2017 NCAA Bracket Predictions: Best Picks for Every Matchup
Go with your gut.
That has always been my bracket-picking philosophy.
Last year, I tried to go with my head. Stupid me.
I decided I was going to pick the team to win the title that I trusted the most, and that was Michigan State. Didn't matter where the Spartans were slotted. That was my champ.
Sparty lost to Middle Tennessee in the opening round. Ugh. Left me feeling like I had some bad sushi swimming around.
This year I went with my instincts—I think that's gut plus head—and ended up (mostly) sticking with my preseason picks. I will not spoil it for you, but I went with three of my preseason Final Four selections—two ended up in the same region—and replaced the fourth with a team from its league. I also stuck with my preseason title pick.
Am I feeling pretty good that those preseason picks don't look too wild five months later? For now.
But my title pick is a team that numbers tell me I should absolutely not trust. Well, the heck with the numbers. I mean...unless they justify my picks.
And yes, here you will find a breakdown of every single game in the bracket. Some equipped with numbers. Some explained with on-the-fly logic.
Feel free to use it as your guide and thank me if you win your office pool.
No. 16 New Orleans over No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s
This could be a sloppy game, as both teams turn it over frequently and also force a lot of turnovers. The Privateers rank 35 spots ahead of the Mountaineers on KenPom.com. I'll go with the favorite.
No. 11 USC over No. 11 Providence
Providence coach Ed Cooley did one of the best coaching jobs in the country to simply get Providence in the field. His team comes in hot, winning six of its last seven. USC has lost five of its last eight. But don't be fooled by momentum. The tourney reset should be good for the Trojans, who are the more talented team and nearly upset UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament in their last game.
No. 16 North Carolina Central over No. 16 UC Davis
North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton has built a strong program in Durham—yes, the same town as Duke. This is the Eagles' second NCAA tournament in the last four years. This is the first NCAA tournament ever for UC Davis. The experience of Moton's Eagles wins out.
No. 11 Wake Forest over No. 11 Kansas State
Wake Forest has one of the best offenses in the country and will face a Kansas State bunch that has been defending at a high level. If the Wildcats can slow the pace and make it a sloppy game, they'll have a great chance. But I'm not sure they have enough offense to keep pace with the Demon Deacons, who are led by breakout star big man John Collins.
First Round, East Region
No. 1 Villanova over No. 16 New Orleans
Jay Wright has lost in the first round three times at Villanova, and all three times his team was a No. 9 seed. The defending champs are not a No. 9 seed this year, and they're not losing to New Orleans.
No. 9 Virginia Tech over No. 8 Wisconsin
Buzz Williams is 4-1 in round-of-64 games, and the quickness of his Hokies on the perimeter could give Wisconsin issues. The Badgers have problems with teams that can spread the floor and shoot the three—teams like Creighton, Michigan and Michigan State. The Hokies shoot 40.3 percent from deep.
No. 12 UNC Wilmington over No. 5 Virginia
UNC Wilmington returns four of five starters from the squad that gave Duke a scare in the first round last year. Virginia was one of the biggest overachievers in college basketball, based on the team's talent. The talent disparity isn't much here, which makes this a 12-5 upset candidate. The Cavaliers have the best defense in college hoops, but the Seahawks run smart offense—they turn the ball over only 10.4 times per game—and they have enough scoring punch to pull off the upset.
No. 4 Florida over No. 13 East Tennessee State
This matchup should be much closer than the seed lines suggest. East Tennessee State is one of the most talented mid-major teams in the country. Point guard T.J. Cromer, who averages 19.1 points per game, might be the best player on the floor, and the Buccaneers have two starters who began their careers at big-time programs in Hanner Mosquera-Perea (Indiana) and Tevin Glass (Wichita State). Florida wins a close game, feasting on the turnover-prone Bucs' mistakes.
