Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tuesday Top Ten: NCAA Tournament Edition

The brackets were announced Sunday, and we are all set for what looks like a wide-open and exciting NCAA Tournament.  I have already filled out well over 30 brackets (not all for money –- calm down, Jester), and I'm not sure I have confidence in any of them.  Here are a couple initial random thoughts:
  • I think there are 9 teams that could legitimately win it all and about 15-18 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 Villanova 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.
  • I would not be surprised if all of the 12-seeds beat all of the 5-seeds.
  • I love the fact that there are two first round in-state matchups:  in the West, 3-seed Florida State against 14-seed Florida Gulf Coast, and in the South, 2-seed Kentucky against 15-seed Northern Kentucky
  • That first round 7/10 matchup in the South between Dayton and Wichita State should be a doozy.
  • There are a also few potentially juicy matchups in the Round of 32 for rivalry reasons or otherwise:
    • In the East:  3-seed Baylor and in-state, former Southwest Conference rival 6-seed SMU
    • In the West:  (1) 4-seed West Virginia against former Big East rival 5-seed Notre Dame; (2) 3-seed Florida State against former ACC rival 6-seed Maryland
    • In the Midwest:  (1) 1-seed Kansas against 9-seed Michigan State:  Self vs. Izzo; (2) 2-seed Louisville against 7-seed Michigan in a rematch of the 2014 national title game
    • In the South:  2-seed Kentucky against 10-seed Wichita State, in a rematch of that 2014 Round of 32 game, where 8-seed Kentucky upset 1-seed (and undefeated) Wichita State
  • Fuck Purdue
  • 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 did not have Villanova on this list):

1.  Arizona (2-seed West).  Have you seen Lauri Markkanen?  If his nickname isn't already the Flying Finn, it should be.  The 6'11" freshman from Helsinki is fun to watch.  He can handle the ball and post up.  Sophomore guard Allonzo Trier is fresh off being named MOP in the Pac-12 Tournament.  And Chance Comanche is probably the best name in the Tournament.  Sean Miller's team is pretty battle-tested this year, as Arizona's only four losses on the season are to top-4 seeds (Butler, Gonzaga, Oregon, and UCLA).
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  7-4

2.  Gonzaga (1-seed West).  The Zags have only lost one game all year, and frankly, I think it's probably good for them that they did lose a few weeks ago to BYU because that will take the "undefeated" pressure off.  They are a balanced team that has already beaten four other tournament teams (Arizona, Florida, Iowa State, and St. Mary's (3 times)).  Redshirt senior Przemek Karnowski is a 7' 1" beast down low, and Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss is the best point guard Gonzaga has had probably since Dan Dickau.  After getting to the Elite Eight two years ago as a 2-seed (where they lost to eventual national champion Duke) and the Sweet 16 last year as an 11-seed (where they came within a hair of beating 10-seed Syracuse, who went onto the Final Four), this may be the year the Bulldogs get over the hump.  Or maybe they'll be the first 1-seed to ever lose to a 16-seed.  I think the former is more likely than the latter.  If they do win it all, they would be the first mid-major team since UNLV in 1990, and the first Pacific Time Zone team to win it since Arizona in 1997.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  6-0

3.  Kansas (1-seed Midwest).  After a tough Elite Eight loss last year as a 1-seed to 2-seed and eventual national champion Villanova, the Jayhawks have the talent to get over the hump.  Frank Mason III is a national POY candidate, and Josh Jackson (assuming he can keep his nose clean) is a game changer.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  10-2

4.  North Carolina (1-seed South).  The Tar Heels got within arguably the greatest finish to an NCAA title game from winning it all last year, and they have the same level of talent this year, despite losing a few players to the NBA.  Their region is really tough, with Kentucky, UCLA, and Butler rounding out the top 4 seeds, but Roy Williams has proven time and time again that he can get it done in March (and April).
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  10-5

5.  Villanova (1-seed East).  The Wildcats are the defending national champions, and they didn't seem to miss a beat, despite losing NCAA Tournament MOP (and heart of the team), point guard Ryan Arcidiocano to graduation.  Josh Hart, Phil Booth, Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, and NCAA championship game winning shot maker Kris Jenkins are back, trying to make Villanova only the 8th school to ever win back-to-back national titles and the first since Florida in 2006 and 2007 (the others being Duke (1991-92), UCLA (1964-65, 1967-73), Cincinnati (1961-62), San Francisco (1955-56), Kentucky (1948-49), and Oklahoma A&M (1945-46)).  Like Arizona, these Wildcats' only losses were to NCAA Tournament teams (twice to Butler and once to Marquette).
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  15-3

