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NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: Reasons for Optimism, Excitement, and Uncontrollable Anger in the 2017 Field

Assessing the road to the Final Four, region by region

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In case you missed it, it’s officially Jim Nantz season in America. Selection Sunday has come and gone, the 2017 NCAA tournament bracket has been set, Seth Davis has thrown all of his “this double-digit seed is a Sweet 16 lock!” darts in hopes of hitting just one bull’s-eye, and Joe Lunardi has been locked in his transformation chamber in the dungeons of ESPN, where he’ll remain for the next three weeks before emerging as Mel Kiper Jr. The cutoff point for teams making the field this season was largely free of controversy, as the most notable snubs seem to be Syracuse, which went 2–8 on the road and lost by ten thousand points at home to St. John’s in December, and Illinois State, whose only win over an NCAA tournament team all season came against no. 10 seed Wichita State in January. And yet, there was plenty of outrage to go around, ranging from Illinois State’s defenders, who have yet to receive word that RPI is an awful metric that nobody takes seriously, to Dick Vitale reminding us yet again that he only has one eye.

Speaking of outrage, I’m going to do something I only ever do in this specific context: I’m going to defend the NCAA real quick. Even though setting the bracket may seem like a ridiculously complicated process that involves the selection committee rigging favorable matchups for ratings, money, or laughs, the truth is that it’s pretty objective and straightforward. There are many rules about where schools can and cannot be placed in the field based on conference affiliation, scheduling, last season’s tournament results, and geography, and once the committee has ranked its list of teams no. 1 through no. 68, the bracket basically fills itself out.

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Posted by The Ringer on Monday, March 13, 2017

In other words, if you want to be angry, be angry about where teams fell on that list of no. 1 through no. 68, because that’s the only subjective part of how this all works. (For example, Minnesota being ranked 11 spots ahead of Wisconsin is pants-on-head stupid.) Everything that comes afterward is the committee trying to design a bracket that doesn’t break any set rules. I guess you could also be angry about why those specific rules exist, but that’s a different source of anger than assuming that the committee is conspiring in any way. So please, everyone, take a deep breath and calm down for a few days. We all need to make sure we find our Zen before the Capital One and Pizza Hut commercials playing on loop throughout the tournament try to destroy our will to live.

In the meantime, let’s break the bracket down region by region!

John Calipari (Getty Images)
John Calipari (Getty Images)

South

Team that got screwed (again — not by the committee, but more by the luck of the draw): Kentucky. Playing an in-state opponent with nothing to lose is never an ideal first-round situation for a high seed to be in, even if the Wildcats should steamroll no. 15 seed Northern Kentucky. Of greater significance for Kentucky, though, is that a second-round matchup against either Dayton or Wichita State would be the exact opposite of fun, as would a potential rematch with UCLA in the Sweet 16 and another potential rematch with North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

Team that got a cakewalk: North Carolina. The Heels are the no. 1 seed in the toughest region in the tournament, but most of the teams that make the South so strong populate the bottom half of the bracket. Carolina should cruise into the Sweet 16, where a potential matchup with Minnesota or Butler (two teams that feel seeded at least one spot too high) shouldn’t present much of a problem.

Most enticing potential second-round story line: Kentucky vs. Wichita State. When the Wildcats and Shockers met in the second round of the 2014 tourney, an all-time classic unfolded. A rematch in the same round, three years later, with the roles reversed, would definitely not suck.

Most enticing potential second-round game: Kentucky vs. Wichita State. Beyond the rematch story line, I’m genuinely interested to see how this game would shake out, mostly because nobody has any idea how good Wichita Statewhich is eighth in KenPom’s rankingsreally is. The same thing could be said about Kentucky to a certain extent.

Why Indiana basketball isn’t dead yet: I’m not saying head coach Mike Davis’s Texas Southern program is going to pull off the first no. 16 seed-over-no. 1 seed upset in NCAA tournament history. I’m just saying that Davis once led Indiana to a Sweet 16 win over Duke, when the Blue Devils were the defending national champions and boasted six NBA-bound players (including college basketball’s best point guard of the last 25 years), while Indiana started four white guys, went 2-for-10 from 3-point range, and committed 23 turnovers. Also, I’m not sure I’m joking when I say that Indiana athletic director Fred Glass is going to offer Tom Crean’s job to whoever wins the Archie Miller–Gregg Marshall battle in the first round.

