NCAA tournament: Can Kansas navigate through the South?
STATE OF THE NO. 1 SEED
Prettaaay, prettaaay, prettaaay good. Kansas secured its 12th straight Big 12 regular-season title and followed that by winning the conference tournament, which earned it the No. 1 overall seed in the field of 68. The Jayhawks haven’t lost since Jan. 25, ripping off 14 straight wins. They finished the season ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency (8th) and defensive efficiency (5th). It’s that backstop of consistent defensive toughness that ought to inoculate Bill Self’s team against another March flop; Kansas has exited in the round of 32 two years running, but it seems far too solid in all facets to meet the same fate this year.
Granted, when the Jayhawks aren’t at their best, they’re eminently beatable by anyone they’ll see from the second round moving forward. The Jayhawks aren’t so good that even their poorer efforts will get them where they want to go. But their best is hard to match by anyone in the field. Senior forward Perry Ellis (16.7 points per game) leads four players who average double-figure scoring, and every one of Kansas’s top six scorers shoot better than 44% from the field. All of those double-digit scorers, in fact, shoot better than 40% from three-point range, too. There isn’t really a true back-to-basket, low-post presence to work off, but that hasn’t been a problem yet. It doesn’t look like Kansas has many problems at all, really, as this event begins.
No. 13 Hawaii over No. 4 California
Fourth-seeded Cal started the season with as much raw talent as almost anyone, and 6'7" wing Jaylen Brown and 6'11" forward Ivan Rabb may be one-and-done players swiped by NBA teams before the draft lottery is over this summer. Cuonzo Martin does have his team locked in enough on the defensive end to rank 15th nationally in efficiency, which has helped the Bears win nine of their last 11 games heading into the NCAA tournament.
Still, a team relying on freshmen seems ripe for the picking against a 13th-seeded Hawaii club that won’t be impressed. The Rainbow Warriors lost to Oklahoma by a scant 84–81 margin way back on Dec. 23, and they’ve also played the likes of Texas Tech (a loss on Nov. 28) and Auburn (a win on Dec. 29). Those last two teams aren’t world-beaters, but Hawaii will have more than a general idea of the talent they’re facing. Moreover, the Rainbow Warriors have ample size in 6'11" leading scorer Stefan Jankovic (15.7 PPG), 6'5" guard Aaron Valdes (14.6 PPG) and 6'3" guard Roderick Bobbitt (13.3 PPG) to match Cal. And the Rainbow Warriors enter the tournament with the 41st most efficient defense in the country, so they know how to get stops. Remember: Aloha means hello and goodbye.
Well, who else but Wichita State? There’s so much to recommend against the Shockers, starting with not even making it to the Missouri Valley Conference tournament final and continuing with the nearly zero reliable scoring outlets after Ron Baker (14.2 PPG) and Fred VanVleet (12.0 PPG). And then the Shockers have to get by Vanderbilt, one of the year’s greater underachievers, in a First Four battle of No. 11 seeds in Dayton.
But one number screams out for attention: 89.9. That is Wichita State’s adjusted defensive efficiency figure, and it is the best in the country and therefore the best of any team in the field of 68. That is the great equalizer against a Vanderbilt team that shoots 38.8% from three-point range (21st nationally) and, possibly, against Arizona and Miami teams that rank 17th and 12th, respectively, in offensive efficiency. It may be asking too much for the Shockers to score enough to make one last run for the departing Baker and VanVleet. (They’re 81st nationally in offensive efficiency.) But then again, all the Shockers need is one person to step forward as a third scorer, just for two or three games. And then that defense makes anything possible.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Melo Trimble, Maryland. When last we saw the Terrapins’ sophomore point guard and leading scorer, he was missing a potential go-ahead layup in the waning seconds of a Big Ten tournament semifinal against Michigan State, and then getting bumped on a desperation three-point attempt that fell well short of tying the game as time expired on a 64–61 loss. That made him 2 for 15 on the day, which made for more murmurs about which Melo will make his way to the NCAA tournament brackets.
Since Feb. 6, Trimble is shooting a ghastly 30.2% from the field (36 of 119). His 14.4 points per game still lead the Terrapins, and he obviously remains their go-to option for a score, as evidenced by what coach Mark Turgeon dialed up late against Michigan State. If Trimble is at full capacity mentally and physically, and if Maryland plays the sort of defense it did against the Spartans—the Terps limited what was then the nation’s most efficient offense to .767 points per possession in the second half —then the Terrapins may fulfill their Final Four destiny. If Trimble is anything less than 100%? Then it might not matter how many stops Maryland gets. It might not even get started.