The national runners-up lost Mo Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahman, but this blog believes head coach John Beilein knows what to do with what returns. Those returnees are the trio of guards senior Charles Matthews, junior Zavier Simpson and sophomore Jordan Poole. The Wolverines also brings in a top-20 recruiting class featuring Ignas Brazdeikis. Plenty for Michigan to, at least, be one of the top teams in the league.
A better non-conference strength of schedule and this team probably would’ve been in the Big Dance last season. They weren’t, but the Cornhuskers have a lot returning from a team that won 13 conference games last season. They’ll be led by seniors James Palmer, a player of the year candidate, and Isaac Copeland as well as junior forward Isaiah Roby. Those three will lead the best Cornhusker team since the 1990’s – a team that will be a threat to win the program’s first ever NCAA tournament game.
3. Michigan St
Last season was one of the strangest in Tom Izzo’s tenure as head coach at Michigan St. From the team being overshadowed by the school’s mishandling of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal to the team’s early exit from the tournament. Two first-round draft picks in Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges are gone so it will be up to juniors Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford to step up. This probably won’t be the best team Izzo has coach, but he’ll probably enjoy not having to answer questions that needed to be asked.
Wisconsin fans are used to winning so last season was such a departure for them. This season should see a return to the tournament because so much of the roster returns including senior forward Ethan Happ, who will be an all-American candidate. Happ is the leader of a lineup that sees its top eight scorers from last season returning. The Badgers look to be back.
Speaking of teams that could be back, Indiana had an up-and-down season last season, but look to be headed for greener pastures. Coach Archie Miller brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country led by Indiana high school legend, guard Romeo Langford. He’ll be asked to be a key member of the supporting cast around senior forward Juwan Morgan, who will be one of the best players in America. This program is certainly on an upward trajectory.
The Boilermakers are at the tail end of the second great run under Matt Painter. They have to find replacements for Isaac Haas, Vince Edwards and Dakota Mathias in a hurry. Fortunately, national player of the year candidate, junior guard Carsen Edwards doesn’t leave the cupboard completely bare. He’ll be plenty good enough to carry the load for Purdue this season.
With everything going on at Maryland, the start of basketball season has to be a welcome respite. That being said, it better be a good season for head coach Mark Turgeon. He enters this season needing to usher his team to the tournament and the talent is there to do it. Junior guard Anthony Cowan has to be the leader of a team that returns sophomores Darryl Morsell and Bruno Fernando. Five-star freshman Jalen Smith leads an incoming class that also features Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala. There will be nowhere to hide if this doesn’t work.
Head coach Fran McCaffery is going to have to get a better defensive performance out of this team to prevent a repeat of last season’s disappointment. I think he can and with the firepower returning in juniors Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook and sophomore Luka Garza. Those three in addition to freshman Joe Wieskamp should have the Hawkeyes in the mix for a NCAA tournament berth.
Injuries and other types of roster attrition plagued the Gophers last season. They’re healthy now and there is enough talent here to get back to the NCAA tournament. The story is whether there will be another scandal to derail, not only the season, but also coach Richard Pitino’s tenure at the school. Senior Jordan Murphy will be an awesome weapon for a Minnesota team that could finish much higher than this prediction if everything goes right.
10. Penn St
Tony Carr declaring for the draft is keeping the Nittany Lions from being a top-5 team in this league. He and Shep Garner are huge losses. The cupboard isn’t bare as juniors Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins and sophomore Josh Reaves return. Freshmen Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton will provide depth and will be great pieces for the future.
Two years ago the Wildcats made the program’s first ever NCAA tournament and had people thinking the team would be even better last season. Then the season started and it was clear that people overrated their talent. This season Northwestern will be aided by returning to Welsh-Ryan Arena for home games after playing in Rosemont last season. Seniors Vic Law and Dererk Pardon should be steady hands for head coach Chris Collins.
