Let the Madness begin ...
by Brian Hamilton
State of the No. 1 seed
Well, pretty good until halfway through the Selection Show on Saturday. You may have heard Wichita State has played 34 games and lost none of them. When they saw their name appear on the top line in the Midwest Region, the Shockers clapped politely. It was expected and deserved. Wichita State ranks in the top 10 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency nationally. It has an unflappable backcourt of Fred VanVleet, the Missouri Valley Conference's player of the year, and Ron Baker. The pair of them combined for 286 assists against just 104 turnovers. And leading scorer Cleanthony Early (15.8 points per game) anchors everything. The Shockers are very, very good.
Less deserved -- but, cynically, perhaps as expected -- was Wichita State receiving a Group of Death draw disguised as a regional slotting. Michigan, Duke and Louisville are seeded Nos. 2-4. The first two played for conference tournament titles on Sunday and were considered to have a shot at a No. 1 seed themselves. The Cardinals, meanwhile, won the AAC tournament handily and also are ranked in the top 10 nationally in both adjusted offense and defense. The Blue Devils and Wolverines, meanwhile, rank second and third in adjusted offense. (And did we mention Kentucky might await the Shockers in the second round?)
The draw could play into head coach Gregg Marshall's advantage: Wichita State has maintained its edge all season because people thought it couldn't possibly achieve what it did. The selection committee sent that same message, on a silver platter. If there was any possibility of satisfaction creeping in, it's gone. A 34-0 team got a rough draw but got all the motivation it needed Sunday.
Upset pick: Xavier over Saint Louis
Something is wrong with the Billikens. The regular season champions of the Atlantic 10 lost three in a row to end that regular season, then bowed out of the league tournament to St. Bonaventure, a team that finished 6-10 in conference play. Their vaunted defense, which allowed just .903 points per possession during the season, has surrendered 1.07 PPP or better in each of those losses.
The Musketeers, meanwhile, will have played just down the road in Dayton in the First Four. They'll face N.C. State with a huge home-court advantage given that they won't even have to travel out of state from their Cincinnati-based campus for the game. Yes, Xavier has lost three of its last four, but two have been to Villanova and Creighton. And its offense, ranked No. 37 nationally in adjusted efficiency and led by the explosive Semaj Christon (17.7 points per game, 47.7 percent shooting), should be able to find openings against the Billikens' defense. It might not be easy on short prep, but it also seems easier to score on Saint Louis now than it had been all year.
Sleeper team: Tennessee
The Volunteers' chances of making a deep run might be shrouded by the mediocrity of the SEC. Yes, Tennessee has just three wins against top 50 teams, two of which came before the calendar turned to 2014. But it also has a top 30 offense, per kenpom.com, and a defense ranked No. 16. And since Feb. 11, it has four losses: Two to Florida, the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and two on the road by a combined eight points.
The draw now might actually be better. First Four opponent Iowa has been a mess down the stretch, losing six of its last seven. Massachusetts, the No. 6 seed and a possible first-weekend opponent, has seven top-50 wins and a top-50 defense, but it has lost three of its last five. Taking down Duke in the Round of 32 in Raleigh would be a chore. But again, the Volunteers have seen Florida, Wichita State and Virginia this year -- three of the No. 1 seeds in this tournament. They won't be surprised by what they see, and might surprise others with what they do.
Player to watch: Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet
Watch VanVleet run his team on the court and you figure a space shuttle could land nose-first at midcourt and he would look at it, blink, step to the right or left and then set up the offense. The selection committee tried to drop a similar distraction in Wichita State's lap, and now it's up to VanVleet to sidestep it and keep his team on track.
The numbers say he will: He ranks in the top 20 nationally in both offensive win shares (4.3) and defensive win shares (2.6). (The statistic measures how many wins are attributable to a player's individual performance.) His assist-to-turnover ratio is 3.89-to-1, fifth in the nation. But he'll have all he can handle in this region. He'll face either Kentucky's Harrison twins or Kansas State's Marcus Foster in the Round of 32, and then might have to contend with Louisville's turnover-inducing machine in the Sweet 16. VanVleet can handle it. But will he?