No. 6 SMU over No. 11 USC
USC and SMU played earlier this season at USC, and the Trojans won 78-73. The Mustangs lost again in their next game against Boise State. They were 4-3 at that point. They've lost one game since, and that was on the road at Cincinnati. Both teams have obviously gone in different directions. If the Mustangs can win this one, they'll be a scary opponent for the higher seeds in the bottom of this region.
No. 3 Baylor over No. 14 New Mexico State
New Mexico State would have been better equipped last year for this matchup when current Toronto Raptor Pascal Siakam was on the roster. The Aggies are smaller up front this year, and it could be a struggle matching up with Baylor's Johnathan Motley, who averages 17.3 points and 9.9 boards per game.
No. 10 Marquette over No. 7 South Carolina
The Gamecocks went 3-6 down the stretch, struggling to score the basketball as of late. Marquette's defense could be a welcome sight, but can the Gamecocks keep up with the high-powered Golden Eagles? I don't think so.
No. 2 Duke over No. 15 Troy
Duke has struggled in some opening-round games in the past, but this year Duke enters the tournament playing its best basketball of the season. Hard to see any scenario where the Blue Devils lose to Troy.
First Round, Midwest Region
No. 1 Kansas over No. 16 North Carolina Central
The Eagles did go 1-2 against major-conference schools this season, losing to Ohio State and LSU in close games and knocking off Missouri. Does that mean anything? Maybe that they'll be able to keep the game close for a bit against a Kansas team that has a tendency to play down to its competition. But the Jayhawks should eventually pull away.
No. 8 Miami over No. 9 Michigan State
Tom Izzo has one of the youngest teams in the NCAA tournament, and this group feels like it's a year or two away from a big run. You should never count out Izzo in March—even with last year's shocking first-round exit—but Miami's talent is on par, if not better, and the Canes have a big experience advantage.
No. 5 Iowa State over No. 12 Nevada
This game will likely be a popular upset pick because the Wolf Pack are really talented for a No. 12 seed. They have several scorers who can really fill it up, including future pro Cameron Oliver. Oliver is a tough matchup for Iowa State's smallish frontline. But the Cyclones have a roster with a ton of NCAA tournament experience headlined by Monte Morris, who is going to get his guys shots and play close to perfect basketball. I'm not betting against Morris, the soon-to-be NCAA record holder for assist-to-turnover ratio over an entire career.
No. 4 Purdue over No. 13 Vermont
The Catamounts don't have a player taller than 6'8" in their rotation. That could be an issue against the Boilermakers, who play through big men Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas.
No. 11 Rhode Island over No. 6 Creighton
Creighton played well in the Big East tournament but has not been the same team since point guard Maurice Watson tore his ACL. The Watson-led version of the Bluejays could have made a Final Four. The Rams are playing their best basketball and enter the tournament having won eight in a row. Creighton also relies heavily on three-point shooting, and Rhode Island defends the three-point line at a high level, allowing opponents to shoot just 29 percent from deep.
No. 3 Oregon over No. 14 Iona
The Gaels always love to play fast, high-scoring games, and that's a dangerous formula against the Ducks. This will be a fun game to watch, but Iona doesn't have the defensive chops to keep up with Oregon.
No. 7 Michigan over No. 10 Oklahoma State
This should be a fun game featuring two of the best offensive teams in the country. Michigan's advantage is in the frontcourt. Oklahoma State slow-footed center Mitchell Solomon struggles against mobile bigs, and you're not going to find more mobile bigs than Michigan's D.J. Wilson and Mortiz Wagner.
No. 2 Louisville over No. 15 Jacksonville State
Jacksonville State is turnover prone, and you can bet on Rick Pitino making sure his team takes advantage. The Cards have too much size and athleticism for most mid-major teams to keep up.
First Round, West Region
No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 16 South Dakota State
Mike Daum makes the Jackrabbits a scary No. 16. Daum is averaging 30.8 points in his last 13 games and can score from just about anywhere inside 25 feet. But Daum doesn’t have enough around him to play with the Zags, who are so loaded they bring a future first-round pick (Zach Collins) off the bench.