12. Ohio St
Head coach Chris Holtman put together one of the more surprising seasons in all of college basketball last season. The Buckeyes had no expectations, but led by Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate they earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. They’re both gone and leave a sizable hole to fill. Sophomore forward Kaleb Wesson and senior guard C.J. Jackson will attempt to fill that hole along with freshmen Luther Muhammad and Jaedon LeDee.
Coach Brad Underwood’s first season was not a good one, but there’s reason to be optimistic here. Sophomore guard Trent Frazier and junior forward Kipper Nichols return to a team that’ll also feature one of the best freshmen in the country in Ayo Dosunmu. It’s a little too soon to expect a tournament run this year for the Illini, but it’s coming.
Rutgers gave its fans a glimmer of hope during its run in the Big Ten tournament last season, but the fact of the matter is this team still won’t be competitive in the league this year. Sophomore Geo Baker and Freshman Montez Mathis could be a solid backcourt in the future.
It’s possible that no team in America had a worse week than the Northwestern Wildcats. The Wildcats went 1-2 on the week, but it’s the losses that should be concerning.
Northwestern lost at home to Creighton-giving up 92 points to a team many expected to be the fourth or fifth best team in the Big East. Then came the 36-point loss to Texas Tech on a neutral court.
Questions now abound about whether or not the Wildcats first trip to the NCAA tournament last season was a fluke. Those questions are probably premature though as this all happened in the first month of the season.
There is still plenty of time for Northwestern to recover and with road games at Georgia Tech, Purdue, DePaul and Oklahoma before January – time to stock up quality wins. However, if they don’t, this week will be the one the nation points to as the first signs of chinks in the purple armor.
National Player of the Week: Jordan Murphy, Minnesota.
Murphy is averaging 24.8 points and 12.8 rebounds per game this season. In a huge road win at Providence, he scored 23 and ripped down 14 boards as the Gophers won going away. If he continues to put up these kinds of numbers then Minnesota could be a threat to Michigan St in the Big Ten this season.
After a slow start to the season, the Florida Gators have distanced themselves from the pack in the SEC East. Tied for the overall lead in the league, they have easily been the most impressive team thus far in the SEC.
Billy Donovan seems to finally getting his program back the level it enjoyed when it won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007. He’s getting a balanced attack that is proving a difficult task for opponents to guard.
Erving Walker leads the team with 14.8 points per game, but gets plenty of help from Kenny Boynton, Vernon Macklin and Chandler Parsons who score about 35 points per game together. They’re an experienced group that has been through the rigors of the SEC before and want to return the program to glory.
Despite the success though, now is not the time for the Gators to rest on their laurels. Their final four games of the season all look to challenge their stranglehold on the standings. Home games against Georgia and Alabama along with trips to Kentucky and Vanderbilt will test the Gators. Time to see how bad the Gators’ bite is.
Stock Up: St. John’s. About 3 weeks ago, the Red Storm was the quintessential bubble team. Now, it looks like the only way it doesn’t make the NCAA tournament is if its canceled. St. John’s has beaten Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut. At this point, it looks like they may be just playing for seeding now.
Stock Down: Missouri Valley Conference. The MVC’s showing in BracketBusters this weekend was very dissapointing. The conference did harbor some hopes to be a multiple bid league before the weekend, but after its three best teams lost in national TV games, those hopes are dashed. I’m used to seeing this as one of the best mid-major leagues, but it is truly a down year in the Valley.
Stock Up: Cliff Ellis. Here is a man in charge of a team that won the regular season title in the Big South last season, but was upset in the conference tournament. His Coastal Carolina squad is dominating the regular season again, but lost it’s starting point guard to a torn knee ligament. Then it found out leading scorer Desmond Holloway was suspended for a violation of NCAA rules. Ellis didn’t wallow in pity, he just got his team prepared to go out and beat North Carolina Central by 35 points. He continues to do a hell of a job with that program.
Stock Down: Minnesota. Gopher fans are seeing why Wildcat fans ran Tubby Smith out of Kentucky. A promising season is now on the verge of disaster as the Gophers have lost five of their last six. The Gophers face the real possibility of missing the dance altogether – possibly putting Smith on the hot seat. That’s something no one saw coming.
