Now that the field has been set, USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach examines the NCAA Tournament bracket and which teams have the best shot at making it to the Final Four.
USA TODAY Sports
Expect the unexpected.
It sounds cliché, but it also rings true during March Madness. Hardly any expert or diehard fan expected 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State to beat Michigan State in the first round last year. If someone did in fact make that pick it likely was either a Spartans hater or that clueless co-worker who liked blue jerseys better than green ones.
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There is a statistical way to make excellent picks, sure. But that’s just plain boring. The only way to hit a home run is to swing for the fences, and with that in mind, here are some wildly bold projections for this year’s Big Dance.
Wichita State will upset Kentucky in 2nd round
The NCAA selection committee really likes coincidences, which it seemingly cooked up with a potential second-round matchup between Wichita State — should it get past seventh-seeded Dayton — and No. 2 seed Kentucky — should it dispatch Northern Kentucky. The Shockers, who ousted Arizona last year and Kansas the year before, perhaps were the most egregiously underseeded team in the bracket at No. 10.
On paper, there’s no arguing Kentucky is a much better team talent-wise, with elite freshmen Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, who combined for nearly 50 points a game. But the Shockers will have payback from 2014 (a loss to Kentucky ending their undefeated season) as their motivation. If you think coach Gregg Marshall isn’t a guy who holds grudges, think again. This team plays with a signature brand of toughness concocted by Marshall, and ranks in the top-five nationally in field goal percentage defense. Better put, they play with the same grit that got the program to the Final Four in 2013.
Not one No. 12 seed will win, but three No. 13 seeds and a No. 14 seed will pull off upsets
Historically and statistically speaking, No. 12 seeds score the most likely first-round upsets; there is a 72% chance of at least one happening this year according to ESPN Stats and Information. Last year, two No. 12s beat No. 5s. But it doesn’t happen every year, with zero No. 12 seeds advancing in 2015’s tournament. That could be the case again in 2017. Each of the No. 12 seeds have enough talent to pull off first-round upsets, but the tournament is mostly about matchups and unfortunately they aren’t favorable. No. 12 UNC-Wilmington, for instance, is a popular upset pick but faces a Virginia team that leads the country in defensive scoring margin.
Look instead for upsets from No. 13 seeds — Bucknell, Winthrop and Vermont — and No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast. Bucknell faces a West Virginia team that presses non-stop and is one heckuva tough No. 4 seed, but Zach Thomas is a junior forward who can spearhead the upset. Winthrop is led by 5-7 sparkplug guard Keon Johnson (22.5 ppg), who will give Butler headaches. Johnson had 38 points in an overtime upset of Illinois during the season. Vermont, which likely deserved a No. 12 seed instead of No. 13, faces a vulnerable Purdue team. Coach John Decker will have to find a way to stop national player of the year candidate Caleb Swanigan, who is tenacious on the glass, but the likelihood of an upset is there. A propensity for turnovers that doomed the Boilermakers last year in a first-round loss to Arkansas-Little Rock could be a problem again for Matt Painter’s group, which won the Big Ten regular season in a down year.
Florida Gulf Coast, a No. 14 seed and best known for its 2013 Dunk City Sweet 16 run, is really, really good. And its first-round opponent Florida State is really, really vulnerable and not playing its best basketball. FGCU, coached now by Joe Dooley, has a high-octane offense and looked impressive even in regular-season losses to Michigan State and Baylor. Guard Brandon Goodwin (18.2 ppg, 4.0 apg) has the ability to become a March star.
That Middle Tennessee team everyone loves won’t be a Cinderella
Middle Tennessee is no Cinderella. They were last season as a No. 15 seed, pulling off perhaps the biggest upset of all time by knocking off Michigan State. But this year the Blue Raiders (30-4) were deserving of an at-large bid and even a No. 10 or No. 11 seed. That’s why Kermit Davis’ team certainly can beat Minnesota, which lost one of its best players in starter Akeem Springs. But MTSU won’t be a surprise for Big Ten coach of the year Richard Pitino, who will have the Gophers ready to silence the tournament’s most likely bracket buster.
