While the NBA Draft will change many things in these rankings, it is never too early to look towards next year in college basketball. There are still significant players on significant teams that may choose to take their name out of the draft (Johnny Flynn, Jodie Meeks, Willie Warren) and others that will more than likely enter their names into the draft (Gerald Henderson, Wayne Ellington) that will change these rankings. But for now, enjoy them, debate them, or tell me why I am dead wrong or missed a team.
1. Kansas Jayhawks– It is likely that Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins will both come back, leaving this team with their two best players from last year. Also, the Jayhawks’ young guns will have another year of experience under their belt now with tournament time. Also, Bill Self is bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the nation and word is ex-Memphis recruit Xavier Henry (4th ranked recruit in the nation) wants to come to Kansas. This squad could be loaded.
2. Michigan State Spartans– While Goran Suton leaves the team, just about everyone is back from last year’s championship team including the core of Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen. If last season taught us anything, it is to never doubt Tom Izzo’s teams, and next year will be no exception.
3. Villanova Wildcats– I love what the Wildcats will bring back next year and have to make them the favorite in the Big East, regardless of if Johnny Flynn comes back next year. Dante Cunningham is the only loss to note and Jay Wright brings in one of the best recruiting classes in the nation, replacing Cunningham with big men Isaiah Armwood and Mouphtaou Yarou.
4. North Carolina Tar Heels– Amazingly, this team can lose Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, and probably Wayne Ellington and still come into next year as one of the nation’s most talented teams. Marcus Ginyard will return from injury and join youngsters Ed Davis and Deon Thompson and freshman phenom John Henson in a loaded lineup next year. UNC does not rebuild. They reload.
5. Purdue Boilermakers– I absolutely love what Purdue will bring to the table next year as JuJaun Johnson, Robbie Hummell, and E’Twaun Moore all return to the team. As is the case for most Big Ten teams, this team will have another year of experience under their belt after being very young last year and could make a run to the Final Four next year if everything goes right.
6. Duke Blue Devils– Gerald Henderson is good enough to be a lottery pick and will most likely leave for the Association, but other than that everyone will be back for Coach K. Another solid recruiting class and four returning starters means that Duke’s expectations will be high again, but can they live up to them this year?
7. Syracuse Orange– This spot is completely dependent on whether or not Johnny Flynn will come back or not, but in the end I think the deep PG class will scare him away and bring him back. Because of this, the Orange will compete for the Big East despite the losses of Paul Harris and Eric Devendorf as they bring back Flynn, Andy Rautins, and Arinze Onuaku and another solid recruiting class. If Flynn leaves, they will be on the cusp of the Top 25.
8. Texas Longhorns– Despite the loss of A.J. Abrams, the Longhorns return just about everyone from last year’s team as well as two top-15 recruits for next year’s team. They are very balanced and will be a veteran-laced team poised to make a run at the Big 12 Title and in the Big Dance come March.
9. Kentucky Wildcats– It will be an interesting next couple of months for newly appointed head coach John Calipari. On one hand, you have Jodie Meeks declaring early and Patrick Patterson (for now) deciding to stay and I think that will remain, with Meeks leaving. Coming in is Demarcus Cousins and potentially John Wall, two of the highest ranked freshman next year that will give Calipari a stud point guard, small forward, and big man in Patterson.
10. West Virginia Mountaineers– West Virginia was one of my favorite teams last year and, despite their first round exit to Dayton, their young stars blossomed towards the end of the year and will only get better this year. Alex Ruoff leaves but Joe Mazzulla comes back after shoulder surgery to join a stacked West Virginia team next year.
11. Butler Bulldogs– Just like West Virginia, Butler sports one of the youngest and u-and-coming teams in the nation and will be in good shape for another NCAA Tournament run next year. Exceeding expectations last year was nice, but this is really the year for Butler to make things happen.
12. Tennessee Volunteers– Despite Tyler Smith declaring for the draft, the 6’7” small forward still may come back in the end, and this ranking is based on him doing so. The backcourt comes back fully in tact and Wayne Chism is as solid of an all around 6’9” player as you will find in the nation.
