1. Pittsburgh Panthers
Location: Pittsburgh, PA
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Sam Young (18.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg), DeJuan Blair (15.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg), Levance Fields (10.7 ppg, 7.6 apg)
Strength: This is one of the most physical college basketball teams I’ve ever seen. Pitt is the bully on the block ready to take your lunch money and Blair is the leader of the gang. The Panthers are tough on the boards and Blair along with Young and Tyrell Biggs very effective scoring in the paint. You have to be mentally prepared to go toe-to-toe with their physicality or they will make you tap out.
Weakness: This team goes as Blair goes. When he’s in foul trouble, the Panthers lose their toughness and attitude and without that, they become very mortal. Young and Fields are very good players, but they won’t have much success with Blair sitting on the bench.
2. Duke Blue Devils
Location: Durham, NC
Automatic Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Champions
Key Players: Kyle Singler (16.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg), Gerald Henderson (16.6 ppg), Jon Scheyer 15.3 ppg)
Strength: Duke really plays great pressure defense. Their opponents are averaging 16.8 turnovers per game. This is the reason why nationally, the opinion of this Duke team is higher than has been in recent years. The Blue Devils force teams into turning the ball over and taking bad shots and then they let Henderson and Scheyer get in transition where they are dangerous. It is hard to stay with the Devils when they’re playing fast.
Weakness: There still is a question mark about Duke’s post presence. Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek have to give Singler some help defending in the paint and rebounding. If they aren’t, teams are going to punish the Devils with their big men. This has been a problem since Sheldon Williams left Durham and it still hasn’t been addressed.
3. Villanova Wildcats
Location: Villanova, PA
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Dante Cunningham (16 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Scottie Reynolds (15.5 ppg), Corey Fisher (10.8 ppg), Dwayne Anderson (8.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: Defensively, the Wildcats can really get after teams. Villanova uses its wealth of guards to pressure the basketball. That pressure has led to the Wildcats forcing over 15 turnovers per game. They’re not only turning people over, but they’re also holding squads to a hair over 40% shooting on the season. They’re a nightmare for opposing teams trying to get into their offense.
Weakness: The Wildcats’ low-post game is still a question mark. While Cunningham has stepped to become a good player this season, there’s still a question about whether Villanova has the post presence to make a deep run. Anderson and Shane Clark are going to have to step up if Villanova is going to make a return trip to the Sweet 16.
4. Xavier Musketeers
Location: Cincinnati, OH
At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference
Key Players: B.J. Raymond (14.1 ppg), Derrick Brown (13.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg), C.J. Anderson (10 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Jason Love (7.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
Strength: Xavier has very impressive depth. The Musketeers will attack you in waves with their nine-man rotation. Raymond, Brown, and Anderson are their primary scorers but they can get effective minutes in other places. In addition to those three, Xavier has five other players averaging over five points per game. Getting that kind of production from role players is a luxury most teams wish they had.
Weakness: Xavier has really missed Drew Lavender this year. The Musketeers have turned the ball over more than every team in the A-10 except for one. They’re 11th in assist to turnover ratio and 12th in turnover margin. Turning the ball over 70 more times than their opponents, they need to start valuing the basketball if they want to repeat their tournament run of last year.
5. Florida State Seminoles
Location: Tallahassee, FL
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Toney Douglas (20.9 ppg), Uche Echefu (8.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Soloman Alabi (8.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: It’s clear what Florida St is all about. Toney Douglas is one of the best players in college basketball and he’s carried the Seminoles all year. Averaging just under 21 points per game, no one has been able to stop him all year long. If he’s getting his numbers, Florida St may make a nice run in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Weakness: After Douglas, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a consistent scorer for the Seminoles. There’s a 12-point per game gap between he and next Seminole. They’ve been getting solid contributions from the role players, but if Douglas has an off game there may not be anyone on this roster capable of picking up the slack. If that happens, they’re in big trouble.
6. UCLA Bruins
Location: Los Angeles, CA
At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference
Key Players: Darren Collison (14.8 ppg, 5 apg), Josh Shipp (14.2 ppg), Alfred Aboya (10 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
Strength: Finally, a Ben Howland team that can score. The Bruins are averaging close to 77 points per game from shooting 50% from the floor and 40% from behind the arc-numbers good enough for first or second in the Pac-10. A weakness in the past of them has now become something they can lean on. This makes UCLA a different kind of animal in 2009.