No. 8 Northwestern over No. 9 Vanderbilt
Vandy wants to shoot a bunch of threes and will spread the floor with shooters. That’s uncomfortable for a lot of teams. But Northwestern has faced similar foes in the Big Ten (mainly Indiana and Michigan) and guarded both well. I think Vandy will have the biggest issue defensively trying to check Northwestern guards Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. The Wildcats win the battle of the smart kids.
No. 5 Notre Dame over No. 12 Princeton
The Tigers and Irish are a lot alike. They play slow, shoot a lot of threes and rarely turn the ball over. You’re not going to out-Mike Brey at this point. Also worth noting: Brey’s juniors and seniors, who make up the core of this team, are 6-2 in the NCAA tournament.
No. 4 West Virginia over No. 13 Bucknell
The Mountaineers lost last year in the opening round to Stephen F. Austin. But Stephen F. Austin had the luxury of being coached by a former Bob Huggins assistant in Brad Underwood. Bucknell coach Nathan Davis is coaching in his first NCAA tournament. Going up against Press Virginia is not a comfortable introduction to the big dance.
No. 6 Maryland over No. 11 Xavier
Chris Mack is an excellent tournament coach, but his team has not been the same since point guard Edmond Sumner tore his ACL. Since Feb. 8 (two games after Sumner suffered the injury), the only teams the Musketeers have beat are DePaul (three times) and Butler. With Sumner, Xavier could probably get to the second weekend. Maryland has its star point guard (Melo Trimble), and that will be the difference in this one.
No. 3 Florida State over No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast
The Seminoles look like a national title contender some nights and an NIT team others. You simply never know the version that’ll show up. Florida Gulf Coast put a scare in North Carolina for a half last year and could do the same to the Seminoles. But Leonard Hamilton’s talent should eventually win out.
No. 10 VCU over No. 7 Saint Mary's
Saint Mary’s plays an aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball, while VCU likes to muck it up. I expect the Rams to mess with Saint Mary’s rhythm and for the Gaels to have a difficult time checking VCU speedy point guard JeQuan Lewis. This just seems like a bad matchup for Saint Mary’s.
No. 2 Arizona vs. No. 15 North Dakota
Arizona does not have one bad loss on its resume and is plenty used to taking care of business in the top-heavy Pac-12. Usually, there has to be some level of a Power Five school looking past its opponent for the lower-seeded team to get upset. That’s not happening with Sean Miller’s club.
First Round, South Region
No. 1 North Carolina over No. 16 Texas Southern
Roy Williams has never lost in the first round. A No. 1 seed has also never lost to a No. 16. The odds aren’t looking good, Texas Southern.
No. 9 Seton Hall over No. 8 Arkansas
The Pirates won five straight before losing 55-53 to Villanova in the Big East tournament. Arkansas was also hot late in the year, but it was mostly beating up on the crummy teams in the SEC. This is a coin-flip game. I’ll take the team in the better conference with the best player (Khadeen Carrington).
No. 12 Middle Tennessee over No. 5 Minnesota
This is one of the 12-5 that seems like a good spot to pick the upset. Only 15 spots separate these teams on KenPom.com—Minnesota is 33 and Middle Tennessee 48—and the Blue Raiders have more tourney experience, having upset Michigan State last year. Reggie Upshaw and Giddy Potts are back to spoil things for a Big Ten team again this year.
No. 4 Butler over No. 13 Winthrop
The Butler way is to win in the first round. Chris Holtmann is 2-0 in first-round games since taking over and Brad Stevens went 4-1 in the round of 64. Given time to prep, Butler coaches are tough to beat.
No. 11 Wake Forest over No. 6 Cincinnati
It would be troubling as a No. 6 seed to look out on the floor and see that the best two players in the game are on the other team. That will be the case if Wake Forest is able to advance and play Cincy. The Demon Deacons have two future pros in John Collins and Bryant Crawford. The only team in the AAC with comparable talent is SMU, who beat Cincy two out of three times.