13. Clemson Tigers– Trevor Booker announcing he would come back next year was huge as the Tigers bring back everyone but K.C. Rivers. Terrence Oglesby is one of the best pure shooters in the nation and this could be the year that Clemson lives up to expectations and challenges Duke and UNC for the ACC title into March.
14. Xavier Musketeers– Despite the losses of B.J. Raymond and C.J. Anderson, Xavier will bring back a loaded roster along with the additions of transfer Jordan Crawford and recruit Kevin Parrom. Hopefully the loss of Sean Miller will not throw off the team’s chemistry and that they can make the right hire to replace him.
15. Washington Huskies– Recruit Adbul Gaddy (9th ranked recruit in the nation) highlights next season’s backcourt duo with Isaiah Thomas and, despite the losses of forward Jon Brockman and sharpshooter Justin Dentmon, the Huskies should be just fine. Quincy Pondexter will be back next year and should be able to show off his talent more with the losses of Brockman and Dentmon.
16. Gonzaga Bulldogs– Despite the losses of their three best players in Josh Heytvelt, Jeremey Pargo, and Micah Downs, the Zags will be back next year with a very solid core group of players that will be back in the tournament and make a quiet run as they always do.
17. Michigan Wolverines– If Manny Harris stays, this team could be very dangerous next year. The Wolverines seem to be improving every year and if Harris returns with Deshawn Sims, Michigan will improve their young players and make the tournament once again.
18. Dayton Flyers– Dayton seems to be a team that continues to fly under the radar despite their success. High-flying Chris Wright will lead the team into another Atlantic 10 battle with Xavier and their experience will help them as they make a run into March.
19. Cal Golden Bears– Cal brings back all five of their starters that made the tournament last year as a seven seed and will look for more success next year. Patrick Christopher will come back and as a result, Mike Montgomery should have this team in the race for the Pac-10.
20. Connecticut Huskies– Despite the huge losses of Jeff Adrien, Hasheem Thabeet, and A.J. Price, the Huskies will bring back Stanley Robinson, Kemba Walker and a healthy Jerome Dyson (don’t forget about him). Jim Calhoun is back and has to be chomping at the bit to get started on another season after failing to make the Championship Game last year and will do so with a talented team. Recruit Alex Oriakhi and Darius Smith highlight a very talented recruiting class, as well.
21. Boston College Golden Eagles– Despite the loss of Tyrese Rice, BC returns a very good class with a whole lot of depth. Led by Reggie Jackson and one of my favorite players Rakeem Sanders, the Golden Eagles will be able to score at will and Joe Sanders and Corey Raji will hold down the frontcourt.
22. Oklahoma Sooners– This ranking is based on my thinking that Willie Warren will come back next year and lead a team that loses the Griffin brothers but is still talented. Tony Crocker had a huge tournament and will be called upon to step up in a big way next year. The Sooners also have a top recruiting class that will be expected to come in right away and produce.
23. Florida Gators– If Nick Calathes comes back next year; Florida will be back in the SEC mix and make a run at the tournament. Kenny Boynton (9th overall in the nation) will be a superstar for Billy Donovan and Chandler Parsons has showed a lot of potential that hopefully can be used this year for the Gators.
24. Mississippi State Bulldogs– If Jarvis Varnardo does not enter his name into the NBA Draft, he will make the Bulldogs a tournament team once again and also be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Senior Barry Stewart will lead an experienced backcourt and highly touted freshman shooting guard Shaunessy Smith will provide scoring right away.
25. Illinois Fighting Illini– The Illini seem to be in the mix every year and will look to use valuable experience gained last year with an older team and highly ranked recruiting class, led by D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul. Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis should have huge years to lead the Illini to a tournament bid.