Weakness: UCLA has lost its way defensively. There was once a time when teams considered themselves fortunate if they shot over 40%. This year it’s a disappointment if you’re just shooting over 40% against the Bruins. UCLA is in the bottom half of the Pac-10 in field goal percentage defense and three-point field goal percentage defense. If they don’t guard better in the tournament, they can kiss their consecutive Final Four streak goodbye.
7. Texas Longhorns
Location: Austin, TX
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: A.J. Abrams (16.3 ppg), Damion James (15.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Gary Johnson (10.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Dexter Pittman (10 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
Strength: While Abrams may get all the attention, it’s Texas’ frontcourt that has carried it all season. James, Johnson, Pittman, and Connor Atchley comprise of one of the best frontcourts in the country. They can all defend and they crash the boards like their lives depend on it. If the Longhorns are to go far this March, it’ll be their post players and not Abrams who’ll determine that.
Weakness: Shooting just 67% from the free-throw line, the Longhorns are leaving too many points on the floor. In the postseason, taking it’s necessary to shoot well from the free-throw line to survive. Memphis didn’t last year and it lost a national championship. If Texas doesn’t improve, it’ll have a tough time advancing.
8. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Location: Stillwater, OK
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: James Anderson (18.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Byron Eaton (14.4 ppg, 5.6 apg), Terrel Harris (14.1 ppg), Obi Muonelo (12.6 ppg, 7.1 apg), Marshall Moses (6.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: Offensively, Oklahoma St has so many ways it can beat you. The Cowboys great from behind the arc, solid from the free-throw line and has so many guys that can score. They come at you with four guys who score double figures and another who’s scores nine points per game. Although Anderson and Eaton are the focal points, this is a team that can score from anywhere.
Weakness: This is one of the worst defensive teams in the Big 12. Teams are averaging over 74 points per game against Oklahoma St on the year. Teams are shooting 35% from three-point range and nearly 45% from the floor. They’re tenth in the conference in both categories. Oklahoma St is going to have to defend in the halfcourt if it wants to make some noise in the tournament.
9. Tennessee Volunteers
Location: Knoxville, TN
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Tyler Smith (17.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Wayne Chism (13.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg), J.P. Prince (10.1 ppg), Brian Williams (5.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: The Volunteers want to induce teams into playing at a nascar-style pace. They’ll use their full-court press to speed the game up and turn their opponents over. They want to get into transition and let Smith, Chism, Prince, Cameron Tatum and Bobby Maze use their athleticism to make plays. They attack for 40 minutes and it wears their opponents down.
Weakness: With the loss of Chris Lofton, the Volunteers have struggled from behind the arc. Shooting only 31%, they’re dead last in the SEC in three-point shooting. Teams that can’t knockdown outside shots in March aren’t very successful. If the percentage proves to be true for Tennessee, they’ll be one and done this March.
10. Minnesota Golden Gophers
Location: Minneapolis, MN
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Lawrence Westbrook (12.4 ppg)
Strength: Head Coach Tubby Smith brought his trademark defense with him to Minneapolis. In a conference that prides itself on defense, it’s impressive that the Gophers are third in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage defense. That defense has helped them hold their opponents to 61 points per game. If they can play this kind of defense in the tournament they may make a little noise in the Big Dance.
Weakness: Who’s going to help Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson? That’s the question the Gophers have to answer. Minnesota is very easy to guard right now because it doesn’t have any other options offensively. If the Gophers can’t find additional scoring, they’ll be out of this tournament early.
11. Virginia Commonwealth Rams
Location: Richmond, VA
Automatic Bid: Colonial Athletic Association Champions
Key Players: Eric Maynor (22.4 ppg, 6.2 apg) Larry Sanders (11.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg)
Strength: VCU’s fast-paced style of play is tough to prepare for. Maynor and Joey Rodriguez, both among the top-10 in the CAA in steals, are the two leaders on one of the most dangerous full-court pressure defenses in the country. Couple that with the CAA’s leading shot-blocker, Sanders, now you have a defense tailor-made to create headache’s for opponents.
Weakness: The way to beat the Rams is to pound them on the boards. They’re one of the worst rebounding teams in the CAA as they’ve been out-rebounded by their opponents on the season. It hasn’t kept them from getting into the tournament, but if they don’t find a way to rebound, they won’t see the second weekend of the tournament.
