By Jason Earle
The opening round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament left college basketball fans across the country frustrated for picking too many upsets. All of the top four seeds in each region advanced in a year that featured a 5-12 Middle Tennessee win over Minnesota as its biggest upset in terms of seeding. A Blue Raiders appearance in the round of 32 was a common bracket projection. More surprising was the fact that only one 6 seed survived the first round in Cincinnati. Xavier upset Maryland, Rhode Island defeated Creighton, and USC knocked off SMU. Many had the hot AAC champion Mustangs advancing deep into the tournament. After all, they hadn’t lost a game since a January 12th road battle with the talented Bearcats of Cincinnati.
Despite the tranquility of the first round, the round of 32 provided the madness we were all waiting for. Wisconsin started it all by knocking off the #1 overall seed in the tournament, Villanova. Then, Michigan defeated Louisville and South Carolina upset Duke in a couple of 2-7 matchups. Many hoops fans had either the Wildcats, Cardinals, or Blue Devils taking the National Championship. There were plenty of busted brackets after the chaos of Saturday and Sunday. Here’s a recap of what went down.
Best Game: Villanova-Wisconsin
A 1-8 upset in just the second game of the round of 32 was a clear warning that it was going to feature more upsets than the Thursday-Friday chalk. The game featured two teams that have performed fairly well in March as of late, and I think everyone can now agree that the Badgers are no 8 seed. While Greg Gard’s bunch held the lead for most of the first half, Jay Wright’s Cats led for most of the second. Nigel Hayes’ reverse lay-up with 20 seconds left gave Wisconsin the lead for the remainder of the ballgame, and the former National Champions fell 65-62.
Player of the Region: Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
Throughout the season, Thornwell has been overlooked due to the Gamecocks’ mediocre résumé in a weak SEC league. Not anymore. The 6-5 senior dropped a double-double with 29 points in an opening round win over Marquette and followed that up with a 24 point performance on Sunday in a shocking upset of the ACC Champion Duke Blue Devils. Thornwell is scary for any defense in the country, and he has the potential to lead the Gamecocks to another upset over Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen.
Bracket Buster: South Carolina over Duke
The East region arguably contained the two biggest upsets of the tournament thus far in Wisconsin over Villanova and South Carolina over Duke. While the Blue Devils seemed like a fairly simple pick over a decent South Carolina team, many people knew that Wisconsin had the potential to knock off the top team in the tournament in the second round. Very few people saw the ACC Champs falling in the second round. Alas, the Sweet Sixteen in the East features the 3, 4, 7, and 8 seeds.
Final Four Pick: Wisconsin
There’s something about the Badgers in March that gives you the sense they’re bound for a Final Four trip this year. Though Florida looked very impressive in a 26 point drubbing of Virginia, Wisconsin is playing as well as anyone in the country right now. Villanova was the biggest obstacle in the way of a Wisconsin trip to the Final Four, and they cleared it. They’ve already proven that they aren’t an 8 seed, now they need to prove they’re one of the best four teams in college basketball.
Best Game: Louisville-Michigan
The Cardinals led for almost the entire contest, and it seemed Michigan’s miracle run since the beginning of the Big Ten Tournament would finally come to an end. Then, Derrick Walton Jr. did Derrick Walton Jr. things, and Moritz Wagner stepped up for a career high 26 points. The Wolverines took the lead with just under 10 minutes to play and finished a 73-69 win over second seeded Louisville in a rematch of the 2013 National Championship game.
Player of the Region: Frank Mason III
Mason continues to prove that he is a worthy candidate of this year’s Wooden Award. The senior point guard combined for 42 points in the Jayhawks’ first two games while shooting a perfect 8 for 8 from the line on Sunday in a win over Michigan State. He is one of the best floor generals in the country and an outstanding leader for the Big 12 regular season champs.
Bracket Buster: Michigan over Louisville
Louisville was probably the least common 2-seed pick for a National Champion, but many had them advancing to the Elite Eight, Final Four, or even the National Championship game. Michigan’s résumé, when considering the whole season, really didn’t deserve more than the 7 seed it received. Nonetheless, they’re playing like a 1 seed. Don’t forget, they were the 8 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan takes on Oregon next in another opportunity to continue the Cinderella run.
