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. 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.