Coach K has another stacked squad featuring the top recruiting class in the county. R.J. Barrett leads that class along with internet sensation Zion Williamson. There is so much talent here, but not much depth or experience. There is also a question mark at the center position. I’d feel a lot better about putting Duke in the Kansas/Kentucky class if there were upperclassmen who could be trusted. However there is still plenty here to win Coach K his sixth national title.
On a Friday night last March, Virginia let every other team that had ever been upset in the NCAA tournament off the hook by becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. That embarrassment has been a cloud hanging over the program all offseason. However, sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter missed that game and it would, at the very least, been a lot more competitive if he played. Tony Bennett remains one of the best coaches in college basketball and has Hunter along with juniors Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy returning with Alabama transfer Braxton Key immediately eligible. This is still a dangerous squad.
3. North Carolina
Ever since senior forward Luke Maye hit the game winning shot against Kentucky in the 2017 South Region Final, he’s become a household name nationally. The all-American candidate leads a Tarheel team that expects freshmen Nassir Little and Leaky Black to make instant impacts. Coach Roy Williams is going to have to learn to live life without Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, but with those three along with seniors Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson, he has plenty to work with this season.
Remember when Syracuse was in trouble with the NCAA and they had a plan for head coach Jim Boeheim to transition from coaching? Me neither. Boeheim has a really good team on his hands led by junior guard Tyus Battle. The all-league candidate leads a team that also returns sophomore forward Oshae Brissett and senior guard Frank Howard. The Orange has been living life on the bubble recently, but that shouldn’t be an issue this season.
No one thought head coach Brad Brownell would even make it to coach last season’s team let alone make the sweet 16. However, that’s exactly what happened and the Tigers are primed to make a return trip to the Big Dance this season. Senior all-conference candidate Marcquise Reed leeds an experienced team that also features fellow seniors Sheldon Mitchell and Elijah Thomas. Freshman John Newman III is expected to help offset the losses of Gabe Devoe and Donte Grantham.
6. Virginia Tech
Buzz Williams really talented core returns lead by senior guard Justin Robinson and junior forward Kerry Blackshear, Jr. Senior Ahmed Hill and sophomore Nickeil Alexander-Walk are also expected to be key components. The biggest question is when senior forward Chris Clarke will return from suspension. Whenever, it will be, there should still be enough to get the Hokies back to the Big Dance.
With Bruce Brown and Lonnie Walker in the NBA, coach Jim Larranaga is going to have to find pieces to replace their production. The pieces he’s most likely to turn to are in his backcourt with sophomore Chris Lykes, junior Dejan Vasiljevic, senior Anthony Lawrence II and grad transfer Zach Johnson. Expect the Hurricanes to continue to be one of the toughest outs in the league.
8. Florida St
Another NCAA tournament season turned into a surprising tournament run for the Seminoles as they came withing a game of the Final Four. C.J. Walker transferring leaves a question mark at the lead guard, but head coach Leonard Hamilton will use a lot of people anyway. Seniors Phil Cofer and Terance Mann will lead this Seminole club with junior Trent Forrest also being key cog in the backcourt. Freshman Anthony Polite’s health will be a key concern for the Seminoles. Expect senior David Nichols to contribute as well.
9. NC State
No one expected NC State to make the NCAA tournament in head coach Kevin Keatts’ first season at the helm. This season may be a little tougher with Al Freeman, Leonard Freeman and Omer Yurtseven all out of the program and freshman Manny Bates injured to start the year. Sophomore Braxton Beverly and senior Torin Dorn will have to step up. Transfers Blake Harris and C.J. Bryce will be important as well.
10. Boston College
The Eagles are a Jerome Robinson return from being a sure-fire tournament team. That’s still not out of the realm of possibility though. Juniors Ky Bowman and Nik Popovic return along with senior Jordan Chatman to try to replace Robinson’s production. Freshmen Jairus Hamilton and Wynston Tabbs could become key contributors as well.
Not many programs dealt with more upheaval than this one last season as the Cardinals played with an interim coach. They’re now led by Chris Mack, a coach many say is one of the best in the country. He’ll have plenty to repace as Quentin Snider, Deng Adel and Raymond Spalding are all gone. Akoy Agau transfers back into the program with Khwon Fore, Steven Enoch and Christen Cunningham to provide instant relief. However the success of the season most likely rests squarely on the junior forward V.J. King’s development.
12. Notre Dame
Bonzi Colson’s early season injury put a damper on the Irish’s entire season, and it still almost made the tournament. He along with Martinas Geben and Matt Farrell will be difficult to replace. Complicating things is sophomore forward D.J. Harvey’s health. He’ll need to be ready to help junior guard Temple Gibbs. Freshman Prentiss Hubb has a bright future for Notre Dame, but will be thrown to the fire early. Could be a rebuilding year in South Bend.
13. Georgia Tech
Josh Pastner’s first year almost saw the Yellow Jackets sneak their way into the NCAA tournament. Last year was a totally different story. NCAA violations, false claims against Pastner, and an embarrassing home loss to Grambling and he is squarely on the hot seat. With Josh Okogie, Ben Lammers and Tadric Jackson have moved on so Pastner will lean on his guards, junior Shembari Phillips, junior Jose Alvarado and freshman Michael Devoe. Shaping up to be a long year.
