It’s March and sports fans nationwide are currently filling out NCAA tournament brackets, temporarily insane with a disease known as “March Madness”. The tournament starts tomorrow (officially starts, we don’t count play-in games) at 12:15pm, which is the first of 32 meaningful basketball games in two days, followed by an additional 16 games on Saturday and Sunday. It may be the best four days of the sports year. Why am I telling you things that you already know though? I am here to help. For each region of the NCAA tournament bracket I will be giving you the team to keep an eye on, a sleeper and my pick to win the region, plus other notes on many of the other teams in that region. Let’s do this:
My Pick: (2) Miami – I love this team, they are very tough mentally and excellent physically, and they one of the best coached teams in the country by Jim Larranaga. The Hurricanes have an excellent point guard in Shane Larkin, combined with an excellent inside/outside game, which I think give them a major advantage over anyone in the reason. Inside Kenny Kadij and Reggie Johnson can absolutely punish opponents on the glass, while Larkin and Durand Scott can provide the offense from the perimeter. I think that having one of the best point guards in the nation combined with interior toughness and an excellent head coach gives Miami matchup advantages over anyone in the region.
Keep An Eye On: (5) UNLV – Forward Anthony Bennett is one of the top freshman players in the country, averaging 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds a game, and he has really impressed NBA scouts. His main problem, as it is with many freshman players, is his game-to-game inconsistency. If Bennett can string together several dominant performances in a row, and take the next step in his career during this tournament, this team could advance far in the East Region.
Sleeper: (10) Colorado – Guard Spencer Dinwiddie can flat out score, but he also gets into the paint and draws fouls, then hits his free throws (83%). He is the type of player who can kill an opponent, because he excels at getting the other team’s big men in foul trouble, which often sinks them. The major problem that Colorado has is, they have a strong starting five, but a short bench. If they get in foul trouble of their own, they may be dead in the water. If they can keep their starting five (four of the five average double figures) in the game and can Dinwiddie can draw fouls on the opposition, there is a chance that they could become a Cinderella.
(1) Indiana – Indiana is a great team, and when they are clicking, they can be close to unstoppable offensively. Victor Oladipo may be the best all around player in the country, he is a great athlete and an incredible defensive player who can dominate a game. I do not have Indiana winning the region, because I am not a fan of Cody Zeller, their big man who has been a disappointment this season. He is soft and never developed into the monster in the paint that Indiana fans and NBA scouts had hoped he would. He is still a good player who will likely be a top ten pick in the NBA Draft, but never cashed in on all of the potential he once had. I think that Indiana cruises early, but hit a tough Miami team in the elite eight, who beats them up inside sends them packing. Bad matchup for the Hoosiers.
(3) Marquette – A deep team that does not rely on any one individual player, Marquette plays hard and earned their seeding, they are tough. What worries me about Marquette is, when they desperately need a bucket, who takes the shot? If they need a three, don’t get your hopes up, Marquette is one of the worst three point shooting teams in the field.
(4) Syracuse – I simply do not have the confidence that I have had in Syracuse teams in the past in this team, they are talented, but are nowhere near as good defensively as previous Orangemen teams. When they advance far in the tournament, it’s usually because the Boeheim zone is such a nightmare to prepare for, but this season it has not been as effective. If James Southerland is able to hit from distance and Michael Carter-Williams limits turnovers, and they play better defense this team could make a run.
(6) Butler – To me, so much of Butler’s success will rely on Rotnei Clarke, who is streaky but has deep range. If he can get going and Andrew Smith dominates inside, the Bulldogs can be dangerous, because of their relentless defense. Their major weakness is lack of a point guard, which can be a killer at this time of the year, so I am not picking them to advance too far.
My Pick: (1) Louisville – Which teams normally excel in the NCAA Tournament? Teams with experienced point guards, who have been there before, and who the team trusts with the ball in their hands when the game is on the line. Louisville clearly has one in Peyton Sliva, a senior point guard who is the team leader and a floor general for the Cardinals, and average 10.0 points and nearly 6 assists a game this season. Louisville has a lot of players that can beat you besides Silva, like Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng, who can run right by opponents in the open court. If Silva can make good decisions with the ball in crunch time, the Cardinals are a serious threat to win the national title this season, but their road through a difficult region will not be easy.
