they’re also a year removed from being the 15 seed that beat a 2 seed, as when they stunned Michigan State in 2016. The Blue Raiders have three players who average 14/5 points or more, and they average 15.3 assists per game; this is another one of those 12-5 games to keep an eye on. Pick: Middle Tennessee State
6 Cincinnati vs. 11 Kansas State/Wake Forest
The Cincinnati Bearcats employ their usual physical, frenetic style of play, and it’s translated to a team defense that only allows 60.5 points a game–fourth in the country. They have a handful of quality wins, and they can be dangerous if allowed to short-circuit their opponent’s flow. But their haphazard style can lead to stretches of bad possessions, which makes them unlikely to make a deep run. The Kansas State Wildcats are an intriguing team that twice took the Jayhawks to the brink, beat Baylor twice, beat Oklahoma State and West Virginia during the regular season, and almost beat West Virginia again during the Big 12 tournament. Yet they were reportedly also the last team in the field. Huh? Meanwhile, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons heated up down the stretch and beat Virginia Tech and Louisville, and score 82.7 points a game with 15.6 assists. 6’10” John Collins carries a heavy load for the Deacons, scoring 18.9 a game with 9.8 boards. This looks like one heck of a play-in game, and whomever makes it into the field of 64 should give the Bearcats a run for their money. Pick: Kansas State
7 Dayton vs. 10 Wichita State
The Dayton Flyers are a solid team, about which nothing really jumps off the page except for their experience–they have four players who are at least 22 years old–and the fact that they won the regular season title in the Atlantic Ten Conference. They’re athletic, and they score 76.5 points a game. The Wichita State Shockers are woefully under-seeded, and will come into the tournament with a point to prove. They still have the tough team defense that’s been their signature since they first hit the national scene as a tournament Cinderella; but this year, they can also score. The Shockers are 20th in the country with 82.1 points a game; they’s 14th in points against per game, with 62.4; they’re 5th in rebounds per game, with 40.8; and they record 16.6 assists a game, tied for 18th. They play with balance and controlled aggression, and if they weren’t in such a stacked bracket, I’d say they were a real threat to go to the Elite Eight. Pick: Wichita State
8 Arkansas vs. 9 Seton Hall
The Seton Hall Pirates are one of the most dangerous sleepers in the bracket. They narrowly missed pulling off a huge upset in the Big East semifinal game against Villanova; they’re 20th in the country in rebounding, with 39.6 a game, and 6’10” junior Angel Delgado is a double-double machine who averages 15.3 points and 13.1 rebounds a game, along with 2.2. assists. Khadeem Carrington, a Brooklyn native averaging 16.9 points per game, is capable of scoring in bunches and taking over a game. The Pirates are tough, battle tested and experienced, and if they get hot, they could go a few rounds. The Arkansas Razorbacks average 80.2 points a game, and if they get hot from the perimeter, they can be dangerous; but not much would seem to indicate they’ll be the ones to cool off the Pirates. Pick: Arkansas
Upset alert: Middle Tennessee State. This is the same team that took down Michigan State last year as a 15, and they’re arguably better this year.
Sleeper team: Wichita State, Middle Tennessee State, and Seton Hall could all be dangerous sleepers–except look who’s waiting at the top of the region. Yikes.
You might not have heard of: Angel Delgado. He plays in the Big East, but Seton Hall’s glass eater still isn’t quite a household name in the hoops world. He might be after this weekend.
Who makes the Final Four? Seriously, who knows? A potential UCLA-Kentucky showdown–to see who gets a shot at UNC–looms down the road. If UCLA wasn’t playing so far from home, I’d go with them; instead, UNC might benefit from playing closest to home.