1. North Carolina Tar Heels
Location: Chapel Hill, NC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Tyler Hansbrough (21.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Ty Lawson (15.9 ppg, 6.1 apg), Wayne Ellington (15.2 ppg), Danny Green (13.3 ppg), Deon Thompson (11.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Ed Davis (6.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
Strength: No one can stop the Tar Heels from scoring. They’re going to push the ball off turnovers, missed baskets, and made baskets. They have so many weapons including last year’s National Player of the Year in Hansbrough and this year’s ACC Player of the Year in Lawson. The only team that can stop Carolina from scoring is Carolina and seeing how everyone came back for this run, that’s going to be a tough proposition.
Weakness: The Heels are an awful perimeter defensive team. Any guard worth a grain of salt has lit them up this season. Greivis Vasquez, Jack McClinton, Kyle McAlarney and Toney Douglas have all put up big numbers against Carolina this season. Eventually, they’ll have to guard someone to win a national championship. If they don’t then it’ll be another disappointing season in Chapel Hill.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
Location: Norman, OK
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Blake Griffin (21.9 ppg, 14.3 rpg), Willie Warren (14.7 ppg), Taylor Griffin (9.6 ppg, 6 rpg)
Strength: It’s clear what the strength of this team is and his name is Blake Griffin. The probable National Player of the Year is a load in the low post. Scoring and hitting the boards, only a concussion has been able to slow down Griffin this season. As long as he’s doing work in the low-post and Warren is playing the co-pilot role, this team is capable of going very far in the Big Dance.
Weakness: Oklahoma, especially Griffin, gets to the free-throw line often. Yet they’re ninth in the Big 12 in free throw percentage. That’s a great equalizer for the teams Oklahoma will face in the Big Dance. If the Sooners aren’t going to make their free throws, they’re not going to advance far.
3. Syracuse Orange
Location: Syracuse, NY
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Jonny Flynn (17.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Eric Devendorf (15.9 ppg), Paul Harris (12.6 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Andy Rautins (10.5 ppg), Arinze Onuaku (10.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Rick Jackson (8.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: This is one tough team. No one expected Syracuse to have anything left for West Virginia after its six overtime game with Connecticut. Syracuse beat the Mountaineers in overtime anyway. Led by Flynn, the Orange are a team that has a lot of fight. There’s no quit in them and they’ll have plenty left for the NCAA Tournament.
Weakness: While they go eight-men deep, Syracuse isn’t getting much production from its bench. Outside of Jackson, no is capable of providing an offensive spark of the bench. This is troubling given the minutes the Orange regulars played in the Big East tournament. Someone is going to have to step up and give the Orange a boost or they may be heading home early.
4. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Location: Spokane, WA
Automatic Bid: West Coast Conference Champions
Key Players: Josh Heytvelt (14.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) Matt Bouldin (13.7 ppg), Austin Daye (12.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Jeremy Pargo (9.8 ppg, 5 apg)
Strength: As usual, the Bulldogs are an explosive team offensively. There are about six guys in their lineup that can score 20 on any given night. Inside with Heytvelt and Daye and outside with Bouldin and Pargo, they can hurt you from anywhere. Averaging a shade less than 79 points per game, they are a matchup problem for anyone.
Weakness: Depth is an issue for Gonzaga. There are six players averaging 25 or more minutes per game and then a big drop off to Demetri Goodson at 13 minutes. If they get into a game against a team that likes to play full-court pressure defense, their legs may be vulnerable.
5. Illinois Fighting Illini
Location: Champagne, IL
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Demetri McCamey (11.9 ppg), Mike Davis (11.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Mike Tisdale (10.5 ppg), Chester Frazier (5.7 ppg, 5 apg)
Strength: The Fighting Illini bring that Big Ten defense to the tournament. For the season, they’re holding their opponents to 39% shooting from the floor. That suffocating defense has the Illini ranked number one in scoring defense at 56.6 points per game. It’s not the most entertaining thing to watch, but it’s the reason why they’ve enjoy a surprising resurgence this season.
Weakness: For a Big Ten squad, Illinois isn’t strong on the boards. The Illini are barely out-rebounding their opponents at just 0.1 per game. They don’t want to undermine their outstanding effort on the defensive end by allowing teams to get second and third opportunities. That would be an awful way to end their tournament run.