No. 3 UCLA over No. 14 Kent State
The Golden Flashes hit the offensive glass hard and have a stud on the interior in Jimmy Hall. Hall is a Power Five-level player, but he’s not going to be enough to keep up with the run-and-fun Bruins.
No. 10 Wichita State over No. 7 Dayton
Wichita State is ridiculously under-seeded if you believe in the numbers at KenPom.com. Those advanced metrics have the Shockers as the eighth-best team in the country. It’s hard to believe any team that ranks in the top 10 in any metric will lose in the first round.
No. 2 Kentucky over No. 15 Northern Kentucky
Northern Kentucky is a cool story, reaching the NCAA tournament in its first season as a postseason-eligible team on the Division I level. Your prize is playing the ridiculously talented dudes in your state who have won 11 straight.
Second Round, East Region
No. 1 Villanova over No. 9 Virginia Tech
Villanova went up against Buzz Williams 12 times during his six seasons at Marquette, and Jay Wright's team went 8-4 in those games. Williams is getting close to building Virginia Tech into the type of program he had at Marquette, but if we want to play the history game here, none of the 'Nova teams he ever faced those six years were as good as this one. This might be closer than whatever the Vegas line ends up at, but the Wildcats will survive.
No. 4 Florida over No. 12 UNC Wilmington
The Seahawks have one of the worst two-point defenses in the country, allowing D-1 opponents to shoot 54.2 percent inside the arc. They could struggle to handle the Gators' quick perimeter trio of Kasey Hill, KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza. Florida 6'8" wing Devin Robinson could also be a difficult matchup for the Seahawks. The best wing they played this season, Clemson's Jaron Blossomgame, went off for 20 points in a 14-point win for Clemson back in late December.
No. 6 SMU over No. 3 Baylor
The Mustangs have the perimeter shooting to have success against Baylor's zone. They've also been efficient against zones this season, scoring at a 1.023 points per possession clip, according to Synergy Sports.
If SMU were in the Big 12, it would rank third in zone efficiency, behind Kansas and Baylor. The Jayhawks swept the Bears this season, and coach Bill Self is likely to give his old assistant Tim Jankovich some pointers on how to attack Baylor.
No. 2 Duke over No. 10 Marquette
The Golden Eagles are a scary draw because they're the best three-point-shooting team in the country. They upset Villanova earlier this year burying 9-of-19 threes.
But part of the difficulty of matching up with Marquette is that coach Steve Wojciechowski can create some weird cross matches with his small lineups.
Duke likes to play small so that would be a welcome challenge. Look for Duke to win a high-scoring game.
Second Round, Midwest Region
No. 1 Kansas over No. 8 Miami
The Hurricanes have the athletes to play with the Jayhawks and also employ a brand of small-ball with 6'7" Anthony Lawrence starting at the 4 spot. Lawrence should be able to match up better with KU's Josh Jackson than most 4 men.
But two types of teams have given the Jayhawks issues: those with a scoring big man and those that can really fill it up from deep. The Canes don't really fit either category.
No. 5 Iowa State over No. 4 Purdue
The Big Ten team that has the most in common with Iowa State is probably Michigan, and Purdue is 0-2 against the Wolverines this year.
The Cyclones will have a difficult time matching up with Purdue's size and the low-post abilities of Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. But those two beasts are also going to struggle to defend out on the perimeter, and the Cyclones, who space the floor with shooters, will pull Purdue bigs away from the bucket.
The Cyclones also enter this tournament as one of the hottest shooting teams in the country. In February and March, they are shooting 46.3 percent from beyond the arc.
No. 3 Oregon over No. 11 Rhode Island
For some reason, the Rams have struggled this year against scoring power forwards. Dayton's Kendall Pollard put up 35 points in two wins against Rhode Island, and Valparaiso's Alec Peters went off for 27 points in his matchup. That's not a good sign, as Oregon has one of the best scoring 4s in the country in Dillon Brooks.
