Although it’s been proved time and time again, as you can find throughout this website, my predictions continue to be wrong at a cringe-worthy rate; I predicted some stuff right, but not nearly enough to deserve any sort of credentials in Vegas.
Reviewing my “safe bets for upsets” piece, my safe bets were pretty insecure, as some of my predictions were pretty much decimated within the first few hours of the tournament.
Upsets, however, aren’t really the story of this year’s NCAA Tournament, although runs to the second weekend from #7 Michigan and #11 Xavier came as an unexpected surprise, there was no astronomical upsets from double-digit seeds leading to the slaying tournament titans on day one.
Instead, we’ve seen top dogs prove why they’re top dogs, as well as teams like #8 Wisconsin and #7 South Carolina reasons to make the selection committee think twice about seedings going forward.
So, now we’re on to weekend two, lacking any “imposters” or true “Cinderella teams”, but what we do get from here on out is incredibly competitive college basketball; it’s one of these sixteen teams who will have to win just four more game to cut down the net on April 3rd in Phoenix, AZ.
While my bracket is in the 15.5 percentile in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge and I’m a bottom-feeder in all of the pools I’ve joined (I use the same bracket for every pool, it’s about integrity, baby), I’m comfortable reviewing the play of the tournament teams so far and picking a set of winners to advance to the Elite 8.
East Regional – Friday, March 24th | Madison Square Garden – New York City, NY
#3 Baylor Bears vs. #7 South Carolina Gamecocks | 7:29 PM EST, TBS
Many expected each of the teams listed in the match-up above to be a seed higher and have different team names, but as it turned out, many were to miss the potential Duke-SMU match-up in exchange for a less glamorized Sweet 16 match-up.
During a stretch of the 2016-2017 season, the #3 Baylor Bears were listed as the nation’s top team and were ranked in the top five nearly every week until around mid-February, when losses to other top-Big 12 opponents pushed them further down the polls.
After losing in the first round in 2015 and 2016, Baylor enter the second week of play riding tough victories over #14 New Mexico State 91-73 and #11 USC 82-78, two games that Baylor actually trailed in during a point in the second half before closing the deal.
With great play coming when it’s mattered most, Jonathan Motley, who lead his team in scoring this season, wore another strong showing, as he lead the team highs against the USC Trojans of 19 points and 10 rebounds. Highly efficient shooting numbers, going 9 of 12 from the field, may bode well for the junior forward as they prepare for
Fresh off of an 88-81 victory over one of the tournament favorites #2 Duke, #7 South Carolina Gamecocks will enter play on Friday looking to extend a run, which was kicked-off with a blow-out victory over the #10 Marquette Golden Eagles by a score of 93-73, which was the second-most points scored by the Gamecocks all season.
Credit their senior guard Sindarius Thornwell for a lot of that, as the team rode his 29 points against Marquette and 24 points against Duke to rare offensive showings to victory; the team ranked 180th in the country in scoring offense this season.
Lead by head coach Frank Martin, #7 South Carolina is entering the first Sweet 16 in program history and it’s new found offense is doing them a lot of favors. The match-up is highlighted by a pair of defensive-minded squads who’ve been playing much more offense of late.
Who wins it: #7 South Carolina, 79 defeats #3 Baylor, 76
#8 Wisconsin Badgers vs. #4 Florida Gators | 9:59 PM EST, TBS
Two teams that were popular stay-aways during the bracket-writing portion of the tournament find themselves comfortably into the Sweet 16, but as the field tightens, what was once exposed in the play of these two clubs may come back to bite them in the tail.
While this #8 Wisconsin Badgers club is on its first major run without former head coach Bo Ryan, the Badgers appear to be in good hands under Greg Gard, who has now notched back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances as head coach.
This road was set to be harder than previous runs for Wisconsin, who have now reached the second weekend in 6 of the last 7 years, as the team first escaped defeat from #9 Virginia Tech with an 84-74 win, but later knocked-off the overall #1 seed in the tournament Villanova Wildcats in a 65-62 victory.
