Monday, March 12, 2012

NCAA Tournament: Scanning the Bracket

Alright! Selection Sunday has come and gone, and now we know who can celebrate a little (North Carolina State, Cal, Iona), and who is left shaking their head and wondering what could have been (Miami, Drexel, and for about the fifth year in a row, Northwestern).  Today, in addition to previewing and picking the four glorified play-in games of the "First Round" (in a separate post), I will look at some individual players, potentially interesting matchups, and this year's snubs.

Five players you should be excited to see on a national stage

Doug McDermott, Creighton - Any list of this sort has to begin with McDermott, who may not have had many nationally televised appearances but should likely make pretty much every All-American first team.  A 6'7", 220-pound forward who decided to play his college ball for his dad, McDermott is probably the most efficient scorer in the country.  He scores more than 23 points a game from everywhere on the floor, shooting over 60% overall and just under 50% from behind the arc.  He can post up, face up, run the floor, and take the ball to the rim.  In high school he was a teammate of UNC's Harrison Barnes, and in a related story Ames High School in Iowa went 53-0 with two state titles.  The one game of McDermott's that I've caught this year was the Missouri Valley championship against Illinois State, when he scored a dozen points in a row (33 overall) to help Creighton take and keep the lead in the second half.  Should Creighton win their opening game against Alabama, it will be interesting to see which Tar Heel big man is tasked with attempting to guard McDermott, or whether he will square off against his old running mate Barnes.

Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure - The Bonnies would not even be in the tournament were it not for Nicholson, a 6'9", 240-pound forward, carrying them to the Atlantic 10 tournament title this weekend.  Apparently St. Bonaventure has cleaned up their act since Jan Van Breda Kolff (former Pepperdine coach!) was sneaking players into the school with welding certificates in place of high school diplomas, because Nicholson is the rare NBA prospect (and a legit one) who majors in physics.  He is another jack-of-all-trades forward (18.4 ppg and 8.5 rpg with 57/40/78 shooting splits), with the added bonus that he is a stronger defender than McDermott, for example, also notching two blocked shots a game.  You may have to catch Nicholson in the first round to get a chance to appreciate him, however, as the Bonnies drew red-hot and dangerous Florida State for their first game.  In that matchup, Nicholson will likely tangle with 27-year-old former US Marine Bernard James, which should be a lot of fun to watch.

Nate Wolters, South Dakota State - Wolters is the Jackrabbits' athletic point guard, a 6'4", 190-pound junior who excels at getting into the lane, but is probably the least capable guy on his team in hoisting threes (just 24% on the year).  He leads South Dakota State in almost every other category, posting a 21.3/5.5/6.0 with 1.7 steals and otherwise good shooting numbers (45% from the floor and 79% from the line).  Wolters is a good decision-maker, who knows when to dish and when to rise up and dunk in traffic, although the odds of him doing such on Quincy Acy are low.  He actually shot much better from deep last year (41%), but has struggled this season and is much more effective penetrating and kicking to his teammates, virtually all of whom are long-distance threats.  The opening matchup against Baylor will be very interesting.  Baylor, of course, is chock-full of long, athletic types who would theoretically pose lots of problems for Wolters and his undersized teammates, but the Bears are also very susceptible to good shooting when they play zone, which is often.  While it's unlikely that Wolters will be around for more than one game, there's a little sleeper potential there for them to take down a giant and make a run.

Scott Machado, Iona - Rarely in college basketball does a point guard average ten assists a game, but Machado is only three shy of doing so (and in fact is the only player in college basketball to average more assists than Kendall Marshall), and also chips in thirteen points a game for the Gaels, the nation's highest-scoring team.  The MAAC Player of the year can also shoot (49/41/81 splits), rebound (5 rpg) and defend (1.6 spg).  He's one of three Gaels who will at least be getting a look from NBA scouts in Dayton tomorrow and (possibly) Louisville on Thursday.  Part of what makes Machado so fun to watch is that their pace is so fast.  Of course the highest-scoring bunch in the country is going to press and play a lot in transition, so to beat a team that fast you have to slow down the game and limit possessions.  But most basketball players like to run, and only a highly disciplined team will be able to rein in the Gaels.  You should definitely catch Machado and his team in action tomorrow, and hope to see more of them this weekend.