No. 7 Michigan over No. 2 Louisville
Louisville struggled against efficient offenses this season. The four most efficient offenses in the ACC, according to KenPom.com, belong to North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest and Notre Dame. The Cards went 2-4 against those teams this season.
Michigan ranks fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency and fits the type of team that gives the Cards trouble. The Wolverines' unique style—John Beilein's two-guard offense—is also difficult to game plan against with just one day of preparation.
Second Round, West Region
No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 8 Northwestern
Purdue has the best frontcourt in the Big Ten and swept Northwestern this season. Gonzaga has one of the best—and definitely the deepest—frontcourt in college hoops. The Zags also have better guard play than the Boilermakers. Zags roll.
No. 5 Notre Dame over No. 4 West Virginia
Mike Brey’s team is No. 1 in the country in turnover rate—that’s percentage of possessions that don't end in a turnover—and that’s the opposite of music to the ears of Bob Huggins. Huggins just lost to a similar mistake-free team in Iowa State. The Irish are perfectly built to deal with Press Virginia.
No. 3 Florida State over No. 6 Maryland
I’m not sure I trust either of these teams. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon did an excellent job rebuilding quickly this season, but his team is young. Florida State is also young but loaded. When you don’t have a feel for either team, the smart play is to simply bet on talent.
No. 2 Arizona over No. 10 VCU
Sean Miller has won six straight round of 32 games and only lost once, his first time in the second round in 2007 while at Xavier.
While Miller has yet to reach a Final Four, he’s had success in the tourney and usually wins when he has the better talent. That’s the case in this game as the Wildcats have somewhere between four to six future NBA players, including likely lottery pick Lauri Markkanen.
Second Round, South Region
No. 1 North Carolina over No. 9 Seton Hall
Seton Hall is one team that has the bodies inside and the rebounding ability to hang with North Carolina. But when the Pirates have lined up against the elite this year—Florida, Creighton (with Maurice Watson) and Villanova (three times)—they haven’t been able to consistently hang.
No. 12 Middle Tennessee over No. 4 Butler
The Bulldogs thrive by simply playing smarter basketball than most everyone else and rarely making a mistake. The same could be said for Middle Tennessee this season, and Kermit Davis Jr.’s club might be more talented.
The key for the Blue Raiders pulling off the upset will be the play of do-everything forward Reggie Upshaw. Upshaw had 21 points and four assists last year in the upset win over Michigan State. In the loss to Syracuse in the next round, he had just two points and one assist.
No. 3 UCLA over No. 11 Wake Forest
Two teams that love to score and are allergic to defense. Bet the over!
You don’t want to get in a scoring contest with the Bruins, and the Demon Deacons will try. So long as UCLA’s front line can keep John Collins from going for something absurd like 40 points and 15 boards—expect Ike Anigbogu to play more minutes to keep that from happening—the Bruins should win an entertaining game.
No. 2 Kentucky over No. 10 Wichita State
The reason the Shockers are seeded so low, despite kicking the crud out of the Missouri Valley and ranking high using advanced statistics, is because they did not beat anyone of note in the nonconference. They had opportunities against Louisville, Michigan State and Oklahoma State and struck out.
The Shockers are a different team now—mainly their backcourt of Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp is playing much better—but I’m not sure Gregg Marshall has the horses to run with UK.
Sweet 16, East Region
No. 1 Villanova over No. 4 Florida
The one area where Villanova is not as strong this season compared to last year's title-winning squad is its interior defense without the presence of Daniel Ochefu.
Florida might have been able to exploit that if John Egbunu was available. But Egbunu tore his ACL on Feb. 14, and the Gators were 3-3 down the stretch without him, losing back-to-back games against Vanderbilt to finish the season. Egbunu's rim protection is missed even more than his offense.
Obviously Vandy was a bad matchup, and Villanova has some similarities. Like the Commodores, the Wildcats spread the floor with shooters. They also have much better talent than Vandy.