Nigel Harris, the senior forward for the Badgers, was the dominant hand in the victory over the Wildcats, gathering team-highs with 19 points and 10 rebonds, but struggled from the free throw line, going 3-7 from the stripe.
One of the stand-outs from the Badgers’ back-to-back trips to the Final Four is another senior stand-out for the Badgers, as the guard Bronson Koenig was huge against Villanova, scoring 17 points, which included a key three-pointer to put the Badgers up 62-59 with 2:01 remaining; Wisconsin would not trail again.
The road so far has been less exciting for the #4 Florida Gators, as they’ve cruised in their two wins over #13 Eastern Tennessee State, where they won 80-65 and crushed the top-rated defending team in the nation in a 65-39 (yeah, that’s less than a point a minute for the loser) win over the #5 Virginia Cavaliers.
If the Gators are looking to ride defense to another win, then they’ve picked the right time to do so, as they held Virginia to a 29.6% field goal shooting performance less than a week ago.
Leaders of the Gators effort came primarily from a pair of forwards in senior Justin Leon, who had 14 points and 9 rebounds, who found himself slighltly one-upped by junior Devin Robinson who also scored 14 points, but grabbed 11 rebounds.
Florida, who last made the Sweet 16 in 2014 under Billy Donavan (when they would go on to an appearance in the Final 4) find themselves with a new tournament braintrust in Mike White, but has looked impressive in his first March run as coach.
Both teams play tough defense and have found themselves red hot after late-season lulls presented lower seeding than previously anticipated. Two of college basketball’s premier programs from a pair of premier conferences (Big 10 and SEC) will face-off in this game, so while a trip to the Elite 8 is on the line, this one is also for pride.
Who wins it: #8 Wisconsin, 67 defeats #4 Florida, 61
West Regional – Thursday, March 23rd | SAP Center – San Jose, CA
#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs. #4 West Virginia Mountaineers | 7:29 PM EST, TBS
Seemingly every year, when it comes to evaluating what kind of team the #1 Gonzaga Bulldogs will field in the tournament becomes a cat and mouse game; when they’re expected to run deep, they fail, yet if they’re expected to fail, they make a deep run.
This is a Gonzaga team that went 32-1 in the regular season, but then found itself struggling against the #16 South Dakota State Jackrabbits before winning 66-46, but then showed a lot of toughness in a 79-73 win over an emotionally-high #8
ESPN University Northwestern (even though Zach Collins got away with a bad goal attend) (but it was okay because we got this picture from the loss).
One of the best things going for Gonzaga, however, is they have one of the most poised players in all of college basketball, their senior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss is one of the top contenders for the John Wooden Award and scored 20 points in the win over Northwestern.
One of the most unspoken big deals of the tournament, however, was Gonzaga’s coach Mark Few’s benching of senior center Przemek Karnowski down the stretch in favor of the freshman Zach Collins. Although Collins played well, hitting big free throws and blocking 4 shots.
The already uncharacteristically low scoring efforts by the Bulldogs are guaranteed to be met when they face #4 West Virginia, who’s stifling full court pressure on defense has slanted them the nickname “Press Virginia”.
Normally, the centerpiece of a Bob Huggins team is its defense, but this years Mountaineer team has learned how to score the basketball. Ranked eighteenth in scoring offense, their scoring roll has continued into the NCAA Tournament, where they’ve defeated #13 Bucknell by a score of 86-80 and cruised over #5 Notre Dame winning 83-71.
Propelling the Mountaineer scoring was junior guard Jevon Carter, who lead the team against Notre Dame with 24 points, going 4 of 5 from behind the three-point line.
However, West Virginia’s senior center Nathan Adrian, who has been the team’s core figure this season, will have to play better against Gonzaga, as the senior scored just 3 points and grabbed 5 rebounds (both very low) must attack against the towering Collins and Karnowski.
This game could go a lot of ways acting as one of the most unpredictable match-ups of the season, as the coaching styles are vastly different between West Virginia’s Bob Huggins and Gonzaga’s Mark Few.
