Rajan Nanavati
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Rajan Nanavati

If the Executive Branch of the federal government had a “Department of Sports Affairs,” I would expect one of the first orders of business for the hypothetical secretary of such department to be making the first two days of the NCAA Tournament a national holiday. For all the great days sports brings us throughout the year — the Super Bowl, Opening Day in Baseball, the Masters Tournament, and the Kentucky Derby, among others — these two days might be the very best.

But since we don’t live in this hypothetical world, we’ll just have to settle for the current state of affairs: wasting a copious amount of time at work, either congregating around any televisions that are showing the wall-to-wall coverage of basketball, or compulsively clicking “refresh” on your sports website of choice that’s tracking the games.

With the start of the tournament being only minutes away (from when this post goes live), here’s my WAY-too-long breakdown of everything you could ever want to know about the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

East Region


Ordinarily, you’d think that the #1 overall seed in the 68-team NCAA Tournament would get a little bit of “love” from the selection committee. But Villanova, the defending National Champions from last year, got no such affection in this year’s tournament. The East region, where the Wildcats will begin their title defense, is loaded with teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), including Duke University (the #2 seed), the University of Virginia (the #5 seed), and Virginia Tech (the #9 seed). And that’s not even mentioning the fact that the University of Florida, who many argue was badly “underseeded” with a #4 seed, is also in the same region. If the Wildcats were to return to the Final Four in Phoenix, they would potentially have to play four of those teams.

So the question is: can Villanova pull off the repeat? It hasn’t been done in a decade, since Billy Donovan led the aforementioned Gators to back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007. But consider the fact that Jay Wright’s Wildcats are 37–3 since the start of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, and two of those three losses have come against one single team (Butler). They enter the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the nation. Yet, ironically, the team that’s the odds-on favorite to win the entire tournament is Duke, the team with the #2 seed in the region (even though many felt that the Blue Devils should have been given a #1 seed). After years of falling short, can Wright re-write the history of Villanova? Or will we see Mike Krzyzewski lead the Blue Devils to their fourth National Championship since the turn of the century?

Sleepers & Giant Killers

Whenever it comes to the NCAA Tournament, the one should always start looking for a “sleeper” or “Giant Killer” would be the on the lower end of the cursed 5 vs. 12 matchup; in this case, the fifth seeded Virginia Cavaliers against the Seahawks of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW). UNCW made their first appearance in the tournament last year, briefly giving Duke a scare, before losing 93–85. Still, their ability to force turnovers, while holding on to the ball themselves (they average the fewest turnovers in the nation), makes them a dangerous team to play. Their biggest flaw, however, is the fact that they only played one team in the RPI top 50 this year, and lost that game.

The other team worth keeping an eye on is Southern Methodist (SMU). As the #6 seed, they’re “supposed” to win against the 11th seed (whoever wins the game between Providence and USC). But they’re primed to pull off the upset in the Round of 32, likely against Baylor. SMU enters the tournament on a 16-game winning streak, playing an almost “positionless” style of basketball. They have guys who can do a little bit of everything, and their incredible versatility makes them one of the most efficient teams to play against, as far as per-possession scoring offense.

Best & Most Underrated Players

It would only follow that one of the best players in the nation happens to play for the team that’s ranked as the very best in the nation. Sophomore Josh Hart of Villanova enters the tournament as the newest reigning Big East Conference Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player of the Big East Tournament, after averaging 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists a game this season. The 6-foot-6 senior is beloved by his teammates, given his ability to score from anywhere on the court, and also set up his teammates.

In Durham, the highly touted freshmen — Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles — tend to get most people’s attention, and everyone is familiar with the antics (and talents) of Grayson Allen, but Luke Kennard might’ve emerged as the most important player for the Blue Devils this year. He led the team with 20.1 points per game scoring, and put his team on his back for large stretches of the ACC Tournament.

While we’re on the topic of Duke, junior Semi Ojeleye of SMU, who transferred from Duke in 2015, won the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year award, after leading the Mustangs to a 27–4 record. The 6-foot-8 forward averaging 18.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game this year, and was the stalwart player for an SMU team that thrived on its myriad of interchangeable parts.

Top NBA Prospects

Many people pegged Duke as the “winner” of the 2016 recruiting season, after landing Giles and Tatum, who most considered to be two of the top three prospects in the nation. While they both struggled with issues around inconsistency (Tatum) and injuries (Giles), assuming they declare for the 2017 NBA Draft, they’re both likely to be lottery picks.

