By Andrew Murawa (@amurawa), Rush The Court
Favorite: Michigan State, #1, 27-7. This is the fourth time in the Tom Izzo era that Michigan State has earned a #1 seed. The previous three times (1999, 2000, and 2001), they advanced at least to the Final Four, winning the national title in 2000. Led by likely All-American senior forward Draymond Green, this is, almost without question, the best Spartan team since those teams at the turn of the century. They do have to go forward without injured freshman Branden Dawson, out for the year with a torn ACL, but senior Brandon Wood stepped into his starting spot and he shot the ball well in the Big Ten Tournament this weekend. You can say that there are more talented teams in this region (Missouri and Marquette come to mind), but beating Izzo in March is always easier said than done.
Should They Falter: Missouri, #2, 30-4. While the Spartans are the favorite, the Tigers are a solid 1-A. The Selection Committee had Mizzou as the #8 overall seed, but they have been excellent all season long behind the most efficient offense in the nation. The Tigers are undersized (only two players taller than 6’6” are in the rotation) and lack depth (they only play seven guys), but head coach Frank Haith gets every last drop out of the guys who do play. And with guards like Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Phil Pressey, and Michael Dixon, they have enough talent on the perimeter to cause plenty of trouble.
Grossly Overseeded: BYU, #14 (First Four), 26-8. I don’t have a whole lot of problems with any of the seeding this year; I think the Selection Committee by and large did a pretty good job. But I’m not sure why BYU is in the tournament. Their lone quality win of the season is over Gonzaga, a team who doesn’t have much in the way of quality wins itself. I would rather have seen a team like Drexel or Oral Roberts (teams admittedly without a ton of big wins either) get the Cougars’ spot. The Dragons and Golden Eagles both had better records against top 50 RPI teams, and both excelled in their conference regular season. I will even take Iona, their First Four opponent, over the Cougs despite a complete lack of quality wins on the Gaels’ resume. The committee gave Iona credit for scheduling a tough non-conference slate, and their strength of schedule out of conference even exceeds BYU’s.
Grossly Underseeded: Missouri, #2, 30-4. I’m having trouble working up a whole lot of outrage about anything in the bracket, but Missouri should not have dropped to the #8 overall seed. To me, they were right in the conversation with Kansas for the #5 overall seed (and I might have given Missouri the edge, although the committee docked them for a relatively tame non-conference schedule). The only difference for the Tigers in terms of their placement in the bracket is that had they earned the #5 overall seed, they would have been dropped in the St. Louis regional instead of being shipped West. But the good news is that they still are in the bracket with the lowest #1 seed. It all works out.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): Long Beach State, #12, 25-8. Of all the mid- and low-major automatic qualifiers, the 49ers are the least likely to be intimidated by the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament. No, this squad has never made a Big Dance before, but for the third consecutive year, they played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation. Just this year alone, they have seen Louisville, Kansas, North Carolina, Creighton, San Diego State, Xavier, and Kansas State – all NCAA Tournament teams. However, for them to advance out of their first round matchup with New Mexico, they will need to have wing Larry Anderson, arguably the team’s best player, back from a sprained MCL that kept him out of this weekend’s Big West Tournament.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): New Mexico, #5, 27-6. Unfortunately for the 49ers above, they will need to get through a very good New Mexico team in order to have a chance at the Sweet Sixteen. Steve Alford has his Lobos playing with a chip on their shoulder and defending like crazy. While the Selection Committee did them no favors by placing them in a pod with three other conference tournament champions, New Mexico can shut off the water for Long Beach State’s talented guards in the second round, setting up a potential for two straight knock-down, drag-out defensive battles: against Louisville in the third round and then against Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen. The Lobos are plenty tough enough to win both of those games, but need to continue shooting the ball well in order to advance.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Draymond Green, Michigan State (16.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 3.6 APG, 27.9 DR%). The numbers say enough about Green’s game, but his leadership is just as important to Tom Izzo’s team. A contributor for four seasons, Green was an ancillary part on the national runner-up team in 2009 and a major cog in the 2010 Final Four team. He’s been here before, but after remaking his body and continuing to add to his game, this version of Green is a whole different animal.
Stephen Curry Award: Isaiah Canaan, Murray State (19.2 PPG, 3.7 APG, 47.3 3P%, 61.2 eFG%). Canaan is one of the most potent offensive guards in the country. Not only does he shoot the ball extremely well from deep, he’s got a game off the bounce to match his jumper. Throw in his command of the Racer offense and plenty of capable complementary parts around him to take some of the pressure off and Canaan has the ability to carry this team deep into the tournament.