Who wins it: #4 West Virginia, 75 defeats #1 Gonzaga, 68
#11 Xavier Musketeers vs. #2 Arizona Wildcats | 10:09 PMS EST, TBS
I’m willing to bet that this time last week, the #11 Xavier Mustkeeters were not on the Sweet 16 radar of very many bracket experts (aka you and all of your friends in the month of March), but now they’ve cruised to the second weekend. Who knew it? Not me.
To the surprise of some, Xavier’s 76-65 win over #6 Maryland never really looked out of reach, but to the surprise of many, Xavier beat the life out of the #3 Florida Seminoles by a final of 91-66 in a game that never really looked competitive.
Injuries plagued what started out as a highly-anticipated Musketeer season, but the growth of freshmen guard Quentin Goodin and freshman center Tyreke Jones have come at the right time, but the healing of star junior forward Trevon Bluiett couldn’t have come any sooner.
Bluiett has been outstanding since the Big East Tournament, but it’s in the NCAA Tournament that the forward found himself scoring 21 points against Maryland and 29 points against Florida State. If Bluiett stays hot, the improbable head coach Chris Mack and his Xavier squad could keep their run rolling.
Meanwhile, former Xavier head coach Sean Miller and his #2 Arizona Wildcats find themselves in weekend two with wins over #15 North Dakota in a 100-82 victory followed by a 69-60 victory over #7 St. Mary’s.
Stand-out freshman forward/center Lauri Markkanen, who’s headed for a Top-10 NBA Draft selection come June lead the team over St. Mary’s with 16 points and 11 rebounds, but was gigantic at the free throw line going 9 of 10.
Sean Miller is still looking for his first trip to the Final 4, as previous trips that have lead as far as the Elite 8 have come up short, but this Arizona squad, which was consistently ranked among the Top 10 in college basketball is perhaps the best Miller squad on the court in March so far.
Depth will be a key factor for the Wildcats, who have a junior guard in Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who provided great defense off of the bench against St. Mary’s, but will need to get going offensively for a successful Arizona attack.
Who wins it: #2 Arizona, 80 defeats #11 Xavier, 79
Midwest Regional – Thursday, March 23rd | Spring Center – Kansas City, MO
#7 Michigan Wolverines vs. #3 Oregon Ducks | 7:09 PM EST, CBS
Perhaps it wasn’t the best karma when the selection committee tasked the #7 Michigan Wolverines against the only team with the initials “OSU” in the tournament, but they were able to defeat the #10 Oklahoma State Cowboys 92-91 (it’s okay, never forget).
The Wolverines, however, proved they weren’t just a team on the fringe when they knocked off a really good #2 Louisville team 73-69 in a game where they showed a lot of poise and patience, winning what was unquestionably the toughest over their current seven-game winning streak.
Much has been made of the play of senior guard Derrick Walton Jr, who scored 26 points, hitting 6 of 9 from three-point territory against Oklahoma State, but was quiet against Louisville scoring just 10 points on 6 assists.
Even though Walton struggled against Louisville, the German-native Moritz Wagner (pronounced Vagner, or gross shoulders depending on who you ask.. don’t google it), who scored 26 points and went 11 of 14 from the field.
With a variety of options clicking at the same time, the Wolverines look like a true threat in weekend two, but one of the seasons hidden stories have been the #3 Oregon Ducks, who after struggling against #14 Iona in a 93-77 victory, had to pull an escape-act against #11 Rhode Island, where they won 75-72.
Leading the Oregon attack has been junior forward Dillon Brooks, who scored 18 points against Iona and 19 point against Rhode Island, but his key moment came when he denied E.C. Matthews of Rhode Island of a look at the basket, when he drew a charge that all but sealed the Ducks trip to the Sweet 16 (even though he moved).
The Ducks play very solid basketball on both ends of the floor, as they represent the 43rd-ranked scoring offense and 36th-ranked scoring defense in the nation, which will do them a lot of favors against a Michigan team that is, at times, prone to lapses on both sides of the floor.
