The Runner Sports

2017 NCAA Tournament: Round Of 64 – West Region

Selections made, brackets filled out, the First Four did a flyover in Dayton, and it’s the greatest time of the year. March Madness! The 2017 NCAA Tournament is on hand and ready to break brackets and hearts, put Cinderellas on the center dance floor, and crown a champion to a college basketball season that saw six teams claim top of the AP poll and none for more than five weeks.

East | Midwest | South

#1 Gonzaga Bulldogs vs #16 South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Five teams have started a season 29-0, like the Zags did this year, and four have advanced to the Final Four. The metrics really like Gonzaga for a change, as KenPom rates em as the top team currently. They score in bunches, and at least hold lesser foes at bay. The problem, as it is every March, when we roll out unearned praise for this team, is they’re untested against good competition, seeing just one non-conference Top 25 matchup, a win over Arizona in early December. The fact that even BYU found a way to stop them hints that yet again Gonzaga might not meet more than the stat test.

This South Dakota team put up a strong fight against Maryland last year, and have the nation’s second-best scorer in Mike Daum. If there’s a 16 seed that makes a threat this year it’ll be the Jackrabbits.

I don’t think Gonzaga has a long run in them, but they’ll survive this draw.

Prediction: Gonzaga

#2 Arizona Wildcats vs #15 North Dakota Fighting Hawks

The Wildcats have drawn plenty of buzz after winning both the Pac-12 regular season and tournament championships. Since 1992, nine teams have won the national title after winning both the regular season and postseason championships. Arizona is one of 17 in the field with that honor, but one of just three (Villanova, Gonzaga) with realistic title aspirations. The teams out west were throwing fierce offenses around this season, and Wildcats met that status quo and matched it with a respectable defense that held Pac-12 teams to 66.7 PPG.

North Dakota might be regular terrorizes in hockey, but they’re far from a prestigious institution on the hardwood, making their first tournament appearance to date. While North Dakota might not be the most attractive spot to an athletic basketball player, that hasn’t stopped Brian Jones from doing a standup recruiting job. He overtook a team that went 8-23 in his first season at the helm and has turned in four winning seasons since. He’s operating without a single in-state player on the roster.

Allonzo Trier’s emergence in the starting lineup has been a big spark for the Wildcats, and while Sean Miller’s somehow never had a Final Four team, he’s got a pretty good chance at getting that monkey off his back this season.

Predictions: Arizona

#3 Florida State Seminoles vs #14 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles

Dunk City is back! Can they recreate the magic that saw them cruise to the Sweet 16 back in 2013? They’ll have a tough draw on hand, as despite being uber athletic and attacking the rim at a higher rate than even that ’13 squad, they square off with the nation’s tallest roster.

The Seminoles’ average height is 6’7 and while they’re a relatively inexperienced team that has put that on display, are the Eagles’ biggest matchup nightmare, both literally and figuratively. They have scorers in future pro Dwayne Bacon, a shot blocker in Jonathan Isaac (1.5 BPG), and masterful ball handler in Xavier Rathan-Mayes.

This will no doubt be a rowdy crowd for this matchup, as the Orlando venue is about equidistant (200 miles) from both campuses.

Where the 2013 team were underrated shooters, the 2.0 Dunk City doesn’t quite have that stroke to match. I infamously called the ’13 upset:

I’ll never get tired of linking to that.

That said, I just don’t think this Dunk City team has the weapons they did before. Unless FSU makes a few of the mistakes we’ve seen them prone to doing, it’s not looking like magic.

Prediction: Florida State

#4 West Virginia Mountaineers vs #13 Bucknell Bison

The Mountaineers throw a mean full court press in your face that’s just exhausting for 40 minutes. Unless you can break it, and fast, they typically only grind you down the longer the game drags. They might have lost eight games but none by more than 10 points. They’ll hang around all game and continue to earn possessions you’d never imagine they wind up with. They led the nation in steals (353) and opponent’s turnovers (695). Just a frustrating greased brick wall to run into.

The Bison are notoriously a stingy out regardless of where they find themselves. This is a new looking squad under the helm of Nathan Davis, who has a young roster that loves to contest the ball around the rim. They’re high energy and keep a hold of the ball pretty well. Turnovers won’t come easily from this team, but a lack of tournament experience can change that tune real fast.

I like this Bucknell team to get some seasoning on Thursday, reload, own the Patriot league again, and find themselves back here and ready to break brackets next year. The matchup, this time around, just doesn’t favor them enough.