Keep An Eye On: (4) St. Louis – A team that many people in the country are just discovering, the Billikens are one of the more dangerous teams in the nation, and if they can control the tempo of the game they could go a long way in this tournament. While they are excellent defensively, St. Louis can struggle to score, and this seems to happen to them in stretches. If big man Dwayne Evans is on his game, and is able to dominate the paint like he has been over recent games, the sky is the limit for the Billikens. However, despite their excellent defense, you need to be able to score points to advance in this tournament and if they cannot find their grove offensively St. Louis could be bounced from the field early.
Sleeper: (12) Oregon – Rumor is that Oregon is very upset over their low seed, and if they use this as motivation, they should become an extremely dangerous team. They are getting healthy at the right time, as guard Dominic Artis returns from an injury, and they have a lot of players who can beat you. They have six players that average over eight points a game, and their balanced attack could be a huge asset in the tournament. They feel disrespected by the selection committee and could surprise.
(2) Duke – I have picked them to win the National Title in one of my pools, and I feel like they have a legitimate shot, they are as always an excellent team built to win at tournament time. A healthy Ryan Kelly is one of the elite scorers in the country, and if Mason Plumlee can stay out of foul trouble, Duke has a good chance against anyone in the country. That third round matchup with Michigan State is very scary for the Blue Devils, if they have a weakness, it is on the boards where Michigan State is tough. Whoever wins that game has a chance to win the whole thing, it is just tough to pick one of those teams to advance to far, because that will be anyone’s game.
(3) Michigan State – Coached by Tom Izzo and very talented, Michigan State is always a tough out, and there is no doubt that the Spartans could make a run to the final four this season. Please see my above notes on Duke, due to their impending battle with the Blue Devils in the third round, it is tough to pick either team to advance far. That will be anyone’s game and the winner could go a long way.
(5) Oklahoma State – Has one of the best freshmen in the country, point guard Marcus Smart, who has a chance to put this team on his back and carry them a long way. He is excellent on both ends of the court, and if he can take over, look out.
(7) Creighton – Doug McDermott may be the best offensive player in the nation, and if he has a big tournament and puts the Blue Jays on his back, they can go a long way and become a Cinderella. McDermott is a must watch player.
(9) Missouri – One of the most talented, but most disappointing teams in the nation, if it somehow clicks for Missouri at the right time they will be a nightmare for any team in the field. I am not optimistic. They have blown gigantic leads this season and have killed any confidence I have in them.
(10) Cincinnati – An elite defensive team who goes through lengthy amounts of time were they are totally incapable of scoring, if their streaky shooters get hot, the Bearcats will be in any game. However, Cashmere Wright and others will have to get hot early and keep it going if Cinci is going to make a run.
My Pick: (1) Kansas – If they are playing well, and get on a roll, I may like Kansas more than any team in the country. Freshman Ben McLemore may be the best overall player in the nation, he can be streaky and have some bad games, but if he is playing well he is a threat to light up the scoreboards. If McLemore can put it together in this tournament, and becomes aggressive as a scorer, the Jayhawks will play for the national title. They are also tough inside with big Jeff Withey, a senior who has improved year after year, but needs to stay out of foul trouble. Elijah Johnson is also a shaky but talented point guard, he needs to play well for this team to advance. There is a recipe for beating the Jayhawks, get Withey in foul trouble and take McLemore out of the offense, they will struggle. To me, they are the most talented team in the region, and it is not close. I think they win the South rather easily.
Keep An Eye On: (5) VCU – One of the best defensive teams in the country, they are super-athletic, and make other teams look awful offensively. Imagine if VCU wins twice and faces Kansas, a team that it beat last season to reach the Final Four, Kansas would be under a ton of pressure to win that game. VCU is a bit overseeded to me, because they lack a go-to-guy and go through long stretches where they cannot score, which is a major problem. That being said, their elite defense keeps them in games, and causes the opponent to become extremely frustrated. The (4) Michigan Wolverines should be having nightmares about a potential second round matchup with VCU.
Sleeper: (11) Minnesota – I do not love any of the true “Sleepers” in this region to make a run, so I’ll take the Golden Gophers, who have been awful down the stretch. They have an excellent head coach in Tubby Smith and three wildly talented, but horribly inconsistent players in Trevor Mbakwe, Austin Hollins and Rodney Williams. If there three players can play up to their talent and start playing better as a team, Minnesota could make a surprising run. It does not hurt that they play an inexperienced UCLA team in the first round, who just lost Jordan Adams to a broken foot for the remainder of the season, which really hurts.
