WEST COAST: This one is academic. There is one team in this league that will potentially be a No. 1 seed and then there is one team who may get an at-large bid. Gonzaga went 16-0 in league play this year with some really impressive victories. In Las Vegas this weekend, I can’t see anyone beating the Bulldogs on a neutral floor. Saint Mary’s is playing for its NCAA tournament life, but I don’t think it will be enough to overcome the talent Gonzaga has.
NORTHEAST: Robert Morris finished two games ahead of the crowded bunch of teams which includes Wagner, Bryant and Long Island University. In fact, the top seven finishers in the NEC finished .500 or above so I expect this to be one of the craziest conference tournaments in all of college basketball. In a situation like this I give the edge to a team that’s been there before and that team is LIU. The Blackbirds know how to navigate this tournament and I expect them to go dancing again.
PATRIOT LEAGUE: This year was supposed to be nothing short of a coronation for Lehigh. However, C.J. McCollum injured his foot and Lehigh wasn’t able to sustain early season success. One school that has been able to is Bucknell. The Bison have lost only two games in conference play and five overall and since this tournament is played on the home court of the higher seeded team, I’d say its the heavy favorite to win this tournament.
MISSOURI VALLEY: The eyes of the nation were on Creighton and Wichita St in the Missouri Valley this season. While many expected the two to dominate; history tells us that this conference has been known to eat its own and that’s why Indiana St’s at-large hopes have gone up in smoke. This is always one of the more competitive tournaments and this year should be no different. I expect one of the hottest teams in the league to shock the world. Evansville will cut down the nets in St. Louis.
PATRIOT LEAGUE: Defending champion Bucknell was rolling along in the Patriot League until mid-February when two losses tarnished its perfect league record. The fact that one of those loses came to second-place finisher Lehigh at home would make me extremely nervous if I were a Bison fan. For that reason, and the fact that the Mountain Hawks have been just as good, I’m taking Lehigh to go dancing.
WEST COAST: Saint Mary’s won the league outright in a minor upset. However the Gaels finished just one game ahead of Gonzaga and two ahead of BYU. This will be a competitive tournament with the four teams having a legitimate shot at cutting down the nets in Las Vegas. BYU in its first season in the WCC is used to playing in Vegas, is relatively close to Vegas and will take the matter out of the committee’s hands by winning the WCC championship.
MISSOURI VALLEY: Wichita St and Creighton has been the class of the Missouri Valley this season, but this is a tournament that has seen its fair share of upsets over the years. That being said I find it very hard to pick against the Shockers the way they’re playing right now. I expect them to beat a scrappy Missouri St team in the finals.
NORTHEAST: Wagner got everyone’s attention in December after it upset Pittsburgh. The Seahawks followed that with an impressive conference record of 15-3. The problem though is that two of those losses came at the hands of the regular season and defending tournament champion Long Island. The Blackbirds wouldn’t have to play Wagner or Robert Morris until the finals and will play every game of the tournament at home. I like them to repeat.
AMERICA EAST: This will be a good one. I would not be surprised if regular season champion Stony Brook, Vermont or 2011 NCAA tournament team Boston University won this tournament. I think Vermont is due for the win I thought they’d get last season. The Catamounts are going dancing.
1. Kansas Jayhawks Location: Lawrence, Kan. Record: 32-2 Automatic Bid: Big XII Conference Champions Key Players: Sherron Collins (15.6 ppg), Xavier Henry (13.6 ppg), Marcus Morris (12.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Cole Aldrich (11.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg) Strength: The Jayhawks are talented and deep. Led by Sherron Collins, the No. 1 team in the nation can do multiple things right. Now that coach Bill Self has settled on a rotation, it has just made them even more dangerous. It is just simply going to take an out-of-this-world performance to defeat the Jayhawks. They’re great offensively, defensively, and their best is just downright better than anyone else. Weakness: Team chemistry has been an underlying issue for the Jayhawks this season. They seem to have solve those issues down the stretch, but it’s still has to be a concern for Self. This is still a young team for the most part so it can be unpredictable at times. If they come out with the focus to win a national championship, they’ll be difficult to beat. However, if they’re worried about other things, they might be in trouble.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes Location: Columbus, Ohio Record: 27-7 Automatic Bid: Big Ten Conference Champions Key Players: Evan Turner (20.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 5.9 apg), William Buford (14.5 ppg 5.6 rpg), Jon Diebler (12.8 ppg), David Lighty (12.7 ppg), Dallas Lauderdale (5 rpg) Strength: There’s no doubt what (who) the strength of the Buckeyes is. National player of the year candidate Evan Turner does it all for Ohio St. He’s a 6’7” point guard who scores, rebounds, runs the offense and defends. Basically, he does everything for the Buckeyes. He leads them in every major statistical category and can will them to a national championship all by himself. Weakness: The Buckeyes have virtually no depth. There have been games when coach Thad Matta has only trotted four players out on the floor. If someone gets in foul trouble, they may be toast. They just don’t have the bodies to come in off of the bench to produce. If any of Ohio St’s tournament games are called tightly, they might have a shorter stay in the Big Dance then they’d like.