14. Wake Forest
Speaking of hot seats, Danny Manning’s is warm in Winston-Salem. Bryant Crawford and Doral Moore did him no favors by leaving school early. His team lacks the talent right now to compete in the ACC. If it weren’t for Pitt having to replace just about its entire roster this would be the worst team in the league. It could get ugly in the Triad.
Not many coaches had a more disastrous run than Kevin Stallings at Pitt. That’s why Jeff Capel is now the coach. The Panthers are going to rely on transfers and freshmen entirely in a situation that is going to take some time to turn around. Freshman Xavier Johnson will be a good player down the road. Capel has his work cut out for him.
This weekend, the Duke Blue Devils won the Motion bracket of the PK80 invitational. What’s interesting is how they won.
Duke was down by at least seven in each of the wins, including being down 17 with 10 minutes remaining in their 87-84 championship win over Florida. It was an impressive show of resilience from a pretty young team.
That young team (more on that below) may now firmly be the favorites for the national title after beating Florida and Michigan St in the first month of the season.
National Player of the Week: Marvin Bagley, III, Duke.
Bagley was dominant in Portland last week as he averaged 27.3 points and 15 rebounds per game to spur Duke to the title. He has shown early on that the hype around him is legit and that he is a legitimate National Player of the Year Candidate.
Stock Up: Washington St. How about the Cougars? Washington State won the Wooden Legacy tournament in Southern California – beating 3 teams that many believe are bubble teams at the very least. This is a huge development for the Pac-12 and that program that hasn’t been the same since Tony Bennett left for Virginia.
Stock Down: Arizona. Wow. If there was any team that the FBI investigation appears its taken its toll on its the Arizona Wildcats. They lost all three game in the Battle of Atlantis and weren’t competitive in the their 89-64 lost to Purdue. It’s an embarrassing performance for a program under the microscope.
Stock Up: Division I basketball in the state of Nevada. Both Nevada and UNLV are undefeated and have looked impressive doing so. The UNLV Runnin’ Rebels destroyed Utah by 25 on Thanksgiving in a clear sign that head coach Marvin Menzies has it turned it around. Meanwhile Nevada has already beaten Rhode Island and Davidson. It looks like those two could be making the Mountain West at least a two-bid league.
Stock Down: Trying to win a game with three players. It’s almost impossible, but Alabama came close. After a scuffle when it’s reserves left the bench, a foul out and an injury, the Crimson Tide was forced to finish its game against Minnesota with just three players. The crazy thing is that after all that happened, Alabama actually cut into the lead. Still not recommended.
Will this be the year? Will this be the year a team other than one from Virginia wins the Colonial Athletic Association. If the Drexel Dragons have anything to say about it, it will.
It’s been six years since UNC-Wilmington won the regular season title in the CAA. That’s six long years for the rest of the league as George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion have dominated the league. In that span, Mason and VCU have gone to Final Fours and Old Dominion has gone to the NIT semifinals in addition to winning a first-round tournament game.
This year may be different though. Drexel is currently in a three-way tie for first with Mason and VCU, but it has beaten both teams and has lost only one time in is last 18 games.
The Dragons are hot and only have one game remaining against a team with more than three conference wins remaining. They’re in prime position to win the CAA title.
Stock Up: Travon Woodall. He’s made such a difference for the Panthers since returning from injury. This team looked completely lost without him and now look like one of the best teams in the Big East. If the tournament began today I don’t think Pitt would be in it, but I’m willing to bet money we’ll see Pitt in the Big Dance and that’s all due to Woodall.
Stock Down: Connecticut. I’ve never seen this before out of a UCONN team. The Huskies have had some down years, but what’s going on right now is downright embarrassing. As I write this, Louisville is currently beating them as if the Cardinals are the Dream Team and the Huskies are Angola. I’m pretty shocked.
Stock Up: Southern Miss Golden Eagles. The school that Brett Favre built is having quite a season. The Eagles are sitting at 20-3 and are atop the Conference-USA standings. They’ve achieved a season split with Memphis have beaten title contenders Marshall and UCF. They have a favorable schedule down the stretch and can solidify an at-large bid.
Stock Down: Duke’s Homecourt Advantage. First reports surface that student demand for tickets at Cameron Indoor Stadium isn’t as high as it’s been in the past. Then the Blue Devils go out and lose to Florida St and Miami. Not the Heat, the “U.” Obviously this says more about Duke than it does about Cameron, but it’s definitely surprising to see.
This Week’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: California, Minnesota, Wyoming, UCF
Last Four Out: Colorado St, NC State, Arkansas, Northern Iowa
Good for games through of 2/5
1.Kentucky16.UNC-Asheville/Norfolk St Louisville
8.Southern Miss9.Iowa St
4.Marquette13.Long Beach St
6.Gonzaga11.New Mexico Nashville
1.Missouri16.Stony Brook/Mississippi Valley St Omaha
1. Duke Blue Devils
Location: Durham, NC Record: 30-4 Automatic Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Champions Key Players: Nolan Smith (21.3 ppg, 5.2 apg), Kyle Singler (17.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Seth Curry (9.5 ppg), Mason Plumlee (8.5 rpg) Strength: Duke is one of the most experienced teams in the country as it returns much of the team that won the national championship last season. Led by seniors, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, the Devils picked up where they left off last season. This team has been focused and primed for a repeat and are very capable of doing that. The Blue Devils may have been the most surprising No. 1 seed to ever win a national championship last season, but they won’t shock anyone if they repeat. Weakness: This is a solid three-point shooting team, but if it’s off it really throws them into a tizzy. Almost 35 percent of Duke’s field goal attempts are from behind the arc so if its not making a good percentage of them it makes it very difficult for it to score. Duke has size inside, but it must learn to lean on it a bit more or it could come back to haunt it.
