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NCAA tournament predictions 2017: Sorry, but Duke is going to win it all

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I know it’s not what you want to hear. We’ll get through it together.

I know, I know. You don’t want to pick Duke. You’re probably looking for any reason you can find to pick Troy to knock the Blue Devils off in the First Round.

I get it, and hey, you never know. A 15 has beaten a 2 before.

But let’s be honest: Right now, Duke is the best team in the country. The Blue Devils didn’t have the greatest year — they suffered through injuries, controversy, and more — but they’ve turned it on and are finally showing us all what they’re capable of.

Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum were unstoppable in the ACC Tournament. Grayson Allen is Grayson Allen, and as much as you might hate him, he has a flare for the dramatic. Even Harry Giles has started to turn it on after injuries slowed his freshman season. If Frank Jackson and Amile Jefferson are almost an afterthought on your team, you’re really, really good.

So, I’m sorry. I wanted it to be Gonzaga’s year too. The Bulldogs will still go to their first Final Four, and that’s worth celebrating, but that’s as far as they’ll get.

Here’s how the whole thing shakes out:

East

I wanted to pick UNC Wilmington over Virginia in a First Round upset, but the more I looked at that matchup, the less I liked it for the Seahawks. Wilmington thrives when it can push the pace and run up the score. The Cavaliers force opponents to do the opposite. They play slow, boring games, but it works.

SMU-Baylor in the Second Round was probably the toughest call, so my Baylor pick was strategic more than anything. I know SMU could lose to Providence or USC in the First Round, so I might as well hedge my bets and pick Baylor to beat them the next game anyway.

Then there’s Villanova-Duke in the Elite Eight. A Madison Square Garden special. A game I can’t wait to attend if the basketball gods allow it to happen. Flip a coin in that one, but I’m going with the team that impressed me the most during Championship Week.

West

This region will be even chalkier than the East (I promise, things will get crazy on the other half of the bracket).

I love picking big upsets, but there were none here that I could pull the trigger on. I guess that’s the whole point of an upset — they’re unexpected.

If you’re looking to take a chance, Princeton is a really, really good low-major team that can beat you a variety of ways. The only reason I couldn’t choose the Tigers is because I don’t know how they will be able to stop Bonzie Colson. However, Princeton hasn’t lost since December. They’re doing something right.

As for Gonzaga, my regional champion, this is the year. I can feel it. By every available metric, the Bulldogs are one of the best teams in the country. I don’t want to hear about the conference they play in. They’ve beaten Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona. They have three transfers from Power 5 schools, so I don’t want to hear about how they’re only talented enough to beat up on mediocre competition. Nigel Williams-Goss is a top-five player in the country, per KenPom, and the team has two seven-footers in the front court who can give anyone problems.

Accept it: the run of bad luck is coming to an end in Spokane. Gonzaga is for real.

Midwest

Rhode Island as a trendy Cinderella pick goes beyond the Rams’ run through the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which was, in itself, impressive. They also have a pod that seems to have been made for mayhem. Creighton has been an average team since losing Maurice Watson, and is just 3-7 vs. the tournament field since then. If the Rams advance to face Oregon, they’ll get a Ducks team without Chris Boucher. Yes, Oregon can still win without him, but E.C. Matthews and company are on a roll.

Up top, I like Iowa State to take down Kansas. The Cyclones are the only team to win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse this year, so they will not be intimidated against the mighty Jayhawks in Kansas City. Deonte Burton has strung together six great games in a row, all against really good teams. He may be one of the many new March heroes to steal the stage in the next few weeks.

In the Elite Eight, it’s Louisville in a close one. The Cards survived a daunting ACC schedule and are better for it. Never count out Rick Pitino in March.

South

Thought you had your fill of Giddy Potts last year when Middle Tennessee knocked off Michigan State?

Nah, he’s back for more.

The Blue Raiders have lost just once since Christmas and aren’t slowing down. Potts, Reggie Upshaw, and Jacorey Williams can all become household names this week as Middle Tennessee pulls off two upsets against high-major teams. Then we can start speculating about where Kermit Davis will coach next year.

In the bottom half, Kansas State has proven it can beat the best in the country, while the American was, I think, even worse than people thought. As long as the Wildcats take a little extra care of the ball, they have a good shot to advance.

Wichita State over Dayton was a protest pick because of how criminally under-seeded the Shockers are. But that doesn’t mean the Flyers can’t win that game. Dayton is an experienced group that’s solid on both ends.

Either way, the winner of that game falls to Kentucky, who then loses another classic to regional champion UCLA. A Final Four with Lonzo Lavar Ball is just too sexy to pass up.

Final Four

The Final Four is west of Texas for the first time since 1995, so it’s only fitting that we get a clash of East vs. West. Unfortunately, Glendale will not provide a homecourt advantage for either west coast team. Duke just has too many weapons for Gonzaga to handle, while Louisville is good enough defensively to slow down UCLA. In an all-ACC championship game, give the edge to the best team in that conference.