(2) Georgetown –There is no doubt that Otto Porter is one of the best players in the country, and the Hoyas are an elite defensive team, who are a tendy pick to win the entire tournament. They are very good, however, they tend to rely on Porter too much and other players will need to step up if they truly are going to make a run.
(3) Florida – When Florida is running on all cylinders, they are clearly one of the best teams in the nation, they have talent everywhere and have no major weaknesses. Their problem is inconsistency, turnovers and stretches of bad basketball. They, like Georgetown have the talent to make a serious run if everything clicks, however they do not have a go-to-guy like Otto Porter on the Hoyas. If, as expected, these two teams matchup I like the Hoyas. Sound defensively, smarter with the ball, and they have Porter.
(4) Michigan – Extremely talented but wildly inconsistent, I really like the Wolverines ability to get points quickly, however they too often blow big leads or fall too far behind to catch up. I see this team becoming very frustrated against the tenacious defense and athletic ability of VCU in the second round, and as a young team, it may be too much for them to overcome.
(6) UCLA – Very talented team, with super-freshman including Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, but they suffered a major injury losing Jordan Adams for the rest of the season. Adams is the Burins best defensive player and an emerging threat on offense who will be greatly missed.
(7) San Diego State – Worth watching for Jamaal Franklin alone, one of the most explosive players in the country, who is also extremely tough. The Aztecs are a good team who plays hard every time they are on the court.
My Pick: (2) Ohio State –Aaron Craft is an excellent point guard who leads the offense on one end of the court and plays shut down defense on the other end of the court. As I have said repeatedly in this post, you need a point guard to win in the tournament, and Ohio State has a great one. Deshaun Thomas also has to be factored into the equation, an excellent scorer and rebounder, who has developed into a major threat. The Buckeyes are a very good team, they will be a tough out, and are lucky enough to face the weakest region in the tournament.
Keep An Eye On: (5) Wisconsin – One of the smarter teams in the country, Wisconsin slows the game down and plays a rugged style of basketball on both ends of the court, they keep games close and almost always have a shot to win. I think that, if they get that far, their style of play will be tough for (1) Gonzaga to overcome. Of course, they first need to get by the unpredictable Marshall Henderson and Mississippi in the first round, a tough matchup for the Badgers.
Sleeper: (10) Iowa State – This team can flat out shoot the ball, much like their head coach Fred Hoiberg did when he was playing for the Cyclones, and this attribute can be very dangerous at tournament time. Their plan is to flat our shoot opponents out of the gym, and they are good at it, making them a fun team to watch. The problem is, the Cyclones are terrible defensively, so if the shots are not falling they will be in big trouble.
(1) Gonzaga – A good team with a lot of talent, but their Strength of Schedule is the worst in NCAA Tournament history for a number one seed, and their style of play matches up poorly with many of the teams in this region. The west is loaded with grind-it-out, hard-nosed teams, and I think Gonzaga will struggle against this style of play. Prove me wrong, Zags, prove me wrong.
(3) New Mexico – Much like many of the teams in the West, a smart, gritty team that does not beat itself. I would not be shocked if this Steve Alford coached team made a run, they face a lot of teams in this bracket that are a lot like them, and they are the best of the bunch who play that style.
(4) Kansas State – Another team that is gritty, plays smart, does not have an elite scorer who is going to put up a ton of points. Kansas State wins with their defense, which is excellent, but senior guard Rodney McGruder needs to have a big tournament offensively if they want to advance far.
(6) Arizona – Arizona has a strong point guard in senior Mark Lyons, and if he plays well and leads the team, the Wildcats can be very dangerous. Lyons does have up and down games though, and with all of the strong defensive teams in this region, I see them struggling to advance too far.
(7) Notre Dame – I personally do not think that Notre Dame is going to get out of their first round matchup with the Iowa State Cyclones, they will need both of their athletic guards, Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, to step up their perimeter defense to do so.
(8) Pittsburgh – Another tough, physical Pittsburgh team. I think if they were seeded right in a region with more finesse teams, they could pose a huge threat simply by beating opponents up in the paint. However, this region is full of teams that play that style, which does not bode well for the Panthers.
(12) Ole Miss – Unpredictable. Wild Card. Fun to watch. Ole Miss has the fearless, and possibly crazy Marshall Henderson on their side, which is a major problem for opponents. There is no doubt that Henderson and his teammate Murphy Holloway are scary offensive players, and the two of them are capable of winning any game if they get hot. I think they got a tough region to play in for their style, many of these teams will grind them out, and slow the game down. I could see Henderson getting very frustrated.