This Week’s Bracket Projections:
Last Four In: Memphis, Virginia Commonwealth, Boston College, Alabama
Last Four Out: Richmond, Butler, Colorado St, Virginia Tech
Good for Games through 2/20
1.Kansas16.McNeese St/Morgan St Tulsa
8.Utah St9.Old Dominion
7.Florida St10.St. Mary’s Chicago
5.Missouri12.Boston College/VCU Denver
6.Xavier11.Minnesota Washington, D.C.
7.St. John’s10.Tennessee Tulsa
2.Texas15.Long Beach St SOUTHEAST
1.Ohio St16.Vermont Cleveland
5.North Carolina12.Cleveland St Washington, D.C.
7.George Mason10.Marquette Denver
2.BYU15.Florida Atlantic EAST
1.Duke16.Long Island/Texas Southern Charlotte
5.Texas A&M12.UTEP Tucson
7.West Virginia10.Michigan St Tucson
2.San Diego st15.Coastal Carolina
1. Syracuse Orange Location: Syracuse, N.Y. Record: 28-4 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Wesley Johnson (16 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Andy Rautins (11.7 ppg, 5 apg), Kris Joseph (11.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Arinze Onuaku (10.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Rick Jackson (10 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Scoop Jardine (8.8 ppg), Brandon Triche (8.1 ppg) Strength: Syracuse has outstanding balance. Across the board, the Orange can hurt you from anywhere on the floor. Wes Johnson is a match-up problem for anybody, Andy Rautins is deadly from deep and Rick Johnson and Arinze Onuaku are space eaters in the paint. The Orange can attack in the half court or in transition. They are just a nightmare to match-up with and that’s why they’re one of the best teams in the country. Weakness: Late in the season, some chinks in Syracuse’s armor. Both Louisville and Georgetown has exposed holes in the Orange’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense. Louisville shot 58.1 percent in the second half against Syracuse and Georgetown 57.9 percent for the whole game. If Syracuse doesn’t sure up the weaknesses in that zone, it may be the opening its foes is looking for to defeat it.
2. Kansas State Wildcats Location: Manhattan, Kan. Record: 26-7 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference
Key Players: Jacob Pullen (18.9 ppg), Denis Clemente (16.2 ppg), Jamar Samuels (11.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Curtis Kelly (11.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Dominique Sutton (5.8 rpg) Strength: This is an explosive team when their big men play well The Wildcats play hard and they like to get out in transition. Led by the backcourt of Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente, they can just absolutely pound teams into submission. Coach Frank Martin has molded this team in his personality and it will be interesting to see how they perform in the tournament. Weakness: This team can play out-of-control sometimes. They play so hard that it’s excused by Martin, but it can be frustrating to watch. Pullen and Clemente are known to take bad shots. Their big men have been known to commit questionable fouls. They need to play smart in this tournament to have success. They can get to the Final Four or they can lose in the first weekend.
3. Pittsburgh Panthers Location: Pittsburgh, Pa. Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Player: Ashton Gibbs (15.8 ppg), Brad Wanamaker (12.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg), Jermaine Dixon (10.7 ppg), Gilbert Brown (10.3 ppg), Gary McGhee (6.9 rpg), Nasir Robinson (5.6 rpg) Strength: The Panthers reflect the identity of their city and their coach. They’re tough. It’s like Groundhog’s Day with Pitt because every year they seem to have the same kind of team. They’re going to play great defense and crash the boards. They’re not going to be intimidated by anyone and there’s not many who can match the effort they’re going to give. Jamie Dixon has a formula and he doesn’t need to change it as long as it keeps working. Weakness: There’s a feeling that Dixon has gotten everything he can out of this team. The Panthers have greatly overachieved this season. That’s partly due to the brilliant coaching job Dixon has done and partly due to no one had a read on his players. Now teams have a book on his players and they know what the Panthers like to do. It’ll be interesting to see if that translate to an early exit for Pitt.