The best part about sports is that they are completely debatable, and when you find two passionate people that love the game, the arguments that ensue are awesome and intense (and sometimes can get out of hand). I have found lately that these debates have occurred between me and my good friend Kevin Shanley. Kevin, a sophomore at Marquette University, is a Marquette Golden Eagles fan and would be the president of the Wesley Matthews Fan Club if there was one. But ranked right below the Golden Eagles on Kevin’s college basketball team depth chart are the North Carolina Tar Heels. So I have decided to debate him, 1-on-1, on the Final Four matchups. Kevin has taken the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Michigan State Spartans, while I will debate the soon-to-be national champion UConn Huskies and the Villanova Wildcats.
(Ironically enough, if Connecticut wins it all I win the bracket Kevin and I are in, and if North Carolina wins it all, Kevin wins)
We will debate each matchup based on four factors: guardplay/outside shooting, inside play/inside shooting, defense, and intangibles. There are no winners or losers in the debate, but rather good spirited arguments about which teams will play on Monday to determine the national champion.
Villanova’s Back Court
The first thing I will say is that Villanova’s back court is a lot stronger than North Carolina’s for one simple reason: everyone can play there! When you look at Villanova this season, the leader in the back court is undoubtedly Scottie Reynolds. Despite having a so-so tournament (sans the game-winner against Pitt), he has averaged 33 minutes per game and is crucial to the Wildcats’ success on offense. This kid can hit from anywhere on the court, and I know that you have seen it Kevin, because I watched him torch Marquette with you. As is the case for every player in the back court, this team can and will catch fire at any time and the runs this team gets on because of it are hard to keep up with. But don’t think that the Wildcats stop with Reynolds. Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher are the next two reasons why North Carolina’s back court is going to be sucking air for 40 minutes on Saturday. Both of these players bring everything to the table with great outside shots (33% and 42% from three point range), shutdown defense, and great speed on both ends of the floor.
Next up is personally my favorite player on this Villanova squad and the reason this back court is so multi-dimensional, and that is the play of Dwayne Anderson. Anderson is listed at 6’6”, but the senior can play any position on the court. He is an above average ball handler, great spot shooter, and can also go inside (which is why I am going to cheat and use him for my inside game as well). He has averaged 15 points and 8 rebounds in the tournament, but is also 6 for 11 from downtown. He is able to guard a shooting guard and both forward positions and is just unbelievably versatile. Reggie Redding rounds out the back court, but do not sleep on this guy either, as he averages seven points and five rebounds per game and is one of Villanova’s best defenders.
Look, the name of the game for Villanova is speed and that is exactly what their back court brings. The depth, talent, and speed is why I believe Villanova has the better back court.
North Carolina’s Back Court
Now I understand the strength of Villanova’s backcourt is their personal strength, but in comparison to North Carolina’s, there is no question which team has the better players… the Tar Heels. This is mainly due to ACC player of the year Ty Lawson. Lawson was plagued by a right toe injury towards the end of the season, and was unable to play in the ACC tournament, as well as the UNC routing of Radford in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The loss of Lawson proved to hurt the Tar Heels tremendously as shown in the loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament, but with a “healthy” Lawson, the Tar Heels are the best team in the nation. Lawson spearheads the North Carolina offense with his speed, passing ability, and as of late- his three-point shot. Averaging just over 16 points a game, as well as six and a half assists, Lawson proves to be too much for opposing defenders. Defensively, Lawson is stellar as well pulling in two steals a game, making Lawson a complete point guard, something necessary to win in the tournament.
The Tar Heels do not stop with Lawson in their guard play. They receive help from Wayne Ellington and Danny Green as well to round out the back court. Ellington averages 15.6 points per game, as well as 4.8 rebounds. He has been a force whenever Lawson is unable to put the ball in the hoop, as seen in his 24, 25, and 23 point games against Florida State, Radford and LSU when Lawson either did not play, or was limited action. Ellington’s ability to be reliable for the Tar Heels when Lawson or Hansbrough are slumping makes him vital to the Tar Heels success.
