For the first time in what feels like years, the NCAA selection committee crafted a logical and well-thought out bracket. Sure, there are some head-scratching decisions — Wichita State as a No. 10 seed? South Carolina, as a No. 7 playing a first-round game in Greenville, S.C.? — but the 2017 NCAA tournament has overall been fairly sculpted.
The four No. 1s — North Carolina, Gonzaga, Kansas and Villanova (the top overall seed) — are easily the four best teams in the nation, but none will have a bump-free path to the University of Phoenix Stadium. Several potential stumbling blocks await, and we’ve sketched out the four most troublesome matchups along the way.
It should be noted, that we’re not merely looking at the other top teams in each region, but rather the potential foes that match up most favorably with the No. 1 seeds. That’s why the Tar Heels should be most scared about a double-digit seed they wouldn’t even see until the Elite Eight.
North Carolina: No. 10 Wichita State
Gregg Marshall’s squad was done a serious disservice by matching the Shockers up against No. 7 Dayton and then, in epic trolling fashion for the Wildcats, No. 2 Kentucky. And that’s a shame because Wichita State, which would be a No. 2 if the committee seeded the field according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, has the potential to crack the Elite Eight, where a possible meeting would await with UNC.
Out of all the teams in South region, including Kentucky or UCLA, Wichita State arguably matches up the best versus the Tar Heels. The Shockers come at opponents in waves, allocating the fourth-highest percentage of minutes to its bench in all of Division I. And they are the only team in that region that can negate both the Tar Heels’ offensive and defensive rebounding advantage. The Shockers pursue misses with reckless abandon (34.1 percent) and hold teams to a minuscule 24.1 percent of their boards, which is the second-lowest rate in field. Plus, Wichita State defends in transition, holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 49.3 percent; that might impact UNC’s highly-efficient primary and secondary break offense.
Where WSU truly could stymie UNC is with its perimeter shooting: Duke picked apart the Tar Heels in the second half of the ACC tournament semifinal game with its dribble-drive kick outs, and the Shockers, who converted nearly 41 percent of its threes this season, logged assists on roughly half of those attempts. Conner Frankamp and Landry Shamet lead the team from deep, and defending and running teams off the three-point line has been UNC’s biggest issue throughout the season.
Also capable of an upset: No. 3 UCLA. The Bruins’ defensive intensity undulates from game to game, but there aren’t many teams that can keep pace with UCLA’s ever-moving, gap-filling offense. Coupled with the team’s perimeter accuracy — four Bruins have made 35 percent or more of their threes — is the bigs’ ability to draw UNC’s defenders away from the bucket that could open lanes for the Pac-12 program’s ballhandlers to exploit.
Gonzaga: No. 2 Arizona
This is not the same Wildcats team that lost to Gonzaga in early December. Allonzo Trier wasn’t eligible to play in that first matchup, and since taking the court, the 6-foot-5 sophomore has been on an offensive tear, posting the Pac-12’s 10th best offensive rating on the strength of his perimeter game (39 percent from deep), which he refined after a freshman season where the three-point shot was very much a secondary skill.
His play is fueling Arizona’s offense. During the Pac-12 tournament, the Wildcats dropped a whopping 1.18 points per possession. Second is the evolution of Arizona’s freshmen. Rawle Alkins, a 6-5 guard, has developed into a lock-down wing defender and his play on that side of the ball (block and steal rates of nearly two percent) is typical of defensive stopper in Sean Miller’s system. And whatever plagued Lauri Markkanen in February has finally been corrected: the big man’s effective field goal percentage this month is 57.7 percent.
This is just the second-youngest team Miller has coached at Arizona (discounting his first season in 2010) with three freshmen and one newcomer (Keanu Pinder), the squad lacked the continuity that previous teams possessed. But it’s worth noting Miller’s youngest team, in 2014, advanced to the Elite Eight, and it would appear that this Wildcats squad is similarly starting to jell at the right time.
Also capable of an upset: No. 4 West Virginia. The Mountaineers’ simple rating system (SRS) mark of 24.8 is ranked just below that of Gonzaga and North Carolina. And while the Zags do not turn the ball over — 16 percent turnover rate — the team’s loss to BYU was notable for how carelessly the Bulldogs handled the ball.
Villanova: No. 6 SMU
Coach Tim Jankovich’s squad deserved much better than a six seed, but SMU’s position-less lineup should find its counterpart in Villanova. During the AAC tournament, Jankovich mentioned his team chooses not to aggressively defend the three-point line and instead focus on applying a pressure defense that stays clear of fouling. That strategy should get tested against Nova, a team that doesn’t live and die by the three (as is the common assumption). If the two meet in the Elite Eight, the game will most likely be decided by ball movement, spacing and preventing the interior attempts that the Wildcats so efficiently thrive on.
Also capable of an upset: No. 2 Duke. Another team that looks to space out defenders and take advantage of individual mismatches and kick outs. And thanks to a potential Elite Eight matchup at Madison Square Garden, this is the tournament’s marquee game.
Kansas: No. 5 Iowa State
The Cyclones faced Bill Self’s squad twice this season, with one win and one four-point loss to their record. But those two games featured a Monte Morris unlike the one that has appeared for the Cyclones in recent weeks.
There was a reason why coach Steve Prohm was (rightfully) ticked his senior guard wasn’t discussed for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard. Morris has been carving up Big 12 opponents in February and March, notching two 11-assist games (and four more with 7-plus assists). Coupled with his own offensive output — 50 percent effective field goal percentage while shouldering nearly a quarter of the team’s possessions — the guard is playing at a level that could topple any top tournament seed.
Also capable of an upset: No. 7 Michigan. On the other side of the Midwest bracket sits the other guard capable of shocking a number one. Derrick Walton has been the Wolverines’ catalyst the second half of the season, posting an offensive rating of 1.25 points per possession in Big Ten play while also handing out an assist on 27 percent of Michigan’s buckets. But what makes Michigan such a compelling upset pick is how well the offense is currently operating. During its four-game Big Ten tournament run, the squad dropped 1.16 PPP, and Zak Irvin and DJ Wilson have emerged as tertiary offensive options for a team that is converting on 65 percent of its shots within the arc.
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