By Mark Paulette
As the late, great Andy Williams once bellowed, “It’s the moooost won-der-ful tiiiimmme, of the year…don don don…” But rather than kids jingle belling, holiday greetings and gay happy meetings, it’s time to plop on a couch (stand every 90-to-120 minutes as to avoid rashes) order more food than is acceptably healthy, and veg out for 48 hours because the madness is upon us. And the only thing sweater than throwing on the elastic waistband sweats and flicking through all the games until your eyes bleed is making sure your bracket is in prime condition to lay waste to whatever pool, friendly wager, or online forum you may find yourself in. So, pay attention to what I’m about to tell you, for it shall save you unwanted angst in this most magical period. Here are my top-5 bracket busting teams of 2017 –
- #19 Wichita St (30-4, 10 seed, South)
The Shockers are possibly the most undervalued team in this year’s field of 68 and as a diehard Wichita St fan, what the committee has done to my Shockers is just plain disgraceful. Like the Patriots last year, you can only play who’s on your schedule. The Shockers had two early season losses to Michigan St and Louisville (9 and 2 seeds, respectively) in the Battle for Atlantis tip-off tournament, though that was a drastically different Shockers’ team. Wichita St has just two seniors on the roster, both of who are reserves and may not see the light of day in the Big Dance. The young team which lost both games against their stiffest competition this season has since gone a modest 25-2, won the Mountain Valley Conference and become one of the most prolific scoring offenses in program history, despite losing Ron Baker and Fred Vanvleet to the NBA. Factor in a 15-game winning streak and it’s easy to see why the Shockers are 74% favorites to beat 7th seeded Dayton in their opening matchup to set up a likely reunion with the 2nd seeded and SEC-champion, Kentucky Wildcats. Sunday’s projected battle will be a rematch of the 2014 classic, when Wichita was a 1-seed at 35-0 but were drawn in the death bracket and ultimately upset by the 9th seeded Wildcats, 78-76 in the second round. Personal bias aside, I expect the Shockers to exact revenge in this 2017 second-round matchup, before running into Lonzo Ball and UCLA in the Sweet 16.
Bracket busting win(s) – def. #2 Kentucky in 2nd round of South bracket. Final record, (2-1).
*Side note – Wichita St is tied for the most NCAA tourney wins in the last four years, (9).
- #9 Oregon (29-5, 3 seed, Midwest)
After a 16-2 run in the Pac 12 which earned the Ducks the #2 seed in the conference tourney, the arrow was pointing up in Eugene. Then, 6’10” senior Chris Boucher was lost for the year to a torn ACL he suffered in the post-season challenge. Boucher was the team’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. Oregon managed just a 2-3 record vs. top-25 teams during the season, and whether they play Creighton or Rhode Island (a pair of teams just outside the top-25) in the second round, it will prove to be an unfavorable matchup for the neon green. Creighton picked up a pair of regular season wins against ranked opponents, while a sound Rhode Island squad boasts an impressive 3-1 giant-killing record this year. The Ducks will easily survive their first-round meeting with Iona (22-12, 14-seed), but I suspect them to meet their demise come the weekend.
Bracket busting loss – def. by either #6 Creighton or #11 Rhode Island in 2nd round of Midwest bracket. Final record, (1-1).
- #12 Baylor (25-7, 3 seed, East)
As little as three weeks go, this was one of the top-2 teams in the country with a record of 20-2. Then, the Bears fell off the wagon, going 5-5 down the stretch and were bounced by Kansas State in their first game of the Big 12 tourney. The arrow is pointing straight down in Waco and I don’t forecast it swinging back anytime in the near future. They’ll get by 14-seeded New Mexico State (28-5), though this could be a sexy pick for someone looking to make a rather shocking upset bid in the opening round. With a win, however, Baylor then run into 30-win SMU in the second round. Bye, bye Bears.
Bracket busting loss – def. by #6 SMU in the 2nd round of the East bracket. Final record, (1-1)
- #23 Michigan (24-11, 7 seed, Midwest)
I may be a victim of recency bias here but after watching Michigan cruise through the Big 10 tournament, despite unforeseen obstacles (like having their plane slide off the runway, delaying their trip to the tournament by an entire day) to capture the championship, I think they’re a force to be reckoned with in the big dance. The Wolverines are 4-2 against top-25 teams this season and play up to their competition, as was evident by their 10-8 regular season conference record where Michigan struggled against the bottom half of the league. Luckily for them, there is no such thing as a trap game come tourney time. Oklahoma St. (Michigan’s first-round opponent) is 1-9 against top-25 teams this season, once again, Michigan is the #23-ranked team in the country. That’s as close to a guaranteed win you’ll find among the middle-of-the-pack games in round one. The Wolverines will start blowing up brackets when they defeat 2nd seeded Louisville in the second round, followed by a sweet victory over Creighton (who you’ll remember I have as the likely candidate to off Oregon) in the round of 16. The blue and gold’s run will then likely conclude in the Elite 8, where they’ll ultimately fall to Kansas, who I have as my National Champion.
Bracket busting win(s) – def. #2 Louisville in the 2nd round of the Midwest bracket, def. #6 Creighton in the Midwest semi-finals. Final record, (3-1)
- #13 West Virginia (26-8, 4 seed, West)
There’s always that one surprising team each year that refuses to stop dancing and this season, I’m highlighting the Mountaineers to be the team to make said run. Call me crazy, but based in part on the high-pressure, battle tested philosophy of legendary coach, Bob Huggins, and partly on my inability to trust any top-ranked team in this West bracket, I have West Virginia making a surprising run to the Final Four. To get there it means first they must get by Notre Dame (5-seed, #14 in the country), then the real tests come. In the Sweet 16, I have WVU pulling off the upset and taking down #1 Gonzaga. It’s the earliest I have any of the four no. 1’s bowing out. I don’t stop there however, as the Mountaineers will ride that momentum into the Elite 8, where they’ll take out #2 Arizona to punch their ticket to Phoenix. I believe Duke ultimately comes out of this side of the bracket, but I got a hunch, and it says trust West Virginia over any other team in the West.
Bracket busting win(s) – def. #1 Gonzaga in the West semi-finals, def. #2 Arizona in the West regional. Final record, (4-1)
So, there you have it. I’ve given you a warning for each pod in the tournament. Now, you may reap your rewards, courtesy, me.
*I am not responsible for any misleading or failure to accurately predict match ups. You are the master of your domain.
Mark Paulette is the senior producer of The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.