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2017 NCAA Men’s Tournament Preview

Illustrations by Gluekit

Every year, FiveThirtyEight dusts off its March Madness predictions and forecasts the win probabilities of each team in the tournament. And every year, we’re reminded that the joy and chaos of March Madness can’t possibly be summed up in win probabilities alone. Each of the men’s tournament’s 68 teams has charted its own course to the field: Some have endured devastating injuries, some have made surprising runs in their conference tournaments, and some have weathered tripping scandals. But now they all get a clean state. Win six — or maybe seven — games, and they do what no team is likely to do: win the NCAA Tournament.

To help you get ready for the tournament — and, yes, fill out those brackets — we’ve broken down each region, including the path of each No. 1 seed, and who the Cinderella teams could be in each one. No team has better than a 15 percent chance to win the tournament, according to our predictions, so there’s plenty of madness to come.

 

East Region

Top seed: Villanova (40 percent chance to win the region)
Likeliest Cinderella: No. 10 Marquette (9 percent chance to get to the Sweet 16)

 

You’d think the defending-champion Villanova Wildcats could catch a break from the NCAA’s selection committee, given that they were considered the top overall seed in the whole tournament. But instead of getting a relatively favorable draw for their trouble, ’Nova ended up in what ranks as the most competitive region of all, at least according to FiveThirtyEight’s power ratings. And yet, our model still gives the Wildcats the highest championship probability of any team in the field. But the path is much harder than it might have been otherwise.

Things start out relatively calmly for Jay Wright’s team, with games against a 16-vs.-16 play-in winner and the winner of No. 8 Wisconsin vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech. Neither round is likely to present a major threat to the Wildcats. But the degree of difficulty ramps up quickly because of the committee’s decision to seed Florida and Virginia — two of the nine best teams in the entire field according to the rankings of college-basketball stat whiz Ken Pomeroy — fourth and fifth in this region, respectively. The result will likely be a Gators-Cavs clash in the round of 32 that should be far better than games in that round usually are, and the winner could give Villanova a major headache in the Sweet 16. Our model gives ’Nova a 59 percent chance of powering through to the Elite Eight anyway, but the Wildcats’ title defense will be tested relatively early in the tourney.


VIDEO: A No. 16 seed will win, but don’t bet on it


The bottom half of the bracket isn’t exactly filled with cupcakes, either. Many thought No. 2 Duke had a strong case for a No. 1 seed of its own after it tore through the ACC tournament, and the Blue Devils are finally playing like the team that entered the season ranked first in the AP’s rankings. Our model says there’s a 51 percent chance they’ll be waiting for Villanova when the Elite Eight tips off. And that’ll only happen if either SMU or Baylor — two of the 13 best teams in the country according to Pomeroy — don’t beat Duke to it.

So in terms of the sheer number of potential upsets, it’s hard to find a No. 1 seed with anywhere near as dangerous a path as Villanova will face. But the Wildcats also have a tourney-best 15 percent chance of repeating as champs because they’re an uncommonly good team. According to FiveThirtyEight’s power ratings, only one team in the last four years — Kentucky’s ridiculously dominant 2015 squad — entered the tournament with a better power rating than ’Nova has now.

Of course, those Wildcats served as a reminder that there are no sure things in March Madness. That Kentucky squad entered the tourney with nearly three times Villanova’s current title probability, and still lost. (At 15 percent, ’Nova has pretty weak odds for an overall favorite, on par with Louisville’s chances in 2014.) If Villanova does fail to repeat, they’ll have a legitimate beef with the selection process. The committee basically turned one of the most talented teams of the past few seasons into one of the weakest favorites, all because it threw the Wildcats into a region of death.

 

West Region

Top seed: Gonzaga (41 percent chance to win the region)
Likeliest Cinderella: No. 11 Xavier (17 percent chance to get to the Sweet 16)

For just the second time over their two-decade rise from quirky mid-major to national powerhouse, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The last time it happened didn’t end well for the Zags; they were knocked out in the round of 32 by ninth-seeded Wichita State back in 2013. This year’s version is a more complete team on paper than those Bulldogs were, though, faster-paced and better on both offense and defense.