The X-Factor is Minnesota big man Reggie Lynch, who is prone to foul trouble but when he’s in the game makes scoring in the paint impossible as Minnesota leads the country in blocked shots. Giddy Potts, a three-point marksmen who had 30 point in the Blue Raiders’ Conference USA tournament final against Marshall, will be contained by Minnesota’s guards on defense. And MTSU’s best player, JaCorey Williams, won’t be able to take over against the Gophers’ frontcourt.
No. 11 seed Rhode Island will go to the Sweet 16
One of the benefits of playing with your back against the wall as a bubble team during the better part of February and early March is that mentality carries over into the NCAA tournament. That’s what coach Dan Hurley’s team will bring to the table — a killer edge that helped it win the Atlantic 10 tournament. More than anything, the Rams are healthy, on an eight-game winning streak and hitting their stride at the right time.
They have explosive offensive weapons in E.C. Matthews and Hassan Martin, but it’s on defense where the Rams turned it up in the last month, rising to No. 32 in the country in KenPom defensive efficiency. They also have a nice pathway to get to the Sweet 16 via key injuries to their opponents. No. 6 seed Creighton lost its starting point guard Maurice Watson Jr. to a knee injury in the middle of the season, and Oregon lost one of its best players in versatile forward Chris Boucher, who tore his ACL in the Pac-12 tournament.
Seventh-seeded Michigan will help Kansas underachieve again
That team that finally finds its rhythm and identity just in the nick of time often is the most dangerous team. That’s Michigan this year. The Big Ten tournament champion is a No. 7 seed, but the Wolverines are playing No. 2 seed basketball right now. John Beilein’s team is 8-0 since a last-second loss to Northwestern.The Wolverines’ anchor is point guard Derrick Walton Jr. (15.2 ppg, 4.7 apg), who can take over games and can help carry Michigan past a tough Oklahoma State team in the first round and an inconsistent Louisville squad in the second round. If and when Michigan faces Kansas in the Elite Eight, assuming Michigan State or another underdog doesn’t knock the Jayhawks off, Michigan will be the team that stops them from getting to Phoenix. That will follow a hidden trend of underachievement for KU.
Kansas has won 13 consecutive Big 12 regular season titles, but the postseason is a much different story. The Jayhawks were the top overall seed in last year’s tournament, had won 17 games in a row as the favorite to win the national championship before losing to eventual national champion Villanova. In the last eight years, the Jayhawks have been a No. 1, No. 2, No. 2, No. 1, No. 2, No. 1, No. 1 and No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. And they turned those great regular season résumés into only one Final Four run.
Gonzaga will go to the Final Four
Is it really bold to pick a No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four? It is when it’s Gonzaga, a program that’s been to 18 consecutive NCAA tournaments but has yet to reach the Final Four. The ‘Zags were a top seed in 2013 but were ousted by ninth-seeded Wichita State in the second round.
Now a powerful mid-major, this Gonzaga team under coach Mark Few is fully capable of getting to Phoenix behind do-everything guard Nigel Williams-Goss (16.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.8 apg) and now-healthy big man Przemek Karnowski (12.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg). The Bulldogs (32-1) were the fourth No. 1 seed, which means their side of the bracket makes for a tougher path, but a second-round game against Northwestern, a third-round game against, potentially, Notre Dame or West Virginia and an Elite Eight matchup likely against Arizona are all winnable. Bracketologists picked Gonzaga’s résumé apart for playing in the lowly West Coast. Now the path is open for the Bulldogs to silence any doubters they’ve had this season.
Neither Duke nor Villanova will cut down nets
Las Vegas odds-makers like Duke or North Carolina to win it all, and defending champion Villanova is the top overall seed for a reason. Villanova and Duke are both red hot, coming off tournament titles. With both of them in the stacked East Region, it’s difficult to argue with the logic that whoever comes out of this region won’t win the whole thing.
How will they lose? Whether it be to Florida, SMU or Baylor in the East or to a top-tier team in the Final Four? Because it’s win or go home in the tournament. Coach Jay Wright can speak to the rigors of this cruel side of March. Before last season his team struggled to get past the second round, losing to No. 8 seed N.C. State as a No. 1 seed in 2015. And Mike Krzyzewski knows it to be true, too, given the fact that some of his best teams didn’t end up winning the national title. Though these two teams are very likely the best in college basketball right now, there is a long way to go to the title. And this is March Madness.
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