The 2017 NCAA Tournament has seen the field trim from 68 teams to the Sweet 16. There weren’t too many upsets or surprises in the first two rounds. In fact, we had no overtime games or buzzer-beaters. However, tourney favorite (per the oddsmakers in Vegas) Duke was knocked out in the Round of 32 as well as defending National Champ Villanova.
Let’s take a look at the Thursday night slate and offer up predictions since pretty much everyone’s brackets have been blown to smithereens. We’ll call this Take 2…
Hat’s Thursday Night Picks:
#7 Michigan (26-11) vs. #3 Oregon (31-5)… Down 11 early in the second half against Rhode Island, Oregon is fortunate in some respects to still be playing as they used a 7-0 run over the final 2:09, capped by a tie-breaking three-pointer from Tyler Dorsey, to beat the Rams 75-72 in the last round. They’re also playing without injured rim protector and 6′10″ senior Chris Boucher. Michigan also is fortunate for different reasons. The Wolverines had a plane crash prior to the Big Ten Tournament, remarkably won it as a #8 seed with four victories in four days, then rallied past the likes of Oklahoma State and Louisville to get to this point. Guard Derrick Walton has been playing at a tremendously high level with 17 assists compared to just three turnovers in the NCAA Tournament, while 6′10″ sophomore forward Moritz Wagner is coming off a career-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting against Louisville. Coach John Beilein of Michigan is a brilliant offensive mind and his team doesn’t turn it over, pluses uses the 3-point line better than most. With a healthy Boucher, the Dukes probably win this one rather handily, but they will need an unsung hero to emerge to contain Walton, plus help out the talented trio of Dorsey, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell to keep marching towards the Final Four. Michigan’s confidence is through the roof. Pick – Michigan 80, Oregon 78
#4 West Virginia (28-8) vs. #1 Gonzaga (34-1)… There probably hasn’t been a quieter #1 seed with as lofty a record as this Gonzaga, who entered with the best winning percentage of any participant in this year’s NCAA Tournament, yet some wanted them to be a #2 seed because of the strength of schedule not being as fierce as some of the other Top 25 ranked teams in the nation. Don’t let that or previous exits at this point of the tourney – this is their eighth Sweet 16 trip, but they’ve only appeared in the Elite eight twice (19999, 2015) – fool you. Junior 6′3″ guard Nigel Williams-Goss is a pick-and-roll maestro, 7′1″ senior center Przemek Karnowski is strong in the low block and 7′0″ freshman center Zach Collins has given them another solid big man to utilize. West Virginia, known for their outstanding pressure on defense as they lead the country in turnovers fored, had success turning over both Bucknell and Notre Dame in the last two rounds. The Mountaineers also shot it exceedingly well in beating the Irish; canning 8-of-14 3’s an 21-of-26 free-throws. Will guards Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles be able to duplicate that against a Gonzaga team that is pretty good defensively in its own right? While West Virginia is a physical tough bunch, they’re going to need to produce in the paint and see 6′9″ senior forward Nathan Adrian give them a big effort on the glass to knock out the top-seeded Bulldogs. Pick – Gonzaga 75, West Virginia 70
#4 Purdue (27-7) vs. #1 Kansas (30-4)… After beating a pesky Vermont team 80-70 in the opening round, Matt Painter’s Boilermakers got up as many as 19 points against Iowa State, lost the lead, but recovered to prevail 80-76 over a dangerous Cyclones team. Sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan of Purdue leads the nation in double-doubles with 28. He was the Big 10 Player of the Year and an argument could be made for him as National Player of the Year. Kansas fifth-year senior Landen Lucas, their best rebounder, will have his hands full with him on the inside as well as with 7′2″ junior center Isaac Haas. Kansas counters with a dynamic perimeter attack, headlined by Big 12 Player of the Year Frank Mason (20.8PPG, 48.7% 3’s) and and Big 12 Freshman of the Year Josh Jackson. That duo combines for over 37 points per game, and if anyone questioned the value of potential first round pick Jackson, just consider they went from losing to TCU in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals without him to winning these last two games by a total of 58 points. Included was a 90-70 romp of a Michigan State team known for being to score on over the years. Purdue can win this game, but playing from in front is paramount because they are 19-1 when ahead at half-time this season. Kansas seems to have more ways of scoring. Pick – Kansas 76, Purdue 73
#11 Xavier (23-14) vs. 2 Arizona (32-4)… The interesting subplot to this one is that Arizona’s Head Coach, Sean Miller, used to be at Xavier. He’s trying to break through and get Arizona to the Final Four for the first time since 2001. The Wildcats didn’t blink in the second round against St. Mary’s, who led them by 10 in the first half, as they made 13 consecutive free-throws at one point to rally for a 69-60 win. Arizona is giving up nearly six fewer points per game on the defensive side of the ball and shooting 39.6% from three-point range compared to Xavier’s 34.9% on the season. Xavier’s zone defense gave both Florida St. and Maryland issues, defeating each by double-digits. A lot of the focus for the Musketeers will be slowing down sophomore guard Allonzo Trier as well as 6′11″ senior forward Lauri Markkanen, the stretch ‘4′ who can deliver inside or out. It’s remarkable the job Xavier Head Coach Chris Mack has done to get this team to its sixth Sweet 16 since 2008 without injured sophomore guard Edmond Sumner (15PPG, 5APG), their second leading scorer. Someone will have to help out 6′6″ junior swingman Trevon Bluiett in shouldering the scoring load. Junior 5′11″ guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright could be the x-factor for Zona in this one. He’s a capable outside shooter and also can set others up to score, something they’ll need him to do whether it’s in the open floor or half-court. Pick – Arizona 69, Xavier 59
It’s the greatest time of year for a basketball fan – - March Madness! The NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament is officially underway and the Field of 68 will be narrowed down to the Sweet 16 by Sunday night, and then a Final Four the subsequent Sunday. These next two days are a basketball fan’s dream – - 32 games of wall-to-wall action. This year’s tourney has a new feel with the games on four different networks: longtime partner CBS as well as newcomers TNT, TBS and TRUTV.
