‘Zona is in the zone, Doug McDermott’s incredible career reaches the finish line, Pitino’s Cardinals have a chip on their feathers, and the undefeated Shockers face the Region of Death
After losing in the finals of the Pac 12 Tournament in Las Vegas, Arizona stays westward in a region where the finals will take place in Anaheim. The Wildcats are right with Florida as the bona fide top teams in all of the advanced ratings from KenPom to ESPN’s B.P.I. poll. They will play their first two rounds in San Diego, where they will likely make mince meat out of 16 seed Weber State from the Big Sky. Then we have probably the most intriguing 8 vs. 9 match up as WCC Champion Gonzaga takes on Oklahoma State, a team that had been in the top five going into the new year before really stumbling in the very competitive Big XII. We all know about Marcus Smart’s NBA talent at point guard (along with his ugly incident with an overzealous fan at Texas Tech), but since returning from suspension, Smart has been playing quite well. Injuries, arrests, and bad behavior may have haunted the Cowboys this year, but now is a chance to right that wrong by potentially beating a former #1 seed, then taking down a current one. OSU’s overall team numbers are excellent and Markel Brown is another dangerous guard, but they have really struggled to score and finish games in conference play. That is why I see the Zags getting smart and taking Smart out in the first round. Kevin Pangos is an excellent shooter and they still have size left over after losing Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk to the NBA. Many see a potential match up with Okie State as a trap game for Arizona, but I still see the Wildcats winning the weekend regardless of which opponent it is. I say it will be Gonzaga, who usually go out in the second round.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Nick Johnson. The Pac 12 Player of the Year certainly had his struggles on the offensive end back in February when big man Brandon Ashley broke his foot, but he has really come on since then. He may look like a point guard, but he can jump out of the gym with 360 dunks and amazing weak side blocks in transition. If he plays Gonzaga, it will be up to him to chase Kevin Pangos or Gary Bell off the three-point line, and if he plays Oklahoma State, he will have a face-off with maybe the best point guard in the country in Marcus Smart. Johnson’s level of play early on will determine Arizona’s fate. One big flaw: He only shoots 44 % from the field.
PREDICTION: Arizona over Gonzaga
The other grouping in the Spokane region is one with only one noticeable school and a lesser known one that has been consistently good for a number of years now. Oklahoma may have an old-timer for a head coach in the legendary Lon Kruger, but they love getting up and down the court as they are tops in points per game along with tempo. Buddy Hield is a terrific shooting guard and Cameron Clark is a slasher. But they face off with a North Dakota State team out of the Summit League that is just as good on offense in the numbers game. The Bison were the best field goal percentage team in the country, so you won’t shake a bad shot out of them. If Oklahoma is as sloppy as they tend to be with the quick pace, I see North Dakota State pulling the upset as the 12 seed. Moving on, we have familiar face Steve Fisher coaching yet another garbage pail-wearing, defensively juiced San Diego State squad that won the Mountain West regular season and has a crippling defense (2nd in the nation in points per game allowed). They just lost the conference tournament to rival New Mexico, so they will take that anger out on little brother New Mexico State, who have the largest player in the tournament in 7’5″ Sim Bhullar out of Toronto. SDSU wins that one easily then plays NDSU in the second round. Aztec games are where offenses go to die, and that will happen to the Bison unless they have some extra mojo.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Taylor Braun. While everyone was fawning over Summit Player of the Year and future NBA guard Nate Wolters for South Dakota State, Braun had nearly as good of a year for the rival school but came up short in the finals against Wolters’ Jackrabbits. With Wolters gone, Braun has shown his brawn on the court, winning Summit Player of the Year this time. He has a senior teammate in Marshall Bjorklund that can score, but trust me: If there is a Cinderella run here, Braun is the go-to guy.
