I’m a self-proclaimed bracket master, like so many become in mid-March; while I may not be great at picking the eventual champion, or even the teams in the Final Four, I can pick upsets with the best of the best.
Resumes are resumes, so I do excuse you if you didn’t see the #15 Florida Gulf Coast over #2 Georgetown coming in 2013, #14 Mercer over #3 Duke in 2014, #14 Georgia State over #3 Baylor in 2015, or #15 Middle Tennessee over #2 Michigan State in 2016 games coming, so here is a guide to help you in your preparation in 2017.
Everyone is looking to make their coworkers jealous of their insight and while every fiber of your being tells you to pick the favorites from (fill-in-your-choice-of-ACC-BIGTEN-BIG12-PAC12-SEC-teams), the odds are you’re going to be wrong; this thing gets the best of us.
Maybe you’ll find yourself rooting for one seeds like Villanova, Kansas, Gonzaga, or North Carolina… or you could find yourself rooting for a team you’ve never even heard of… like Jacksonville State, Winthrop, or New Mexico State.
Using this guide could be your ticket to water cooler heroism; a value that will last long after your retirement.
Before we get started here, allow me to plug my bracket pool, which will come with a prize, which is to-be-determined, which may make you skeptical, which is understandable, which I will reassure you has always been honored, which allows me to tell you that all of this text will allow you to click and join!
#12 UNC-Wilmington Seahawks over #5 Virginia Cavaliers – Orlando, FL | 12:40 PM EST, Thursday, March 16th on TRU TV
Right off the bat, the match-up geographically favors the 29-5 (15-3) Seahawks from Wilmington (a branch campus of the #1 University of North Carolina), who have a 589 mile trip to the Amway Center, where their 22-10 (11-7) opponent Cavaliers of Virginia (aka the Commonwealth of) have an 814 mile voyage ahead.
The easy argument here would be the fact that #5 Virginia plays in the best conference in college basketball and has wins over (the numbers for this column are all seeds, not AP rankings) #11 Providence, at #2 Louisville, #11 Wake Forest, at #5 Notre Dame, #9 Virginia Tech, again against #2 Louisville, and #1 North Carolina.
Virginia plays the nation’s best defense, allowing only 55.6 points per contest, which includes a campaign two weeks ago where they held the nation’s 12th best scoring offense, the North Carolina Tarheels, to 43 points.
While the Cavaliers play outstanding defense, their offense is prone to long stretches where they simply don’t score the basketball; they average an incredibly low 66.6 (devil’s number, so stay cautious) points per game, which puts them at 312th in the country.
For the #13 UNC-Wilmington Seahawks and their 10th-ranked scoring offense (85.2 PPG), the casualties of the Cavaliers offense should come as a sign of relief; with three starters averaging double digit scoring marks (C.J. Bryce with 17.6 PPG, Chris Flemmings with 15.8 PPG, Denzel Ingram with 14.5 PPG, and Devontae Cacok with 12.3 PPG).
The fact that they’re also averaging 16.1 assists per game, ranked at 29th in the nation, should hint that ball movement to their quartet of scoring threats; the #5 Virginia defensive shield suddenly appears more porous.
Last year, UNC-Wilmington nearly knocked-off the Duke Blue Devils, but came just eight points shy after a late surge from Mason Plumlee, losing just 93-85 in the first round of the tournament. Meanwhile, the 2015-2016 tripped to the Elite 8 before losing to the Syracuse Orange, a game in which star London Perrantes, who’s now a senior, fell cold late.
Basically, this is going to be a hard game for #5 Virginia to win; it’s just not a good match-up for coach Tony Bennett and company.
#11 Rhode Island Rams over #6 Creighton Blue Jays – Sacramento, CA | 4:30 PM EST, Friday, March 17th on TBS
On the bubble up until their A-10 Conference Championship run over the #10 VCU Rams (a battle of the mascots), the #11 Rhode Island Rams (24-9, 13-5) are looking to ride with their 8-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament.
They’ll be facing-off against the #6 Creighton Blue Jays, who fell to the #1 overall-seed Villanova Wildcats in the Big East championship 74-60 less than 24 hours ago.
Again, the match-up will result in a high-rated offense against a high-rated defense, but this time, the value switches seeding.
Although the 25-9 (10-8) #6 Blue Jays are a few years removed from Doug “McBuckets” McDermott, his father and head coach Frank McDermott still has the team playing at a high-octane scoring clip, scoring the nation’s 19th best 82.1 points per game.