3. Georgetown Hoyas Location: Washington, D.C. Record: 23-10 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Austin Freeman (16.7 ppg), Greg Monroe (16.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg), Chris Wright (14.8 ppg), Jason Clark (10.6 ppg) Strength: The “Georgetown” (with Princeton principles) offense is already one of the most difficult offenses to defend. Georgetown throws three McDonald’s All-Americans into it and it becomes almost unstoppable. Greg Monroe, Austin Freeman, and Chris Wright are 3/5 or what many to be perhaps the best starting five in all of college basketball. When all three are playing well, the offense can’t be defended. If they play like they did in the Big East tournament, they can cut the nets down. Weakness: The Hoyas have been inconsistent all year long. They have big wins against Duke, Villanova, Syracuse and Temple and have had bad losses against South Florida and Rutgers. It appears that they may have corrected that issue, but if it rears its ugly head again, they could make an early exit from the Big Dance. That’s not a situation Hoya fans look forward to.
4. Maryland Terrapins Location: College Park, Md. Record: 23-8 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Greivis Vasquez (19.5 ppg, 6.3 apg), Landon Milbourne (12.5 ppg), Eric Hayes (11.1ppg), Sean Mosley (10.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Jordan Williams (9.2 ppg, 8.3) Strength: While everyone knows about Greivis Vasquez, its Maryland’s presence in the paint that has given them an edge this season. Jordan Williams has arrived on campus and has joined with Landon Milbourne to give the Terps one of the most underrated frontlines in the ACC. They’re outstanding on the boards and Williams is an absolute load to guard in the post. The Terps have balance now and that makes them a legitimate threat to make a run in this year’s tournament. Weakness: Maryland is only as good as its star, Greivis Vasquez. When he’s on, the Terps are very good. When he’s off, the Terps are very mortal. Vasquez can be explosive, but he can also shoot them out of the game. He’s streaky and if he gets on a cold streak at the wrong time, it makes them very easy to guard. Maryland better hope that Vasquez is able to put up huge numbers.
5. Michigan State Spartans Location: East Lansing, Mich. Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Kalin Lucas (14.9 ppg), Raymar Morgan (11.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Durrell Summers (10.1 ppg), Draymond Green (10.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg), Chris Allen (9.1 ppg), Delvon Roe (5.2 rpg) Strength: As with all Tom Izzo-coached teams, this edition of the Spartans really crash the boards. Michigan St is the best rebounding team in a conference that values the art of owning the backboard. By out-rebounding their opponents by nine per game, the Spartans are once again showing the kind of toughness Izzo loves. It’ll take a special team to be able to compete with them on the boards. Weakness: Kalin Lucas is a great player, but the Spartans showed what kind team they were without him. Most teams depend on a great player, but even the Spartans secondary players like Raymar Morgan and Durrell Summers struggled without Lucas. This is not an explosive offensive team as it is so any dip in Lucas’ production could be the death of the Spartans.
6. Tennessee Volunteers Location: Knoxville, Tenn. Record: 25-8 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Wayne Chism (12.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Scotty Hopson (12.5 ppg), Bobby Maze (9.6 ppg), J.P. Prince (9.3 ppg), Brian Williams (5.7 rpg) Strength: Tennessee is one of the best transition teams in the country. Triggered by their full-court press defense, the Volunteers love to get out on the fast break. Bobby Maze expertly controls this team finding many of the great athletes he has at his disposal. They have guys who can finish at the basket and they have guys who can pull up on the wings and knock down threes. If the Volunteers are able to play at their pace, they’ll be tough for anyone to deal with. Weakness: The free-throw line has been rough on the Volunteers all year long. At a little under 67 percent, they’re among the worst free-throw shooting teams in the SEC. This team is very talented, but they leave too many points at the line. It’s part of the reason why they only score 73.6 points per game. We saw Memphis lose a title game at the free-throw line two years ago and it could kill Tennessee’s chances for a deep run this year.
