Hoop Thoughts: Breaking down the best matchups and making picks for each region of the NCAA tournament
Happy tourney week, Hoopheads! Before I take you on a spin through the bracket, I'd like to touch on some of the spirited debate that has once again followed the Selection Committee's work. In doing so, I'd frame the discussion with a simple question: If Monmouth and Syracuse were to play a game tomorrow on a neutral court, and you had to take everything you own and bet it on one team to win, which would you choose?
It is a subjective question, but it's not a complicated one. Which team do you think is better? If you answered Syracuse (which I'm guessing you did), then you need to step down off your soap box and at least measure the criticism you delivered in the wake of the committee's decision to include Syracuse and exclude Monmouth.
Because the committee's explicit assignment is to choose the 36 best at-large teams. Not the 36 best stories, or even the 36 most "deserving" (whatever that means). When you pull away from all the numbers, that is the basic question: If these teams played tomorrow on a neutral site, which do you think would win?
I chose Syracuse because that seems to be the inclusion that people are objecting to most (with Tulsa a close second). Of course, when people disagree with someone else's opinion, they are quick to accuse that person of being biased. So the reason why Monmouth was left out, the argument goes, is because the committee was "biased" against the mid-majors.
But how can someone argue that Syracuse's loss at St. John's (RPI rank: 246) should be disqualifying, yet Monmouth's three losses at Army (213), Canisius (221) and Manhattan (228) should be forgiven? Or that Syracuse's five wins against top-35 teams (one on the road and two on a neutral court) represent a built-in advantage for a power conference team, yet Monmouth gets no advantage from the nights off playing in a league where seven of the 11 teams are ranked below 200 in the RPI, and two are ranked below 300?
I understand—in fact, I share—all the sentimental reasons people wanted to see Monmouth in the tournament. The fact that the Hawks were one of the first teams left out is a testament to just how good their résumé was. Did this team have some bad luck because some of its marquee nonconference wins, especially the road games at UCLA and Georgetown, didn't turn out to be so great after those teams fell apart? Sure. Then again, maybe if those teams weren't capable of falling apart, then Monmouth wouldn't have beaten them in the first place.
Finally, keep in mind another team the committee left out: South Carolina, which spent several weeks in the AP top 25 this season thanks to a nonconference strength of schedule ranked No. 271 in the country. That will preserve the incentive for power-conference schools to play mid-majors in November and December. Schools like Monmouth, Valparaiso and San Diego State don't get a whole lot of chances to beat power-conference teams, so when they have those chances, they need to cash in. In the meantime, they have precious little margin for error during their conference season.
The good news is that the games are almost here, so the arguing about seedings and selection is almost over. You can see my completed bracket as well as those of my fellow SI.com "experts" here. As always, any similarities between my predictions and the actual course of events are strictly coincidental. Let's dash our way through the bracket:
• The first thing that jumped out at me is the Spokane pod featuring Maryland and California. Teams that are seeded fifth in the NCAA tournament have just better than a 50% success rate in their first game, and in recent years we've seen quite a number of wins by 13 seeds against fours. So there is no guarantee that both teams will win their games. If they do, the contest would probably have the highest number of future NBA players between them of any second-round matchup. I was looking for a chance to pounce on the Bears for a deep run, but I think they'd have a hard time beating Maryland. The Terrapins are one of the few teams that can match Cal for pure talent, but they have a lot more experience. Plus, Cal's best offense comes off the offensive glass, and Maryland has great size up front. Finally, NCAA tournament games tend to be slower and more halfcourt-oriented than the regular season, and the Bears really struggle in their halfcourt offense. This will be a fun one if it happens, but I like the Terps.
Which version of Iowa are we going to get? Your guess is as good as mine. But it has been arresting to see the Hawkeyes go into another late-season tailspin. I don't think that bodes well for them against a gritty, disciplined Temple squad. An Owls win could give us a Temple-Villanova second-rounder rife with storylines. I think it's fair to say that is Wildcats coach Jay Wright's worst nightmare. He has had to hear ad nauseam about his team's first-weekend exits—his Wildcats haven't made it to the second weekend since their Final Four run in 2009—and now he could potentially face a second-round matchup a really good team from his home city. Wright is wealthy, successful and strikingly handsome, but if this game comes to pass, I wouldn't trade places with him for all the tea in China.