Casper Ware, Long Beach State - Ware is the two-time Big West MVP, a 5'10" point guard who may be small in stature but is big in production.  Ware has torched some big-name opponents this season (28 points at Pitt and 29 at UNC) en route to averaging more than 17 a game.  He's more of a scorer than a distributor (3.3 apg), but is an explosive athlete who can get to the rack and finish there.  He's only okay as a three-point shooter (36%), but gets to the line fairly frequently and finishes there (80%).  Ware's team is certainly one you should keep your eye on.  They have a coach (Dan Monson) with serious experience in March, and if Ware can get them past New Mexico, he may become one of the "names" of this year's tournament, along the lines of Bryce Drew or Ali Faroukmanesh.

Five opening-round matchups it's a shame someone has to lose

5 Wichita State vs. 12 VCU - Last year's surprise Final Four team gets out of the play-in round, but has to match up with last year's NIT champion.  Since both teams have lots of postseason experience, both on the floor and on the bench, this should be a close, hard-fought game.  Shaka Smart's Rams like to play a full-court, high-pressure game, while Gregg Marshall's Shockers are an excellent shooting team (48%) that rebounds well.  Wichita State is actually more experienced than the Rams, since much of last year's team has moved on, but it's still going to be a great game, and sad to see one of them go home.

5 New Mexico vs. 12 Long Beach State - Beach is a dangerous 12-seed that played a tough schedule this season, with trips to Pitt, Kansas, San Diego State, and Chapel Hill.  The Lobos, meanwhile, are led by former Indiana star Steve Alford, who has found a second coaching life in Albuquerque, and are one of the more balanced teams in the tournament.  Their best player is former UCLA transfer Drew Gordon (who was referenced in Sports Illustrated's recent article about the degeneration of that program.  Seven different Lobos score more than six points a game, and they proved their mettle by winning the difficult Mountain West Conference (four NCAA tournament teams) regular-season and tournament titles.  As referenced above, Beach's Ware leads a team that is fun to watch, with all five of their starters making an All-Big West team. The winner here has an excellent chance of reaching the Sweet 16.

3 Georgetown vs. 14 Belmont - Belmont is one of those teams from a little-known league (the Atlantic Sun) that has been good for a long time (going back to their NAIA days) and has also been on the verge of breaking through in the Big Dance (they lost as a 13 seed against Wisconsin last year).  They're a high-scoring team (81 ppg) with five players in or near double figures that took Duke to the wire in their season opener this year.  And they will have to play the Hoyas, one of the nation's best teams at dictating tempo, but also a group that cannot play catch-up very well if they turn the ball over too much and fall behind.  It seems like Georgetown never performs exactly to expectations under John Thompson III; they either surprise with a deep run in the tournament, or they bow out in the first weekend as a high seed.  14-over-3 upsets may be rare, but Belmont has played big-name schools before, and played well, so if they hit their threes, they could make things interesting.  On the other hand, the Hoyas have gotten surprising contributions from a number of sources, notably freshman Otto Porter, and have played with the best in their own right (taking Syracuse to overtime in the Carrier Dome).  Of all the games played by top-3 seeds, this one looks like it could be the most exciting, at least if Iona doesn't win their Tuesday game and force a date with Marquette.

7 Florida vs. 10 Virginia - This is perhaps the most extreme pairing of a let-it-fly team (the Gators, all but one of whose regulars will not hesitate to launch threes) versus a grinding defensive team (the Cavs, coached by Dick Bennett's son Tony).  Now, history says that the grinders typically have the advantage in the tournament, when the style of play is slower due to many factors (and the Bennetts took similarly-styled teams on surprising runs as the coach of both Wisconsin and Washington State).  But Florida has played well of late, including against Kentucky in the SEC semifinals, so anything is possible.  The winner of this game would get to either try and run with Missouri or slow down the nation's most efficient offense.