2. San Diego State Aztecs
Location: San Diego, CA Record: 32-2 Automatic Bid: Mountain West Conference Champions Key Players: Kawhi Leonard (15.4 ppg, 10.7 rpg), Malcolm Thomas (11.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg), D.J. Gay (11.2 ppg), Billy White (9.9 ppg), Chase Tapley (8.4 ppg) Strength: This is a very tough team. The Aztecs are grown men on the boards as they are first in the Mountain West in rebounding margin. They also defend as they only allow their opponents to shoot 39.6 three from the field and 30.9 percent from three. They do a great job taking teams out of what they like to do and just pound teams into submission. Any team that wants to beat them will have to match their toughness and judging by their record, that’s been easier said than done. Weakness: The Aztecs have been able to get through the Mountain West schedule with a seven-man rotation, but that’s not going to cut it in the NCAA Tournament. D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Kawhi Leonard all play a lot of minutes and that could come back to haunt the Aztecs. This is a supremely talented team, but it’s going to take more than just the talent in the starting five to make it to the Final Four.
3. Connecticut Huskies
Location: Storrs, CT Record: 26-9 Automatic Bid: Big East Champions Key Players: Kemba Walker (23.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Jeremy Lamb (10.3 ppg), Alex Oriakhi (10 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Shabazz Napier (8.3 ppg), Roscoe Smith (5.1 rpg) Strength: The world knows by now that to beat Connecticut you have to find a way to contain Kemba Walker. Walker, a national player of the year candidate, has been hard for everybody to stop. Teams have tried zone and man against him and somehow, he’s managed to still score and carry his team. The show he put on in the Big East Tournament was amazing and he’s fully capable of duplicating that in the Big Dance. Weakness: Outside of Walker, the Huskies just haven’t gotten consistent production from the rest of the roster all year. There have been nights when Jeremy Lamb or Alex Oriakhi have really scored, but not on a night-in night-out basis. Due to that, many teams have played zone against Connecticut and it has worked. The Huskies shoot only 43.3 percent from the field. If Walker’s supporting cast doesn’t step up Connecticut could ripe for an upset.
4. Texas Longhorns
Location: Austin, TX Record: 27-7 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: Jordan Hamilton (18.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Tristan Thompson (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Gary Johnson (11.5 ppg, 7 rpg), Cory Joesph (10.5 ppg), J’Covan Brown (9.8 ppg) Strength: Texas may have the most talented starting five in America. Texas has any number of guys who can fill it up led by freshman Tristan Thompson. The Longhorns have shown they can beat anyone in the country as evident by their win at Kansas. They are hard to guard together and can score in bunches. This team will be tough to beat and is capable of making a deep run in the Big Dance. Weakness: Texas is still a very young team. The Longhorns get a lot of production from underclassmen and that could be a detriment in the tournament. They’ve already shown a lack of maturity in some of their losses this year and it’s quite possible that it can happen again. Texas’ young players are no doubt talented, but that was also the case in 2007 with Kevin Durant and that ended with a second round loss to USC. There’s plenty of evidence here to say that may happen again.
5. Arizona Wildcats
Location: Tucson, AZ Record: 27-7 At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference Key Players: Derrick Williams (19.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Lamont Jones (9.6 ppg), Kyle Fogg (8.3 ppg) Strength: It’s easy to see why the Wildcats have had a renaissance year and he wears No. 23. Derrick Williams is an All-American and a load in the paint. He has carried this team all season long with his stellar play. He really has no peer at his position in college basketball and his teammates have done a good job of playing off of him. Williams is a great college basketball player – one with the talent to take the Wildcats on a long run. Weakness: The Wildcats struggle mightily when they turn the ball over. They sit in eight place in the Pac-10. The team can be really explosive when they’re playing well, but they can also give games away with their carelessness. Even Williams, as good as he is, is a turnover factory as he leads the team with 86 turnovers and just 37 assists. If the Wildcats don’t take care of the ball they could lose to anybody.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
Location: Cincinnati, OH Record: 25-8 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Yancy Gates (11.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Dion Dixon (11.6 ppg), Sean Kilpatrick (9.9 ppg), Cashmere Wright (8.9 ppg), Rashad Bishop (8.1 ppg) Strength: The Bearcats, just like most teams in the Big East, are an awesome defensive team. Cincinnati’s 41.1 percent field-goal percentage defense yields just 59.2 points per game from opponents; good enough for first in the conference. Their guards are great at pressuring the basketball and they have enough length to bother jump shooters. Cincinnati may have flown under the radar, but they’ll prove to be a match-up nightmare in the NCAA Tournament. Weakness: Cincinnati struggles mightily to score. The Bearcats are one of the worst shooting teams in the Big East as they only shoot 43.6 percent from the field on the year. In fact, the Bearcats second through fifth leading scorers don’t come anywhere near shooting 50 percent. Cincinnati has to make games ugly to win, but if they play against a team that gets hot, there won’t be much it can do to stay in it.
