NCAA Tournament 2017 bracket: Ranking the four regions from strongest to weakest

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We’ve had plenty of time to look — and overthink — the bracket. Each year, it’s fun to gaze across the landscape and see which of the four regions is toughest. 

I’m not just looking at the teams at the top. I’m going through every seed line and examining which region has the strongest contingent. We often default-rank regions based on the 1, 2, 3 and 4. But that’s only 25 percent of a region. Let’s look at everything. 

To me, this year, it’s an easy for which quadrant is hardest. 

Let’s get right to it, from the toughest to easiest:

1. SOUTH

While there isn’t an all-time-stacked region, this year’s South is certainly among the strongest we’ve seen in the tournament in the last four or five years. It’s the only region with four top-10 KenPom teams: UNC, Kentucky, UCLA, Wichita State. 

North Carolina, to some, wasn’t deserving of a No. 1 seed. Still, it’s the No. 2 odds-on favorite to win it all. Kentucky is third. UCLA is eighth. The top is clearly the toughest. Butler, a 4 seed, beat No. 1 overall Villanova twice this season. Then you’ve got Cincinnati, which is freaking 29-5 and the best Bearcats team in 15 years, as a 6 seed. Dayton as a 7 is no joke, but Wichita State at No. 10 is. The Shockers, at worst, should have been an 8 — but probably closer to a 6. Going down the bracket, if Wake Forest beats K-State to face Cincinnati, the Demon Deacons are this year’s candidate to go from First Four to the second weekend, something that’s happened often in the 68-team era. 

Beyond that, Middle Tennessee is a 10 seed in 12 seed’s clothing. Texas Southern is the strongest 16 of the group. Roy Williams, John Calipari, Hall of Famers, are in this region. The Big Ten coach of the year, Richard Pitino, is in this region, as is Big East Coach of the Year Chris Holtmann. The South has the rockiest road.

2. EAST

The East is just barely behind the South. And in most years, it’s the East that is toughest. This region has more top-20 KenPom teams than any other (Villanova, Virginia, Florida, SMU, Duke, Baylor).

OK, so we’ve got uber-talented Duke, the favorite to win the whole thing, as a 2. Villanova, the reigning champ, is the No. 1 overall seed. Wisconsin, which is never an easy out in March and is badly mis-seeded, is No. 8. If Virginia is a 5-seed, you know it’s a strong region. The Cavaliers are playing against the mid-major program that I had multiple coaches last week tell me they did not want to face: UNC Wilmington. 

No. 13 East Tennessee State was the team coaches mentioned right behind Wilmington. And they’re both in this region. Baylor, seeded third, has beaten these NCAA Tournament teams: Oregon, Florida Gulf Coast, VCU, Michigan State, Louisville, Xavier, Texas Southern, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and West Virginia. 

Yeah, I think everybody’s sleeping on Baylor’s Final Four chances, in reasonable part because of the 1 and the 2 in play here. Elsewhere: Marquette, a 10, is the best 3-point shooting team in college basketball. The East also has SMU, which is 30-4, as a 6 seed. Egregious. Tough team. USC is certainly talented, and poses a threat if it can get past Providence in the First Four. Interesting 11 seed.

Very fun region. 

3. WEST

Four top-20 KenPom teams (Gonzaga, West Virginia, Saint Mary’s, Arizona). In most years, the West is a firm fourth, but I think this is the third-toughest region overall, and here’s why. 

  1. Gonzaga, definitively, rates as the best team in college basketball. It’s in this region. 
  2. Notre Dame almost won the ACC tournament, and had it done that, would’ve had a real claim to a 3 seed. Instead, it’s on the 5 line. The strongest 5 in the field. Fighting Irish have made back-to-back Elite Eights. 
  3. West Virginia ranks fifth at KenPom. This is the best team Bob Huggins has had in Morgantown, which is ironic, because the team is void of stars. But it’s just a nightmare on defense.
  4. Florida State is seeded third, perhaps a line too high, but has almost as much NBA talent and physicality on its roster as any team in the field. 
  5. Florida Gulf Coast, which will face Florida State, is the strongest 14 in the tournament.
  6. Saint Mary’s is a 7 seed. The Gaels are capable of getting to the Elite Eight. Would not shock me if they did. 
  7. Great coaching here, young and old. Here are names you’ll recognize that are in this region: Mark Few, Sean Miller, Chris Collins, Bryce Drew, Chris Mack, Mike Brey, Bob Huggins, Mark Turgeon, Leonard Hamilton, Will Wade, Randy Bennett.

You factor in Gonzaga’s ability, Arizona’s talent, Florida State’s talent, all the coaching, and this is as strong as West as we’ve seen in almost 10 years.

4. MIDWEST

I think the selection committee got the correct 68 teams into the field. With that, we have a strong field. If the Midwest is the weakest, then that’s impressive. There are five KenPom top-20 teams here: Kansas, Louisville, Purdue, Oregon, Iowa State. Purdue won the Big Ten regular-season title, while Michigan won the tourney title -- and the Wolverines are in this bracket as the 7-seed. Also involved: Oregon. Finished atop the Pac-12 standings. As did Kansas in the Big 12, and speaking of the Big 12, Iowa State won that league tournament.

Yep: Cyclones are seeded fifth. 

Then we see Frank Mason of Kansas and Caleb Swanigan of Purdue. Two leading candidates for National Player of the Year. Other studs in this corner of the bracket: Josh Jackson, Miles Bridges, Monte Morris, Cameron Oliver, Marcus Foster, Dillon Brooks, Jawun Evans, Donovan Mitchell among others. This will be an entertaining region. Rick Pitino and Tom Izzo are the Hall of Fame coaches, and Bill Self could be inducted into the Hall later this year. He’s a finalist for the honor. 

With lower seeds, here’s what I see: A No. 13 Vermont team that has the longest winning streak in college basketball, an 11-seeded Rhode Island team that was the preseason A-10 pick for league champ and has the most talent of anyone in that conference, an Iona team ranked 14th but with a quick-witted coach in Tim Cluess, a 12-seeded Nevada team that has the coaching and talent to be this year’s double-digit Sweet 16 party-crasher. 

Oh, and I’ve got Oklahoma State making the Sweet 16 as a 10-seed. 

Every region has strengths and drawing power. There’s good reason to watch. The tournament field is interesting every year, but it’s been a while since it felt this balanced across the board.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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