Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tuesday Top Ten: NCAA Tournament Edition

The brackets were announced Sunday, and there were a few surprises (Syracuse, Vandy, and Tulsa making it into the field, but Monmouth, San Diego State, St. Mary's, and St. Bonaventure being excluded) and many interesting matchups, beginning with tonight's play-in games between 16-seeds Fairleigh Dickinson and Florida Gulf Coast and 11-seeds Vanderbilt and Wichita State. 

I have already filled out over 25 brackets (not all for money –- calm down, Jester).  Here are a couple initial random thoughts:
  • I was pretty pissed about IU getting a 5-seed, especially since the Selection Committee apparently ranked IU ahead of Purdue and Maryland (also 5-seeds), but nonetheless put IU in the East Region (second weekend games in Philly) and Purdue in the Midwest and Maryland in the South (second weekend games in Chicago and Louisville, respectively).  Then again, the last time IU was a 5-seed, playing against a 12-seed whose mascot name is four letters long, playing in the same region as a 1-seed from the Research Triangle, USC, and a 13-seed whose mascot starts with "Sea," and playing the year after losing to a mid-major in the first round, the Hoosiers went to the national title game.  Anything less than the same result will be a disappointment.
  • As I'm sure you've heard by now, this is the losingest NCAA Tournament bracket ever –- meaning that the combined number of losses of all of the teams in the Big Dance is more than it has ever been.  Only two teams have four or fewer losses (Kansas and Arkansas-Little Rock both have four), which makes it the first time in the history of the tournament that no team in the field has 3 or fewer losses.
  • I think there are about 10 teams that could legitimately win it all and about 20 teams that could legitimately make it to the Final Four, but at the same time, I wouldn't be shocked if all of them lost by the Sweet 16.
  • I think Kansas has the easiest path to the Final Four of any 1-seed, and I think North Carolina has the hardest path of any of the 1-seeds.
  • Unlike many years, most of the top teams are led by upperclassmen, which I think is a refreshing change.
  • There are a few potentially juicy matchups in the Round of 32 for rivalry reasons or otherwise:
    • In the South:  (1) 2-seed Villanova and crosstown rival 10-seed Temple; and (2) former Big 8/Big 12 conference mates 1-seed Kansas and 8-seed Colorado
    • In the West:  3-seed Texas A&M and archrival 6-seed Texas
    • In the East:  (1) 4-seed Kentucky and 5-seed Indiana, who used to play each other every year, until John Calipari got too scared to play the Hoosiers in Bloomington after losing to IU in Assembly Hall in December 2011; and (2) 3-seed West Virginia and 11-seed Michigan, pitting Wolverines' head coach John Beilein against the team he coached from 2002 to 2007.
  • Fuck Kentucky.
Anyway, as I do every year, here are a couple lists of five teams each in a few categories that you should consider when filling out your brackets.  Expect there to be some contradictions, since that's the nature of predicting the NCAA Tournament.  Teams are in alphabetical order.  So you don't think I'm entirely full of shit (or perhaps to prove that I am), I'll put in parentheses what I correctly predicted last year.