The final piece to this lethal back court is my favorite Tar Heel, Danny Green. Previously famous for his dancing antics and ability to fire up his team, the senior Green will continue to be overlooked in the potent UNC offense. Green coming in at 6’6”, 210lbs presents a matchup problem for anyone. With his ability to handle the ball, hit the outside shot, and be a presence in the post, I would compare him to a better Lazar Hayward (for a quick MU reference). Green seems to be there day in and day out for the Tar Heels, creating a steady balance of points (at 13.3), and rebounds (4.8), Green is a production machine for UNC.
In the end, the experience factor with two juniors in Lawson and Ellington and a senior leader in Green assist the Tar Heels in possessing the better backcourt. The ability to shoot the ball extremely well from long range, as well as the driving abilities of Lawson will be too much for the Wildcats on Saturday. This trio is one of the best in the nation, and will expose Villanova, proving to everyone that they are the better backcourt.
North Carolina’s Front Court
North Carolina’s Frontcourt is better than Villanova’s for one reason, Tyler Hansbrough. Psycho-T is coming off of an terrible game against Oklahoma and I think that this spells trouble for Villanova. Hansbrough is the type of player who does not have two bad games in a row. His frustration was apparent towards the end of the Oklahoma game where he tried to dunk over a better Blake Griffin. Psycho-T will be a force over Cunningham and expose Villanova’s lack of height. He is coming in averaging almost 21 points a game, matched with 8 boards per game. No one on this Villanova roster will be able to contain him and due to his lack of success in his previous game, I look for Hansbrough to have a huge game and lift UNC to the NCAA Championship game. The second piece to the UNC frontcourt is Deon Thompson, the only starter on this amazing UNC team that does not receive constant national attention. Thompson and his 6’8″ frame will present a size problem for Villanova as well. He’s also averaging a quiet 10.7 points per game along with grabbing down almost six boards per contest. Although I do not think Thompson will have as big as an effect as the other players on this UNC roster, look for him to continue to quietly score against the Wildcats. In the end, it all starts and ends with Tyler Hansbrough for the Tar Heels. The All-American will take out all his frustration from his last game against the Villanova frontcourt, and in the end, ruin the magical run that Villanova has had so far in the tournament.
Villanova’s Front Court
While Villanova’s front court does not have the star power that North Carolina’s does, the Tar Heels will be in for a rude awakening if they forget about power forward Dante Cunningham. Cunningham, the Big East’s Most Improved Player, has been playing outstanding all year and even better in the tournament. His ability to play down-low is great, but even better is his 17-foot jump shot that seems to go in every time. His 18 points and eight rebounds per game in the tournament have Villanova in Detroit and you will not see a letdown from him against North Carolina. Yes, he is going up against your boy Hansbrough but we have already seen that Psycho-T has trouble with forwards that can come out on the perimeter. Dwayne Anderson (here he is again) is another guy that will play bigger than he really is on the inside and use his athleticism to cause havoc down low. Shane Clark is another player like Anderson that can play multiple positions and does a lot of the dirty work inside for the Wildcats. Putting the two of them down low, combined with Cunningham, makes for a very athletic and hard-working front court that will out hustle the Tar Heels. An “x-factor”, if you will, for the Wildcats might be Antonio Pena. He has not played a lot in the tournament but is very physical and if the bigger Tar Heels start to dominate down low, he could play crucial minutes to stop that run.
Alright, I admit that I will probably have to concede this one to you as Villanova is up against last year’s Player of the Year and first team All-American in Hansbrough. But I still think the key to Villanova keeping this game close will be how Cunningham is able to use his jump shot as well his power inside to keep North Carolina on their toes, regardless of where he is on the court. If Anderson and Clark are able to use their speed to beat their defenders off the dribble, it could spell trouble for a defense that, at times, is very shaky.
