Picking tournament sleepers, defending Aaron Craft, more mailbag

Wednesday February 5th, 2014

Marcus Paige has the potential to lead North Carolina to a deep tournament run.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Every week in Fast Five, Seth Davis will answer five questions from Twitter followers whose questions were left over from his weekly Twenty for Tuesday live Twitter chat.

Greg Kaplan (@Kaps_Locked): Which 'bubble team' has the best shot at a deep NCAA tourney run?

When hunting for bracket busters, I'm always on the lookout for teams that have one player -- usually a guard -- who has the ability to get hot and carry his team into the later rounds. (Think Stephen Curry.) Here, then, are four teams who have that kind of player, and therefore have that kind of potential to be a surprise in the NCAA tournament -- provided, of course, that they get there.

North Carolina (15-7, 5-4 ACC, RPI 43): The Tar Heels have righted the ship from that three-game losing streak by winning five of their last six games. Sophomore guard Marcus Paige is a streaky outside shooter, but lately he has been nothing but hot, including his 25-point performance (on 4-for-7 three-point shooting) in Tuesday's win over Maryland. For all its shortcomings, this is still a team that has beaten Louisville, Kentucky and Michigan State (on the road, no less). So they won't be intimidated by any competition.

Providence (16-7 overall, 6-4 Big East, RPI 37): The Friars have not helped their cause lately by losing two out of their last three, and they have a difficult schedule ahead. Their next two games are on the road (at Xavier and Georgetown), and a week after that they face Villanova at home. However, those games present opportunities for resume-building wins, and if they make the field, their senior guard, Bryce Cotton, is a scoring machine (20.8 ppg, ranked second in the conference behind Doug McDermott) who can be an opponent's worst nightmare.

Oregon (15-6, 3-6 Pac 12, RPI 45): Maybe the Ducks weren't as good as people thought early on, but it's still hard for me to believe they are as bad as they have been playing. Needless to say, a win at Arizona on Thursday would help their cause. If they ever figure out how to play a little defense, they have enough offensive firepower to scare a lot of teams. That begins with Joseph Young, the 6-2 transfer from Houston who ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring at 18.1 points per game, but also includes another transfer, Jason Calliste, a 6-2 senior who came from the University of Detroit. Calliste is fourth in the country in three-point shooting.

Missouri (16-6, 4-5 SEC, RPI 53): The Tigers are on a two-game losing skid, so they can't afford to lose any more ground in the mediocre SEC. They are too sloppy with the ball and tend to settle for jump shots, but the flip side is they can utilize the three-point line as well as any team the country. The hot hand here is Jabari Brown, who leads the SEC in scoring and ranks 18th in the country in three-point shooting.

Cory S. Muñoz (@CoMu_22): Is UNM starting to find its stride?

Considering this team has only lost four games all season, it's hard to see where the Lobos were ever off their stride. True, the Mountain West Conference is having an off year, but New Mexico's only hiccup was a three-point loss at home to UNLV. That game highlighted some of New Mexico's defensive deficiencies. The Rebels shot 50 percent from the floor, made 7-for-13 from three-point range, attempted 27 free throws and committed just six turnovers. Overall, New Mexico is rated 113th in the country in defensive efficiency. That's something the Lobos need to tighten up.

Still, New Mexico has a solid three-man veteran nucleus in senior point guard Kendall Williams, junior center Alex Kirk and senior forward Cameron Bairstow, an Aussie native who has become one of the most improved players in the country. One concern moving forward is the health of Kirk, who just returned from a two-game absence because of shin splints. New Mexico coach Craig Neal is working with team doctors to manage Kirk's minutes, but Neal told me this week that he hopes that will only last a couple more weeks.

What I really like about the Lobos is they have shown they can win away from the Pit. Five of their first seven league games were on the road, and they won every one. Yes, the real challenges are yet to come, including two games against San Diego State, and let's not even mention the habitual flameouts in the NCAA tournament. (Whoops! I just did.) If you're a Lobos fan, you have to like what you've been seeing. My advice: Keep watching.

