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College Basketball

Ranking the best bracket busters in this year's NCAA tournament

The Column Formerly Known As The Power Rankings changes its approach for the first week of the NCAA tournament, abandoning the nation's top teams in favor of the octet with the best shot at busting brackets. My selection rules: All teams must be No. 11 seeds or higher, only two major-conference picks are allowed, and at least two picks have to be from the 13-16 range.

Bracket Buster Power Rankings
1aTennessee Volunteers
A reason to love the Vols (other than that they rank 11th in overall efficiency, which means they're the scariest No. 11 seed of this decade):

Watching power forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon attack the offensive glass like double DeJuan Blairs is highly entertaining. Tennessee's power forwards are each 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds and rank in the national top 20 in offensive rebound percentage. They enjoy sealing off both blocks and playing Stokes-Maymon Backboardball, which is a demoralizing way to extend possessions. UMass does not want to participate in highlights like these in the second round.

 
1bIowa Hawkeyes
A reason to love the Hawkeyes (other than that they, too, are much stronger than your average No. 11 seed in a play-in game):

Six-foot-9 junior forward Aaron White is the best transition big man in all of college basketball. He runs the floor harder than Cody Zeller did for Indiana last season or Tyler Hansbrough did for North Carolina years ago, and White has superior speed, stride length and open-court ballhandling skills to those two. In the following edit, see White put his head down and outrun most of Purdue's team after Boilermaker misses, and then convert a steal into a ridiculous dunk against Minnesota:

Of the top 11 transition finishers in the NCAA tournament, according to Synergy Sports Technology, White is the only 4/5 man:

 
3Dayton Flyers
How can you not love the story of Jordan Sibert, the shooting guard who couldn't get much playing time (or make shots when he did) at Ohio State from 2010-2012, transferred to Dayton, became an excellent player whom the Buckeyes' struggling offense could most definitely have used this season, and now gets to face them in the NCAA tournament? This was Sibert's reaction as the second-round pairing was revealed on Sunday:

Sibert was the No. 39 prospect in the class of 2010, and Thad Matta tried to make him part of the rotation in early '11-12, but Sibert just couldn't live up to his rep as a quality shooter. He only made 21-of-82 long-range attempts (that's 25.6 percent) as a freshman and sophomore, and lost his spot to Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson. But as a junior at Dayton? Sibert has found his stroke, making 75-of-171 three-point attempts (that's 43.9 percent). As Land-Grant Holy Land detailed this week, Sibert now excels at running off series of off-ball screens to free himself for threes.

 
4Harvard Crimson
These Crimson are tougher, from an efficiency standpoint, than the team that upset New Mexico in 2013's NCAAs, but they've also changed stylistically. Only 28.2 percent of their field-goal attempts this season have been threes, which is the lowest rate of the six-year Tommy Amaker era; last season's team took 34.0 percent of its shots from deep. The shift can be attributed to the return of 6-7 big man Kyle Casey, who missed all of 2012-13 due to an infamous academic scandal, and is now Harvard's highest-volume shooter.

I bring this up because I'm curious if the Crimson will attack Cincinnati on the interior -- which doesn't seem wise, with the Bearcats ranking ninth nationally in block percentage -- or try to pull off the upset by letting Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard rain threes over the top of Cincy's defense. That formula worked against New Mexico's Pack-Line in 2013; the Crimson attempted 42 field goals in the upset and 18 of them were treys.

 
5North Dakota State
If you saw the end of the Bison's Summit League final against IPFW on March 11, you know that 6-7 guard Taylor Braun is a ridiculous shot-maker. And if you didn't see it, here's an Insta-embed :

NDSU coach Saul Phillips said Braun demanded the ball on that game-clinching play with "more flowery adjectives than [Hoosiers star Jimmy] Chitwood," and he had to absorb more contact than Chitwood did, too. In the event the Bison get in another one of these tight endgame situations in the NCAAs, expect the ball to be in Braun's hands, and know that he has more than the drive-and-flail in his arsenal. In the Summit semifinals against Denver, he finished off a shot clock with this step-back fadeaway three:

 
6Stephen F. Austin
VCU-vs.-SFA is one of my favorite second-round games due to the turnover-creation potential. The Rams, as you probably know, rank No. 1 nationally in turnovers-forced percentage, and the Lumberjacks, as you probably did not know, rank third. VCU does its work with alternating presses, and SFA creates some of its turnovers that way, too. Here's its man-to-man press with a trap near halfcourt, vs. Central Arkansas on March 8 ...

... and its diamond press, vs. Southeastern Louisiana on March 1:

But the press, for SFA, does not seem to be the story. Although this is anecdotal -- I did not have time to chart every turnover created by the Lumberjacks this season -- the bulk of their takeaways seem to happen in the halfcourt. They flustered Southland opponents by applying intense ball pressure and, off the ball, guarding on-the-line, up-the-line to prevent easy passes. Here's their alignment at the start of a halfcourt possession in the Southland title game:

And here's SFA defending Southeastern Louisiana in the halfcourt; see how the Lumberjacks sit on the high side of post players, forcing lob entries (and defending those with weakside help), and how their wing defenders are over-playing passing lanes. They over-play so much that they're ripe for backcuts, but it's hard to find fault with a scheme that hasn't lost since Nov. 23:

 
7North Carolina Central
The Eagles are the 14-seed with a fighting chance, as kenpom's log5 simulation gives them a 28 percent chance of knocking off Iowa State and SI's survival analysis puts them at 30 percent. They also have a senior guard in Jeremy Ingram who's playing some of his best basketball late in the season, with stretches of incredible, McDermott-level efficiency in February and March. If Ingram can go for 30 points on a reasonable number of shots, the upset is a real possibility.

 
8American
I don't think a 15-over-2 upset will happen for a third straight year. But I do think there's a way for American to put a scare into Wisconsin.

The theory:

  • American shoots exceptionally well, ranking sixth nationally in eFG%, but doesn't take care of the ball, ranking 342nd in turnover%.

  • Wisconsin's defense does not force turnovers, ranking 322nd in turnover%. American may be able to avoid coughing up the ball.

  • On possessions where American gets a shot off, it averages 1.34 points, which I assure you is excellent and very much the kind of figure that could engineer an upset.

  • American will also try to out-slow the Badgers and play a sub-60-possession game, increasing the potential for a surprising outcome.

  • American's defense actually ranks higher in efficiency (47th) than does Wisconsin's (58th).

Wisconsin's home-court advantage in Milwaukee is probably too much to overcome, but don't be shocked if the Eagles stay within single digits.

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