Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March Madness Preview

It is once again time for the best three weeks on the sports calendar, and as such, time to spill some pixels about this year's tournament, which has a lot of promise. There are maybe as many as fourteen or fifteen teams that have the ability to go the distance, although each of them has a fatal flaw or two that could just as likely crop up somewhere and doom them to an early exit. Let's get to the regions and see what there is to see.

Top seeds - Florida, Kansas, Syracuse, and UCLA make up the blue-bloodiest quartet in the entire tournament, with a whopping forty Final Four appearances and seventeen title banners between them. The Gators are the top seed in the entire tournament after a 31-2 season that saw them run the table in the admittedly weak SEC. Kansas played the toughest schedule in the country a year after losing their entire starting five to graduation or the NBA, but the continued absence of center Joel Embiid with a back issue is worrisome for their chances. Syracuse started 25-0 but has stumbled in the past few weeks, relying on a thin rotation and playing a lot of games that are too close for comfort. UCLA won the Pac-12 tournament championship in Steve Alford's first season and boasts the player with the most unique skill set in college basketball, sophomore power point guard Kyle Anderson.

5-or-higher seed most likely to make a Final Four run - It's HAVOC you fear! Shaka Smart and his Virginia Commonwealth squad that finished second in a very deep Atlantic Ten conference (six tournament teams, tied for second-most this year among all leagues) are hovering as a potential third-round trapdoor for Alford's Bruins, and have the ability to make almost any team play too fast for itself with their swarming defense. Smart and two of his players were around for that Final Four run back in 2011 that put the school on the map in the first place. Don't forget that Alford hasn't been to the Sweet 16 since his first tournament appearance fifteen years ago at Missouri State, despite some good opportunities. However, in order for the Rams to even get that far, they will first have to take down the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin, at 31-2 one of the best teams to ever come out of the Southland. The 'Jacks haven't lost since November, and play a style eerily similar to that of VCU. Make sure to watch that game.

Most entertaining team - Kansas if Embiid is playing, because it isn't often that one team boasts two different players with a chance to be the top pick in the NBA draft, not to mention a third guy who should definitely go in the first round. The seven-foot Embiid runs like a gazelle and changes the scope of the game when he's around to block and alter shots, and has a surprisingly well-rounded offensive game for someone who didn't play basketball until he was fifteen. Add to that two explosive two-way wings in Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden, and you have the best star power in the region, bar none. If you're a basketball aficionado, you'll also probably enjoy the suffocating Syracuse zone, an almost unbreakable, all-five-guys-on-a-string D that can dismantle the best offenses in the country.

Double-digit lurker - Aside from the previously mentioned Lumberjacks, watch out for the thirteenth-seeded Tulsa Golden Hurricane, Conference USA champions in Danny Manning's first year at the helm. Manning was an outstanding assistant coach under Bill Self at Kansas, and he knows a thing or two about carrying a team through this tournament. It's pretty exciting that Manning, the 1988 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, will be matched up with Alford, the 1987 Final Four MOP, in their opening tournament game.

Best players to watch - Anderson is a 6'9", 230-pound point guard who can't really run or jump, but just kind of forces the game to be played at his speed and does everything well, especially on offense. He averaged fifteen, nine, and six for UCLA, and he will shift to power forward depending on who the Bruins have in the game. Syracuse's C.J. Fair is a smooth lefty small forward who can stroke jump shots or get to the rim, and Orange point guard Tyler Ennis is as unflappable as they come, particularly for a freshman. Wiggins and Embiid will soon be taking their tantalizing games to the next level, so catch them while you can. New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow is a beast on the block who requires constant double-teams. And this region has perhaps the two best on-ball defenders in the college game, senior point guards Aaron Craft (Ohio State) and Scottie Wilbekin (Florida).

Final Four pick - Speaking of Florida, despite all the other talented and history-laden teams in the South, they're my choice to go to Dallas (or Arlington; whatever). Their four senior starters (Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete) have been to three consecutive Elite Eights, and they have only lost to Wisconsin (when Wilbekin was suspended) and at UConn (when he was hurt) this year. They play outstanding defense, have six guys who can pour in points, an athletic freshman whom they have the luxury of keeping on the bench like a fancy sports car (Chris Walker), and one of the best coaches in the game.

