SI’s Pete Thamel previews the East region of the 2016 NCAA tournament.
STATE OF THE NO. 1 SEED
North Carolina is clearly the most talented team in the field. But its performances this season haven’t always showcased that potential. That appeared to change in Washington D.C. this week, as the Tar Heels won their first conference tournament title since 2008. And it was the tenor of the rugged 61–57 victory against Virginia in the ACC final that resonates the most for North Carolina. The Tar Heels have been dogged by toughness questions all season as they sputtered to live up to their prodigious potential. But after bullying Virginia—including holding the Cavaliers scoreless for an eight-minute stretch—you can argue that no team is flying higher heading into the NCAA tournament. That victory came on the heels of a 31-point blowout of Notre Dame in the semis, eviscerating an Irish team that ended up as a No. 6 seed in the NCAAs.
Williams pointed out after the ACC tournament title game that North Carolina’s six losses this year came by a total of 22 points. It may just have six victories in them in the next three weeks. The best news for Carolina is that the most anonymous member of its starting five—6-foot guard Joel Berry—won the ACC tournament MVP after torching Virginia for 19 points on just eight shots. That’s a sign that the Heels are peaking at the proper time.
No. 14 Stephen F. Austin over No. 3 West Virginia
This game resonates as the most intriguing stylistic matchup of the first round. Stephen F. Austin has won 20 games in a row, and its pressing defense ranks it No. 1 in the country in turnover percentage defense. West Virginia—aka Press Virginia—plays a similarly menacing style. So the upset here will come down to which team can wear the other down. Stephen F. Austin doesn’t have a marquee victory this season and plays in one of the country’s weakest conferences. So there’s risk involved here.
But the Lumberjacks’ experience in playing three consecutive tournaments, including upsetting No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth two years ago, should help. As will the comfort in facing West Virginia’s press, which puts them in position for an upset. Look for 6'4" guard Thomas Walkup (17.5 ppg) to continue his hot streak after he won the Southland tournament MVP for the third consecutive season.
With the high-end talent level in college basketball the worst it’s been in at least a decade, teams are going to advance with size and age. This bodes well for a veteran Indiana team, which has rugged senior guard Yogi Ferrell. He was around three years ago when the top-seeded Hoosiers were baffled by Syracuse’s zone in the Sweet 16, a loss that still haunts Hoosiers coach Tom Crean. Ferrell and junior forward Troy Williams give the Hoosiers quality experience that’s rare in modern college basketball. Combine them with talented 6'10" freshman Thomas Bryant, who has improved all season, and they have the experience and talent to make a deep run. They’ll also be good value in a bracket, as skeptics still remain about the Hoosiers inability to advance in the tournament after that No. 1 seed flopped in 2013.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Jamal Murray, Kentucky. Kentucky’s 6'5" scoring guard could be considered the best pure scorer in all college basketball. Entering the SEC final against Texas A&M on Sunday, he’s scored more than 20 points in 12 consecutive games. That ended in Kentucky’s victory over Texas A&M, as Murray scored “only” 17. But he enters the NCAAs averaging 20.2 points per game, and he has the talent level to carry the Wildcats on a deep run. (And help them overcome an inconsistent frontcourt).
Murray also has a new signature celebration move—the mock bow-and-arrow shot. Murray’s mock arrow sling usually ends with a fake causality on the Wildcats bench. (E.J. Floreal hilariously feigned a direct hit to the chest on the Kentucky bench earlier this month.) Look for Murray to keep scoring and slaying this month.