Favorite: #1 Indiana (27-6, 14-5 Big Ten). Ranked No. 1 in 10 of the 19 AP Top 25 polls this season (through last week), Indiana is the strong favorite in this region. The Hoosiers won the Big Ten regular season title but fell to Wisconsin in the conference tournament semifinals this past Saturday. Indiana fans are definitely bummed that their team won’t be playing in the Indianapolis regional but they will still show up. IU fans travel as well as any school in the country.
Should They Falter: #2 Miami (27-6, 18-3 ACC). It has been a dream season in Coral Gables as Miami won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles. History, however, is against this team. Miami has made only one Sweet Sixteen appearance (1999-2000) in program history, representing the furthest this program has ever ventured into March. Also, nobody on the roster has ever played in an NCAA Tournament game. There are positives, though. Head coach Jim Larranaga obviously had a memorable run with George Mason in 2006 and most of Miami’s major contributors are older, veteran players. It’s much easier to win when you’re coaching 22- and 23-year olds rather than 18- and 19-year olds.
Grossly Overseeded: #4 Syracuse (26-9, 14-8 Big East). Despite advancing to the Big East championship game and playing better than Louisville for 24 minutes in that game, Syracuse’s overall profile looks more like a #5 or #6 seed rather than a #4. The Orange were just 5-5 in true road games, under .500 against the RPI top 50 and only 12-9 against the top 100. Before the Big East Tournament run, Syracuse had lost seven of its last 12 regular season games. There’s no doubt the week at Madison Square Garden helped Jim Boeheim’s team (as it historically has), but Syracuse is still too high for my liking.
Grossly Underseeded: #14 Davidson (26-7, 20-1 Southern Conference). Stephen Curry put Davidson on the map with a magical run to the 2008 Elite Eight, the only NCAA Tournament victories for the Wildcats since 1969. This year’s edition is pretty good in its own right. Coached by Bob McKillop, who has now made a respectable seven NCAA Tournament appearances in his 24 years at the small school near Charlotte, North Carolina, the Wildcats won 26 games and lost only once in conference play. Davidson challenged itself in the non-conference, playing the #20-rated schedule that included games against Gonzaga, Duke and New Mexico. Davidson has just two top 100 wins but we figured a 26-win team that scheduled up would have been rewarded with something other than a #14 seed. Ken Pomeroy’s rating projects only a four-point loss to Marquette so it’s clear that the Wildcats are capable of winning a game.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper (#12 seed or lower): #14 Davidson. If the Wildcats can manage to get by first round opponent Marquette, a game with either Butler or Bucknell would be highly winnable. We’re not saying it’s going to happen, just that Davidson represents the greatest hope of the teams seeded #12 or lower given the match-ups in this region. Davidson is the best free throw shooting team in the country at 80.1%, a huge asset in close games. If the Wildcats can cut off Marquette’s dribble penetration, they’re going to have a great chance. Davidson has the advantage at the three-point line and the charity stripe but it will have to contain Davante Gardner inside and Vander Blue slashing to the hoop.
Final Four Sleeper (#4 seed or lower): #4 Syracuse. Syracuse showed its ability to play great tournament basketball in last week’s Big East Tournament, the second half against Louisville notwithstanding. The Orange’s style of play will take a lot of teams by surprise now that they aren’t playing against familiar Big East foes. Syracuse hits the offensive glass hard and actually finished third in the Big East in scoring (all games) despite some troubles in conference play. Syracuse has to get by Montana and the winner of UNLV/California games first but a potential monster match-up with Indiana in the Sweet Sixteen would be intense. Those two fan bases travel extremely well and Washington, DC is a great location for the game. Syracuse would have a hard time handling Victor Oladipo but the back line of its zone can make a difference on Cody Zeller. If the Orange get through the top half of the bracket, the bottom half (Elite Eight match-up) wouldn’t be nearly as imposing.
Carmelo Anthony Award: Victor Oladipo, Indiana. The electrifying junior guard from Maryland has to be thrilled that the Hoosiers could very well be playing in nearby Washington, DC, at the regional. Oladipo exploded onto the national scene this year with vastly improved shooting, incredible defense and hops that would make Blake Griffin blush. Oladipo is exactly the type of guy who can put a team on his back and carry it to the Final Four, especially one as good as Indiana. He isn’t even the scoring leader on his team but he’s its most important player on both ends of the floor.
Stephen Curry Award: Shane Larkin, Miami. The sophomore point guard for the Hurricanes (and one time DePaul commitment!) was named ACC Tournament MVP yesterday and is the unquestioned floor leader of this team. Larkin is a fantastic three-point shooter who can fill it up with the best of them in addition to successfully running an offense. He averaged 23.7 PPG in the ACC Tournament, adding three more 20+ point games to his regular season total of five. If Miami is going to advance to Atlanta, Larkin will be the main reason why.