7 Saint Mary's vs. 10 Purdue - Saint Mary's has been to the Sweet 16 before, and recently, but this is the first time in over a decade that someone has wrested the WCC crown from Gonzaga's iron grip.  The Aussies, er, Gaels, are not superbly athletic but score a variety of ways, and have the ability to outplay many bigger opponents.  Purdue may not be a tremendous team, but they merit inclusion here because of Robbie Hummel.  Hummel, you may remember, was the most well-rounded member of the trio of him, JaJuan Johnson, and E'Twaun Moore.  He tore his ACL shortly before the 2010 tournament, dropping Purdue to a 4-seed and a loss at the hands of eventual champion Duke in the Sweet 16.  The trio came back to school last year in an effort to reach the Holy Grail of the Final Four, but then Hummel tore up his knee again at the start of practice in the fall.  Now he's alone, and whenever the end of his fantastic career at Purdue comes, it will be sad.

Five high seeds for whom the selection committee did no favors

3 Marquette - The Golden Eagles are looking at a Thursday date with either traditionally strong (although Jimmer-less) BYU or a dangerous Iona team, who face off tomorrow in the lowest-seeded matchup of at-large teams in history.  BYU forced the committee into setting this up because they don't allow any of their teams to play on Sundays (not that it should be a problem this year).

4 Wisconsin - True, Bo Ryan's Badgers haven't necessarily earned tons of respect with their propensity to lose before their seed dictates, but first face a Montana team that has won 20 of their past 21, and then either SEC tournament champion Vanderbilt, who now has some swagger after beating Kentucky, or a Harvard team that can hang with big-name opponents, especially if they're not particularly athletic (and the Badgers are not).

3 Baylor - South Dakota State can get hot from behind the arc and has a player in Wolters who could play anywhere, and the probable opponent in the next round would be UNLV, who earlier this season dropped 90 on North Carolina.

4 Louisville - The Big East tournament champs square off against Davidson, a unit that has played together for the past two years, and is coached by a gentleman (Bob McKillop) with plenty of March upset experience.  Beyond that would be the winner of either New Mexico or Long Beach State.

1 Michigan State - Eighth-seeded Memphis is an athletic team that can wear out the shorthanded Spartans, and ninth-seeded Saint Louis has Final Four experience on the bench in coach Rick Majerus.  They also drew perhaps the best of the 2-seeds in Missouri, fresh off their Big 12 tournament championship.

Five teams that needed to do just a little bit more to merit inclusion

Drexel - The Dragons, the red-headed stepchild of Philly basketball, went 16-2 in a tough CAA but only played one tournament team out of conference, getting manhandled 49-35 by Virginia.

Washington - Lorenzo Romar's Huskies won the Pac-12 regular-season title, but also failed to beat anyone of note outside the league, and then got bounced in the conference tournament quarterfinals by the president's brother-in-law and a mediocre Oregon State team.

Oral Roberts - The Golden Eagles went 17-1 in the Summit League and 27-6 overall against a fairly strong schedule, and might have made it had they not lost in the league tournament semis to Western Illinois.

Mississippi State - It seems like Rick Stansbury's teams always underperform their expectations in Starkville, and despite all the talent on the roster, they could only scrape together an 8-8 SEC record and two non-conference wins against tournament teams (West Virginia and Detroit, both at home).

Northwestern - The poor Wildcats have never made the NCAA tournament in their history, and this year's team, led by the school's all-time leading scorer in Jon Shurna, lost all eleven of their opportunities against top-50 teams before fumbling away a chance in the Big Ten tournament first round against Minnesota in overtime.

That's all for now, but later today I will post my picks for the first four games that are being played tomorrow in Dayton.