Top seeds - Arizona, Wisconsin, Creighton, San Diego State. The Wildcats were the best team in the country before losing forward Brandon Ashley to a foot injury, but quickly regrouped to win the Pac-12 regular season title. Wisconsin has perhaps its best team of the Bo Ryan era, with an NBA player in forward Sam Dekker and a matchup nightmare in seven-footer Frank Kaminsky, who like all Wisconsin players can score on the block or on the perimeter. Dougie McBuckets, the unquestioned national player of the year, leads the offensive-minded Blue Jays, and Steve Fisher coached the Aztecs to a 29-4 record in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.

5-or-higher-seed most likely to make a Final Four run - Baylor (6) and Oregon (7) are both maddeningly inconsistent teams capable of beating just about anyone (say, Kansas and Arizona, respectively), but also capable of falling flat on their faces and losing five games in a row. If the Jekyll side of either team shows up, Creighton and/or Wisconsin could be in for serious trouble. If not, they could just as easily lose in the first weekend.

Most entertaining team - McDermott and Creighton in a runaway. Don't get me wrong, Arizona is a well-balanced team that defends extremely well and has some superb talent in Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, but Creighton is a joy to watch. Despite the presence of the nation's leading scorer, this team is remarkably unselfish, and boasts the best offensive efficiency and the best perimeter shooting in the nation. A staggering five guys shoot 40% or better from behind the arc, and they have some excellent passers in Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman. Ethan Wragge, their putative center, will launch 30-footers without the slightest hesitation (all but seven of his field goal attempts this year have been from distance). And then there's McDermott, who has 3,105 career points and counting, an amazingly efficient scorer who gets to the bucket and the line extremely well but will also step out and knock down threes.

Double-digit lurker - North Dakota State has a very experienced team out of the Summit League, and a decent path to a Sweet 16 berth through Oklahoma and either San Diego State or New Mexico State. Rare for a small school, they have three players who can score on the block, which is two or three more than most college basketball teams have now.

Best players to watch - McDermott is the most obvious, and I am quite partial to Wragge's and Gibbs' games as well. Gordon and Johnson are dynamite for Arizona, with Gordon being a defensive force who can and will dunk on anyone, and Johnson an all-around catalyst who makes good things happen. Kaminsky is capable of going off for forty or more given the right matchup. New Mexico State's Sim Bhullar is a mountain of a man at 7'5" and 360 pounds, immovable on the low block. And Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart is one of the most talented players in the nation, a strong defensive point guard who can also score.

Final Four pick - This is a high-variance choice, but I'm going to ride the best player in the country. The Jays are difficult to plan for on a short turnaround because any one of five guys besides McDermott can step forward and be a major offensive weapon. I think they will eke out a win over Arizona by daring the Wildcats not named Johnson or Gabe York to beat them from behind the arc, and by making giant center Caleb Tarczewski uncomfortable having to guard Wragge on the perimeter.

Top seeds - Wichita State, Michigan, Duke, and Louisville. For those of you scoring at home, the Shockers were rewarded for their unbeaten season by drawing both of last year's title game participants and the best coach in NCAA tournament history (at least in the 64-team era). Michigan won the Big Ten regular season crown and has one of the best offenses in basketball, masterminded by coach John Beilein. Duke is a superlative offensive team (second in the nation after Creighton thanks to stars Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood) that can't stop anyone from getting to the tin. And the Cardinals are back on a roll behind Russ-diculous Smith on the perimeter and beastly power forward Montrezl Harrell inside.

5-or-higher-seed most likely to make a Final Four run - Although www.40and0.com became a punchline after two or three loses, let alone ten, do not sleep on the uber-talented Kentucky Wildcats (8). Julius Randle is a double-double machine, a southpaw power forward with a terrific inside game and a strong motor. Fellow freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison and James Young provide perimeter scoring and athleticism, and sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are outstanding athletes who can both change a game defensively. Plus, they have a coach who's been down this road before. If they can keep their focus together, don't be shocked if Ashley Judd's Wildcats finally deliver on all their potential.

Most entertaining team - This region is overloaded with fun teams. Like offense? Parker and Hood are extremely versatile threats who can take over a game and drop fifty or sixty points between them for the Blue Devils. Louisville is one of the best transition outfits in the nation thanks to Rick Pitino's full-court press. Michigan has three guys of their own (Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Caris LeVert) all eminently capable of twenty-five points or more. And Kentucky has all those lottery picks. Or do you prefer defense? Wichita State's philosophy of "playing angry" has them holding opponents to under 60 points a game, Louisville has the aforementioned press, and St. Louis plays a brutal man-to-man that forces opponents into difficult shots.