7. Temple Owls
Location: Philadelphia, PA Record: 25-7 At-Large Bid: Atlantic-10 Conference Key Players: Ramone Moore (14.9 ppg), Lavoy Allen (11.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Juan Fernandez (10.7 ppg), Khalif Wyatt (10 ppg), Rahlir Jefferson (5.1 rpg) Strength: Temple has one of the most frustrating styles of play to prepare for. The Owls play a deliberate style where they control tempo on offense and play tough defense. They’re physical and tough inside with Lavoy Allen. Their experienced on the perimeter with the unflappable Juan Fernandez. It’s not the most beautiful brand of basketball to watch, but it is very effective. Weakness: Injuries have really depleted the Owls this season. Temple’s rotation is virtually nonexistent now. Temple only played seven players in their Atlantic 10 semifinal loss to Richmond. The Owls cannot afford any foul trouble because all that’s left at this point are walk-ons. If Temple plays a team with great depth, it may be in serious trouble.
8. Michigan Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI Record: 20-13 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Darius Morris (15.2 ppg, 6.7 apg), Tim Hardaway Jr. (13.9 ppg), Jordan Morgan (9.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Zack Novak (8.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) Strength: Coach John Beilein has one of the most unusual styles of play in America. The Wolverines love to spread teams out and shoot three pointers. They have outstanding guards, who’ve led the team to shoot a respectable 35.3 percent from behind the arc. Once teams decide to guard Michigan on the three point line, it opens up the lane for layups. Beilein’s West Virginia team got hot and made it to the Elite 8 in 2005 so there’s no reason to believe this Michigan team can’t have success too. Weakness: The Wolverines are extremely weak on the boards. It’s surprising that Michigan was successful in the rugged Big Ten. Michigan was 10th in the conference in rebounding Margin with the likes of Iowa and Indiana finishing ahead of it. That’s part of the reason why the Wolverines were a middling team in the conference and could be the reason why they are booted out of the Big Dance quickly.
9. Tennessee Volunteers
Location: Knoxville, TN Record: 19-14 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Scotty Hopson (17.4 ppg), Tobias Harris (15.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Cameron Tatum (8.9 ppg), Melvin Goins (8.1 ppg), Brian Williams (7.7 rpg) Strength: Scotty Hopson had a great season for Tennessee. He is one of the most explosive players in the nation and has put up huge numbers against solid defensive teams. Hopson scored 27 on Pittsburgh and 32 on Georgia. He has solid teammates around him who complement his talents very well. If Hopson gets going in the Big Dance, he can carry Tennessee to the second weekend. Weakness: There was only one team in the SEC that got to the free-throw line more than Tennessee, yet it is only eighth in free-throw percentage. Three key guys in the Volunteers’ rotation shoot sub-70 percent from the charity stripe. This is key in pressure situations when free-throws are so important. The Vols have to get the right people to the line or they may give a win away.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
Location: State College, PA Record: 19-14 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Talor Battle (20.1 ppg), Jeff Brooks (13.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg), David Jackson (9.8 ppg), Andrew Jones (5.5 rpg) Strength: Penn St goes as Talor Battle goes. The Nittany Lions follow the lead of Battle who is one of the best players in the nation. Battle has toiled in relative obscurity in State College for four years, but he finally gets his moment in the sun making the first NCAA Tournament of his career. If he gets hot, he can be the catalyst to get the Nittany Lions to the second weekend. Weakness: Watching Penn St play on offense is not a pleasant experience. The Nittany Lions are one of the worst teams in the tournament offensively as they score only 63 points per game. They have no explosion offensively and cannot get down by double digits. The Lions want to grind wins out, but on offense, it seems as though that strategy backfires.
11. Missouri Tigers
Location: Columbia, MO Record: 23-10 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: Marcus Denmon (17.1 ppg), Laurence Bowers (11.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Ricardo Ratliff (10.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Kim English (10.2 ppg), Michael Dixon (10.2 ppg) Strength: Coach Mike Anderson’s “fastest 40 minutes in basketball” is basketball on roller skates. It’s fun to watch, but it’s also difficult to prepare for and that’s what makes Missouri tough. The Tigers employ one of the nation’s most effective full court pressure defenses. They force over 18 turnovers a game and they use those turnovers to fuel their offense. If the Tigers can impose their will with their style of play, they can make a little noise in the Big Dance. Weakness: This is one of the worst rebounding teams in the Big XII. The tigers get out-rebounded by nearly two boards per game. A lot of that has to do with the Tigers wanting to get out and run, but it also has to do with the fact that Missouri’s big men don’t give consistent production going to the glass. Rebounds can be had against this team and if it gives up too many, it could be one-and-done.
