Monday, March 18, 2013

March Madness Preview

Article by Fox Sports

 March Madness preview: Midwest Region

With coaches like Rick Pitino, Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo on the sidelines, the top of the Midwest bracket will be a tough matchup for the lower seeded teams. (USA TODAY Sports)

Let’s see: Rick Pitino, Tom Izzo, Coach K, Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott, and — oh, yeah — a 7-foot-5 dude from Canada. When you break down the Midwest region, geez, what’s not to love?
Like name-dropping? The coaches of the top three seeds in the region, Louisville, Duke and Michigan State, have combined for 23 Final Fours and six national championships. McDermott, the engine for No. 7 seed Creighton, has drawn comparisons to Larry Bird, another one-time Missouri Valley Conference legend. Oklahoma State, the 5 seed, rides the broad shoulders of freshman point guard Smart, another future pro.
Like depth? The double-digit-seed club swings a big stick, too. No. 14 Valparaiso is synonymous with bracket-wrecking; No. 15 Albany has a history of being a feisty out. And the 13th-seeded New Mexico State Aggies, of course, have the biggest darkhorse of all: center Sim Bhullar, a 7-5, 355-pound freshman from Toronto who drew headlines with the Canadian FIBA Under-19 national team. The New York Times in 2011 feted him as “poised to become the world’s first prominent men’s basketball player of Indian descent.” And there’s talk that Bhullar, whose parents hail from India, could be a gateway for that cricket-loving nation to get into hoops the way China did when Yao Ming first hit these shores.
Like drama? Cincinnati-Creighton and Oklahoma State-Oregon look, on paper, to be the toss-ups to end all toss-ups. As the curtain lifts, all signs point to Pitino’s Cardinals being the last ones standing once the smoke finally clears in Indianapolis. But this thing has the potential to give us about six levels of crazy first.
Best second-round matchup: Creighton vs. Cincinnati. The Jays like to strike quickly, and from long range. The Bearcats prefer to bludgeon you into submission, swing by swing. It’s the perfect storm of contrasts: According to stats guru Ken Pomeroy, Creighton ranks sixth nationally in offensive efficiency, while Cincinnati ranks 15th in defensive efficiency. The Jays went down to the wire in a one-point win over Alabama in last year’s Dance, and Friday in Philly could offer up the same kind of finish.
Early upset: No. 13 seed New Mexico State over No. 4 seed Saint Louis. Absurd, sure, but what the heck? This season's had the market cornered on absurd. The Billikens are tougher than five-day-old bread, but they're not especially, well, big. SLU features four players on its roster that are 6-7 or taller. The Aggies have seven, including mighty Bhullar (10.2 points per game). And New Mexico State ranks 21st nationally in rebounding margin, at +6.4 per game.

Cinderella story: Oregon. Slotting the Ducks as a 12 seed is laughable, of course, but it does make for an interesting pod. The Quack Attack boasts four RPI top-50 victories, including two at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. Dana Altman's Bracketville history is a mixed bag, sure — but Gang Green was handed a potentially upset-friendly path to Indianapolis.

Best player: Marcus Smart, 6-4, freshman, guard, Oklahoma State. One of the country's best on-ball defenders (second in steals per game with 2.9), the Cowboys' star has a linebacker's body (225 pounds) and was actually better away from Stillwater (17.3 points per game in 15 road/neutral contests) than he was at Gallagher-Iba Arena (13.7). Your hate only makes him stronger.

Best player you don't know: Ryan Broekhoff, 6-7, senior, forward, Valparaiso. The poor man's McDermott, statistically. The slick Aussie ranked among the top 20 nationally in 3-point percentage (.432, 20th) and free-throw percentage (.878, 17th) and dropped 24 points on New Mexico last December.

Most underrated coach: Kermit Davis, Middle Tennessee State. The Blue Raiders have six seasons of 23 wins or more in program history. Davis has accounted for two of them, including this season's 28-5 squad. Once an afterthought in a region dripping with history — Tennessee, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Belmont, and Murray State typically dominate the headlines — Davis has put Murfreesboro, Tenn., back on the hoops map again.