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys Location: Stillwater, Okla. Record: 22-10 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: James Anderson (22.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Obi Muonelo (13.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Keiton Page (10.7 ppg), Marshall Moses (8.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg), Matt Pilgrim (8.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) Strength: Led by James Anderson, the Cowboys have one of the best backcourts in the country. Anderson, the Big XII player of the year, along with Obi Muenelo and Keiton Page combine for close to 47 points per game. They are explosive and can put up big numbers in a hurry. The team goes as they go and fortunately for Oklahoma St, they’ve been going pretty well all year. Weakness: Shooting under 69 percent, free-throw shooting has been an issue for the Cowboys all year. Muonelo, Marshall Moses and Matt Pilgrim all shoot in the low-60’s in terms of percentage. Oklahoma St relies on those three players too much for them not to deliver at the line. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again, if the Cowboys don’t convert from the charity stripe, it will have a short stay in the tournament.
8. UNLV Rebels Location: Las Vegas, Nev. Record: 25-8 At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference Key Players: Tre’Von Willis (17.3 ppg), Chace Stanback (10.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg), Oscar Bellfield (9.2 ppg) Strength: UNLV is one of the most efficient teams in America. The Rebels lead the Mountain West in turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio. They also shoot a respectable 46.2 percent from the field. They like to control the tempo and make their possessions count. They can frustrate teams with their patience and precision on offense and that could help the Rebels make some noise in the tournament. Weakness: The Rebels are not a good rebounding team. Fortunately for UNLV, the Mountain West doesn’t have solid rebounding across the board or it could’ve been in real trouble. It won’t have that luxury in the Big Dance as it is highly likely that no Mountain West foes will be in the Rebels’ path. If UNLV does play a team that is solid on the boards, than it is really going to have to fight on the boards because it leaves itself little margin for error.
9. Northern Iowa Panthers Location: Cedar Falls, Iowa Record: 28-4 Automatic Bid: Missouri Valley Conference Champions Key Players: Jordan Eglseder (12 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Adam Koch (11.8 ppg), Kwadzo Ahelegbe (10.7 ppg), Ali Farokhmanesh (9.3 ppg) Strength: UNI’s opponents are only averaging 54.3 points per game. Any team that is playing defense like that is doing something right. Part of that low number is the slow pace the Panthers like to play, but another part of it is the 40.3 percent field goal percentage they’re holding their opponents to. They switch on everything and don’t let opponents get clean looks at the basket. This is one team that will frustrate whoever it plays. Weakness: This is a team that might be susceptible to an athletic opponent. The Panthers play great position and help defense but there aren’t many guys in the MVC like they’ll be facing in the NCAA tournament. They’ll not only have to face teams that’ll be able to take them off the dribble, but they’ll be facing teams that can defend them better than any team in the MVC. This may be an Achilles heel for the Panthers.
10. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Location: Atlanta, Ga. Record: 22-12 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Gani Lawal (13.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg), Derrick Favors (12.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Iman Shumpert (10.1 ppg), Zachery Peacock (8.7 ppg) Strength: The Yellow Jackets may have the best frontcourt in the nation. Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors are quite possibly NBA lottery picks. Zach Peacock gives them another complementary piece up front. When Georgia Tech gets the ball down low, they look like world beaters. In the tournament, great players carry teams to great results and the Yellow Jackets have two players who can do that. Weakness: Georgia Tech’s guards are nowhere near where their frontcourt is. as a matter of fact, they actually hurt the team. Georgia Tech turns the ball over 16.4 times per game which is the second most in the ACC. The Yellow Jackets are 11th in the conference in turnover margin and 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio. There’s too much talent in the paint for Georgia Tech for its guards to hurt it this much.
11. San Diego State Aztecs Location: San Diego, Calif. Record: 25-8 Automatic Bid: Mountain West Conference Champions Key Players: Kawhi Leonard (12.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg), Malcolm Thomas (11 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Billy White (11.2 ppg), D.J. Gay (10.3 ppg) Strength: On a toughness scale, the Aztecs may be No. 1 in the Mountain West. The Aztecs are one of the conference’s best defensive teams; holding its opponents to 40.4 percent shooting from the floor. In addition to that, the Aztecs lead the conference in rebounding margin as well by out-rebounding their opponents by 6.7 boards per game. This team has taken on an identity that it will be the bad guy on the block and it has paid dividends for it. Weakness: San Diego St is one of the worst free-throw teams in the tournament. At just 61.7 percent, the Aztecs will be very vulnerable in late-game situations. There some key players in their rotation who aren’t even shooting 60 percent. When the best free-throw shooter on the team is shooting just 72.2 percent, there’s a serious issue there. If Aztecs expect to be successful, they have to shoot a respectable percentage from the charity stripe.