12. Memphis Tigers
Location: Memphis, TN Record: 25-9 Automatic Bid: Conference-USA Key Players: Will Barton (12.3 ppg, 5 rpg), Joe Jackson (9.9 ppg), Tank Black (9.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Wesley Witherspoon (9 ppg) Strength: Memphis is one of the most athletic teams in the country. Josh Pastner has built this team in the mold that his predecessor, John Calipari, built his teams. The Memphis roster is full of guys who love to get up-and-down the court and they do it well. The Tigers are treacherous on the fast break and can turn a game into a highlight reel in a hurry. It’s the way they like to play and it’s the way they earned their way to the tournament. Weakness: Memphis is young and very mistake-prone. The Tigers are ninth in Conference-USA in turnover margin as they turn the ball over 15.3 times per game. The Tigers can be exciting to watch, but they can also be frustrating at the same time. They’ve lost games with their out-of-control play this year and they’ll have to reign it in if they expect to have staying power in the Big Dance.
13. Oakland Grizzlies
Location: Rochester, MI Record: 25-9 Automatic Bid: Summit League Champions Key Players: Keith Benson (18 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Reggie Hamilton (17.4 ppg, 5.4 apg), Will Hudson (12.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Travis Bader (10.5 ppg), Larry Wright (9.8 ppg) Strength: This team can score and can do it in bunches. Oakland is second nationally in points per game at 85.6. The Grizzlies have four guys who average double figures led by Keith Benson, a future pro. This team is difficult to guard and that’s evident in their win over Tennessee where it scored 89 points. If this team gets hot, it’s not only a threat to win one game, but don’t be shocked to see it in the Sweet 16. Weakness: The Grizzlies can be so focused on scoring that they can forget that they have to play defense as well. Oakland allows its opponents to score over 76 points per game, second worst in the Summit League. The Grizzlies will not be able to outscore everyone, especially given the talent level in the Big Dance. If Oakland doesn’t make a commitment to the defensive end, it could be one-and-done.
14. Bucknell Bison
Location: Lewisburg, PA Record: 25-8 Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions Key Players: Mike Muscala (14.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Bryson Johnson (11.7 ppg), G.W. Boon (8.8 ppg), Darryl Shazier (8.3 ppg, 5.6 apg) Strength: Bucknell was able to rip through Patriot League competition on the strength of its defense. The Bison were first in the Patriot League in field-goal percentage defense, three-point field-goal percentage defense, and points allowed. That kind of success on the defensive end yielded only one loss in league play and can make the Bison competitive in the Big Dance. Bucknell has a history of success in the NCAA Tournament. If it is able to defend like it has all season, it may add to that. Weakness: Bucknell likes to play close to the vest and control tempo because of its lack of depth. That may be an issue if the Bison get in any foul trouble. Bucknell has seven players averaging 20 minutes or more per game and then there’s a huge drop off in before the next closest player. The book on Bucknell will be to press them or get them into foul trouble and if Bucknell isn’t able to manage that it may have a very short stay in the tournament.
15. Northern Colorado Bears
Location: Greeley, CO Record: 21-10 Automatic Bid: Big Sky Conference Champions Key Players: Devon Beitzel (21.4 ppg), Neal Kingman (10.6 ppg), Chris Kaba (9.5 ppg), Mike Proctor (5.6 rpg), Taylor Montgomery (5.7 rpg) Strength: Northern Colorado is one of the best rebounding teams on the mid-major level. The Bears are No. 1 in the Big Sky in rebounding margin at 5.4 per game. They’re also second in the conference in offensive rebounds and first in offensive rebound percentage getting over 35 percent of their misses. If the Bears are able to out-rebound their opponent, they may be able to cause a scare. Weakness: This is a team that is too reliant on Devon Beitzel to score. Beitzel, the conference’s player of the year, is a great player, but he’s going to need help for Northern Colorado to be successful. If he has an off night this team isn’t capable of being close to anyone in the tournament. Beitzel not only has to score, but he’s going to have to get some partners in crime to be successful.
16. Hampton Pirates
Location: Hampton, VA Record: 24-8 Automatic Bid: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions Key Players: Darrion Pellum (17.7 ppg), Kwame Morgan (16.5 ppg), Charles Funches (10.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg) Strength: Hampton is easily one of the best defensive teams on the mid-major level. The Pirates hold their opponents to just 37.9 percent shooting – good enough for first in the MEAC. It’s allowed Hampton to do major things in the non-conference portion of it’s schedule, including beating George Washington, Colorado St and fellow NCAA Tournament team, Boston University. Teams only averaged 57 points per game against the Pirates in the MEAC Tournament and they hope to duplicate that play in the Big Dance. Weakness: The Pirates offensive efficiency is some of the worst you’ll see in the NCAA Tournament. Hampton shoots only 40.7 percent from the field and 32.5 percent form behind the three-point line. The Pirates are even bad from the free-throw line only making 65 percent of those as well. This all leads to a poorest 67.2 points per game in the MEAC. If the Pirates can’t score in the tournament, they’ll have no chance to even be close.
1. Duke Blue Devils Location: Durham, N.C. Record: 29-5 Automatic Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Champions Key Players: Jon Scheyer (18.6 ppg, 5 apg), Kyle Singler (17.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Nolan Smith (17.3 ppg) Strength: As the big three go, so goes Duke. Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler are outstanding players and all-ACC selections. They all can shoot the three and create their own shots. When they’re play well in concert together, there aren’t many teams in the country that can beat Duke. Those three are definitely the key to another Final Four run for coach Mike Krzyzewski. Weakness: Duke still doesn’t have a low-post scoring threat. They have bodies to fill-in, but none are consistent. This has been an issue for Duke since Sheldon Williams left and it hasn’t been addressed. Maryland, Georgia Tech and Georgetown all hurt the Blue Devils because they had legitimate big men. If and when they run into a team with talented post players, they are going to struggle.
