1. Connecticut Huskies
Location: Storrs, CT
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Jeff Adrien (13.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg), Hasheem Thabeet (13.6 ppg, 10.8 rpg), A.J. Price (13.3 ppg), Stanley Robinson (6.1 ppg, 5 rpg)
Strength: Hasheem Thabeet may be the biggest game changer in the country. Offensively, when the Huskies look for him, it opens up the rest of the offense for their perimeter players. Defensively, he just owns the paint. If he’s not blocking shots, he’s changing them. If he’s on the floor and playing to his ability, UConn is easily one of the dominant teams in America.
Weakness: The Huskies are going to have to try to find another perimeter scorer with the loss of Jerome Dyson. He took all the big shots for Connecticut and now the Huskies look lost at times on the floor. Price does a good job of running the show for them, but he is not the clutch player that Dyson was. Someone is going to have to step into that role for Connecticut to make a deep run in the tournament.
2. Memphis Tigers
Location: Memphis, TN
Automatic Bid: Conference-USA Champions
Key Players: Tyreke Evans (16.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Robert Dozier (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Shawn Taggart (10.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Antonio Anderson (10.2 ppg)
Strength: Memphis is quite possibly the best defensive team in the country. Forcing almost 16 turnovers per game and holding teams to 36% shooting on the season, the Tigers aren’t going to give up anything. Teams are only scoring 56.9 points per game against them and that’s the reason why a team that lost the talent that the Tigers did, has been able to win 31 games.
Weakness: The jury is still out on Memphis as an offensive team. There’s not another team in Conference USA with talent that’s even close to Memphis yet they still don’t lead the conference in points per game. They’re still not a great free-throw shooting team and are only making 32% of their three’s. They’re going to have to put some points on the board if they want to be successful against the step up in competition.
3. Missouri Tigers
Location: Columbia, MO
Automatic Bid: Big 12 Conference Champions
Key Players: DeMarre Carroll (16.8 ppg, 7.3 ppg), Leo Lyons (14.2 ppg, 6 rpg)
Strength: A disciple of the Nolan Richardson school of basketball, Coach Mike Anderson employs the “Forty minutes of heck (hell)” style of play. They’re going to get up and down the court on makes and misses. They really pressure the basketball and turn their opponents’ turnovers into easy offense. It’s fun to watch, but difficult to prepare for and I don’t envy any team that has to play the Tigers.
Weakness: If Missouri doesn’t score, it throws a monkey wrench into its game plan. If the Tigers don’t make baskets, they can’t set up their press and if they can’t press they can’t get the game played at their pace. It’s imperative for them to play good offense or their defense will be rendered ineffective.
4. Washington Huskies
Location: Seattle, WA
At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference
Key Players: Isaiah Thomas (15.4 ppg), Justin Dentmon (15 ppg), Jon Brockman (14.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg), Quincy Pondexter (11.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg)
Strength: The most explosive team in the Pac-10, Washington, can score on you in many different ways. Thomas and Dentmon are undersized, but together, they are tough to defend on the perimeter. Then there is Brockman and Pondexter who can get it done in the paint. Their explosiveness is the reason why they won the regular season title in the Pac-10.
Weakness: While explosive, this is a team that’s also prone to turning the ball over. Averaging 15 turnovers per game, Washington is in last place in the Pac-10 in that category. With 432 assists on the season to 491 turnovers, the Huskies are flirting with a recipe for disaster.
5. Purdue Boilermakers
Location: West Lafayette, IN
Automatic Bid: Big Ten Conference Champions
Key Players: E’Twaun Moore (13.9 ppg), JaJuan Johnson (13.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Robbie Hummel (12.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg)
Strength: Being first in field-goal percentage defense in the Big Ten is an accomplishment and that’s what the Boilermakers are. Purdue has held its opponents to 59 points per game with that aggressive defense. Led by top notch defender Chris Kramer, the Boilermakers are also forcing over 15 turnovers per game as well. If they defend like this in the tournament, they’ll be tough to beat.
Weakness: Purdue is going to live and die by the three-point shot. While the Boilermakers shoot themselves into a long tournament run, they can also shoot themselves into a first-round upset. The good-shooting Boilermakers showed up in the Big Ten tournament, but the bad-shooting Boilermakers showed up the week prior. Purdue better hope it’s still hot.