4. Vanderbilt Commodores Location: Nashville, Tenn. Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Jermaine Beal (14.7 ppg), A.J. Ogilvy (13.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Jeffery Taylor (13.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg), John Jenkins (10.9 ppg), Andre Walker (5.5 rpg) Strength: Vanderbilt is a tough team to prepare for. They run a Princeton-style offense with great shooters and a solid post presence. A.J Ogilvy, the 6’11” Aussie, along with Jermaine Beal and John Jenkins were tailor-made for this offense. Beal and Jenkins really spread the defense with excellent outside shooting while Ogilvy does his work in the paint. They’re difficult to defend and will be an issue this March. Weakness: There’s not much depth for the Commodores. After the top six players in their rotation, the production drops sharply. This is a team that needs every starter to play well every night. If they get in foul trouble, or one of the starters has an off night, they could be cooked. Vanderbilt may need to get some else to step up un-expectantly if they expect to make a run at the tournament.
5. Butler Bulldogs Location: Indianapolis, Ind. Record: 28-4 Automatic Bid: Horizon League Champions Key Players: Gordon Hayward (15.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Shelvin Mack (13.9 ppg), Matt Howard (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, Willie Veasley (10.3 ppg) Strength: Most would equate Butler with three-point shooting and offense. However, Butler’s defense is the biggest reason why they’ve been so successful. The Bulldogs are holding opponents to just 60 points per game. In fact, in its BracketBuster game, Butler held Siena to just 53 points. This isn’t just because of tempo, this is because the Bulldogs allow their opponents to shoot just 41.4 percent from the floor. Weakness: Butler has no frontcourt depth. Matt Howard, the Bulldogs best post player, often finds himself in foul trouble and it puts them in a bind. Howard has got to stay out of foul trouble and play effective minutes for them to be successful. He’s good scorer and can rebound with the best of them, but it does the Bulldogs no good if he’s sitting beside Butler coach Brad Stevens on the bench.
6. Xavier Musketeers Location: Cincinnati, Ohio Record: 24-8 At-Large Bid: Atlantic 10 Conference Key Players: Jordan Crawford (19.7 ppg), Jason Love (11.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg), Terrell Holloway (11.8 ppg), Jamel McLean (8.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Mark Lyons (8.4 ppg) Strength: The Musketeers are one of the most explosive teams in the country. Led by sophomore swingman Jordan Crawford, the Musketeers are putting up 80 points per game. They have offensive diversity with good wing players, good guard play and solid post players. That means that they are balanced and can beat you in a variety of ways. Xavier seems to always have great scorers and this year is no different. Weakness: Xavier’s youth could come back to bite them. The Musketeers depend on three underclassmen for major production. Crawford, Terrell Holloway and Mark Lyons are all talented players, but they’re green when it comes to these situations. Shot selection has been an issue all year for them and chances are it’s not going to improve now. Xavier is going to need is young guys to grow up in a hurry if expects to make another deep run in the tournament.
7. BYU Cougars Location: Provo, Utah Record: 29-5 At-Large Bid: Mountain West Conference Key Players: Jimmer Fredette (21.7 ppg), Jackson Emery (12.6 ppg), Tyler Haws (11.3 ppg) Jonathan Tavernari (10.3 ppg), Noah Hartsock (5.1 rpg) Strength: Any team with Jimmer Fredette is going to have a chance to win. Fredette is one of the most underrated scorers in the country. He’s a 44.8 three-point shooter and 89.6 percent from the free-throw line. He doesn’t waste opportunities and has been consistent all year. His explosive scoring has saved the Cougars numerous times and he’ll be tough for any team to guard in the NCAA tournament. Weakness: History is not on the Cougars side. They have to be reliving ghosts of NCAA tournaments past. BYU has lost nine consecutive NCAA tournament games. That staggering statistic is why this team gets so little respect. BYU is under more pressure than most people realize. Will that pressure bust pipes for the Cougars or will it create a diamond in the rough?