2. Villanova Wildcats Location: Villanova, Pa. Record: 24-7 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Scottie Reynolds (18.5 ppg), Corey Fisher (13.7 ppg), Antonio Pena (10.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Corey Stokes (9.5 ppg), Taylor King (5.6 rpg) Strength: Villanova is very quick on defense and they’re tough to guard off of dribble penetration, but be clear: This is Scottie Reynolds’ team. If he doesn’t play well, the Wildcats can’t win. It just so happens that he plays well almost every game. Reynolds may be considered the greatest player in Villanova history when it’s all said and done. He can get hot and take a game over. He takes big shots and is fearless. He has to be himself for Villanova to have a chance to make a run. Weakness: Villanova is allowing teams to score too easily. Teams that are able to break Villanova’s pressure defense are having a lot success putting the ball in the basket. The Wildcats are allowing over 72 points per game. They send their opponents to the free-throw line a lot and, due to their lack of size, allow a lot of points in the paint. Villanova allowing teams to score that much in the tournament is going to send it home early.
3. Baylor Bears Location: Waco, Texas Record: 25-7 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: LaceDarius Dunn (19.4 ppg) , Tweety Carter (15.7 ppg, 5.3 apg), Ekpe Udoh (13.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Quincy Acy (9.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg) Strength: The Bears are quite possibly the most athletic team in the nation. In the open floor, they have multiple guys who can finish. They seem to live on Sports Center’s top plays with highlight reel dunks. It also helps them on defense where they hold their opponents to 38.4 percent shooting and block over seven shots per game. They’ve been able to overwhelm many of their opponents with that athleticism and it’ll be a huge key to how they perform in the tournament. Weakness: This team turns the ball over too much. Baylor is dead last in the Big XII in turnover margin committing almost two more turnovers a game than its opponents. the biggest issue is LaceDarius Dunn, the Bears’ best player, leads the team in turnovers. He’s the player with the ball in his hand more than anyone else and if he’s coughing it up, that’s going to make the Bears a little easier to defend. In order for the Bears to make a run, they have to value the basketball.
4. Purdue Boilermakers Location: West Lafayette, Ind. Record: 27-5 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: E’Twaun Moore (16.6 ppg), JaJuan Johnson (15.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) Strength: One thing the Boilermakers have done all season is defend. They’re at the top of the Big Ten in most defensive categories. They’re opponents only score 60.6 points per game on 40.1 percent shooting. Their defense has carried them all year, especially after the lost or Robbie Hummel. As long as they continue to defend the way they are, they’ll be able o contend in the tournament. Weakness: This team is still struggling to find its identity without Hummel. The Boilermakers are clearly not the same team without Hummel. They miss his scoring, his rebounding and most importantly, his leadership. They have had some really terrible offensive performances since his injury. They really need to take the time before the start of their tournament game get comfortable with each other.
5. Texas A&M Aggies Location: College Station, Texas Record: 23-9 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: Donald Sloan (18.2 ppg), Bryan Davis (9.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg), B.J. Holmes (9.3 ppg), David Loubeau (9 ppg) Strength: Not many teams in the tournament will have the kind of quality experience the Aggies have. Seniors Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis have already played seven NCAA tournament games each in their previous three trips to the Big Dance. Junior B.J. Holmes has played in two NCAA tournaments himself. Throw-in the playing in the rugged Big XII and there’s nothing that’s going to rattle these guys. Weakness: Texas A&M is one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the Big XII. At 66 percent, the Aggies have struggled all year from the line. The Aggies have five guys seeing significant minutes that shoot 57 percent or worst. Fortunately Sloan shoots 77 percent as he is their best option offensively, but in late game situations, they will need to knock down shots from the free-throw line if they expect to make a run.
6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish Location: South Bend, Ind. Record: 23-11 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Luke Harangody (22.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), Tim Abromaitis (16.3 ppg), Ben Hansbrough (11.8 ppg), Tory Jackson (9.8 ppg, 5.3 apg), Tyrone Nash (8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) Strength: Notre Dame comes in boasting one of the most experienced rosters you’ll see in the tournament this year. Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson are seniors. Tim Abromaitis, Ben Hansbrough, and Tyrone Nash are juniors. This team will be prepared for anything it sees. It was mature enough to handle a mid-season injury to Harangody and a change of philosophy by head coach Mike Brey. It’ll be ready for anything. Weakness: Depth is going to be an issue for the Fighting Irish. They really can only go seven-deep in terms of quality guys. Brey’s decision to switch to a slower pace helps, but it can only go so far. There’s going to come a time in the tournament where Notre Dame is going to face an opponent that’ll throw a lot of bodies at it. How the Irish handle that will be paramount to how far it goes.