Giles was the top recruit in the nation last year, according to many scouting services. But fast forward one year, and NBA scouts are a little unsure about him. He’s long, athletic, and explosive for someone his size (6'11), but he played sporadic minutes for Duke this year, and looked a bit lost when he did play. But teams are going to be tantalized by his natural scoring ability, and the level of effort he shows when he’s on the court.

Tatum had a more successful season in Durham than Giles might have, ranking 2nd among Duke players in scoring (16 points per game). But the biggest question regarding him will be his shooting ability — or more specifically, whether he can develop a consistent jumpshot overall. He shot almost 60% around the rum, but his outside shooting — especially from three point range, which is clearly important in today’s NBA — was inconsistent. He has the size (6'8), body, athleticism, and defensive intensity that many teams covet. The issue will be whether he can score effectively in the NBA.

Picks and Predictions for the Final Four

At the risk of sounding unoriginal, it’s very difficult to foresee a scenario where Villanova and Duke aren’t facing off in the Elite Eight. Duke finally looks like the team that many had predicted would win it all, before the season started. Their ACC Tournament Championship, comprising wins against Louisville, UNC, and Notre Dame, was extremely impressive. And they’re led by one of the greatest basketball coaches alive. But Villanova carries themselves with a “been there, done that” swagger, and rightfully so. They enter every game with the intention of outworking their opponents. They’ve got a lethal balance of scoring, defense, and depth. There’s also the experience too, as they return most of the team that won it all last season.

Pick: Villanova

Midwest Region


It seems like, every single year, college basketball fans ask themselves: in what round will Kansas end up leaving the tournament, earlier than they had planned?

Whenever people talk about Kansas head coach Bill Self, few of them bring up the fact that he led the Jayhawks to a National Championship in 2008. Rather, they talk about the fact that in 14 seasons in Lawrence, he’s only had one year where he lost a grand total of 10 games (including the postseason), but he has only two Final Four appearances in those 14 years.

So, once again: will Kansas break through to the FInal Four this year, for the first time since 2012? Or will they end up back in Lawrence by late March, instead of Phoenix, Arizona (where the Final Four is being held)?

While the Jayhawks are once again loaded with talent that most programs could only dream of, Self’s team will still have their work cut out for them. The Midwestern Region, in which they sit atop with the #1 seed, features teams coached by Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, and John Beilein — all of whom have taken their respective teams to the Final Four. Oh, and Pitino and Izzo only happen to be two of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.

Sleepers & Giant Killers

The 11th-seeded Rhode Island Rams aren’t exactly a program that first comes to mind, when you’re thinking of the traditional “Giant Killers” in the NCAA Tournament. After all, this is the first time that the school has appeared in the tournament since 1999, when former NBA star Lamar Odom — who’s even long-since retired from the NBA — played for the Rams. On top of that, Rams head coach Dan Hurley — son of Duke University great Bobby Hurley — has never appeared in the NCAA Tournament, as a player or a coach.

So why mention them in the “sleepers” section?

Their exceptionally-relentless defense poses huge problems for their first round opponent: the Creighton Bluejays (6th seed in the Midwest). After starting the season 18–1, Creighton lost guard Maurice Watson — their floor general who led the nation in assists — to a season-ending torn-ACL injury. Since that loss, the Bluejays went 7–8, and have clearly been reeling. Creighton has the name brand recognition and the experience, but they might not be able to overcome Rhode Island’s suffocating style of play.

As the 7th seed in the region, calling Michigan — who’s gone to the Elite Eight or further in two of the past four seasons — a sleeper might seem silly. But the Wolverines have the offensive firepower — especially in the form of three-point shooting (ranked 24th in the country )— and senior leadership to upset the #2-seeded Louisville Cardinals in the Round of 32.

Best & Most Underrated Players

Freshman guard Donovan Mitchell of Louisville fits the mold of basketball player that Pitino has tried to build his team with, to an absolute tee. Even though Mitchell stands “only” 6-foot-3, he has a ridiculous 7-foot-4 wingspan, fitting right into Pitino’s game plan of employing his rangy players to shrink the amount of room opponents have to work with. Offensively, Mitchell has been Louisville’s most dependable scorer this season, putting in 15 or more points in 14 of the Cardinals’ 15 ACC games. That’s a big reason why Mitchell won both All-ACC first team and defensive team honors

Junior forward Dillon Brooks of the University of Oregon wasn’t anywhere close to 100% early in the season for the Ducks. But once he got healthy, he really turned it on, especially down the stretch run of the season. He shot 58.1 percent overall and 51 percent from 3-point territory in Oregon’s final nine games, and fans — as well as opponents — finally witnessed him show the athleticism that made him such a devastating penetrator. He’s a key cog in the Ducks game plan of spreading the floor and attacking the gaps in an opponent’s defense.