Bronson Koenig (Getty Images)
Bronson Koenig (Getty Images)

East

Team that got screwed (OK, this one was by the committee): Wisconsin. This was the biggest shock of the bracket and something that will never make sense to me no matter how many times it’s explained. I know the Badgers aren’t great and that the Big Ten isn’t either, but this 25–9 squad getting a no. 8 seed is so ridiculous that I can only assume it’s selection committee chairman and Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis’s payback against Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez for Alvarez shitting in his shoe or something at a Big Ten meeting. And not only do the Badgers have a no. 8 seed — if they survive their first-round matchup against Virginia Tech, they’ll have to play no. 1 overall seed and defending national champ Villanova in the second round. Oof.

Team that got a cakewalk: SMU. The no. 6 seed Mustangs have won 16 straight games and have lost only once since December, a 66–64 defeat at Cincinnati on January 12. Whether you’re into using old-school methods to evaluate teams or whether you’re a devout believer in the college basketball gospel known as KenPom (where SMU ranks 11th in America), it looks like the Ponies have the goods to make a deep tourney run. That feels especially probable considering their first-round opponent is one of the worst at-large teams in the field and their second-round opponent would be either a no. 14 seed or a team that’s lost four of its last seven and is coached by Scott Drew.

Most enticing potential second-round story line: Duke vs. South Carolina or Marquette. Assuming the Blue Devils get past no. 15 seed Troy in the first round, one of two things will happen. Either Duke will play South Carolina, a great defensive team headlined by SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell, in Greenville on the same court that North Carolina should play on beforehand, or Coach K will go up against his protégé and definitely-not-Duke-coach-in-waiting-because-Jeff-Capel-totally-deserves-that-job-you-guys Steve Wojciechowski. THE DUKE STORY LINE TRAIN JUST KEEPS ON ROLLING!

Most enticing potential second-round game: Villanova vs. Wisconsin. These are two preseason top-10 teams led by seniors. They’re two teams that have recently competed in national title games. They’re also two teams that play at ploddingly slow tempos. One team (Wisconsin) has a devastating big man in Ethan Happ, while the other (Villanova) barely has a big man at all. One team (Villanova) has athletic guards who have been unstoppable all season, while the other (Wisconsin), um, doesn’t. THIS. IS. MARCH.

The media wet-dream scenario: We could conceivably get Sweet 16 matchups of Jay Wright against Tony Bennett (battle of the dreamboat head coaches!) and SMU against Duke (the Mustangs’ leading scorer and best player is Semi Ojeleye, who transferred from Duke in December 2014). More importantly, we could get an Elite Eight showdown between Villanova (defending champions, no. 1 overall seed) and Duke (champions from two years ago, preseason no. 1 team) in Madison Square Garden — THE MECCA OF BASKETBALL — with a trip to the Final Four on the line. If reading that doesn’t make you rock f’ing hard, I’m sorry to say that you probably don’t have a future covering college basketball for a living.

Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham (Getty Images)
Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham (Getty Images)

Midwest

Team that got screwed: Kansas. It would have to play either no. 8 seed Miami (which matches up decently well against the Jayhawks because it’s guard-oriented and great defensively) or no. 9 seed Michigan State (TOM IZZO IN MARCH!!!!!!!) in the second round. Then head coach Bill Self and crew would have to go to Kansas City to likely face Iowa State (the Cyclones just won the Big 12 tourney in Kansas City and upset Kansas in Lawrence earlier this season) or Purdue. In the latter scenario, Kansas would have an enormous advantage on the perimeter, but the Jayhawks’ big man situation is perpetually on the brink of disaster, while Purdue features one of the best frontcourts in college basketball.

Team that got a cakewalk: The real answer in this region is nobody, but the gun-to-my-head answer is Oregon. No. 6 seed Creighton should be commended for not laying down and dying after point guard Maurice Watson Jr. tore his ACL in January, but the Bluejays might not even be considered the favorite in their first-round game against Rhode Island (which just won the Atlantic-10 tourney and is riding an eight-game winning streak). A win by the Rams would mean Oregon would have to beat only two double-digit seeds to make the Sweet 16.

