I’ve been trying to get a handle on what wins the NCAA tournament and there seem to be 3 things that in recent years have been huge. The first is the team has to be one of the top teams in the country. Seriously. The 2nd factor is the team needs to have some quality big men. They don’t have to be great, but they should at the very least be good. At least one of the big men and preferably more, should be players that will be drafted. The higher they will be drafted, the better. The third factor is that the team is a veteran team that has had the core together for at least two years and preferably three. This last one is something I’m adding to the mix this year. Of teams that won championships in the aughts, the only one that did it with freshmen leading them was Syracuse in 2003.
So I have these three things to look for now.
Another thing about this tournament is I think it is going to be a little crazier than it has in recent years with the upsets. This is because talent seems more evenly dispersed this year. Duke and Kansas stand above the rest of the group, but after that the next 25 teams or so are fairly close. The next 25 aren’t bad either. That means some big upsets are going to happen in rounds 2 and 3 once the weaker teams from the smaller conferences have been kicked to the curb and the teams that remain are all pretty equal. That has often been the case, but this year more so than ever.
Kansas: They would seem to be the odds-on favorites going in. I terms of NBA talent, them and Kentucky are at the top of the heap. They have the marquee big guy in Aldrich. He’s been a force on defense and the boards and will certainly be drafted in the top 10. That said he has struggled against other top big man prospects at times. The team itself is on the young side, with a freshman and two sophs starting. There also is their tournament history and their history under Bill Self to consider. More often than not Self’s teams have been taken out by inferior competition. This is one of the paradoxes of college basketball. The most successful coaches have historically been recruiters first and coaches second. This doesn’t mean Bill Self can’t win a 2nd championship in 3 seasons, but it is something to consider going in.
Kentucky: This is a very young team and I’ve already stated I’m looking for veteran teams with a core that has been together for at least a couple of years. Kentucky can’t be discounted though. In terms of NBA talent they’re either 1st or 2nd in the nation and that’s a pretty good asset to have going into the tournament. In 2007 Ohio State rode 3 freshmen to the championship game before falling to what was the best college basketball team of the decade, so it isn’t like a group of talented freshmen can’t succeed. Another problem with Kentucky is they haven’t consistently played at the high level Kansas and Duke have. They don’t have the top point differential like those two and they’ve played a weaker schedule. I also hate the draw Kentucky got. Their early road has a couple of teams in Texas and Wisconsin that seem like a tough matchup for them.
Duke: They fit a couple of the criteria and are close on another. They’re a very good team and the core has been together for a long time. As for the big guys, I’ll just say they’re much better than they’ve been in recent years. Brian Zoubek and Miles Plumlee are good college players who are in the draft discussion, but bubble 2nd rounders at best. Neither is on the level of Aldrich or Cousins. Both are rebounders first and foremost. Neither is much on offense, but both hit a good percentage of their shots. Both are foul prone, but are also good enough to combine for 30+ minutes of good inside play per game. At the very least their presence will be the difference between a long tournament run and the early exits that have plagued Duke in recent years.
Syracuse: I don’t see this team as a huge threat to win it all, despite the #1 seed. There is a nice core here, but a couple of developments over the past month are going to hurt. The first is the injury to Onuaku. He and Rick Jackson are the Orange version of Zoubek and Plumlee. A couple of solid inside players who aren’t great prospects, but will give a team enough to get them to the top. With just Jackson inside it is going to be that much more difficult. The next is star player Wesley Johnson has struggled since February. It would be convenient to write this off as a slump, but his play in February was similar to the way he played for two seasons at Iowa State before transferring to Syracuse.
Kansas State: A great year and a nice story, but they don’t fit the mold of a champion. Inside they’re overmatched, with the 6’8” Kelly being the only player of consequence. They don’t have much of a recent tournament history either. I also don’t care much for the style of coach Frank Martin. He’s done a great job, but in the tournament I’m not sure if being so animated is a good thing.
West Virginia: Another good team that just doesn’t have the size to matchup as they get deeper into the tournament. The best players are the 3 forwards, none of whom is even a true PF. There is a nice, veteran core here that seems capable of getting to the final four should things fall right. But that will be as good as it gets.
