The joke every year is that Duke gets a gifted bracket. It's true sometimes, of course, but other times it's not. This year is the latter case. Gonzaga is viewed as a soft 2 seed, but you should sleep on them at your own peril. This team is probably better and deeper than the team that was ranked #1 in the nation a couple of seasons ago. Iowa State just won the Big 12 tournament, of course. And while Georgetown was a mystifying 4 seed, Utah is an incredibly strong 5 seed, ranked the 8th best team in the nation by both Sagarin and Pomeroy.
That's not to say that this is the Region of Death, though it might be (I'd argue it's the West). But while most of the people in your bracket pool are going to quickly pencil Duke into the Final Four, you should look carefully into the possibility of taking some other team.
My Picks:16. North Florida over 16. Robert Morris
1. Duke over 16. North Florida
8. San Diego State over 9. St. John's
4. Georgetown over 13. Eastern Washington
5. Utah over 12. Stephen F. Austin
3. Iowa State over 14. UAB
11. UCLA over 6. SMU
7. Iowa over 10. Davidson
2. Gonzaga over 15. North Dakota State
Thoughts:I'm sure you don't care about the 16/16 game unless you are an alum of the school or friends with one of the players, and Duke is going to wipe the floor with the winner anyway, but North Florida is the deserved favorite. They were better this season, sweeping the Atlantic Sun titles, and their perimeter offense (40.6 3P%) should have an easy time against a Robert Morris defense that was second to last in the NEC in defensive 3PA/FGA.
North Dakota State could be feisty for Gonzaga, and they have an incredibly explosive scorer in Lawrence Alexander, but never pick 15/2 upsets unless you're insane. I also wouldn't worry about Iowa State against a UAB team that pretty much just got a 14 seed on the back of conference reputation. Their resume probably deserved a 15 seed. They were 2nd in Conference USA in OR% and led the league in FT%, but Iowa State was fourth in the nation in defensive FTRate and led the Big 12 in DR%. Don't pick this upset.
In contrast, Eastern Washington over Georgetown is going to be a popular 13/4 upset. The narrative that John Thompson III isn't a good "Tournament coach" is dumb, but Eastern Washington is an awfully scary opponent. Of the auto-bids that earned 12-14 seeds, Eastern Washington isn't the best team, but I think their ceiling is highest. They chuck up a ton of threes, and they have the ability to get very hot. For the season, 43.2% of their field goal attempts were threes (18th most in the nation), and they hit 39.6% of them. Tyler Harvey led the nation in scoring by launching 267 threes and hitting 40% of them. In Venky Jois they have an interior player who is a creative, efficient scorer as well. Georgetown, on the other hand, is not a particularly efficient offense. They were only 6th in the Big East in offensive efficiency despite leading the league in FTRate. Eastern Washington was second best in the Big Sky in defensive FTRate, though those sorts of stats from smaller leagues often don't hold up against power conference foes. I'm picking Georgetown to get through this game, but it's very close to a 50/50 game to me. If you're in a bracket competition that rewards upsets by enough, I'd definitely take Eastern Washington.
Stephen F. Austin knocked off a 5 seed last year. Can they do it again? Well, they're facing a better team this time. Utah is rated the 8th best team in the nation by both Pomeroy and Sagarin. But Stephen F. Austin is a really good team, as well. Pomeroy rated them the 35th best team in the nation, and they've won 28 of their last 29 games, in part by annihilating the Southland by 0.26 PPP. They have outside shooters (most notably Jacob Parker, who hit 48% of his threes and had a 61.6 eFG% this season), but their best player is Thomas Walkup, whose skill is attacking the paint. That's not going to work quite as well against Jakob Poeltl and one of the best interior defensive units in the nation. Defensively, Stephen F. Austin will give Utah troubles as well. They force a lot of turnovers against a Utah team that, aside from Delon Wright, has been somewhat turnover prone. And they're reasonably good at taking away the threes that Utah loves to take offensively. Like the Georgetown/Eastern Washington game, this is a game you should look to pick the upset in if you're rewarded for it. If every game counts the same in your bracket competition, the safer bet is going with Utah.