6. Marquette Golden Eagles
Location: Milwaukee, WI
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Jerel McNeal (19.1 ppg), Wesley Matthews (17.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Lazar Hayward (15.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg)
Strength: Despite the loss of Dominic James, Marquette still has some of the best guards in America. They’re not normal guards either. They’re physical and tough with the mindset of big men. McNeal would’ve easily been in the discussion of Big East Player of the Year had the Golden Eagles not had the late season slide. He and Matthews will be a matchup problem for anyone.
Weakness: Marquette’s bench will be a problem in the NCAA Tournament. Marquette needs McNeal and Matthews on the court to be successful. If the Golden Eagles have to go to their bench they’ll be in major trouble. Now that Maurice Acker has been thrust into a starting position, the problem is even worse. McNeal and Matthews must play big-time minutes if Marquette is to stay in the tournament for a while.
7. California Golden Bears
Location: Berkeley, CA
At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference
Key Players: Jerome Randle (18.4 ppg), Patrick Christopher (14.6 ppg), Theo Robertson (12.8 ppg)
Strength: This is one of the most dangerous three-point shooting teams in the country. Cal is tops in the Pac-10 in the three-point shooting percentage at over 43%. Randle, Christopher, and Robertson can all shoot it from behind the arc. They’re not high-volume three-point shooters, but when they get going, it’s hard to beat the Bears.
Weakness: California is a mediocre defensive team. The Bears force less than 13 turnovers per game and teams are shooting 44% against them. When you add that teams are getting more offensive rebounds than the Bears then it’s easy to see why teams are scoring over 68 points per game against them.
8. BYU Cougars
Location: Provo, UT
At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference
Key Players: Lee Cummard (16.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Jimmer Fredette (16.2 ppg), Jonathan Tavernari (15.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Strength: The Cougars can really score. BYU is number one in the Mountain West Conference in points per game with a 77.4 average. Cummard, Fredette, and Tavernari lead an attack that shoots over 38% from behind the arc and almost 49% from the floor. When those three guys are going, the Cougars are one of the most explosive teams in college basketball.
Weakness: Going only 7-men deep, BYU has a very short bench. Not only is the bench short, but it’s relatively ineffective as well. The top two subs are only averaging 6.7 points per game. The Cougars will need to keep themselves out of foul trouble if they want to hang around the tournament for a while.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
Location: College Station, TX
At-Large Bid: Big 12 Conference
Key Players: Josh Carter (14.1 ppg), Donald Sloan (11.7 ppg), Bryan Davis (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Chinemelu Elonu (10.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg)
Strength: Coach Mark Turgeon has a luxury that most other coaches don’t have; experience in the backcourt. Carter and Sloan have been at Texas A&M throughout its most successful era of basketball and they’ve seen it all. They’re the reason why Texas A&M was able to turn its season around. If the Aggies are to go far in this tournament, it’ll be because of the two guards who know what takes to be successful.
Weakness: Being in the bottom half of the Big 12 in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ration is a problem. The Aggies are turning the ball over more than their opponents and they have 21 more turnovers than assists on the season. That leads to inefficient offense and it’s the reason why they’ve struggled mightily at times season.
10. Maryland Terrapins
Location: College Park, MD
At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference:
Key Players: Greivis Vasquez (17.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.1 apg), Landon Milbourne (11.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Eric Hayes (10.2 ppg)
Strength: Maryland is only going to go as far as Greivis Vasquez takes them. He does everything for Maryland; scores, creates for other players, rebounds and plays solid defense. The Terps get solid contributions from other players, but Vasquez is the clear leader on this team. If he performs to his ability, the Terps can make a run.
Weakness: This Maryland team suffers from the lack of an interior presence. They’re not very big and their post players seem content to shoot jump shots at times. The Terps need some semblance of a low-post threat to make a run to the second weekend. If they’re to make a run, someone is going to have to play big in the paint.
11. Utah State Aggies
Location: Logan, UT
Automatic Bid: Western Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Gary Wilkinson (17.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Jared Quayle (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Tai Wesley (11.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Strength: Utah St is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. The Aggies are shooting nearly 50% from the floor, 40% from downtown and are only averaging a little over 11 turnovers per game. They maximize their possessions and they don’t beat themselves. It is going to take a very discipline team to defend the Aggies successfully because they do everything well offensively.