8. Gonzaga Bulldogs Location: Spokane, Wash. Record: 26-6 At-Large Bid: West Coast Conference Key Players: Matt Bouldin (15.8 ppg), Elias Harris (14.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Steven Gray (13.7 ppg), Robert Sacre (10 ppg, 5.2 rpg) Strength: Unlike previous editions of Gonzaga basketball, this team actually defends very well. The Bulldogs are No. 1 in the WCC in field goal percentage defense allowing their opponents to shoot just over 40 percent. They’re also getting close to seven steals per game which fuels their outstanding transition game. That defense is reason why Gonzaga is once again a threat to reach the second weekend. Weakness: The Bulldogs really lack backcourt depth. Outside of the Matt Bouldin, Steven Gray and Demetri Goodson, there’s nothing there. The starters have to play the bulk of the minutes and that will be an issue in the tournament. All three of the aforementioned players are very talented, but they need relief. If they play someone who can run a lot of defenders at them, they may wear down and kill Gonzaga’s chances.
9. Florida State Seminoles Location: Tallahassee, Fla. Record: 22-9 At-Large Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Key Players: Solomon Alabi (11.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Chris Singleton (10.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Michael Snaer (8.9 ppg), Deividas Dulkys (8.6 ppg), Derwin Kitchen (8.3 ppg) Strength: There’s no doubt that Florida St is going as far as its low-post duo of Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton will take it. The two big men aren’t big-time scorers, but they do so many things that help the Seminoles win. They run the floor well, block shots and really crash the boards. Their size has given foes fits all year long and will may continue to be an advantage for the Seminole sin the tournament. Weakness: Not many teams in the ACC have the porous offensive numbers of the Seminoles. They’re in the bottom half of the conference in scoring offense, three-point field goal percentage, free-throw percentage and turnover margin. It’s what led their inconsistent play. Not being able to score consistently will put them at a major disadvantage. They have to show the ability for some offensive explosion to have a chance.
10. Florida Gators Location: Gainesville, Fla. Record: 21-12 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Kenny Boynton (13.6 ppg), Erving Walker (12.6 ppg), Chandler Parsons (12.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Alex Tyus (12 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Vernon Macklin (10.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg) Strength: The Gators have one of the best post games in all of college basketball. Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin each bring a different skill set, but are all very effective. Macklin has solid post moves. Tyus is a good rebounder and can scrap with the best of them. Parsons can step behind arc and shoot the three-pointer effectively. When they’re playing well, the Gators are awfully difficult to beat. Weakness: To play the type of style the Gators like to play, they don’t score the like they should. They are averaging over 70 points per game, but with the way they like to get up-and-down the floor, they should be able to light the scoreboard up. The biggest issue is the shot selection of Kenny Boynton. He only shoots 28.5 percent from downtown, but he’s taken 55 more three-pointers than the next closest teammate. It’s killing their shooting percentage and opportunities for good shots. He has to make better decisions for the Gators to be successful.
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers Location: Minneapolis, Minn. Record: 21-13 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Lawrence Westbrook (12.6 ppg), Blake Hoffarber (10.1 ppg), Damian Johnson (10 ppg), Devoe Joseph (9.6 ppg), Ralph Sampson III (8.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg) Strength: This is a Tubby Smith-coached team so there’s no doubt that it’s going to defend. Tubby Smith is one of the best defensive coaches in the country and he once again has a team that has taken on his identity. The Golden Gophers are second in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense holding teams to just 40.2 percent shooting. In addition to that, they lead the conference in blocked shots at 5.5 per game and steals at 8 per game. This is one team that believes in defense. Weakness: Minnesota is just too inconsistent offensively. This team has decent offensive numbers on the year, but when it goes bad, it really goes bad. In six of the Gophers 13 losses, they’ve scored 60 points or fewer. That’s not getting it done. They have a lot of talent, but they have to bring it on a night-in night-out basis. If not, they may see a repeat of the Big Ten championship game.