UCLA was, obviously, the inexplicable team to make the NCAA Tournament. There's no way to justify them being in the Field of 68. But just about every season we have one of these teams, and it does seem like often those teams endure the week of media bashing and then play well. Also, while their resume should not have gotten them in, UCLA is clearly a bubble-quality team. They are rated the 41st best team in the nation by Pomeroy and 55th by Sagarin. That said, they're facing a difficult 6 seed. SMU probably deserved a 4 seed. The concern with SMU, though, is just how tested they were in an AAC that wasn't anything like last year's AAC. SMU was able to physically dominate AAC front lines, doing most of their damage in the paint and at the line. But UCLA has one of the biggest front lines in the nation, and they led the Pac-12 in defensive FTRate while also finishing in the top three of defensive 2P% and DR%. The way to beat UCLA is over the top with threes, but SMU isn't really a team that does that (they were last in the AAC in 3PA/FGA). UCLA is not great offensively either, relying heavily on offensive boards. But SMU, for their offensive prowess in the paint, was not a good defensive rebounding team. If this is a physical volleyball match in the paint and on the glass, UCLA is bigger and more tested. I give them the edge.
Iowa/Davidson is a match-up between two teams strong for their seed. It's also between two very good offenses. Davidson led the Atlantic Ten in offensive efficiency while Iowa was second in the Big Ten. They go about it different ways, though. Davidson is doing what Bob McKillop does best: not turning the ball over and shooting it well. Iowa, in contrast, doesn't shoot the ball as well as they did last season. They were second-to-last in the Big Ten in 3PA/FGA and instead relied heavily on offensive rebounds and getting to the line. If Aaron White and Gabriel Olaseni both play well, Iowa tends to play well. Davidson, as good as their offense is, is undersized. They start a single guy over 6'4" and he's 6'7". Aaron White, who is a 6'9" wing who can attack from the perimeter will cause them all sorts of match-up problems, as will 6'9" Jarrod Uthoff. Iowa has a tendency to be inconsistent offensively because they take too many two-point jump shots, and if they get an early lead their fans certainly won't feel comfortable against a Davidson offense that has poured it on in the second half against recent opponents, but I do think Iowa's domination of the paint will allow them to convert enough of those missed jumpers into second-chance points and free throws to escape.
On paper, San Diego State/St. John's is a massive mismatch. San Diego State is a strong 8 seed while St. John's is a weak 9 seed. St. John's has been playing some of their worst basketball of the season down the stretch, getting annihilated by Villanova and Providence by a combined 54 points in their last two games. And their star big man Chris Obekpa has been suspended for this game, meaning that they'll play basically the entire game with four guards and zero true big men. The argument for St. John's would be that San Diego State's offense is pretty bad against any team, so the loss of Obekpa isn't as significant, and the Johnnies have some strong scoring perimeter players, like Sir'Dominic Pointer, D'Angelo Harrison and Rysheed Jordan. But San Diego State's perimeter defense is excellent, so I don't think that's a reason to bet against what seems like an obvious mismatch.
My Picks:1. Duke over 8. San Diego State
5. Utah over 4. Georgetown
3. Iowa State over 11. UCLA
2. Gonzaga over 7. Iowa
Thoughts:San Diego State would be an interesting, difficult match-up for Duke. San Diego State is great defensively, and the key to that defense is 6'10" Skylar Spencer, who won Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. So the Aztecs will be able to leave him one-on-one with Jahlil Okafor and chase down their perimeter threats. This is a team that can bottle up Duke more than just about any team in the nation. The problem is, this is a Duke team that scored 69 points against Virginia and 63 against Louisville. At some point they're going to hit a few three-pointers in a row and Justise Winslow is going to get a few fastbreak points. This is not a game San Diego State is going to be able to win 46-44. So at some point the Aztecs are going to have to score, and I just don't think they have the offensive weapons to take advantage of Duke's defensive deficiencies. Throw in the fact that this is a pseudo-home game for them and Duke is the favorite.