It’s rare to see a talented player stay in school for for years these days, but that’s been exactly the case for guard Monte Morris of Iowa State. For the third time in his four years in Ames, he led the country in assist-to-turnover ratio, and was the top scorer for his team as well (16.2 points per game). Cyclones head coach Steve Prohm basically designed his team’s gameplan around spreading the floor, and letting Morris drive-and-kick the basketball.

Top NBA prospects

There’s no question that the player in this Midwest region, who NBA scouts are most salivating over, is guard Josh Jackson from Kansas. As one of the headliners in the ridiculously-loaded crop of NBA prospects this year, there’s almost no possibility where Jackson will be taken outside of the top five picks in the 2017 NBA Draft. Standing 6-foot-8, and with his combination of head-shaking athleticism, incredible motor, competitive nature, team-centric play, and high basketball IQ, many scouts have compared him to Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs — a perennial All-Star and candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.

In the small-ball-style of play that’s currently en vogue in the NBA, teams have began placing less focus on the efficient big man in the center. But, ironically, that’s just what center Justin Patton from Creighton happens to be. Standing 7-feet tall and 230lbs, he has a rare combination of size, athleticism, mobility, and range on his jump shot. He still needs work on his post game, and will likely need to put on some size in the NBA, but scouts love the untapped potential in Patton.

On the other end of the spectrum, as far as low-post play, is sophomore forward Caleb Swanigan from Purdue. Many NBA scouts project that he’ll be taken somewhere in the middle of the first round of the draft, because of the combination of strength down low, and soft hands. He’s got range as a shooter, and a hustle to grab rebounds. Those attributes will always be valued by NBA teams.

Predictions & Picks for the Final Four

The Jayhawks should cruise into the Sweet 16 this year, as nobody in the first two rounds is really capable of sending them home that early. Once they get there, they should be able to dispatch either Purdue or Iowa State, simply on the virtue of having so much more talent than those teams.

On the other side of this region, things could get more messy. As mentioned, look out for a fun match-up between Rhode Island and Oregon in the same round, and look for Michigan to upset Louisville, in the Round of 32, and maybe beat the winner of the Rams vs. Ducks to advance to the Elite Eight.

The Jayhawks usually end their NCAA Tournament appearances in the Elite Eight, but this year, they will get one step further.

Pick: Kansas

South Region


Only a very small handful of coaches in America will remember feeling the thrill of victory, and then the agony of defeat, the way that Roy Williams, head coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, likely remembers. The Tar Heels erased a 10-point deficit in the 2016 National Championship game against Villanova, when Marcus Paige hit a three-point shot to tie the game at 74-all with only six seconds left. But only a few seconds later, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins returned the favor, draining a dagger three-point shot that handed the Tar Heels a devastating loss in the title game.

Instead of letting the loss fester around the program, the Tar Heels went 27–7 leading up to the tournament, and finished the year as the ACC regular season champions, and a #4 RIP ranking. With their combination of a high-scoring offense (ranked 4th in offensive efficiency), strong rebounding, size in the paint, and a battle-tested head coach, there’s little reason to think that North Carolina won’t take care of unfinished business in Phoenix this year — the site of this year’s Final Four.

Of course, before they get to Phoenix, they’ll likely have to go through two of the most high-flying, high-octane teams the country has to offer, both of whom join North Carolina in the South region. John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats were given the #2 seed in the region; there’s nobody in America who can take premier high school talent and turn them into instant college basketball juggernauts the way Calipari does in Lexington. The #3 seed in the region happens to be the UCLA Bruins, who were ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency this year, and might have the nation’s best overall player in freshman point guard Lonzo Ball.

Sleepers & Giant Killers

The NCAA selection committee threw a bit of a monkey wrench, making life very interesting in the bottom part of the South region, by giving the Wichita State Shockers a #10 seed.

Many people felt this was a really unfair seeding, for both Wichita State, as well as the poor souls who have to play them early on in the tournament. Head coach Gregg Marshall has led the Shockers to their fourth-straight season with more than 30 wins. His teams are known for their relentless defensive efforts, and his squad this year is no different. The Shockers have held their opponents to 37.8% shooting this season. Over the course of the past nine NCAA tournaments, only 23 teams have held foes to a .380 field goal percentage or lower, and 11 of them made it to the Sweet 16.

