Tuesday, March 6, 2012

NCAA Tournament Preview: Big-Six Lurkers

Welcome back to the NCAA Tournament preview! Today I'll take a look around at some of the power conference teams that just might have a shot at making it to New Orleans, if they catch a few breaks along the way.*  Later in the week I will look at teams that are stronger potential Final Four candidates, and then the teams with legitimate championship aspirations.  Let's get right into it.

*Pac-12 teams need not apply.

Notre Dame - To be perfectly honest, I don't think Notre Dame has much chance at all of going far in the tournament.  They're only here because they did finish alone in third place in the Big East, and they can claim to be the only team to register a "W" against Syracuse this season, albeit they did it at home and with Fab Melo in street clothes.  They also deserve credit for playing this well despite losing their best player, Tim Abromaitis, after two games.  They swept UConn and West Virginia, won at Louisville, and of course beat the Orange, but they also went 0-4 on neutral courts, including getting demolished by Missouri to the tune of 87-58 back in November.  The Irish will need a LOT of luck to win more than one game in this year's tournament.

Purdue - As good as the Big Ten was this year, a 10-8 record shouldn't pass muster to make a list of maybe-kinda-sorta potential sleeper Final Four teams, right?  Apart from a puzzling 65-45 blowout loss at Penn State (seriously?), none of their losses could be termed "bad."  They sport non-conference wins over Miami and Temple, and of course the great story of forward Robbie Hummel, who endured multiple ACL tears that cost him what should have been a memorable senior season last year with E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson.  With his buddies now wearing Celtics green, Hummel has led the team this year, along with Lewis Jackson.  The Boilermakers will need to cross their fingers that they wind up with similarly undersized opponents in their draw if they want to win a few games, but they just might have enough in the tank to do that, unlikely as it is.

Cincinnati - Unlike their crosstown rival Xavier, Cincinnati took some momentum out of the famous brawl against the Musketeers in December, reeling off seven straight wins and ten of eleven.  While they are your usual rough-and-tumble Big East outfit, they do have trouble scoring and lack a lot of size, with only two key players who are not guards.  One of those is 6'9", 260-pound Yancy Gates, who was suspended as a result of the brawl but is a very effective weapon inside for the Bearcats, averaging close to a double-double.  He will command respect from opponents, and has a quartet of guard teammates (Sean Kilpatrick, Dion Dixon, Cashmere Wright, and Jaquon Parker) who also know how to put the ball in the basket.  But Cincy lacks serious scoring punch as a team, and will need to avoid a draw that includes big teams that can score on them.

Iowa State - The Cyclones have something that no other team has, with the possible exception of Michigan State; a 6'8", 270-pound behemoth who can run the offense as the point guard.  Fred Hoiberg, certainly the most popular player in Iowa State history, will often use star forward Royce White as his point man, and White has obliged by leading the Cyclones in pretty much every statistical category.  This wrinkle alone will be enough to cause some matchup problems that may carry the Cyclones into the second weekend.  They do, after all, have wins over Baylor and Kansas to their credit, along with a sweep of Kansas State.  If opponents can't neutralize White, Iowa State has the potential to pull off a surprise upset or two.

Georgetown - Ah, Georgetown.  So methodical that they never fail to surprise, whether it's that they're better than expected or worse than expected.  The consensus opinion this year seemed to be that they would struggle mightily after losing stars Austin Freeman and Chris Wright, so naturally they turned a 10-1 non-conference record, the lone loss in the opening round of the Maui Invitational to Kansas.  They seem to play the same regardless of opponent or personnel, being nearly impossible to blow out, and also rarely winning big.  Just a month ago they almost walked out of the Carrier Dome with a win, falling 64-61 in overtime to Syracuse.  With Wright and Freeman gone, Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson have picked up much of the scoring slack, and Henry Sims, Otto Porter, and Nate Lubick have been very effective big men for them.  Because they tend to dictate the pace of the game so well, Georgetown will never be out of a game, except perhaps if they try to get their backdoor layups against Anthony Davis.  Almost everything is on the table for this team, whether it be a first-round loss or a Final Four run.

Florida State - One thing that you can always count on from Leonard Hamilton's Seminoles is that they will play tough defense and keep the game close.  Of their four double-digit losses, three of them came in East Lansing, Gainesville, and Miami, all against good teams.  The fourth loss was at Clemson, one of the ACC's loudest and most intimate venues.  Of course, they also keep the game close because they often have trouble scoring, 33-point obliterations of North Carolina notwithstanding.  In addition to that wipeout of the best team in their league, they scored road wins at Duke and Virginia this year.  The 'Noles have size and athleticism to stifle any offensive attack, and plenty of experience in the form of Michael Snaer, Bernard James, and the delightfully named Deividas Dulkys. Free Shoes made it to the Sweet 16 last year before being upended by VCU, and this year's version believes it can play with anybody, making them a dangerous matchup for any team.

Michigan - You may think I'm a little nuts for giving Michigan this much of a chance. That's fine. The Wolverines don't score particularly well (201st in the country) and certainly don't rebound (311th), and their best non-conference win was probably against Memphis in the first round of the Maui Invitational.  But they also tied for first in a very tough and deep Big Ten, never lost two in a row, and their only loss against a non-tournament team was at Arkansas during the middle of their conference schedule.  They beat Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana (all at home), and Purdue (on the road).  They can throw five good shooters on the floor and spread the floor so they get open looks.  And John Beilein's teams are always hard to prepare for.  The point is, they've hung with many of the best teams in the country, and beaten a few of them, and barring a matchup with a much more athletic, bigger opponent, they can win two or three games.

Coming tomorrow; a look at some teams that may have a more realistic Final Four shot.