Final Four sleepers (teams seeded 4 or higher) (last year, I did not have Syracuse on this list, but no one did):

1.  Iowa State (5-seed Midwest).  A year removed from a Sweet 16 berth, the Cyclones have a legitimate star in guard Monte Morris, and good guard play is usually the key to success in the tournament.  They also looked impressive on their way to winning the Big 12 Tournament title, and own a victory over Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.  Assuming they make it to the second weekend, they will likely face off again against the Jayhawks.  Win that, and anything is possible.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  10-7

2.  Michigan (7-seed Midwest).  The Wolverines finished the year hot, winning four games in four days after their charter plane skidded off the runway on their way the Big Ten Tournament.  They shoot the ball very well, and they don't turn the ball over all that much.  That can be a dangerous combination for their opponents.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  9-8

3.  Northwestern (8-seed West).  If the fucking Cubs can win their first World Series in 108 years, the Cavs can overcome a 3-1 deficit against the winningest single-season team in NBA history to give the City of Cleveland its first major sports title in over 50 years, and a loudmouth who constantly lies, has no political experience, and has bankrupted multiple companies can be elected President of the United States, all in the course of a year, then why can't the Wildcats go to the Final Four in their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament?  They can, and here's how:  after beating Vandy in the first round, they catch Gonzaga on an off night.  Meanwhile, Princeton and Bucknell both pulled upsets in the first round, so Northwestern beats one of them to get to the Elite Eight, where they will face either St. Mary's (who beat Arizona in the second round) or Maryland, who the Cats just beat in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament.  Still think I'm crazy?  Since seeding began in 1979, 12 teams seeded 8 or higher have made it to the Final Four:  Penn (9-seed, 1979), UCLA (8-seed, 1980), Villanova (8-seed, 1985), LSU (11-seed, 1986), North Carolina (8-seed, 2000), Wisconsin (8-seed, 2000), George Mason (11-seed, 2006), Butler (8-seed, 2011), VCU (11-seed, 2011), Wichita State (9-seed, 2013), Kentucky (8-seed, 2014), Syracuse (10-seed, 2016).  Of the teams seeded 5 or higher, 5-seeds lead the way with 7 Final Fours, but 8-seeds are right behind (tied with 6-seeds) with 6 Final Fours.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  6-8

4.  Notre Dame (5-seed West).  After six consecutive first or second round exits, Mike Brey's team has finally gotten over the hump into the second weekend and to the Elite Eight the last two years.  Last year, the Irish got within 6 points of going to their first Final Four since 1978, and a year after getting within 2 points of a Final Four berth in 2015.  The team is well-balanced with senior guard Steve Vasturia playing well again, and juniors Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell really coming on this year.  They can beat anyone, and have only lost two games since early February.  On top of that, they have what I think is a relatively easy path, assuming they can get by Princeton in the first round.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  8-8

5.  West Virginia (4-seed West).  If Notre Dame doesn't beat West Virginia in the second round, then there is no reason the Mountaineers can't make it to Phoenix.  "Press Virginia" is a ball-hawking nightmare that creates more turnovers per possession that any other team in the country.  They have been ranked in the Top 15 since the end of January, and they have proven that they can hang with or beat anyone in the country –- that is, if Huggy Bear doesn't have any more fainting spells.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  10-5

Teams seeded 4 or lower who may not make it to the second weekend (last year, I correctly put Cal on this list):

1.  Florida State (3-seed East).  I think this is the best Florida State team in a while, which I realize isn't like saying I think this is the best North Carolina team in a while.  However, the Seminoles haven't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2012, and have only made it to the second weekend once since 1993.  On top of that, they are playing Florida Gulf Coast (aka Dunk City), who will certainly be aiming to knock off an in-state major conference opponent on the biggest of stages.  Having seen FGCU play, they are certainly capable of pulling the upset, but even if the Seminoles make it past them, Maryland or Xavier would be up next, and either of those teams can beat FSU.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  13-4