Losing one of their key offensive forces around the halfway mark of the season didn’t help Creighton’s cause, as senior Maurice Watson Jr. suffered a torn ACL against Xavier on January 22. The senior was averaging 12.9 points (2nd on the team), but was also averaging a nation-best 8.5 assists per game.
Rhode Island’s tough defense, which allows just 64.9 points per game (32nd in the NCAA) will be lead by their leading shot blocker Hassan Martin, who could be looking to take advantage of an undersized Creighton roster, as he averages 2.6 swats a night. The 6’7″ senior forward also adds 14.1 PPG and 7.0 REB, which makes him a gifted mismatch for Creighton.
The end of the season was troubling for Creighton, who were 5-5 in their last 10 games, playing with no real consistency. Expecting them to carry a new-found consistency into the NCAA Tournament would be unlikely, considering their opponents found a hot hand of late.
#10 Wichita State Shockers over #7 Dayton Flyers – Indianapolis, IN | 7:10 PM EST, Friday, March 17th on CBS
So, this one doesn’t even really feel like an upset which lead to two trains of thought:
- This is very likely happen, so why would I even call it an upset? The match-up should probably look more like #7 Wichita State and #10 Dayton anyway.
- When it does happen, you can lean back in your chair and look like a freakin’ expert, you sly dog!
Hence, you get a preview of this likely upset.
In 2013-2014, the Wichita State Shockers took a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but have a history of success in head coach Gregg Marshall’s tenure. They made the Final Four in 2013, seeded at #7 in 2014-2015, and a #11 seed in 2015-2016 advancing to the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons.
Gregg Marshall has a knack for NCAA Tournament success and it would surprise me, let’s call it zero percent, to see another deep run this year, as they ended the season 30-4 (17-1), winning 14 in a row.
Meanwhile, the Dayton Flyers are coached by Archie Miller, who has found his own strings of NCAA Tournament success, when their 2013-2014 season netted them a trip to the Elite 8 as a #11 seed.
The #7 Flyers head into the match-up against Wichita State 24-7 (15-3), but lost back-to-back games to end the season against George Washington University and Davidson (who don’t have Steph Curry anymore); both of those clubs failed to make the tournament.
While neither of the two clubs have a win against a ranked opponent this season, 3 of the 4 Shockers losses have come against tournament teams, while 3 of the 7 Flyers losses came against teams that failed to make the March pool.
Breaking down what these teams do well, it’s hard to find flaw in anything Wichita State has done this season, as they maintain the nation’s 20th-best offense at 82.1 PPG, 14th-best defense at 62.4 PPG, 5th-best rebounding team at 40.8 per contest, and share the ball 18th-best (tied) in the nation with 16.6 assists per game.
#7 Dayton doesn’t statistically do anything tremendously well in the marquee areas, but have a senior guard in Charles Cooke who scores 16.1 PPG, shoots 46.6% from the field and hits 40.0% from behind the three-point arc.
Unless Charles Cooke can find an extra gear, the Flyers will find themselves in hot water against a highly-talented Wichita State team.
#11 Xavier Musketeers over #6 Maryland Terrapins – Orlando, FL | 6:50 PM EST, Thursday, March 16th on TNT
Disclaimer: This match-up features two teams on the opposite ends of my rooting interest spectrums based off of geographical location, family ties, and conference positioning, so I may or may not be swayed off of this information.
Moving on from the disclaimer, #6 Maryland has an impressive resume if you’re looking at previous seasons of Big 10 basketball, while #11 Xavier’s late-season struggles would normally scare selectors away. Both teams ended up benefiting from the state of college basketball in 2016-2017.
After going 4-6 down the stretch, the 24-8 (12-6) Maryland Terrapins find themselves as a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Wins over #10 Oklahoma State, #15 Jacksonville State, at #7 Michigan, #11 Kansas State, at #5 Minnesota, at #8 Northwestern, and #9 Michigan State make up a nice pool over tournament wins for a team who gave themselves a good amount of non-conference challenges.
Although the Terrapins can credit themselves with non-conference challenges, the 21-13 (9-9) #11 Xavier Musketeers have faired well in making their own credentials. Wins over #15 North Dakota State, #11 Wake Forest, #11 Providence, #9 Seton Hall, at #6 Creighton, and #4 Butler act as a strong counter to Maryland.
Parity between the two teams is relavent, as the Musketeers had their own end-of-the-season struggles, going 3-7 in their last ten games.
However, it’s clear Xavier have become increasingly healthy, as leading scorer Trevon Bluiett, who averages 18.1 PPG looks to have finally recovered from an ankle injury suffered on February 8th against Villanova.
