Wednesday, March 7, 2012

NCAA Tournament Preview: Final Four Dreams

If you haven't read the first two posts about the upcoming Big Dance, feel free to click here and here.  Today's post will focus on teams that likely think they have a strong chance to make the Final Four, but certainly are not championship-worthy outfits.  Tomorrow we will take a look at the teams with perhaps more legitimate championship aspirations. Here goes: 

Vanderbilt - Remember when the Commodores were ranked in the top ten to start the season? Doesn't that seem like forever ago? Although Vandy fell off the map a bit when they struggled early on without All-Name Team MVP Festus Ezeli, losing to Cleveland State, Xavier, Louisville, and Indiana State, they have mostly righted the ship since then, finishing tied for second in the SEC and performing well in both of their losses to league juggernaut Kentucky.  The 'Dores have a very experienced unit, with the top six in their nine-man rotation all juniors and seniors.  They have one of the best shooters in the country in junior John Jenkins (46% from deep), and a superb athletic wing in senior Jeffery Taylor, who together average just over 37 points per game.  Ezeli is an third wheel and defensive safety valve, and seniors Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne can be counted on to score if needed also.  The concerns for Vandy will be a dearth of scoring options off the bench if someone goes cold (their #6 scorer is Steve Tchiengang at 3.7 ppg), and a mediocre to bad rebounding rate despite the presence of Ezeli, Taylor, and Tchiengang (no one averages six boards a game).  Still, the lineup is talented enough to perhaps, with a break here or there, earn Vanderbilt a trip to New Orleans.

Indiana - The Hoosiers are back! Well, maybe.  Sure, Indiana went undefeated in non-conference play, but precisely two of those games (Evansville and Indiana State) were on the road, and their only neutral-site game was in Indianapolis.  Six of their seven losses in the admittedly tough Big Ten came on the road, including at Nebraska (whomp whomp), and the only other tournament team that they beat on the road was Purdue.  That said, it can't diminish the fact that Christian Watford's buzzer-beating three is responsible for the only "L" on Kentucky's slate.  After the NCAA body-slammed the program because Kelvin Sampson made too many phone calls, Tom Crean has done a nice job gradually rebuilding the Hoosiers.  The biggest change from last year to this, obviously, is freshman center Cody Zeller, the most talented of Los Hermanos Zeller (by a nose over middle brother and UNC star Tyler).  Zeller the Youngest has given the Hoosiers a dominant interior force, averaging more than 15 points per game on 63% shooting.  His presence has opened up more three-point opportunities for Watford (42%), Jordan Hulls (48%), and Matt Roth (57%!), and prevented defenses from collapsing on drives by Victor Olapido (11.2 ppg).  The challenge this year will be to see how well they can play outside of the state of Indiana, which is guaranteed to happen (the best they can hope for is to open in Columbus or Louisville).  This group of Hoosiers may yet be a year away from their best work if Zeller returns (only one prominent contributor, Verdell Jones III, is a senior), but they now know how to win basketball games, and they may yet win enough to keep them on the road for a couple more weeks to come.

Florida - The Gators may have stumbled a little to close out the regular season, dropping three straight, but two of those losses were at Vanderbilt and against Kentucky, and there is no shame in dropping either of those.  Florida remains a very talented team that can run with anyone, an athletic bunch that features five double-figure scorers. Freshman Brad Beal has joined Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker to give the backcourt another dimension, which is a good thing considering that Walker is all of 5'8". Forward Patric Young is an interior force who can match up with almost any big man in the country.  The Gators will score lots of points, but will need to maintain enough focus to keep opponents from scoring more often.  Their recent skid may have served as a wake-up call, and they could go back to the Elite Eight or Final Four this year in a lot of scenarios.

Duke - Okay, so I'm a homer. Fine. But you know what, no one expected that much out of Duke in 2010, either, and they wound up winning the whole thing.  So, why not again this year?  Well, for starters, the Blue Devils are certainly a cut below Kentucky, Syracuse, and UNC, unlike 2010 when there weren't any obvious powerhouses.  They are also missing a critical component to their style of play, the do-it-all forward who can play 3-5 positions on both ends of the floor (think Shane Battier or Kyle Singler).  And of course the old adage bears repeating; live by the three, die by the three.  As the second Carolina game this past weekend showed, Duke cannot both shoot poorly from long range and allow a strong opponent to score at will.  They certainly cannot withstand concurrent stinkers from Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly, both of whom were basically invisible in that game.  Additionally, Austin Rivers and his happy feet may face a challenge against unfamiliar referees, who could certainly blow the whistle on him for traveling more frequently than he has seen over the past two months.  Duke won't be getting past Syracuse or Kentucky, or likely the Heels, for a trip to New Orleans.  But with the solid play that they've been getting over the past few weeks from the Plumlees (shades of Brian Zoubek?), it certainly wouldn't be impossible for them to knock down their jumpers for four games in a row and find themselves in the final weekend. Then again, they can just as easily get demolished in the Sweet 16.

Baylor - What to make of Baylor? Perry Jones III is a fantastic talent, a skilled, athletic wing player who happens to be 6'11", but all you seem to hear about recently is how he disappears in big games.  On the other hand, Pierre Jackson has nailed enough game-winners that you can already hear Bill Raftery gleefully shouting "ONIONS!" as he takes a big shot.  Despite giving major minutes to a host of rangy athletes (Jones III, Anthony Jones, Quincy Miller, and Cory Jefferson), their attempts to run a 2-3 zone range from mediocre to downright poor, and occasionally look bad enough to embarrass Jim Boeheim into making Syracuse a man-to-man outfit.  They can score, certainly, but will need to stop people on the other end before they can think about advancing far.  But in Jones III, Jackson, Miller, guard Brady Heslip and dunking machine Quincy Acy, they have lots of exciting options that will cause matchup problems for many of the teams they will face.  It is concerning that they could not manage to beat either Kansas or Missouri this season, but they might get another crack at both in the Big 12 tournament this weekend.  The skill and talent are Final Four-caliber, but is the toughness?