But the stigma of being a power team in a non-power conference has dogged Gonzaga all season (it played by far the weakest schedule of any team in ESPN’s top 20 by Strength of Record), as have the low expectations the Bulldogs carried into the season (they ranked just 14th in the preseason AP poll). Even after 33 games, we probably know less about Gonzaga than any other No. 1 seed in the tournament.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Bulldogs are the most vulnerable top seed; according to our model, they have the best Final Four odds of any No. 1 team. But the Zags have a difficult road ahead: The West contains five of the top 25 teams in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy’s power ratings, two of which (Notre Dame and West Virginia) are packed into the Zags’ half of the bracket. West Virginia seems particularly dangerous if it can overcome a case of criminal underseeding; WVU is seeded fourth in this region despite ranking fifth in the entire nation by Pomeroy’s stats. Assuming the Mountaineers and Fighting Irish advance through what should be relatively easy first-round tests, their matchup should be one of the best of the second round — and its winner could prove to be a major roadblock for Gonzaga. Our model gives the Bulldogs a 60 percent chance of making it to the Elite Eight, which is the best of any No. 1 seed, but far from a safe path.

The other side of the bracket also contains its share of strong teams, some seeded more appropriately than others. Upset aficionados, look out: At No. 40 in Pomeroy’s numbers, No. 11 Xavier actually ranks better than its first-round opponent, No. 6 Maryland (No. 45 in Pomeroy), although the FiveThirtyEight model still gives the Terrapins a 51 percent shot at advancing. And while No. 7 Saint Mary’s does rank higher in the advanced metrics than No. 10 VCU, the Gaels’ No. 14 national rank in Pomeroy’s ratings indicates that they have the talent of a No. 3 or No. 4 seed. Barring any huge upsets, the bottom half of the West could contain two more of the best second-round matchups in the entire tournament, to go with the Mountaineers-Irish tilt shaping up in the top half. Our predictions give Arizona and Florida State the best chances of emerging from them, with the Wildcats boasting a 39 percent probability of making the Elite Eight.

And if Gonzaga can survive that potential matchup with West Virginia or Notre Dame, the Bulldogs will have to clear one last hurdle to reach the Final Four, whether it be Arizona, FSU or even their longtime West Coast Conference rival, Saint Mary’s. The Zags should be favored against any of the three; without having played a game, our model considers them 41 percent favorites to move on to Phoenix. Those odds will only increase if they make it to the Elite 8.

But this is still Gonzaga we’re talking about here. No matter who the Bulldogs have to go through, they won’t be given quite the same benefit of the doubt as your typical No. 1 seed. Then again, this might also be their best chance yet to silence the doubters and prove they truly belong among college basketball’s blue-blood programs.

 

Midwest Region

Top seed: Kansas (38 percent chance to win the region)
Likeliest Cinderella: No. 11 Rhode Island (15 percent chance to get to the Sweet 16)

As expected, Kansas got the Midwest region’s No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now we have to see if the Jayhawks can outswing a number of heavy-hitting offenses that got placed in the same bracket.

The South, West and East regions got four, five and six of the nation’s top-25 offenses in their brackets, according to Pomeroy. But the Midwest somehow ended up with seven teams, including Oklahoma State (the most efficient offense in the country, per Pomeroy); Michigan (No. 5 offense, and one of the hottest teams the past month); and Iowa State (the lone team to win at Kansas), which closed the regular season with nine wins in 10 games.

The Midwest likely boasts the best perimeter shooting, too, as six of its teams — Purdue, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Creighton, Iona and Kansas — rank in the top 20 nationally in 3-point percentage, according to Sports-Reference.com.

Still, Kansas is the team most-favored to make it out of the region, according to FiveThirtyEight’s predictions (38 percent chance of making the Final Four). Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson were among the best scoring backcourts in America this season. But being placed in a scoring-heavy region could cause issues for Kansas: The Jayhawks went 23-0 in games this season when holding opponents under 80 points. They were just 5-4 in matchups in which they surrendered 80 or more.

