March Madness is upon us! The NCAA Tournament selection committee, led this year by incoming Georgia Tech Athletic Director Mike Bobinski, has finished dissecting the numbers and the brackets have been set. All around the country, walk-ons are practicing goofy handshakes, coaches are studying film on their new opponents, and all of you are scrambling to fill out the perfect bracket. “Which 12 seed is going to knock off a 5, 12’s always knock off 5’s,” you think to yourself. “IS THIS THE YEAR A 16 GETS PAST A 1?”
These questions haunt everyone from the casual fans that suddenly know all there is to know about this sport down to the most skilled bracketologists. And while we obsess over matchups, numbers, history and who knows what else, the unfortunate truth remains that winning your March Madness pool is mostly about luck. Here’s a quick story to demonstrate the randomness of this all before I get to breaking down the first round of the West Region.
Back in 2006, 11-seeded George Mason shocked the world and reached the Final Four, knocking off powerhouse programs such as Michigan State, North Carolina, and Connecticut along the way. According to ESPN.com, cbssportsline.com, and sports.yahoo.com, only five out of 7 million people who filled out brackets that year correctly picked the Final Four, which also included Florida, LSU and UCLA. One of these men was Russell Pleasant of Omaha, Nebraska, who picked George Mason after he watched them against his hometown Creighton Blue Jays earlier that year. Pleasant admitted afterwards that he thought George Mason was actually George Washington and claimed that if Creighton had made the tournament, he would have picked them for the Final Four instead of the Patriots.
So do your research, crunch the numbers, and pray to the basketball Gods if you so choose. But at the end of the day, March Madness is about one thing and one thing only.
1) Gonzaga (31-2) vs. 16) Southern (23-9)
First Reaction: Southern is one of only three teams in the tournament I haven’t seen play yet this season, but it won’t matter.
Analysis: Gonzaga has dominated weaker opponents all season and this game will be no different. The Bulldogs, who haven’t lost since January 19th, face a Southern team that played just one game against a tournament team this season, an 82-59 loss to 10th-seeded Iowa State. The thing that the Jaguars do have in their favor are two solid big men, Javan Mitchell and Brandon Moore, who will at the very least provide resistance against Gonzaga’s talented front-court duo of Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris. I don’t have to keep going, I’ll save the rants for the games that matter. Gonzaga is the much better team and they’ll cruise past the SWAC champs to a second round victory.
Key Stat: Olynyk is shooting 71% over his last seven games and 65% for the season, fifth best in the nation.
Prediction: Gonzaga 81, Southern 57
8) Pittsburgh (24-8) vs. 9) Wichita State (26-8)
First Reaction: Wichita is seeded too high, and they should be an 11. This is a good game though, and whoever wins will be able to at least push Gonzaga next round.
Analysis: The Wichita State got off to a terrific start, earning wins over VCU, Iowa, and Air Force en route to a 9-0 record to start the season. But losing their top five scoring leaders from a season ago came back to haunt them as the Shockers began dropping winnable games once their schedule got a little tougher. JuCo transfer Cleanthony Early led Wichita this season with 13.6 points per game, while Carl Hall manned the middle collecting 7.2 boards per game to go along with 12.8 points. My problem with Wichita is its backcourt, which is completely revamped from a season ago. Malcolm Armstead, Demetric Williams and Ron Baker shot less than 40% combined this season, which will spell trouble against Pitt, a team that defends the 3-point line well and has a ton of length on the wings. The Panthers are without a great player but make up for it by playing unselfish basketball with a lot of good ones. Coach Jamie Dixon played ten men at least 10 minutes per game this season with not one of them going for 30+ minutes a night. This led to balanced scoring, with senior point guard Tray Woodall leading the squad with 11.8 ppg, and Cameron Wright finishing 10th with an unheard of 4.2 ppg. Pitt’s balanced attack and willingness to share the ball will prove too much for the Shockers, who are overly reliant on their stars.
Key Stat: Pitt is fourth in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage while Wichita is 6th in not allowing offensive boards. Whichever team wins the rebounding battle might win the game.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 66, Wichita State 62
5) Wisconsin (23-11) vs. 12) Ole Miss (26-8)
First Reaction: It can’t be a coincidence that the committee put the most annoying player in the country up against the most annoying team in the country.