Double-digit lurker - Iowa may have only snuck into the one of the play-in games, but their depth and up-tempo offense resulted in the fourth-best offensive efficiency rating in the nation this year, and they could make things very difficult for Tennessee, UMass, and Duke. Fran McCaffery plays ten guys, and that kind of bench depth can carry you through the second game of the first weekend if the opponent is worn out.

Best players to watch - So many to choose from. Parker and Hood make everything happen for Duke; both can shoot, attack the rim, and have excellent mid-range games. Wichita State's quartet of Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker, and Tekele Cotton play as a unit extremely well. Harrell is a monster in the paint for Louisville, just as Randle is for Kentucky. Stauskas can make it rain, and Robinson III is an excellent athlete who can make game-breaking plays. Xavier's Semaj Christon is an underrated first-round prospect. And then there's North Carolina State's T.J. Warren, who scores in a variety of ways.

Final Four pick - I think this Wichita State team is going to be extremely motivated to prove that their unblemished record isn't a fluke, especially with a possible rematch with Louisville (who defeated them in last year's Final Four) looming in the Sweet 16. In fact, to reach the Final Four, the Shockers could have to deal with Kentucky, Louisville, and either Duke or Michigan in succession. I think they will relish the chance to prove themselves in what is probably the most difficult region in the tournament.

Top seeds - Virginia, Villanova, Iowa State, Michigan State. The Hoos were the surprise winners of the ACC regular season and tournament championships behind a stout defense and an offense that takes the air out of the ball. Villanova was the best team in the Big East so long as they weren't playing Creighton, with a typical Jay Wright roster full of athletic perimeter defenders who can score. Iowa State continues to improve every year under the Mayor, Fred Hoiberg, creating mismatches all over the floor, although this year they were not as perimeter-oriented as in years past. And the Spartans endured a litany of injuries to four of their starters but got everyone healthy in time to win the Big Ten tournament.

5-or-higher-seed most likely to make a Final Four run - If sixth-seeded North Carolina enters the tournament with the same chip on their shoulder that led to them beating Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, and Louisville this year (when each was in the top five), they can hang with anyone in this region. The Heels are a terrific rebounding team and make their hay in transition, but they have only one serious outside shooting threat (point guard Marcus Paige) and are a very poor free throw-shooting team, so if you can force them to beat you from outside, they can be beaten. But on many nights they can beat anybody.

Most entertaining team - When they're getting out in transition and sharing the ball, eighth-seeded Memphis is very entertaining; they average more assists than just about any team other than Creighton. Shooting is not their strong suit, but they can get to the rim and score in the mid-range, led by skinny guard Joe Jackson, a Memphis native who sets the tone on offense and defense. They are, however prone to lapses in focus, and might have their work cut out for them against George Washington in their opening game.

Double-digit lurker - Harvard knocked off New Mexico (Steve Alford upset alert!) as a 14-seed last year, and they're back again this year as a 12-seed, facing off against the Cincinnati Bearcats, one of the most tenacious defensive teams in the country. The Crimson share the ball well and have six different guys capable of scoring lots of points, but are no great shakes from the perimeter (apart from Laurent Rivard) and thus might have trouble making a comeback if they fall behind. Watch out also for tenth-seeded Saint Joseph's, who finished fourth in the Atlantic 10 but ran to the tournament final.

Best players to watch - The big three of DeAndre Kane, Georges Niang, and Melvin Ejim make things happen for Iowa State: Kane is a big point guard who can score and defend, Niang is a weirdly effective forward who scores and defends but can't jump, and Ejim is the athlete who cleans the glass and manages to get fifteen to twenty points a game mostly off of dirty work. The Spartans have a pair of first-round picks in senior forward Adreian Payne (an athletic, glass-cleaning stretch four) and sophomore guard Gary Harris, a brilliant two-way player. Paige is often a one-man offense for UNC, and Sean Kilpatrick IS the offense for Cincinnati, in addition to being a shutdown defender.

Final Four pick - Tom Izzo has been coaching at Michigan State for eighteen years, and during that time, not a single four-year player has finished his career without appearing in at least one Final Four. That streak is on the line this year, and you can bet that Payne and point guard Keith Appling don't want to be "those guys." The Spartans are a lot closer to the best team in the country than a fourth seed when they're healthy, and they are now healthy.

The opening round starts today! Hopefully you can spend plenty of time on Thursday and Friday (the two best days of the sports calendar) in front of a television somewhere. Updates to come throughout the tournament.