The Runner Sports

2017 NCAA Tournament: Round Of 32 – Day 1

Chalk had themselves a relatively carefree day Thursday as the top seeds went 14-2 in the 16 games on day one of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. The action was heavy out west, as the entire West region played their initial games Thursday.

#1 Villanova Wildcats vs #8 Wisconsin Badgers (East region)

It’s been 10 years since a team last went back-to-back at the NCAA Tournament. Villanova hopes to become the first since those talented Gators last did so. Thursday was a less than ideal ignition to that run. They looked out of their element in the first against Mount St. Mary’s, but like champions, rebounded in the second. Early foul trouble by senior Josh Hart and cold shooting from last year’s hero, Kris Jenkins, handcuffed them. Their coming together at the break showed why many think they’ll become just the 9th team to string back-to-back titles.

Wisconsin will be a tough draw. The equally experienced Badgers showed grit of their own when they gutted out a robust showing from Virginia Tech. The Badgers, led by three seniors of their own, have height, shooting, and perseverance on the boards that spell trouble for most who wind up in their path.

The Wildcats are well-rounded, but they can’t afford another cold night from the likes of Jenkins. They shot 62% in the second half Thursday even with Jenkins tossing bricks. Wisconsin will be too good to afford a disappearing act from a PTP as Dick Vitale might proclaim the hero of 2016.

This matchup will be enjoyable, a look back to the era of college basketball before the one-and-dones neutered the nation’s top programs to the point they likely forget what a senior is. Wisconsin relied a little too heavily on the three-ball against VTech (31 3PA) and while they hit at a 42% clip, any regression will spell doom.

Prediction: Villanova

#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs #8 Northwestern Wildcats (West region)

Still feeling confident about this top seed? Sure, the Bulldogs ultimately dispatched South Dakota St., but they were downright atrocious in the opening half against the Jackrabbits. Gonzaga saw just one Top 25 team outside of the WCC, and are always a case of untested talent that can score against the lesser foes. They only highlighted Thursday just how vulnerable they are.

One of the nation’s top offenses found themselves on a seven-minute scoreless fit in the first that was only broken up with a string of free throws. They’d go another two minutes before scoring their next field goal, having missed nine in a row leading up to that.

It took 78 years to get to their first dance, and an even wilder finish to see the second round. After a Riley LaChance layup put Vanderbilt ahead with 14.5 on the clock, Vandy’s Matthew Fisher-Davis had a mental lapse he’ll likely never forget as he intentionally fouled Bryant McIntosh at midcourt. In his defense, there was plenty of time left on the clock and Northwestern could have just as likely burned the time off and hit the game winner anyways. Instead, McIntosh hit both free ones and forced the Commodores to come down and put up a prayer. A shot that clinked off the iron.

With their first major tournament scare in the history books, it’s pretty safe to slot the Wildcats in as our next national champions.

Joking aside, they’ll face a light em up offense from Gonzaga, and things won’t come easy. Keeping pace with the Bulldogs will be taxing, but they have a nice blueprint handed over to them by the Jackrabbits…as long as they omit the second half footage, or use it as what not to do.

The Bulldogs showed they can shed some adversity, but let’s not get carried away by the fact that they won a game they very much should have. Consider me very much in the anti-Gonzaga corner at this point.

I’m feeling the groove of this Northwestern team. They’ve waited so long to get there and their fans were so great Thursday; fate clearly wants them around. The NCAA Tournament needs that storyline in the second weekend in what looks like a tournament that might be run by chalk, and Northwestern is on-call.

Prediction: Northwestern

#2 Arizona Wildcats vs #7 Saint Mary’s Gaels (West region)

Arizona had the biggest offensive output in the opening day, dropping 100 on North Dakota, breaking triple digits in an NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 16 years. The defense isn’t always there, they let a less than threatening Fighting Hawks team put up 82. But in a possession-based offense, that’s what you risk.

Saint Mary’s survived a nail-biter against the always tough Rams outta VCU. Long the forgotten team from out west, the Gaels gave plenty of reason to take note in this victory.

This game could turn into the highest-scoring of Saturday, as these are two high-octane offenses that are just going to trade buckets.

Arizona knows just how dangerous it is to overlook teams, even out of the West Coast Conference, getting an early season punch in the mouth by Gonzaga. The Gaels are nearly as potent, and can certainly trade jabs in a standup fight. Neither side will take this fight to the ground. So grab the popcorn and sit back as we watch what might closest resemble an NBA All-Star game; plenty of scoring and flash, few defensive standouts.

Gunning all year against the vastly better competition out of the Pac-12, Arizona is ready and primed for this western shootout.

Prediction: Arizona

#3 Florida State Seminoles vs #11 Xavier Musketeers (West region)

The Seminoles’ length proved too much for Dunk City, coming away with 9 blocks on the day. It’s a size advantage most teams struggle with. FSU also showcased why they were not kings of the ACC, however, as time was expiring, highlighting their youth and inexperience in a series of mistakes that let the Eagles hang around way longer than they should have.

In the Melo Trimble/Trevon Bluiett showdown, Xavier’s Bluiett took the day. Trimble, often times the only facilitator in Maryland’s offense, seemed to be forcing the action, and it wasn’t always there. He shot 5-15 from the field and just 1-9 from behind the arc. Blueitt was one of four in double figures and went 7-15 from the field and 5-10 from deep.

Xavier can move the ball, but it’s almost a moot point against the tallest team in the country. It’s not simply raw height with FSU, this team is lanky. Driving the lane is like cutting through a thicket of trees, with thousands of outstretched branches catching every bit of you.