The committee didn't do 'Nova any favors with the bottom half of its bracket, but the Wildcats shouldn't have any issues with the top half.
No. 2 Duke over No. 6 SMU
If this game were played tomorrow, SMU would actually be favored over Duke on KenPom.com. The Mustangs are ranked 11th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, and the Blue Devils ranked 12th.
But those ratings take into account the entire body of work, and Duke simply hasn't been whole most of this season. The current version of the Blue Devils looks like one of the top teams in the country, and they just beat a team in Notre Dame that plays a similar style to SMU. Both slow the pace and shoot it well from deep. Like the game against Notre Dame, this one could be back and forth and close, but Duke should again pull away late.
Sweet 16, Midwest Region
No. 1 Kansas over No. 5 Iowa State
This game played in Kansas City could be the best environment in the entire tournament. Kansas is obviously going to have a huge following in Kansas City, and Iowa State routinely packs the Sprint Center during the Big 12 tournament. (Cyclones fans refer to the building, where they just won the Big 12 tournament, as Hilton South.)
These teams split the regular season with each team winning on the other's home court. In the last meeting, the Jayhawks controlled the game in the first half and then let off the gas in the second half and eventually lost in overtime. It's a scary matchup for the Jayhawks because of the way the Clones can shoot the three—they made 18-of-34 in their win at Allen Fieldhouse—but these are the types of games in which Bill Self's team typically handles their business in the tournament.
They usually play their best when they respect their opponent. They certainly respect the Cyclones now, and they'll be out for revenge. Plus, it's not smart to bet against an angry Frank Mason.
No. 3 Oregon over No. 7 Michigan
Michigan's talent has fallen off in recent years, but this roster is closer to the years when John Beilein's club was making runs in the tournament, and the key has been the development of sophomore big men D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner.
Wilson and Wagner are tough covers because they can stretch the floor with their jumpers and out-quick most bigs, making Michigan's pick-and-roll a challenge to navigate. But the Ducks have the athletes to match up and an uber-athletic big in Jordan Bell, who should have no issue chasing Wilson and Wagner around.
Sweet 16, West Region
No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 5 Notre Dame
Gonzaga is built a lot like North Carolina and plays a similar style. The Tar Heels probably gave the Irish more issues on the defensive end than any team this season.
The Irish are small up front, and so they struggle with teams that like to play through their bigs. Georgia Tech also pulled off an upset against Notre Dame playing that way. This is simply a bad matchup for the Irish.
No. 2 Arizona over No. 3 Florida State
So about not trusting Florida State…
I don’t feel good about picking the Seminoles to go past the Sweet 16. Arizona, on the other hand, has been a trustworthy team this year that is without a bad loss. Losing to the Seminoles wouldn’t fit that “bad loss” category, but it’s hard to see it happening. Arizona has the athleticism on the wing to check Dwayne Bacon, and Lauri Markkanen is the better college player in the matchup of one-and-done lottery picks between him and Jonathan Isaac.
Sweet 16, South Region
No. 1 North Carolina over No. 12 Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders ran out of juice last year when they faced Syracuse, and one issue was the Orange simply overwhelmed them with waves of talent.
The same could happen in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina, which has one of the most complete rosters in college basketball.
No. 3 UCLA over No. 2 Kentucky
UCLA won 97-92 when these teams first met back in early December at Rupp in one of the games of the season.
Obviously, both teams love to play fast and did so that day. But the Bruins were actually able to get back in transition during the second half and make Kentucky score against a set defense. The Wildcats have had more issues doing that this season than the Bruins, who have so many threats that it doesn't matter what kind of defense they're facing.
Can UCLA repeat the winning formula in a second matchup? I think so.
Elite 8, East Region
No. 2 Duke over No. 1 Villanova
This could be one of the best games of the tournament, and it wouldn't be shocking to see the national champ come from the winner of this matchup.
Both teams are extremely well coached, spread the floor and like to attack mismatches. As you go up and down the lineups, it's hard not to lean toward Duke because no coach in the country has more talent than Mike Krzyzewski.
