The Wildcats, per usual, bring in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. This year, however, there is quality experience mixed with that. P.J. Washington and Quade Green return to a team that adds freshmen Ashton Hagans, Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickley and E.J. Montgomery. To top it off, grad transfer Reid Travis brings his rugged game from Stanford. This team has the perfect mix to be a dominant force all season.
The Volunteers caught everyone off guard last season as it won a share of the SEC title with a team of unknown guys. That’s not the case anymore. Reigning SEC Player of the Year, junior forward Grant Williams, returns along fellow juniors Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden as well as senior Admiral Schofield. They will have to play with expectations this season, but with so much returning, it’ll be difficult to see them not competing with Kentucky.
Like Tennessee, Auburn shocked everyone by winning a share of the conference title. Unlike Tennessee, you could see there was talent on this roster. This season we will get to see most of it. The backcourt of senior Bryce Brown and junior Jared Harper are back and they’ll once again get to play with juniors Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley, both of whom missed last season due to NCAA suspension. Mustapha Heron and Desean Murray are gone, but there is enough here to keep Auburn near the top of the SEC.
Head coach Will Wade enters the season with a lot on his plate. The program is dealing with the death of Wayde Sims. He’s also allegedly been caught on wiretap discussing possible payments to a recruit. Despite that, he has loads of talent on this team. Five-star freshmen Emmitt Williams and Naz Reid join all-America candidate, sophomore guard Tremont Waters, to give the Tigers one of their most talented teams since Shaq was roaming the campus.
5. Mississippi St
This has to be the year for head coach Ben Howland. We’ve been patiently waiting for the full turnaround in Starkville and this appears to be it. The top 5 leading scorers, led by Nick and Quindary Weatherspoon are back for a team that held it’s own in the SEC last season. Expect the Bulldogs to do more than that this season and get back to the NCAA tournament.
The Gators were up-and-down last season, but still managed to garner a No. 6 seed in the tournament with 12 losses. That was due to talent and while Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov are gone, there still plenty of weapons left. Senior guards Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen as well as junior forward Keith Stone will be joined by a great recruiting class featuring Andrew Nembhard. Point guard may be an issue, but the Gators will be fine.
The collective scratching of heads came when head coach Bryce Drew was able to secure the commitments of ballyhooed freshmen Darius Garland, Simi Shittu and Aaron Nesmith. Those three and Notre Dame transfer Matt Ryan are expected to expedite the rebuild in Nashville. The Commodores struggled last season, but there is Big Dance talent on the roster now.
Head coach Avery Johnson proved he could come into college and get the job done from a recruiting standpoint. While lottery pick, Collin Sexton, is with the Cleveland Cavaliers now; Johnson was able to secure another top class. The leader of that class will be Kira Lewis, who’ll be able to follow the lead of senior Donta Hall, junior Dazon Ingram and sophomore John Petty. It’s not a slam dunk that the Crimson Tide will make the tournament, but they will be in the conversation.
9. South Carolina
Head coach Frank Martin has a solid team, but the program hasn’t capitalized on its Final Four run from two seasons ago. There is experience here with senior forward Chris Silva, junior forward Malik Kotsar and Georgetown transfer guard Tre Campbell, but the talent isn’t there to keep up with the top of the league.
Losing Jontay Porter for the season is crushing to the Tigers hopes for a return trip to the Big Dance. Coach Cuonzo Martin will turn to transfers K.J. Santos and Mark Smith as well as freshman Xavier Pinson to help keep the program afloat this season. Seniors Kevin Puryear and Jordan Geist leadership skills will be put to the test in what will be a challenging season in Columbia.
11. Ole Miss
New head coach Kermit Davis turned Middle Tennessee into the premier program in Conference USA before coming to Ole Miss and he’s already off to a good start. Getting freshman Blake Hinson on campus was a coup and there is enough returning in seniors Terence Davis, Bruce Stevens and junior Breein Tyree to keep the Rebels will out of the cellar of the SEC.