12. UTEP Miners Location: El Paso, Texas Record: 26-6 At-Large Bid: Conference USA Key Players: Randy Culpepper (18 ppg), Derrick Caracter (13.8 ppg, 8 rpg), Jeremy Williams (10.1 ppg), Arnett Moultrie (10.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Christian Polk (9.6 ppg), Julyan Stone (5.1 rpg, 5.4 apg) Strength: Not many teams have the one-two punch of Randy Culpepper and Derrick Caracter. Culpepper has shown the ability to explode offensively and Caracter, the Louisville transfer, has just been a monster down low. The two combine for almost 32 points per game. The Miners don’t even have to run plays for Caracter. He can just go get offensive rebounds. Having two guys you can rely on for consistent scoring gives UTEP a dimension that most teams would kill for. Weakness: Free-throw shooting has been an issue for UTEP the entire year. The Miners are 11th in the 12-team Conference USA at 67.2 percent. Their best shooter is Isaac Gordon and he rarely plays. Culpepper is the only guy they can really count on for production from the line as no other Miner, who sees significant minutes, shoots 70 percent from the line.
13. Murray State Racers Location: Murray, Ky. Record: 30-4 Automatic Bid: Ohio Valley Conference Champions Key Players: Ivan Aska (10.6 ppg), B.J. Jenkins (10.5 ppg), Danero Thomas (10.4 ppg), Tony Easley (10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg)), Isaiah Canaan (10.3 ppg), Isaac Miles (9.5 ppg) Strength: Murray St has a luxury that most teams around the country don’t have; offensive balance. The Racers have six players capable of beating you on any given night. It’s very difficult to prepare for a team that has so many options offensively. That’s why Murray was able to rack up 30 wins this season. This team is talented and is a real threat to make noise this March. Weakness: The Racers are really have a size deficiency. While Tony Easley and Ivan Aska have decent size in the frontcourt, there’s really no quality depth there. Compounding that issue is it’s three main perimeter players 6’0, 6’0, and 6’2 respectively. Teams with a lot of length will give the Racers fits in the tournament. They’ll have passing lanes disrupted and will face more contested shots than they have all year. Unfortunately for the Racers, there’s nothing they can do about it.
14. Oakland Golden Grizzlies Location: Rochester, Mich. Record: 26-8 Automatic Bid: Summit League Champions Key Players: Keith Benson (17 ppg, 10.5 rpg), Johnathon Jones (12.4 ppg, 6.4 apg) Derick Nelson (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Larry Wright (11.1 ppg), Will Hudson(5.1 rpg) Strength: The Grizzlies are the highest scoring team in the Summit League. That’s because they have so many guys who can put the ball in the hoop. They have four guys who score in double-figures led by the conference player of the year Keith Benson. They’re difficult to guard because of their offensive versatility and that makes them a very dangerous team. Weakness: As good as the Grizzlies are offensively, they’re the opposite on defense. They’re allowing opponents to score over 71 points per game on 45 percent shooting. That kind of defense doesn’t transfer well to the tournament. They’ve been able to get by but outscoring the competition in the Summit League. However, there will be no South Dakota St’s in the Big Dance. They’re going to have to guard better to win.
15. North Texas Mean Green Location: Denton, Texas Record: 24-8 Automatic Bid: Sun Belt Conference Champions Key Players: Josh White (14.9 ppg), Tristan Thompson (14.1 ppg), Eric Tramiel (13 ppg, 5.9 rpg), George Odufuwa (11.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg) Strength: With four players averaging in double figures, the Mean Green has excellent offensive balance. Josh White leads the quartet, but by no means does he ever have to carry the load by himself. They can score from the outside with White and Tristan Thompson or they can let Eric Tramiel and George Odufuwa score from the frontcourt. This is one of the most talented mid-major teams offensively. Weakness: North Texas is a turnover waiting to happen. The Mean Green have coughed the ball up 60 more times this season than its foes. Those turnovers have given its opponents extra possessions and its resulted in the Mean Green giving up over 69 points per game. This is something the Mean Green will definitely want to sure up if they expect to pull off an upset in the Big Dance.