That said, other teams in the Midwest may have their own reasons to feel uncomfortable. The Big Ten likely won’t be thrilled that three of its seven tournament teams are all competing in the same region. (Coaches and players often say how difficult it is to have to beat the same opponent multiple times in one season.1) Oregon may be disappointed with falling to a No. 3 seed, a slide that might have been the result of losing top shot blocker Chris Boucher to a season-ending ACL tear. (Boucher’s absence could really hurt if and when the Ducks meet a bigger, more physical team such as Louisville2 in the Sweet 16.)

No particular underdog in this region stands out as a great bet to get out of the first round, but No. 11 Rhode Island over No. 6 Creighton might be the best choice if you’re feeling adventurous. The Rams, ranked for part of the season, were one of five teams to beat Cincinnati and played a competitive game with Duke. And while Creighton is no slouch — having beaten conference foe Butler earlier in the season — the Bluejays lost their best player, guard Maurice Watson Jr. to injury and finished the regular season just 5-7 without him.

Regardless of what happens — and whether Kansas makes it out of the region — be prepared to see a lot of scoring in the Midwest. All season long, a number of these teams showed they excel at it.

 

South Region

Top seed: UNC (30 percent chance to win the region)
Likeliest Cinderella: No. 10 Wichita State (24 percent chance to get to the Sweet 16)

Hoo-boy. The South may not be the most loaded region, but it’s stocked with multiple Final Four contenders and a handful of legitimate Cinderella candidates.

North Carolina held onto its No. 1 seed despite losing two of its last four games, including this season’s second loss to Duke, and that seed comes with a favorable draw. Carolina’s half of the region is soft compared to the piranha tank in the lower half. Arkansas and Seton Hall are both seeded basically in line with their metrics as No. 8 and No. 9 seeds, while No. 4 Butler is if anything a little over-seeded. The most dangerous team in the draw may be No. 12 Middle Tennessee State, which upset Michigan State as a No. 15 seed in last year’s tournament and this year comes in one rank ahead of first-round opponent Minnesota in FiveThirtyEight’s blended power rankings (44th to 45th).

Our model’s favorite to make it out of the region, however, is No. 2 Kentucky, which edges UNC by a few tenths of a percentage point (both are about a 30 percent to make the Final Four). Kentucky’s most likely path is loaded with good teams (Wichita State, UCLA, UNC), but the Wildcats are rated more or less as strongly as UNC and pick up a big advantage once they reach the Sweet 16, which will be held in Memphis, about 350 miles from Kentucky’s campus. Likely Sweet 16 opponent UCLA would be traveling more than 1,600 miles, while Carolina has nearly 900 miles to go.

As for No. 3 UCLA, our model gives the team just a 10 percent chance of making the trip to Glendale. But there’s some good news for anyone hoping to see Lonzo Ball and the high-scoring Bruins offense make a deep run in the tournament if you look a little deeper. Despite playing in the South region, UCLA will play its early-round games in Sacramento. Meanwhile, the Bruins’ first-round opponent Kent State and likely second-round opponent Cincinnati are both traveling about 2,000 miles from Ohio to northern California. They rank fourth and fifth in travel distance for the first weekend, respectively, while UCLA has a comparatively short trip of 350 miles (44th). UCLA catches another break in avoiding a second-round matchup with one of the more habitually underseeded teams in the tournament, Wichita State.

The Shockers once again find themselves seeded below what the analytics think of them. Last year, the team was saddled with a No. 11 seed despite a statistical profile that more resembled a No. 5 seed, forcing it into a “first four” play-in game against similarly underseeded Vanderbilt. Wichita would be a No. 2 seed going by its Pomeroy rating (No. 8 overall) or a No. 3 seed going by FiveThirtyEight’s power rankings (No. 11). It will face No. 7 Dayton in the first round, and we give them a 69 percent chance of advancing to the second round. However, a likely second-round matchup against Kentucky drops Wichita’s chance of reaching the Sweet 16 to 24 percent. Still, that’s an outstanding chance for a No. 10 seed, and if a few things break their way, the Shockers could kick up a Cinderella run in a region stacked with blue bloods.

Check out our March Madness predictions.

Footnotes

  1. It doesn’t seem as if that’s actually true in college basketball, though.

  2. The Cardinals rank as the 16th-tallest team in college basketball; the Ducks rank as the 85th-tallest, per Pomeroy.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Kyle Wagner is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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