Wichita State - The Missouri Valley may be the most underrated conference in the nation.  In the past twenty years, every single team has won the conference tournament (appropriately named "Arch Madness") at least once, and virtually never does the top seed win.  This has two effects; first, it shows the depth and quality of the league, and second, it almost always ensures that multiple teams get tournament bids.  Valley teams usually hold their own when they go dancing; the league's ten member schools have a cumulative NCAA record of 54-75, with Final Four appearances by Drake, Indiana State (with Larry Bird, obviously), Bradley (twice), and, drumroll please...........Wichita State.  The Shockers are 27-5 this season, with neutral court losses to Alabama and Temple at least partially balanced by wins against Colorado and UNLV.  Their coach, Gregg Marshall, is in his fifth year in Wichita after building Winthrop into a Big South powerhouse essentially from nothing (and it is worth noting that Winthrop fired their coach just recently after a 12-20 campaign).  Over those five seasons, the Shockers have improved their record every year, and last spring finished as NIT champions.  Unlike many mid-major teams, the Shockers have legitimate size; their leading scorer and rebounder, Garrett Stutz, checks in at 7'0", 255, and he can even step out and hit the occasional three (10-31 this year).  Point guard Joe Ragland is very steady at the controls, and beyond those two there are four more Shockers who average at least 8.3 points per game.  The hallmark of this team is their offensive efficiency; Wichita State averages almost 78 points per game and shoots 48% from the floor (good for 12th in the nation).  Not one rotation player has a shooting percentage below 41%, and three of them (Stutz, Ragland, and forward Carl Hall) shoot north of 55%.  They also make 75% of their free throws and 37% of their three-pointers.  And despite a relative dearth of offensive rebounds, the Shockers are 15th in the country in rebounding rate, meaning that they don't give up lots of second chances.  So if Wichita State isn't going to be bothered by size, and doesn't have a tendency to shoot themselves out of games or give up lots of easy buckets on defense, it will take a strong defensive effort by a team that really slows the game down in order to beat them. Beware the Shockers.

Marquette - The Golden Eagles turned a lot of heads this year with their second-place finish in the Big East, where their four losses all came on the road at Georgetown, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Cincinnati (the rest of the league's top five).  They're one of a very small handful of teams to walk out of the Kohl Center with a win over the past five years against Wisconsin.  And their only non-conference losses came at Vanderbilt (explicable) and LSU (somewhat puzzling).  Buzz Williams must have his team on a ridiculous strength training regimen (or maybe it's just the awesome uniforms), but the thing that stands out about Marquette on television is how strong all of their players look.  Darius Johnson-Odom, for example, looks like he has muscles on his head.  The Golden Eagles need to be tough, because they are frequently smaller than their opponents.  They start three guards, and their best post player, Big East MVP Jae Crowder, is only 6'6".  But they are a scrappy, athletic team (almost 9 steals a game) with two serious offensive threats (DJO and Crowder), complemented by a supporting cast that is universally capable of producing big games (only Junior Cadougan, among major contributors, has not popped off for at least 18 in a game this season).  While a similarly athletic team with size will certainly pose challenges for Marquette, they have proven that they can hang with any team, and a trip to New Orleans is certainly within reach.

Missouri - I must admit to being one of the multitude of people who was confused when Missouri, which is arguably the best program to never have reached a Final Four, tabbed Frank Haith, of all people, to be its next head coach.  Haith, after all, had done perhaps a little better than mediocre at Miami, which, granted, may not even be aware that it has a basketball team.  I certainly didn't think that Haith would waltz into Columbia and not just maintain the Tigers' success under Mike Anderson, but in fact improve upon it, opening the season with fourteen straight wins and finished second in a very competitive Big 12, despite losing productive forward Laurence Bowers before the season to an ACL tear.  No matter.  Haith has employed a four-guard lineup (6'8" Ricardo Ratliffe and 6'9" Steve Moore are the only Tiger big men who see the floor) to great advantage, with the only blemishes being at Kansas (where no one wins, as in, ever), at Oklahoma State, and a sweep at the hands of Kansas State.  In Jay Bilas terms, the Tigers can score the ball (8th in the nation at just under 80 points per game), making almost half of their shots from the field (3rd nationally), 39% of their threes (19th), and 76% of their free throws (10th).  As their lack of size may suggest, they are a fairly weak rebounding club, but when you shoot that well, it often doesn't matter.  Marcus Denmon, Kim English, and Michael Dixon are the primary perimeter scorers, combining for just over 45 points per game, and Ratliffe chips in almost 14 per game of his own while never taking a shot he can't make (71% from the floor) and cleaning up a fair percentage of the Tigers' rare misses.  To beat Missouri, a team will have to be both athletic enough to frustrate them into tough shots without fouling, but also big enough to collect all of the rebounds; additionally, they will need to score enough points of their own.  As Kansas State showed with their sweep of the Tigers, there are teams out there that present a matchup problem for Missouri, and the odds of them getting all the way to a title without having to pass through a team such as Kentucky or Syracuse or North Carolina are not great, but they still are one of the best teams in the country and very capable of making it to New Orleans.