Fact only we can give you: "Man vs. Food" fans rejoice: New Mexico State is home to The Chile Pepper Institute, which describes itself as "an international nonprofit organization devoted to education, research, and archiving information related to Capsicum." Burn, baby, burn.

Headed to Atlanta: No. 1 Louisville. Nothing travels in the postseason like great defense, and the Cardinals are the best defensive team in the nation, capable of strangling opponents with a press at midcourt and clogging the lane. The class of arguably Bracketville's classiest region marches on.

March Madness preview: South Region

Georgetown's Otto Porter has the skill to lead the Hoyas to a deep run in the NCAA tournament. (Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports)
 Kansas was one of the best teams in the country for much of the season, using the inside-out combo of Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore to post big numbers on the scoreboard and run many opponents off the floor. The Jayhawks might be the most surprising of the No. 1 seeds, though, because they also suffered maybe the season's most inexplicable loss at TCU in February and just last week got blown out at Baylor.

This South region is wide open.

Michigan's Trey Burke and Georgetown's Otto Porter are both strong National Player of the Year candidates and capable of pushing their teams on prolonged tournament runs. Porter and the No. 2 seed Hoyas have lost just twice since Jan. 19 and finished the regular season playing like a potential No. 1 seed. Same for No. 3 seed Florida, which always excels at this time of year and probably only slipped to No. 3 after a second-half collapse in the SEC tournament championship game.

There's depth, too. VCU looms as a dangerous No. 5 seed when the Rams get their preferred tempo but drew a 26-win Akron team in the first round. Kansas could play a peaking North Carolina team as early as next weekend, and UCLA, San Diego State and Minnesota each have quality wins and enough talent to be considered credible threats.

Withey gives Kansas the region's best big man, but there's debate about the region's best player and a handful of teams with big-stage experience. Past Kansas-Western Kentucky on Friday, there's not a gimme game out there. Bring on the best weekend of the year.

Best second-round matchup:
Michigan vs. South Dakota State. The Wolverines are just 6-6 over their last 12 games, are playing like the young team they are and aren't playing much defense at all. A year after bowing out in the first round to Ohio, the Wolverines catch another dangerous mid-major in the Jackrabbits, who have seniors and enough shooters to keep up in what should be a fast-paced game.

Early upset: No. 11 Minnesota over No. 6 UCLA. The Gophers limped to the finish in the rugged Big Ten, but they're a senior-laden team that's thrilled to be back in the NCAA tournament. UCLA finished the regular season strong but lost freshman Jordan Adams, its second-leading scorer, to a broken foot in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. Look for Minnesota to rely on its experience and advance to play Florida next Sunday.

Cinderella story: No. 12 seed Akron won 19 straight games from late December to early March, then in a span of five days lost its streak, lost its first-ever national ranking, then lost point guard Alex Abreu after he was arrested on drug trafficking charges. The Zips rebounded to win the Mid-American Conference tournament and have a high-major front line led by 7-foot senior Zeke Marshall and 6-7 fireplug Demetrius Treadwell. VCU will force Akron into mistakes with its pressure, but the Zips play good enough defense to win a game, and then another.

Best player: Otto Porter, 6-8 sophomore forward, Georgetown. Porter has done a little bit of everything for the Hoyas and has done it well, averaging better than 16 points and 7 rebounds a game while shooting 43 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. He's one of many very good defensive players coach John Thompson III has, too, and Porter's versatility and ability to take over games allows Georgetown to play at its preferred tempo and frustrate opponents.

Best player you don't know: Nate Wolters, 6-4 senior guard, South Dakota State. Wolters averages 22.7 points per game and has scored more than 2,300 in his career — and that's while facing double teams in just about every game. He also averages 5.6 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game and would probably drive the team bus if asked, too. Sharp-shooting seniors on one last March ride can be very, very dangerous.

