Monday, March 16, 2015

March Madness 2015

The best time of the year is here! College basketball may be suffering from a few seasons of a much less interesting product and also from an incredibly entertaining NBA that is enjoying a heyday like they did in the eighties, but that's a topic for a later post (hopefully as part of a tournament wrap-up). Today, we're not here to nitpick the college game's many obvious flaws or their possible solutions; we're here to revel in the release yesterday of this year's 68-team bracket and spend the better part of the next two days poring over matchups or mascots (if that's your style) for the office pools that involve roughly $9 BILLION of people's money. Before we dive into the various regions, let's ask a few more general questions, starting with the most obvious.

Can anyone beat Kentucky? Sure they can, although I might not bet highly on it if I were you. The beauty of a single-elimination tournament is that it allows for upsets when one team has a poor game and their opponent has a good one. This year, however, I don't think "good" will be enough to beat a Kentucky outfit that is bigger than 29 of 30 NBA teams and boasts world-class athletes throughout their rotation; an opponent will need to be great, besides hoping that the Wildcats are on their C-or-D-game. Just seven of Kentucky's thirty-four victories have been by single digits, but only one of those games (a 72-64 win at Georgia) has come since Valentine's Day. There are probably six teams that CAN beat Kentucky if everything falls into place: Duke, Virginia, Arizona, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Villanova. Sorry Kansas fans, while I don't think the Jayhawks would get annihilated again in a rematch (they were on the wrong end of a 72-40 drubbing in November that wasn't even that close), I don't think that they can beat the Wildcats. Maryland? The Terps have one win away from home by ten points or more, a 60-50 win over mighty Rutgers (10-22) two weeks ago. Not gonna happen. Northern Iowa? Wichita State? Louisville? Notre Dame? No, no, no, and no.

Will Gonzaga finally make a Final Four run? This is the best Gonzaga team that Mark Few has ever had (yes, better than the 1-seed from 2013), in that it's the first time he's ever had a future NBA player (Domantas Sabonis) coming off of the bench. The Zags are deep and as good offensively as ever (they lead the nation in field goal percentage), but with Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley around, they also have the kind of defensive presence on the wings that they really haven't had before, and they have plenty of size inside with Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski, and Sabonis. It will depend on matchups, of course, but this is a Gonzaga team that can make stops AND put the ball in the hole. They certainly can make the Final Four, but they at least need to make an Elite Eight (which would be Few's first) to shut up the growing crowd who feel that they're a program of chokers.

Who are the most likely players to pull a Kemba/Shabazz? UConn's last two championships were won largely on the efforts of one player, Kemba Walker in 2011 and Shabazz Napier a year ago. Who might put their stamp on the 2015 tournament? Some candidates:

  - Frank Kaminsky: The presumptive national player of the year helped carry Wisconsin to the Final Four a year ago, and is an absolute matchup nightmare for any defender in the country with the exception of Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein. There aren't many seven-footers who can score inside (56%) and outside (40%), and who happen to be second on their team in assists. But speaking of Cauley-Stein...

  - Willie Cauley-Stein: Two years ago, Cauley-Stein was an athletic tall guy who had little to no idea what he was doing on a basketball court. Last year he proved to be an exceptional rim protector and rebounder with no offensive game. Now, as a junior, he's become an emotional leader who's not helpless on offense, and who John Calipari can sic on his opponent's best player, regardless of position. Despite being seven feet tall, Cauley-Stein is athletic and agile enough to chase around wings and small guards on the perimeter, and he could certainly put on a defensive tour de force that just shuts down star player after star player for Kentucky's competition, be they big man, wing, or point guard.

  - Jahlil Okafor: Duke's freshman center (and the likely winner of the Wayman Tisdale Award as the nation's best freshman) is basically unstoppable in the post, with the offensive polish and repertoire of a ten-year NBA veteran. He shoots 67% from the floor (but only 52% from the charity stripe), and failed to score in double digits just once this season, when he played a mere nineteen minutes in a 43-point thumping of Wake Forest earlier this month. He should ensure that Duke gets out of the first weekend by himself, because there are few double teams that he cannot handle, and he provides the most reliable source of offense of any player in this tournament.