12. New Mexico State Aggies Location: Las Cruces, N.M. Record: 22-11 Automatic Bid: Western Athletic Conference Champions Key Players: Jahmar Young (20.5 ppg), Jonathan Gibson (17.5 ppg), Troy Gillenwater (14.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), Wendell McKines (10.8 ppg 9.9 rpg), Hamidu Rahman (10.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) Strength: Across the board, this is one talented team. The Aggies have put up over 78 points per game this season and that’s because they have a lineup loaded with scorers. Five guys average in double figures led by Jahmar Young. Young along with his backcourt mate Jonathan Gibson are the main options for the Aggies, but there’s plenty of other scorers to worry about. This team is going to be a real problem for opponents this March. Weakness: Defensively, New Mexico St is one of the worst teams in the WAC. Teams are scoring a staggering 77.8 points per game on the Aggies. It’s amazing that they’ve been able to have this level of success given those numbers. There’s no doubt that they have some outstanding scorers. However, in this tournament, teams that defend are successful. The Aggies don’t and that might doom them.
13. Houston Cougars Location: Houston, Texas Record: 19-15 Automatic Bid: Conference USA Champions Key Players: Aubrey Coleman (25.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Kelvin Lewis (15.3 ppg), Maurice McNeil (8.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg) Strength: The Cougars have the luxury having the nation’s leading scorer in Aubrey Coleman. Coleman is an outstanding scorer who can hit the occasional three, slash and get to the free-throw line. The Cougars showed they could win without him having a banner game in their C-USA title game victory over UTEP. However when he’s on, they’re very good and could cause a lot of trouble. Weakness: The Cougars have been pounded on the boards all year. They’re dead last in C-USA in rebounding margin getting out-rebounded by over eight boards per game. What compounds the problem is their poor shooting numbers. They’re only shooting 42 percent from the field. The fact that they only rebound 30.6 percent of their misses only exacerbates the issue. They have to attack the backboard to be competitive this March.
14. Ohio Bobcats Location: Athens, Ohio Record: 21-14 Automatic Bid: Mid-American Conference Champions Key Players: Armon Bassett (16.9 ppg), D.J. Cooper (13.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.9 apg) , DeVaughn Washington (11.2 ppg), Tommy Freeman (10.1 ppg), Kenneth van Kempen (6.9 rpg) Strength: Indiana transfer Armon Bassett is one of the most underrated mid-major players in America. Many forgot about him after he had to sit out last season, but he’s got plenty of talent. He started the year slow but has it going now. He averaged over 29 points during the MAC tournament carrying the No. 9 seeded Bobcats to the title. He’s explosive and capable of winning a game all by himself. Weakness: The Bobcats are one of the worst rebounding teams in the MAC. Their opponents are out-rebounding on the year by close to half a rebound per game. The fact that this is a poor shooting team makes matters even worse as they’re in the bottom half of the conference in offensive rebounds. They need to sure this up against the big, athletic teams in the tournament or they may get punished on the boards in the Big Dance.
15. UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos Location: Santa Barbara, Calif. Record: 20-9 Automatic Bid: Big West Conference Champions Key Players: Orlando Johnson (17.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg), James Nunnally (15 ppg, 5.7 rpg), James Powell (9.4 ppg), Jaime Serna (8 ppg) Strength: The Gauchos are the best three-point shooting team in the Big West and it’s not even close. They’re shooting 37.9 percent on the year from downtown which really makes them dangerous. They’re a team that likes to control tempo, so they’re scores are lower, but that just magnifies the importance of the team’s overall range. They’re going make teams guard them for long stretches and then knock down outside shots. Weakness: The Gauchos are the worst team in the Big West on the Backboards. The Gauchos are being out-rebounded by over two boards per game. They don’t have quality size inside and that’s a huge part of the problem. Teams in the tournament see that weakness and they will exploit it to the fullest. If they’re not able to find a way to rebound the basketball, they’ll be one-and-done.
16. Lehigh Mountain Hawks Location: Bethlehem, Pa. Record: 22-10 Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions Key Players: C.J. McCollum (18.9 ppg), Marquis Hall (11 ppg, 5.7 apg), Zahir Carrington (10.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Gabe Knutson (9.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) Strength: Shooting 40 percent, the Mountain Hawks are the best three-point shooting team in the Patriot League. They were able to stretch defenses all year with their long-range shooting. C.J. McCollum, Lehigh’s best player, along with Marquis Hall are the primary threats shooting 46.6 and 37.3 percent respectively. If they’re able to continue this kind of shooting in the tournament, they may be able to give a team a scare. Weakness: While they’re not the worst defensive team, Lehigh allows teams to score over 70 points per game. Given up that kind of number might be ok against the Colgate’s and Navy’s of the world, but the Mountain Hawks will be facing a totally different caliber of competition in the NCAA tournament. They have to keep those numbers down if they expect to compete this March.