PREDICTION: San Diego State over North Dakota State
The 3 seed in this spot belongs to the Creighton Blue Jays out of the newer (and not as great) version of the Big East Conference. You name an offensive statistic in college basketball, and I guarantee that Creighton is on top of it, from efficiency to team assists to three-pointers made and three-point field goal percentage. You name it, they own it, and it is thanks to their record-setting senior forward and eventual Wooden Award winner Doug McDermott. He has already 5th in the all time career college scoring list and could reach 4th place if he averages 30 PPG in the next two games. Watching him in the last month, that is entirely plausible; he is that good. Louisiana-Lafayette from the Sun Belt doesn’t stand much of a chance, but they do have two potential NBA talents in guard Elfriid Payton and forward Shawn Long, so they might get a scare. In the 6 vs. 11 match up, we have the Baylor Bears, who have worn the “talented” badge for a few years now but really struggled early on in Big XII play. They righted the ship and got to the conference tourney finals, thanks to their fierce combination of size (Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson) and shooting (Brady Heslip, Kenny Chery). They take on a Nebraska team coached by Tim Miles. Miles pulled off a miracle already by making Colorado State good, and he is doing an encore with the Huskers, who were all but dead in February before getting on a roll as a bubble team. They hang their hat firmly on the defensive end, giving up less than 65 PPG as a team. This one is tough, but I have Nebraska’s defense choking out Baylor, who can get into a rut at times. That leaves us with a state rivalry as Creighton takes on Nebraska. No defense can stop McDermott right now, so I go with the Blue Jays.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Terran Petteway. Dougie McBuckets was too easy of a choice, so I am going to focus on a less heralded player, but a pretty good one. Last year, Petteway was toiling on a Texas Tech squad who had played with an interim coach for most of the season before he decided to transfer. He was recruited by Nebraska head coach Tim Miles to be the lone ranger on the offensive end for the Cornhuskers, and he has done so. Not only is Petteway one of the top scorers heading into the tournament and a tough match up for guards at 6’6″, but he is undoubtedly the leader of a team who hasn’t seen the NCAA Tournament in over a decade.
PREDICTION: Creighton over Nebraska
A lot of sweet stroke and three-ball lovers sitting pretty in this region, beginning with hometown favorite, the 2 seed Wisconsin Badgers. Bo Ryan has had better all-around teams and maybe better talents in the past, but this is definitely his best offensive team, averaging 73 PPG and nearly 8 three’s per game. American University out of the Patriot League is a chip off the old Bo Ryan block when it comes to holding the ball and excellent field goal percentage, but I don’t see an upset here. Oregon, a team that was undefeated going into Pac 12 play and bottomed out before salvaging their season with some late wins, will play against a BYU team that I did not even think deserved to be in the tournament at all, and I am not alone. Both schools are used to going up and down the court (Oregon scored 115 on Ole Miss in overtime and BYU scored 113 points on Stanford IN REGULATION!), but Oregon has more options on the outside, so I take Oregon. In the next round, Wisconsin will surprise people with how comfortable they are if Dana Altman’s Ducks really want to get into a shoot out. The Badgers will win that contest.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Tyler Haws. I am not a fan of the Cougars out of the weak WCC, but Haws has been incredible this season, averaging 23.6 PPG after doing nearly the same last year. Jimmer he is not, but a lot will be on Haws to carry BYU to keep going if they do so, especially with second leading scorer Kyle Collingsworth out with a knee injury. Oregon plays ole’ defense, so the potential is there for Haws to get 30 or more.
PREDICTION: Wisconsin over Oregon
Welcome to college basketball’s version of the Hunger Games: The Midwest Region. Wichita State goes into the tournament a commendable 34-0, but got criticized for playing in a pretty weak Missouri Valley Conference. The tournament committee seemed to deliberately do the Shockers no favors this year if they want to get back to the Final Four and keep the undefeated season alive. They face the winner of Cal Poly, who had an overall losing record out of the Big West, and the SWAC’s Texas Southern, coached by former Indiana head man Mike Davis. Gonzaga got a scare from Southern last year as a 1 seed, but I see no such thing this year for Wichita State. Kentucky as an 8 seed is just befuddling when you look at their ceiling in terms of talent and their excellent numbers in terms of offense, rebounding, and shot blocking. Offense is one thing that really lacks this year for Kansas State, a team that averaged 69 PPG. Freshman leader Marcus Foster would have to really shine in order for the Wildcats to beat the more established Wildcats. Wichita State then faces the first boss in their video game as they play Kentucky, a team that lacks toughness but is capable of great things at any given moment. It comes down to how well the Harrison twins can handle Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker at the guard position and if Wichita State can control the glass. I say the Shockers hit that beloved “shockwall” and be the first 1 seed out of the tournament.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Cleanthony Early. Since coming to Wichita State after a highly successful stint in the juco ranks, Early seems to always be taken for granted. Even the Valley voted Van Vleet as their Player of the Year instead of Early, who was the driving force for the success of last year’s Final Four team along with Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead. With Hall and Armstead departed, Early has shown even more sides to his game as a relentless defender and as a dangerous shooter. His potential battle with Julius Randle of Kentucky could be the must-see event of the first weekend no matter who winds up winning.