I guess to fairly debate Villanova’s defense I have to talk about it in regards to North Carolina’s offense. The first thing I will say is I like the matchups that Villanova is going to bring to the table against the Tar Heels. First is Dante Cunningham, who will match up against Tyler Hansbrough. Cunningham has been outstanding on defense all year and being from the Big East, you know he loves a challenge. What was interesting in watching the Oklahoma-UNC game was how Blake Griffin played outstanding defense on Psycho-T, and as I watched more and more I saw a lot of similarities in how Cunningham plays defense. Offensively, Griffin is very different and much better than him, but on the other side of the ball not so much. Griffin played faster than Hansbrough and did not let him get into any rhythm as he only had eight points and six rebounds in the contest. Cunningham also likes to play fast at times, while also having the weapon of being physical in his back pocket.
Scottie Reynolds will have his hands full against Ty Lawson and must shut him down if Villanova wants to have a chance. Danny Green and Wayne Ellington are going to be shut down in every aspect of this game by Dwayne Anderson and Reggie Redding. The best part of the Villanova defense is that North Carolina’s great size is not as much of a factor because, despite being big on defense, they are also quick enough to hang with the Tar Heels. Corey Fisher might have a tough time with Ellington’s size, but Stokes will play a key role in the rotation of keeping fresh defenders on the very talented North Carolina shooters. Down low, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis look a little timid at times, and that is the last thing you want to do when going up against Shane Clark and Antonio Pena. Both of them play extremely physical down low and the North Carolina big men (other than Hansbrough) should not get more than their point averages in this one.
OK, North Carolina is probably the best offensive team in the nation, it’s hard for me to debate that and even harder to admit it. But if there is one team out there that matches the size and the speed of a North Carolina team, I’ll take Villanova over most other teams in the nation.
North Carolina’s Defense
Defensively, I think both these teams match up well. Both offenses like to play the run-and-gun offense, and defense is the X factor for this game. Villanova has great defense from players like Stokes, Anderson, Redding, and obviously Reynolds, but UNC has great defenders as well, and this comes from stars Hansbrough, Green, and Lawson. Yes, the Villanova guards are quick and can score from virtually every place on the court, but the UNC defense is ready to run and contest any shot. The matchup of Lawson and Reynolds will be an interesting one, but in the end I’d take Lawson to have a better game offensively and defensively. Another great UNC defender is Green. He is averaging just fewer than two steals a game and over a block a game, showing that he can stop you in more than just one way. Finally, the defensive presence of Hansbrough will be too much for Cunningham. Although Tyler doesn’t have the stats to prove his defensive abilities, he’s a very physical player that will not be pushed around by anyone. If you get in this kid’s face, you’re in for quite the physical game. This will eliminate the threat of Cunningham, who is key to the Villanova offensive and once again prove why North Carolina is the better team.
North Carolina’s Intangibles
I respect Villanova for the run they have had, and hey, I’m all for the Big East making it far in the tournament. However, I think UNC is playing for something bigger. Coming into the season, this team was thought to go undefeated through the entire season and win the NCAA tournament. But this was proved incorrect with horrid losses against teams like Boston College and Maryland. Coming into the tournament there were questions about Lawson’s health and he has proved to everyone that he can play through the pain, and lead his team like he did all season long. Although Villanova might seem like a team of “destiny”, talent overrules this and UNC’s got plenty of it. Players like Lawson and Hansbrough came back for one reason: to win a championship and settle for nothing less. Villanova, I congratulate you on a great run, but North Carolina is a better team than you. Sorry Mark, but you’re looking at the future NCAA champions in the North Carolina Tar Heels.
If you want to even call them one, Villanova is this year’s cinderalla. As a three seed, they are going up against the best teams from the Big East, ACC, and Big Ten. They definitely deserve to be here, but more than any other team remaining, they have gotten here on heart, determination, and getting hot at the right time. I fully believe they will be able to keep this streak going against North Carolina. As we talked about earlier in the week and on the radio show, it will take a great game from Villanova and a below average game for UNC for the Wildcats to come out on top. However, I don’t see that being too far out of the question. Villanova style of play has worked for them all year, and that is to hang with teams until they find their stroke from outside, and then pull away like the game was never close. Two games that remind me of this are the Marquette game and the Providence game. In both, the game looked as though it could go either way before the back court just started scoring at will and Cunningham knocked down everything from 17 feet on in. Do I think North Carolina is going to win this game? Yes. But this Villanova team is not getting a lot of respect that it has tried to gain all year, and Saturday might mark the end of them putting up with it. I look for Hansbrough and Lawson to play outstanding as they always do, but I also think Ellington and especially Green are going to struggle against a solid Villanova team. Good luck, Kevin.