Most underrated coach: Billy Donovan, Florida. He has a couple national championship rings tucked away at home, but he not only coaches in football country and in a football conference, he plays second fiddle in that conference to John Calipari. Donovan's teams win big with consistency and win in March, having missed the Final Four in each of the last two seasons only by late rallies in the Elite Eight.

Fact only we can give you: VCU coach Shaka Smart is a former Akron assistant, and Akron coach Keith Dambrot considers Smart his best friend. Last week, Smart sent Akron's players a video message of encouragement as they tried to rebound from the loss of Abreu. In the message, Smart mentioned Akron had the talent to make an NCAA tournament run. The selection committee has quite the sense of humor.

Headed to Atlanta: Florida. Kansas is capable of being great but has proven capable of suffering unforeseen upsets, too. Georgetown and Porter will be a tough out, too, but the Gators have the right combination of NCAA tournament experience, balance and athleticism to navigate a relatively easy path to Atlanta. After coming just minutes from the Final Four in each of the last two years, this is the year the Gators get there.

March Madness preview: East Region

Indiana's Cody Zeller (left) and Victor Oladipo were first-team All-Big Ten selections. (Brian Spurlock-USA Today Sports)

The road to the Final Four was supposed to go through Indianapolis in front of thousands of hometown fans for the Indiana Hoosiers. Instead, a loss in the Big Ten tournament semifinal — and Louisville winning the Big East tournament — resulted in a trip to the East Coast.

Indiana lost 68-56 to Wisconsin on Saturday but did enough to earn a No. 1 seed — just not in the region most Hoosiers fans had hoped. Louisville, awarded the top No. 1 seed, landed in the Midwest Region where Indy is hosting the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games.

The Hoosiers were a trendy pick to win the national championship back in October, and they lived up to the billing with an all-star lineup. Indiana matched its win total from a season ago at 27 and can make it a truly memorable season by winning its first national title since 1987.

The other top seeds in the East are formidable: No. 2 Miami, No. 3 Marquette and No. 4 Syracuse. With an NCAA tournament as wide open as this one, any of those teams are capable of winning four games to earn a spot in the Final Four.

Best second-round matchup: No. 5 UNLV vs. No. 12 California. These two don't have to look far back to find game tape on each other. UNLV defeated Cal 76-75 on forward Quintrell Thomas' short hook shot with 1.2 seconds remaining on Dec. 9 in Berkley, Calif.

Early upset: No. 11 Bucknell over No. 6 Butler. The Bulldogs have made two Final Fours in recent years, but this season's team finished tied for third in the Atlantic-10 and has struggled at times. Bucknell, which won the Patriot League title, has won 15 of its last 17 games.

Cinderella story: No. 14 Davidson has a difficult matchup with No. 3 Marquette in the round of 64, but the Wildcats are one of the hottest teams in college basketball. Davidson has won 17 consecutive games and starts three seniors and two juniors. This team, which has already played Duke and Gonzaga, won't be intimidated by anyone.

Best player: Victor Oladipo, 6-5, junior, guard, Indiana. Oladipo has transformed himself from an above-average player into a National Player of the Year candidate — He was already named Player of the Year by the Sporting News. The Hoosiers' high flier, who punctuated his season with a stunning 360 dunk in the Big Ten tournament, averages 13.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals per game.

Best player you don't know: Mike Muscala, 6-11, senior, center, Bucknell. Muscala is averaging 19.0 points and 11.2 rebounds, which ranks tied for third in the country. With him in the lineup, Bucknell has a go-to player that could create problems for any team in the Bison's bracket.

Most underrated coach: Bob McKillop, Davidson. The veteran coach has led the Wildcats to the NCAA tournament in five of the last eight seasons. In 24 seasons, his record is 414-256. Under his guidance, Davidson has continued its Southern Conference dominance, even without Stephen Curry.

