To me, the NCAA men's basketball tournament is the greatest three weeks in sports. I think there is something inherently perfect about 64 (fine, 68) teams being thrown into one big single-elimination, winner-takes-all championship bracket. Is it the best basketball in the world? No, certainly not.* But it is usually the most entertaining basketball that exists, because of the big stage, the fact that one bad game really is the end of the world (er, season), and the drama that happens every year with the unknowns springing surprises throughout the tournament. Just two years ago, Butler was three inches away from what would have been perhaps the most incredible David-beats-Goliath story in sports history.
*Everyone who watched the title game last year is sadly nodding in agreement. Ugh.
This year's tournament should be fantastic. After a dearth of great teams last year led to a championship team that had not even finished in the top HALF of their own conference, there seems to be more talent spread across the college landscape, and the tournament will reap the benefits of that.** Once again, there is not exactly a clear-cut favorite like North Carolina in 2009 or Florida in 2007, but there are several teams that are championship-caliber, as well as a second tier of teams who can at least credibly dream of a Final Four berth and hope that the bracket breaks just right for them (think Duke in 2010 or UConn in 2011). This week I will be analyzing some of the likely tournament teams, starting with those mid-major outfits who, with a little wishful thinking, could sneak into the Final Four, a la Virginia Commonwealth and Butler last year.***
**Quick quiz; how many players from last year's Final Four were drafted in the first round of the NBA draft? Answer: two (Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker). Expand to both rounds of the draft and you can add Shelvin Mack, Josh Harrellson (a.k.a. "Jorts"), and DeAndre Liggins. Not exactly a murderer's row.
***Wichita State is not included in this post because I think they're a more serious Final Four threat than the teams below.
Temple - If one considers the Atlantic 10 to be a mid-major league, then Temple has to be considered one of the most successful mid-major programs in history, with 32 NCAA wins and two Final Fours to their credit. However, much of that was achieved under John Chaney, and it took a Juan Fernandez buzzer-beater for the Owls to give current coach Fran Dunphy his first NCAA win last year. Lavoy Allen now plays at the Wachovia Center for the Sixers, but this Temple team may be better than last year's version, and has wins over Wichita State and Duke as evidence. Fernandez is back at the controls with his excellent feel for the game and smooth stroke, with primary scorers Khalif Wyatt and Ramone Moore to feed the ball to. Without Allen, this group of Owls is smaller than last year's, but Dunphy's teams will always play tough defense and never really get blown out (their worst loss this year was by a dozen at Texas). A high seed that struggles when they're not draining their threes (like, say, Duke or Missouri) will absolutely dread a matchup with Temple.
Creighton - The Bluejays have the single best player of any mid-major team likely to be in the tournament, and one of the best, period. Doug McDermott, son of Creighton coach Greg, a do-it-all forward, scores more than 23 points per game (and in every way possible), leading a Bluejays team that is 6th in the nation in scoring. McDermott the Younger should be able to score against anyone, and that alone will give Creighton a fighting chance. But he's not alone. Valley teams are traditionally tough outs (pretty much every team in the conference has pulled off multiple upsets in the past decade), and Creighton has beaten Wichita State, San Diego State, Long Beach State, and Northwestern this season, and won Arch Madness, perhaps the most underrated conference tournament in the nation. It will take a superb defender forcing McDermott into an off-night for an opponent to feel comfortable about beating the Bluejays.
Saint Mary's - Finally, someone besides Gonzaga won the WCC! As a proud alumnus of a WCC member institution, I felt that Gonzaga's ridiculous dominance hurt perception of the league, periodic strong showings by Pepperdine, San Diego, and Saint Mary's notwithstanding. The Samham may be gone, but the Gaels still have a roster full of fundamentally sound Aussies (four, to be precise), including point guard Matthew Dellavedova, who averages 15.4 points and 6.5 assists per game. Inside, they have San Diego transfer Rob Jones, who though only 6'7" uses his wide frame well, putting up a double-double. They only played one big-six school, losing to Baylor in December on a neutral court, but do own wins over Gonzaga, two Missouri Valley schools, and a sweep of BYU. The Gaels are not particularly athletic, and a date with a UNC or a Kentucky will end their season (although, to be fair, the same could be said for most teams that face UNC or Kentucky), but a combination of fortuitous upsets could position them well for an extra weekend of games.
Gonzaga - Year in and year out, Gonzaga is a threat in the NCAA tournament. Although their Sweet 16 runs don't come every year like they did when they first rose to prominence, they remain dangerous. For starters, they have a legitimate seven-footer with skill and athletic ability, although how Robert Sacre doesn't average 18 and 10 in the WCC is beyond me. Elias Harris is an athletic wing who can score, rebound, and defend three positions, and will be key in almost any matchup the Zags have against a good power conference team. Guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are very good for them, and Gonzaga rarely has trouble scoring effectively. Traditionally, their Achilles heel has been their ability to guard, but they have only given up 65 points or more seven times, and they always play a tough non-conference schedule (which this year included a 73-53 thrashing of Notre Dame). With good guard play and more legitimate size than most mid-major teams, the Zags once again have an opportunity to play deep into March.
Murray State - The Racers, as many of you know, were the last undefeated team in the nation, their lone loss coming at home against Tennessee State. Although undersized like most mid-major teams (they start three short guards and both starting forwards are 6'7"), this team plays very disciplined defense as a group, and gets its points from a variety of sources, primarily guards Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole. Ivan Aska is the bigger offensive threat of the forwards, while Ed Daniel and his fantastic afro clean up garbage points. The key for them will be whether Poole or Jewuan Long can effectively guard the much bigger wing players that they're sure to run up against at some point. If they can, they'll play into the second weekend, or possibly even deeper.
Long Beach State - Remember Dan Monson? He was the head coach at Gonzaga when they made an Elite Eight run in 1999, then parlayed that showing into a gig at Minnesota and a descent into obscurity. Well, he seems to have found his comfort zone again in the Pyramid. The 49ers are one small-conference team that will not be intimidated by a more famous opponent. Just this season, they have played at Pittsburgh, Kansas, North Carolina, San Diego State, Louisville, and the aforementioned Creighton, along with neutral-site games against Xavier and Kansas State. They only beat Pitt and Xavier out of those, but the tough schedule seasoned them for a 15-1 conference showing. 5'10" point guard Casper Ware is the engine that drives this team, with his 17 points a game. Beach will have problems with any team that possesses a legitimate big man, as no one who actually plays is bigger than 6'8", but they do have wings with decent size who can match up well with many opponents. If they get stuck with an early draw against UNC or Kansas again, or Ohio State, it will be curtains for them, but with a break or two the 49ers can surprise a lot of teams.
Up next: big-six lurkers.