16. Vermont Catamounts Location: Burlington, Vt. Record: 25-9 Automatic Bid: America East Conference Champions Key Players: Marquis Blakely (17.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg), Maurice Joseph (14.1 ppg), Evan Fjeld (10.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) Strength: The Catamounts are only going as far as their two senior leaders, Marquis Blakely and Maurice Joseph, are going to take them. The two stars are capable of putting up huge numbers and are the reason why the Catamounts are in the NCAA tournament. The two combined for 37 points in the conference championship game and will have to duplicate those numbers to be competitive in the tournament. Weakness: Vermont doesn’t have the depth that many teams in the NCAA tournament have. The Catamounts really only use a six-man rotation and not even the first man off of the bench can give them much offensive pop. It’s part of the reason why they’re only scoring a little over 70 points a game in a conference where, given the talent they have, should be able to score much more. If the Catamounts expect to make a run, they’re going to have to find a way to put more points on the board.
Yes, I know everyone knows about Villanova, but do you know who gave the Wildcats their lone defeat. That would be the Temple Owls. Temple has quietly put together its best season sense the days of Mark Karcher and Pepe Sanchez and they show no signs of stopping.
The Owls have a RPI of 11 and boast wins over five teams in this week’s bracket,two of their three losses came against Georgetown and Kansas, and they have a 9-2 record in road/neutral games.
Led by the backcourt of Juan Fernandez and Ryan Brooks, Temple has the guards to be competitive with anyone on the perimter. Lavoy Allen, in the paint, held Greg Monroe of Georgetown to a stalemate earlier in the season so the Owls are set in the frontcourt as well.
Dayton was the preseason favorite, but Temple has decided that wasn’t going to happen on its watch. Fran Dunphy made Big 5 rival, Penn into an Ivy League power and he’s doing the same at Temple.
Stock Up: UAB. Another team rolling along in relative obscurity, the Blazers sit tied with Tulsa atop of Conference USA and they’re the best hope of an at-large bid in the conference. They’ve beaten Cincinnati and Butler and can really put some distance between themselves and the rest of the conference. With Tulsa and UTEP coming in, they can put their mark on the league this year.
Stock Down: Clemson. Doesn’t it seem like we come to the same place every year with the Tigers. They pile up wins against cupcakes in the non-conference only to show their real stripes in conference play. The Tigers actually played pretty well in their loss at Georgia Tech, but they were awful in the loss at home to Duke. We’ll see if they can bounce back down the stretch.
Stock Up: Old Dominion. I didn’t know what to make of the Monarchs after losing by 16 at George Mason. Well I know what to make now. This is a legitimate at-large contender with wins over Georgetown and Charlotte. They’re tied for first in the CAA with Northeastern and George Mason and they controll they are in complete control of their NCAA tournament fate.
Stock Down: Minnesota. I don’t know what’s wrong with Minnesota, but it better get its act together fast. There’s no shame in losing to Michigan St, but twice in the span of three games with another loss to Indiana in between is not good at all. This was a preseason top 20 team and now the Gophers are on the wrong side of the bubble. Not a good place to be with the bubble being as strong as its been in years.
This week’s bracket projections:
Last Four In: Charlotte, William & Mary, Northwestern, Cincinnati
Last Four Out: Louisville, Wichita State, Notre Dame, Maryland
1.Kentucky16.Lehigh/Ark-Pine Bluff Milwaukee
5.Pittsburgh12.William & Mary Jacksonville
6.Ohio St11.Siena New Orleans
3.Kansas St14.Coastal Carolina
7.Mississippi10.Rhode Island Providence
2.Georgetown15.Weber St WEST
1.Syracuse16.Arkansas St Buffalo
4.Gonzaga13.College of Charleston
6.Baylor11.Florida New Orleans
7.Connecticut10.Old Dominion Jacksonville
2.Duke15.East Tennessee St EAST
8.Florida St9.Texas A&M
5.Temple12.Northwestern San Jose
6.Wake Forest11.Seton Hall Buffalo
7.Northern Iowa10.Mississippi St Oklahoma City
2.Texas15.Morgan St SOUTH
1.Kansas16.Robert Morris Oklahoma City
6.New Mexico11.Richmond San Jose
2.Michigan St15.Sam Houston St
There are many teams in the Big East with instant name cache; UConn Georgetown, Syracuse, and Louisville to name a few. West Virginia would be pretty far down that list. However, the Mountaineers have staked their claim as a contender in the best conference in the country.