Prediction: West Virginia

#5 Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs #12 Princeton Tigers

As long as they don’t face a team with overwhelming height advantages, the Fighting Irish look like they might make a push to the Elite 8 and beyond. Princeton’s 6’11 Pete Miller poses a decent obstacle for this roster, but shouldn’t require the Irish to deviate too much from the small ball lineup they’ve seen success with. While an impressive offense, Notre Dame suffers mightily in a few areas due to the desired lineup choices. Get the ball down low and pound the rim and you’ll go relatively scot-free against this team. Or better yet, frustrate them to the point of contention and get Bonzie Colson into foul trouble.

The Ivy League has given March Madness five upsets in the last seven years, and the Tigers enter riding a 19-game win streak. Momentum is so crucial at this time of the year. Princeton has four players averaging double-digit scoring all while having the best scoring defense in the conference.

In 28 of the last 32 years, a 12 seed has won at least one first-round game against the five, with the only exceptions being 1988, 2000, 2007, and 2015. These tight matchups presented in this year’s bracket are intriguing but I actually just don’t see one occurring this time around. That’s not to say we’ll see runaways in all of them, but I think the 5s have just enough to stave off and do what 140 other teams couldn’t do and shut them out this year. Not always fun, early upsets are what make for March Madness, and while I’ve ridden plenty of the chalk this year, I think we’ve got some juicier upsets in round two.

Predictions: Notre Dame

#6 Maryland Terrapins vs #11 Xavier Musketeers

Maryland has won 12 straight first-round games but enter March on a bit of a blue streak. They dropped four of their final six, and have seen plenty of inconsistent play from everybody not named Melo Trimble as of late. Just as the Terrapins look to be on a steady rise up, they crumble to a team way below their quality.

Xavier, meanwhile, have some injury blues of their own. The Musketeers haven’t quite looked the same since losing Edmond Sumner to a knee injury, but they’re here nonetheless following a 21-13 season, despite going 1-6 following the injury. The Musketeers still managed to bump off Butler in the Big East tournament, and might have found the winning formula sans Sumner.

This game could boil down to a 1v1 as Maryland might just find Trimble looking to take over, and Xavier could easily let Trevonn Bluiett go tit for tat.

Squad experience may have some impact, the Terrapins start three freshmen while Xavier features three upperclassmen to match their freshman guards.

Prediction: Xavier

#7 St. Mary’s Gaels vs #10 VCU Rams

The Gaels took page two headlines after sitting in Gonzaga’s shadow all season. They’ll have the opportunity to make a name for themselves and show just what the West Coast Conference can bring in March. They haven’t been here since 2013, and have not advanced out of the first round since 2010 where they made a run as a 10 seed to the Sweet 16.

Shaka Smart might be gone, but the Rams haven’t lost the tenacious defense he built the program on. Mo Alie-Cox is a fierce rim protector, swatting 2.1 blocks per contest. Away from the hoop, the Rams forced 256 steals (24th). A10 play has come a long way, and they held foes to 66.9 PPG in conference play, which was on pace for the 66.4 they held foes to on the whole season. Don’t just ask this team to knock down the deep ball, they’re converting just 33.4% as a team, and don’t have any player over the 40% other than De’Riante Jenkins, who average just 1.6 attempts from deep per game. He’s been hobbled with a foot injury, and was limited to just 15 minutes over the final two outings in the A10 tournament.

The Gaels held opponents to just 56.5 PPG this season, but surrendered 70+ in all three losses to Gonzaga, the only ranked opponents faced all year.

Things might look a little different on the surface, but this is still that smothering VCU team that sends coaches to the locker room lost in the blur.

Prediction: VCU

#8 Northwestern Wildcats vs #9 Vanderbilt Commodores

It’s taken 78 years, but Northwestern is finally at the big dance. Long relegated to secondary conclusions to their season, the Wildcats broke from the gates with their sole mission to make it here. The early start was vital, as Big Ten play got wild starting in February. Northwestern went 5-7 from February through the Big Ten tournament, and back-to-back losses to Illinois and Indiana had plenty wondering if they’d get stood up in the 11th hour. A win over Maryland in the Big Ten tournament helped solidify that ticket to the ball.

Vanderbilt reversed a hopeless season and cracked the field with a trio of wins over Top 25 teams in February, as well as the third win of the season over Florida in the SEC tournament. They’re the first 15-loss team to ever make the tournament, and even with their solid streak in February, still lost games to Missouri and Mississippi, no doubt drawing much ire from other bubble teams who got left out. This team doesn’t shy away from teeing their shooters up from deep and letting the law of averages carry them to victory…or defeat. They convert pretty well, and if they get going could spell trouble for a Wildcats squad that had serious troubles scoring the ball.

Prediction: Northwestern

East | Midwest | South

Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the founder and editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I've been an avid sports fan since I was a child and have turned that love into a profession. I will watch, comment, and break down anything I can get my hands on, from football to white water rafting in the Olympics. Your visit means a lot to me, so thank you for your readership.
Tyler Arnold