So we didn’t see many upsets in the first two days of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. Let me think of the proper response to this now common complaint.
The 2017 tournament gave us the drama of Northwestern-Vanderbilt. It gave us Southern California manufacturing a victory over SMU by running the same play on three consecutive late-game trips, until it finally worked. If nothing else, it gave us Michigan 92, Oklahoma State 91, and that should serve as a constant adrenaline jolt until we make it to the Final Four.
With so few upset winners on Friday, there’ll be few on Sunday, as well. Does that mean no one should bother to watch? The tournament gives us wonderful entertainment every year. One just needs to know where to look for it, and not to ignore it if it doesn’t come with a 13 seed attached.
(7) Michiganvs. (2) Louisville
Time/location: 12:10 p.m. ET, Indianapolis
Need to know: If it were any other coach on Louisville’s bench, Michigan would look like the way to go. The Wolverines are the best shooting team remaining in the tournament. Their 16 3-pointers against OK State ranked among the top tournament performances, ever. But yes, that is Rick Pitino working along the Cardinals’ sideline. John Beilein does a phenomenal job with the Wolverines, but Pitino keeps conjuring magic this time of year. I call him a wizard, and I think he’ll be working his magic in Kansas City next week.
Prediction: Louisville’s mysterious defensive scheme —which often shifts from zone to man and back again within a 30-second possession —will vex the Wolverines’ extraordinary attack.
(7) Wichita Statevs. (2) Kentucky
Time/location: 2:40 p.m., Indianapolis
Need to know: Kentucky seemed to have found a formula in winning three games in three days to add the SEC Tournament title to its regular season crown. The Wildcats now have won 30 games. Why does it seem, though, there is something fragile here?Perhaps they were just disinterested in their game vs. No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky. That’s not unreasonable. But a team that’s had so much difficulty dominating teams should have grabbed the opportunity to experience that once. They will be bothered by Wichita’s stiff defense and excellent rebounding. UK’s Isaiah Briscoe needs to shut down Conner Frankamp like Dayton did Friday night, and Malik Monk has to find a way to impact the offense more for Kentucky to survive.
Prediction: Wichita almost never leaves the NCAA Tournament quietly. The Shockers will fight this one to the end. But Kentucky will find just enough to survive into the Sweet 16.
(9) Michigan State vs. (1) Kansas
Time/location: 5:15 p.m., Tulsa
Need to know: The frequent revelations about the case against All-America freshman forward Josh Jackson are not helping with a team that already was the least overwhelming of the No. 1 seeds. Michigan State is not a great team, but it can play great. The surprising blowout of No. 8 seed Miami in the first round was not an isolated incident. The Spartans swept Minnesota in the regular season and also defeated first-round survivors Wisconsin, Michigan and Northwestern. Their talented freshmen (point Cassius Winston, shooting guard Josh Langford, star Miles Bridges and big man Nick Ward) were the difference against the Canes. Which is exactly what MSU needs to be good. Kansas hasn’t been great for a long time. But MSU hasn’t been consistent all year.
Prediction: Kansas advances, looking vulnerable as they return home to Kansas City for the Sweet 16.
(8) Arkansasvs. (1) North Carolina
Time/location: 6:10 p.m., Greenville, SC
Need to know: There was considerable angst among Carolina fans when star point guard Joel Berry turned his ankle in the first half of the first-round victory against Texas Southern. They remember what happened to a championship contender in 2012 when point guard Kendall Marshall broke his wrist short of the Sweet 16. And that’s mostly what the first two rounds of this tournament are about for the Heels: survival. If they get to Memphis healthy, they’ve got a shot at the title.
Prediction: Carolina, easy.
(11) Rhode Islandvs. (3) Oregon
Time/location: 7:10 p.m., Sacramento
Need to know: It wasn’t at all stunning that Iona lacked the sturdiness to defend Oregon’s overpowering attack. The Ducks are athletic, muscular, skilled and beautifully coached. The absence of center Chris Boucher’s varied talents will not be felt until the Ducks find themselves closer to the finish.
Prediction: Getting in was huge for Rhody, and beating Creighton completed the team’s mission. The Rams will not surrender, but they won’t win, either.
(11) Southern California vs. (3) Baylor
Time/location: 7:45 p.m., Tulsa
Need to know: The Trojans rescued their season by switching to a zone defense that baffled SMU more than it should have. Against any other 3 seed, they’d be ready to head home without a doubt. But Baylor has not been a great team for a while. The Bears’ zone no longer is bothering opponents —if they’re not blocking your shot inside, you’ve got a fair chance of scoring — and their offense has lacked bite. But
Prediction: I like SC’s team more than most analysts and Baylor’s team less than most, but I just can’t see the Trojans pulling off another upset.
(2) Dukevs. (7) South Carolina
Time/location: 8:40 p.m., Greenville SC
Need to know: Counting the Krzyzewski family, who always are well represented, there might be a few dozen Duke fans in the audience for this game. But given that South Carolina’s campus is 100 miles away and that Tar Heels fans will be there to cheer for their team and cheer against the Devils, this might be as tough a road atmosphere as the Devils have faced all year. And? Duke at its best is dramatically superior to the Gamecocks. Jayson Tatum is looking like he’s ready to carry the Devils to a Final Four, and if he has a bad moment then Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen can handle it. South Carolina is a very good defensive team, but not very enough.
Prediction: Duke heads on to Madison Square Garden, where the competition will be tougher but the venue more welcoming.
(6) Cincinnativs. (3) UCLA
Time/location: 9:40 p.m., Sacramento.
Need to know: The Bruins haven’t really played anyone quite like Cincinnati all year. They’ve played overpowering teams trying to piece together high-end talent in Arizona, Kentucky and Oregon, and they’ve played solid teams such as Michigan and the rival Trojans. But they’ve not faced a team that has reached a point of synergy where the whole is greater than the parts (and the parts aren’t bad). Cincinnati consistently gets itself high-quality shots, and has done it against much better defenses than this one. The Bearcats won’t have to worry about their lack of at-the-rim size being an issue because UCLA 7-footer Thomas Welsh is a 15-foot jumpshooter. But can UC’s Troy Caupain or backcourt partner Kevin Johnson keep Lonzo Ball from exercising total influence over the game? Do the Bearcats want to take all the pace out of the game?
Prediction: UCLA, and yes, I picked the favorite in every game. Not enough upsets, remember?