Dana Altman, head coach of the Ducks, lead his team to the Elite 8 last season, so it’s hard to say the Ducks, who often aren’t in the conversation among college basketball programs, haven’t been in situations like this before, but a hot Michigan team may be a lot to handle for this Ducks team.
Who wins it: #7 Michigan 87, defeats #3 Oregon, 84
#1 Kansas Jayhawks vs. #4 Purdue Boilermakers | 9:39 PM EST, CBS
Two weeks ago, we saw the #1 Kansas Jayhawks come out extraordinarily flat when they lost 85-82 to TCU, who failed to make the NCAA Tournament, in the Big 12 tournament. Questions began to circulate whether or not head coach Bill Self would be able to rally his team together following such an ugly loss; they’re not questioning it anymore.
Following the loss, star-freshman Josh Jackson, who was suspended for a traffic incident prior to the TCU pairing, returned to the team in two impressive showings against #16 UC-Davis in a 100-62 victory and against #9 Michigan State in a 90-70 victory; neither game even seemed that close.
Jackson played otherworldly basketball against Michigan State, where he scored 23 points going 9 of 16 from the field, in addition to showing some rim-rattiling dunks; this kid can fly.
Frank Mason III, the senior guard and partner-in-crime to Josh Jackson, was equally impressive against the Spartans, scoring 20 points and dishing 5 assists, but really seemed to be the tempo-master as the Jayhawks finally took control of the game in the second half of action.
While the Jayhawks are coming from one of the best conferences in college basketball this season, the #4 Purdue Boilermakers represent Big 10, which wasn’t well represented during the regular season, but now three of the last sixteen teams in the tournament are playing this weekend, tied with the SEC for the most remaining.
There’s more to Purdue than the Big 10 conference bid; this team has a legitimate shot at
the Final Four the National Championship; it’s simply a matter of how far sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan can extend the team’s final reach.
In the two Boilermaker wins so far this tournament, Swanigan has been outstanding, going for 16 points with 14 rebounds in the team’s 80-70 win over a really tough #13 Vermont, who were riding the NCAA’s longest-active winning streak into the tournament. However, his 20 points, 12 rebound, and 7 assists in Purdue’s nail-bitting 80-76 victory over #5 Iowa State showed Swanigan’s tournament prowess.
This is not Matt Painter’s first time coaching a Purdue team in the Sweet 16, although he is 0-2 so far in the round, but this time, he does have the potential NBA star in Swanigan that he didn’t have in 2009 or 2010 (although he did have college white guy Hall of Famer Robbie Hummel).
Who wins it: #1 Kansas, 80 defeats #4 Purdue, 75
South Regional – Friday, March 24th | FedEx Forum – Memphis, TN
#1 North Carolina Tar Heels vs. #4 Butler Bulldogs | 7:09 PM EST, CBS
One of the consensus picks to win the NCAA Tournament from day one, not only of tournament play, but from day one of the college basketball season was #1 North Carolina, who is lead by a pair of tough juniors in point guard Joel Berry II and power forward Justin Jackson. It was a reasonable consensus, as it was just a season ago that UNC was potentially an overtime away (as opposed to a Josh Hart-buzzer-beating-three in regulation) from cutting down the nets.
As #1 seeds so often do, the Tar Heels did their job in round one rolling over #16 Texas Southern 103-64. However, they ran into trouble when #8 Arkansas held the Tar Heels in check until Isaiah Hicks made a pair of free throws with 1:44 to boost the team to a 72-65 victory.
While the pair of stars, Jackson and Berry II combined for 25 (Jackson with 15, Berry II with 10), but the star of the day was actually senior forward Kennedy Meeks, who’s team-leading 16 points and 11 rebounds carried an overall poor shooting day (the team shot 38.1% from the field, 29.4% from 3-point territory).
Meeks shot a highly-efficient 7-13 and gathered 7 of his 11 rebounds on the offensive end of the floor, a performance that if repeated throughout the tournament will bode incredibly well for North Carolina.