Home Cooking: (Murray State, #6, 227 miles). While Michigan State and Missouri will both also open their NCAA Tournament runs approximately 225 miles from home, both of those teams would be favored to get through the first weekend regardless of where they were playing. But the Louisville pod on Thursday will see plenty of Racer fans. It is possible, especially if BYU loses in the First Four, that Murray State will have more fans there than any of their potential first weekend opponents. And expect all the Kentucky fans that show up to jump on the Racer bandwagon as well.
Can’t Miss Second Round Game: New Mexico vs. Long Beach State, 3/15. It’s a shame these two teams are matched up from the start, since both teams have the ability to make a run in this tournament. Instead, one of these two teams will have a short stay. Still, we will be treated to a matchup of two very good defensive teams with some dynamic offensive players. Long Beach State will need to come up with some way to keep Drew Gordon off of the glass, not one of the strengths of the 49er team, but the Lobos will have their hands full with guards like Casper Ware and Mike Caffey. This one could go right down to the wire.
Don’t Miss This One Either: Florida vs. Virginia, 3/16. There was a time when people thought that this Gator team was going to be a potential Final Four caliber team. Those days are mostly gone, given that they have lost four of their last five games and have been unsuccessful in their games against big-time competition. But the Gators are still the third most efficient offensive team in the nation and their backcourt trio of Kenny Boynton, Bradley Beal, and Erving Walker is capable of lighting up the scoreboard. In a great matchup of styles, they will face a Virginia team that is fifth in the nation in defensive efficiency and does a good job of limiting their opponents’ perimeter looks. Either of these teams is talented enough to give Missouri a run for a Sweet Sixteen berth, so this matchup will be as important as it should be entertaining.
Lock of the Year: Marquette is through to the Sweet Sixteen. Neither BYU nor Iona will be able to matchup with this balanced Golden Eagle squad in the second round, and while Murray State will be waiting on Saturday, Jae Crowder, Darius Johnson-Odom, and company should be able to out-athlete the Racers on their way to the second weekend.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – Purists: Michigan State vs. Missouri, regional final. Not only would this be the matchup of the best two teams in the region, but the conflicting styles would make for a dream battle. The Tigers’ guard-based offense against the Spartan squad that runs primarily through Draymond Green. Can MSU hurt the Tigers on the glass, or will Mizzou’s quickness be too much for the more methodical Spartans? Ricardo Ratliffe taking on a rugged Spartan frontline all by himself? There are plenty of great matchups to look forward to in this one.
Juiciest Potential Matchup – Media: Michigan State vs. Louisville, regional semifinal. Two of the best coaches in the game, Tom Izzo vs. Rick Pitino. The Spartans beat the top-seeded Cardinals in 2009 to advance to the Final Four, but now Pitino has a chance to get revenge on Izzo and bring his suddenly hot team to the brink of a Final Four appearance of their own.
We Got Screwed: New Mexico, #5, 27-6. Having a hard time getting worked up over this, but we will say the Lobos got slightly screwed, if only because they picked the wrong year to host NCAA Tournament games in Albuquerque. With The Pit, their home floor, hosting games on the first weekend and no other southwestern venues this season, New Mexico gets shipped over 1300 miles to Portland. Meanwhile, next year’s opening weekend venues like Austin or Salt Lake City would be roughly half as far, while last year’s Tucson site would have put Lobo fans less than 500 miles away. Chalk it up to bad timing.
Strongest Pod: Missouri/Norfolk State, Florida/Virginia. While it is exceedingly unlikely that Norfolk State can push Missouri, the Tigers should expect to get a significant test on Sunday. Florida and Virginia each are flawed teams, but in a single elimination scenario, both can be very dangerous.
Wildcard: Defense wins the West. Seven of the top 20 most efficient defensive teams in the nation (according to Ken Pomeroy) are in the West bracket, with three (Louisville, Michigan State and Virginia) teams in the top five. That may make for some relatively low-scoring, grind-it-out games, but if you’re looking for games to be tight in the closing minutes of the game, the West could be a goldmine.
So-Called Experts: It is going to be awful hard to find a whole lot of basketball writers willing to pick against Tom Izzo and Michigan State in March. Jay Bilas at ESPN says that while Marquette is capable of getting out of the region, the Spartans are the team to beat.
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