CONNECTICUT VS. MICHIGAN STATE
Michigan State’s Backcourt
Looking at the teams on the other end of the bracket, I look for a much better matchup than the UNC-Villanova game. Yes Connecticut is the more talented team, but if you are looking for an upset, look no further than the Michigan State Spartans. The Michigan State backcourt lives and dies with their leader Kalin Lucas. This guy can straight up play and provides matchup issues for whoever is guarding him. Averaging 14.6 points per game and 4.6 assists a game, Lucas is one of the league’s premier young players being only a sophomore. Lucas is vital if Michigan State wants any chance of upsetting Connecticut. Lucas runs the Spartan offense very well and is able to run in transition. He passes and scores with relative ease, making him a very dangerous player. His ability to drive as well as make the outside jumper makes him a handful for defenders and is the reason he is the focus of this offense. Joining Lucas in the Michigan State backcourt are Chris Allen and Durrell Summers. Neither of these players have the star mentality that Lucas does, but both players know their role and can score when needed. Allen and Summers are both averaging above 8 points a game, making them important to the Michigan State offense. Yes, Connecticut is very talented all around, but if they want to win this game, they’re going to have to find a way to contain Lucas, otherwise the Huskies could be in for a long game.
The Huskies are led by senior point guard A.J. Price, and have been for the last four years. While the loss of Jerome Dyson has turned them into a different team, the backcourt has managed to keep things steady and will look to do so against a very good defensive team in Michigan State. Price is averaging 14.7 points per game on the year and 4.8 assists and runs the show for a very efficient offense. Even more importantly might be the play of Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie that have taken over for Dyson after the injury. Walker was one of the main reasons that Connecticut is playing in this game, going off for 23 points, five assists, and five rebounds against Missouri. Austrie had 17 points against Purdue and has created senior leadership in any already experienced lineup, as well as good offense. The backcourt is extremely balanced and has done a great job this year running the offense. While the defense is ruled by the frontcourt in Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, Price and Walker have a tight grasp on how the offense runs every game. Against Michigan State, they will need to get good looks at the basket and make sure they do not turn the ball over because the Spartans will capitalize.
This is where the debate basically ends in the debate of who wins what. I actually really like Goran Suton and think he is unbelievably talented and perfect for Tom Izzo’s system. Unfortunately, Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien stand in the way of Suton accomplishing whatever it is he wants. Thabeet, the co-Big East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, will control this game completely on offense. He does not get a lot of touches on offense, averaging less than six shots per game, but he makes the most of them shooting 65% from the field. Also, Jeff Adrien has been the unheralded senior that no one talks about because of Thabeet. He averages a double double and is the heart and soul of Connecticut’s team and has the ability to run with the guards as well, making him the perfect kind of player for this offense. The one guy seemingly flying under the radar, more than Adrien (if that’s possible), is Stanley Robinson. Ever since he came back from his injury, he has been a dominating force with a decent mid-range game and thunderous dunks all over the court. Michigan State, despite being a very good team defensively everywhere, will have no answer for these three and whoever isn’t scoring, you can bet the other two will be. Advantage Huskies all night long.