12. Texas A&M
Not many teams rode the roller coaster the way Texas A&M did last season. The Aggies started the season with a big win over West Virginia, but struggled mightily in the first half of SEC play. They were able to sneak into the tournament where they blew out North Carolina to reach the Sweet 16. Much of that team is gone so this will be a trying season for head coach Billy Kennedy.
The Razorbacks picked a bad year to rebuild. Arkansas lost almost everyone from a NCAA tournament team a year ago. Now, who does return is future first-round draft pick Daniel Gafford. He’ll be putting his talent on display all season, but with a 7-person recruiting class, it’s going to take a little time to get it going again.
New head coach Tom Crean is in a full rebuild at Georgia. It won’t be easy. This team will need sophomore forward Nicolas Claxton to take a sizable leap forward to compete with the rest of this league. Seniors William Jackson II and Derek Ogbeide will have to be the leaders Crean leans on. The Bulldogs will struggle.
Quick Note on two Teams: Tennessee wasn’t being considered as an at-large candidate up until the final week, but now you can’t ignore its wins. Virginia was seen as a lock, but now you can ignore its lack thereof.
Last Four In: Tennessee, Virginia Commonwealth, Northwestern, Colorado St
Last Four Out: South Florida, Arizona, Oregon, NC State
1. Duke Blue Devils
Location: Durham, NC Record: 30-4 Automatic Bid: Atlantic Coast Conference Champions Key Players: Nolan Smith (21.3 ppg, 5.2 apg), Kyle Singler (17.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Seth Curry (9.5 ppg), Mason Plumlee (8.5 rpg) Strength: Duke is one of the most experienced teams in the country as it returns much of the team that won the national championship last season. Led by seniors, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, the Devils picked up where they left off last season. This team has been focused and primed for a repeat and are very capable of doing that. The Blue Devils may have been the most surprising No. 1 seed to ever win a national championship last season, but they won’t shock anyone if they repeat. Weakness: This is a solid three-point shooting team, but if it’s off it really throws them into a tizzy. Almost 35 percent of Duke’s field goal attempts are from behind the arc so if its not making a good percentage of them it makes it very difficult for it to score. Duke has size inside, but it must learn to lean on it a bit more or it could come back to haunt it.
2. San Diego State Aztecs
Location: San Diego, CA Record: 32-2 Automatic Bid: Mountain West Conference Champions Key Players: Kawhi Leonard (15.4 ppg, 10.7 rpg), Malcolm Thomas (11.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg), D.J. Gay (11.2 ppg), Billy White (9.9 ppg), Chase Tapley (8.4 ppg) Strength: This is a very tough team. The Aztecs are grown men on the boards as they are first in the Mountain West in rebounding margin. They also defend as they only allow their opponents to shoot 39.6 three from the field and 30.9 percent from three. They do a great job taking teams out of what they like to do and just pound teams into submission. Any team that wants to beat them will have to match their toughness and judging by their record, that’s been easier said than done. Weakness: The Aztecs have been able to get through the Mountain West schedule with a seven-man rotation, but that’s not going to cut it in the NCAA Tournament. D.J. Gay, Malcolm Thomas and Kawhi Leonard all play a lot of minutes and that could come back to haunt the Aztecs. This is a supremely talented team, but it’s going to take more than just the talent in the starting five to make it to the Final Four.
3. Connecticut Huskies
Location: Storrs, CT Record: 26-9 Automatic Bid: Big East Champions Key Players: Kemba Walker (23.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Jeremy Lamb (10.3 ppg), Alex Oriakhi (10 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Shabazz Napier (8.3 ppg), Roscoe Smith (5.1 rpg) Strength: The world knows by now that to beat Connecticut you have to find a way to contain Kemba Walker. Walker, a national player of the year candidate, has been hard for everybody to stop. Teams have tried zone and man against him and somehow, he’s managed to still score and carry his team. The show he put on in the Big East Tournament was amazing and he’s fully capable of duplicating that in the Big Dance. Weakness: Outside of Walker, the Huskies just haven’t gotten consistent production from the rest of the roster all year. There have been nights when Jeremy Lamb or Alex Oriakhi have really scored, but not on a night-in night-out basis. Due to that, many teams have played zone against Connecticut and it has worked. The Huskies shoot only 43.3 percent from the field. If Walker’s supporting cast doesn’t step up Connecticut could ripe for an upset.