2.  Kansas (1-seed Midwest).  Because it's Kansas.  During Bill Self's 14-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.  Last year was an "on" year, as the Jayhawks made it to the Elite Eight.  Will this be an "off" year?  In the second round, they will face either Miami or Michigan State.  Jim Larranaga and Tom Izzo are both capable of getting a game plan together to beat Kansas.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  10-2

3.  Kentucky (2-seed South).  The Wildcats are one of the handful of teams that experts seem to think can win it all.  After all, they are chockfull of 5-star recruits and have the greatest back court in the history of organized basketball.  But they are young, and they play in the weakest of the major conferences.  I'm not suggesting they will get knocked out by 15-seed Northern Kentucky in the first round (although I do expect the Norse will be foaming at the mouth with the chance to beat the in-state giant), but a matchup against either 7-seed Dayton or 10-seed Wichita State looms in the second round.  I though Wichita State was criminally underseeded, and you can bet that Gregg Marshall wants revenge for 2014, when his undefeated, 1-seeded Shockers drew a laughably underseeded 8-seed Kentucky in the second round, losing to the Wildcats, 78-76.  Maybe this is the Selection Committee's attempt to make that right.  On top of that, UK will be playing in Indianapolis, where anyone not wearing blue will be rooting hard against the Wildcats.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  8-4

4.  Purdue (4-seed Midwest).  The Boilermakers have a long and storied history . . . of underachieving in March.  Check this stat:  Purdue has been a top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament 10 times since seeding began in 1979, Purdue has failed to advance to the Sweet 16 six of those times.  Matt Painter hasn't won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2012 and hasn't made it to the second weekend since 2010. But Caleb Swanigan!  To that, I say, last year, the Boilers had Swanigan, AJ Hammons, and Isaac Haas, and they still lost to 12-seed Little Rock in the first round.  If they can get past Vermont in the first round (which is not a guarantee), they would face Iowa State or Nevada, both of which are not slouches.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  7-5

5.  Villanova (1-seed East).  Everyone assumes the Wildcats will cruise to the Elite Eight (or beyond), but not so fast.  After what will presumably be an easy win in the first round, the Wildcats will face either Wisconsin or Virginia Tech.  If it's the Badgers, don't be surprised if they pull the upset.  At an 8-seed, they were underseeded by at least a few seed lines, in my opinion, and they still have several key players from that 2015 NCAA runner-up team.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  15-3

Teams seeded 12 or higher with the best chance of pulling an upset in the first round (last year, I correctly put Hawaii, Stephen F. Austin, and Yale on this list):

1.  East Tennessee State (13-seed East).  The Buccanneers boast several big-program transfers, including former Indiana forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea and center Peter Jurkin, former Cincinnati guard Ge'Lawn Guyn, former Missouri guard Deuce Bello, and former Wichita State forward Tevin Glass.  They force a lot of turnovers, and can make plays on the offensive end as well.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  1-2

2.  Middle Tennessee State (12-seed South).  Yes, I'm strong on the Tennessee directional schools this year.  The Blue Raiders return many key players from their 15-seed team last year that beat 2-seed Michigan State in the first round.  While they won't be surprising anyone with their play this year (their record is 30-4), that doesn't mean first-round opponent Minnesota will have a cakewalk.  The Gophers haven't been to the tournament since 2013, and there aren't any redshirt seniors on this year's team that played on that team and head coach Richard Pitino is coaching in his first Big Dance.  While the game will be played in Milwaukee, which is obviously much closer to Minneapolis than Murfreesboro, I don't expect that will affect MTSU.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  2-1

3.  Nevada (12-seed Midwest).  The Wolf Pack have excellent guards, good rebounding, and nothing to lose.  Iowa State doesn't rebound very well, and I really just never trust teams from Iowa in the NCAA Tournament.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  1-2

4.  UNC-Wilmington (12-seed East).  The Seahawks have a great offense, and Virginia does not.  Furthermore, the Seahawks have the fewest turnovers per possession in the country.  It will also be interesting to see if the Cavaliers are still reeling from that monumental collapse to Syracuse in last year's Elite Eight.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  1-1

5.  Vermont (13-seed Midwest).  I watched Vermont in the America East Tournament, and I liked what I saw.  The Catamounts are riding the nation's longest winning streak (21 games), and three of their five losses are against tournament teams.  Also, fuck Purdue.
Record against NCAA Tournament teams:  0-3

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