They say Wichita State hasn't played anyone. That will change in the next two weekends. But the zero in the Shockers' loss column won't as they grind their way to a second consecutive Final Four.
By Pete Thamel
State of the No. 1 seed
If Arizona coach Sean Miller and athletic director Greg Byrne had drawn up the regional themselves it wouldn't have been much easier for the Wildcats. The West has arguably the weakest No. 2 (Wisconsin), No. 3 (Creighton), No. 4 (San Diego State) and No. 5 (Oklahoma) seeds.
The stiffest challenge for Arizona could come in the second round, as it could face Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have won five of seven after snapping a seven-game losing streak that included losing all three games that star guard Marcus Smart had to sit out as a suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan on Feb. 8.
Wildcats fans dominated Las Vegas with their presence at the Pac-12 tournament. Expect the same in San Diego and Anaheim. Don't be surprised if their team cruises to the Final Four.
Upset pick: No. 12 North Dakota State over No. 5 Oklahoma
The Bison have won 14 of 15 and boast solid wins over Notre Dame, Delaware and Western Michigan. Their leading scorers, the 6-foot-7 Taylor Braun (18.2) and 6-8 Marshall Bjorklund, are a load against any level of competition. Oh, and they lead the country in field goal percentage (50.9 perecnt). That always helps.
Sleeper team: Baylor
The Bears have gone from being one of the country's most disappointing teams to one of the most dangerous. They have won 10 of 12 to close the season, a run that's coincided with star guard Kenny Chery's return to the starting line-up from a turf toe injury.
Player to watch: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Gordon, a freshman forward with a 6-foot-9, 225-pound Popeye-like physique, is the best NBA prospect in the West Region. He is also Arizona's second-leading scorer (12.1 ppg) and leading rebounder (7.8 rpg). But there's a glaring deficiency in his game that's going to be fascinating to follow in March: Gordon shoots just 43.5-percent from the free throw line. That could make him a late-game liability and might force Miller to keep arguably his most talented player on the bench at various points during crucial possessions.
The Wildcats suffered a bad break when starting center Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury during their first loss of the season, at California on Feb. 1. Perhaps this draw represents a karmic swing from that bad break. When you factor in the weak bracket, home-crowd advantage and superior roster, it's hard to pick against Arizona.
By Pete Thamel
State of the No. 1 seed
It's hard to keep doubting Virginia. When the Cavaliers won the ACC, people pointed to the unbalanced schedule and their struggles early in the season. But after elbowing its way through the ACC tournament this weekend, UVa. looks every bit the part of a No. 1 seed.
The myth of the Cavaliers is that they are a rugged defensive team that struggles on offense. The reality is that they are the country's No. 28 offensive team on KenPom.com when adjusted for tempo. Redshirt sophomore wing Malcolm Brogdon (12.3 pgg) and senior sniper Joe Harris (11.6 ppg) lead a balanced attack. The perpetual motion of Virginia's offense, filled with a variety of screens, also wears out teams. And its offensive sets often end with clean looks toward the end of the shot clock, when teams get caught napping.
The low-scoring style may offer temptation to pick against the Cavaliers, as might their early loss to Green Bay and an 87-52 shellacking at Tennessee. However, Virginia's offense found itself during the ACC regular season and postseason, and only Florida and Wichita State have been more impressive since New Year's.
Upset pick: No. 10 St. Joseph's over No. 7 UConn
Picking St. Joseph's over UConn is about as bold as picking Florida to win the title, so here's a bonus tip: The upsets you don't pick are more important than the ones you do. Don't be tempted by No. 12 Harvard over No. 5 Cincinnati or No. 11 Providence over No. 6 North Carolina. The Bearcats will overwhelm the Crimson with their athleticism and the Friars' run to the Big East tournament title featured only one win over team in the field of 68.
Sleeper team: North Carolina
The Tar Heels put together a 12-game winning streak in conference play but enter the tournament having lost consecutive games, to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament. This is a different style UNC team, as Carolina ranks No. 22 in the KenPom.com defensive rankings but just No. 58 offensively.
