NCAA tourney bracket projections

Before filling out your Tournament Challenge bracket, take some time and do your homework. For the 12th consecutive year, ESPN's Joe Lunardi has assigned a team of analysts to put together Insider's Tournament Guide, offering in-depth roster, system and statistical breakdowns for all 68 tournament teams to help you make smart picks.

EAST

1 Villanova vs. Mount St. Mary's/New Orleans

2 Duke vs. 15 Troy

3 Baylor vs. 14 New Mexico State (FREE)

4 Florida vs. 13 East Tennessee State

5 Virginia vs. 12 UNC Wilmington

6 SMU vs. 11 Providence/USC

7 South Carolina vs. 10 Marquette

8 Wisconsin vs. 9 Virginia Tech

MIDWEST

1 Kansas vs. 16 North Carolina Central/UC Davis

2 Louisville vs. 15 Jacksonville State

3 Oregon vs. 14 Iona

4 Purdue vs. 13 Vermont

5 Iowa State vs. 12 Nevada

6 Creighton vs. 11 Rhode Island

7 Michigan vs. 10 Oklahoma State

8 Miami vs. 9 Michigan State

SOUTH

1 North Carolina vs. 16 Texas Southern

2 Kentucky vs. 15 Northern Kentucky

3 UCLA vs. 14 Kent State

4 Butler vs. 13 Winthrop

5 Minnesota vs. 12 Middle Tennessee

6 Cincinnati vs. 11 Kansas State/Wake Forest

7 Dayton vs. 10 Wichita State

8 Arkansas vs. 9 Seton Hall

WEST

1 Gonzaga vs. 16 South Dakota State

2 Arizona vs. 15 North Dakota

3 Florida State vs. 14 Florida Gulf Coast

4 West Virginia vs. 13 Bucknell

5 Notre Dame vs. 12 Princeton

6 Maryland vs. 11 Xavier

7 Saint Mary's vs. 10 VCU

8 Northwestern vs. 9 Vanderbilt

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports


NCAA BRACKETS 2017: 10 DO'S AND DON'TS FOR MAKING YOUR PICKS

It took years to earn the nickname Bracket Whisperer. By following these guidelines for the NCAA tournament, you too can work toward that honor and title during March Madness every year.

These next three weeks could be especially nutty relative to years past. There isn't much of a difference between the No. 1 and 3 seeds or the No. 5 and 12 seeds.

The star power in this field is off the charts as well, from the NBA lottery-bound freshmen—UCLA's Lonzo Ball, Kentucky's Malik Monk, Duke's Jayson Tatum—to the breakout players like Kansas' Frank Mason III, SMU's Semi Ojeleye and Duke's Luke Kennard.

Before scribbling in your winner and baselessly picking your upsets, it's important to know the stats and trends. They're your friend. They'll tell you what to look for and what to avoid.

This tournament will be chaos. Be the one in your pool who sees it coming.

Do: Check the Point Spreads for Opening-Round Games

Don't bet on individual sporting events—you'll lose over the long run, unless you find my old college roommate's picks and just keep taking the opposite. But for the NCAA tournament, use Las Vegas' odds during the round of 64. They're typically created by brilliant nerds paid to analyze stats, patterns and formulas. And for no charge, these nerds are willing to tell us who they think will win each opening-round game, and by how much.

In some cases, you'll notice Vegas setting shady lines favoring weaker seeds over stronger ones. Those should jump out as immediate red flags.

In 2016, three No. 9 seeds—Connecticut, Providence and Butler—were favorites against No. 8 seeds. And all three won.

Some lines show small point spreads between low and high seeds. Last year, Texas, a No. 6 seed from a power conference, was only favored by 3.5 points over No. 11 seed Northern Iowa, which wound up winning.

Wichita State, a No. 11 seed, knocked off No. 6 seed Arizona. Vegas pegged that game as a pick 'em (spread of zero), despite the difference in seedings.

Don't waste time or money betting against the spread, but if the Vegas nerds set a fishy line, it's for a reason that the eye test can't detect.

Don't: Be Afraid to Pick Villanova Going Back-to-Back

It actually does happen—Duke won consecutive titles in the '90s. Florida did it in the 2000s with roughly the same group.

Somebody is due to go back-to-back this decade with time running out. And Villanova has as strong of a case as any champion, particularly in 2017, given all the parity and lack of a clear-cut front-runner.

The Wildcats also had a number of key players return from last year's run, including Josh Hart, a National Player of the Year candidate, and Jalen Brunson, whose emergence has made the loss of Ryan Arcidiacono seem insignificant.

Throw in wing defender Mikal Bridges and last year's hero Kris Jenkins, and this group enters the tournament with appealing talent, versatility and experience.

Comforting team stats that jump off the scouting report: Opponents shoot just 31.3 percent from three against Villanova, and the Wildcats rank No. 2 in the country in free-throw percentage and offensive efficiency.

Do: Look at Early Conference Tournament Results—Just Not the Finals

Conference tournament results have something to say.

No NCAA tournament champion since 1992 was knocked out of its conference tournament before the semis. That suddenly makes Kansas and Louisville less attractive.

In that span, only six NCAA tournament champions failed to make the finals of their conference tournament.

However, four of the last five NCAA champions entered the Big Dance coming off a loss. Over the last 23 years, 12 champions won their conference tournament and 11 did not.

When picking your winner, make sure your squad advanced far enough in its conference tournament. But don't put any stock into whether it ran the table prior to Selection Sunday.