The difference-maker, however, might not be one of Coach K's future first-round picks. It could be Duke big man Amile Jefferson, who is a clever scorer from the blocks and could give 'Nova's small frontline some issues.
The two advantages the Wildcats have is they're a better defensive team and they have a true point guard who can set the table in Jalen Brunson. Duke does not. But to slow Duke's iso-heavy driving game, you have to protect the rim. And this could be the game where it shows that Villanova's defense isn't as stingy as a year ago when Daniel Ochefu was patrolling the paint.
Elite 8, Midwest Region
No. 1 Kansas over No. 3 Oregon
These are similar teams that attack in similar fashion and both lost last season in the Elite Eight. The Ducks also have the resume that in some years could warrant a No. 1 seed.
The focus of this game coming in could be on the small-ball 4 men. KU's Josh Jackson and Oregon's Dillon Brooks are both All-American-caliber players who will likely welcome the challenge of going against each other. Let's call that matchup a wash.
Both teams also have centers who play similar roles in KU's Landen Lucas and Oregon's Jordan Bell. Bell is more of a shot blocker, but both anchor the defense and clean up the glass. Bell is the more talented guy, so let's give Oregon the slight advantage there.
The difference in this game could be the backcourts. While the Ducks are solid on the perimeter with freshman Payton Pritchard and sophomore Tyler Dorsey, the Jayhawks have arguably the best backcourt duo in the country in Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham. They also have a big experience advantage there.
Oregon did have a bench advantage with Chris Boucher, but he tore his ACL in the Pac-12 tournament. So if it comes down to which team has the biggest advantage somewhere on the floor, KU wins that one on the backs of Mason and Graham.
Elite 8, West Region
No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 2 Arizona
Arizona is a different team than the one that lost to Gonzaga, 69-62, at the Staples Center back on Dec. 3.
The main difference, obviously, is the presence of Allonzo Trier. But Trier does not change what gave the Wildcats issues that day, and that’s the presence of Gonzaga behemoth Przemek Karnowski. He had 18 points against the Wildcats, and his backup Zach Collins added eight.
Karnowski is just too strong for Arizona’s bigs, and Sean Miller can send a double-team if he wants, but Karnowski feasts on double-teams with his terrific vision and passing. The big fella from Poland is going to be the difference in getting Gonzaga to its first Final Four.
Elite 8, South Region
No. 3 UCLA over No. 1 North Carolina
Kentucky tried to run with UCLA this season and ended up losing a high-scoring game on its home floor.
Roy Williams is never going to shy away from an up-tempo game, and that will be to Steve Alford's liking. The knock against the Bruins is that they don't play much defense. But they were better on the defensive end late in the year, and in their big wins (UK, Oregon, at Arizona), they got enough stops when they needed them.
UCLA's biggest weakness on the defensive end has been giving up the three ball—opponents shoot 36.2 percent from deep. While UNC is better this year from deep with Justin Jackson becoming a threat, that's still not a big strength. The Heels would probably be well advised to try to slow the pace and make this a half-court game, but since that's not likely with Williams, I like UCLA's ability to win in a high-scoring affair.
Final Four: No. 1 Kansas over No. 3 UCLA
Kansas and UCLA have had similar narratives this season.
Both teams are terrific on the offensive end, headlined by All-American point guards, and reliant on beautiful ball movement and three-point shooting.
Then there’s the defense…
The Bruins have typically seemed disinterested on that end and rank 78th in adjusted defensive efficiency, a red flag for anyone who wants to consider UCLA as its title pick. Since Ken Pomeroy started tracking efficiency numbers on his website—the database goes back to 2002—no national champ has ever finished below 21st in adjusted defensive efficiency. UCLA was in the 100s for much of the season and has climbed the ladder a bit recently.
The Jayhawks have also seemed disinterested in guarding at times, which is highly unusual for a Bill Self team. This is Self’s worst defensive team at Kansas, and that’s all the more odd considering the core is back from last season’s defense that ranked third in adjusted efficiency.
