Round of 64
#1 Gonzaga vs. #16 South Dakota State: South Dakota State had an impressive run through the Summit League conference tournament to take a spot in the Big Dance. Sophomore Mike Daum is the player to watch for the Jackrabbits. The 6’9” forward is averaging 25 points and 8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.6 percent from the field and 41 percent from three (on a high volume, 5.4 attempts a game). It’d be interesting to see how Daum would fair against some of the nation’s better competition, but Gonzaga is just too good. Don’t pick against the Bulldogs.
#8 Northwestern vs. #9 Vanderbilt: Excitement surrounds Northwestern after the team punched in their first NCAA tournament ticket on Sunday. The Wildcats’ bid is well-deserved, after starting the season a scorching 18-4 before faltering a bit during a tumultuous February. It’d be great to see this team come together and make a run, but coming off a brutal 76-48 loss to Wisconsin, it seems as if Northwestern’s first game in the NCAA tourney will also be their last game of the 2017 season. Vanderbilt’s outside shooting and size prove to be the deciding factor.
#5 Notre Dame vs. #12 Princeton: Princeton has all the characteristics of a Cinderella team. They are well-coached, don’t turn the ball over, shoot it well from the outside and defend at a high level. The Tigers have reeled off 19 consecutive wins coming into the tourney, including a dominant performance throughout the first ever Ivy League conference tournament. It’ll be a close game, but the Fighting Irish find a way to pull through due to their experience and overall talent level.
Winner: Notre Dame
#4 West Virginia vs. #13 Bucknell: “Press” Virginia gets after it defensively and will try to impose their will over the underdog Patriot league champions. The Mountaineers aren’t built to succeed while trailing in games, so if Bucknell can take an early lead things could get very interesting. This could easily go either way, but the West Virginia squeaks out a close one.
Winner: West Virginia
#6 Maryland vs. #11 Xavier: The Terps disappointed in their NCAA tourney showing last season, having boasted one of the best starting-fives in the entire country. Melo Trimble is the only holdover, and although he has the capability to take over a game Maryland just doesn’t have enough around him for them to make a deep playoff run. Xavier, who suffered their own respective disappointment in the tourney last year, has battled with Villanova, Butler and Creighton all year long, making them battled tested for this time of the year. The Musketeers have looked much better since their recent 6-game skid and find a way to pull off the upset.
#3 Florida State vs. #14 Florida Gulf Coast: Dunk City returns to the tournament to everybody’s delight and matches up against the instate (and very beatable) rival Florida State Seminoles. The Noles lean on the athleticism and talent of Jonathan Issac and Dwayne Bacon to will them through games. It becomes increasingly more difficult to rely on just a couple of players in the tourney, and Florida State will need others to step up if they wish to make a run. Florida Gulf Coast has the ability to keep it close, but the Noles make a statement by picking up a big win knowing that many are picking against them here.
Winner: Florida State
#7 Saint Mary’s vs. #10 VCU: The 28-4 Gaels have had an incredible season and are becoming a trendy pick to make it out of this region. Having only lost to one team other than Gonzaga all year (UT Arlington in early December), the Gaels have dispatched of every other team on their schedule. The Gaels will certainly have the size advantage on VCU, but the Rams will make life difficult for the Gaels’ ball handlers. Will Wade’s team plays a high pressure style on defense, and will crowd Saint Mary’s guards all game long. VCU advances in what will be one of the best games of the first weekend.
#2 Arizona vs. #15 North Dakota: Arizona reminded everybody how good of a team they can be when clicking offensively. North Dakota had a great run in the Big Sky tournament to get here, but the Wildcats are too good to be upset this early.
Round of 32
#1 Gonzaga vs. #9 Vanderbilt: Any team that shoots the ball as well as Vanderbilt has a chance in the tournament, but you need more than a chance to beat this Gonzaga team. They defend well at all positions, and will put pressure on Vanderbilt to hit contested shots all night. The Bulldogs are just too efficient on both ends. It’ll take an enormous effort from a highly talented team to dethrone this 1-seed. Vanderbilt isn’t that team.
#4 West Virginia vs. #5 Notre Dame: The Mountaineers prey off of teams that get impatient dealing with their defensive intensity. They can get under the skin of their opponents, and force them to play out of their comfort zone. Notre Dame is too experienced to fall under that spell. The Fighting Irish have some of the best upperclassmen in the nation and have outside shooting at every position, a recipe for success against the Mountaineers.
Winner: Notre Dame
#3 Florida State vs. #11 Xavier: The Noles will have the size advantage, like they typically do, while the Musketeers have an edge as far as experience goes. Florida State’s premier players have yet to play in a NCAA tourney game, while the Musketeers core still has the image of Bronson Koenig’s game-winning three during last year’s exit fresh in their minds. Issac and Bacon prove their future as NBA talents here, and advance to the Sweet 16.
Winner: Florida State
#2 Arizona vs. #10 VCU: Arizona looked ready to play another game after defeating UCLA and Oregon on back-to-back nights. The Wildcats are playing outstanding basketball on both ends and freshman stud Lauri Markkanen is finally discovering his outside touch again. VCU will put pressure on Arizona’s guards, but the talent of Allonzo Trier, the quickness of Parker Jackson-Cartwright and the grittiness of Kadeem Allen will prove to be too much for the Rams.
#1 Gonzaga vs. #5 Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish match up with the Zags as well as anybody in the nation. It’s not often that a team has multiple players that could break Gonzaga’s rotation, but the Irish’s Bonzie Colson, V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia and Matt Farrell would almost certainly get significant playing time on this Bulldog team. That speaks volumes for how talented this under seeded Notre Dame team is, giving them a legitimate chance to upset the 32-1 top-seeded Bulldogs. Nigel Williams-Goss will be the deciding factor, further proving he belongs as one of the best players in the country. Gonzaga survives a scare.
#2 Arizona vs. #3 Florida State: Zona gets their first true test of the tourney with an equally-as-athletic Florida State squad. The Markkanen/Issac matchup will be entertaining to watch if the two get paired up, as many NBA scouts will be paying close attention to the two eventual lottery picks. Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes may hold a slight advantage over Zona’s group of guards, but we’re going to give Sean Miller and his team the benefit of the doubt, figuring they will be better prepared for the matchup. The Wildcats advance to the Elite 8 for the fourth time in seven seasons.
#1 Gonzaga vs. #2 Arizona: A matchup that many will have once their brackets are filled out, the two best in the west region face off for a chance at the Final Four.
Although the Zags suffered their first defeat just weeks ago to the hands of BYU, the Bulldogs have shown no real sign of slowing down. Make no mistake, this team is a legit title contender, and in the running for the best team in school history. They’ve faced tough competition throughout the year and have asserted complete dominance over the WAC.
Arizona, coming off a brilliant Pac-12 tourney run, looks to be in the best shape they have been all season. Matchups galore in this game, with Nigel Williams-Goss facing off against Allonzo Trier and Zach Collins going up against Lauri Markkanen.
This will be a fun game, with each team exchanging leads from start to finish. Williams-Goss and company will make a run at it, but Sean Miller finally breaks through and leads his Wildcats to their first Final Four since 2001.
West Regional Winner: Arizona Wildcats
Sources: Casey Sapio, Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports, ESPN