1. Syracuse Orange
Location: Syracuse, NY
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Kris Joseph (13.8 ppg), Dion Waiters (12.6 ppg), Brandon Triche (9.3 ppg), C.J. Fair (8.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Scoop Jardine (8.3 ppg, 4.7 apg), Fab Melo (5.8 rpg)
Strength: The Orange can just come at you in waves. Syracuse has the most depth of any team in the country. Its second five would probably be an NCAA tournament team. It’s amazing to see. Just when you’re worried about Scoop Jardine, Brandon Triche, Fab Melo and Kris Joseph; here comes Dion Waiters and C.J. Fair off the bench. This is a deep team that has the ability to make a deep run in the tournament.
Weakness: Rebounding is a serious concern for the Orange. It plays a 2-3 zone and that’s a difficult defense to rebound out of, but the Orange has been especially bad this season. Good teams have been able to attach that weak spot for Syracuse all year. Fortunately for the Orange it has found a way to win, but in the tournament they may not find that things will go so easily.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Location: Columbus, OH
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Jared Sullinger (17.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), Deshaun Thomas (15.5 ppg, 5 rpg), William Buford (14.8 ppg), Aaron Craft (8.6 ppg, 4.6 apg)
Strength: The Buckeyes will go as far as Jared Sullinger will take them. The future first-round draft pick can be dominant in the paint and if he is, this opens up the offense for everyone else. People get wide open threes and Deshaun Thomas gets room to operate. Sullinger can face up and it’s near unstoppable in the low-post. The Buckeyes can jump on his back and make a solid run.
Weakness: The Buckeyes aren’t making threes well enough to stretch defenses. If Sullinger doesn’t have guys who are able to make jumpshots then defenses will pay even more attention to him. They’re ninth in the Big Ten at just 32.5 percent. That’s just not a number that gets it done in the Big Dance.
3. Florida State Seminoles
Location: Tallahassee, FL
Automatic Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Champions
Key Players: Michael Snaer (14.4 ppg), Ian Miller (11 ppg), Bernard James (10.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Terrance Shannon (8.3 ppg), Luke Loucks (4 apg)
Strength: While the Seminoles are much improved offensively, their success begins and ends with their defense. Florida St is No. 1 in the ACC in field goal percentage defense and forced turnovers at 38.1 percent and 15.2 per game respectively. That defense is the reason why they come into the tournament with an ACC championship. This team went to the Sweet 16 last year and its defense can get it there again.
Weakness: Turnovers Turnover Turnovers. That’s the issue with the Seminoles. They turn the ball over at a rate 16.3 per game. That’s amazing for all the wrong reasons. The Seminoles simply can’t win in the tournament doing that. If they don’t get handle on this problem, figuratively and literally, then they’ll be going home early.
4. Wisconsin Badgers
Location: Madison, WI
At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference
Key Players: Jordan Taylor (14.5 ppg 4.1 apg), Ryan Evans (10.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Jared Berggren (10.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Mike Bruesewitz (5.3 rpg)
Strength: Teams stepping on the court with the Badgers better be ready for a battle. It’s going to be physical and low scoring. There’s no way out of that as Wisconsin manages to find a way to make teams play the way it wants them to play. The Badgers don’t beat themselves and play typical Big Ten basketball. It’s a rugged brand of hoops that prepares teams well for the NCAA tournament.
Weakness: Year after year Wisconsin remains one of the worse offensive teams in the Big Ten. Once again the Badgers are at the bottom of the Big Ten in scoring and field goal percentage. Bo Ryan recruits players to his system so he doesn’t have many dynamic scorers, but their inability to put points on the board could be their undoing.
5. Vanderbilt Commodores
Location: Nashville, TN
Automatic Bid: Southeastern Conference Champions
Key Players: John Jenkins (20 ppg), Jeffery Taylor (16.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Festus Ezeli (9.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Lance Goulbourne (8.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Brad Tinsley (8.8 ppg, 4.2 apg)
Strength: When you play Vanderbilt, you must defend the three-point line. The Commodores are second best in the SEC at shooting the three at 38.9 percent on the season. John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley all shoot above 40 percent from behind the arc. They can get hot and bury a team from there. Teams will have an issue with the Commodores deadly shooting.
Weakness: Vanderbilt has to show some consistency. This was a preseason top-10 team expected to challenge Kentucky for the SEC title. Instead it had some roster issues and was never able to gain that form. That said this team still had the talent to win the SEC tournament. It has to bring that effort night-in and night-out if it wants to make a run in the Big Dance.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
Location: Cincinnati, OH
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Sean Kilpatrick (14.3), Dion Dixon (13.1 ppg), Yancy Gates (12.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Cashmere Wright (10.9 ppg, 4.6 apg), Jaquon Parker (9.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Strength: This is one resilient team. This was a preseason top-25 team but it was struggling with early losses, including one to Presbyterian. Then came the fight and everyone left the Bearcats for dead. How wrong we were. Mick Cronin gave more responsibility to his guards and Cincinnati has taken off. It’s had a surprise turnaround show just how tough it is.
