by user David J. Cohen
It's that time of year again. It's the time of year where the true passion of basketball takes center stage. It's a time where buzzer beaters, big plays, and upsets captivate us all.
It's also that time of year where millions of Americans try to create the perfect bracket and take home the cash from various tournament pools. And as the tournament tips off everyone feels they have the winning combination of teams to get a little richer. Then Valparaiso hits a half-court shot and, well, better luck next year.
One Win Wonders
(#11) Southern Illinois - They have NCAA tournament experience, appearing in the last two years and winning a game last year. They play suffocating defense and hold their opponents to an average of 40% shooting. They allow only 56 points a game, 4th best in the country. A huge part of their defensive success is their offense. They play a half-court offense and will use all 35 seconds on almost every possession before shooting. This drastically reduces opposing shots. Their style is perfect for stopping #6 West Virginia, who also plays in the half-court. West Virginia shoots a lot of outside shots, and while they make a lot of them it takes a ton of them for the Mountaineers to produce. For instance, they are 2nd in the country in 3-point baskets made per game but 171st in 3-point shooting percentage. Also, they are horrible on the glass. Out of 326 teams statistically ranked by the NCAA only one team is worse than the Mountaineers in rebounding. Their opponents' average 10 more rebounds a game. West Virginia also allows their opponents to shoot well, at an average of 45% a contest (which is 240th in the nation). The fact that they play in the Big East doesn't help, but it doesn't excuse these flaws. They play right into the hands of the Salukis, who will kill the clock, clean up the glass, and make just enough shots to win games. There will be times in this game where Southern Illinois will take up the entire shot clock, miss, get the rebound and repeat the process. They will prevail over last year's biggest surprise and should give Iowa a good game in the second round.
(#10)N.C. State - The reason they fall as a surprise is that they come into the tourney on a 4 game losing streak, including back to back losses to the worst team in the ACC. However, their style of play and talent should allow them to defeat #7 California. They can hit 3's and shoot them well. They are also a solid defensive team and are at their best against half-court teams like Cal. They can spread the ball well, block shots, and hit free-throws. The Wolfpack shoot over 75% from the stripe. Cal struggles as a unit on both ends of the floor. On offense they heavily rely on F Leon Powe and G Ayinde Ubaka for most of their scoring. Powe averages 21 points and 10 rebounds while Ubaka averages 15 points and 3 assists. The Bears are an average shooting team at best and struggle to create opportunities when Powe and Ubaka are not on the floor or double teamed. The Bears also cannot rebound outside of Powe and do not create turnovers. N.C. State has struggled of late but should find a way to win this game and win it easily.
You would think more teams would be in this category but not this year. The only teams that will be upsets in the first round and then quickly exit the dance are the 9 seeds in these regions. Bucknell will repeat last year's success and defeat Arkansas by dictating the tempo and forcing bad shots. UAB will repeat their 2004 NCAA tourney victory by defeating Kentucky again. They should be able to generate turnovers and create fast break points. Their guards will be too much for Kentucky. Wisconsin will play enough defense to defeat Arizona.
Now we move on to the surprise teams which will appear in the Sweet 16, leaving sour tastes in the mouths of millions who thought these teams were pushovers.
Sweet 16 Surprises
(#11) San Diego State - The Aztecs have the pieces and the matchups to make the Sweet 16. In their opening match they face an Indiana team that lives and dies by the 3-pointer and F Marco Killingsworth. The Aztecs have offensive talent, led by G Brandon Heath and F Marcus Slaughter. Heath is a solid 3-point shooter and can create shots. He averages 19 points and 3 assists a contest. Slaughter is a beast inside. He averages 17 points and 11 rebounds a game. The x-factor on this team is University of Florida transfer F Mohamed Abukar. Since he has been put into the rotation the Aztecs have noticeably improved. He averages 14 points and 5 rebounds a game. He is very athletic and will create matchup problems. As a team the Aztecs can shoot and specialize in the 3-ball. They shoot 39% as a team from behind the arc. They are good on the glass, can create turnovers, and do not foul often. They are not a great defensive team, which is why they needed good matchups to advance in the tourney. Indiana has played well of late but won't be able to generate enough production as a whole to win. Killingsworth might make a killing in this game but can't do it all by himself.
In the second round the Aztecs will have to take on #3 Gonzaga. The 'Zags are a prolific team at times on offense but can't do much else. They are just plain awful on defense, ranking 260th in points allowed per game. They don't generate turnovers, don't impose any inside defensive threat, and put their opponent on the line often. It's no wonder teams like Loyola Marymount (12-18) and San Francisco (11-17) were able to nearly beat this team late in the year. Gonzaga shoots it well and can rebound, but this is a product of their two-man show. F Adam Morrison is the best player in the country production-wise, putting up 28 points and grabbing 6 rebounds a contest. F/C J.P. Batista scores 19 a night and gets 10 rebounds a game. He will be able to produce well against San Diego State as they don't have anyone to guard his power. However, Abukar could give Morrison trouble and force him into taking bad shots. The Aztecs are a solid all around team that will enjoy success against the weak Gonzaga defense and make stops themselves. Gonzaga has no one to guard Heath, who could rival Morrison on the scoreboard in this game. Slaughter will get his points and can draw fouls on Batista. When Batista is not in this game it will greatly hurt the 'Zags. The supporting cast of the Aztecs and Slaughter will feast on Gonzaga when Batista is out as they can pretty much go anywhere with the ball and have a mismatch. Gonzaga is over-hyped this year and will go out in the second round again, exiting for the 4th straight year in this round. Then the Aztecs will be in an interesting matchup in the Sweet 16.