Most enticing potential second-round story line: Louisville vs. Michigan. Maybe I’m misremembering things, but I’m pretty sure the 2013 national championship game is when college basketball’s relationship with Twitter memes got serious. Four years later, I still vividly remember Peyton Siva’s dad, Travis Tritt singing the national anthem with his hand over his heart the entire time, Spike Albrecht’s absurd first half, Luke Hancock’s answer to Albrecht in the second half (which led to countless “HOW IS THIS COMING DOWN TO ALBRECHT VERSUS HANCOCK” tweets), Kevin Ware watching the game with a leg that was broken in half, people losing their minds when Trey Burke’s late block on Siva was called a foul, the picture of a dejected Burke walking off the court, and Albrecht’s Twitter heat check directed at Kate Upton. So yeah, I wouldn’t mind taking a trip down memory lane with a rematch.

Most enticing potential second-round game: Purdue vs. Iowa State. I’m working on a joke about how it makes sense that Purdue and Iowa State are great 3-point shooting teams because both have good agriculture schools and are therefore all about making it rain. I don’t know. It’s a work in progress. Hopefully I’ll have this figured out by the time they play Saturday. Stay tuned.

First-round game that proves college basketball gods exist and love us very much: Michigan vs. Oklahoma State. This matchup features two of the seven best offenses in college basketball and point guards Derrick Walton Jr. (Michigan) and Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State) — both of whom have been playing out of their minds lately. The Wolverines and Cowboys are also suspect defensively, meaning that the over-under for this game should be in the neighborhood of 4,000 points, especially if it’s played at Oklahoma State’s preferred tempo.

Allonzo Trier (Getty Images)
Allonzo Trier (Getty Images)

West

Team that got screwed: The real answer in this region is nobody, but the gun-to-my-head answer is Arizona. Assuming it downs no. 15 seed North Dakota, it would likely encounter a second-round matchup with Saint Mary’s, the best no. 7 seed in the tournament and a team that could frustrate the hell out of a young Arizona squad by slowing down the pace to a crawl and picking the Wildcats apart.

Team that got a cakewalk: Gonzaga. The Zags could have their hands full with either West Virginia or Notre Dame in the Sweet 16, but their path to that point should be relatively easy. In the second round, Gonzaga would play a 15-loss team (Vanderbilt) or a team that’s just happy to be in the field for the first time in program history (Northwestern). Neither would worry me in the slightest if I were a Gonzaga fan … which, now that I think about it, is precisely why both teams would terrify me if I were a Gonzaga fan.

Most enticing potential second-round story line: Gonzaga vs. Northwestern. It’s the battle of the two teams that college basketball media members are desperate to make you care about!

Most enticing potential second-round game: West Virginia vs. Notre Dame. This would amount to a direct clash of styles. The Irish are offensively minded, have a short bench, and make basketball look like art when they’re at their best. The Mountaineers are defensively minded, play virtually everyone on the roster, and make basketball look like the goddamn purge when everything is clicking.

Why it’s the most intriguing region: the coaches. Other than the fact that this is the weakest region, the first thing that jumped out to me about the West was that West Virginia’s Bob Huggins is the only coach to have a Final Four under his belt. The good news, then, is that we’re likely to see someone come off the best-coaches-to-have-never-made-a–Final Four list. (And if we don’t, well, we get to see Huggy Bear back in the Final Four, which might be even better.) The bad news, though, is that since emerging from this region seems like it should be relatively simple, the coaches of the top seeds that lose early are going to get crucified by the public.

I mean, Gonzaga’s Mark Few has to make the Final Four this year. HAS TO. He has the most complete team in the nation and a clear path to Phoenix, not to mention that many fans think he ran out of acceptable excuses for not reaching that stage years ago. Then again, having been to four of the last nine Elite Eights only to lose every time he’s gotten there, Arizona’s Sean Miller has no choice but to break through. The Wildcats are loaded with talent and peaking at the right time, and the Final Four is in Arizona. If Miller can’t get there in this tournament, will it ever happen?

And what about Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton? This is the best team the 68-year-old has ever coached, so it sure feels like now or never for him, too. And after back-to-back Elite Eight berths that saw his program fall to Kentucky and North Carolina, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey has one of his best teams and, just as crucially, doesn’t have a blue blood standing in his way.

Four coaches are vying for a Final Four spot they all desperately need, and there’s a decent chance that Huggins could just swoop in and take it. I have no idea how this is all going to shake out; I just know that I’m so ready to overreact and declare the coaches who don’t make it to Phoenix overrated. Bring on the madness.