03/05/2012 09:14 PM
Kentucky - The unquestioned favorite in this year’s dance. But if everybody is going to tab them as champ in their bracket, does it make more sense to be a contrarian?
Syracuse - The Orange didn’t look great against Louisville on Saturday and that zone allows too many offensive boards. But just one loss in Big East play? Not quite Kentucky in terms of dominance, but certainly the next best thing.
North Carolina - All year long, I’ve thought the Tar Heels had the talent to cut down the nets in March. It was the toughness I questioned after Florida State. The Duke thrashing on Saturday answered that. If you wanted to go against the Kentucky grain, this wouldn’t be a bad team to pin your hopes on.
Kansas - I don’t know why I’ve downgraded the Jayhawks all year. Maybe it’s the inconsistency of Tyshawn Taylor. Maybe it’s Bill Self’s penchant for underachievement in the dance. But I can’t argue with the efficiency numbers—eighth best on offensive, fourth best on defense and fourth overall. Only Kentucky and Kansas are top ten for both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Ohio State - The Buckeyes got their mojo back on Sunday with a stunning victory over Michigan State in Lansing. That win marked the first time OSU had won back-to-back games since February 7. Is it enough to pull Ohio State out of their funk? I’m thinking yes. Heck, it wasn’t so long ago that everyone considered the Buckeyes a lock for a top seed.
Missouri - The Tigers are among the top ten most efficient squads in the land—with the number-one offense. What they lack in size and rebounding, they make up for in generating turnovers and great shooting. Yes, Mizzou has a thin rotation…and yes, they’re vulnerable to a frontcourt-oriented team. But the right draw could see this team in the Final Four.
Marquette - The Golden Eagles earned their place as a Challenger with a big win over Georgetown on Saturday. Aside from Syracuse, this is the Big East’s best squad. Yes, they’re undersized, but Marquette makes up for that with scrappiness. And when Johnson-Odom and Crowder are both playing well, this team is a tough out.
Michigan State - A tough end to the regular season shouldn’t take away from the fact that the Spartans are much improved since January. Everyone knows about Draymond Green, but the real difference has been the contributions of big men Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix. Dawson and Wood have picked up their games too. Given Izzo’s penchant for tourney magic, how can you not like the Spartans?
Duke - For many, the Tar Heel pounding will likely overshadow Duke’s strong stretch run. As tough as that loss was, it doesn’t change the fact that this is one of the country’s best offensive teams. The Blue Devils have had their share of disappointing runs from high seeds. Maybe it’s time for an overachieving run when one expects it.
Indiana - Based on statistics, the Hoosiers are a top ten team. They’ve also been on a nice run, beating Michigan State and stopping resurgent Purdue on Sunday. Only three teams in the nation are more efficient than Indiana on offense. If they can knuckle down on defense and continuing getting balance contributions, the Hoosiers could make the Elite Eight.
Georgetown - Before their loss to Marquette on Saturday, many had the Hoyas as a solid Challenger for the NCAA crown, But Georgetown has won just six of its last ten. And while the Hoyas are a top-ten defensive squad, they do struggle to score—not a good flaw for a deep tourney run. That’s why I’m dropping them down to the Contender level.
Florida State - Same old story for the Seminoles: tough defense, struggling offense. They managed to scrounge out enough points last year for an overachieving run. On that basis, I’ll keep them as contenders.
Virginia - Am I writing the Florida State summary all over again? The two teams have nearly identical offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. The Cavaliers’ Mike Scott is a consistent force underneath. I’m guessing that between Virginia and FSU, one of these teams reaches the Sweet 16.
Wisconsin - After three straight losses in early January, I wrote off the Badgers. Since then, they’re 11-3, losing to OSU, MSU and Iowa on the road. Possession-based numbers love Wisconsin—like they do every year. The slow-down offense scares me off tabbing the Badgers as Challengers, but I raised them out of the Pretender doghouse.
Michigan - Michigan is one of those “could beat anyone/could lose to anyone” teams. Their unorthodox style can give teams fits—except when they’re not hitting threes. The good news is that Hardaway and Smotrycz have found their shots of late. The bad news is that Blue’s only big man, Jordan Morgan, is struggling with a sore shoulder.
Vanderbilt - I keep putting my faith in the Commodores…and they keep letting me down. Early in the year, I had Vanderbilt as a Scrambler. Mid-year, they were a Sleeper. I’m tempted to drop them into the ranks of Pretenders after their disappointing loss at Tennessee, but I’m going to stick with Taylor, Jenkins and Ezeli. And I’ll ignore the fact that Stallings is a regular underachiever in the dance.
New Mexico - After two road losses to Colorado State and TCU, the Lobos have slipped from the national conversation. And Steve Alford’s record of underperformance in the tourney doesn’t inspire much confidence. But this team’s efficiency numbers are eerily similar to Georgetown’s. Unless they crater in the Mountain West tourney, the Lobos could be dangerous.
Kansas State - The Wildcats were nowhere to be found on the early- and mid-season reports. And even though they’ve won six of their last ten games, Martin’s bunch has shown more promise, with back-to-back road wins against Baylor and Missouri. A stingy defense and strong offensive rebounding make KSU a darkhorse team to watch.
Purdue - Everybody wrote off Purdue and Robbie Hummel when they were struggling through January. But the Boilermakers have been playing well down the stretch, getting great contributions from Johnson, Smith, Jackson and Byrd. A top-ten offense clicking on all cylinders makes this a squad no one wants to face.
Memphis - Stats say this is the 11th best team in the land. I don’t know about that, but the Tigers have been a lot better since their early-season struggles. Since losing to Georgetown just before Christmas, Memphis is 17-3. Sure, they haven’t really beaten anyone in Conference USA. But the Tigers have a lot of weapons…and the efficiency numbers are too good to ignore.
