Reacting to the 2017 March Madness Bracket

Northwestern is finally dancing

The wait is finally over.  The 2017 March Madness Bracket, the end result of the Selection Committee’s congregation and debate, has been released.  We know the fate of this year’s bubble teams – Kansas State, Providence, USC, and Wake Forest were the “Last Four In” and will be playing in Dayton on Monday and Tuesday for their spot in the round of 64, while notably, Illinois State and Syracuse were left out of the field.  So how did the committee do?  Here are my initial thoughts, divided into three parts: the teams that made the field, their seeds, and the layout of each region.

The Field: No complaints here.  The 68 teams chosen for the tournament are the same as I had in my final bracketology, which I released just minutes before the Selection Show.  If there was any controversy, it had to do with the omissions of Illinois State and Syracuse.

Even in perhaps the softest bubble we’ve ever seen, the Redbirds from Illinois State just didn’t have the quality wins on their resume to warrant inclusion in the field.  Despite a 27-6 overall record, they finished just 2-4 against RPI top-100 teams.  The only three top-50 games were against Wichita State, and while they beat the Shockers on their home floor, the other two meetings resulted in losses by a combined 61 points.  The Missouri Valley simply had a poor year, as Northern Iowa and Evansville, in particular, struggled.  And seeing as Wichita State only received a 10-seed, there wasn’t much hope for a two-bid Valley.

While most seemed to agree on Illinois State, many experts, such as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, had Syracuse in their final projections.  At first glance, the Orange’s six RPI top-5o wins, including victories over Duke, Florida State, and Virginia would suggest they would be tourney bound.  However, upon further inspection, ‘Cuse’s resume has more holes than swiss cheese.

Let’s start with their own RPI, which, at 84, is far below the normal at-large standards.  A large reason for that poor number is simply that Syracuse has lost 14 games.  With such a large number in the loss column, you’d think they had gone through a tough nonconference schedule.  Nope.  Out of the 351 Division I schools, Syracuse ranked 215th in nonconference SOS.  Finally, in road/neutral games, the Orange finished just 2-11.  Compare all of these numbers to another ACC bubble team, Wake Forest, and you’ll clearly see why just one of the two ended up in the Big Dance.

The Seeding: As always, the committee left an array of puzzling seeding decisions in its wake.  The one that immediately jumped out at me was Wichita State.  The #10 seed in the South Region finished #8 in the KenPom rankings, meaning that solely by that metric, the Shockers deserved a #2.  Of course, they were never going to be seeded that high.  The 7-8 range felt more appropriate to me.  They share Illinois State’s quality win problem, but as a 30-win team with no bad losses that on average wins by over 19 points per game and seems to always be underrated, I can’t get behind this seeding.

Quite frankly, I don’t know what the committee was doing with the Big Ten.  After Purdue and Minnesota, the third-highest ranked Big Ten team was Maryland, who enter as a #6 despite me slotting both conference tournament champion Michigan and Wisconsin higher.  Wisconsin as an 8-seed seems crazy.  How do they end up on the same line as Northwestern, a team they appear better than in nearly every metric and beat by 28 in the Big Ten tournament?  While we’re at it, Michigan State as a 9?  While not in danger, I saw the Spartans as an 11, much closer to the bubble.

A few other curious seeds: VCU only a #10, South Carolina (a #7) ahead of Arkansas (a #8) when I saw the Gamecocks as a 9 and the Razorbacks as a 7,  and Middle Tennessee at a #12.  That last one’s a bit nitpicky, but I really like the Blue Raiders this year.

The Matchups/Regions: Let’s start with the South, a.k.a. the “Region of Death.”  North Carolina certainly wasn’t rewarded for their #1, as although #4 Butler appears to be the only real competition until the Elite Eight, the bottom half of the region is as stacked as any I can remember.  Historical powerhouses Kentucky and UCLA are explosive offenses with plenty of NBA talent as 2 and 3 seeds, but the trouble only starts there.  Cincinnati enters perhaps under-seeded at the #6, while Wichita State is for sure as the #10.  I wouldn’t even count out #7 Dayton from making a run (they have before), or the winner of the 11-seed play-in game, especially if it turns out to be Kansas State.  It’ll be a bloodbath in the South for sure.

Elsewhere, Villanova didn’t exactly get the friendliest draw as the tournament’s #1 overall seed.  Their #2 seed, Duke, is perhaps the hottest team in the country right now, coming off back-to-back victories against Louisville, North Carolina, and Notre Dame to win the ACC tournament.  In fact, many thought the Blue Devils would steal North Carolina’s #1 seed.  As early as the second round, the defending National Champions could face Wisconsin, a potentially troublesome opponent.  In the Sweet 16, Florida and Virginia are options, alongside possible Cinderella teams UNC Wilmington and East Tennessee State.

Kansas looks to have the easiest path to the Final Four of the #1 seeds.  #2 Louisville dropped three of five to end their season, and #3 Oregon could struggle without Chris Boucher, who tore his ACL in the Pac-12 semifinals against Cal.  #5 Iowa State has already beaten Kansas, but they’d have to make the Sweet 16 first, and Kansas will no doubt be prepared for a rematch.  In general, the Midwest region looks like it could see several upsets.

Finally, the West will produce a breakthrough season for whichever team comes out on top.  #1 seed Gonzaga made March Madness in each of their previous 17 seasons under Mark Few, but has made only one Elite Eight and has never advanced to the Final Four.  #2 Arizona has seen three Elite Eight appearances in Sean Miller’s first seven years, but similarly, has never reached the National Semifinals.  If neither of those teams can get the job done, Florida State and Notre Dame are among several others with a shot.

Stay tuned for my full analysis of the field and potential sleeper picks.  I’ll be publishing my personal bracket on Wednesday.  Until then, join the Top Level Sports Bracket Challenge on Yahoo.

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