NCAA March Madness: Breaking Down the Brackets

Tom DavisCorrespondent IMarch 27, 2017

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Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. But how does their path to the Final Four compare to the other No. 1 seeds?

I'm going to break down the early rounds in each bracket and give you the teams to watch this weekend.


Midwest Region


Kansas is the No. 1 overall seed, but has been put in what is essentially this tournament's version of the famed Group of Death of the World Cup.

Ohio State, Georgetown, Maryland, Michigan State, and even Tennessee all have the potential to be a Final Four team. Whoever comes out of this region will either be battle-tested or exhausted.


First Round Matchup(s) To Watch

No. 8 UNLV vs. No. 9 Northern Iowa

These matchups are obviously designed to be very close, but I really can't get a read on this one either way.

Both of these teams are good defensively and can hit their outside shots. The Panthers don't have a premiere player like Tre'Von Willis, but the Rebels lack a real inside presence to stop UNI's leading scorer, Jordan Eglseder.

If I had to pick, I'd lean slightly towards the Panthers, who I believe will get the better of UNLV in the turnover battle.


No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 San Diego State

Tennessee is coming off an embarrassing loss to Kentucky in their SEC semifinal, and can do two things with it: Get sad, or get mad. If it's the latter, SDSU may be in trouble.

For their part, the Aztecs are coming in red hot, having won games over New Mexico and UNLV on their way to the MWC tournament championship.

But on the whole, they are an enigmatic team; they have the length, talent, and athleticism to play with anyone in the country, but they never seem to put it all together for long stretches.

Their win over UNLV in the final was as ugly a basketball game as I think I've seen, and if they play like that against the Volunteers, they'll be heading home in a hurry.


Seventh Seed(s) or Higher That Can Make a Sweet 16 Run

No. 7 Oklahoma State

As I mentioned, this may be the most top-heavy bracket of any of them, but if any of these lower seeded teams can break through, it's the Cowboys.

OK State has a first round matchup with Georgia Tech, a team loaded with NBA prospects, but who have underwhelmed this year, not even making it to .500 in ACC play.

Win that game, and it's off to (likely) face Ohio State in an OSU vs. OSU matchup.

The Buckeyes rolled Minnesota in the Big Ten final, and will likely roll UC Santa Barbara in their first round game. It'll be a battle of the backcourts as James Anderson, Obi Muonelo, and Keiton Page take on Evan Turner, William Buford, and Jon Diebler.

Do I expect the 'Pokes to win? No. But I wouldn't be shocked if they did.


Sweet 16 Predictions

Because of the power at the top, I expect this region to follow closely to form.

I expect Kansas to handle Lehigh and Northern Iowa. Michigan State will beat New Mexico State and Maryland. Georgetown will handle Ohio, then beat San Diego State, and Ohio State will beat UC Santa Barbara and Oklahoma State.


West Region


There's been a lot of complaints about Duke having the easiest route to the Final Four, but I think Syracuse has the weakest draw. I could easily see two double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16 from this region—that's how weak it is at the top.

The only really tough matchup would be Kansas State in an Elite Eight matchup, but I don't have the Wildcats getting that far (see below).


First Round Matchup(s) To Watch

No. 5 Butler vs. No. 12 UTEP

The Bulldogs won the Horizon League (both regular season and tournament) handily, but apart from a home "Bracketbusters" win over Siena, haven't played a tournament-caliber team since mid-December.

UTEP, meanwhile, has been getting a lot of attention as the No. 12 seed to take as an upset this year. They're very athletic, and have three forwards that can score, led by Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter. He could create lots of problems for the Bulldogs, who are more of a perimeter team.

I would lean towards taking Butler, who has been to this tournament each of the last three years and knows what to expect, but this one is very much up in the air.


No. 4 Vanderbilt vs. No. 13 Murray State

Vanderbilt has looked a little vulnerable recently, losing two of its last three to teams that didn't make the NCAAs.

The Murray State squad is one of only three teams to rack up 30 wins this season. Granted, most of those were against what was—apart from last year's champion Morehead State—a meager Ohio Valley.