6. Arizona State Sun Devils
Location: Tempe, AZ
At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference
Key Players: James Harden (20.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Jeff Pendergraph (14.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Rihards Kuksiks (10 ppg)
Strength: The Sun Devils have a one-two punch that many teams wish to have. The Pac-10 Player of the Year, James Harden, and his co-pilot, Jeff Pendergraph, are two of the best players in the country and they’ve carried the Sun Devils all year. As they go, so go Arizona St. Two players of that caliber can carry a team a long way.
Weakness: Arizona St is really weak on the boards. The Sun Devils are near the bottom of the conference in rebounding margin, rebounds per game, and offensive rebounds per game. That’s a lot of hidden points that Arizona St is either leaving on the board or other teams are scoring on them. It’s going to be difficult for the Sun Devils to advance if they don’t fix the chink in their armor.
7. Clemson Tigers
Location: Clemson, SC
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference
Key Players: Trevor Booker (15.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg), K.C. Rivers (14.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Terrance Oglesby (13.5 ppg), Raymond Sykes (7.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
Strength: Clemson’s in-your-face full court defense is a sight to behold. The Tigers turn you over and let their athletes get out on the break to finish at the rim or their shooters spot up from downtown. Either way, this team is deadly in transition and if they catch their opponent playing at their pace, the band is going to play Tiger Rag all night long.
Weakness: This is not a great rebounding team. The Tigers are ninth in the ACC in rebounding margin as they are only out-rebounding their opponents by 1.6 boards per game. Clemson has the athletes to rebound and that’s what makes this stat troubling. If teams are able to counteract Clemson’s press by attacking the boards, the Tigers may be making an early exit from the tournament.
8. LSU Tigers
Location: Baton Rouge, LA
At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference
Key Players: Marcus Thornton (20.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Tasmin Mitchell (16.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Bo Spencer (11.6 ppg), Chris Johnson (7.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Strength: The Tigers use their outstanding length to play great defense. LSU’s long-armed defenders have held opponents to 40% shooting on the year and they’re only allowing teams to score 65.5 points per game. They have good size at every position and it’s the reason why they’ve been so effective defensively.
Weakness: LSU doesn’t have the depth to really make a deep run. The Tigers are only getting consistent contributions from five players. They’ll need to get point production of their bench to be effective in the tournament. If guys like Quinton Thornton and Terry Martin aren’t able to help offensively, the Tigers may be making an early exit from the tournament.
9. Butler Bulldogs
Location: Indianapolis, IN
At-Large Bid: Horizon League
Key Players: Matt Howard (14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Gordon Hayward (13.2 ppg), Shelvin Mack (11.7 ppg)
Strength: This isn’t your average run-of-the-mill Butler team. While they’ll still take a lot of three-point shots, the strength of the Bulldogs is on the defensive end of the court. Their opponents are only shooting 38% and averaging a little over 57 points per game. Their also forcing over 13 turnovers a game with six of those coming from steals. In addition to that, Butler is out-rebounding its opponents 34-31 on the year. This is a squad that’s doing all the dirty work.
Weakness: With just one upperclassman in the starting lineup, its amazing that Butler has even done as well as it has. This team’s youth has reared its ugly head in the team’s inconsistent play down the stretch. This is a talented team, so losing to Loyola-Il and Wisconsin-Milwaukee is a head scratcher. We’ll see if youth will be the Bulldogs un-doing.
10. Michigan Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Manny Harris (16.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg), DeShawn Sims (15.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg)
Strength: Head Coach John Beilein employs one of the most unusual defenses to prepare for. The Wolverines’ 1-3-1 zone gives other teams fits. Their zone entices teams to shoot a lot of threes, which plays right into the Wolverines’ hands. On the season, teams are only shooting 31% from behind the arc. That’s why teams are only scoring 63.1 points per game against them.
Weakness: Which Michigan team is going to show up in the tournament? Will it be the team that beat UCLA and Duke or will it be the team that lost to Iowa? The Wolverines have been wildly inconsistent this season and much of that depends on whether or not they can hit their three-pointers. If they’re shots are falling, this team is capable of going on an extended tournament run.
Location: Philadelphia, PA
Automatic Bid: Atlantic-10 Conference Champions
Key Players: Dionte Christmas (19.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Lavoy Allen (10.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg), Ryan Brooks (10.7 ppg)
Strength: The country may not know, but Temple’s foes in the A-10 do. Dionte Christmas is one of the best players in the country and he’s the reason Temple is in this position. He has the ability to take over a game like maybe only 5-10 other players in the country can. If he gets going, he can take the Owls to the second weekend.
