NCAA East Regional primer: Will Indiana fall to surging Miami?
State of No. 1: Indiana
The advantage of playing in the country's best league is that it prepares teams for the NCAA tournament. The disadvantage is that the Hoosiers' brutal Big Ten slate kept them from their manifest destiny of playing a pair of Sweet 16 games in Indianapolis.
Indiana looked like the country's best team for most of the season, an oppressive offensive force with the country's best player, Victor Oladipo, and arguably its best big man, Cody Zeller. But the Hoosiers lost three of its final six games, all to NCAA tournament teams. That was enough to nudge them into the East Regional in Washington, D.C., should the Hoosiers advance to the Round of 16.
The best news for Indiana about its late-season slide is that Wisconsin ended up on the opposite side of the bracket. The Hoosiers loss to the Badgers in the Big Ten tournament dropped Tom Crean to 3-15 lifetime against Bo Ryan.
Crean downplayed any notion that the Hoosiers are swooning after winning the Big Ten outright.
"It doesn't undo what we have done to this point," he said of the loss to Wisconsin. "It doesn't undo any of that. We have had an excellent season. There's room for growth, there's no doubt about that."
The feeling here is that Indiana will come out soaring once it's unburdened by the shackles of Big Ten play. The Hoosiers have the requisite pieces to make a deep run in the tournament, such as players like uber-defender Will Sheehey and shooting specialist Jordan Hulls.
It would be a basketball fan's dream if Indiana and Louisville collided on that One Shining Moment Monday night in Atlanta.
Bracket Buster: Davidson
The No. 14 Wildcats have won 17 consecutive games, boast one of the game's elite coaches and are one of the country's most effective offensive teams. No. 3 Marquette has been an elite team at home and a pedestrian team outside of Milwaukee. Davidson's Jake Cohen, a 6-foot-10 forward who averages 14.8 points per game, will have to channel his inner-Steph Curry (at least metaphorically). The Wildcats shoot three-pointers well -- 36.6-percent -- and will need to be effective from outside to beat Marquette.
This isn't Davidson coach Bob McKillop's first rodeo, as he's coached the Wildcats to seven NCAA tournaments. Davidson will be at an athletic disadvantage, so to win the Wildcats will need to be deliberate and judicious with their shot selection. Davidson is a good risk to pick in your bracket, as this Marquette team has overachieved and likely won't get out of the first weekend.
(Vegas thinks it will be a close game, as Marquette is just a four-point favorite. KenPom also projects a four-point Marquette win.)
Suspect Team: Syracuse
No team has shown a bigger dichotomy in performance than the No. 4 Orange. They started 19-1, sputtered through February and early March and then rediscovered themselves in the Big East tournament with wins over Seton Hall, Pittsburgh and Georgetown. But a second-half collapse against Louisville in the Big East tournament championship game (the Orange squandered a 16-point lead) reminded everyone of the struggles of Michael Carter-Williams, the inconsistency of Brandon Triche and the lack of quality depth.
With No. 13 Montana playing without its leading scorer, Mathias Ward, a first-round upset is unlikely. But pick the Orange from that point on with caution.
Juiciest Game: No. 6 Butler vs. No. 11 Bucknell
Bucknell will have the best player on the floor with the 6-11 Mike Muscala, who NBA scouts say will be selected between 25 and 45 in the NBA draft. Butler has a higher caliber of talent and athleticism on its roster, ranging from sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke to NCAA tournament veteran center Andrew Smith to bruising forward Roosevelt Jones.
This game will be a delight for a hoops junky, as Butler's Brad Stevens and Bucknell's Dave Paulsen are two of the best Xs and Os coaches in the country. Paulsen won a national title at Division III Williams College and is considered a candidate for the open Northwestern and Siena jobs. Stevens led Butler to a pair of national title games in his last two NCAA tournament appearances. Do you pick the program that built its name on springing upsets or the rising program vying for one?
Gamebreaker: Shane Larkin, Miami
The son of Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, Shane emerged as the ACC's most dominant player this year. Larkin averages 14.2 points, shoots 40 percent from three-point range and drives to the hoops with an alarming alacrity. He's also sizzling hot, having capped his season with 28 points against North Carolina in a high-level ACC title game. He plays with such a verve that Barry will soon be known as Shane's dad.
Best Player You've Never Heard Of: Jason Brickman, LIU
Brickman led the nation in assists for the Blackbirds with 8.5 per game. He's the consummate table setter for a high-octane LIU team that finished No. 5 in scoring this season. In the Northeast Conference title game, Brickman showcased everything from three-quarter court bounce passes to slap passes to deft drop-offs in the lane. He will make LIU-James Madison, not exactly the sexiest matchup, worthwhile television. (And his last name is a misnomer. He's shooting 46 percent from three-point range.)
The Pressure Is On: UNLV Coach Dave Rice
The second-year UNLV coach got upset by No. 11 Colorado as a No. 6 seed last year. Not one can question Rice's ability to collect talent, as UNLV has one of the country's most talented rosters, headlined by future NBA lottery pick Anthony Bennett. But a loss to No. 12 Cal -- and its splendid bench coach Mike Montgomery -- could stigmatize Rice as more of a collector than coach.
Number To Ponder: 10
Miami won the ACC regular season and the ACC tournament. But the Hurricanes most impressive number may be the amount of true road games it has won: seven in the ACC and also victories at UMass, Central Florida and Hawaii for a total of 10. The number could be 12 if you count victories over NC State and UNC in Greensboro during the ACC tournament. This isn't a team that fattened up on buy games, making it tested for the tournament.
The Pick: Miami
The Hurricanes are rolling after the ACC tournament. They've thumped Duke, won a high-level game at UNC and coach Jim Larranaga has shown his NCAA tournament magic already. They're also old, as Kenny Kadji is nearly 25 and the average team age is just under 22. That maturity will help with poise under the pressures of the tournament. A regional final against Indiana would be a lot of fun. Right now, Miami is just playing better.