One of my favorite March rituals is sitting down following the NCAA Tournament Selection Show and determining, in order, which teams have the best shot at winning the national championship by virtue of their talent, coaching, roster construction and performance to date. Oh, and also by where they are on the bracket and what teams they will have to defeat to reach that goal.
2017 NCAA TOURNAMENT: Bracket, scores and more
The draw is the most underrated element of the NCAA Tournament’s competitive outcome. Coaches understand how much it means; they will tell you that the entire enterprise is about matchups, and matchups are determined by the bracket.
So the team that has the best shot at winning it might not always be the best team, particularly since the selection committee concerns itself less with assuring a balanced bracket than with keeping teams, when possible, in their geographic regions. Eventually, whichever team wins the title is going to have to be two or three excellent teams. But better two or three than four or five.
Here is how they stack up, 1 to 68:
1.Duke. The Blue Devils are not the best team in the field. Their performance during the year did not merit a No. 1 seed, despite what many analysts contended following their victory over North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. They are, however, the most talented team in this tournament, and they have the best coach. That is a lethal combination that often leads to a championship. And they have maybe the best draw of anyone. There isn’t a team on their half of the East Region that has a shot at besting a B-plus effort from Duke. That’s why the Devils are No. 1 on this list.
2.Arizona. The Wildcats are starting to take on the look of a championship team: effective point guard play, wings who can break down the defense and create a shot, oodles of size and pro talent. Some will look at this ranking and see it as a dismissal of Gonzaga: its team, its resume, the whole package. Sorry. Look down a couple spots. Gonzaga can win this thing, too. But these Wildcats will be in the hunt.
3.North Carolina. Carolina is the most complete team in the field, but there was something disturbing about their failure to remain composed when they were dominating Duke in Friday’s ACC semis. A year ago there were moments when they were just too gifted and athletic for the opposition; the Indiana Sweet 16 game was an example. Now they’re a better, tougher team in many ways but a bit more competitively fragile.
4.Gonzaga. Pretty much every other team will lose in this tournament, save for the one that does not, without it being a referendum on their historic merit. Only Gonzaga has to win the championship, or make the Final Four, to erase the remnants of a history that doesn’t really exist. You think the Zags annually fail in the NCAAs? Well, here are the stats: 17 NCAA Tournaments under Mark Few, seven times held seed, five times outperformed seed, five times under performed seed. Gonzaga’s crummy rep is wholly fiction.
5.Villanova. Here’s what I wonder about the Wildcats: Can they beat great teams? Last year’s team certainly could, but that team had greater size and depth. This team seems to have even more competitive fire, if that’s possible, but these Wildcats have yet to defeat a team seeded higher than No. 4. Will the limits of their physical power and overall depth be exploited at the Elite Eight level and beyond?
6.Kansas. Does Kansas actually have an “A” game? If so, why do they reach it so rarely? If they didn’t have Josh Jackson on their team I might rank them lowest of all the No. 1 seeds. Oh, that’s right. I did, didn’t I?
7.Kentucky. Are the Wildcats trustworthy? They’re a lot more so with De’Aaron Fox averaging 21.2 points over the past four games. He’s healthy again, which means UK has a shot.
8.UCLA. Bruins fans are angry they were seeded behind Gonzaga. They should point to Louisville, which was handed a No. 2 seed despite only a single top-50 victory coming away from home.
9.Oregon. Yes, there is an impressive collection of athletes and competitors assembled at Oregon. In the end, as was the case in the Pac-12 title game, there likely is not enough direction at the offensive end to get them through six games.
10.Louisville. What I like about the Cards’ chances: Rick Pitino, mostly.
14.Baylor. One of the unintended consequences of the bracket preview show that the coaches coerced the NCAA to stage for the cause of greater transparency: The Bears now look like they “blew” a No. 1 seed. Because it wasn’t just a projection from a “bracketologist.” The actual people in the room said Baylor was a 1. Now, it’s not, even if it’s possible (or likely) the Bears were built to finish about where they did. Careful what you wish for, coaches.
15.Michigan. If Wolverines had gotten Maryland’s No. 6 – and they should have – they’d have had an excellent shot at the Sweet 16.
17. Iowa State
21.Wichita State. Gregg Marshall was angry about the Shockers’ seed, and not without reason. But look at it this way: Committee members thought so little of the team WSU defeated to win the Valley championship they didn’t even let Illinois State in the door. In that context, their dismissal of the Shockers’ 30-4 record is no surprise.
25.Saint Mary’s. The Gaels lost four games all season; three of them were to Gonzaga. The only way the two can play now is if both reach the Elite Eight. It’s a pretty good bet the Gaels would take gladly take their chances in a fourth meeting.
28.Florida. Since the injury to center John Egbunu, Florida is a .500 team. That does not inspire confidence.
NCAA Tournament 2017 odds: Top 5 value picks to win it all
33.Wake Forest. In arguing for his Demon Deacons to be included in the NCAA Tournament, one Wake fan said on Twitter they should make it so gifted young forward John Collins could be seen on a bigger stage. It might have been single best argument for the Deacs’ inclusion.
37.Creighton. Since the injury to point guard Maurice Watson, the Bluejays are under .500 at 7-8. That’s a poorer post-injury record than Florida, with a greater sample size.
42.Southern California. The Trojans almost missed this show. Is that because they almost weren’t good enough, or because the Pac-12 teams below them were so horrible it nearly was impossible to accumulate quality wins? In beating rival UCLA, USC looked like a very promising team – but the defense that held the Bruins to 76 that night held up against few other tournament-level teams.
44.Arkansas. I’m going to be frank. If I were the czar of all college basketball – and I promise I would do a heck of a job –Razorbacks forward Moses Kingsley would watch the team’s opening NCAA Tournament game against Seton Hall from a seat on the bench. There were what, 300-some conference tournament games played the past couple weeks? And how many times did we see that sort of nonsense from a player. There’s no place for it in this game. Mere ejection seems insufficient. He deserves to miss a game.
50.Kansas State. If Wildcats fans complain about their team being ranked 50th, how would they feel if I tell them K-State should have been ranked No. 69?
52.FGCU. The darlings of 2013 have a legit shot at another such upset in taking on in-state power Florida State.
54.New Mexico State
56.Kent State. I’ve done two radio interviews since the bracket reveal with Northeastern Ohio stations asking if the Golden Flashes have a shot at beating UCLA. What does one say to that, exactly?
62.South Dakota State
NCAA Tournament 2017: Printable March Madness bracket
65.Texas Southern. Mike Davis has made the NCAAs at Indiana, UAB and Texas Southern. At some point, it should be more widely acknowledged he’s a pretty good coach.
68.Mount Saint Mary’s. The Mountaineers lost 10 of their first 11 games, with six of the losses against teams that made the NCAA field. They are happy to be here, no doubt.