Analysis: I really liked Ole Miss earlier this season. Marshall Henderson emerged as a big time scorer, shot-maker, and inspirational leader for coach Andy Kennedy while Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner, aside from owning two of the coolest names in the sport, make up one of the best front-court duos in the SEC. The Rebels are also trending at the right time and enter the NCAA tournament fresh off a 66-63 win over Florida to take the SEC Tournament title. Ole Miss scored 78.2 ppg this season, seventh best in the nation. However, they’ll be facing Bo Ryan’s defense which is giving up just 83.6 points per 100 possessions, third best nationally. Traevon Jackson, son of former Ohio State great Jim Jackson, is a lock-down defender who may be able to take Henderson, who compared himself to former college greats Jimmer Fredette and Steph Curry. Jared Berggren, the most underrated defender in the Big Ten and anchor of the Badgers’ defense, will have no problem protecting the rim. Wisconsin struggles to score at times, but Ole Miss isn’t exactly known for their prowess on the defensive side of the ball. Look for freshmen Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky to step up and knock down some shots to take the pressure off of leading scorer Ben Brust. In a matchup of contrasting styles, personalities, and everything else besides jersey color, I think Wisconsin prevails.
Key Stat: Four of Wisconsin’s last five games were against teams that have been ranked this entire season and finished in the AP Top 10. Ole Miss was ranked for just two weeks this season, never higher than 16th.
Prediction: Wisconsin 63, Ole Miss 51
4) Kansas State vs. La Salle / Boise State
First Reaction: I’ve had Kansas State on upset alert for the last few weeks, but neither of its potential foes should be able to get the job done and take down the fourth-seeded Wildcats.
Analysis: On paper, KSU isn’t all that scary. Sure they have All-Big 12 shooting guard Rodney McGruder, who led the club with 15.7 ppg and has netted double-digit point totals in 13 straight games. But after McGruder, the talent drops off significantly and Kansas State is forced to rely on a bunch of veteran role players who play hard but struggle to score the basketball. Angel Rodriguez has stepped up from a season ago and has been one of the best floor generals in the Big 12, but shot a miserable 36.7% from the field this season. The same goes for wings Will Spradling and Martavious Irving, each of whom were sub-40% on the season. The Wildcats win by forcing turnovers and they know how to win ugly. La Salle’s tandem of Ramon Galloway and Tyreek Duran combined to score 32 ppg this past season, while Boise’s backcourt of Derrick Marks and Anthony Drmic went for 33.6 points a night. However neither team has any low post scoring or the athleticism to match up with the Wildcats. Kansas State will survive its opening game but shouldn’t expect to get much further than that.
Key Stat: KSU first year head coach Bruce Weber led hid Wildcats to a 4-seed this season. In his first season at Ilinois in 2004, Weber led the Illini to the Sweet 16 as a 5-seed.
Prediction: Kansas State 77, La Salle 69 or Kansas State 75, Boise State 63
6) Arizona (25-7) vs. 11) Belmont (26-6)
First Reaction: Uh-oh, my Wildcats don’t defend the 3-point line very well and Belmont shoots a ton of them. I hope Zona brings it because they’ll need to be on point to get past the Bruins.
Analysis: Belmont has become a popular upset pick ever since taking Duke to the brink of elimination back in 2008, yet they’ve been defeated by double digits by Wisconsin and Georgetown each of the past two seasons. Once again, many people like the Bruins to pull the upset of Sean Miller’s Wildcats, but I don’t see it. Arizona is a tough, veteran group led by versatile forward Soloman Hill, who finds new ways to score every time I watch him play. His creativity and play-making ability opens the floor for Mark Lyons, the Cats’ most lethal outside shooter, and a trio of freshman big men. Arizona is deep, athletic, and they have a habit of winning tight ones. Belmont, which has won three straight conference titles in the Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley Conferences, relies on its backcourt of Kerron Johnson and Ian Clark. Johnson is a scoring point guard who really knows how to create space and get himself to the free throw line, while Clark is a dangerous outside shooter and one of the most efficient scorers in the country. In fact, Belmont as a team ranks fourth nationally in shooting percentage and Clark’s 54.1% plays a huge part in that. Arizona has struggled defending high-powered offenses this season, but I don’t think Belmont can stop them on the other end.
Key Stat: Johnson set the school and conference record when he made 19-21 free throws in a win over Morehead State on January 31. He also has posted games of 11-13, 10-11, and 12-12 FT shooting this season.