Either Iowa or Davidson will be a difficult test for Gonzaga. Both, in particular, are very capable offenses against a Gonzaga team that is also very efficient offensively. I think Davidson would be the easier test with their undersized front line. Davidson starts a single guy over 6'4" and he's 6'7", so I don't know how they could possibly defend Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis. Iowa is much more capable of handling that size, and it would be fun to see the extremely physical Adam Woodbury matched up against Karnowski, though Karnowski might outweigh him by 50 pounds. In the end, I'm going to pick Gonzaga here because I think they have too many ways to win. Iowa is much more susceptible to front line foul trouble than Gonzaga is, and the Zags are much more capable of scoring both behind the arc and from traditional point scorers, as well as the mid-range game that Iowa excels at. Gonzaga is the pick.
I think Iowa State will be happy with SMU or UCLA as their Round of 32 match-up. UCLA, in particular, does not like to run. Steve Alford runs a deliberate offense, and their big guys will get worn out sprinting ineffectively up and down the court if Iowa State gets their way with tempo (as they usually do). SMU is probably the bigger threat to Iowa State, because the led the AAC in defensive steal and turnover rates, and their eFG% in transition was actually better than Iowa State's (59.0% vs 58.2%). That said, my concern with picking SMU to reach the Sweet 16 is that I don't even think they're going to reach this game. The fact that Iowa State has a far easier path to the Round of 32 means that they're the favorite to reach the Sweet 16 as well.
Utah/Georgetown is an interesting match-up in that it probably won't happen. Both teams face substantial challenges in the Round of 64. That said, what you don't want to do in your bracket is to pick a 12 or 13 seed to the Sweet 16. A 12 or 13 seed does do it most years, but trying to pick the right one is almost impossible. Don't out-think yourself. That said, if you do have Utah and Georgetown facing each other, what you basically have to ask is whether you believe in Utah's computer numbers. Because they are the 8th best team in the country in Pomeroy and Sagarin for a reason. They outscored the Pac-12 by 0.22 PPP (in comparison, Georgetown only outscored the Big East by 0.08 PPP). But there are Utah doubters. They were swept by Arizona, lost a pair of games to Oregon down the stretch, and in all have lost four of seven, including an ugly loss to a bad Washington team. That said, the Washington game had goofy shooting, there's no shame in a six point loss to Arizona, and competitive losses away from home against Oregon aren't the end of the world. This Utah team is still very strong, and I think the only way they lose this game is if they get into serious foul trouble. And that's possible, as both D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Josh Smith are good at drawing contact. But I don't think that's a good enough reason to pick a team that will likely be a 5 or 6 point underdog in Vegas. Utah is the favorite.
1. Duke over 5. Utah
2. Gonzaga over 3. Iowa State
What's interesting about Duke/Utah is that there were times this season when Utah was rated higher in the computers than Duke was. The Blue Devils have been playing great over the last month, however, while Utah has lost four of seven heading into the NCAA Tournament, so Duke would be something like a 2.5 point favorite in Vegas here. This would be a chance, though, for arguably the best interior defensive player in the nation (Jakob Poeltl) to go up against Jahlil Okafor. Delon Wright is a good defender on the wing, and he could end up on either Justise Winslow or Tyus Jones. Utah is very good at limiting three-point attempts, but they're not as good at not fouling. If Jahlil Okafor gets Poeltl in foul trouble then Dallin Bachynski is a significant drop-off. Also, while Utah is good at limiting threes, Duke is even better, leading the ACC in defensive 3PA/FGA, which will make it hard for a Utah offense that led the Pac-12 in both 3PA/FGA and 3P%. Throw in the fact that Utah could potentially go down in the Round of 64 and I think Duke has to be considered the favorite here, though it wouldn't be at all stunning if they go down.
Georgetown would be an easier test for Duke. Okafor would likely get Josh Smith into quick foul trouble, and the Georgetown defense is not nearly as good on the perimeter as Utah is. They also don't have nearly the offensive firepower that Utah does.
