Villanova enters the NCAA Tournament as the defending National Champion and the No. 1 ranked team in the country. The Wildcats are 31-3 and the Big East regular-season and tournament champions. They were posted by the selection committee as the No. 1 overall seed in the entire tournament.
One catch: the Wildcats No. 1 seed also comes with the most difficult path to a championship of any top seed in the NCAA Tournament .
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Villanova could have to face a Top 10 staple, Wisconsin, in the second round and beat them just to escape the opening weekend. After that, another Top 10 staple, Virginia, could be lying in wait. Win that game and the Wildcats could have to take down Duke, who at that point would be working on a seven-game winning streak. And Villanova needs to do all of that just to get to the Final Four!
Once there, the Wildcats could have to face either Arizona - playing in its backyard with the Final Four held in Phoenix - or 36-1 Gonzaga. After that? Villanova would have to beat some other powerhouse in the National Championship Game.
Needless to say, Villanova isn't going to repeat this year.
The East Region semifinals and finals will take place on Friday, March 24, and Sunday, March 26, in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Here are Doc's Sports March Madness bracket predictions for the East Region:
No. 1 Seed: Villanova Wildcats (+170 to win East Region)
Villanova has been the best basketball program in the country over the past four years. That is not an opinion as much as much as a statement of fact. The Wildcats are 128-16 straight up and an outstanding 87-52 against the spread since the start of the 2013 campaign, with last year's national title to boot. These guys are just winners. This year alone they won the Charleston Classic before Thanksgiving, beat Notre Dame on a neutral site, then won the Big East regular-season and tournament titles. Marquette rallied from 17 points down for a stunning upset in January. And Butler is the only other team in the nation to beat the Wildcats this season. That's it. That's all their losses. Senior Josh Hart is the likely national player of the year, and Mr. Big Shot, Kris Jenkins, can do it all. Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges look like potential pros, and Nova has more size than they get credit for coming off the bench with Eric Paschall and Darryl Reynolds. Villanova can beat any team playing any style of basketball, and they won't go down without a fight.
Villanova Tournament Predictions: I don't think that Villanova is going to survive its region. It is really, really tough to bet against this team. But they have to face a murderer's row of opponents. I couldn't tell you where they will come up short. But if they make the Final Four it might be Jay Wright's second-most impressive feat yet.
No. 2 Seed: Duke Blue Devils (+180 to win East Region)
You don't need me to tell you about Duke since everyone in the country has been singing their praises the past week. The Blue Devils entered the season with one of the most talented rosters in the nation. But things didn't work out. They stumbled around to a 15-5 start that included just one win over a Top 50 team. But when Coach K. returned from his health-induced hiatus in January, things really took off. Duke has gone 12-3 in its last 15 games, with nine of those wins coming against teams in the NCAA Tournament field. The Blue Devils won four games in four days to take the ACC Tournament and now they have their sights set on a Final Four run. Luke Kennard is one of the best offensive players in the nation. Grayson Allen is explosive (emotionally and offensively), Jayson Tatum is a dominating freshman forward, and Amile Jefferson is the veteran leader in the post. Duke does not get good point guard play. And they don't defend the paint well. But they are hot at the right time and have a favorable draw.
Duke Tournament Predictions: There is a lot of hype now that the Blue Devils are a National Championship team. I don't think so and I don't see it. One great week of play still doesn't erase some of the fundamental flaws that were exposed at times in league play. The best news for them, though, is that shaky Baylor is really the only team in this region that can expose their weakness on the interior. Duke has an easier path at the bottom than Villanova does at the top, so I do think they have a golden path to Phoenix.
No. 3 Seed: Baylor Bears (+1000)
It's kind of comical to think that at one point Baylor was No. 1 in the nation. And right now this isn't the same team that started 15-0 with several big home wins. The Bears are just 5-6 SU, and over the last two months they have just two wins - at Oklahoma State and versus West Virginia - against teams in the field. The Bears rely on a powerful frontcourt, led by Johnathan Motley and Jo Lual-Acuil. Their size and length is exacerbated by their 2-3 zone. But Baylor's weakness this year is the same as theirs for the past several: weak guard play. Transfer Manu Lecomte has done a solid job this year. But he has not been 100 percent and he is not a difference maker.