7. Richmond Spiders Location: Richmond, Va. Record: 26-8 At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference Key Players: Kevin Anderson (17.8 ppg), David Gonzalvez (14.5 ppg), Justin Harper (10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Ryan Butler (8.2 ppg) Strength: Richmond runs one of the most complex offenses of any team in the NCAA Tournament. It’s an offense based on Princeton principles, but gives the players freedom for isolations. That’s what’s allowed Kevin Anderson to become the A-10 player of the year this season. He really flourishes with his ability to get to the hoop and knock down jumpers. With the talent he has around him, it makes Richmond really difficult to guard. Weakness: Richmond is really a week rebounding team. The Spiders are second from the bottom in the A-10 in rebounding margin; getting out-rebounded by 4.9 boards per game. Their offense has masked that huge deficiency on the boards. However, in this tournament coaches know how to exploit weaknesses and some coach is going to figure how to make them pay on the boards.
8. California Golden Bears Location: Berkeley, Calif Record: 23-10 At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference Key Players: Jerome Randle (18.7 ppg), Patrick Christopher (16 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Theo Robertson (14.1 ppg), Jamal Boykin (12 ppg, 6.7 ppg) Strength: The Golden Bears are a nightmare to defend. With four guys who can really score, they present a dynamic challenge most teams around the country can’t. This is a team that likes to shoot threes, but also has a post presence in Jamal Boykin to provide balance. If Cal is on, they can hang with just about anyone. Cal is an explosive team and can do some damage if not taken seriously. Weakness: When Cal isn’t making three-point shots, they’re very mortal. It’s what makes them go and provides opportunities for their big men to get points in the paint. They take a good amount and make a good amount, but if they’re missing, they’ll shoot themselves right out of a game. It’s what happened to them in last year’s tournament and it’s very possible that it can happen again.
9. Louisville Cardinals Location: Louisville, Ky. Record: 20-12 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Samardo Samuels (15.3 ppg, 7 rpg), Edgar Sosa (13.3 ppg), Jerry Smith (8.4 ppg), Jared Swopshire (6 rpg) Strength: If there was one word to describe the Cardinals it would be pesky. This is a Rick Pitino-coached team so it’s going to press full court for 40 minutes. When they’re able to do that effectively, they have the game at their tempo and they are difficult to beat. It allows them to get into their transition offense; creating opportunities for them to spot up for three-pointers on the break. If they’re able to impose their will, they can definitely make some noise. Weakness: Once again, the Cardinals lack a consistent playmaker. Edgar Sosa has shown the ability to take people off the dribble, but they are definitely missing someone who can get the job done in a half-court situation. It was clearly an issue in their loss to Michigan St in the Elite Eight last season and it doesn’t appear the problem has been rectified. It probably isn’t something that’s going to change in the tournament so Louisville fans better hope they can play games at a faster pace.
10. Saint Mary’s Gaels Location: Moraga, Calif. Record: 26-5 Automatic Bid: West Coast Conference Champions Key Players: Omar Samhan (20.9 ppg, 11 rpg), Mickey McConnell (13.7 ppg, 5.3 apg), Matthew Dellavedova (12.5 ppg), Ben Allen (10.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg) Strength: The Gaels has the kind balance that scares opponents. Not only do they have guards that can really shoot the three, but they also have a legitimate post presence in Omar Samhan. Samhan is joined in the frontcourt by Ben Allen who is a 6’11” big man who can shoot it from three. This is a team that is dangerous from anywhere on the floor offensively and that makes them a tough out this March. Weakness: This team has virtually no depth. The disparity in the minutes played by the starters and the bench for Saint Mary’s is staggering and so is the production. The Gaels really employ only a seven-man rotation and the two guys off of the bench are averaging less than nine points between the two of them. Teams are going to run a lot of defenders at the Gaels to try to stay fresh. If they don’t handle that well, they’ll have trouble advancing.
11. Old Dominion Monarchs Location: Norfolk, Va. Record: 26-8 Automatic Bid: Colonial Athletic Association Champions Key Players: Gerald Lee (14.6 ppg), Frank Hassell (8.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Ben Finney (8.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg), Kent Bazemore (8.4 ppg) Strength: There aren’t many teams in the country that defend the way the Monarchs do. ODU is only allowing 57.1 points per game holding their opponents to 40 percent shooting. They’re not allowing teams to grab their misses either as they are No. 1 in the CAA in rebounding margin grabbing 8.8 more boards per game. In addition to that, they’re also getting 7.8 steals per game. Anytime you can defend like this, you have a chance to be successful. Weakness: The Monarchs’ free-throw shooting is abysmal.. At 64.5 percent, they’re in 11th place in the 12 team CAA in percentage. Three of their top four scorers shoot 67 percent or less with only Gerald Lee being competent from the line. In the NCAA tournament, when every moment is magnified, their deficiency from the line could be what ends their season.
12. Utah State Aggies Location: Logan, Utah Record: 27-7 At-Large Bid: Western Athletic Conference Key Players: Tai Wesley (13.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg), Jared Quayle (12.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Nate Bendall (10.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Pooh Williams (8.8 ppg), Tyler Newbold (8 ppg) Strength: You won’t find many teams as efficient offensively as the Aggies. They’re always composed and it shows in their numbers. As a team, they’re shooting a remarkable 49.1 percent from the floor and 41.9 percent from behind the arc. They’re only turning the ball over at a clip of 10.3 per game so they don’t give opponents extra opportunities. They’re even in the top half of the WAC in offensive rebound percentage. This team will just not beat itself. Weakness: This team has some depth issues. The Aggies get a lot of production out of its seven-man rotation, but that’s against WAC competition. The WAC is a solid mid-major conference but they’ll be playing teams in the tournament better than any team they faced in conference all year. The Aggies are going to need everyone to step up for them if they expect to do some damage this year.