(#7) Georgetown - The Hoyas are a talented, balanced team that should see the Sweet 16. They have solid front-court players in F Jeff Green, F Brandon Bowman, and C Roy Hibbert. Green averages 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists a game. Bowman averages 12 points and 5 rebounds a game. Hibbert puts up 11 points and 7 rebounds a game. Their backcourt is made up of athletic, quick guards that can create plays for themselves and for the men up front. They play #10 Northern Iowa in the opening matchup and should be able to beat them in the half-court with their size and athleticism. In their next matchup they will have to play the best team in the Big 10 in Ohio State. The Hoyas matchup well with the Buckeyes, who truly consist of one great inside man and 4 solid guards. Both teams set up their offenses in the half-court, which will ultimately benefit the Hoyas. Georgetown is highly effective in their offense even though it doesn't show on the scoreboard. They are 211th in the nation in scoring offense but 36th in FG %, shooting 47% from the field. They also hold opponents to under 60 points a contest. They can spread the ball around and rebound. They also do a great job of limiting turnovers and fouls. They are 12th and 9th in these categories respectively. Ohio State is a better shooting team but not as good defensively. They are just as good as the Hoyas in limiting fouls and turnovers but do not maximize their defensive production. They are 51st in scoring defense but 105th in opposing FG %. They are also a bad rebounding team, which is the difference in this matchup. The Hoyas should control the glass and thus control the game. Georgetown will only lose to teams that can shoot and are athletic up front and in the back-court. A team that fits the criteria, Florida, awaits the Hoyas in the Sweet 16 and should knock them out of the tourney.
Washington D.C. Region
A Historic Run
(#15) Winthrop - The Winthrop Eagles are in prime position to become just the 5th #15 seed to upset a #2 seed in the NCAA tournament. They play well on both ends of the floor and have a deep, balanced rotation. They also have the characteristics of the previous 4 teams which knocked out a #2 seed: 1) They have won 9 of their last 10 games and at least three in a row entering the tourney, 2) They have a winning % below .800, and 3) They average above 37% and below 58% of their scoring from guards. There have been 12 teams that were 15 seeds and shared these qualities - these teams are 4-8 in tournament play against the number 2 seeds. The Eagles production is led by 3 players. G Torrell Martin is a great shooter, and averages 14 points and 5 rebounds a game. F James Shuler averages 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists a game. F/C Craig Bradshaw is a big guy that can do the dirty work down low and stretch the defense with his perimeter shooting. He averages 13 points and 6 rebounds a game. The rest of the rotation consists of solid forwards and guards that form one of the best supporting casts in the tournament. In their opening matchup the Eagles face a Tennessee team that isn’t a #2 seed caliber team. The Eagles matchup extremely well with the Vols. They play well in the half-court, something Tennessee hasn't been able to guard all season (they really haven't been able to guard anything all season). The Vols allow 74 points a game and allow their opponents to shoot 47% from the field. These rank 275th and 307th respectively. They have to outrun and outscore you in order to win games. They survive by creating steals, which turn into easy fast break points. They are 5th in the nation in steals. They also do a good job of holding onto the ball. Winthrop matches up well with Tennessee because they can score and defend. They average 74 points a game while only allowing an average of 61 points a game. They hold opponents to a shade under 40% shooting and rank 26th in the country. They can knock down 3-pointers when necessary. They are also great at causing steals, ranking 14th in the nation. The Eagles spread the ball around and create plays to find the open man. They will have no problem doing that against the porous Vols defense. Bradshaw's ability to knock down 3's will stretch the Tennessee defense even further, allowing for easy lay-ups for players cutting to the basket. Winthrop will pick their shots and get good ones for most of the game. They also rebound extremely well, something the Vols are terrible at. Winthrop is 19th in rebounding margin; the Vols are 265th. The Eagles will be able to get their shots, get easy 2nd chance points, and force the Vols into tough shots and many single-shot possessions. The Vols have great starting guards in C.J. Watson and Chris Lofton but do not have the unit to contain Winthrop's surprisingly rare ability to play efficient on both ends. I wouldn't be surprised if the Eagles win by double-digits.
In the second round the Eagles will play #7 Wichita State. These two teams are very similar in several aspects. Wichita State also has solid play from their big men. C Paul Miller averages 13 points and 7 rebounds a game. F Kyle Wilson averages 11 points and 6 rebounds a game. They also get solid contributions from their guards. This unit is led by G Sean Ogirri, who averages 12 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists a game. Statistically the teams are virtually equal in many areas. The Eagles are 33rd in scoring defense; the Shockers are 35th. The Eagles are 19th in rebounding; the Shockers are 18th. Each team holds their opponents to similar FG percentages. The offense of Winthrop will be the difference in the game. Wichita State fits the Missouri Valley mold in that they do not shoot the ball well. The Eagles will have more scoring opportunities and will take advantage. The ability of Bradshaw to come to the outside and hit long shots will stretch the Shockers out in the half-court set, creating the mismatches to send the Eagles soaring into the Sweet 16. They will make a historic run, becoming the first 15th seed ever to reach the Sweet 16. They will be this year's Cinderella.
These are the teams a lot of people have passed up on as they fill out their brackets. They are the teams that make March Madness one of the greatest sporting events in all of sports. These teams - Southern Illinois, N.C. State, San Diego State, Georgetown, and Winthrop, will make short runs that have a lasting impact on this year's tournament.
I can't wait for Thursday.
Tue 03/14/06, 4:18 pm EST