OHIO VALLEY: The OVC protects its best teams until the semifinals. That means Belmont and Murray St won’t be playing until Friday night. On the other hand, the 5-8 seeds will have to win four games to win the championship. It’s happened before, but I have a hard time seeing that happening with how dominant the Bruins and Racers have been. Belmont clipped Murray St earlier this season, but that was at home. It was the only time the two squads played and here’s hoping we get a rematch. If we do, I predict Belmont to win that one too.
NORTHEAST: Wagner is one of the better mid-majors in the country and its 14-4 NEC record justifies that. The Seahawks performed admirably in the non-conference and are the favorites as they’ll have homecourt throughout. They made a critical mistake though. They let tournament-tested Mount St. Mary’s beat them in the last regular season game. That’s the last team you need to give confidence to. For that reason the Mountaineers will make a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
MISSOURI VALLEY: Loyola-Chicago is the favorite after having one of the more impressive seasons in all of conference basketball. The Ramblers have a sneaky at-large resume as well. They’re one of the newer programs in the MVC so they don’t have much history in this tournament. That being said its difficult to see a team that did what Loyola did in and out of conference losing in this version of the MVC.
METRO-ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: This is a tournament that always seems to provide upsets. There have been pretty good Iona and Monmouth teams in the past that have failed to finish the deal. This year Canisius and Rider finished in a first-place tie. Rider won the tiebreaker and gets the No. 1 seed. That helps the Broncs avoid a possible quarterfinal road game against Siena. That said I expect to see Canisius and Rider in the final. They split both games – winning on their homecourt by one point. Canisius will find away to get it done in its home state.
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.
METRO ATLANTIC ATHLETIC: For the past three years, Siena has been rolling through the MAAC like a warm knife through hot butter. The Saints once again coasted to the regular season title with a 17-1 record. They have shown vulnerabilities though. Not all of the Saints wins have been dominant and some have been downright close. Fairfield has a legitimate shot at pulling off the upset, but I don’t see it. The Saints seem to be extremely focused in their last two games and playing on their home floor will be a huge advantage. I expect Siena to go dancing again.
SOUTHERN: This will be one of the more competitive conference tournaments in the country. The SoCon has wins over schools from the Big East, ACC, SEC, and Atlantic 10 this season. Those wins came from Appalachian St., Western Carolina, College of Charleston and Wofford. Throw in Davidson and there will be some high-quality hoops in Charlotte this weekend. In the end, you have to go with the team that’s lost only one game this calendar year. I expect Wofford to make its first trip to the Big Dance.
WEST COAST: Once again, Gonzaga has proven to be the class of this league. It’s amazing to see the Bulldogs have the success they’ve had given the losses they sustain in the offseason. Despite that, Gonzaga has proven to be beatable this season and, over its record 11-year run, in the WCC tournament. Saint Mary’s and Portland are extremely capable of winning this tournament. There is a high probability of the two meeting in the semi-finals, a game in which Portland will win on their way to the WCC tournament title.
AMERICA EAST: The top four teams in the America East are separated by two games. Stony Brook, Vermont, Maine and Boston University are all capable of going dancing. However, there’s one team who clearly has the number of the other three. In its six meetings with Vermont, Maine and BU; Stony Brook has a 5-1 record. They’ve won 10 out of 11 and are looking very strong. The loss to New Hampshire is a bit alarming, but it was the last game of the season and Stony Brook had nothing left to play for. The Seawolves do now and they’ll be going dancing.
I hope everyone has been watching basketball over the past week. We’ve had plenty of great action from the Caribbean to the Hawaiian Islands. We’ve had some impressive performances and then we’ve had some duds.
Stock Up: Gonzaga. Never before have I thought a Gonzaga team had a better chance to get to the Final Four than this one. I am pleasantly surprised by the offensive firepower the Zags have and they’re finally getting it on the defensive end. If they don’t crack the Final Four this year, they may never do it.
Stock Down: Siena. This is a team that had aspirations of an At-large berth into the NCAA tournament. Those aspirations were dead by Friday. Going 0-3 in Orlando was not what the doctor ordered for the Saints. With Niagra impressing thus far, an automatic bid doesn’t seem like a sure bet either.
Stock Up: Wake Forest. The Deamon Deacons won the 76 tournament out West this weekend and that’s quite an accomplishment for this young team. While, they didn’t necessarily have to play against a loaded field, the win against Baylor was very impressive. They’ll definitely be in the top 3rd of the ACC this year.
Stock Down: Louisville. Oh goodness. Any time the head coach issues a public apology on his website, than you know it’s bad. I have a bad feeling about Louisville; the kind that says this team will do just enough to make it to the tournament, but won’t reach it’s potential.
Stock Up: Kyle McAlarney. It doesn’t matter where he’s at on the floor, you HAVE to guard him. His range is ridiculous. While Luke Harangody was getting his lunch handed to him by Tyler Hansborough, McAlarney was lighting North Carolina up. He’s definitely gotten my attention.
Stock Down: Gary Williams. The natives are restless. Getting crushed Gonzaga is one thing, we saw what the Zags did to Tennessee, but to get destroyed by your cross-town rival in Georgetown might signal the beginning of the end for Gary. Now people may want to downplay it, but look at Georgetown’s roster. They’re killing Maryland in Baltimore and DC. Gary has to stop that bleeding or he’s going to get run out College Park like Herb Sendek was run out of Raleigh.
First bracket of the year below. Few thoughts. I don’t have much to go on. 3-7 games for most teams is way to small of sample to feel comfortable with the bracket, but this is what I do and why not.