13. Siena Saints Location: Loudonville, N.Y. Record: 27-6 Automatic Bid: Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference Champions Key Players: Alex Franklin (16.3 ppg, 8 rpg), Edwin Ubiles(15.2 ppg), Ryan Rossiter (13.9 ppg, 11.1 rpg), Clarence Jackson (13.6 ppg), Ronald Moore (7.8 apg) Strength: This team has so much firepower it’s scary. For a mid-major to have four guys averaging in double figures is quite the achievement, but this is no ordinary mid-major. The Saints have won games in the past two NCAA tournaments and has the talent to do it again. They have great guards, great post players and guys who can play from the wing. There’s no doubt that this edition of the Saints is not only talented enough to win one game, but they’re capable of making it to the second weekend. Weakness: Unlike most mid-majors, this isn’t a team that is a great shooting team. They shoot less than 46 percent from the floor, shoot 32.3 percent from three and only shoot 67 percent from the free-throw line. This is a team that likes to go up-and-down but in half-court situations in the NCAA tournament, their inability to shoot effectively could be the reason they make an earlier exit than they’d like.
14. Sam Houston State Bearkats Location: Huntsville, Texas Record: 25-7 Automatic Bid: Southland Conference Champions Key Players: Gilberto Clavell (16.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Corey Allmond (15.9 ppg), Ashton Mitchell (12.7 ppg, 5.1 apg), Preston Brown (9 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Josten Crow (8.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg) Strength: Sam Houston St made the most three-pointers in the Southland Conference this season and that’s not just because they’re taking the most shots. It’s because they’re one of the best three-point shooting teams in the tournament.. The Bearkats are second in their conference in three-point field goal percentage and it’s a huge part of their success. They have three guys who shoot over 40 percent from three and that’s not including all-conference guard, Corey Allmond, who shots 37.6 percent. Weakness: The Bearkats strength can also be there weakness. Almost every player on the roster has a green light to shoot from behind the arc. That means the Bearkats are high-risk, high-reward. If they’re knocking down shots, they’re going to pull off an upset. If they’re not knocking down shots, they may lose by 30. that kind of free-willing style could be the death of them.
15. Robert Morris Colonials Location: Moon Township, Pa. Record: 23-11 Automatic Bid: Northeast Conference Champions Key Players: Karon Abraham (13.4 ppg), Rob Robinson (9.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Mezie Nwigwe (8.2 ppg), Velton Jones (8.2 ppg) Strength: The Colonials are a really good defensive team. They finished tied for first in the NEC in field-goal percentage defense by holding teams to 40.9 percent shooting on the year. They also force 15.7 turnovers per game 7.58 steals, both of which are good enough for second in the NEC. Their defense is the reason they had such a successful season in the NEC and have made a return trip the NCAA tournament. Weakness: There’s a reason the Colonials have to be so good defensively: They’re so bad offensively. They only shoot 43.7 percent from the field, 66.1 percent from the free throw line and commit close to 15 turnovers per game. Given the seed they’ve been given, if they put those kinds of numbers up in this tournament, their stay will be as short as it was last season.
16a. Arkansas Pine Bluff Golden Lions Location: Pine Bluff, Ark. Record: 17-15 Automatic Bid: Southwestern Athletic Conference Key Players: Terrance Calvin (10.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Savalance Townsend (10.2 ppg), Lebaron Weathers (9.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Tavaris Washington (9.6 ppg), Tyree Glass (8.1 ppg) Strength: This Golden Lions team really defends. They’re second in the SWAC in field goal percentage defense holding their opponents to 40.7 percent shooting from the floor and forcing over 14 turnovers per game. That defense helped the Golden Lions to a second place regular season finish in the SWAC. They’ll have to play that kind of defense to be competitive in this tournament. Weakness: The Golden Lions offensive numbers are downright disgusting. They’re only scoring 64.4 points per game on 66.3 percent free-throw shooting, 41.1 percent field-goal shooting and 30.4 percent three-point field-goal percentage. It also commits over 17 turnovers per game as well. These are not the numbers of competitive teams and there isn’t much hope for the Golden Lions in this tournament.
16b. Winthrop Eagles Location: Winthrop, S.C. Record: 19-13 Automatic Bid: Big South Conference Champions Key Players: Reggie Middleton (10.3 ppg), Matt Morgan (9.6 ppg), Mantoris Robinson (8.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Andy Buechert (6.5 rpg) Strength: Winthrop was one of the best defensive teams in the Big South this season. The Eagles their opponents’ shooting percentage to less that 40 percent, while their opponents only shot 29.4 percent from behind the arc. They also force over 15 turnovers per game as well. Coach Randy Peele’s team will be able to compete if they can continue to guard this way in the NCAA tournament. Weakness: Winthrop may be the worst offensive team in the Big South. On the year, the Eagles actually has worse overall and three-point shooting percentages than their opponents. That’s pretty amazing given it finished in third place. Any team that only scores 62.4 points per game has a razor thin margin of error. At this level, it’s a lot to ask of the Eagles to make much noise with those offensive numbers.