Mistakes can plague this team, and it can be as simple as limiting those lapses and FSU could find a deep run at hand.

Prediction: Florida State

#4 Florida Gators vs #5 Virginia Cavaliers (East region)

A lot of people were trending in the direction of the ultra-athletic East Tenn knocking the Gators off. I’m sure a few people rushed to their brackets when video of East Tenn’s practice Thursday morning showcased a dunk fest from the Buccaneers that LeBron James would be proud of.

East Tennessee’s practices are no joke. 💪 #SCtop10

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But where the Buccaneers were flashy in the morning they were sloppy that afternoon, missing close baskets and even a few slam opportunities.

Devin Robinson mounted a fierce offensive output for the Gators, throwing up 24 points including going 2-of-5 from deep, with 7 rebounds. The score was close in the waning minutes, a few full court break opportunities led to easy buckets for the Gators, but even still, the game felt largely put away with five minutes to play.

Virginia’s stout defense is well documented, but a brutal offensive start nearly spelled doom for the Cavs in their opener with UNC Wilmington. A 16-1 run to close the first half might just have been the difference maker. They’d have gotten nowhere without the explosion from London Perrantes (24 pts), who threw the team on his back every time they needed the spark. Marial Shayok (23 pts) was also crucial off the bench.

If Virginia can get that offensive production while tightening things down defensively, things will be ok. The problem is it’s essentially Perrantes and who’s on first…it’s literally somebody different each game. They showed they can kick up the tempo, but they’d ideally like to slow things way down against a deeper Gators roster.

Prediction: Virginia

#4 Purdue Boilermakers vs #5 Iowa State Cyclones (Midwest region)

Purdue got a big monkey off their back when they outlasted an onset of flurries from Vermont, nabbing their first NCAA Tournament win since 2012. The road doesn’t get much easier from there, though.

Iowa State had five players in double figures, and shot 56% from the field. While Monte Morris had a few more turnovers than we’re used to seeing from him, the Cyclones did enough to limit their mistakes. They were hot to end the season, and showed no slowing down.

Caleb Swanigan is a double-double machine, add in Isaac Haas and the Boilermakers pose a big size disadvantage for the Cyclones. Iowa State is most comfortable running a four-guard lineup, and that might not find much success against these looming giants. The Cyclones are comfortable shooting the three but getting one-dimensional is never good.

As long as the Boilermakers’ big don’t get into foul trouble, their length should ultimately win the tug of war. Matt Painter has to stick to his guns, and cannot afford to blow up the plan if these streaky Cyclones start to score in a hurry.

Prediction: Purdue

#4 Butler Bulldogs vs #12 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders  (South region)

Outside of a fierce run from Winthrop in the second, cutting Butler’s lead to seven very briefly, the Bulldogs were wire to wire very comfortable in this game. They owned the glass, outrebounding the Eagles 42-27, and moved the ball with grace. Even earning praise from head coach Chris Holtmann.

“I liked their attention to detail, for the most part. I liked their ability to share the ball, for the most part.” Holtmann said. “I thought we did some good things against a quality team.”

Like death and taxes, a 12 seed will beat a 5. A year after topping Michigan State as a 15 seed, the largely same Blue Raiders returned to thrash a Minnesota squad most felt were over-seeded. They were favored in that matchup, which played into my taking Minnesota to win, not a seed upset, but definitely would have been one. They’re a physical bunch, and owned the glass, outrebounding the Gophers 43 to 26, pulling down 17 offensive boards.

This is certainly shaping up to the be game of the day Saturday, if not the entire Round of 32. Butler looks like a complete roster, they know exactly what goes into hitting that second gear after the initial tournament adrenaline. The Blue Raiders were one and done last year, and while they’ll have learned a bit of how to carry that momentum into game two, still have to prove they can execute that on the court.

Part of me is leaning towards Midd Tenn. I thought the putdown Gophers would find a way to nab a win, which originally spelled a very easy win for Butler here. The beast is fed, and there’s no saying when its hunger will be satisfied. While 12 seeds win with great consistency on day one,  they face a big drop off in round two. No team seeded 12 or higher has cracked the Sweet 16 since 2013. I’ll be quietly rooting the Blue Raiders but sticking to the guns and taking Butler for an eventual matchup with the Tar Heels.

Prediction: Butler

#4 West Virginia Mountaineers vs #5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (West region)

The Ivy League always puts up a challenge in the NCAA Tournament, and Notre Dame had front row seats to that testament in the first game of the day as Princeton pushed them to the brink. The Tigers even had a pair of looks to close the game that nearly buried the Irish.

The nation’s best free throw shooting team, the time at the charity stripe was nearly ND’s undoing, shooting just 14-of-21, well below their season mark of 79.9%.

Bucknell is always a tight tourney bid regardless of when and where. They were not afraid of the West Virginia press one bit, and found cracks to get through with frequent ease. The Mountaineers took a big edge on the glass, specifically the offensive end, where they nabbed 17, and those second chance points relieved some late pressure.

The Irish have cracked the Elite 8 in back-to-back years, and their offensive balance should be enough to overcome even the WVU press. They have to connect on their free throws, though, it’s very much their calling card.

Prediction: Notre Dame

Action picks back up Friday with the second half of round one, and then Notre Dame and West Virginia gets the action going Saturday at 12:10 pm ET.

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I watch more sports than is probably determined healthy and enjoy talking about them all. I am a firm believer in there being a "dropped peanut surcharge" at the ballpark when it's a good throw. Thanks for the read.
Tyler Arnold