Texas - The Longhorns have had several chances to cement their bid to the dance—and failed each time. If Texas loses or only wins one game in the Big 12 tourney, they’ll be nervous on Selection Sunday. If they sneak into the dance, the Longhorns have a hot shooter in J’Covan Brown and could surprise some people.
West Virginia - The Mountaineers got a big win at South Florida, dealing a blow to the Bulls’ tourney chances. But that didn’t settle things for West Virginia. Huggins’ crew is just 4-7 in their last 11 games and might need two wins in the Big East tourney to get off the bubble.
Connecticut - The Huskies got a big shot in the arm with the return of Calhoun and a win over Pitt. But this team is still just 4-9 down the stretch. UConn fans won’t be breathing easy unless the Huskies win two games in the Big East tourney.
Brigham Young - How many West Coast teams will the tourney take? That’s the question for the Cougars, who didn’t help themselves by losing to Gonzaga in the conference semifinals. BYU better hope the small conference tourneys go to form; otherwise they could get a bid stolen from them.
Cincinnati - With recent wins over Louisville and Marquette, the Bearcats sure look like a tourney team. But their strength of schedule is alarmingly weak (and they suffered losses to Presbyterian and Marshall). If I were a Cinci fan, I wouldn’t breathe easy until the Bearcats win at least one game in the Big East tourney.
Baylor - In early progress reports, Baylor was tabbed as a Challenger. But the Bears have had three chances to prove they deserve that mantle in the last month—and failed each one of them, first to Kansas, then Missouri and most recently at home against Kansas State. On paper, Baylor looks like a top team; on the court it’s a different story.
Florida - The Gators will draw some interest from bracketeers because of their ability to score. But Donovan’s gang has lost three straight and is ranked a measly 100 in defensive efficiency. I like the firepower, but if you can’t get a stop when you need it, you aren’t long for this tourney world.
Notre Dame - You can’t help but admire the way the Irish have overcome adversity this year, but after nine straight Big East wins, they’re coming back down to earth. A loss to St. John’s, a blowout at the hands of Georgetown and a close home win over Providence don’t inspire confidence for the dance. Neither do Mike Brey’s underperforming ways.
Louisville -The Cardinals have dropped four of their last six games, scoring over 60 points only once over that span—in overtime to lowly DePaul. That’s the trouble with Louisville. They’re just the 130th most efficient offensive team in the land—and one of the worst three shooters. Defensive will only get you so far in the dance.
Murray State - Contender, Pretender or Sleeper? Where do the Racers belong? They’ve got a legit go-to guy in Isaiah Canaan and they’re one of only three one-loss teams in D-1. But Murray State has played a powderpuff schedule. My guess is that they’ll bag a five or six seed and struggle to get out of the first round.
BEST OF THE REST
Temple - Temple has been flying under the all year, largely because of the weakness of the A-10 conference. But the Owls have won 13 of their last 14. And they have wins against Wichita State, Duke and St. Louis. Come to think of it, maybe I’m still selling Temple short.
St. Mary's - The Gaels’ recent performance looks pretty sketchy. But their recent losing spate came when guard Matthew Dellavedova was hurting. Just like Gonzaga, the Mountain West tourney will tell us a lot about St. Mary’s. Whether they win are lose, the Gaels have a lot of the pieces you see in a Cinderella.
Gonzaga - With a convincing win over BYU in the West Coast tourney, the Zags look to be peaking at the right time. Of course, Monday’s conference championship game will tell just how hot these Zags are. If Gonzaga loses, I might be tempted to make them a Sleeper over St. Mary’s. Either way, both West Coast teams will be tourney trouble for someone.
Wichita State - If you believe in efficiency ratings, the Shockers are one of the top ten teams in the country. But they lost the MVC tourney to 87th best Illinois State. That scares me. This will be a tough pick for people. The Shockers will get a top-five seed and a favorable first round match-up…but can they make something happen?
UNLV - I’ve had UNLV as a Sleeper and a Pretender. The Running Rebels are beginning to settle into their natural expectations, having split their last eight games. Moser and Stanback are a solid one-two punch, but the Mountain West isn’t exactly a Cinderella conference. I’m relegating UNLV to the Best of the Rest because less is expected of them now…and they’ll probably validate that sentiment.
Iowa State - The Cyclones keep surprising. With wins over Kansas, Kansas State (twice) and Baylor on Saturday, Iowa State deserves some attention. Chances are they’ll get a middling 8-10 seed. For their sake, it would be better to drop to a ten.
St. Louis - Here’s another under-the-radar Mid-Major that possession-based numbers love. Like all Majerus-led teams, the Bilikens play tough defense. Sure, they haven’t really beaten anyone, much like Temple, but they have won 11 of 13 games. Before I make up my mind about this team, I want to know two things: how’s coach Majerus’ health…and how will St. Louis fair in the A-10 conference.
Alabama - After a tough loss to Mississippi on Saturday, the Crimson Tide is sweating a little more about their tourney chances. A quick out in the SEC conference might push them onto the bubble. If they get in the dance, their defense might help them to an upset. The offense sure won’t; Alabama is ranked 109th in offensive efficiency.
Creighton - I had labeled the Jays a Pretender. The fact that they’re now a “Best of the Rest” is a measure of how three straight early February losses changed expectations for this squad. Creighton still has one of the most efficient offenses in the land and a top scorer in McDermott. But I don’t think that adds up to a Sweet 16 run.
California - Are any of the Pac-10 teams worth a second look? I’ve watched about ten conference games and came away thinking the whole league plays sloppy ball. But of the prime candidates for a tourney bid (including Washington and Arizona), I’m going to give the Bears the best odds to do some damage in the dance.