College basketball handicapping professional Ross Benjamin discusses his favorites, sleepers, and overvalued teams for the upcoming 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Note: All numbers displayed in parenthesis are reflective of March Madness odds at 5Dimes.
Villanova Wildcats (8:1): There’s only been two repeat NCAA Tournament champions since 1992, and the last to do so was Billy Donovan’s Florida team in 2007. Nevertheless, the 31-3 Wildcats are primed to another championship run.
Gonzaga Bulldogs (10:1): The pundits will put an asterisk next to Gonzaga’s superb 32-1 record, and claim they’re beneficiaries of playing in a weak conference. That indeed may be the case. However, the Bulldogs had non-conference wins over #20 Florida, #17 Iowa State, and #4 Arizona. Additionally, the Zags went 3-0 against this season against #22 St. Mary’s, and won all 3 contests by double-digit margins.
UCLA Bruins (12:1): UCLA (29-4) is a dynamic scoring team that averages 90.4 points per game. What’s even impressive about that kind of offensive output is it comes while playing in one of the nation’s best conferences (PAC12). They’ll be an underdog in a potential South Regional Final against North Carolina, and if that transpires, they’ll unequivocally be one of my top March Madness picks.
Louisville Cardinals (12-1): Despite going 2-3 in their last 5 games, Louisville still possesses a stellar 24-8 record, and earned a #2 seed in the Midwest Region. They have a legendary head coach in Rick Pitino who has led three different schools (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville) to Final Four appearances. If you know anything about Rick Pitino coached teams, they’re always well prepared when the calendar turns to March.
On the Periphery
North Carolina Tar Heels (6:1): If the Tar Heels (27-7) are sharp and on top of their game, then good luck trying to beat them. It will come down either beating UCLA, Kentucky, or Wichita State in the regional final. They’ve already lost to Kentucky (29-5) this season 103-100, UCLA (29-4)is a better offensive team that can also neutralize the Tar Heels size. If by chance Wichita State (30-4) advances that far, well then destiny will be on the Shockers side. My point being, North Carolina isn’t the mortal lock many of the so-called experts claim them to be.
National Championship Sleepers
Arizona Wildcats (20-1): If Arizona (30-4) advances out of the West Region, they’ll certainly be battle tested after doing so. They’re on a side of the bracket that includes #16 Florida State (25-8) and #22 St. Mary’s (28-4). If they’re fortunate to reach the regional final, it will be most likely be a matchup againsttop seeded Gonzaga (32-1). That certainly seems like an overwhelming task. Nevertheless, this is a battle tested Arizona team. The Wildcats have sustained no bad losses this season. Their defeats have all come against teams (Butler, Gonzaga, UCLA, Oregon) that are currently nationally ranked and have a combined 113-18 (.863) record.
SMU Mustangs (30-1):After starting the season 4-3, SMU has gone on to win 26 of their last 27 games. Their only loss in that sequence came at #18 Cincinnati by a narrow 2-point margin. The Mustangs are fundamentally sound offensively, defensively, and in the rebounding department. Their only glaring weakness is a lack of quality depth. However, they rarely find any of their top 6 players in foul trouble.
Purdue Boilermakers (30-1): Purdue has been involved in 10 games this season that have been decided by 5 points or less, and they went 6-4 in those contests. The confidence attained from knowing how to win close games at NCAA Tournament time is invaluable. The Boilermakers have potential matchups against Kansas (28-4) and Louisville (24-8) in the Midwest Region. Playing in so many close games this season, and then having relative success when doing so can pay huge dividends at some point along the way.
Kentucky Wildcats (6-1): I refer to the school in Lexington as “One and Done University”. They may not be one and done in the NCAA Tournament, but it’s very probable they’ll face a surging Wichita State team in a 3rd round game. In case you forgot, it was Kentucky that upset then top ranked and undefeated Wichita State during the 2014 tournament. I’m sure that will be a motivational factor and rallying cry for the Shockers if that matchup were to occur.
Duke Blue Devils (5-1): Yes, the Blue Devils won the ACC Tournament, but they went the hard route to do so, and had to win 4 games in consecutive days. I’m not enamored at all with teams coming off that precise scenario, and particularly so when they were already a lock for an at large bid.
Kansas Jayhawks (8-1):It’s either boom or bust for Kansas at NCAA Tournament time, and seldom anything in between. I’m betting it’s bust this year, and one of my March Madness predictions calls for Purdue to knock them off in the Midwest Regional Semifinals.