State Of The No. 1: Syracuse
The Orange enter the NCAAs after an extremely impressive season, going 17-1 in the Big East and dropping one game all season -- at Notre Dame during Fab Melo's short-term suspension -- until running into a scrappy Cincinnati team in the Big East tournament semifinal. By most measures, 'Cuse is one of the two or three favorites to clip the nets in New Orleans. Underneath all the success, though, some issues have been bubbling.
Syracuse's horrible defensive rebounding has been a theme all season and it's just gotten worse down the stretch. The Orange's last seven opponents have all grabbed at least 37 percent of their missed shots, culminating in Cincinnati destroying them on the offensive glass in the Big East semifinal loss. The Orange have been able to get away with that all season, though, because they have been so strong in other areas, but their margins there have been decaying as the season has run its course.
Turnover margin has fueled Syracuse this season. Overall, the Orange are in the nation's top six in both forcing and giving up turnovers. The net result is a slew of "bonus" possessions which provided Syracuse with tons of room for error. In the tail end of the season, though, that margin narrowed and it coincided with a decrease in Syracuse's halfcourt offensive execution. The end result, in laymen's terms, is Syracuse is struggling to score when they get fewer runouts, and have found themselves in a bunch of close games lately. So far, the Orange have won them, but that's not a great formula for a one-and-done tournament.
The Orange have the experience, depth and quality up and down their roster to win a national title. Heck, Dion Waiters brings star potential off the bench. They also have proved they can handle physical, grinder-type games, which is a good thing with teams like Kansas State, Wisconsin and even Vanderbilt in their half of the bracket. They're not infallible, though, and you wonder if they may have peaked a bit early this season. Now they are in a race to see if they can rediscover their best form.
Bracketbuster: Florida State
In a year where the 1- and 2-seeds seemed a cut above the rest, this is a very dangerous 3-seed with the size, defensive capabilities and now offense -- yes, offense -- to beat anyone in this bracket. While Duke (no Ryan Kelly) and North Carolina (no John Henson) were without key personnel in the ACC tournament, the Seminoles' offensive burst in the last week of the season is notable. Against Miami and UNC, they were over 1.20 points per possession, a huge number for any team. If FSU gets that kind of offense --or anything remotely close to it -- you could see the Seminoles in NOLA.
Suspect Team: Southern Miss
The Golden Eagles were RPI darlings this season, but more analytical ranking systems tell a much different story. Southern Miss finished the season 71st in Pomeroy and 67th in Sagarin's Predictor rankings, making them much more akin to a 13-seed in performance than a 9. Mix in five losses in their final 10 Conference USA games and Kansas State's ultraphysical style against a team that was a galling 313th in D-I in 2-point FG%, and this may not be a very long stay for C-USA's at-large representative.
Juiciest Matchup: Syracuse-Kansas State (possible Round of 32)
Syracuse's massive Achilles' heel is defensive rebounding. Kansas State's best team attribute? Offensive rebounding. Giddy-up! It's the Irresistible Force meets the totally Moveable Object. Toss in that K-State can't shoot very well, which should be exacerbated by Syracuse's length across the floor and its zone, and what's the ceiling on offensive rebounds for K-State? 25? 30? That still may not be enough given how good 'Cuse is in mostly everything else and how limited K-State can be, but would be must-watch.
Gamebreaker: Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
The 6-foot-1 freshman shoots over 40 percent from three-point range and has had six games this season with at least five made threes. It will be fun to see how he operates in what should be a physical game with a West Virginia team that defends the three-point arc very well.
Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure
Hoopsheads know about the very good 6-8 forward from Canada -- he's expected to be a first-round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft -- but because the Bonnies aren't on TV very often this will be a chance for the public at large to get a good glimpse. What will be even more appealing is Nicholson will have to navigate Florida State's size and defensive steel. FSU would be wise to watch the tape of the A-10 final, during which Nicholson put 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks on Xavier.
The Pressure's On: Thad Matta
Five Big Ten losses, a defeat to Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and a 2-seed in the NCAAs falls short of what was expected. Mix in Sweet 16 exits as the favorite the last two seasons, and there's some impetus for the Buckeyes to make the most of this opportunity. They have a very reasonable subregional and probably match up better with Syracuse than most teams thanks to their point guard play, shooters and Jared Sullinger's flexible game. NOLA or bust?
Numbers To Ponder: 12 and 0
That's the seed (or worse) of Vanderbilt's first opponent in its last three NCAA tournament appearances and the number of wins the Commodores have in those trips. Yup, 0-fer. The Dores were run out of Tampa by Siena in 2008, and then nipped by Murray State in 2010 and Richmond last year. Now they draw Harvard which is, you guessed it, a 12-seed. Can lightning strike again? In the last two seasons, the Ivy rep has gone to the Sweet 16 (Cornell in 2010) and lost in the final seconds to Final Four Kentucky (Princeton last year) and this Harvard team is of that same caliber.
The Pick: Florida State
I don't 100 percent trust Syracuse or Ohio State at this point, so I'm going with a Seminoles team that I don't totally trust, either, but is brimming with confidence after taking the ACC tournament title by beating Duke and North Carolina for the second time this season. They went to the Sweet 16 last year and were denied an Elite Eight berth by a last-second VCU layup. The Final Four is not a reach as an encore.