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• Speaking of Villanova, I think the committee really whiffed by sending the Wildcats to the South instead of the East, even though they were ranked ahead of Xavier on the overall seed line. Apparently it was done to maintain competitive and geographic balance, but that argument doesn't wash with me. Villanova earned the chance to play in Philly by virtue of its season.
• I don't have a lot of double-digit sleepers for you this year, but I think you should keep your eye on Arizona. This team has had its struggles defensively, but when the Wildcats are locked in on that end of the floor, they can be really tough to beat. This is also one of the bigger and more physical teams that Sean Miller has had in Tucson. Arizona lost seven games in the Pac-12, but all but one of them were close, and two of them went to overtime. That includes the tourney semifinal loss to Oregon. Given the way the Ducks blitzed Utah in the final, that should indicate just how competitive this Arizona team can be. I've got 'em beating Miami in the second round.
• To start with, I think Oregon is the weakest No. 1 seed, and I am obviously not alone since only one of my SI.com colleagues picked the Ducks to go to the Final Four. They had a solid season, despite a few injury-influenced hiccups, but the only good teams they beat outside the Pac-12 were Baylor and Valparaiso. Both games were at home. Moreover, while the Ducks are skilled and have a bunch of wing players that pose challenging matchups, they are not a physical team, which means they have less margin for error than the other three No. 1 seeds. So if you're looking to take some chances, this is the region to do it.
Duke drew a scary matchup in the first round with UNC-Wilmington. The Seahawks have a lot of quick guards who love to push the pace. Stylistically, however, that plays into Duke's hands. Frankly, I think the Blue Devils were much better off losing early in the ACC tournament. They really needed to rest their legs and their brains. I picked Baylor to beat them in the second round because I just kept picturing Bears senior forward Rico Gathers pounding the glass and getting Blue Devils senior center Marshall Plumlee into foul trouble. But if Duke is drilling threes, then the Bears will be powerless to stop them.
• We have another delicious potential rivalry game here between Texas and Texas A&M. Those two actually squared off in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Nov. 25. Texas A&M won by 11 points. The Longhorns have improved more than the Aggies since then, but then again, they had more to improve upon. Still, this feels like a good tournament to be an older team, and there aren't many teams that are older than Texas A&M. That's why they're my pick not only to win this game, but also to make it all the way to Houston.
• I realize Oklahoma is a hot pick, and the Sooners have had a terrific season. I actually had them ranked ahead of Virginia on my seed list. Yet, I don't have a lot of confidence. I think the Sooners depend too much on shooting jumpers and tend to rely too much on senior guard Buddy Hield. So if he is not playing heroically, then the team gets wobbly. Plus, Oklahoma does not score in the post, and it's not a great defensive team. Overall, the Sooners strike me as the kind of team that can be clipped. This is March, after all.
• I haven't been much of a believer in North Carolina this season, but they sure played great down the stretch. I really think the loss at home to Duke on Feb. 17 was the best thing that could have happened to this team, because it forced the players to understand just how mentally tough they need to be to beat good teams. The biggest change is this team's personality at the defensive end, which helped them prevail over Virginia in the ACC tournament final. And yet, over the course of the season their guards have really struggled, particularly with respect to senior Marcus Paige's long-range shooting. (His three-point percentage declined from 39.5% as a junior to 32.3% this season.) I can't help but wonder—and frankly, expect—that at some point Paige is going to have one of those 1-for-7 nights, and the Heels are going to fail to execute on a decisive offensive possession, and a game will slip away. North Carolina's upside is as high as anyone's in the tournament. The only question is whether the team can reach that ceiling consistently enough.
And by the way, that second-round matchup with Providence (if it happens) is going to be really interesting. Yes, the Friars lost a lot of games, but they will arguably have the two best players on the floor in junior guard Kris Dunn and sophomore forward Ben Bentil.
TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE: Start times and announcers for the first round
• Clearly, if Indiana and Kentucky meet in the second round, the entire world will stop. Between 1969 and 2012, these two programs met every year except for one. But the series ended abruptly four years ago and there are no signs it will resume. So there is a lot on the line if this game happens. Again, the dynamic will be unusual for Indiana, because senior Yogi Ferrell will arguably be the third-best guard in the game behind Kentucky sophomore Tyler Ulis and freshman Jamal Murray. The Wildcats really came on during the last six weeks of the season, largely because they healed after injuries to two of their forwards, senior Alex Poythress (knee) and junior Derek Willis (foot). Now that both players are healthy and performing well, and freshman center Skal Labissiere has evolved into a legitimate contributor, I think you should go with the hot team. And that includes in the Sweet 16 as well, where I have Kentucky defeating North Carolina.
• Heading into the Selection Show, I thought for sure I was going to pick my favorite mid-major darling, Stephen F. Austin, to win a game or two. But when I saw the Lumberjacks paired up against West Virginia, I couldn't pull the trigger. The Mountaineers aren't just good, they're also unconventional. There isn't another team in the tournament who plays press defense quite like them. And they aren't half bad at executing their halfcourt offense, though of course that is not their primary strength. A team needs several really good ballhandlers to be able to beat West Virginia, which is why Xavier is the most dangerous team for the Mountaineers in this region. But after two-plus months of slugging it out with all those great teams in the Big 12, I believe West Virginia is ready to have a March to remember. They're heading to Houston. I think.
• You can count me among those who were surprised that Michigan State fell to a No. 2 seed. It was a defensible decision if you take the RPI breakdown numbers into account, but I thought beating Maryland and Purdue to win a Big Ten tourney title should have been enough. At any rate, it doesn't matter because the Spartans would have been paired up with Virginia in a potential regional final anyway. So this is a debate without a distinction.
The really dangerous team in this region is Seton Hall. The Pirates were terrific in the last month of the season, culminating with that dramatic run to the Big East tournament title. The thing that holds me back about this team is its youth. There is no way of telling whether they can recapture the same magic they had at Madison Square Garden. Also, none of their players have been in the NCAA tournament, so they haven't experienced the crucible of knowing that if you lose the game, your season is over. I think Seton Hall has too much speed for Gonzaga, but I am anticipating that their youthfulness will be their undoing against a bigger, older Utah squad. But this team has a really, really high ceiling, so if you want to take a chance on Seton Hall and push them ahead a couple of rounds, I won't try to talk you out of it.
• This region is where you will find my one and only major first-round upset. I have Iona beating Iowa State. Yes, I'm just guessing, but I do think the Gaels' aggressiveness and ability to push the pace could cause problems for a Cyclones team that has one of the shortest benches in the country. Iona's pace could present a fatigue issue, and the ability of its guards to drive could lead to foul trouble. Also, Iona will have the most dangerous scorer in the game in senior guard A.J. English, who ranks 10th in the country in scoring at 22.4 points per game.
• Purdue is going to have its hands full with Little Rock in the first round. The Trojans won the Sun Belt by two games, and they also notched nonconference road wins at San Diego State and Tulsa. The Boilermakers like to slow the pace and pound it inside, but the Trojans are second in the country in points allowed (59.6). They don't mind a rock fight.
• Look at my Sweet 16—Virginia, Purdue, Utah and Michigan State. Those are maybe the four most physical teams in the entire tournament. If that comes to pass, they better bring lots of extra ice packs to Chicago. In the end, I like Michigan State to win this region, as well as win the national championship, because they are the best team in the country at both ends of the floor. We are used to seeing Tom Izzo get teams to the Final Four, which have no place being there, by the sheer force of his will. But then, once they get there, the Spartans have been out-talented. That won't be the case this year. Michigan State has the best player in the country in senior guard Denzel Valentine, and while it has the defensive toughness you would expect in an Izzo-coached team, it is also arguably the best offensive team in the country. Michigan State leads the nation in three-point percentage and assists per game, and it also ranks first nationally in assists per made field goals. More than any other team in the tournament, the Spartans have to help out their opponents by missing shots if they are going to lose a game. Call me skeptical, but I don't think they'll be feeling all that generous.