4. Texas Longhorns
Location: Austin, TX Record: 27-7 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: Jordan Hamilton (18.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Tristan Thompson (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Gary Johnson (11.5 ppg, 7 rpg), Cory Joesph (10.5 ppg), J’Covan Brown (9.8 ppg) Strength: Texas may have the most talented starting five in America. Texas has any number of guys who can fill it up led by freshman Tristan Thompson. The Longhorns have shown they can beat anyone in the country as evident by their win at Kansas. They are hard to guard together and can score in bunches. This team will be tough to beat and is capable of making a deep run in the Big Dance. Weakness: Texas is still a very young team. The Longhorns get a lot of production from underclassmen and that could be a detriment in the tournament. They’ve already shown a lack of maturity in some of their losses this year and it’s quite possible that it can happen again. Texas’ young players are no doubt talented, but that was also the case in 2007 with Kevin Durant and that ended with a second round loss to USC. There’s plenty of evidence here to say that may happen again.
5. Arizona Wildcats
Location: Tucson, AZ Record: 27-7 At-Large Bid: Pac-10 Conference Key Players: Derrick Williams (19.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg), Lamont Jones (9.6 ppg), Kyle Fogg (8.3 ppg) Strength: It’s easy to see why the Wildcats have had a renaissance year and he wears No. 23. Derrick Williams is an All-American and a load in the paint. He has carried this team all season long with his stellar play. He really has no peer at his position in college basketball and his teammates have done a good job of playing off of him. Williams is a great college basketball player – one with the talent to take the Wildcats on a long run. Weakness: The Wildcats struggle mightily when they turn the ball over. They sit in eight place in the Pac-10. The team can be really explosive when they’re playing well, but they can also give games away with their carelessness. Even Williams, as good as he is, is a turnover factory as he leads the team with 86 turnovers and just 37 assists. If the Wildcats don’t take care of the ball they could lose to anybody.
6. Cincinnati Bearcats
Location: Cincinnati, OH Record: 25-8 At-Large Bid: Big East Conference Key Players: Yancy Gates (11.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Dion Dixon (11.6 ppg), Sean Kilpatrick (9.9 ppg), Cashmere Wright (8.9 ppg), Rashad Bishop (8.1 ppg) Strength: The Bearcats, just like most teams in the Big East, are an awesome defensive team. Cincinnati’s 41.1 percent field-goal percentage defense yields just 59.2 points per game from opponents; good enough for first in the conference. Their guards are great at pressuring the basketball and they have enough length to bother jump shooters. Cincinnati may have flown under the radar, but they’ll prove to be a match-up nightmare in the NCAA Tournament. Weakness: Cincinnati struggles mightily to score. The Bearcats are one of the worst shooting teams in the Big East as they only shoot 43.6 percent from the field on the year. In fact, the Bearcats second through fifth leading scorers don’t come anywhere near shooting 50 percent. Cincinnati has to make games ugly to win, but if they play against a team that gets hot, there won’t be much it can do to stay in it.