  - Jerian Grant: Mark Titus included this video in his power rankings on Grantland last week, but Grant's 12-points-in-28-seconds explosion against Louisville earlier this year (all on high-degree-of-difficulty plays) is worth watching again. Don't worry, I'll wait.

  - Georges Niang: Iowa State's star forward is only moderately athletic but incredibly versatile; like Kaminsky he can score in umpteen different ways, and he's also the Cyclones' second-leading assist man. He's the primary engine for what is one of the most entertaining teams in college basketball, and he's perfectly capable of dropping 25 per game against just about anyone.

  - Seth Tuttle: Northern Iowa went 30-3 this year, and their best player is Tuttle, who led the Panthers in scoring, rebounds, assists, and blocked shots. He's a stretch power forward who makes everything click for a team that beat Iowa and Wichita State this year, and plays for a team that is lurking as a potential dangerous matchup for Louisville in the Round of 32 and Villanova in the Sweet Sixteen.

Who got the most generous seed? While I am surprised that Duke got a top seed over Virginia (given that they neither won their league nor the conference tournament), I'm going to have to say that the 21-10 Georgetown Hoyas getting a four-seed over Northern Iowa, Wichita State, or SMU is puzzling to say the least (go ahead and hurl invectives at me, Clay - I can take it). Not only are the Hoyas over-seeded, they are chronic underachievers once the cherry blossoms start to bud, with their lone Final Four (and lone Sweet Sixteen, for that matter) was eight years ago despite a plethora of high seeds. Their reward is a dangerous Eastern Washington team that almost hung 90 in a win at Indiana earlier this year. Duke got the second-biggest gift, while Texas and UCLA are lucky to be a) in the tournament and b) not in a play-in game.

Who got under-seeded? I've seen and heard lots of bellyaching from Maryland fans who think they should have gotten at least a three-seed (if not a two), but as referenced earlier, they were underwhelming away from College Park this year, which is something that the committee values highly. You could make a case that they should have superseded Baylor or Oklahoma, I guess, but a four for the Terps isn't outrageous. What is outrageous is that a 25-8 Dayton team that finished second in the Atlantic 10 and made their conference tournament final (where they lost to VCU) has been relegated to a play-in game as one of the last four at-large teams. UCLA should be in the play-in game if they should even be in the tournament at all; the Bruins (coached by Steve Alford, another famous March choke artist) rather famously scored all of seven points in the first half of an 83-44 evisceration at the hands of Kentucky, and are carrying thirteen losses into the tournament. The one upside for the Dayton Flyers is that they get to play Boise State at home, since the opening round games are all in Dayton. Expect a sea of very loud and very motivated fans in red and navy. Michigan State and Wichita State somehow only earned seven seeds despite the Spartans finishing third in the Big Ten after their usual rough non-conference schedule and the Shockers going 28-4 with three of those losses coming by a combined ten points (the fourth was at Northern Iowa). Now, on to the regions.

MIDWEST REGION

Best Team: Kentucky, duh. Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that the Wildcats are gunning for the first undefeated season in almost forty years, that they have eight McDonald's All-Americans, yada, yada, yada. I have to say, for all that I despise Kentucky (which I do), I am thoroughly impressed with the coaching job that John Calipari has done. How many other coaches could get so many talented players to buy in to the concept of fewer minutes and fewer touches, when just about everybody in the Wildcats' top nine would start and play thirty minutes a game at any other school in the country? None that I can think of.* A tip of the hat to the way that Coach Cal has fostered a Three Musketeers atmosphere in Lexington.

*Coach K couldn't do it - he's down to eight scholarship players in part because of the December transfer of Semi Ojeleye, a supreme athlete who scored thirty a game in high school but couldn't get off the Duke bench in a year and a half.