Weakness: This is not an athletic Aggie team. They’re in the bottom of the WAC in both block shots and steals. While they’re a solid team on both ends on the floor, they’re not explosive. Teams may be able to play at a faster pace and above the rim against the Aggies and that could end their season.
12. Northern Iowa Panthers
Location: Cedar Falls, IA
Automatic Bid: Missouri Valley Conference Champions
Key Players: Adam Koch (12.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Kwadzo Ahelegbe (11.8 ppg), Jordan Eglseder (10.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg), Lucas O’Rear (5.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Strength: The Panthers play a style that’s made for the postseason. They’re a physical defensive-minded team that wants to keep the score in the 60s. They have good on-ball defenders and they have great size inside. They’ll take that toughness and defense to the tournament where they’ll be a tough out.
Weakness: Northern Iowa struggles to take care of the ball at times. The Panthers have turned the ball over more than their opponents and only have 20 more assists than turnovers on the season. With the way they play, if they don’t keep their turnovers down they’ll struggle to be successful.
13. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Location: Starkville, MS
Automatic Bid: Southeastern Conference Champions
Key Players: Jarvis Varnado (13.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg), Barry Stewart (12.3 ppg), Ravern Johnson (12.2 ppg), Dee Bost (11.1 ppg), Phil Turner (8.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Strength: Led by Varnardo on the interior, the Bulldogs are an outstanding defensive team. They have the luxury of being aggressive on the perimeter because they know if they get beat, Varnado is going to have their backs. He’s averaging over 4.7 blocks per game and he can dominate on the defensive end like only Hasheem Thabeet of Connecticut can. Teams are only shooting 39% on Mississippi St and that all stems from Varnado’s presence.
Weakness: This is a thin team and they have been getting hammered on the boards. The Bulldogs are in 11th place in the SEC in reboundinWeakness:g margin despite the presence of Varnado. They’ll be hard-pressed to keep opposing teams of the glass and it may be the reason why they exit this year’s tournament early.
14. Cornell Big Red
Location: Ithaca, NY
Automatic Bid: Ivy League Champions
Key Players: Ryan Wittman (18.5 ppg), Louis Dale (13.5 ppg), Jeff Foote (11.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
Strength: Cornell is your typical Ivy League school. Value the basketball, play smart, and shoot well from behind the arc. These are all things the Big Red does. They are tops in the Ivy in 3-point shooting, assists, assists-to-turnover ration, and are second in turnover margin. In other words, you’re going to have to beat them because they will not beat themselves.
Weakness: This is a team that struggles on defense at times. Cornell has a losing record when its opponents score over 70. Teams that can score really challenge the Big Red. That’s a problem given that they’ll be seeing a really good team during the tournament. If they are able to play at their pace, they’ll be in trouble.
15. Cal State Northridge Matadors
Location: Northridge, CA
Automatic Bid: Big West Conference Champions
Key Players: Tremaine Townsend (11.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Willie Galick (9.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Strength: Led by Townsend and Galick, the Matadors are the best rebounding team in the Big West Conference. Pulling down over 37 boards per game, they out-rebound their opponents by over 3.6 boards per game. Even their guards crash the boards. If they’re to have success, they’re going to have to accentuate this positive.
Weakness: With 17.4 turnovers per game, the Matadors are in last place in the Big West in that category. It’s amazing that they were able to win the regular season and tournament championship doing that in a pretty good mid-major conference. They’re going to have to take care of the basketball if they want to leave their mark in this year’s tournament.
16. Tennessee-Chattanooga Mocs
Location: Chattanooga, TN
Automatic Bid: Southern Conference Champions
Key Players: Stephen McDowell (18.6 ppg), Nicchaeus Doaks (13.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Kevin Goffney (13.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Khalil Hartwell (9.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
Strength: Pulling down more than 39 rebounds per game, the Mocs are tops in the Southern Conference. Doaks, Goffney, and Hartwell are monsters on a team that also leads the SoCon in rebounding margin. If the Mocs are to have any success in the tournament, they need to draw on this strength.
Weakness: Allowing their opponents to score over 76 points per game, the Mocs are one of the worst defensive teams in the tournament this season. If schools in the the SoCon have been able to score on the Mocs that easily, it’s a scary thought to think what the number 1 or 2 seed it’ll see in the tournament will do to them.