Baylor Tournament Predictions: The Bears have been upset in the first round each of the past two seasons, losing to Yale and Georgia State. I don't see that happening again this year. But their lack of top-end talent on the perimeter will negate their size and skill in the post. Guard play is what wins in March. And Baylor doesn't have enough of it. I will be impressed if they make it out of the opening weekend. And I'll be stunned if they make it any further than that.
No. 4 Seed: Florida Gators (+1000)
John Egbunu's injury in mid-February completely changed the outlook for this team. The junior center was Florida's best big man, rebounder and rim protector. The Gators have had to adjust and play small, but the results have been mixed. Florida has lost three of its last four games and doesn't look like the same team that took Gonzaga, Duke and Florida State to the limit earlier this season. Florida has an outstanding backcourt with Kasey Hill and KeVaughn Allen. Senior transfer Canyon Barry gives them a great option off the bench. But other than Devin Robinson, the rest of the team is mainly scenery and I don't think their top three or four guys will be enough.
Florida Tournament Predictions: If Hill and Allen play as well as they did in November and December I could see this team making a run to the regional finals. But that is the ceiling. The Gators have a brutal pod and tough path out of the opening weekend. They do have the benefit of playing close to home in Orlando, though, and they will need a home-crowd edge to help them survive ETSU and Virginia.
No. 5 Seed: Virginia Cavaliers (+900)
The Cavaliers were 10 minutes and a total collapse away from the Final Four last season. And they started this year 16-3 while working their way into the Top 10. But the Cavs have come back down to earth a bit, going just 6-7 down the stretch. Part of that has been a brutal schedule along with two overtime losses and a two-point loss at Villanova. But Virginia also hasn't looked sharp in the past month. The Cavs play slow and win with their stifling defense. So they don't score much. But their offense has been pathetic for sustained stretches. The lion's share of the work has fallen on London Perrantes, the lone senior on the roster. But some of the bit players need to find a way to raise their play around him. If they do, Virginia is more than capable of busting this bracket wide open.
Virginia Tournament Predictions: Virginia is a dangerous team in this quadrant. They can beat any of the top seeds. But because they play a lot of low-scoring games, and without the NBA talent they've had in recent years, they are also susceptible to upsets. Virginia is 6-3 the past three tournaments, and I can see them adding at least a couple of wins to that mark this year.
No. 6 Seed: SMU Mustangs (+500)
SMU was the most underseeded team in the entire tournament. The Mustangs, which had to replace four top players from the team that was banned from last year's tournament, got off to a 4-3 start. But they took off from there and are an outstanding 26-1 over their last 27 games, with the lone loss coming by two points at Cincinnati. How ridiculously good has this team been? Try a 19-4 ATS run and total domination throughout the admittedly weak AAC. Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye is a beast and point guard Shake Milton is superb. SMU's weakness, though, is that they have zero depth. As in none. They play only six guys. So after a run of three games in three days last week, you have to wonder what they have left in the tank. Also, their lack of wins against top-tier opponents has to make us wonder what their real potential is.
SMU Tournament Predictions: SMU will have a tough first-round matchup against either red-hot Providence or USC, a team the Mustangs lost to on the road back in November. After that SMU would likely take a shot at in-state rival Baylor, a game that you know means a lot to this group. SMU should've been seeded higher. They weren't. And the result will likely be a shorter-than-it-should've-been trip to The Big Dance.
Best first-round match up: No. 6 SMU ( -3.5 ) vs. No. 11 Providence OR USC
This should be a high-level game. SMU can use the extra day off they will get to rest their core players. But they will be at a disadvantage because they will be running up against a team that has already gotten a tournament win under its belt. A rematch with USC would be nice because the Trojans are bursting with young talent. The Trojans also didn't have their best player, Bennie Boatwright, in that first meeting. But Providence, which plays a similarly deliberate pace and style as the Mustangs, might be a better matchup for SMU. Regardless, I expect this to be a four-point game one way or another that goes down to the wire.