Best College Player: Jerian Grant, Notre Dame, as referenced earlier.

Best Pro Prospect: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky. The freshman big man has been a dominant rim protector all year, but since the calendar turned to February has also emerged as a consistent offensive threat for the Wildcats, to the point that he is challenging Jahlil Okafor as the presumptive number one pick in this year's draft.

Who Wns the Region? Kentucky. None of the six teams that have a prayer of beating them are in the Midwest Region.

Dream Matchup: Wichita State vs. Kansas, Second Round. Kansas has not scheduled their in-state little brothers in over twenty years, but the Shockers under Gregg Marshall have built their program to the point where they can take on the Jayhawks at essentially even odds. Should they meet (Wichita State has to take care of business against Indiana first, and Kansas faces a sneaky-good New Mexico State team), expect the atmosphere in nearby Omaha to be nothing short of electric on Sunday.

Double-Digit Sleeper: Valparaiso and Buffalo. The Crusaders are still coached by Bryce Drew, who hit one of the more famous buzzer-beaters in tournament history twenty years ago on the way to leading Valpo to a surprise Sweet Sixteen appearance. Unlike a lot of mid-major teams, Drew's Crusaders have a ton of size (five guys 6'7" or taller) and drew a small Maryland team that lacks any inside presence. That could lead to a rough day for the Terps. Buffalo, meanwhile, led Kentucky at halftime this year (in Rupp Arena, no less), and played Wisconsin very tough as well. Their coach is Bobby Hurley, who's no stranger to this whole Big Dance thing, and the Bulls are up against a West Virginia team whose best player, point guard Juwan Staten, will probably be at something less than full strength.

All-Region Team
Karl-Anthony Towns, F/C, Kentucky
Jerian Grant, G, Notre Dame
Willie Cauley-Stein, F/C, Kentucky
Melo Trimble, G, Maryland
Fred Van Vleet, G, Wichita State
Devin Booker, F, Kentucky
Ron Baker, G, Wichita State
Pat Connaughton, F, Notre Dame
Juwan Staten, G, West Virginia
Aaron Harrison, G, Kentucky

EAST REGION

Best Team: Until Virginia's Justin Anderson proves that he's healthy, I'm going to go with Villanova here. The Wildcats are a deep, experienced bunch that went 29-2 this year, with their last loss coming at Georgetown back in mid-January. They have six different guys who average at least nine points a game, and are chock full of good outside shooters. As usual, Jay Wright frequently plays four guards at once, so they could be susceptible to a bigger opponent. Luckily for them, the only team in their region with truly imposing size is thirteenth-seeded UC-Irvine, whose center, Mamadou Ndiaye, stands 7'6". Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidiacono are the leaders of this Villanova team, but they get significant contributions up and down the roster.

Best College Player: Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa. See above.

Best Pro Prospect: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville. Harrell is a 6'8", 240-pound force of nature at power forward who plays as if his mission in life is to dunk everything. He's extraordinarily quick and strong, and it will be fun to watch him take on the challenge of the massive N'Diaye in the Cardinals' first game. Speaking of Ndiaye, you can't teach his kind of height, and so scouts will assuredly be looking at him as well.

Who Wins the Region? I think this region has more possible outcomes than any other, but I think I'm going to go out on a limb and pick the seventh-seeded Spartans of Michigan State, who are playing extremely well at the moment and should get lucky enough to catch Virginia with a less-than-100% Anderson. They are big and strong enough to punish most teams in this region inside, and athletic enough to hang on the perimeter with 'Nova.

Dream Matchup: Louisville vs. Villanova, Sweet 16. A potential matchup of former Big East conference foes at the Carrier Dome? Sign me up, please.

Double-Digit Sleeper: Dayton is going to have a home crowd at their backs tomorrow night, and should they win, they would get the next two games in Columbus, just up the road. The non-freshman Flyers also have tournament experience, having gone to the Elite Eight a year ago before losing to Florida.