Here are my Hatfield Sports Official Bracket Picks . . . it’s probably a foregone conclusion that my bracket will be officially ‘blown up’ by 2PM on Thursday afternoon. Anyways, the fun of filling out multiple sheets, the buzzer-beaters and on the edge-of-your-seat excitement is what keeps us coming back for more.
These are Five Storylines I’ll be following on the Opening Weekend:
#1 – - Will Duke Repeat? My answer would have originally been no, although the potential return of freshman phenom Kyrie Irving at the guard spot could give Duke a real shot in the arm or boost if you will on their quest to repeat. Florida did it winning back-to-back just a short few years ago, but it’s really trick to do, you need some luck along the way as well, and you can’t ever predict injuries or someone getting in foul trouble unexpectedly. That’s what is unique about this tournament; that you have to often expect the unexpected. In the end, my feeling is you have some teams with bigger, more imposing front-line that will be not only physical, but too athletic for Duke – - such as San Diego State, Ohio State, Kansas, Pittsburgh, maybe even Texas or Arizona – - that derail them or pick them off on their journey.
#2 – - How Far Will San Diego State & Jimmer-Led BYU Go? Everybody remembers Steve Fisher at Michigan when he guided the Wolverines, led by Glen Rice, to a National Championship as well as trips to the National Championship game when they had the ‘Fab Five.’ The team has now with the Aztecs of San Diego State are better than most people realize with a stellar front-line that goes 6-foot-9, 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-7 across the board. Five starters are back from last year’s team that made it to the NCAA’s, and this team has a guard that will be steady in the crunch in D.J. Gay, who went a stretch of over seven games without a committing a turnover, plus hit three game-winning shots this year. Their outside shooting, which is not great, does worry me some, but I think they have all the tools and pieces in place to make a serious Final Four run. BYU will go as far as Jimmer Fredette, the nation’s most lethal scorer, will take them. The guy has scored over 50 points in a game, it wouldn’t shock me to see him drop 40-plus in a tournament game, and the Cougars could get to the Sweet 16 . . . but without an enforcer on the inside like Brandon Davies, going any further than that will be hard for me to envision.
#3 – - Who Is This Year’s Butler or George Mason? What makes the NCAA Tournament so great is the underdog stories, the Cinderella teams that make a deep run that you learn about in this march through March. In recent years, it was George Mason’s stunning run to the Final Four as a #11 seed in 2006, knocking off giants Michigan State, North Carolina and Connecticut along the way. A year ago, #5 seed Butler from the Horizon League came within a whisker of shocking Duke and winning the National Championship. If you are looking for this year’s George Mason, look no further than George Mason. Jim Larranaga’s Patriots would likely have to beat #1 seed Ohio State in Cleveland in the second round to advance to the second week of the tourney, but they’ve got a dead-eye shooter in Cameron Long and a strong, experienced nucleus that plays unselfish team ball. Staying in the CAA, watch out for #9 Old Dominion, which faces Butler in the opening round. Blaine Taylor’s Monarchs are also seasoned, and led the nation in rebounding margin behind Frank the ‘Tank’ Hassell. Another possible sleeper – - #13 seed Morehead State behind Kenny Faried, the most prolific rebounder in recent NCAA history, could pose a problem for Louisville, and if they win that one, their opponent in the second round well.
#4 – - The Star Of the Tourney Will Be? There are several candidates to look at, such as Fredette at BYU, fellow National Player of the Year candidates Nolan Smith from Duke and Kemba Walker at UCONN. Guards like Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen, Terrell ‘Tu’ Holloway at Xavier, Louisville’s Peyton Siva and Isaiah Thomas of Washington are capable of penetrating the teeth of the defense, scoring at will and just being the type of playmakers that put a team on their back in a run to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and possibly beydon. Three names really stand out to me – - future pro Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State, Ohio State freshman beast Jared Sullinger and ultra-skilled Purdue forward JaJuan Johnson.
#5 – - And When It’s All Said & Done: Predicting the Final Four this year is no easy task simply because there doesn’t appear to be a dominant team or no-brainer pick to get to Houston. My Final Four isn’t complete Chalk like some people who have four #1 seed reaching the Final Four (like my Dad and President Barack Obama) – - I’ve only got two in Ohio State and Kansas. I have #2 seed San Diego State continuing its rise and knocking off defending National Champ Duke in the Elite Eight to make it to the Final Four. My lowest seed to reach the Final Four is my preseason National Champ choice – - that’s #5 seed Kansas State. In the end, the Buckeyes outlast the Wildcats in the Title Game on a memorable Monday night in April for the Columbus faithful.
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