Fact only we can give you: Colorado has won 20 or more games in three consecutive seasons under coach Tad Boyle. It marks the first time in program history the Buffaloes have accomplished that feat.

Headed to Atlanta: No.1 Indiana. The Hoosiers are 3-3 in their final six games of the season, but Tom Crean's crew has all the components to win the East Region. Center Cody Zeller and Oladipo are bona fide NBA players, while Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Will Sheehey can score in bunches. The rebuilding project at Indiana is complete under Crean, and it's time for the Hoosiers to shine on the national stage.

March Madness preview: West Region

The makeup of the West Region now looks something like an experiment with Gonzaga taking the top seed. (James Snook-USA TODAY Sports)

This was the year the NCAA tournament killed Cinderella.

This was the year the NCAA Selection Committee finally declared parity to have arrived in full in college basketball, and it stamped that declaration on the West Region.

America's favorite Cinderella story, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, are underdogs no more. But the Zags taking the top seed was only the beginning. This is the region in which a Mountain West team (New Mexico) is seeded third and a 26-8 team that finished second in the SEC and won the conference tournament (Ole Miss) is seeded 12th.

Whether that was intentional or accidental, the West now looks something like an experiment. It is the only region with no teams that have won national championships this millennium. It is where, if the seeding holds up, Gonzaga and New Mexico would meet with a trip to the Final Four on the line. It is where Arizona beating New Mexico would be considered an upset.

Or would it? So long, Cinderella.

Best second-round matchup:
Kansas State vs. Wisconsin. This game would have a real chance to set a record for fewest possessions in the shot-clock era, but more importantly it would be an intriguing matchup between coaches Bruce Weber (Kansas State) and Bo Ryan (Wisconsin), who coached against each other in the Big Ten for the previous nine years.

Early upset: No. 10 seed Iowa State over No. 7 seed Notre Dame. Nobody in the region, maybe the tournament, is more willing to spend the whole game bombing away at the 3-point line than the Cyclones, who aren't afraid to run, either.  This is a tough matchup for Notre Dame even if the Cyclones aren't scorching hot.

Cinderella story: Ole Miss. Ole Miss is plenty good enough to beat Wisconsin, Kansas State and Gonzaga to reach the Elite Eight. You rarely run into a 12-seed that won a major conference tournament and has the kind of firepower the Rebels have. Wisconsin and Kansas State, especially, will just have to hope Marshall Henderson misses, because neither is likely to score many points of their own.

Best player: Deshaun Thomas, 6-foot-7, Jr., F, Ohio State. Thomas is one of the few "just throw it to him and watch him work" forwards in the country. He makes traditional power forwards nervous with his range and quickness, but he's great in the post if you guard him with somebody smaller.

Best player you don't know: Shane Southwell, 6-foot-6, Jr., guard, Kansas State. Southwell could be Kansas State's best player next year; you get the feeling he's just waiting his turn. After two seasons buried in former coach Frank Martin's rotation, Southwell has flourished under first-year K-State coach Bruce Weber, averaging eight points, four rebounds and shooting 42 percent from the 3-point line.

Most underrated coach: Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss. Know how many times Ole Miss had been to the NCAA Tournament before it hired Kennedy in 2007? Six. In history. Kennedy pushed it up to seven with a hot-shooting hothead (Marshall Henderson) and a disciplined, mature team that belies Henderson's bluster.

Fact only we can give you: Ole Miss' first NCAA Tournament appearance came in 1981. The point guard on that team? Sean Tuohy, the restauranteur best known as the man who took in a homeless teenager named Michael Oher, inspiring Michael Lewis' book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.

Headed to Atlanta: Ohio State. The second-seeded Buckeyes are the best team in this relatively weak region. A potential second-round matchup with an Iowa State team that lives on the 3-point line is scary, but the Buckeyes won't face anybody that can match their talent unless they hit No. 6-seed  Arizona in the Sweet 16. Meanwhile, Gonzaga is going to have its hands full with Wisconsin, Ole Miss or Kansas State.

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