The Shockers look primed to “upset” the 7th-seeded Dayton Flyers in the opening round of the tournament, and assuming no catastrophic circumstances take place, they’d face Kentucky in Round 2. That’s in reverse of the circumstances from 2014, when the top-seeded Shockers had to play the #8-seed Wildcats in the second round of the tournament. Kentucky ended up winning that game — a fact that Marshall will likely remind this year’s team, over and over again.

The other team to keep an eye on is the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, who were given the always-dangerous #12 seed. This is the same team that shocked the world, upsetting the Michigan State Spartans in the opening round of the tournament last year. Kermit Davis’s team finished the regular season with their first-ever appearance in the top 25 rankings, and could very well pull off the upset against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, led by first-year head coach Richard Pitino.

Best & Most Underrated Players

On yet another North Carolina team chock-full of talent, forward Justin Jackson has emerged as the team’s go-to scorer. The 6-foot-8 sharpshooter finished the year with career high’s in scoring (18.1 points per game) and three-point shooting (37.7%), emerging as a potential All-American. He didn’t arrive in Chapel Hill with the same fanfare as many of his teammates, but after developing his game over the last three years, he’s become a nightmare for opponents to defend.

Ironically, for Butler University, the #4-seed in the region, their best player isn’t in the starting lineup. Junior forward leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.1 points per game, fully embracing his role as the sixth man off the bench and the spark of “microwave offense” for the Bulldogs. He came off the bench throughout his freshman season, and for 19 games this year. He continued doing so through the winter this year as well, and it clearly didn’t affect his production. He averaged 19.8 points in Butler’s five regular-season games, while showing discipline in his shot selection, valuing quality over quantity.

For the Wiz kids from Westwood, UCLA’s Bryce Alford, the son of head coach Steve Alford, might actually be the leader of a team that features to five-star freshman recruits. He likely doesn’t have the future NBA career like teammates Ball and T.J. Leaf; after all, he’s the one calling himself “short and slow” (in comparison to his teammates). But Alford leads the Bruins in scoring (16.5 points per game), shooting an absolutely ridiculous 45.4% from three. The senior guard’s leadership will be absolutely instrumental in any run that UCLA could make in the tournament this year.

Top NBA Prospects

This region is loaded with so much NBA talent that, if they joined together, they could probably beat a couple of NBA teams.

First, there’s Lonzo Ball, who many people have referred to as “the second coming of Jason Kidd,” only perhaps with a better jump shot. He’s fast, athletic, and ultra-competitive, while possessing an off-the-charts basketball IQ. More importantly, he has the one true trait that all point guards must possess: he understand the balance of making his teammates better versus taking over the game himself. There’s virtually no chance that he won’t be one of the top two selections in the 2017 NBA Draft, with a small contingent of teams thinking he’s worthy of the top overall pick.

Of course, when Kentucky is playing in your region, then you know it’ll be filled with player that’ll be playing professionally one year from now. De’Aaron Fox, the point guard for the Wildcats, is lightning quick in the open guard, and a relentless slasher that has drawn comparisons to former Wildcats great John Wall. Opposite Fox in the backcourt is Malik Monk, another explosive guard who is impossible to stop, in terms of getting to the basket. Whereas Fox is still inconsistent as a shooter, Monk has shown the ability to create his own shot, or simply finish above the rim.

Predictions & Picks for the Final Four

Look for Williams and the Tar Heels to finish what they started last season. It’s difficult to project any type of early upset for them, and they have the combination of talent and experience to match up with whoever comes out of the bottom part of the bracket. With the Tar Heels returning to the Final Four, that should set up one hell of a (potential) national semi-final game against the Jayhawks.

Pick: North Carolina

West Region


Gonzaga University did nearly everything you could possibly ask them to do during the 2016–2017 season, to date. They started the season 25–0, not losing a single game until the last week of February. They finished the regular season ranked among the top 10 in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, and lowest 3-point percentage allowed to opponents. They blew through the West Coast Conference tournament, with an average margin of victory of 19.6 points in the three games they played.

It’s one thing to achieve all of those marks in a non-”power conference.” But what happens when you throw the Bulldogs into a West region that also includes the Arizona Wildcats (who are coming off a Pac-12 tournament championship), the Florida State Seminoles (a very deep and athletically gifted team with a backcourt that can score), the West Virginia Mountaineers (employing the “Press Virginia” style of relentless defense under head coach Bob Huggins), and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (who finished as the runner-up in the ACC conference tournament)?

There’s only one question left to ask, now, of Gonzaga: can they repeat all of that when it matters most, against the best teams in the country? That’s what we’re about to find out.

