Thursday, March 15, 2012

NCAA Tournament: East Region

Well, even if they were essentially play-in games, Tuesday night did not disappoint for excitement, with both Western Kentucky and BYU mounting serious comebacks.  After Tuesday's run-through of the South and West Regions, today we will take a look at the East and Midwest.  The real fun starts this afternoon!

Best Player: Kevin Jones, West Virginia - Jones has an excellent argument that he, and not Jae Crowder, should have been Player of the Year in the Big East.  A 6'8", 260-pound power forward, Jones averaged just over 20 points and 11 rebounds a game for the Mountaineers, both best in the conference.  He is a menace on the offensive glass, piling up 4.3 of his rebounds on that end.  Jones may not be super-explosive, but rebounding is a skill that translates well to the next level.  About the only current hole in his game is that he falls in love a little too much with his outside shot (27%), but he has the ability to carry the 'Eers to a win or two in what should be a a home environment in Pittsburgh.

Most Important Player: Fab Melo, Syracuse - Whoops. Let's take a mulligan and try that again.

Most Important Player Who Is Actually Eligible: Yancy Gates, Cincinnati -The Bearcats wound up getting a double-bye in the Big East Tournament, propelling them to the championship game, with a four-guard lineup and Gates.  Gates is the only sizable player of consequence in the Cinci rotation, and man, is he big (6'9", 260).  Although he only scores about a dozen points a game, he provides such inside presence as the Bearcats have, preventing opponents from suffocating the outside shooting of their guards.  He also, naturally, leads his team in rebounding (9.4), and if Cincinnati is going to make a run into the second weekend, Gates and his presence will be the primary reason why.

Most Interesting Player: J'Covan Brown, Texas - It seems that Brown was the only important Longhorn who did not declare for last year's draft, which may have actually put him in a happy situation; now this conscience-free gunner is free to shoot as often as he wants on a team filled with otherwise unproven commodities.  To be fair, in addition to his 20 points a game (on about 16 shots each time out), Brown is actually averaging almost four assists as well, and has helped lead a very callow Texas team back to the tournament.  The question is, with the bright lights on and the scouts watching, will he try to match Cincinnati's guards shot for shot and essentially play a one-man game? It might be the best chance Texas has of advancing.

Most to Prove to the Scouts: Robert Sacre, Gonzaga/Dion Waiters, Syracuse - Sacre Bleu! Being a WCC guy, I have watched a lot of the big Canadian over the past five years (he redshirted three years ago after getting hurt early in the season), and have always been perplexed over why he doesn't dominate, especially in a mid-major league.  At a legit 7'0" and 260 pounds, Sacre has the height and strength to bang down low, but can also run the floor very well and step out to hit mid-range jump shots.  He's an effective shooter from the floor (50%) and the line (76%), and blocks some shots on defense as well.  So why does he only average 11.7 points a game, and worse, just 6.3 rebounds.  Call me crazy, but a center that big and talented should be able to put up 18 and 10 on a nightly basis.  As for Waiters, he is already considered the best pro prospect on a deep Orange team (even better, per Chad Ford, than the seven-foot Melo), and he will now have an opportunity to really shine for a team that is missing its most important player for the duration of the tournament.  Waiters, who comes off the bench, was the most frequent of the seven players who led Syracuse in scoring, and has the stones to take and make the big shots.  If the Orange have any hope of playing to their seed, it will likely have to be Waiters stepping up and taking over games, and impressing the scouts in the process.

Most Exciting Unknown Player: Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure - Nicholson, who may not be on your radar, is on the NBA's, and I already wrote about him in detail on Monday.

Coach With the Best Chance to Land a Bigger Job: Wayne Tinkle, Montana - Tinkle, a Montana alum, has quietly built a successful program in his six years on the job, making postseason appearances each of the past three seasons, twice in the NCAA tournament.  It is perhaps Tinkle's (and Montana's) good fortune that the two major programs in their pod, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt, are perennial underachievers who never seem to play up to their seeding.  Should both underdogs win, the Grizzlies would get to play a Harvard squad that has not danced since 1946, although their coach (Tommy Amaker) has plenty of tournament experience as both a player and coach with Duke, Seton Hall, and Michigan.  Montana might have an opening to reach the second weekend, in which case he will certainly hear from other schools.

Second Round Selections
1 Syracuse over 16 UNC-Asheville - Even without Melo, the Orange can keep the short Bulldogs (no rotation player taller than 6'5") off the glass enough to win this game.

8 Kansas State over 9 Southern Miss - The Wildcats, who own a season sweep of Missouri, are better than the overseeded alma mater of Brett Favre.

5 Vanderbilt over 12 Harvard - Both teams may have high SAT scores, but it's the Commodores who have three NBA talents in John Jenkins, Jeff Taylor, and Festus Ezeli.

13 Montana over 4 Wisconsin - Big Sky Defensive MVP Will Cherry stifles Jordan Taylor enough for the Grizzlies to advance.

6 Cincinnati over 11 Texas - The Bearcats are playing very well right now, and are not going to let a one-man show beat them.

3 Florida State over 14 St. Bonaventure - Speaking of playing well, the Seminoles are on a mission to prove that they belong in the same breath as Carolina and Duke in the ACC, and will stop the Bonnies' Cinderella run.

10 West Virginia over 7 Gonzaga - Unless Pitt fans snap up all the extra tickets, expect this to be a home game for Bob Huggins and his tracksuit, intimidating the Zags' all-freshman backcourt (although the matchup of Jones and Elias Harris should be fun to watch).

2 Ohio State over 15 Loyola (MD) - The Greyhounds lack a mastiff who can handle Jared Sullinger on the block.

Third Round Selections
8 Kansas State over 1 Syracuse - BEWARE THE STARE! Frank Martin's team is excellent on the offensive glass, and in their three games earlier this season without Melo, the Orange had a rebounding differential of minus-eleven.

5 Vanderbilt over 13 Montana - The Grizzlies do not have an athlete capable of staying with Taylor both inside and outside, and on the break.

3 Florida State over 6 Cincinnati - The 'Noles play great perimeter defense that will stifle Bearcat shooters, and have the size inside to clean up all those misses.

2 Ohio State over 10 West Virginia - Jones is really good, but he doesn't have Sullinger's supporting cast of William Buford, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft, and there will be just as many Buckeyes in the building for this one.

Sweet 16 Selections
5 Vanderbilt over 8 Kansas State - Despite their rebounding edge against the 'Dores' zone, the Wildcats will have trouble matching Vandy's threes with their twos.

3 Florida State over 2 Ohio State - Free Shoes has the big bodies to throw at Sullinger and the athletes to prevent Thomas and Buford from going off as a result.

Elite 8 Selection
3 Florida State over 5 Vanderbilt - The Seminoles have lots of experience shutting down opposing three-point shooters, having beaten Duke twice, and will frustrate Jenkins, Taylor, and Brad Tinsley to go to New Orleans.