12. Wisconsin Badgers
Location: Madison, WI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Marcus Landry (12.6 ppg), Trevon Hughes (12 ppg), Jason Bohannon (10.3 ppg,), Joe Krabbenhoft (8.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
Strength: While they’re not a high-scoring team, the Badgers are a very efficient team offensively. They’re patient, shoot a good 37% from downtown, over 72% from the free-throw line, and they only turn the ball over 10.1 times per game. It’s going to take a discipline team to guard their offense for 30-35 seconds each possession and they’re aren’t a lot of teams willing to do that.
Weakness: With Wisconsin’s style of play, there’s little margin for error. The Badgers play so close to the vest that it’s hard for them to overcome an off night in any area. This team has to be solid in every area for it to be successful and that’s going to be difficult to do in a tournament where the teams will try to take away what you do best. The Badgers have to be at their absolute best to advance.
13. Portland State Vikings
Location: Portland, OR
Automatic Bid: Big Sky Conference Champions
Key Players: Jeremiah Dominguez (12.9 ppg), Dominic Waters (11.5 ppg), Phil Nelson (11.2 ppg), Andre Murray (11 ppg), Jamie Jones (8.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Julius Thomas (7.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
Strength: Portland St has balance that many teams dream of. With four players averaging double figures in scoring and three others scoring over per game, the Vikings have a lot options offensively. Having that luxury makes them hard to defend and keeps Dominguez from having to shoulder the load that he had to last year.
Weakness: Portland St isn’t a very good defensive team. Teams are shooting over 45% from the field and over 34% from three against the Vikings. There lack of size is contributing factor, but they need to figure out a way to guard people if they want to have success in the Big Dance.
14. American Eagles
Location: Washington, DC
Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions
Key Players: Garrison Carr (17.8 ppg), Brian Gilmore (12.4 ppg), Derrick Mercer (11.5 ppg)
Strength: American loves the three-point shot. The Eagles are not a big team so they’ve found another way to be effective. Close to 40% of their field-goal attempts come from behind the arc and the Eagles are making them at a very respectable 38%. The three-point shot kept them in the game against Tennessee in last year’s tournament and it could get them to the second round in this year’s.
Weakness: The Eagles virtually have no depth this year. After Carr, Gilmore, and Mercer there’s a big drop off in point production to the other two starters and it’s even worse when they get to the bench. Carr and Mercer are clocking more than 36 minutes per game so fatigue could come into play for the Eagles.
15. Binghamton Bearcats
Location: Binghamton, NY
Automatic Bid: America East Conference Champions
Key Players: D.J. Rivera (20 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Malik Alvin (11.7 ppg), Emanuel Mayben (11.5 ppg), Reggie Fuller (10.2 ppg)
Strength: The Bearcats employ a full-court pressure defense that wreaked havoc on America East opponents this season. They use that defense to get the game played at a breakneck speed, the pace they like. They make you take quick shots and turn the ball over and turned those mistakes into the first pass on their fast break. If teams go up and down with the Bearcats, then the Bearcats have them right where they want them.
Weakness: This team is in the bottom half of the America East in rebounding. That’s not good because if you can’t out-rebound Stony Brook and New Hampshire, it’s going to be very difficult to rebound against a team the caliber of the one it’ll be facing in the tournament. Binghamton has been out-rebounded by 50 by its opponents on the season. That’s not a recipe for March success.
16. East Tennessee State Buccaneers
Location: Johnson City, TN
Automatic Bid: Atlantic Sun Conference Champions
Key Players: Kevin Tiggs (21.5 ppg), Courtney Pigram (17.6 ppg), Mike Smith (15.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg)
Strength: The Buccaneers are an outstanding offensive team. Averaging just under 79 points per game, they are tops in the Atlantic Sun in scoring and scoring margin. Tiggs, Pigram, and Smith lead an offensive attack that can rival any mid-major in America. It’s unusual for teams at their level to have the scoring options that the Buccaneers have. That’s why they’ve won games consistently all year long.
Weakness: East Tennessee St is averaging over 14 turnovers a game and that’s a high number if you expect to be successful in March. The Buccaneers need to value the basketball if they want to be competitive. Teams in the NCAA are tough enough to beat as it is and giving them extra opportunities is only going to make it more difficult.