The Mountaineers are at full strength and are a force to be reckoned with. Alex Ruoff, Da’Sean Butler, and Devin Ebanks are all capable of an offensive explosion. Add in Darryl Bryant and the tough Joe Mazzulla and you have all the ingredients for a solid basketball team.
Ask Ohio St how potent West Virginia is. What the Mountaineers did to the Buckeyes was criminal. They took it to Ohio St from the tip and showed the rest of the country, just how deep the Big East is.
Stock Up: St. Mary’s. After a questionable loss to UTEP in the 76 Classic, the Gaels have reeled off nine wins in a row including five on the road. Patrick Mills is easily one of the best guards in the country and is a matchup problem for anyone. Be clear folks, the West Coast Conference is not just about Gonzaga.
Stock Down: Gonzaga. Portland St. Tell me you did not lose to Portland St at home. Tell me the “Mid-Major that Could” didn’t overlook another Mid-Major. The Bulldogs have road contests at Utah and at Tennessee. Mark Few better tighten his ballclub up in a hurry.
Stock Up: Chris Wright. There was no doubt that Georgetown was going to be a tournament team, but on which weekend it met it’s demise would hinge on it’s point-guard play. Well, early in the season, I think we have our answer. Wright, fully recovered from the foot injury which sidelined him much of last season, has been everything John Thompson III could ask for and more. He’s proving to be one of the best guards in the country.
Stock Down: Mississippi Head Coach Andy Kennedy. I don’t know WHAT happened that night in Cincinnati. What I do know is the coach of a college basketball team should not be out, at a bar, on a roadtrip at 1:00am. I doubt the allegations of assault and racial slurs are true, but what good can come of that.
Stock Up: Minnesota. If there is another coach to be happier for, I can’t find him. Tubby Smith has the program in the Twin Cities turned around halfway through his second season and it’s great to see. The Golden Gopher program had falllen on some hard times with the Clem Haskins’ scandal and Dan Monson’s tenure, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. That light appears to be a NCAA tournament berth.
Stock Down: Mid-American Conference. Generally, the MAC is one of the better Mid-Major conferences in the country. In fact, the MAC used the ring out like the Missouri Valley does now. However, this appears to be a bad year for the conference. With only three teams over .500 and every team in the West Division with a losing record, any hopes of an at-large bid seem to be all but shot.
This week’s Bracket Projections:
1.North Carolina16.Cornell Greensboro, NC
5.Baylor12.Utah St Portland, OR
6.Florida St11.Butler Minneapolis, MN
7.Missouri10.Florida Philadelphia, PA
2.Georgetown15.East Tennessee St WEST
1.Duke16.North Dakota St Greensboro, NC
5.Minnesota12.Creighton Boise, ID
6.Ohio St11.Boston College Miami, FL
7.St. Mary’s10.Davidson Dayton, OH
2.Notre Dame15.Pacific MIDWEST
1.Oklahoma16.Quinnipiac Kansas City, MO
5.Michigan12.Illinois St Minneapolis, MN
6.Villanova11.Texas A&M Miami, FL
7.Stanford10.Wisconsin Philadelphia, PA
1.Pittsburgh16.Morgan St/Ark-Pine Bluff Dayton, OH
5.Clemson12.Northwestern Portland, OR
6.Arizona St11.Maryland Boise, ID
7.Kansas10.UNLV Kansas City, MO