Despite playing second fiddle to Super Bowl Sunday, Selection Sunday is a big day for sports fans.
Each year, like clockwork, the same powerhouse programs monopolize the higher seeds, and it’s rightfully so. Duke, Arizona, Louisville and Kentucky are the four second overall seeds, and each has a great chance of bringing home a National Championship. Even some of the three seeds could be favorites, like Baylor, Florida State, Oregon or UCLA.
Sprinkled throughout are chances of upsets and the game between 12th-seeded Princeton and fifth-seeded Notre Dame jumps out at me almost immediately. Ivy League schools fall into the 12th seed nearly every March and, more times than not, are responsible for one of the tournament’s biggest upsets. Usually, it’s Harvard who does the damage, but the 23-6 Tigers earned their bid after dismantling Yale 71-59 in the conference title game.
As always, keep your eyes on the eight-versus-nine games:
- Wisconsin-Virginia Tech
- Miami (FL)-Michigan State
- Arkansas-Seton Hall
Those contests typically pit the most even teams against each other. Even if a ninth-seed topples an eight, it may not even be considered an upset.
Now, without further adieu, let’s meet your first overall seeds.
West: Gonzaga, 32-1 (17-1)
- Player To Watch: Nigel Williams-Goss – 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists
- X-Factor: Przemek Karnowski – 12.6 points, 6.0 rebounds
The Zags are that team who always is expected to go deep into the tournament but never reaches their full potential. Not once have they gone to a Final Four but they did reach the Elite Eight two years ago. Playing in the weak West Coast Conference inflates their record, but winning 15 non-conference games is incredibly impressive.
Even though they play against inferior opponents more often than not, the scoring differential is staggering; Gonzaga is beating the teams they should be and doing so convincingly. More competitive opponents like Florida, Arizona and Saint Mary’s are top-20 RPI teams who have fallen to the Bulldogs, and the Gaels have been smacked on three separate occasions. I do, however, worry about how Williams-Goss will play against better competition.
Being outside of a Power Five Conference means Gonzaga can still win when Williams-Goss isn’t playing well offensively. One of his worst games of the year came against Arizona (10 points on 3-of-8 shooting, three turnovers). It’s clear he had an off night, and it happens, but he exploded for 23 on 9-of-13 in the next game against Washington. Although it’s not a huge concern because he still showed up on defense, it’s something to be wary of.
Midwest: Kansas, 28-4 (16-2)
- Player To Watch: Frank Mason – 20.8 points, 5.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds
- X-Factor: Josh Jackson – 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists
Not a season goes by where the Jayhawks aren’t dominant. The last time they missed the tournament was 1989, and, oddly enough, that came a year after winning the National Title. (Larry Brown leaving for the NBA may or may not have played a role in that.) Of the four blemishes on their record, two have come against West Virginia and Iowa State, 24th and 22nd in RPI, respectively.
Mason has evolved into one of the country’s best point guards and is finally getting his due as Kansas’ leader. His 29-point performance against TCU in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament showed us how dominant he could be, and the Jayhawks would’ve won that contest had Jackson not been suspended. Bill Self got solid production from his other pieces, but being without the nation’s third-best freshman who’s disruptive on both ends of the court is a problem.
He’ll be back for the tournament, thankfully, and this year’s Kansas team is a legitimate threat to take home the title because they’re better than last year. And they were sensational in 2016. Not only as Jackson dominated as a freshman, but Devonte’ Graham has also improved, and they showed impressive depth in their loss to the Horned Frogs.
South: North Carolina, 27-7 (14-4)
- Player To Watch: Justin Jackson – 18.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists
- X-Factor: Kennedy Meeks – 12.6 points, 9.1 rebounds
The Tar Heels are a fascinating team. They’ve got the worst record of the four teams, albeit, not by much, but some of their losses are concerning. Duke (twice), Kentucky, Miami and Virginia have handed UNC their RPI top-50 losses, and all five have come either on the road or at a neutral site. I’m also uneasy about the wins they’ve picked up along the way because seven of their 10 have come at home.
Wisconsin and Oklahoma State (32nd and 39th in RPI) got beaten at neutral sites, and Wake Forest (40th) is UNC’s only road win.
The theme here is simple: I’m not high on UNC. At all. They’re a great team with a bunch of great players who will probably go far into the tournament, but they’re one of the premier teams who is going to be on upset watch throughout the dance. What they have going for them, though, is depth, and Roy Williams isn’t afraid to call the numbers of nine or 10 guys.
Tony Bradley, Theo Pinson and Nate Britt will give quality minutes against their opposition, but it’s paramount that Jackson and Joel Berry shoulder most of the load. It’s evident in their most recent loss to Duke when Berry had to sit with foul trouble, and the Heels went from up 13 to down seven before he checked back in.
East: Villanova, 31-3 (15-3)
- Player To Watch: Josh Hart – 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists
- X-Factor: Kris Jenkins – 13.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists
Last year’s champion waltzed through their regular season schedule once again before finishing off the Creighton Blue Jays to claim the Big East Championship. Jay Wright has continued doing a phenomenal job with his program, and career years from Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson helped tremendously.
As the Big East’s Player of the Year, Hart is the heart (pun not intended, sorry) and soul of this Wildcats team. He’s going to be one of the tournament’s best players, but it’s those around him who will make or break Nova’s title hopes — specifically, Jenkins. In his senior year, Jenkins didn’t improve much. His scoring dipped by two-tenths of a point per game and his efficiency fell drastically to 39.7 percent. He was a bit better in conference play, but he’ll need to fix up quickly if the Wildcats want to bring home this title.
The biggest test for them is going to be the level of opponent, but, based on last year’s results, Nova doesn’t have too many issues with Power Five teams. They’ve got impressive wins over Notre Dame, Purdue and Virginia, who are all top-25 RPI teams. Conversely, they’ve also got two losses to Butler, who are 14th in RPI. During 2016’s run, Nova defeated Oklahoma, Kansas and UNC in their last three games — two were one-seeds, and OU was a two.
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