Weakness: Cincinnati has questionable depth. The Bearcats are getting solid contributions from only six guys and that can be an issue at times. This is not the greatest offensive team to begin with so Bearcat games can get ugly when they’re key guys are off. The Bearcats had better find some additional scorers if it wants to get pass the third round this year.
7. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Location: Spokane, WA
At-Large Bid: West Coast Conference
Key Players: Kevin Pangos (13.8 ppg), Elias Harris (13.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Robert Sacre (11.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Gary Bell, Jr. (10 ppg), Sam Dower (8.5 ppg)
Strength: With three players shooting above 40 percent from behind the three-point arc, Gonzaga is never out of a game. The Bulldogs are No. 1 in the WCC as team shooting 37.6 percent from three. And it’s not just that they shoot it well, they also have deep range and no conscience. Kevin Pangos will pull up a couple steps beyond half court and pull the trigger. It’s hard to defend a team with players who can do that.
Weakness: The Bulldogs are still a little too loose with the ball. Gonzaga turns the ball over 13.4 times per game. That’s just not going to get it done in the NCAA tournament. There will be no Pepperdine’s or Portland’s in the Big Dance for Gonzaga. They do that against the big boys and they’ll be in big trouble.
8. Kansas State Wildcats
Location: Manhattan, KS
At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Rodney McGruder (15.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Jamar Samuels (10.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Will Spradling (9.7 ppg), Jordan Henriquez (5 rpg)
Strength: As you would expect from a Frank Martin-coached team this year’s version of the Wildcats are as tough as nails. This is one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the Big XII. They’re physical, emotional and have taken on the identity of their coach. That means that you’re really going to have to stomp on them to beat them.
Weakness: Martin likes to give his guards free reign and it can sometimes come as a detriment to the team. Kansas St is averaging 14.5 turnovers per game which is second from last in the Big XII. The fact that it also gives the Wildcats a negative assist-to-turnover ratio makes it even worse. They’re going to have to be more organized if they want to make a run at the second weekend.
9. Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles
Location: Hattiesburg, MS
At-Large Bid: Conference-USA
Key Players: Neil Watson (12.2 ppg, 4.5 apg), Lashay Page (11.5 ppg), Darnell Dodson (11.1 ppg0, Maurice Bolden (9.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Jonathan Mills (9.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Angelo Johnson (9.5 ppg)
Strength: There are six players averaging at least nine points for the Golden Eagles making them one of the most balanced teams in this tournament. They have guys at different positions who can beat you on any given night. The addition of Darnell Dodson just boosts their chances. Any team with multiple options to score is a nightmare to defend.
Weakness: Defensively, Southern Miss really struggles. The Eagles are in the bottom half of Conference-USA in just about every major defensive category and its not necessarily the greatest conference in America. Not going to be any SMU’s or Tulane’s in the Big Dance so if the Eagles want to win in a tournament where defense is necessary, it better play some.
10. West Virginia Mountaineers
Location: Morgantown, WV
At-Large Bid: Big East Conference
Key Players: Kevin Jones (20 ppg, 11.2 rpg), Darryl Bryant (17.1 ppg), Deniz Kilicli (10.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg)
Strength: If it’s one thing you know a Bob Huggins-coached team is going to do it’s rebound. Led by Kevin Jones, the Mountaineers are once again one of the best rebounding teams in the Big East. They get after it on the offensive and defensive boards. It’s just part of the way they play. They’re going to beat you on the glass. You can only hope to minimize the damage.
Weakness: This is not a great defensive teams. In fact, out of all the Big East teams in the tournament, West Virginia gives up the most points at 66.2 per game. This is pretty young team so it’s not fully indoctrinated in the way Huggins wants his teams to play. However, nobody in the tournament will care, they’re just going to take advantage of the Mountaineers’ deficiency.
11. Texas Longhorns
Location: Austin, TX
At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: J’Covan Brown (20.1 ppg), Sheldon McClellan (11.3 ppg), Myck Kabongo (9.8 ppg), Clint Chapman (5.5 rpg)
Strength: When you need a bucket, it’s nice to have a go-to guy on your team and that’s exactly what Texas has. J’Covan Brown, the Big XII scoring champion, is an elite scorer. He can score in a variety of ways and has proven to be a difficult cover for Longhorn opponents. He can single-handedly carry this team to a win or two in the tournament.