Teams with the best shot at winning it all (last year, I had Duke on this list):
1.  Kansas (1-seed South).  The Jayhawks haven't lost a game since a January 25 loss to Iowa State in Ames.  Since then, Kansas has won 14 straight, including wins over tournament teams Baylor (twice), Iowa State, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech, and West Virginia (twice).  They have the experience with senior forward Perry Ellis and junior guard Wayne Selden, Jr., and after exiting the Big Dance early the last two years, it might be time for an "on" year for the Jayhawks.
2.  Michigan State (2-seed Midwest).  This is everyone's sexy pick to win it all, and I don't necessarily disagree.  I think MSU should have gotten a 1-seed, although by putting the Spartans in the Midwest Region (which will be in Chicago), the Selection Committee basically gave the Spartans the equivalent of a 1-seed, assuming Sparty makes it to the second weekend (which should be a safe assumption, but weird things happen in March).  They shoot the 3 as good as anyone in the country (best 3-point % in the country and they average 9.2 made threes a game) and have a core of three senior starters, led by jack-of-all-trades Denzel Valentine.  And they went to the Final Four last year, so they know what it takes to get there.
3.  North Carolina (1-seed East).  The Tar Heels have the talent to win it all, and the experience, with senior guard Marcus Paige and senior forward Brice Johnson.  They won the ACC regular season and conference tournament, and all six of their losses were by 6 points or less and all were to NCAA Tournament teams (aside from their loss to Louisville, which was a top 15 team that is on a self-imposed postseason ban this year).
4.  Oklahoma (2-seed West).  Oklahoma is another team led by upperclassmen.  All-American guard Buddy Hield is a monster (and the second-leading scorer in the country), and the Sooners' top four scorers are upperclassmen.  The Sooners hit 10.4 3s a game (more than any other team in the tournament), and they also have a relatively easy region.  They'll be playing their first two games in Oklahoma City.  Assuming they make it to the Sweet 16, then they will likely either play a Texas team with which they are familiar or Texas A&M, which is a good team from a weak conference.  In the Elite 8, they could play the weakest 1-seed (Oregon), a relatively weak Duke team, or Baylor, who the Sooners have beaten twice already this year.
5.  Virginia (1-seed Midwest).  The Selection Committee did UVa no favors by putting the Cavaliers in the Midwest.  If they make it to the Sweet 16, the games will be played in Chicago.  Their Sweet 16 matchup will likely either be with Iowa State or Purdue, both of which are much closer to Chicago than Virginia.  And, of course, the matchup everyone is anticipating in the Elite Eight is against Michigan State, who has knocked UVa out of the tournament the past two seasons.  The Cavaliers' top four scorers are upperclassmen, led by senior All-American Malcolm Brogdon, and while their defense isn't as good as it's been in years past, they can still slow you down.

Final Four sleepers (teams seeded 4 or higher) (last year, I correctly put Michigan State on this list):
1.  Baylor (5-seed West).  Baylor is a team that has been the victim of its own conference's strength, in a way.  The Bears have lost 11 games this year, and 9 of those were in the Big 12 regular season or conference tournament –- all to teams in the NCAA Tournament.  This is a deep team (9 players have played in all 33 of the Bears' games) and another team with talented upperclassmen.  Senior forward Taurean Prince is one of those guys that can do just about anything, and may be a name that haunts Oregon Ducks fans for years to come if the Bears beat the Ducks in the Sweet 16.
2.  Indiana (5-seed East).  Obviously, I'm a little biased here, since I went to IU and all, but I have also watched just about every game they played this year, so I feel like I know what I'm talking about when it comes to IU basketball.  The Selection Committee screwed the Hoosiers over by giving them a 5-seed, presumably because of two neutral court losses in November to bad teams (Wake Forest and UNLV).  However, since a December 2 loss to Duke at Cameron, the Hoosiers have only lost 4 games (and only one by more than five points) on their way to an outright Big Ten regular season title.  Their defense is vastly improved, they are deep, they have the best offensive efficiency and second-best field goal percentage of any team in the tournament, and there isn't a player on the team who gets regular minutes who isn't a threat from 3-point range (of the players on the team who average 9 minutes a game or more, Troy Williams (32.8%) and Collin Hartman (37.8%) are the only ones who shoot less than 40% from deep).  They spread the floor well, and when the Hoosiers are hitting their shots, they can beat any team in the country.  Senior point guard Yogi Ferrell has ice water in his veins, Troy Williams is an athletic wildcard, and Thomas Bryant is a beast who plays within himself.
3.  Kentucky (4-seed East).  Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray, blah blah blah.  Alex Poythress, blah blah blah.  Marcus Lee, blah blah blah.  That's about all I have the desire to say about Kentucky.
4.  Maryland (5-seed South).  Maryland is a perplexing team.  They have a good combination of young talent (see sophomore guard Melo Trimble and freshman forward Diamond Stone –- who, with that name, has a career in porn ahead of him if this basketball thing doesn't work out) and experience (seniors Jake Layman and Rasheed Sulaimon and junior Robert Carter).  After starting 22-3, the Terps have gone 3-5 over their last eight games, but I'm not going to discount them because I have seen them play well, and they can be really good.  I think they have the size and talent to beat Kansas in the Sweet 16, and then after that, whoever they might face in the Elite Eight.
5.  Wisconsin (7-seed East).  Two months ago, there were questions as to whether Wisconsin would even make the NIT.  They were sitting at 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten.  Since then, they have gone 11-3 and are one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament (even with losses in their last two games).  Other than redshirt freshman Ethan Happ, everyone in the Badgers' starting lineup playing in the national championship game last year and was at least on the bench for the Badgers' Final Four run two years ago, so they know what it takes to win in March.