Don't: Pick an Uptempo Team to Win It All

Fast-paced teams that can run opponents out of the gym are naturally fun to root for. But in the last 10 years, North Carolina (in 2009) has been the only school to win a title and finish in the top 100 in tempo.

The Villanova Wildcats, last year's champs, ranked outside the top 250. Since 2007, nine of the 10 winners averaged fewer than 70 possessions per 40 minutes with adjusted tempo.

It's not a trend that unveils the winner, but it could help you eliminate a few teams that will look enticing for having a high-powered offense. I'd think twice before taking UCLA, Kentucky and Florida State to win it all. They each rank in the top 52 in tempo.

Do: Buy into Gonzaga

Gonzaga should suit up in different jerseys for the NCAA tournament. This isn't a traditional Bulldogs roster or typical squad from the West Coast Conference.

Two Pac-12 transfers make up the backcourt.

When you close your eyes and picture the lead playmaker you want running the offense for your Final Four pick, he'll probably look something like Nigel Williams-Goss. He's the real deal. The former Washington guard and McDonald's All-American brings firepower (16.9 PTS, 4.8 AST), toughness and efficiency, shooting 52.1 percent with a terrific 13.6 turnover percentage.

California transfer Jordan Mathews gives the lineup a credible shot-maker off the ball. He's on pace to hit at least two threes per game and shoot over 39 percent from downtown for the third straight season.

And guard play may not even be Gonzaga's greatest strength.

This group has unmatchable size. Przemek Karnowski, the Bulldogs' 7'1", 300-pound center, is healthy and producing. The Zags are also one of the few teams with a potential lottery pick to bring off the bench. A more mobile 7-footer, Zach Collins has emerged as a secret weapon at both ends, given his 23.8 points and 3.6 blocks per 40 minutes.

As a team, the Bulldogs are averaging 84.6 points per game, their most in 25 years. The 61.2 points per game they give up are the second-fewest in that span. KenPom.com ranks Gonzaga No. 2 in defensive efficiency.

The lone loss the team suffered on February 25 to BYU should only take some pressure off.

I never buy into Gonzaga as a Final Four contender. I do in 2017.

Don't: Buy into Kentucky


Kentucky is fast, athletic and exciting. Don't let all the flash suck you in this year. With the way this team is built, the Wildcats will be vulnerable in a do-or-die setting.

They rely heavily on freshman Malik Monk, who leans a ton on jumpers. What happens if he has an off game?

Kentucky has been able to get by weaker teams on those nights when Monk goes cold. But he struggled during the team's last four losses (combined 27.5 percent from three), and the rest of the lineup couldn't back him up with enough offense.

Of the seven players on Kentucky who average at least 15 minutes per game, five shoot below 35 percent from three, including four who are barely threats below 30 percent.

Kentucky needed 47 points from Monk to beat North Carolina by three December 17. It took 37 points for the Wildcats to outlast Georgia in overtime January 31. He just had to hang a whopping 30 points in the second half to knock off Florida on February 25.

Monk is terrific; he's an explosive athlete and microwave scorer. But based on his style of play and shot selection, he's also vulnerable. So is Kentucky without enough shooters or upperclassmen to fall back on.

Do: Buy the ACC

Buy the nine Atlantic Coast Conference programs that made the NCAA tournament.

Six of last year's Sweet 16 teams came from the ACC. Four made the elite eight. There has been some turnover, but for the most part, each team had key players return and others who've broken out in 2016-17.

That includes Notre Dame's Bonzie Colson, Wake Forest's John Collins, Duke's Luke Kennard, North Carolina's Justin Jackson and Louisville's Donovan Mitchell.

Even if some of their records are underwhelming, lower-ranked teams like Wake Forest and Miami still have high-profile talent capable of taking out top seeds.

The strong in-conference competition has only helped prepare the ACC squads.

Don't: Pick a Team to Win Whose Top Option Is a Freshman

Feel free to pick a winner with multiple freshmen in the rotation. Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones played key roles in Duke's 2015 run. But don't discount senior Quinn Cook that year. He took more shots per game than anyone in that lineup.

The last time a school won the national championship and a freshman led it in field-goals attempted: 2003, when Carmelo Anthony carried Syracuse, averaging 22.2 points on 17.5 shots a night.

That trend casts a darker cloud over Kentucky and UCLA.

Youth is fine, but pick a champion led by veterans who are supported by the teenagers—not the other way around.

Do: Pick a No. 14 Seed to Win a Game

Make that four years in a row a No. 14 seed has advanced. It's happened six times since 2010.

And with more parity than ever, we're bound to see another No. 3 seed go down early.

But temper expectations, as none of those No. 14 seeds were able to win a second game.

Given the parity this year, I wouldn't blame you for feeling ambitious and writing a No. 14 into the Sweet 16. After knocking off West Virginia in the round of 64 last March, Stephen F. Austin would go on to lose by only one to Notre Dame in the round of 32.

Either way, definitely take one No. 14 seed to get past its first opponent.

Don't: Be a Hero

Heroes wear capes, and capes are weird. Don't be a hero. Don't hunt for upsets. They happen, and you'll have to wisely pick and choose which ones to call. You just can't go all out.

Only 10 double-digit seeds have reached the Elite Eight since 1988. It's also never happened in consecutive years, and Syracuse did it in 2016.

Select a handful of teams seeded 10-15 to win a game or two, but stop there. It sounds cool to be the guy who can brag about knowing what others didn't, but it's also cool to win. Don't waste your bracket on a few out-of-the-box teams you probably haven't seen play.

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