PREDICTION: Kentucky over Wichita State
As of publication time, we already know that the N.C. State Wolfpack (thanks to some nifty play from star forward T.J. Warren and undersized point guard Tyler Lewis) trounced Xavier in the First Four game in Dayton, OH. Now N.C. State, one of those ACC bubble team that Mike Krzyzewski pined for, will play the class of the Atlantic 10 for the past two seasons in Saint Louis. The Billikens wear their hard hats to make up for their lack of speed and athleticism, so you have to worry about what the might T.J. Warren could do to them. Due to the lack of depth on N.C. State’s end, I still like Saint Louis. The teacher meets the student when Rick Pitino’s red-hot Louisville Cardinals play his former assistant Steve Masiello, now the head coach at Manhattan out of the MAAC. This will be a rout, pure and simple. That leaves Louisville against Saint Louis, and A-1o teams tend to not do well outside of former member Xavier when it comes to getting to the Sweet 16 or further. The Cardinals are just too quick and chaotic for Saint Louis with their nearly 10 steals per game as a team. One wart on Louisville’s profile, however: They shoot only 65 % from the free throw line.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Russ Smith. I gotta go with the guy who seemed dead set on winning the Most Outstanding Player award in the NCAA Tournament last year until Luke Hancock broke out in Atlanta and took it after Louisville won it all. The Russ-diculous One has certainly had peaks and valleys, but he is playing a lot better lately than he did early in the year when he struggled against teams like North Carolina, Kentucky, and Memphis. The senior may have already hoisted a trophy, but greatness is very greedy, and Smith is not done yet.
PREDICTION: Louisville over St. Louis
Let us head to, as Chris Criscuolo lovingly calls it, Coach K’s Driveway as the Duke Blue Devils earned a 3 seed after a loss in the ACC Tournament final to Virginia. Although Duke has had some up and down moments all season, there is no greater safety net than having an All-American NBA lottery player in Jabari Parker paired up with another future pro in Rodney Hood. Both guys are lengthy forwards with a scorer’s mentality, Hood on the outside and Parker finishing strong to the rim off the dribble. Mercer is a great offensive team that makes over 8 three’s per game and has seven seniors, but Duke won’t let another Lehigh happen to them again that soon. The 6 seed is another A-10 team in UMass, a team that runs a very swift tempo and are efficient in scoring and rebounding thanks to guard Chaz Williams and big man Cody Lalanne. However, UMass is not playing nearly as well now as they were in December, so they might be ripe for a loss against the winner of another First Four match up: Iowa versus Tennessee. The weird thing about these two teams is that they play very different styles, but are both near the top in the country in rebounding. Iowa is a free wheeling offense while Tennessee’s offense is just plain offensive. I take Iowa to beat Tennessee AND UMass because of their incredible 12-man depth and more focused offensive abilities. Iowa being able to score inside and outside may be problematic against Duke, but the Hawkeyes have not been consistent for months, so I will take the Blue Devils.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jabari Parker. I wanted to go with a lesser name lik Roy Devyn Marble at Iowa or Jarnell Stokes at Tennessee, but this tournament could be Parker’s spotlight if he steps up in a way that Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle will also attempt to do for their respective teams. Parker’s nifty inside-outside game is comparable to that of Carmelo Anthony, and we all know what ‘Melo did for Syracuse in this tournament. Can Parker carry Duke that far before moving on to becoming a top 5 NBA Draft pick? We will find out more this week.
PREDICTION: Duke over Iowa
So we have an undefeated team, two NBA lottery picks, the defending national champs for the past two seasons, and the A-10 Champion. Not enough? Then throw in the Big Ten regular season champions, and you have a Group of Death on your hands. Michigan was able to bounce back from the departures of NBA’ers Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. and a back injury to center Mitch McGary thanks to the deadly accurate Nik Stauskas and a highly efficient offense that makes three-pointers at a feverish clip. They should have no problem with Mike Young’s Wofford team. One of my toughest dilemmas while making my bracket was choosing between Texas and Arizona State. Rick Barnes probably did his best coaching job this season in order to save his job and the Longhorns are a top-notch rebounding team and shot blocking team. Arizona State may have seemed like a finesse team all year because of their mighty mite for a point guard in Jahii Carson, but trust me: Herb Sendek can amp up the defense anytime he wants. I go with Arizona State in the upset, and that would be a help to Michigan. If the Wolverines, one of the worst rebounding teams in the country, have to play Texas, who is fourth in the nation in that category, then we might see Michigan go down. For now, I cautiously take the Maize and Blue.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jordan Bachynski. He is not a glamorous player by any means, but the 7’2″ Canadian is an absolute force inside. He averaged 8 rebounds, but what really caught my eye is that he leads the country in blocks with more than 4 per game. Bachynski may wind up being a man alone against a multitude of brutes that Texas has, but he did the same thing to Arizona when they beat them in overtime at home. And we all know that Michigan’s Achilles heel thanks to McGary’s injury is lack of skilled big man. It’s hard to call a guy that tall a secret weapon for Arizona State, but it seems like he is.
PREDICTION: Michigan over Arizona State