Villanova: As badly as they finished the season, I can’t believe they were given a #2 seed. I have no idea what the tournament committee was looking at that told them this was a better team than Georgetown, Maryland or Baylor. But it was kind of a goofy year with lots of teams tightly bunched, so I won’t harp too much. The Wildcats have the same problem as K State and West Virginia. There’s no inside game here. They have some good veteran perimeter players and a history of success, but lack the size to go all the way.
Ohio State: This is probably the top team that isn’t a #1 seed. They lack a NBA-quality big guy and that will hurt. But they do have good overall team size. They’re also a veteran group and they have Evan Turner, who seems like the player most likely to go Danny Manning ’88 on the field and carry his team to the title. This year the chances of such teams are better, because there isn’t one super team out there.
By sleeper, I mean a 3+ seed that could make a run to the final four. I don’t see that any of these teams are good enough to take it all the way to the championship, but most are better than their seed or have a favorable draw that could mean a long run.
Texas: Similar to Wake Forest last year in that they looked like a title contender in January, before falling hard in the last 2 months of the season. Wake exited the tournament in round 1. Unlike those Deacons this is a veteran team. Talent-wise they match up with any team in the nation. The key of course will be getting by Kentucky in round 2. If they do that, it could give them a kick of confidence that takes them all the way to Indianapolis. While I question Rich Barnes every time I watch the Longhorns play, he is no stranger to the final four.
Wisconsin: A perennially sound team that always brings the fundamentals. Sometimes this works well, other times not so much. They’re probably better than that 4 seed they were given and have an experienced team. Their recent tournament history isn’t good and they have no quality height. But this is a team that has some impressive wins on their schedule and is certainly capable of a good run. Like Texas the key will be getting past a Kentucky team that looks like they can be had.
Maryland: This is a team that should scare people. The Terps are led by 3 seniors who have yet to get past round 2 of the tournament. They have a coach who has won a championship. There’s a developing big man in freshman Jordan Williams. All the pieces are here for a nice run. Kansas in the sweet 16 is the big roadblock.
Baylor: Notre Dame is the only mildly scary team in their group of 4 and my guess is the Irish had their run at the end of the season. The Bears are better than the 2 seed in their bracket, Villanova, so getting to the elite 8 seems to be in the cards. That’s where they should meet Duke. If Duke is still the Duke that has been in a tournament funk for the past 5 years, Baylor gets to the final 4. If Duke is as good as they’ve played all year, Baylor’s run ends here.
Utah State: A good team that’s seeded a little too low at #12, and has a fortunate early draw. They’re about even with their round one opponent, Texas A&M, so that could be this year’s 12 over 5 upset. After that they’ll face the winner of Purdue-Siena. They’re a better team than Siena and Purdue is without their best player, and seeded too high because of it.
BYU: No team got shafted more in their seeding than the Cougars. This team lost only 5 games, all to tournament teams. They posted an impressive point differential playing in the tough Mountain West. They’re lacking a quality big man, but they do have some size. I like the road BYU faces. They’re in the West, which is by far the least impressive bracket. As I mentioned above, both top seeds in the West, Syracuse and K State, look like early upset candidates. The 3 and 4 seeds, Pitt and Vanderbilt, don’t look at all superior to the teams seeded from 5-13. I like BYU as my favorite sleeper in that group, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if one of Butler, Xavier, Gonzaga, Florida State, Minnesota, UTEP or Murray State took this region. All these teams have something to like about them and the West region looks like it is set up for a Cinderella run. I’m going to pick BYU to win the West, but consider it a field pick of the 5-13 seeds in that region. I believe one of them will win and feel BYU has the best shot of the bunch.
First round winners: Kentucky, Texas, Temple, Wisconsin, Marquette, New Mexico, Clemson, West Virginia, Kansas, Northern Iowa, Michigan State, Maryland, Tennessee, Georgetown, Georgia Tech, Ohio State, Syracuse, Florida State, UTEP, Murray State, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, BYU, Kansas State, Duke, California, Utah State, Siena, Old Dominion, Baylor, St. Mary’s, Villanova.
Second Round winners: Kentucky, Wisconsin, New Mexico, West Virginia, Kansas, Maryland, Tennessee, Ohio State, Syracuse, Murray State, Minnesota, BYU, Duke, Utah State, Baylor, St. Mary’s.
Sweet 16 winners: Wisconsin, West Virginia, Kansas, Ohio State, Syracuse, BYU, Duke, Baylor.
Final 4: West Virginia, Ohio State, BYU, Duke
Championship Game: Duke vs. Ohio State