Teams seeded 4 or lower who may not make it to the second weekend (last year, I correctly put Georgetown and Kansas on this list):
1.  Cal (4-seed South).  The Golden Bears –- who turn over the ball with concerning regularity -- have a tough matchup with Hawaii in the first round and then, in the next round, could face an up-and-down Maryland team that is as talented as any team in the country.  Cal does not have much recent success on the basketball court, having last made a Sweet 16 in 1997 and losing their first game in the tournament four of the eight times they have made it since then.
2.  Iowa State (4-seed Midwest).  If they can get past a tough Iona team in the first round, they would likely face the twin towers of Purdue, AJ Hammons and Isaac Haas, in the second round.  In their six NCAA Tournament appearances since 2000, the Cyclones have advanced to the second weekend only once (2014), and were upset last year in the first round by 14-seed UAB.
3.  Kansas (1-seed South).  Because it's Kansas.  During Bill Self's 13-year tenure as head coach, the Jayhawks have never been seeded worse than a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament, and yet they have failed to make it to the second weekend five times, including the last two years, both as a 2-seed.  Everyone is so high on Kansas right now because they haven't lost a game since late January, but a hot UConn team and Colorado are both capable of pulling an upset in the second round.
4.  North Carolina (1-seed East).  North Carolina is good, but they don't shoot the ball very well from the outside.  Providence has a great back court and could upset the Tar Heels in the second round, and no one on the Tar Heels' current roster has ever made it past the Sweet 16.
5.  Villanova (2-seed South).  A matchup with 7-seed Iowa or 10-seed Temple looms in the second round.  Yes, Iowa has played horribly over the last couple weeks, but they were ranked in the Top 5 earlier this season and are a team that, if they play well, can beat anybody (ask Michigan State and Purdue).  Meanwhile, Temple won the outright AAC regular season title and would like nothing more than to send their crosstown rivals home.  There's also this:  since Villanova went to the Final Four in 2009, the Wildcats have not made it out of the first weekend in their five appearances since then, including as a 2-seed in 2010 and 2014 and a 1-seed last year.

Teams seeded 12 or higher with the best chance of pulling an upset in the first round (last year, I got no one right on this list, although I came very close with a couple):
1.  Hawaii (13-seed South).  Cal just fired an assistant coach today, and frankly, I just don't trust the Pac-12 in the NCAA Tournament.  Hawaii has a talented duo of guards in Roderick Bobbitt and Quincy Smith who can help Cal continue their trend of turning the ball over way too much.  Also, 6-8 Stefan Jankovic is a threat from long range, which can cause matchup problems.
2.  Iona (13-seed Midwest).  Iona can hit the three.  Iowa State can't guard the three and can't rebound well.
3.  South Dakota State (12-seed South).  Like I said up above, Maryland is an up-and-down team.  One night, the Terps are beating Purdue by double digits and they next they're losing to Minnesota (who South Dakota State beat, by the way).  The Jackrabbits shoot the ball well and spread the floor well, which Maryland has had trouble with this season.
4.  Stephen F. Austin (14-seed East).  I think the Lumberjacks are underseeded on the 14 line.  They were the only team that swept its conference games this year, they haven't lost in 2016, and they still have a handfull of guys on the team who were part of their first round upset of VCU two years ago (and who nearly upset Utah last year as a 12-seed).  If Huggy Bear doesn't watch out, his Mountaineers might be heading back to Morgantown before Saturday.

5.  Yale (12-seed West).  The Bulldogs are going to be hungry, since the last time they went dancing, Kennedy was president and The Beatles were still cutting their teeth in Hamburg.  It could be déjà vu all over again for Baylor, who lost in the first round as a 3-seed last year to 14-seed Georgia State, especially given that the game will be in Providence, only about 100 miles from New Haven, right up I-95, as opposed to over 1,800 miles from Waco.

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