But don't thumb your nose at the Racers. They are very balanced offensively, with six players averaging 9.5 points or more a game.

Vanderbilt will and should be the favorite, with four players averaging over 10 points a game. But don't be surprised if Murray State gives the Commodores a serious run for their money.


No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 11 Minnesota

Most people seem to think this is a sure thing for Xavier. They saw the Gophers get beat by Ohio State by 29 in the Big Ten final, and think that's the team that's going to show up for the tournament.

Well, I don't think so.

I look at these two teams, and I see a lot of similarities. Both have five players averaging over eight points a game. Xavier has the stud in Jordan Crawford, but I think Minnesota's defense will be able to neutralize him to a certain degree.

The real edge Minnesota has is on the sidelines.

No offense to Chris Mack, but it's his first season as a collegiate head coach, and he's going up against a former NCAA champion in Tubby Smith.

Smith will have these guys ready to play. Expect the Gophers to pull off the upset in front of what will probably be a very Minnesota-friendly crowd in Milwaukee.


Seventh Seed(s) or Higher That Can Make a Sweet 16 Run

No. 7 BYU

I think BYU is far under seeded, and I fully expect the team to both dismantle Florida—who, in my estimation, shouldn't even be in the tournament—and then go on to beat Kansas State.

As much as I hate the Cougars as a UNLV fan, I think Jimmer Fredette is an absolute nightmare. He can hit threes from anywhere, can create his own shot with the spin move, and will draw fouls and make free throws.

When you add Michael Loyd, Jr. as a slasher, Jackson Emery as a three-point shooter, and Noah Hartsock as a decent interior player, I think this team can beat anyone on a given night.


No. 11 Minnesota

As I mentioned, I think having Tubby Smith on the bench is a tremendous asset for any tournament team. I could easily see the Gophers beating both Xavier and Pittsburgh on their way to the second week.


No. 12 UTEP

The Miners are a major threat if they can survive Butler. If they do, I could see them defeating the Vanderbilt/Murray State winner to make the Sweet 16.


Sweet 16 Predictions

I'm predicting a few upsets in this bracket. I have Syracuse making it through relatively unscathed against Vermont and Gonzaga.

I see Vanderbilt beating Murray State and UTEP, who I expect to upset Butler. Minnesota will be a surprise, beating Xavier and then Pittsburgh.

And as I said, I think BYU will make the Sweet 16, handling Florida and then upsetting Kansas State.


East Region


Kentucky will not have an easy path to the Final Four.

Dangerous foes await starting with the second round. There are potential matchups with formerly top-ranked Texas in the second round; Temple, Wisconsin, or Cornell in the Sweet 16; and New Mexico, Marquette, or West Virginia in the Elite Eight.

Any one of those teams could present a major challenge to the Wildcats, who are loaded with talent, but very young.


First Round Matchup(s) To Watch

No. 5 Temple vs. No. 12 Cornell

This is the only game I'm going to list from this region, because I expect it to be the best game of the entire first round.

Both of these teams are under seeded: Temple should be up a line (if not two lines), and Cornell should be No. 6 or 7. By my calculations, that means we're getting a second-round quality game.

Temple has done one thing all year: win. It finished first in a strong Atlantic 10, and then won the conference tournament for good measure.

It has a stout defense, allowing only 56.1 points per game, and has an effective scoring threesome in Ryan Brooks, Juan Fernandez, and Lavoy Allen.

Cornell has a trio of its own in seniors Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote, and Louis Dale. In fact, the Big Red seem poised to earn the Ivy League an NCAA tournament victory for just the second time since Penn beat Nebraska in 1994. (Fun fact: The coach of the Quakers that year was Fran Dunphy, who is currently the coach at Temple.)

I think this game will come down to the wire.

In the end, I have to favor Temple slightly. I think it all comes down to schedule; Temple's been battle hardened by its conference play, while Cornell unfortunately has not.