Sleepers & Giant Killers

Mixed in with the slew of “big name” basketball programs in this region are a bunch of schools which have the ability to totally wreck how this region is “supposed” to unfold.

The Xavier Musketeers, currently the 11th-seed in the region, is a program that many long-time followers of the NCAA Tournament should be familiar with. This is the seventh time they’ll be appearing in the NCAA Tournament in the past eight years (while Chris Mack has been the head coach); in their six previous appearances, they’ve made it out of the opening round five times. They’ll face off against a Maryland team (the #6-seed) that has dropped six of its last 10 games, with their best player — guard Melo Trimble — in the midst of a big slump.

The other game opening-round game taking place in Orlando features Florida State taking on Florida Gulf Coast. Many college basketball fans will remember when the Eagles made a run to the Sweet 16 as a #15 seed, back in 2013. Since then, they’ve won 20-plus games each season, and they could be ready to spring another upset on the Seminoles, who have been a .500 team since early February, posting a 4–4 record that includes a 2–4 mark away from Tallahassee.

Also, never overlook the Princeton Tigers, especially as they enter the tournament as the always-interesting 12th-seed (taking on Notre Dame in the opening round). The Tigers are only one of two teams in the NCAA Tournament who haven’t lost a single game in 2017, and the vaunted Princeton offense has often confounded tournament foes.

Best & Most Underrated Players

In a college basketball season featuring a whole menagerie of superior point guards, many of whom could be stars in the NBA some day, Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss is often overlooked by the media. But make no mistake: Williams-Goss has played like a first-team All-American this season, and acts as a true floor general for Gonzaga. He does whatever the Bulldogs need him to do: score points, set up teammates, grab rebounds, defend the opponent’s best backcourt player, and serve as the leader for one of the best teams in the nation.

Forward Bonzie Colson of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish was a first-team All-ACC selection in 2017, after leading the conference in rebounding, and finishing among the top players in scoring, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage. At only 6-foot-5, the Irish often ask him to guard front court players that dwarf him in size, and he never backs down from the challenge.

Maryland’s Trimble might be in the midst of a nasty scoring slump right now, but when he’s on, he’s still one of the best players in the nation. After forgoing the opportunity to play in the NBA last season, he came back to College Park and averaged just under 17 points, and just over three assists and three rebounds per game. The junior guard also provides somewhat of a veteran presence on an otherwise young Terrapins team.

Top NBA Prospects

Arizona’s pipeline of talent right to the NBA continues this season, courtesy of freshman forward Lauri Markkanen. In any other season, we’d easily be talking about Markkanen as a top-five selection. But, with the incredibly loaded draft class we’re likely to see, he’ll likely be taken among the top 10 picks instead. The seven-footer has the rare gift of truly being able to play an inside-outside game, with his ability to shoot from long distances; his 42.8% shooting from three-point range led the Wildcats), as did his 7.1 rebounds per game. A lot of NBA scouts are tantalized by the thought of Markkanen playing a true “stretch four” position, in today’s pace-and-space-style in the NBA.

Forward Jonathan Isaac of the Seminoles will likely join Markkanen, as a top-10 selection in this year’s draft. He’s another guy with a fascinating combination of size (6-foot-11) and shooting ability (hitting 38% from three-point range). Isaac may not have put up the eye-popping production that we’ve seen from some of the other fabulous freshman this year, but NBA teams will undoubtedly be intrigued by a player with that height, and the ability to play either forward position, or even serve as a rim protector.

Keeping up with the theme of “big men who can shoot,” Gonzaga’s Zach Collins should also be a lottery pick as well. The center is a fluid athlete that’s a bit more like the traditional “big man” in the NBA, but he’s still a good shooter with the ability to finish around the room, or from substantially further away.

Picks and Predictions for the Final Four

If Gonzaga and Arizona end up facing each other in the Elite Eight, it will be fascinating to see how the Bulldogs “solid and steady” approach matches up with the athleticism of the Wildcats. When Gonzaga beat Arizona earlier this year, Arizona was without some of its best players in that game. Both teams should be at full strength for this game.

While the skeptics have their merit, this just feels like the year that Gonzaga should break through, and return to the Final Four. This might not Gonzaga head coach Mark Few’s best team, but it’s his best defensive team. That should be good enough to survive and advance deep into March.

Pick: Gonzaga

This article was written as a series of a freelance article opportunities for InTheGymRange.com



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Rajan Nanavati

Father. Husband. Indian American. Sports Junkie. Marketing Dude. Freelance Writer. Productivity Zealot. Enthusiastic Gourmand.