Favorite: #1 Syracuse (31-2, 17-1 Big East). Despite losing to Cincinnati in the Big East semifinals, the Orange are the clear favorites and will have plenty of fans in Beantown to cheer them on, assuming they advance. SU features a transition attack that’s arguably the best in the nation, usually sparked by Dion Waiters off the bench.
Should They Falter: #2 Ohio State (27-7, 13-5 Big Ten). I was tempted to slot #3 Florida State in this space but the Seminoles are too inconsistent for my liking to be a legitimate Final Four threat. Ohio State is a terrific team but not nearly as good as last year’s outfit which had Jon Diebler to bury a perimeter jumper. Even so, the Buckeyes are still capable of reaching New Orleans.
Grossly Overseeded: #11 Texas (20-13, 9-9 Big 12). This is an exaggeration because I thought the Selection Committee did a very nice job with the seeding across all regions. But I have to pick someone, right? I’ll go with the Longhorns, a team I didn’t have in my projected field of 68. Texas has four RPI top 50 wins but three of those came against teams seeded on the eighth line in this tournament. The Longhorns are 4-11 against top 100 competition, a fact that I felt should have kept them out of the Big Dance.
Grossly Underseeded: #5 Vanderbilt (24-10, 10-6 SEC). Again, this is a very minor quibble. As I said before, I thought the Committee did an admirable job seeding the teams. I had Vanderbilt pegged for a #4 seed after beating the best team in the country (Kentucky) in the SEC championship on Sunday. The Commodores won 16 games against the RPI top 100, with two of those coming against top 10 opponents either on the road (Marquette) or a neutral site (Kentucky). In fact, only one of Vandy’s five RPI top 25 wins has come at home. That’s impressive and an indicator of a team that can do some damage in this event despite its recent history of early flameouts.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #13 Montana (25-6, 15-1 Big Sky). The Big Sky regular season and tournament champion has won 14 straight games and 20 of its last 21. The Grizzlies demolished a Damian Lillard-led Weber State in the conference tournament and also sport a win over Long Beach State in addition to a competitive showing at an at-large Colorado State team that went 14-1 at Moby Arena this season. Montana has the best defense in the Big Sky and also shoots the three very well. Kareem Jamar and Will Cherry can knock down the deep ball, a valuable weapon in the NCAA Tournament. However, Montana’s draw is very difficult with Wisconsin right off the bat. I don’t think the Grizzlies will get to the Sweet Sixteen but they have the best chance of any team seeded twelfth or lower.
Final Four Sleeper: #4 Wisconsin (24-9, 12-6 Big Ten). It’s a long shot but the Badgers play a style highly conducive to winning in March. Wisconsin will beat you up defensively, slow the game to a snail’s pace and take care of the basketball. Bo Ryan’s team ranks third nationally in locking up the three-point line, allowing teams to shoot triples only 24% of the time. When a team does get a shot off, they convert on only 28.9% of those attempts (#8 nationally). It’s no picnic going inside against the Badgers either where they rank fifth in two-point percentage defense. Wisconsin is a fundamentally sound team that plays terrific defense and shoots free throws well, two keys to winning close games in March. If the Badgers get hot from long distance, they could find themselves winning more than just a few games. A potential meeting with Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen would be a superb matchup.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Jared Sullinger, Ohio State. Back in the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore, a trimmer Sully is the best player in this region. It was tempting to go with a player on Syracuse given this award’s namesake, or even West Virginia’s Kevin Jones, but I really feel Sullinger is the man to watch in this region. Sullinger averaged 17.5 points per game this year for a top 10 team and actually improved his statistics in a season without Jon Diebler on the perimeter to draw double teams away from him. The big fella can go off on any given night and lift Ohio State to New Orleans with an elite performance over the next two weeks.
Stephen Curry Award: Michael Snaer, Florida State. A junior guard from California, Snaer lifted Florida State to the ACC title on Sunday and has been red hot over the last two weeks. Snaer has connected on 14 of his last 19 three point attempts (73.7%) and has been the player most responsible for the Seminoles’ current five-game winning streak. Since January 10, FSU has won 15 of 18 games with Snaer averaging 15.6 PPG over that stretch. With a sniper like Snaer leading the team in scoring, Florida State is a dangerous team.
Home Cooking: #10 West Virginia: 75 miles to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The tenth-seeded Mountaineers are the lower seed in their match up with #7 Gonzaga but have a massive home court edge in this game. The Bulldogs have to fly over 2,000 miles across three time zones to get to Pittsburgh while the team that’s supposed to be the underdog has an hour and a half bus ride up I-79. It makes zero sense and this isn’t the first time something like this has happened to Gonzaga. In 2008, the seventh-seeded Bulldogs were sent to Raleigh to face #10 Davidson, a North Carolina team, and lost the game. Gonzaga has played out west many times over the years but this is an egregious error by the committee.
Can’t Miss First Round Game: #7 Gonzaga vs. #10 West Virginia (Thursday, March 15 at 7:20 PM ET on TNT). Two very physical, frontcourt-oriented teams will go at it in this game. Each squad rebounds the basketball very well and runs its offense with a good deal of efficiency. West Virginia’s Kevin Jones is the best player on the floor but Gonzaga gets to the line and shoots free throws much better in addition to having a major threat in Kevin Pangos on the perimeter. It will be a highly entertaining battle but Gonzaga has a few more weapons, especially from deep.
