State of the No. 1 seed
[daily_cut.college basketball]A matchup between Duke and Kentucky in the NCAA final would serve as blueblood basketball ecstasy. The storylines would be endless, the ratings at NFL levels and the talent level circa college basketball in the 1980s. Can Duke get there? The Blue Devils won 12 games in a row after throwing wing Rasheed Sulaimon off the team. That streak ended in the ACC semifinals against Notre Dame, but few teams in the country have played as well as Duke for the past five weeks.
The Blue Devils have the requisite backcourt—in skill and onions—with Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones. Cook brings that slap-the-floor senior leadership that the Blue Devils value. Jones has been a calming influence as a freshman, averaging 5.8 assists per game. Center Jahlil Okafor will be one of the first two players taken in the NBA draft, but his 51.1 free-throw percentage is scary in tight games. Could a crafty team come up with a Hack-A-Jah scheme? That question will linger over the Blue Devils throughout the NCAA tournament.
Upset pick: Eastern Washington
No team has a worse recent track record than Georgetown in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, as the Hoyas have become March’s consummate dream enablers. Since reaching the 2007 Final Four, Georgetown has lost to double-digit seeds in each tournament it has made. That roll call of infamy—No. 10 Davidson in 2008, No. 14 Ohio in 2010, No. 11 VCU in 2011, No. 11 N.C. State in 2012 and No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast in 2013—makes the Hoyas as an obvious upset pick. (They can’t be overjoyed about traveling 3,000 miles to Portland, either.)
Eastern Washington won at Indiana earlier this year and has the nation’s leading scorer in Tyler Harvey (22.9 ppg). This will be a popular upset pick and a prescient one, as Eastern Washington has coalesced since forward Venky Jois has overcome ankle issues that hampered him early in league play. Georgetown hasn’t been particularly sharp, including losing five of its final 12 and sleepwalking through parts of games against Creighton and Xavier in the Big East tournament. Don’t underestimate pucker power, either. The Hoyas’ tortured past will be just as big an opponent.
Sleeper team: Iowa
Look for No. 7 Iowa to make a run in this bracket, potentially setting up a juicy matchup with Iowa State in the Sweet 16. It’s hard to have any faith in Gonzaga, as the Bulldogs haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2009 and don’t appear exponentially better than past years. Iowa won six straight to close the regular season before falling to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament. The Hawkeyes are led by All-Big Ten forward Aaron White, and are big and skilled enough to get past Davidson in the Round of 64 and match up well with Gonzaga in the Round of 32. Look for the Hawkeyes to be the team that ends the Zags’ dream again on the first weekend.
Player to watch: Georges Niang, Iowa State
Iowa State’s Georges Niang is one of the most versatile and entertaining players in the country. And he’s also nearly impossible to guard, as the 6'8" power forward hits 39% of his three-pointers, has a crafty array of post moves with his back to the basket and deft feel for the game that helps Iowa State’s up-tempo offense flow. He’s averaging 15.5 points per game and coming off a monster Big 12 tournament final, as he dropped 19 on Kansas. He’ll also have a healthy bit of motivation, as Niang broke his foot in Iowa State’s opening game of the NCAA tournament last year. That certainly contributed to Iowa State’s loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden last year. A healthy Niang will make a big push this year.
Look for No. 3 Iowa State to escape this bracket with a victory over Duke in the Elite Eight. (Utah could end up as a tough matchup for Duke, too). The Cyclones have won five in a row, including two wins over Oklahoma and another over Kansas. Then watch Iowa State frantically try to prevent coach Fred Hoiberg from going to the NBA.