Best potential second-round match up: No. 4 Florida vs. No. 5 Virginia
A month and a half ago this matchup could've been a realistic regional final. Instead these two will slug it out for a chance to take a shot at Villanova in the Sweet 16. Virginia is going to do what it does, which is slow the game to a crawl and make Florida work for every bucket. But I don't think Virginia's physical defense is going to bother the Gators, who face their share of rugged opponents in the SEC. This team scored 88 points against Kentucky and 81 against South Carolina, two excellent defenses in their own right. The Gators have a lot of guys capable of making tough shots. And the Perrantes vs. Hill point guard matchup would be outstanding to watch as the two seniors try to stave off the end of their careers.
Upset Alert (first round): No. 3 Baylor (-12) vs. No. 14 New Mexico State
I think that there are some more likely upsets in the first round. East Tennessee could be a bear for Florida to handle. And UNC-Wilmington is the same group of guys that nearly took out Duke in the first round of last year's tournament. But the fact is that until Baylor gets back over that hump and wins its first round game they have to be on upset alert. In my opinion, better Baylor teams lost to Georgia State and Yale each of the last two seasons. And the Bears really have had issues closing out games. NMSU has played in the tournament four of the last five years. They haven't pulled an upset in the first round yet. But you have to think that it is just a matter of time.
Upset Alert (second round): No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 8 Wisconsin
Two months ago this could've been billed as a potential Final Four matchup. Now it is just a game between two teams trying to survive opening weekend. The Badgers were terrible through most of February, losing five of their last seven league games and playing horrible on offense. They showed signs of getting things together in the Big Ten Tournament, though, and nearly won the league title. Wisconsin has four senior starters that have played in a hell of a lot of big games. And I think that they will relish playing the underdog role against a Wildcats team that they match up pretty well with. Villanova has better athletes and has proven that they can beat anyone. But Wisconsin also plays a bit like the Butler team that took down Villanova twice this year.
Dark Horse team: No. 8 Wisconsin
It has to be the Badgers. This team has looked off for the past month. Their chemistry just hasn't looked right, and they are really limited offensively. But Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have played in two Final Fours, and both started on the team that played for a national title two years ago. All five starters are back from the team that went to the Sweet 16 last season. No, the Badgers haven't beaten a top-tier team this year and their best wins may have come against Minnesota. But do you doubt that these guys have one big March moment in them?
Team That Makes Me Nervous: No. 5 Virginia
Wisconsin. Baylor. Virginia. SMU. Every one of those teams has shown Final Four potential. Yet all of them also have some glaring red flags that suggest that they might not stick around long in this tournament. I'll go with Virginia, though, because as the No. 5 seed they have a realistic opportunity to take down three teams seeded higher than them and make it to the Final Four. Or they could allow UNC-Wilmington to hang around a little too long and getsent home in the first round. I feel like it is all or nothing with this group. And how they go will likely determine how this bracket plays out.
2017 East Region Predictions: Despite being the lower-seeded team, Duke definitely has a clearer path to winning this region. Limited SMU and Baylor teams might put up a fight in the Sweet 16. But that still beats what Villanova would have to take care of en route to the regional finals. I also think that Duke is a team that is improving - remember, they haven't been healthy at all this season so these guys are still learning to play together - and that every win that they get under their belt gives them more confidence, more momentum, and makes them tougher to take out. I think the Blue Devils take advantage of their draw and make it out of this region.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writer's Association of America and a professional sports handicapper for Doc's Sports. He is considered one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country and he is on an unbelievable run right now, nearly doubling his clients' bankrolls in the last four weeks while earning $9,200 in profit! Robert has banked 10 straight winning college basketball regular seasons and he will have his 8-Unit NCAA Tournament Game of the Year available this week. There is no better moneymaker in the nation and Robert is looking forward to another amazing March Madness. Click here to get two days of college basketball picks for free - no hassle and no credit card needed.
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