On offense, the key for North Carolina will be point guard Marcus Paige not waiting until the second half to take over games. He needs to be selfish for UNC to look more like the team that ran through the ACC in February. And that could mean a deep run in March.
Player to watch: Maurice Creek, George Washington
Creek rocketed to stardom as a freshman at Indiana, scoring 31 points against Kentucky. But injuries derailed his career with the Hoosiers, and he transferred to George Washington for his final season of eligibility. Creek has scored 14.3 points per game for the Colonials, but he slumped his final two games in the Atlantic 10 tournament. (Creek shot 5-for-18 against UMass and VCU).
Creek is the kind of talent who can carry a low seed on a ride if he finds his form, as he shoots more than 40 percent from three-point range. He had three consecutive 20-point games before sputtering out in final two. Look for Creek to end his career with a flourish.
A healthy Michigan State has always loomed this season as a Final Four no-brainer, but the Cavaliers can beat the Spartans at their own sharp-elbowed game. Virginia will make it to Dallas.
By Brian Hamilton
State of the No. 1 seed
Better than anybody else, at least according to the selection committee. Florida enters the tournament as its No. 1 overall seed, winners of the SEC regular season title and the postseason tournament and on a 26-game winning streak. The Gators haven't lost since Dec. 2. They have a balanced, selfless offense ranked No. 17 in adjusted efficiency. Five players average between 9.1 and 14.3 points per game. They take care of the ball, averaging just 11.3 turnovers per night, and they're solid enough on the boards with a rebound percentage of 53.3 (33rd nationally).
If there's any queasiness, it's in quibbling with perfection. Florida didn't look terrific in dispatching Tennessee in the SEC semifinals, then nearly coughed up a double-digit lead against Kentucky in the final, when the Wildcats had a chance to win on the final possession. It's not the best trend -- nor is the 66.1 percent marksmanship from the free throw line as a team -- and the South region is probably the second-toughest, with UCLA, Kansas, Syracuse, VCU and New Mexico joining the Gators.
Upset pick: Tulsa over UCLA. It's a reach to think that a team coming off the Pac-12 tournament title and playing an hour down the road in San Diego is there for the taking, but that might be precisely why the Bruins will fall: Even for a high-level team with NBA talent, there will be a letdown after overcoming the Arizona juggernaut, and maybe even a sense of comfort given the short trip south to the NCAA site.
But Danny Manning's Golden Hurricane can guard some, ranking 28th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. And while they don't shoot it particularly well -- effective field goal percentage of 49.3 -- they don't give it away, either, averaging just 11.5 turnovers per game. It's a longshot, but aren't all upsets?
Sleeper team: New Mexico
It's difficult to consider the champion of the Mountain West tournament a sleeper, but this goes well beyond whether the Lobos can survive a matchup with No. 10 seed Stanford in the first round. They're equipped to get past a Joel Embiid-less Kansas and, for certain, Syracuse and Ohio State and the rest of the favorites on their side of the bracket. And they might be equipped to take out Florida, too.
They have a top-40 offense and a top-40 defense. They don't offer up many second chances, ranking eighth nationally with 27.5 defensive rebounds per game. They take care of the ball, with a 1.46 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks 15th nationally. And they have an All-America big man in Cameron Bairstow (20.3 points, 7.6 rebounds per game, 55.6 percent shooting) who might not get challenged by Embiid in the Round of 32. New Mexico is already on a roll, and it can stay on one.
Player to watch: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Who else? The Jayhawks' national title hopes probably rest on the availability of Embiid, but someone else has to carry them in his absence. Wiggins appears increasingly willing to do so, and there's never been doubt about his ability.
In his last three games Wiggins has averaged 31.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.0 steals while shooting 50 percent from the floor. It's worth noting that Kansas lost two of those three games and went to overtime in the other one. But if the Jayhawks have to play four-around-one with Embiid out, Wiggins is the one of the four who can make things happen anywhere on the court.
Florida has flirted with disaster lately, but it's a self-starting, veteran group that may not have to see UCLA or Kansas on the way to the Final Four. The Gators will get there, remaining the championship favorite.