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NCAA bracket predictions 2017: Villanova will repeat as national champions

Let’s stop overthinking this. Villanova is the best team in the country, and the Wildcats will prove it for a second straight year.

In 2002, I finished No. 6 overall in The Sporting News national bracket contest. I won a pair of binoculars. In the same bracket that wound up being closer to perfect than all but five in the contest, I had a 16 seed (Boston University) defeating a No. 1 seed (Cincinnati) in the first round.

If you’re a person who’s looking to put stock in the predictions that you’re about to read, I don’t know if the previous paragraph is encouraging or terrifying. I merely presented it as a courtesy.

Fifteen years later, we’re staring down a bracket that I think possesses the potential to produce all the qualities that make a great tournament. There appear to be openings for significant upsets to take place on the tournament’s first Thursday and Friday, there are some potential showcase second-round matchups to keep us entertained through the weekend, and then it’s more likely than not that the second weekend and Final Four will feature more chalky results that give us the clash of the titans that makes for memorable regional finals and Final Four games.

Let’s take a tour around the bracket and see how this thing’s going to shake out.

EAST REGION

Reigning national champion and overall No. 1 seed Villanova got a raw deal by having Duke, a team many people believed would earn the fourth No. 1 seed from the Selection Committee, as its No. 2 seed. Outside of that, though, this is a pretty navigable draw for the Wildcats.

Two of what I assume will be the trendiest first round upset picks exist right next to each other here with UNC Wilmington taking on Virginia and ETSU battling Florida. Everyone saying both of those upsets is going to happen guarantees that only one at the most will. So I’m rolling with Kevin Keatts and UNCW, who I also like to take out the John Egbunu-less Gators in the second round.

The last time SMU was a six seed awaiting the winner of a First Four game, the Mustangs somehow found a way to lose on a Bryce Alford airball. Tim Jankovich won’t let history repeat itself, and SMU also will pick off a Baylor team that’s been pretty average for the last four or five weeks.

Overseeded South Carolina vs. Marquette might be the biggest dud game of the first round, which means Duke walks to the second weekend and then takes care of Shake Milton and company to set up the regional final we all want to see. The Blue Devils’ memorable March run ends there, however, as ‘Nova reminds everyone why it’s both the defending champ and the top overall team in this tournament.

WEST REGION

There’s been so much talk in recent months about this being “the year” for Northwestern. That came to fruition, and so will the talk of this being “the year” for Sean Miller.

Miller knew that his team would be better for the long run with the return of Allonzo Trier, who missed the first 18 games of the season under some bizarre circumstances. That’s exactly how it’s played out, with the Wildcats suffering through a couple of disjointed weeks immediately following Trier’s return and now rounding into top form at precisely the right time. Toss in a relatively friendly draw that doesn’t include Wisconsin, and you have the perfect recipe for Miller’s first trip to the season’s final weekend.

As for Gonzaga, losing in the Sweet 16 isn’t so much of an indictment on the team as it is a recognition of the fact that Notre Dame is a bad matchup for most teams in this tournament, the Zags included. They are still absolutely one of the 10 to 12 teams that can win six straight games in this tournament, but they might need somebody to pick off the Fighting Irish to make that happen.

West Virginia is a dangerous team to roll with in this tournament. The Mountaineers struggle in the halfcourt and generate a solid chunk of their offense off turnovers. Any team that relies so heavily on the mistakes of others for its own success is difficult to trust, especially when placed in a pod with two teams that take care of the ball and execute as well on offense as Bucknell and Notre Dame do. The Bison pull the first of two (spoiler) 13/4 upsets that we see in the first round.

Florida Gulf Coast over Florida State is another trendy upset pick, and it’s easy to see why. This “Dunk City” team actually has more total dunks than the 2013 team that became the first 15 seed ever to play its way out of the tournament’s opening weekend.