Iowa State over Gonzaga will be a trendy upset pick. Iowa State is a popular team and they're rolling with a Big 12 tournament title, though history says that there is no such thing as "momentum", and that teams which win their conference tournament are no more likely to see NCAA Tournament success than teams that fared poorly in their conference tournament if you control for their computer numbers and draw. There is also always the general "Gonzaga always destroys the WCC and does nothing in the NCAA Tournament because they're crap" whining in the media. But as I've argued many times, the evidence that certain programs or coaches over-achieved or under-achieve in the NCAA Tournament is very tenuous, and there's no evidence that mid-major teams historically under-perform in the NCAA Tournament due to not being "tested enough".
If we look at the match-up itself, Gonzaga doesn't love to run at a fast tempo, but they can if they have to. They beat BYU by an average of 6.7 points per game in three games this season, averaging 83 points per game. Przemek Karnowski is not effective in transition, but Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis are, and Gonzaga has one of the best starting backcourts in the nation. Iowa State's struggles this season have come defensively, particularly on the perimeter. They allow a lot of threes, and Gonzaga has players all over the place who can hit threes, including the 6'10" Wiltjer, who hit them at a 47% clip. Gonzaga also led the WCC in offensive turnover and steal percentages, and only 21.1% of initial field goal attempts against them were in transition this season, which is 56th best in the nation. I think they are able to limit Iowa State's easy baskets in transition. I think this is the year that Gonzaga finally gets back to the Elite 8.
2. Gonzaga over 1. Duke
What makes a hypothetical Gonzaga/Duke match-up hard to predict is that both of these teams can get white hot from behind the arc. Either of these teams can go 13-for-22 behind the arc and blow the other one out of the water. Having a confident opinion that either of these two teams will get through to the Final Four is foolish. That said, if either of these teams has a "red flag" that makes me wary of taking them to the Final Four, it's Duke. Their defense just isn't good, particularly on the interior. They are currently 57th in Pomeroy, and history says that you want to pick Final Four teams that are in the Top 20 in both offense and defense while shying away from teams outside the Top 50 in either. Gonzaga, in contrast, is Top 20 in both offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency. And Gonzaga didn't just run up these numbers against inferior foes. They held Arizona, St. John's and SMU to all under 1 PPP in non-conference play.
Jahlil Okafor could put Przemek Karnowski in foul trouble, but Karnowski could equally do it to him. And Okafor's patented ability to physically shove post defenders back into the paint isn't going to work as well against the hulking Karnowski, who outweighs him by at least 20 pounds. And the difference between Duke and Gonzaga is that Gonzaga's second options inside are much more palatable than Marshall Plumlee. Domanatas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer are both excellent, though I doubt they want Wiltjer defending Okafor. Gonzaga happily plays ten guys deep while Duke has just eight scholarship players. I think they just have more ways to win this game, so they're the favorite.
Iowa State/Duke, if it comes to pass, would definitely be a "get your popcorn" type of game. It would be a match-up of two teams that score bunches of points in so many different ways. That said, while I said I was wary of the fact that Duke was not rated a Top 50 defense, Iowa State's adjusted defensive efficiency rating is even worse (87th), and they were near the bottom of the Big 12 in defending threes. I think Duke would have to be the favorite there.
Of Utah and Georgetown, I think Utah would pose the tougher test for Gonzaga. Both Utah and Georgetown have the physically big bodies to handle the Gonzaga front line, but Utah is much better defensively on the perimeter. That said, and I know I'm repeating myself, but both Utah and Georgetown have a legitimate chance to go down in the Round of 64. If there's one thing I try to emphasize each year when filling out brackets it's that you want to take earlier rounds into account when picking later rounds. Gonzaga has a significantly easier path to the Elite 8 than either Utah or Georgetown, and the last thing you want to see is one of your projected Final Four teams to go down on the first day of the Tournament. Gonzaga would be the safer pick.