On the other side of the card, the #4 Butler Bulldogs can relate to the narrow National Championship loss suffered by their opponents in 2016, as the 2011 Bulldogs fell 61-59 to the Duke Blue Devils, then a year later in 2012 to Connecticut 51-43. However, those teams were coached by now Celtics leader, Brad Stevens, as the head job for these Bulldogs falls in the lap of Chris Holtmann, who’s in his third year, who’s never missed the tournament.
Butler began the tournament by knocking off the #13 Winthrop 76-64, a game in which they never trailed and showed toughness beating perhaps one of the most under seeded teams in the tournament in a 74-65 victory over #12 Middle Tennessee State. Once again, the Bulldogs never trailed, although the game felt marginally closer than their first round match-up.
The performance of junior forward Kelan Martin is the key to Butler’s success in the NCAA Tournament, as Martin’s team-high 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists carried Butler to their second win in the tournament.
While they have yet to trail in the NCAA Tournament and are shooting 50.0% in bracket play, the Bulldogs will have to rebound much better if they plan to beat a North Carolina team who lead the league in rebounding this season.
Overall, the match-up doesn’t look particularly favorable for the #4 Bulldogs, who’s 74th-ranked scoring defense will take on the tenth-best scoring offense in the country in #1 North Carolina.
Who wins it: #1 North Carolina, 85 defeats #4 Butler, 71
#2 Kentucky Wildcats vs. #3 UCLA Bruins | 9:39 PM EST, CBS
I’ve saved the
worst best for last, as we’ll be treated to a great game of basketball with two of the most infamous programs in 2016-2017 college basketball (Kentucky is actually slightly likeable this year, but for the sake of this section, we’re giving them the tag). It’s going to be a game that features five project NBA first round draft prospects, two elitist coaches, and a lot of highlight film from AAU mix tapes.
Without question, this is the game of the weekend regardless of how the Elite 8 shakes out.
The #2 Kentucky Wildcats are coming off of two games where they were sharp at spots, but looked very beatable during others. Their victory over in-state opponent #15 Northern Kentucky resulted in a final score of 79-70, but lacked any sort of offensive or defensive conviction from a team of NBA products.
Against the drastically under-seeded #10 Wichita State Shockers, Kentucky was a couple coin-flip calls away from being on the other side of what was eventually a 65-62 victory.
Plaguing the Wildcats has been the poor March shooting of star freshman Malik Monk, who’s shooting 19% from three-point territory in the month. Monk, who can fly around the rim, still managed 14 points in against Wichita State, but shot 3 of 10 from the field.
Thankfully for John Calipari’s offense, there’s other talent, most notably in the form of freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox. Fox’s 19 points against Northern Kentucky and 14 against Wichita State are particularly average, but Fox’s defense will give the Wildcats a lot of additional edge against my own personal Voldemort (give me a second).
However, the #3 UCLA Bruins are coming off of one of the most impressive halves of tournament basketball we’ve seen in years, as they trailed 30-33 at halftime against #6 Cincinnati (I’m still recovering) and turned in a 49 point second half effort, closing a 79-67 victory.
Lonzo Ball (who I would like to refer to from here on out as Voldemort, but I’m a “grown up”) was marvelous, shooting 7 of 10 from the field, 4 of 7 from three point land, leading to 18 points, 9 of the best assists you’ll ever see, and 7 rebounds. He is an all-around force, which Kentucky will be tasked to slow down, at best.
In addition, the Bruins have tough shooters in the forms of Aaron Holiday, Bryce Alford, and T.J. Leaf, all of whom found themselves as double digit scorers against a tough defending Cincinnati.
There are chinks in Steve Alford’s UCLA armor. They looked exposed for long stretches of times against Cincinnati, really until about 10 minutes left in the game, and struggled to stave off #14 Kent State (MACtion) before going on to win 97-80.
Who wins it: #2 Kentucky, 88 defeats #3 UCLA, 81
Bring on Lavar Ball’s second kid, see ya, Lonzo.