Michigan State’s Frontcourt
The Michigan State frontcourt is where Connecticut has the clear advantage, but if Goran Suton can continue playing like he has in the NCAA tournament, an upset could be in sight. On the season, Suton is averaging around ten points a game, but he has really turned it on in the tournament. Against Kansas, Suton put up 20 points and against a very good Louisville team, he put up 19 points. He has been the key to Michigan State’s success as of late and needs to continue this success if Sparty wants to advance any farther. Joining Suton down low will be Raymar Morgan who has been limited as of late. Morgan has had a successful season, averaging 10.2 points per game and 5.3 boards a game. The Spartans need Morgan to find his shot and be able to play more minutes than the ten he did against Lousiville. Off the bench, Michigan State will be expecting some production from forward Delvon Roe, a freshman who has played a good role off the bench averaging 5.8 points per game and five rebounds per game. The freshman Roe has seen an increase in playing time and will be important off the bench to give Suton or Morgan a breather. In the end, Connecticut has a much better frontcourt, but if MSU is able to get Thabeet and Adrian in foul trouble, Michigan State could utilize their depth at this position to make a run at the Huskies.
Michigan State’s Defense
Playing in the Big Ten, Michigan State is used to playing plenty of defense and running down opponents. The only problem here is the fact they will be playing one of the best offensive teams in the nation. Michigan State must try to contain Thabeet, a problem many teams have had this year. If Thabeet is able to establish an offensive game, this adds another weapon to an already Connecticut team. Coach Izzo will be asking a lot out of the frontcourt in Suton and Morgan in hopes to contain Thabeet and Adrien. If the Spartans can limit the offensive firepower in the paint, they have a shot to win this game. Guard-wise Lucas is quite the defender. Lucas will try to stop A.J. Price, who is on fire lately. Michigan State has had a great run defensively, but never had to encounter a team like Connecticut. I feel like there’s no way to completely stop this Connecticut team, but if Michigan State can alter the shots of Price and Adrian, and limit Thabeet to only being a defensive stopper, then the Spartans could pull off the upset.
Everyone talking about this game mentions Michigan State’s defense and how they did such a nice job shutting down Big Ten teams, but let’s not forget about the fantastic defense of Connecticut. Led by Hasheem Thabeet in the middle, Connecticut is the toughest team in the nation to go against in the paint, which means if teams are going to beat the Huskies, they better have DaJuan Blair or fantastic outside shooters. Since they do not have the former, Michigan State better be on their A-game shooting the ball outside. That’s where the great defense of A.J. Price and Kemba Walker come in, as they have the task of shutting down DaJuan Summers and Kalin Lucas. I believe they will do so and keep Michigan State well under their season average of 71.9 points per game.
Three teams left in the Final Four have a starting lineup that averages more than a junior. The one team that does not is Michigan State and that will be their downfall in the end. Two years from now, I could see Michigan State winning it all, but they are just way too inexperienced going up against a Connecticut team that features three seniors and two juniors. Also, I do not think that Michigan State can score enough with Connecticut to keep up with them in the long run. 77 points per game is usually the minimum for teams that win the tournament. Michigan State does not have that and unfortunately, solid defense will not get it done every game. This isn’t the Big Ten anymore Sparty…
Michigan State’s Intangibles
Michigan State has one big advantage in this game, and that is the fact that it is being played in Detroit, meaning Ford Field will be packed with Spartan fans. This should give Michigan State an added boost and give them the confidence to take down the best that is Connecticut. Home field advantage is huge in college basketball and although this is not a declared home game, there will obviously be more Michigan State fans in Detroit than Connecticut fans. Tom Izzo and his tournament success is something that has played a role in Michigan State’s success. In the past 14 years, any Michigan State player who has stayed four years at Michigan State has seen a final four. This proves that Izzo is an unbelievable coach in the NCAA Tournament. Izzo is not afraid of any team, and will have his team prepared for the Huskies come Saturday night. In the end, I believe this game will be closer than most people think. Michigan State has something to prove playing in the weak Big Ten conference. I do think that Connecticut will end up taking this game, but the Spartans will put up a good fight and give the Huskies a run for their money.
Despite going 16 for 16 on the Second Round games, I went just six for eight on the Sweet 16 games and will look to rebound in the Elite Eight matchups today. The Elite Eight features four Big East teams, all the #1 seeds, as well as a pair of two and three seeds.