Seventh Seed(s) or Higher That Can Make a Sweet 16 Run

No. 12 Cornell

I know I said I favored Temple in its first round game, but the Big Red are the only team that I see making it through the first two rounds.

If they are able to slip past Temple, then they will face a Wisconsin team that doesn't really have any threats beyond its starting five. If Cornell can somehow keep Trevon Hughes and Jon Leuer in check, they have a shot at beating the Badgers.


Sweet 16 Prediction

I think Kentucky marches past East Tennessee State and Wake Forest. Wisconsin will beat Wofford and then a worn-out Temple. Marquette will handle Washington and then upset New Mexico, and West Virginia will take care of Morgan State and Missouri.


South Region


It has been argued that Duke has been given a cakewalk to the Final Four.

I'm sorry, but I don't see it.

I see potential matchups with last year's top overall seed Louisville in the second round and Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. (Remember, the South Regional is played in Houston, which could very easily become Aggie Country.)

And I see an Elite Eight matchup with either Baylor (Houston could be Bear Country too), Villanova (granted, Nova has lost a lot of games recently, but I think Scottie Reynolds is one of the most clutch players in college basketball), or even red-hot Notre Dame.


First Round Matchup(s) To Watch

No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 13 Siena

Purdue looked cover-your-eyes awful against Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament. The 11 points the Boilermakers scored in the first half is the lowest since they've been keeping track of the stat, which is at least 60 years.

Everyone's wondering how far they can get in the tournament without Robbie Hummel, was an important part of Purdue's three-headed attack along with E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson.

The Boilermakers weren't granted any favors in their first round matchup with Siena. The Saints have four players averaging more than 13 points a game. They dominated the Metro Atlantic and have only six losses all year, four of which were against tournament teams.

Both Purdue and Siena will be well out of their element out in Spokane, and Purdue is not the same team without Hummel.

I expect Siena to pull out a close one.


No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Old Dominion

Notre Dame is one of the hottest teams in the country, having gone 6-1 down the stretch. All but two of those games came against tournament teams, and several of those wins coming without (or in a limited capacity) leading scorer and rebounder Luke Harangody.

They're a no-brainer to beat the champion of the one-bid CAA, right?

In the words of Lee Corso, "Not so fast, my friend!"

Old Dominion has the potential to play with anyone in the country, which it proved in beating Georgetown on the road. They have an inside force in Gerald Lee, and play great defense, holding teams to about 57 points a game.

Will the Monarchs' defense be enough to stop the likes of Harangody?

Maybe not, but this is going to be far from the walkover that most anticipate.


No. 7 Richmond vs. No. 10 Saint Mary's

Saint Mary's avoided the perceived snub they received last year by winning the West Coast tournament over rival Gonzaga. The Gaels have four players averaging over 10 points a game, and an absolute force inside in Omar Samhan.

They run up against a Richmond team that had an impressive year in a tough Atlantic 10. It has a pair of premier scorers in Kevin Anderson and David Gonzalvez, and has beaten the likes of Temple, Missouri, Old Dominion, Florida, and Xavier.

Maybe it's a little East Coast bias, but I like the Spiders to pull this one out, despite stats that seem to favor Saint Mary's.

The Gaels have put up better numbers, but Richmond's faced a better schedule.


Seventh Seed(s) or Higher That Can Make a Sweet 16 Run

No. 9 Louisville

Duke has a recent history of making an early exit from the NCAA tournament, and I think the Blue Devils will do it again this year in a second round matchup against Louisville.

The Cardinals have been up and down this year, but when they're up, they can play like the team that was the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament last year.

I expect Rick Pitino to have his team well prepared, and I think they will beat both California and Duke in short order.


Sweet 16 Predictions

I believe that Louisville will beat California, and then upset Duke. Texas A&M will handle Utah State, and then beat Siena, who I expect to upset a weakened Purdue team.

Baylor will defeat Sam Houston State, and follow it up with a victory over Notre Dame. And Villanova will beat Robert Morris and Richmond.

Overall, there is plenty to look forward to—although I fully expect to be out of my bracket pool by the end of the weekend.