Final Four Pick: Michigan
This team mirrors the 2014 National Champion Connecticut Huskies. Both were hovering around the bubble before their conference tournaments, won their respective tournaments to earn 7 seeds in the dance, and never lost after that. Additionally, both were led by a star point guard, Napier for the Huskies, Walton Jr. for the blue. Michigan has the potential not only to reach the Final Four but to win the national title.
Best Game: North Carolina-Arkansas
The Tar Heels were the most popular champion pick in the country. Therefore, it’s safe to say plenty of Americans were shocked to see a 65-60 Arkansas lead with less than three minutes to play. Ultimately, North Carolina finished the game on a 12-0 run thanks to the outstanding talent of their starting five in Berry, Meeks, Hicks, Pinson, and Jackson. What finished as a 72-65 win for the Heels was actually a much closer game than the final tally represents, and Arkansas was very close to eliminating what is now the only ACC team left in the field.
Player of the Region: Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Similar to Mason, Ball is a point guard that has impressed all season and has merely continued his success in the dance. He led the Bruins to a rout of Kent State in the opening round and went on to drop 18 points and 9 assists in a second round win over Cincinnati that never seemed too close. Surely, a top five NBA draft pick this summer, Lonzo Ball now must tackle a Kentucky team loaded with talent and a tough defense.
Bracket Buster: Kentucky over Wichita State
Since the top four seeds advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, and Middle Tennessee defeating Minnesota wasn’t really an upset, Kentucky’s win over Wichita State serves as the only potential bracket buster in the region. The Shockers have built impressive tournament runs in the past, and many expected a similar outcome this year, but Calipari’s crew denied that. Wichita State was in it until the very end, but a stellar second half from Bam Adebayo proved to be too much for the Missouri Valley champs. Now, we get a marquee Sweet Sixteen fight between a couple of college basketball powerhouses in Kentucky and UCLA.
Final Four Pick: North Carolina
Yes, the Heels looked shaky against Arkansas in the second round, but there are few teams in this tournament who haven’t received a little bit of a scare. Carolina was the regular season champ in basketball’s best conference, and they’re the only ACC team left in the field. They’re one of the most complete and consistent teams in college basketball. The major test will come in the Elite Eight against UCLA or Kentucky, assuming they can get past Butler on Friday.
Best Game: Notre Dame-Princeton
What a way to start the tournament. Princeton was a 3 pointer away from pulling off a shocking first round upset over a Notre Dame team that had just reached the ACC Championship game. While the Irish led for most of the contest, the Tigers were in it until the very end, and a missed three from Devin Cannady would have sealed the deal. Notre Dame escaped the Ivy League champions 60-58.
Player of the Region: Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
After Edmond Sumner tore his ACL earlier this season, the Musketeers experienced a slide that almost pushed them out of the field. Had they lost their first game in the Big East Tournament, they’d likely be in the NIT. Bluiett has put this team on his back in all kinds of ways, highlighted by his 50 total points in the first two games of the tournament. Bluiett led the team to upsets over Maryland and Florida State, now he’ll get a chance against second seeded Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen.
Bracket Buster: Xavier over Florida State
Two ACC teams fell by at least 25 points on Saturday night, including the Seminoles who lost this one 91-66. While Florida State wasn’t the most popular pick to come out of the West, their road to the Sweet Sixteen seemed easier than most. Xavier, meanwhile, was projected to lose to Maryland in the first round. The Musketeers are playing like a team that should have won the Big East Championship, and Arizona won’t have an easy task as Sean Miller takes on his former team.
Final Four Pick: West Virginia
The winner of the Notre Dame-West Virginia second round matchup was a popular pick to advance even further to the Elite Eight. The Mountaineers left no doubt in their win over the Irish and held a steady lead for almost the entire game. Gonzaga, meanwhile, struggled to defeat Northwestern and may not have if it weren’t for a missed basket interference call late in the game. The Mountaineers are more than capable of beating Gonzaga, but the test will come in the Elite Eight when they would challenge the Pac-12 Champions in Arizona or a hot Xavier team.