Home Cooking: #12 California: 46 miles to San Jose, California. This brings us to one of the few egregious violations of bracket principles and procedures. Not only did California already play Second Round opponent UNLV back in December, it gets to play the game as the lower seed less than an hour’s drive south of its Berkeley campus. UNLV beat Cal at Haas Pavilion but we’re sure that the Bears love this match-up. It’s hard to believe the selection committee couldn’t: a) have created a different match-up; or b) simply put the Bears in another pod.
Can’t Miss First Round Game: #6 Butler vs. #11 Bucknell (Thursday, March 21 at 12:40 PM ET on truTV). Two of the better non-power conference teams clash at Rupp Arena in one of the first games of the Tournament. Everyone knows about Butler’s story but let’s give a little love to the Bison of the Patriot League. Dave Paulsen’s team won 28 games this year and nearly knocked off Missouri in Columbia. Bucknell features one of the best players in America, center Mike Muscala, and uses him appropriately. Muscala sees the ball on over 30% of possessions and makes the Bison one of the toughest teams to score against inside on the other end of the floor. This won’t be the most aesthetically pleasing game because of the pace at which it will be played at but it’ll be a physical battle between two quality teams.
Don’t Miss This One Either: #3 Marquette vs. #14 Davidson (Thursday, March 21 at approximately 3:10 PM ET on truTV). The second game of the Lexington, Kentucky, pod will be 30 minutes following the conclusion of the Butler/Bucknell game. Davidson matches up quite well with Marquette but it’ll be up to senior big man Jake Cohen to contain the team that loves paint touches. Offensively, Cohen can step out and knock down the three, something Marquette will have to respect defensively. The match-up of De’Mon Brooks versus Jamil Wilson could also be a deciding factor in the outcome of this game. Don’t be fooled by the seed discrepancy. This will be a very good basketball game.
Lock of the Year: Indiana will make the Final Four. Some will point to a tricky second round match-up with NC State/Temple or a potential Sweet Sixteen game with Syracuse as potential roadblocks but this bracket is set up favorably for the Hoosiers. Clearly the best team in the region, they have the envious combination of NBA talent, big time play-makers, toughness, an incredible offense, respectable defense, and coaching experience. If Indiana doesn’t come out of this region, it will be a brutal disappointment.
Juiciest Potential Match-Up – Purists: #1 Indiana vs. #2 Miami in the Elite Eight. Miami does a lot of things that can make things difficult for Indiana. The Hurricanes can guard the interior as well as anyone in the ACC and actually finished league play #1 in defensive efficiency. Miami is also a physical basketball team and that’s something that has bothered Indiana in losses to the likes of Wisconsin and Butler. Indiana likes to play fast and Miami is a team that can slow the Hoosiers down and make them grind it out in the half-court. Despite a slower pace, Miami can certainly score the ball as well. If this match-up comes to fruition, Jim Larranaga should take a page out of Bo Ryan’s playbook in order to prepare.
We Got Screwed: #4 Syracuse. This is admittedly a bit of a stretch because Syracuse is the team that I felt was overseeded. It’s not that Syracuse got a bad seed, it’s that the Orange were shipped out west to San Jose and have to take on two western teams no matter which they play. SU gets Montana first and if it can get by the Grizzlies it will take on either California 46 miles from its campus or UNLV in a short plane hop from Las Vegas. Location, location, location. This is not good for Syracuse.
Juiciest Potential Match-Up – Media: #1 Indiana vs. #5 UNLV in the Sweet Sixteen. You could certainly argue for Indiana/Syracuse in this spot but I’ll take a different track. This game would evoke memories of the late 1980s and early 1990s when Bob Knight’s Indiana and Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV were kings of the college basketball world. UNLV and Indiana have only met once in the NCAA Tournament, a 97-93 Hoosier victory in the 1987 Final Four in New Orleans. Two nights later, Indiana would ironically knock off Syracuse thanks to Keith Smart’s buzzer-beater. These days, the match-up inside between Cody Zeller and Anthony Bennett would be worth the price of admission.
Strongest Pod: It is pretty clear that Lexington will have the most competitive games. The match-ups there were already discussed earlier in this piece and the second round game at Rupp Arena, whatever it might be, will be terrific as well. Two of the better mid-majors, Bucknell and Davidson, are in this pod along with future conference-mates Butler and Marquette.
Upset City: This region has plenty of potential upsets but the idea of Bucknell over Butler and Davidson over Marquette is too much to ignore. Those would be my picks plus you have a potential “upset” in the #7/#10 game between Illinois and Colorado. The Buffaloes usually play pretty good defense and have big guards, like Spencer Dinwiddie, who can bother Illinois’ perimeter shooters. If Colorado slows the pace and gets some scoring, it too could knock off the Illini.
So-Called Experts: Over at ESPN, Jay Bilas went with Indiana making it to Atlanta. The rest of ESPN’s experts all picked either Indiana (including efficiency guru John Gasaway) or Miami. CBSSports.com’s Matt Norlander said on Twitter that he has Davidson in the Sweet Sixteen. He also has Miami in the Final Four. Also at CBS, Jerry Palm has Syracuse coming out of the East region.