Jerod Reinking (@JerodReinking): How overrated is Aaron Craft?

Craft has become the Tim Tebow of college basketball. From where I sit, that is a huge compliment, but it's odd that he has become so polarizing. He is as tough defensively as any guard in the country. He is a tremendous playmaker, and his conduct off the court is stellar, from the classroom to the weight room and everywhere in between.

Don't look now, but Craft is the reason why the Buckeyes just won two tough road games in a row, at Wisconsin and then Tuesday night at Iowa. He had gone scoreless throughout the Wisconsin game until scoring 7 consecutive points down the stretch. At Iowa, a team I have tapped as my Final Four dark horse, Craft delivered his best performance of the season, finishing with 17 points, six assists and six steals.

So how could anyone possibly call him overrated? Well, the main thing Craft doesn't do, of course, is shoot. But give him credit for recognizing his shortcomings. You might be surprised to learn that Craft is making 38 percent from three-point range, but he has only attempted 34 threes all season. The other reason people like to knock Craft's game is that he is not likely to have an NBA future, although I'm sure he could make money playing professionally somewhere if he so chooses. I think that's a shame. He's extremely effective on the court, plays the right way, and represents his university and his sport in the best possible manner. Instead of knocking him, let's celebrate him. Instead of worrying about whether he's overrated, how about we just savor these last two months of his college career?

Jared Kroger (@JaredK_17): Has Xavier played itself onto the bubble or out of the tourney?

You'll hear this from me often over the next five-and-a-half weeks: Somehow, some way, there will be 36 at-large teams in the NCAA tournament. So not only would Xavier be in the field today, it would be in safely. For starters, the Musketeers are one of just two teams who have beaten Cincinnati, and they also own neutral court wins over three potential bubble boys in Georgetown, St. John's and Marquette.

Yes, this team has lost four of its last six games and three in a row, but aside from a loss at home to Seton Hall, the others were respectable road losses at Creighton, Providence and Villanova. Xavier's problem is that, while it is not a bad defensive team, its D is not disruptive enough to create scoring opportunities when it is suffering an off-shooting night. Considering that the team's starting "shooting" guard, junior Dee Davis, has not made a three-pointer in his last four games and has shot 7-for-21 in that stretch, it's not surprising the team is struggling.

It won't get any easier from here. Five of Xavier's final eight games are on the road, but the schedule also offers opportunistic home games against Providence, Creighton and Villanova. For the time being, I'm going to assume Xavier's tailspin is over and it will take care of business down the stretch.

Tyler Lavigne (@PTLavigne): Syracuse's first loss?

This question assumes that Syracuse is, in fact, going to lose a game this season. I say that's a very safe assumption. The Orange have had several close calls already, and not just their overtime escape against Duke. Five of Syracuse's other wins have come by six points or fewer.

Why all the close games? Believe it or not, there are only six teams in the entire country who play a slower tempo than the Orange. So even when they are dominating a team, it is not always reflected on the scoreboard.

The Orange still have five league road games left to play, including against three ranked teams: at Pittsburgh (Feb. 12), at Duke (Feb. 22) and at Virginia (March 1). In between the Duke and Virginia games, the Orange have a classic trap game at Maryland. So that is three consecutive ACC road games. It's hard to imagine them coming out of that stretch unblemished, but I'll go ahead and predict the first loss will come at Pitt. The Panthers have had their own stumbles, but they are strongest where Syracuse is weakest, and that's on the offensive glass. The main vulnerability of Syracuse's zone is the manner in which it allows for offensive rebounds, and the Panthers are ranked 16th in the country in offensive rebound percentage. Pitt is happy to grind and slug it out with Syracuse. Plus, the Panthers will be playing at home and feeling desperate to win.

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