Weakness: If the Owls expect to survive and advance in the tournament they’re going to have to make free throws. Shooting less than 70% as a team is not going to get you wins in the postseason. With the talent they have, it’ll be a shame that they bow out because they don’t take advantage of the charity stripe.
12. Western Kentucky Hilltoppers
Location: Bowling Green, KY
Automatic Bid: Sun Belt Conference Champions
Key Players: A.J. Slaughter (15.8 ppg), Orlando Mendez-Valdez (14 ppg), Steffphon Pettigrew (12.7 ppg), Sergio Kerusch (11.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg)
Strength: Western Kentucky has tremendous balance. The Hilltoppers have four players averaging in double figures with a fifth averaging over eight points a game. That balance is difficult to prepare for and has helped them to become one of the higher-scoring teams in the Sun Belt.
Weakness: The Hilltoppers are very weak inside. While they have five players who stand 6’8” or above, only Jeremy Evans records decent minutes. They like to play a small quick lineup, but that could be a detriment if they play a team with size. It caught up with them in the tournament last year and it could bite them again.
13. Akron Zips
Location: Akron, OH
Automatic Bid: Mid-American Conference Champions
Key Players: Brett McKnight (11.4 ppg), Nate Linhart (10.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Strength: This is one of the best defensive teams in the tournament. Akron is outstanding on the defensive end. The Zips are forcing teams to shoot less than 39%, turn the ball over almost 18 times per game, and they’re holding teams under 60 points per game. This is a team to watch in the tournament.
Weakness: Watching the Zips on offense is painful. Averaging less than 67 points per game and shooting less than 42%. Those types of numbers make it imperative that they play such good defense. If the Zips have to play an athletic team in the tournament, they may be in trouble, because if they’re not effective defensively, the game could get out of hand.
14. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
Location: Nacogdoches, TX
Automatic Bid: Southland Conference Champions
Key Players: Matt Kingsley (16.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Josh Alexander (14.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Nick Shaw (6.1 ppg, 6 rpg)
Strength: The Lumberjacks grinded their way to the Southland Conference regular season and tournament titles on the strength of their defense. Holding their opponents to 37% shooting from the floor and 27% from downtown, they play some of the best defense of all mid-majors. If they can hold their NCAA opponents to 56 points, the average they give up on the season, they’ll be in line for an upset.
Weakness: Only averaging a shade over 66 points per game, the Lumberjacks struggle to score. They’re only shooting 32% from three and have only made 65% of their free throws. They have got to find a way to put the ball in the hoop to have any chance for an upset.
15. Morgan State Bears
Location: Baltimore, MD
Automatic Bid: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Reggie Holmes (16.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Kevin Thompson (9.1 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Marquise Kately (5.4 rpg)
Strength: Last year, Morgan St got to the MEAC championship and lost in the final. This season, the Bears accomplished their goal and it’s all due to experience. This team has a starting lineup which includes four upperclassmen including the talented Holmes. This team went through the building of a program and has seen it all. There’s nothing that this team hasn’t seen.
Weakness: This is a team that struggles to score. Just about all of the Bears offensive numbers are offensive: 65% from the free-throw line, 42% from the field, two more turnovers than assists per game. The Bears just aren’t going to have any success in the tournament if they don’t become more efficient on offense.
16. Radford Highlanders
Location: Radford, VA
Automatic Bid: Big South Conference Champions
Key Players: Artisiom Parakhouski (16.3 ppg, 11.2 rpg), Kenny Thomas (14.8 ppg), Joey Lynch-Flohr (13.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Amir Johnson (9.6 ppg, 5.3 apg)
Strength: The mid-major version of Blake Griffin, Parakhouski leads a Radford low-post unrivaled by any in the Big South. Along with Lynch-Flohr, the Highlanders will go as far as their big men take them. They were beasts in Big South play and if they’re to have any success in the tournament, they’ll have to be tough in the Big Dance as well.
Weakness: This is a team that doesn’t value the ball at all. The Highlanders are average almost three more turnovers per game than their opponents-good enough for ninth place in the Big South. In addition to that, they average two less assists per game than turnovers. That’s a recipe for getting blown out in the first round.