Weakness: Texas is a great offensive rebounding team, but that’s because it has to be. This is a team that is shooting a little over 43 percent on the year making it a very difficult task for it to score at times. Texas has been hit hard by early defections to the NBA and this year you could see it clear as day. That overall offensive talent has drastically dropped off.
12. Harvard Crimson
Location: Boston, MA
Automatic Bid: Ivy League Champion
Key Players: Kyle Casey (11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Keith Wright (10.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Laurent Rivard (9.7 ppg), Brandyn Curry (5 apg)
Strength: Defense is the name of the game for the Crimson. Harvard holds its opponents to 54.8 points per game – that’s tops in the Ivy and fourth nationally. Teams are shooting less than 41 percent against the Crimson and they’re grabbing 73.4 percent of their opponents’ misses. They play at a steady pace and stymie they’re opponents defensively. This is a frustrating team to play.
Weakness: What helps the team is also what hurts this team. When you only score 65.4 points per game, you’re never out of reach of your opponent. That’s the dilemma that’s faced the Crimson on a number of occasions this season. Harvard is what it is at this point of the season, but it better be able to keep teams in the low-50s if it expects to make a run.
13. Montana Grizzlies
Location: Missoula, MT
Automatic Bid: Big Sky Conference Champions
Key Players: Will Cherry (16 ppg), Kareem Jamar (13.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg), Mathias Ward (11.1 ppg), Art Stewart (9.2 ppg), Derek Selvig (9.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
Strength: Montana enters the tournament coming off a dominating season in the Big Sky on the defensive end. The Grizzlies are first in points allowed, field goal percentage defense and three-point field goal percentage defense. That allowed them to rip off a 15-1 regular season conference record and win the conference championship going away.
Weakness: Depth is a serious issue for Montana. The Grizzlies are getting huge minutes and contributions from five players, but pass that not much else. That may work against the Portland St’s and Northern Arizona’s of the world, but they’re not going to see any teams of that ilk in the tournament. They need some contributions of the bench if they expect to make some noise in the big dance.
14. Saint Bonaventure Bonnies
Location: St. Bonaventure, NY
Automatic Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference Champions
Key Players: Andrew Nicholson (18.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg), Demitrius Conger (12.3, 6.1 rpg)
Strength: Andrew Nicholson is going to be one of the toughest players to guard in the tournament. He’s a future NBA player and has a skillset that most college teams don’t have to face in a big man. He’s 6’9, can rebound, but also shoots close to 39 percent from three. He makes 76.6 percent of his free throws and blocks 1.8 shots a game. He is the complete package and can dominate a game if he gets going.
Weakness: St. Bonaventure has a bit of a turnover problem. They average 14.2 turnovers per game. That’s causing them to be 13th in the 14 team A-10 in turnover margin. It also gives the team a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s hard to win when you don’t value the ball and given the team the Bonnies will be facing, it’ll be close to impossible.
15. Loyola Greyhounds
Location: Baltimore, MD
Automatic Bid: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Champions
Key Players: Erick Etherly (13.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Dylon Cormier (13.4 ppg), Robert Olson (11.2 ppg), Justin Drummond (10.9 ppg), Shane Walker (9.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg)
Strength: With four guys averaging double figures; Loyola is one of the more balanced teams you’ll find in this tournament. Nobody scores 14 points per game for the Greyhounds, but five players score at least nine. This gives them several weapons to hit teams with on a given night and makes this team a danger.
Weakness: As a team, they shoot just 42.8 percent and have a negative assist to turnover ratio so effenciency is a problem. This team does have weapons, but is capable of beating itself. Loyola’s margin for error is infinitesimal and if it expects to do anything besides being dispatched swiftly, it better cut down on the turnovers and shoot the ball well.
16. UNC-Asheville Bulldogs
Location: Asheville, NC
Automatic Bid: Big South Conference Champions
Key Players: Matt Dickey (16.5ppg), J.P. Primm (15.3 ppg, 4.1 apg) Chris Stephenson 13.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Jaron Lane (11.6 ppg), Jeremy Atkinson (11.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
Strength: A lot of times you see teams in the 16-seed territory and they struggle to score. Not the Bulldogs. Five players average double figures for a team that scores over 80 points per game. That gives Asheville options offensively and makes them very difficult to guard. This team can put points on the board and if it does that in the tournament it may put a scare in someone.
Weakness: The Bulldogs don’t have much of a post presence. Not one significant contributor for them is over 6’5”. That’s going to cause serious issues for them if they play a team with decent size, which they most likely will. They’ll get pounded on that backboards and will have issues defending the paint. That’s something that could very well spell their doom.