7. Temple Owls
Location: Philadelphia, PA Record: 25-7 At-Large Bid: Atlantic-10 Conference Key Players: Ramone Moore (14.9 ppg), Lavoy Allen (11.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg), Juan Fernandez (10.7 ppg), Khalif Wyatt (10 ppg), Rahlir Jefferson (5.1 rpg) Strength: Temple has one of the most frustrating styles of play to prepare for. The Owls play a deliberate style where they control tempo on offense and play tough defense. They’re physical and tough inside with Lavoy Allen. Their experienced on the perimeter with the unflappable Juan Fernandez. It’s not the most beautiful brand of basketball to watch, but it is very effective. Weakness: Injuries have really depleted the Owls this season. Temple’s rotation is virtually nonexistent now. Temple only played seven players in their Atlantic 10 semifinal loss to Richmond. The Owls cannot afford any foul trouble because all that’s left at this point are walk-ons. If Temple plays a team with great depth, it may be in serious trouble.
8. Michigan Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI Record: 20-13 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Darius Morris (15.2 ppg, 6.7 apg), Tim Hardaway Jr. (13.9 ppg), Jordan Morgan (9.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), Zack Novak (8.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) Strength: Coach John Beilein has one of the most unusual styles of play in America. The Wolverines love to spread teams out and shoot three pointers. They have outstanding guards, who’ve led the team to shoot a respectable 35.3 percent from behind the arc. Once teams decide to guard Michigan on the three point line, it opens up the lane for layups. Beilein’s West Virginia team got hot and made it to the Elite 8 in 2005 so there’s no reason to believe this Michigan team can’t have success too. Weakness: The Wolverines are extremely weak on the boards. It’s surprising that Michigan was successful in the rugged Big Ten. Michigan was 10th in the conference in rebounding Margin with the likes of Iowa and Indiana finishing ahead of it. That’s part of the reason why the Wolverines were a middling team in the conference and could be the reason why they are booted out of the Big Dance quickly.
9. Tennessee Volunteers
Location: Knoxville, TN Record: 19-14 At-Large Bid: Southeastern Conference Key Players: Scotty Hopson (17.4 ppg), Tobias Harris (15.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Cameron Tatum (8.9 ppg), Melvin Goins (8.1 ppg), Brian Williams (7.7 rpg) Strength: Scotty Hopson had a great season for Tennessee. He is one of the most explosive players in the nation and has put up huge numbers against solid defensive teams. Hopson scored 27 on Pittsburgh and 32 on Georgia. He has solid teammates around him who complement his talents very well. If Hopson gets going in the Big Dance, he can carry Tennessee to the second weekend. Weakness: There was only one team in the SEC that got to the free-throw line more than Tennessee, yet it is only eighth in free-throw percentage. Three key guys in the Volunteers’ rotation shoot sub-70 percent from the charity stripe. This is key in pressure situations when free-throws are so important. The Vols have to get the right people to the line or they may give a win away.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions
Location: State College, PA Record: 19-14 At-Large Bid: Big Ten Conference Key Players: Talor Battle (20.1 ppg), Jeff Brooks (13.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg), David Jackson (9.8 ppg), Andrew Jones (5.5 rpg) Strength: Penn St goes as Talor Battle goes. The Nittany Lions follow the lead of Battle who is one of the best players in the nation. Battle has toiled in relative obscurity in State College for four years, but he finally gets his moment in the sun making the first NCAA Tournament of his career. If he gets hot, he can be the catalyst to get the Nittany Lions to the second weekend. Weakness: Watching Penn St play on offense is not a pleasant experience. The Nittany Lions are one of the worst teams in the tournament offensively as they score only 63 points per game. They have no explosion offensively and cannot get down by double digits. The Lions want to grind wins out, but on offense, it seems as though that strategy backfires.
11. Missouri Tigers
Location: Columbia, MO Record: 23-10 At-Large Bid: Big XII Conference Key Players: Marcus Denmon (17.1 ppg), Laurence Bowers (11.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Ricardo Ratliff (10.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), Kim English (10.2 ppg), Michael Dixon (10.2 ppg) Strength: Coach Mike Anderson’s “fastest 40 minutes in basketball” is basketball on roller skates. It’s fun to watch, but it’s also difficult to prepare for and that’s what makes Missouri tough. The Tigers employ one of the nation’s most effective full court pressure defenses. They force over 18 turnovers a game and they use those turnovers to fuel their offense. If the Tigers can impose their will with their style of play, they can make a little noise in the Big Dance. Weakness: This is one of the worst rebounding teams in the Big XII. The tigers get out-rebounded by nearly two boards per game. A lot of that has to do with the Tigers wanting to get out and run, but it also has to do with the fact that Missouri’s big men don’t give consistent production going to the glass. Rebounds can be had against this team and if it gives up too many, it could be one-and-done.
12. Memphis Tigers
Location: Memphis, TN Record: 25-9 Automatic Bid: Conference-USA Key Players: Will Barton (12.3 ppg, 5 rpg), Joe Jackson (9.9 ppg), Tank Black (9.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Wesley Witherspoon (9 ppg) Strength: Memphis is one of the most athletic teams in the country. Josh Pastner has built this team in the mold that his predecessor, John Calipari, built his teams. The Memphis roster is full of guys who love to get up-and-down the court and they do it well. The Tigers are treacherous on the fast break and can turn a game into a highlight reel in a hurry. It’s the way they like to play and it’s the way they earned their way to the tournament. Weakness: Memphis is young and very mistake-prone. The Tigers are ninth in Conference-USA in turnover margin as they turn the ball over 15.3 times per game. The Tigers can be exciting to watch, but they can also be frustrating at the same time. They’ve lost games with their out-of-control play this year and they’ll have to reign it in if they expect to have staying power in the Big Dance.
13. Oakland Grizzlies
Location: Rochester, MI Record: 25-9 Automatic Bid: Summit League Champions Key Players: Keith Benson (18 ppg, 10.1 rpg), Reggie Hamilton (17.4 ppg, 5.4 apg), Will Hudson (12.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg), Travis Bader (10.5 ppg), Larry Wright (9.8 ppg) Strength: This team can score and can do it in bunches. Oakland is second nationally in points per game at 85.6. The Grizzlies have four guys who average double figures led by Keith Benson, a future pro. This team is difficult to guard and that’s evident in their win over Tennessee where it scored 89 points. If this team gets hot, it’s not only a threat to win one game, but don’t be shocked to see it in the Sweet 16. Weakness: The Grizzlies can be so focused on scoring that they can forget that they have to play defense as well. Oakland allows its opponents to score over 76 points per game, second worst in the Summit League. The Grizzlies will not be able to outscore everyone, especially given the talent level in the Big Dance. If Oakland doesn’t make a commitment to the defensive end, it could be one-and-done.
14. Bucknell Bison
Location: Lewisburg, PA Record: 25-8 Automatic Bid: Patriot League Champions Key Players: Mike Muscala (14.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg), Bryson Johnson (11.7 ppg), G.W. Boon (8.8 ppg), Darryl Shazier (8.3 ppg, 5.6 apg) Strength: Bucknell was able to rip through Patriot League competition on the strength of its defense. The Bison were first in the Patriot League in field-goal percentage defense, three-point field-goal percentage defense, and points allowed. That kind of success on the defensive end yielded only one loss in league play and can make the Bison competitive in the Big Dance. Bucknell has a history of success in the NCAA Tournament. If it is able to defend like it has all season, it may add to that. Weakness: Bucknell likes to play close to the vest and control tempo because of its lack of depth. That may be an issue if the Bison get in any foul trouble. Bucknell has seven players averaging 20 minutes or more per game and then there’s a huge drop off in before the next closest player. The book on Bucknell will be to press them or get them into foul trouble and if Bucknell isn’t able to manage that it may have a very short stay in the tournament.
15. Northern Colorado Bears
Location: Greeley, CO Record: 21-10 Automatic Bid: Big Sky Conference Champions Key Players: Devon Beitzel (21.4 ppg), Neal Kingman (10.6 ppg), Chris Kaba (9.5 ppg), Mike Proctor (5.6 rpg), Taylor Montgomery (5.7 rpg) Strength: Northern Colorado is one of the best rebounding teams on the mid-major level. The Bears are No. 1 in the Big Sky in rebounding margin at 5.4 per game. They’re also second in the conference in offensive rebounds and first in offensive rebound percentage getting over 35 percent of their misses. If the Bears are able to out-rebound their opponent, they may be able to cause a scare. Weakness: This is a team that is too reliant on Devon Beitzel to score. Beitzel, the conference’s player of the year, is a great player, but he’s going to need help for Northern Colorado to be successful. If he has an off night this team isn’t capable of being close to anyone in the tournament. Beitzel not only has to score, but he’s going to have to get some partners in crime to be successful.
16. Hampton Pirates
Location: Hampton, VA Record: 24-8 Automatic Bid: Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Champions Key Players: Darrion Pellum (17.7 ppg), Kwame Morgan (16.5 ppg), Charles Funches (10.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg) Strength: Hampton is easily one of the best defensive teams on the mid-major level. The Pirates hold their opponents to just 37.9 percent shooting – good enough for first in the MEAC. It’s allowed Hampton to do major things in the non-conference portion of it’s schedule, including beating George Washington, Colorado St and fellow NCAA Tournament team, Boston University. Teams only averaged 57 points per game against the Pirates in the MEAC Tournament and they hope to duplicate that play in the Big Dance. Weakness: The Pirates offensive efficiency is some of the worst you’ll see in the NCAA Tournament. Hampton shoots only 40.7 percent from the field and 32.5 percent form behind the three-point line. The Pirates are even bad from the free-throw line only making 65 percent of those as well. This all leads to a poorest 67.2 points per game in the MEAC. If the Pirates can’t score in the tournament, they’ll have no chance to even be close.
1. 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.
Villanova at Syracuse: Clearly this is the game of the day. The two best teams in the Big East all year finally go toe-to-toe. Villanova really needs to score in transition because Syracuse’s zone is too good for ‘Nova’s smaller guards to penetrate and finish. The Orange can get out and run but I’m not sure it wants to test the quicker Wildcats. I like Syracuse in a REALLY close game.
Kentucky at Tennessee: After its performance in Gainesville, Tennessee needs this game. Kentucky has been vulnerable on the road the past couple of weeks and Tennessee has already beaten a top-5 team at home this season. Something isn’t right with the Volunteers and playing the Wildcats isn’t going to fix it. Kentucky by 10…at least.
New Mexico at BYU: This one has the opportunity to be the best game of the weekend. Not a lot separates the two teams and their meeting a month ago was decided by four points. This game will have a similar outcome. I just pray that most of you have Versus, because I don’t. BYU wins in overtime.
Maryland at Virginia Tech: The Hokies need this game. There’s no two ways around it. If they don’t win, it might bury their at-large chances. They had the worst lost of any bubble team this week when Boston College beat them by 20. They have to win this game, but I like the way Maryland is playing. I like the Terps.
Michigan St at Purdue: Nothing breaks my heart like the late-season injury. I really feel badly for Purdue. It’ll still be a good team without Robbie Hummel. I don’t know how good yet, but I do expect an inspired Boilermaker team to show up and beat Michigan St.
Richmond at Xavier: I have watched both these teams play recently and let me tell you something, they’re good enough to hang with anyone. This will be one heck of a game. I think Richmond is the better team, but they won’t be in the Cintas Center on Sunday. Xavier wins.
Louisville at Connecticut: I don’t know who needs it more but I expect both squads to leave it all on the court. UConn has been strong for a couple weeks now and outside of been attacked by Austin Freeman, Louisville has been playing well too. However, the Huskies are the one team I’d hate to have to play right now. I like UConn in this one.
I have a bracket for you too!
Last Four In: Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Old Dominion, Saint Mary’s
Last Four Out: Charlotte, Mississippi St, Notre Dame, Minnesota