They’ll give a vulnerable FSU team all it can handle Thursday night before ultimately coming up short. Maryland and VCU will advance over unsexy, at-large qualifiers Xavier and Saint Mary’s before falling in the second round.

MIDWEST REGION

Welcome to the tournament’s chalkiest region, where the double-digit seeds were dealt matchups just a little too unfavorable to make any noise.

The lone exception is A-10 Tournament champion Rhode Island, which takes care of a Creighton team that hasn’t been the same since Mo Watson’s injury and which is probably overseeded as a six.

Vermont will give Purdue all it can handle before the Boilermakers make enough plays down the stretch to get a win that lets Matt Painter to avoid a billion questions about why he can’t beat anybody in the postseason. Iowa State/Nevada also has the potential to be the first round’s most entertaining game, as there will be athletes all over the court. Ultimately, Monte Morris refuses to let his final run in the tournament be a one-and-done endeavor.

One of the most intriguing potential second round games of the entire tournament exists at the bottom of this bracket, where Louisville and Michigan could meet. The Wolverines are riding high after an insane week that began with a plane crash and ended with a Big Ten tournament title.

Perhaps the next step is John Beilein getting revenge on the team that has dealt him the two toughest losses of his career — an Elite Eight overtime loss in 2005 when he was at West Virginia and a defeat in the 2013 national title game. I said “perhaps,” because I don’t think it happens. Louisville wins a thriller and moves on to the second weekend, where Rick Pitino is always at his best.

Kansas/Iowa State in the Sweet 16 is intriguing for obvious reasons. Jayhawk fans will obviously dominate Kansas City, but the rabid ISU fan base will also be well-represented as evidenced by the past week at the Big 12 tournament...which the Cyclones won. Plus, there’s the little fact that Iowa State won at Phog Allen earlier this year, snapping Kansas’ 54-game home winning streak. The Jayhawks right that wrong as Frank Mason again plays hero in the final minute.

Louisville-Oregon still has the potential to be a thrilling Sweet 16 game, but at some point, the lack of Chris Boucher is going to cost the Ducks. We’ll say it happens here, setting up a 1 vs. 2 regional final that Kansas claims.

SOUTH REGION

Welcome to the “glamour region,” featuring three of the sport’s biggest names who also just so happen to field teams that like to score a lot of points. One of them isn’t making it out of the first weekend.

Wichita State got a totally unfair shake in 2014 when its reward for entering the tournament with an undefeated record was having to face an underseeded, oversized, and extremely talented Kentucky team in the second round.

The two played one of the more memorable games in recent tournament history, with the Wildcats prevailing and going on to play in the national title game. The Shockers, who are underseeded for the third year in a row because of an RPI-heavy philosophy that will thankfully disappear after this year, get revenge in an equally thrilling second round game this year.

Just because Middle Tennessee over Minnesota is the upset everyone else is picking doesn’t mean you can’t too. The Blue Raiders are much, much better than they were a year ago when they stunned Michigan State in this spot, and Minnesota is the token overachiever whose best days are ahead of it. This one happens, and so does Winthrop over Butler, as Keon Johnson goes nuts and puts a premature end to the Bulldogs’ manic season.

North Carolina benefits from this chaos, cruising into the second weekend and then holding off an MTSU team in a contest that reminds fans of the Tar Heels’ win over Ohio in 2012. They’ll face high-scoring UCLA, which takes care of Wichita State in the Sweet 16 thanks to the play of T.J. Leaf, who gets the spring back in his step. The best of the four regional finals ends with North Carolina taking out the Bruins and moving on to Phoenix.

FINAL FOUR

Let’s all stop overthinking this.

Villanova won the national championship last year, the Wildcats are the No. 1 overall seed in this tournament, they have more wins entering the NCAA tournament than any defending national champion before them, and they have maybe the best player in the country in Josh Hart.

Yeah, I got cute with the final score, but whatever. Villanova takes out Arizona and then knocks off North Carolina in a national title game thriller for the second straight year to become college basketball’s first repeat champion in a decade.