But when the Jayhawks decide they want to guard, like in close games or against other elite teams, they’ve flashed some defensive talent. The key seems to be the energy and activeness of Josh Jackson, who missed the last game against TCU, and KU’s defense was predictably blah.
If this game happens, it’s sure to be high-scoring and a blast to watch. But when it comes time to get stops, the smart money is on the team that has defended at a high level before and has better all-around defenders, led by Jackson and the always-dependable Landen Lucas.
Final Four: No. 1 Gonzaga over No. 2 Duke
- Mike Krzyzewski has chosen to once again roll with a small-ball lineup playing a wing at power forward in freshman Jayson Tatum. Tatum is ridiculously talented on the offensive end, but post defense has been a struggle. He’s allowing 1.03 points per possession on post-ups, per Synergy Sports.
- Gonzaga has a player similar to Hicks in Johnathan Williams, and the Zags also have better options off the bench, mainly Zach Collins. Collins, who averages 10.2 points and shoots 65.3 percent from the field, is more talented than any big UNC has on its roster.
I’ve said it already before this, but it’s worth repeating: Gonzaga is built a lot like North Carolina.
Now that doesn’t seem like much justification for picking the Zags because Duke won two of the three meetings with UNC. But let’s quickly review…
In the first meeting, a Duke win at Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina was without starting power forward Isaiah Hicks. Second time around, Hicks returned and went for 21 points on nine shots, and backup bigs Luke Maye and Tony Bradley combined for 16 points on 8-of-10 shooting off the bench in a UNC win. This past weekend in the ACC final, Hicks had 19 points—again on nine shots—and Kennedy Meeks scored 19 points, but Duke’s offense was just too good, and UNC star wing Justin Jackson went 6-of-22.
Couple things to note:
Defensively, the Zags should also match up better with the Blue Devils. Williams is comfortable guarding out on the floor and will likely check Tatum. Gonzaga also ranks second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. North Carolina ranks 25th.
Also, UNC’s Jackson is a great player, but he’s going to keep shooting even when he’s not on. The Zags don’t have a high-volume shooter like that and have too many options off the bench to ride a cold hand. They also will play through their bigs.
Basically, Gonzaga is a better version of UNC, and that’s why I like the Zags to get to the national title game.
National Championship Game: No. 1 Kansas over No. 1 Gonzaga
The fear in picking Kansas to win the title is that this team has played an uneasy number of close games for an elite team—12 decided by five points or fewer—and the KenPom.com defensive rule for a champ (a top-20ish defense) that this team doesn’t fit under.
But the Jayhawks are close—they rank 30th in adjusted defensive efficiency—and recent history suggests a team can go from being just OK on the defensive end to dominant. That would be 2015 Duke.
The key for the Blue Devils that year was the awesomeness of Justise Winslow as a small-ball 4 flying all over the floor, and the Jayhawks have a similar weapon in Josh Jackson.
The Jayhawks also have veteran guards, led by National Player of the Year favorite Frank Mason, and they seem to thrive when the pressure is greatest.
This particular matchup with Gonzaga would be challenging because of what the Zags have inside. But Jackson is more equipped to handle Johnathan Williams than Duke’s Jayson Tatum. And Landen Lucas has the weight to hold his own against Przemek Karnowski.
Gonzaga, on the other hand, could struggle with the quickness of Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham. The Zags haven’t faced guards like that all season and would not on their path to the title game either.
Kansas was my preseason champ pick, and I had no idea Mason was going to turn into a KU legend and the National Player of the Year favorite. He’s the guy I’d chose to have the ball in a pressure-packed situation over anyone in the country. Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss is really good too. But going with the guy who has been the best player in America who is surrounded by great talent seems like a smart pick.
Of course, that’s the same kind of logic I used a year ago with Michigan State and Denzel Valentine. Hopefully my bracket doesn’t turn to mush this year.