1. Connecticut vs. 3. Missouri
This game features two teams that are very different in style as the Missouri Tigers look to out-run the Huskies from UConn. I think Connecticut will be able to run with the fast-paced Tigers and also establish a presence inside on Leo Lyons and Demarre Carroll. As good as Missouri looked in their victory over Memphis, facing Hasheem Thabeet is going to be tougher than anything they have faced all year. J.T. Tiller must have a big game again against A.J. Price, as well as on the defensive end guarding the senior point guard who is averaging 21 points per game in the tournament. In the end, UConn will be too much for a Missouri team that got hot at the right time. UConn 78, Missouri 74
1. Pittsburgh vs. 3. Villanova
A battle of Big East foes awaits the East Regional Final and will put two teams together that are all too familiar with each other. Earlier in the year, Villanova defeated Pittsburgh at home and will look to do the same today. Villanova has used their depth extremely well while Pittsburgh has struggled. If they can not play better defense and slow things down on offense, Villanova will take this game. Villanova 82, Pitt 80
Well I went three out of four last night, not knowing that Missouri was going to absolutely embarass what I called a “great” Memphis defense. The Big East won the last three games of the night and will look to put two more of their own into the Elite Eight tonight. Here are Friday’s games.
1. Louisville vs. 12. Arizona
I have liked Arizona all year and they are truly the only cinderalla left in the Big Dance, but their run comes to an end tonight when they face the overall number one seed Lousville Cardinals. Terrance Williams has been outstanding and the Wildcats will have trouble guarding Earl Clark. This should equal easy buckets for ‘Ville, especially in transition against a much slower Arizona team. Louisville 81, Arizona 66
2. Oklahoma vs. 3. Syracuse
It will be interesting to see how Blake Griffin matches up against the 2-3 zone that Syracuse so often likes to go to. I do not think it will be an issue for him and look for him to have a big game, as well as Austin Johnson. I have liked him all year but he has not really busted out in a game yet. While it may be even tougher to do against Johnny Flynn, I smell a big one from him. In the end, Oklahoma will be too much with the tandem of the Griffins, Warren, and my boy Johnson. Oklahoma 78, Syracuse 77
2. Michigan State vs. 3. Kansas
It’s never a safe bet to go against Tom Izzo in the tournament, but I really like the Jayhawks. Sherron Collins always comes to play and Cole Aldrich is playing the best basketball of any big man in the tournament right now, notching a triple double in his last game. Michigan State won in East Lansing in theis matchup earlier in the year, but I like Kansas to get their revenge and move into the Elite Eight. Kansas 74, Michigan State 70
1. North Carolina vs. 4. Gonzaga
I was watching ESPN today and for some reason Gonzaga is getting a lot of love. Now whether it is based on their inability to stop crying over mid-majors or whether it is Ty Lawsons big toe, ESPN has no basis for this. Tyler Hansbrough is a man on a mission to get to the championship game and win it in his senior year, and a team that beat Western Kentucky on a last second shot will not get in his way. I have liked the Zags all year, but the run ends tonight. North Carolina 88, Gonzaga 80
The Midwest region has officially been deemed the “Upset Region”. The first round saw seeds 4,5,6,7, and 8 get knocked out and we will see at least a 12 seed in the Sweet 16 from this region. Louisville and Kansas got out to slow starts but pulled away in the end, while Cleveland State, Arizona, USC, and Michigan State rolled in their games. Siena and Dayton played games that pretty much went down to the wire. Round Two features excellent matchups and we will break them down right now.
1. Louisville vs. 9. Siena
Louisville played a dominating second half to crush Morehead St. while Siena played a tough, double overtime, fight til’ the end. I believe Louisville to continue to come out and run the court against the Bulldogs and Terrance Williams will continue to pace the Cardinals. In order for Siena to have a shot, they will have to continue their balanced style of play and try to shut down Williams and Earl Clark.
12. Arizona vs. 13. