- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2012

THE POWERFUL (12 teams to be wary of)

Florida State: With the possible exception of guard Michael Snaer, this isn’t a team of stars. But heavens, do the Seminoles defend, just as they have throughout their run as the best team in the ACC outside of Duke and North Carolina over the last four years. On a night when Florida State can hit some 3-pointers, it will be an immensely difficult out.

Kansas: Credit to Bill Self for shrugging off some preseason concerns and leading the Jayhawks to a 27-6 mark. The Jayhawks have a recent history of odd NCAA losses, but have reached the round of 16 in four of the last five years. Kansas won’t go quietly; its only loss by double digits all season was a 10-point setback to Kentucky.

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the prohibitive favorite, even with yet another roster littered with freshmen. Of course, when one of the freshmen is Anthony Davis and the rest are exceptionally skilled, it might not matter that much. John Calipari came excruciatingly close to a title in 2008 with Memphis; he may well get it this year.

Michigan: Yes, the Wolverines are back among the elite, earning their highest seed since they were a No. 3 in 1998. The next step? Reaching the second weekend for the first time since Juwan Howard was still in Ann Arbor. That’s right, Michigan hasn’t made the round of 16 since 1994. John Beilein and Co. are poised to end that drought.

Michigan State: Bet against Tom Izzo and Draymond Green at your own risk. As usual, the Spartans are tough, tested and plenty capable of making life miserable for anyone standing in their way. After a first-round exit a year ago, there’s little doubt Michigan State is back to its normal self. The Spartans will go deep, perhaps back to the Final Four for the third time in four years.

Missouri: It’s been a magical season for senior guard Kim English and his teammates, including a Big 12 tournament title as a going-away present as the Tigers head into the SEC next year. Missouri entered Sunday with an 11-3 mark against the top 50, a solid sign the program’s elusive first Final Four trip is possible.

Murray State: The Racers lost only once, and their seeding had to be one of the more difficult decisions facing the committee. Nonetheless, there are solid wins (Memphis and Saint Mary’s) on Murray State’s resume, and the Racers are two years removed from knocking off Vanderbilt in the first round. They’ll be interesting to monitor.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels have the issue of John Henson’s wrist injury, which cost the junior forward time in the ACC tournament. But they also have Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller, which means they can probably out-talent opponents for a couple rounds. This team opened the season with national title expectations; they’re still there.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes aren’t the overwhelming pick to go all the way this year, but they’re still plenty capable thanks to guard Aaron Craft, center Jared Sullinger and plenty of talent throughout the roster. Ohio State suffered all but one of its losses in the bruising Big Ten, and it might be well-served facing teams it usually doesn’t see.

Syracuse: Is this Jim Boeheim’s last chance at a second national title? Perhaps. The Orange lost twice all season: On the road against traditional home-court hero Notre Dame, and in the Big East semifinals to sweet-shooting Cincinnati. Syracuse has had its share of premature flameouts, but this bunch has the goods for a deep run.

Temple: Coach Fran Dunphy finally made it out of the first round for the first time in 17 years last season. The next step: The Owls’ first round of 16 appearance since 2001. Senior guards Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez (as well as junior scorer Khalif Wyatt) make Temple an exceptionally dangerous commodity.

Wisconsin: The Badgers have won their NCAA opener in nine of 10 years under coach Bo Ryan, and point guard Jordan Taylor is likely help Wisconsin go at least a step further this season. As usual, defense carries the day in Madison; the Badgers gave up 70 points only twice all season and 60 points just 12 times in 33 games.

THE PRETENDERS (teams to count on an early exit from)

Baylor: There isn’t an obvious reason to dislike the Bears, who reached the Big 12 title game last week. But with four losses (out of seven) by at least a dozen points, it’s clear Baylor can be blown out. With a 6-5 finish to the regular season, the Bears could be a reasonably early out.

California: Yes, it’s a high-major at-large, but don’t pay attention to that. Instead, just realize the Golden Bears have no top-50 wins and a losing record away from home. There’s also the matter of an exceptionally tepid Pac-12. This is a team poised for a rapid departure.

Florida: Remember when the Gators were 19-4 and presumably Kentucky’s best challenger in the SEC? Well, 10 games and six losses later (including three setbacks against Kentucky), Florida isn’t a particularly imposing bunch and unlikely to escape the first weekend.

Georgetown: The Hoyas (and senior center Henry Sims, especially) earn a ton of credit for vastly exceeding expectations in what was thought to be a rebuilding year. But Georgetown’s inability to string together more than two wins in a row over the last six weeks is a sign such a streak probably isn’t about to start now.

Indiana: The Hoosiers beat Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, all at home. Alas, there are no NCAA tournament games in Bloomington. Toss in a season-ending knee injury to senior guard Verdell Jones III, and Tom Crean’s first NCAA appearance at Indiana might not be a long one.

Louisville: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Cardinals won the Big East tournament, and that certainly helped propel Connecticut to a national title last season. But this was a remarkably mundane team throughout league play, and Big East tourney MVP Peyton Siva is quite inconsistent. It’s a tough team to trust for another week.

Notre Dame: The Irish plummeted back to reality after an incredible midseason run, dropping three of five (including wretched performances against Georgetown and Louisville) to close out the regular season. Notre Dame hasn’t advanced to the round of 16 since 2003, a streak unlikely to end this year.

Southern Mississippi: The RPI is not a perfect metric. Case in point: the Golden Eagles. Larry Eustachy’s team was lodged in the top 20 of the noted selection committee tool for much of the last two months. But with a 3-4 mini-slide to end the regular season, Southern Miss doesn’t look like it is long for the tournament.

UNLV: On the surface, there’s plenty to like about the Runnin’ Rebels. But dig into their profile, and they’re just 1-6 against the top 100 outside of Vegas. As usual, there are no NCAA tournament games in Sin City. The Rebs might be one-and-done.

Vanderbilt: The Commodores’ last three NCAA appearances ended with first-round exits against double-digit seeds (Siena in 2008, Murray State in 2010 and Richmond in 2011). Past performance may not indicate future results, but that’s a startling recent trend and it makes Vanderbilt tough to trust.

Virginia: The Cavaliers have Mike Scott, a not-entirely-healthy Joe Harris and a lockdown defender in Jontel Evans. They don’t have much depth. Asking anything more than one win is a bit too much.

BEST IN CLASS (a dozen certain to succeed)

Best point guard: Kendall Marshall, UNC: The Tar Heels sophomore wasn’t a first-team all-ACC selection, but he just might be the most valuable player on a credible national title contender. Marshall’s ability to analyze the movements of the other nine players on the floor is extraordinary, and Carolina will need it to make a Final Four run.

Best freshman: Anthony Davis, Kentucky: Who else would it be? Davis is the nation’s best freshman, best defensive player and arguably its best player overall. With 4.6 blocks per game, Davis is certainly the country’s top shot-swatter. Enjoy it while it lasts, Big Blue Nation; it’s doubtful Davis plays more than six more college games.

Best postgame: Jimmy Patsos, Loyola: You never know what sort of direction Patsos’ stream-of-consciousness monologues will take, only that they will be memorable, worldly and at least somewhat cathartic for the Greyhounds’ energetic eighth-year coach. His pressers before and after Loyola’s round of 64 game will be must-see TV.

Best nickname: South Dakota State: There’s no way to top the Jackrabbits in this category. South Dakota State wasn’t even in Division I a decade ago, but enters its first NCAA tournament on an eight-game winning streak. Remember the name Nate Wolters, who can both score (21.3 points per game) and distribute (six assists per game)

Best senior class: Lamar: No one would have suggested this after a Feb. 22 loss at Stephen F. Austin. Coach Pat Knight eviscerated the leadership of his seniors, and video of it went viral. Six consecutive victories later, the Cardinals are in the tournament for the first time since 2000.

Best father-son duo: Creighton: Greg McDermott fled Iowa State for Creighton to perform a little career revival two years ago. Guess what helped? Bringing along his son Doug, who is averaging 23.2 points and shot 61 percent from the floor for the Bluejays, who won the Missouri Valley tournament.

Best team no one is talking about: Memphis: The Tigers didn’t take advantage of their early-season chances to lock up impressive wins, but no matter. Josh Pastner’s team remains loaded with talent. Memphis has won 11 of 12 and coasted through the Conference USA tournament. Memphis is a serious round of 16 contender.

Best lion in late winter: Jim Calhoun, UConn: While his many triumphs over health scares and enemies real and imagined, it seems like Calhoun is practically indestructible. But trouble looms, with defections to the NBA and a tournament ban for 2013 on the way. But don’t count out the possibility the three-time national champ makes things interesting in the next few weeks.

Best mayor: Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State: The Cyclones aren’t a Final Four contender, but Hoiberg deserves praise for getting his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament in only his second season. Known as “The Mayor” in Ames during his playing days, Hoiberg cobbled together a roster that’s beaten both Kansas and Baylor this season.

Best comeback: Robbie Hummel, Purdue: After back-to-back ACL tears, Hummel returned to lead the Boilermakers in scoring (16.3) and rebounding (7.1). His injuries probably cost Purdue a shot at a Final Four last season, but his presence was crucial to this year’s team navigating its way to the Boilers’ sixth straight NCAA appearance.

Best battle-tested low-major: Long Beach St.: Dan Monson took the 49ers to Pittsburgh. And San Diego State. And Louisville. And Kansas. And North Carolina. And to Hawaii, where they faced Xavier and Kansas State. Long Beach won the Big West and will not be remotely rattled by a big stage. The 49ers should be a chic upset pick.

Best response to a brawl: Cincinnati: The Bearcats dramatically improved their seeding with victories over Georgetown and Syracuse in the Big East tournament. But remember, this team was 5-3 when a brawl against Xavier led to the suspensions of several players. The Bearcats started playing better, winning 19 of 26 to lock up a bid.

PLENTY TO PROVE (teams/players/coaches with a lot on the line)

Colorado State: So, are the Rams simply a team that wins a bunch of home games and played the RPI formula perfectly? Or can they make a serious impression during their first NCAA appearance since 2003? With no top-100 wins outside of Fort Collins, this isn’t a bunch that’s earned the benefit of the doubt.

Gonzaga: As omnipresent as the Zags are - this is their 14th straight NCAA appearance - they’ve advanced to the second weekend just once in the last five years. With a smattering of solid wins to go with a fairly talented roster, Mark Few could still coax a little more out of this year’s bunch.

Tommy Amaker, Harvard: Hard as it is to believe, Amaker is coaching in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. He also happens to have a loaded Crimson team that survived arguably the most ferociously competitive Ivy League season ever. Harvard has a shot to make some noise in the next week.

C.J. McCollum, Lehigh: How the Gatorade Player of the Year in Ohio ever wound up in the Patriot League is anyone’s guess. But the 6-foot-3 McCollum has a chance to show just what everyone missed out on while making his second NCAA appearance. Two years ago, he dropped 26 on Kansas in a loss.

Marquette: Here’s a question: Despite a second-place finish in the Big East, the presence of the league Player of the Year (Jae Crowder) and a trip to the second weekend last season, are the Golden Eagles underrated? It’s tough to believe, but Marquette is surprisingly overlooked for a protected seed.

Steve Alford, New Mexico: Back in 1999, Alford led what was then called Southwest Missouri State to the regional semifinals. He’s 2-4 in the NCAA tournament since then during stops at Iowa and New Mexico, twice losing to a double-digit seed. After an impressive Mountain West title run, it’s time to see if he can sustain some postseason mojo.

Kyle O’Quinn, Norfolk State: The Spartans big man has an impressive skillset and an outsized personality to match it, and it’s not hard to see him making money playing basketball somewhere around the globe for years to come. A good showing this week certainly wouldn’t hurt, though.

N.C. State: The Wolfpack slipped into the field on the strength of a decent record away from Raleigh (9-6) and a credible showing at the ACC tournament (beat Virginia, pushed North Carolina to the final seconds). Despite an absence of great wins, they looked like they belonged. It would be nice if they showed they did this week.

Texas: The Longhorns haven’t beaten a higher-seeded team in the NCAA tournament since 2002. Granted, they haven’t had many opportunities, but they’ve seen seven postseason trips end against a lower-seeded outfit. They’re not the hunted this time, and will need to pull off a surprise to advance.

Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: He has an NCAA tournament upset to his name (2007 when Winthrop knocked off Notre Dame). He has an NIT crowd. But a deep run with the Shockers will make Marshall an especially coveted coaching commodity. Despite a Missouri Valley tournament loss, Wichita State is dangerous.

Tu Holloway, Xavier: After last year’s five-point, five-turnover, 1-for-8 shooting adventure in a round of 64 loss to Marquette, the Musketeers star guard could use a little postseason redemption. He’s off to a good start this month after Xavier’s Atlantic 10 tournament run.

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