Maryland’s leading scorer and one of the nations best young guards, junior Melo Trimble is attributing 17.0 PPG to the team’s total of 74.2 PPG.
Trimble’s counterpoint at the point will be Xavier’s freshman Quinten Goodin, who took over the starting spot following a season-ending torn ACL injury from star Edmund Sumner, who was expected to head to the NBA Draft following the season.
Goodin, who continues to improve as a passer and scorer, will be entering his first NCAA Tournament in a position to impress. If Goodin takes the next step in his development, the Musketeers should be in the money against Maryland.
#13 Eastern Tennessee State Buccaneers over #4 Florida Gators – Orlando, FL | 3:10 PM EST, Thursday, March 16th on TRU TV
Geographically, the #4 Florida Gators, who’s home is just 110 miles north in Gainesville, Florida from the tournament site in Orlando, Florida, I’m feeling some Disney-inspired magic from the #13 Eastern Tennessee State Buccaneers.
The 24-8 (14-4) Florida Gators, while coming off of a strong 2016-2017 campaign, failed to make the NCAA Tournament in 2015-2016. Head coach Mike White will be making his first NCAA Tournament appearance in his second year as the team’s head coach, as longtime head coach Billy Donavan made the jump to the NBA in the 2015 offseason to join the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Experience being a theme, this is year two for ETSU coach Steve Forbes as well, who lead his team to a 27-7 (14-4) record, as well as the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010.
Injuries are going to be a tough burden for the Gators to bare, as starting center John Egbunu (who averaged 7.8 points and 6.6 rebounds) was lost for the season on February 14th against Auburn. The terrible Valentine’s Day present delivered by the Auburn Tigers lead to the Gators’ 3-3 record without the center to end the season.
Eastern Tennessee State, who finished 9-1 down the stretch, including a Southern Conference Championships are finding themselves in much better closing water than the Gators, which gives them increasing leverage in bracket season.
Senior guard T.J. Cromer leads the Buccaneers with 19.1 PPG and showed what he can do in big games, when in their conference title match-up against UNC-Greensboro, dropped 23 points and hauled in 5 rebounds in the team’s 79-74 victory.
Counter to ETSU’s guard, the Gators have two fine guards of their own in sophomore KeVaughn Allen and senior Kasey Hill. Allen leads the team in scoring at 13.9 PPG, while Hill contributes 9.8 PPG of his own while leading the team with 4.6 assists per game.
Ultimately, the injury to Egbunu may be too much for an undersized Florida club to overcome; this is not the same team that beat Kentucky back on February 4th.
#14 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles over #3 Florida State Seminoles – Orlando, FL | 9:20 PM EST, Thursday, March 16th on TNT
Since their run in 2013, the name Florida Gulf Coast has been synonymous with the term “upset” in the NCAA Tournament. The team’s memorable run as a #15 seed led to wins over #2 Georgetown and #7 San Diego State before being knocked out by in-state opponent Florida.
In 2017, the 26-7 (12-2) #14 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles have earned a seed one higher than that of the 2013 squad, as they’re heading to their third NCAA Tournament, but are making their first ever back-to-back appearances.
The opponent 25-8 (12-6) Florida State Seminoles, who finished 2nd in the ACC, are going to be a tough team to crash, as their size and scoring ability slots them 18th among offenses in college basketball, as they average 82.5 points per contest.
Leading the charge for Florida State’s 15-year head coach Leonard Hamilton will be a devastating tandem of sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon, who’s averaging a team-high 16.9 PPG and freshman forward Jonathan Isaac, who leads the team with 7.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while scoring 11.9 PPG.
However, a high-flying, above-the-rim team in FGCU, who are averaging the nation’s 44th best scoring total at 79.4 PPG are lead by a guard-forward tandem of their own.
In year 4, FGCU head coach Ed Dooley has an electrifying junior guard in Brandon Goodwin, who leads the team with 18.2 PPG while shooting 51.6% from the field. Their 6’9″ senior forward, Demetris Morant, will pose a tough test for FSU’s Isaac, as Morant leads the team in 8.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, as well as dropping 10.7 points of his own per game.
In terms of match-ups, the Eagles are very well equipped to not only score on the Seminoles, but lock them up on defense. This is a trap for the mainstream basketball fan, so don’t fall into it; we know that Florida State team that beat #2 Duke and #2 Louisville earlier this season, but flimsier play of late doesn’t prove any sort of poise headed into this crazy field.