Prediction: Arizona 81, Belmont 77
3) New Mexico (29-5) vs. 14) Harvard (19-9)
First Reaction: It will take me a few seconds to realize which team is which when I turn on my TV. These two teams have similar school colors.
Analysis: Apologies for the boring blurb. I guess it’s just because I don’t think the game itself will be all that interesting. Harvard won the Ivy League for the second straight season but failed to beat a tournament team this year. The Crimson are talented but rely too heavily on their inexperienced guards, freshman Siyani Chambers and sophomore Wesley Saunders. New Mexico on the other hand brings an experienced backcourt, discipline, and grit to the NCAA’s. The Lobos don’t try to blow anyone out; where’s the fun in that? Instead, they play in a lot of close, grind-it-out games that they seem to win 99% of the time. Steve Alford’s key player is Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams, the best point guard in the country that you’ve probably never heard of. The versatile junior always picks his spots and takes advantage of matchups. He netted 46 points in a win over Colorado State earlier this season and followed it up with an 8-point, 8-assist performance against San Diego State, also a win. Williams’ running mate is Tony Snell, a lanky small forward who works tirelessly running off screens and spotting up from the wing. Snell is 10 for his last 15 from downtown. New Mexico also has two talented frontcourt players, Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow, who do the dirty work down low, and role players who fit perfectly in Alford’s system. The Lobos can play with, and take down, just about anyone.
Key Stat: New Mexico finished #2 overall in RPI this season. Harvard was #94.
Prediction: New Mexico 67, Harvard 49
7) Notre Dame (25-9) vs. 10) Iowa State (22-11)
First Reaction: Notre Dame likes to pack it in and make teams beat them from outside and all Iowa State does is bomb threes. Fun!
Analysis: Iowa State is a fun team to watch. Fred Hoiberg has built an interesting program in Ames, one predicated on talented transfers and outside shooting. Royce White, the Minnesota transfer, led the Cyclones to the Round of 32 last year before departing to the NBA and handing the reigns to a trio of transfers: Will Clyburn (Utah), Chris Babb (Penn St.) and Korie Lucious (Michigan St.). Clyburn scored 15 points per game to lead the club, which has six players who made at least 20 3-pointers this season. Also playing a key role on the Cyclones is forward Georges Niang, a high school teammate of Nerlens Noel. Niang’s versatility and ability to guard multiple positions has proved essential for ISU this season. Notre Dame has been one of the tougher teams to evaluate all season. They aren’t a deep team as five players averaged more than 29 minutes per game. Jack Cooley is a double-double machine and one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. Eric Atkins runs the Irish offense and reminds me of Chris Duhon in that he isn’t flashy but usually gets the job done. They have other playmakers and serviceable big men, but the Irish don’t strike fear into anyone. They win games because they frustrate opponents and wear people down. The Cyclones don’t get rattled easily.
Key Stat: Iowa State has now made the tournament in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2000 and 2001, while the Irish have made it five of the last six years.
Prediction: Iowa State 67, Notre Dame 63
2) Ohio State (26-7) vs. 15) Iona (20-13)
Quick Thoughts: Lomo Jones is one of the best scorers in the country and Aaron Craft is going to mutilate him.
Analysis: This matchup, like Gonzaga and Southern, doesn’t require much. Ohio State just won the Big Ten tournament and is playing tremendous basketball right now. Craft is playing at an incredibly high level on both sides of the ball while Deshaun Thomas has tallied at least 11 points in every game this season. Craft will be key against Iona, which is led by Arizona transfer Lamont “Lomo” Jones. Jones averaged 23 ppg this year, 3rd in the nation, for the up-tempo Gaels. Unfortunately Craft has been kryptonite to opposing point guards this season, and locking down Lomo should be right in his wheelhouse. Iona might jump out to a quick lead but they aren’t talented enough to play for 40 minutes with Thad Matta’s crew. Ohio State moves on.
Key Stat: The Buckeyes have turned the ball over just 14 times in their last two games. Iona had 15 turnovers in its MAAC championship win over Manhattan.
Prediction: Ohio State 72, Iona 60
I’ll be back later in the week recapping these matchups and previewing what’s to come in the Round of 32, and beyond. Follow me on Twitter @JayQuint13 and @StoopNCAAB for analysis and opinions on everything college basketball.