All-Region Team
Seth Tuttle, F, Northern Iowa
Montrezl Harrell, F, Louisville
Darrun Hilliard, G, Villanova
Ryan Arcidiacono, G, Villanova
Malcolm Brogdon, G, Virginia
Branden Dawson, F, Michigan State
Buddy Hield, G, Oklahoma
Jordan Sibert, G, Dayton
Justin Anderson, F, Virginia
LaDontae Henton, F, Providence

SOUTH REGION

Best Team: Duke may be the top seed, but I don't think that they're the best team on both ends of the floor. I have to give that honor to second-seeded Gonzaga, who can guard people and score against them.

Best College Player: In the interests of not just answering "Okafor," I'll say Georges Niang of Iowa State.

Best Pro Prospect: Okafor, obviously.

Who Wins the Region? I believe that this is the year for the Zags to finally break through. They are deep, talented, and huge, and can throw more bodies at Okafor than any other team in the region. They are led by an exceptional senior point guard in Kevin Pangos, and more or less always have five guys on the floor who can get buckets.

Dream Matchup: Iowa State vs. Gonzaga, Sweet Sixteen. Two fun offensive teams, two great fan bases, a ton of interesting players.

Double-Digit Sleeper: Triple-dip edition! Tenth-seeded Davidson won the Atlantic 10 regular season title behind an efficient, long-bombing offense that shares the ball a la the San Antonio Spurs. Plus, they have a coach (Bob McKillop) who's done this "deep run as a ten seed" thing before. Their major weakness is size, with no one taller than 6'7". Twelfth-seeded Stephen F. Austin upset VCU in a similar situation a year ago with more or less the same team; the Lumberjacks, who have lost one game since Thanksgiving, draw a Utah team that faded down the stretch. And thirteenth-seeded Eastern Washington, owner of that statement win at Assembly Hall, gets to play the always-ripe-for-an-upset Hoyas.

All-Region Team
Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke
Kevin Pangos, G, Gonzaga
Georges Niang, F, Iowa State
Delon Wright, G, Utah
Quinn Cook, G, Duke
Kyle Wiltjer, F, Gonzaga
Nic Moore, G, SMU
Tyus Jones, G, Duke
Tyler Kalinoski, G, Davidson
Malik Pope, F, San Diego State

WEST REGION

Best Team: Wisconsin has the top seed and the likely national player of the year. They also broke through the Elite Eight barrier for the first time in a long time last year, against the Arizona team that's poised to meet them from the bottom of the bracket.

Best College Player: Kaminsky, definitely.

Best Pro Prospect: Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell has been Ohio State's best player all season, averaging a 19-5-5 and displaying tremendous floor vision and feel for the game. He should be the first or second guard to hear his name called by Adam Silver in June, and in the meantime he could potentially put the Buckeyes on his back for a couple of games.

Who Wins the Region? Wisconsin is seeking vengeance against Kentucky, who beat them in the Final Four a year ago. Arizona feels the same about Wisconsin. I think both results hold again this year, with the Badgers beating one set of Wildcats before losing to the other.

Dream Matchup: Arizona vs. Wisconsin, Elite Eight. For all the reasons mentioned above.

Double-Digit Sleeper: Ohio State has Russell, but one of the most entertaining teams in this region (maybe THE most) is BYU, which boasts two outstanding players in career scoring leader Tyler Haws and NCAA career triple-double leader Kyle Collinsworth, who posted six triple-doubles this season. The Cougars have their issues on defense, but they can pour in points with the best of them, and will present a difficult matchup for anyone that they play.

All-Region Team
Frank Kaminsky, C, Washington
D'Angelo Russell, G, Ohio State
T.J. McConnell, G, Arizona
Sam Dekker, F, Wisconsin
Bobby Portis, F, Arkansas
Tyler Haws, G, BYU
Joseph Young, G, Oregon
Stanley Johnson, F, Arizona
Marcus Paige, G, North Carolina
R.J. Hunter, G, Georgia State

Enjoy the games, and stay tuned for updates next week and beyond!