Don’t Miss This One Either: #6 Cincinnati vs. #11 Texas (Friday, March 16 at 12:15 PM ET on CBS). Although the seed discrepancy is large, these two teams are fairly evenly matched. Cincinnati did a whole lot more for its resume to garner a six seed but the Longhorns have enough talent to make this a game. The Bearcats feature a strong three-point attack, one that completely dismantled Syracuse last week at the Big East Tournament. These teams stack up well on paper but the difference could be Texas’ perimeter defense, ranked #211 nationally and ninth out of 10 Big 12 teams.
Lock of the Year: Vanderbilt will finally win its first game of the tournament. The Commodores haven’t won their first NCAA Tournament game since they advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in 2007 but they are playing high quality basketball right now and face a Harvard team that’s dangerous but not nearly on the level of fellow Ivy League squad Cornell, circa 2010. Vandy has won seven of its last nine games heading into the NCAA Tournament and the deep Commodore front line, including Festus Ezeli, should be able to neutralize Harvard’s Keith Wright and Kyle Casey.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – Purists: #1 Syracuse vs. #4 Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen. This is your classic battle between one team that wants to push the pace and score in transition at every opportunity (Syracuse) and another that would prefer a half-court game with as few possessions as possible (Wisconsin). The Badgers do a terrific job with ball protection and that’s going to be critical against a Syracuse team always ball-hawking and searching for turnovers. Wisconsin can slow the pace to incredibly low levels, something that could really damage an Orange team that doesn’t operate that well in the half-court. Cincinnati did this successfully in the Big East Tournament while also dropping plenty of threes over Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone. Guess what? Wisconsin will shoot well over 20 threes per game and there’s a good chance many of those will find the bottom of the net. This would be a fascinating matchup from a basketball perspective and an amazing contrast of styles.
We Got Screwed: #7 Gonzaga (25-6, 13-3 West Coast). It’s not so much about this team’s seeding (I had them pegged as a #7 as well) but it’s about where it has to play. As mentioned above, Gonzaga is the higher seed against West Virginia but has to play the Mountaineers in Pittsburgh, just a mere 75 miles from their Morgantown, West Virginia, campus. Should the Bulldogs get by WVU, they’ll likely face a very difficult Ohio State team 185 miles from its Columbus, Ohio, campus. While Ohio State has earned the right to be protected as a two seed, it just seems like a double whammy for a very good Gonzaga team capable of winning more than one game in this tournament. The drawbacks of being a west coast team, I suppose.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – Media: #1 Syracuse vs. #2 Ohio State in the Elite Eight. This would be a battle royale between another team that protects the ball well but features a dominant center going up against shot-blocker Fab Melo in the paint. The Buckeyes are the top team in defensive efficiency and rebound the ball well, certain to take advantage of Syracuse’s #341 defensive rebounding percentage. Ohio State takes good care of the ball but isn’t afraid to run either. However, the Buckeyes lack a knockout perimeter threat needed to shoot over the SU zone. Jim Boeheim will pack it in on Sullinger until his teammates prove they can knock down a triple. It’s a really nice matchup featuring the two best teams in the region and the regular season champions of arguably the two best conferences in the country.
Strongest Pod: This is a tough call but I’m going with Nashville over Pittsburgh. Eight East Region teams will call the Steel City home for the second/third rounds but Nashville has #6 Cincinnati, #11 Texas, #3 Florida State and #14 St. Bonaventure. Two of those teams won their conference tournaments (Florida State and St. Bonaventure), one made the championship game (Cincinnati), and the other picked up a key win in its tourney (Texas). All four of these teams are playing good basketball and I really think the Cincy/Texas game is going to be ultra-competitive. St. Bonaventure has its best player in a long time at the upstate New York school, Andrew Nicholson, and Florida State had its best ACC season to date under Leonard Hamilton.
Upset City: Syracuse is highly vulnerable to a tough, physical team that rebounds well like Kansas State in the third round. The question there will be if the Wildcats can score enough to keep pace with the Orange. This is definitely a possibility, though. Vanderbilt and Wisconsin would both pose threats to the Orange in the Sweet Sixteen as well, while Florida State and Ohio State are strong teams in the bottom half of the bracket. You also have Cincinnati lurking as a sleeper seed in that half. Syracuse has been a top two team all season long but I think the Orange are going to get upset by someone in this region. The East is loaded with teams that can either, A) shoot the three, B) rebound, C) defend well or D) slow the pace. All four of those aspects of the game could be lethal to Jim Boeheim’s team. I wouldn’t be surprised if Syracuse makes it to New Orleans out of this region but I don’t think I’m going to pick the Orange to win the East in my bracket.
So-Called Experts: ESPN’s Jay Bilas had an all-chalk matchup in the Elite Eight of every region (Syracuse vs. Ohio State here) and had Syracuse advancing to NOLA with the three other top seeds. Including Bilas, 14 ESPN experts listed on the company’s website actually favor Ohio State, with Syracuse receiving four picks, Florida State had three and Wisconsin and Vanderbilt each were picked by one person. CBS Sports’ Jeff Goodman called it the easiest region for any top seed (I disagree) and picked the Orange to win as a result. Gregg Doyel chose a surprise team in Vanderbilt.
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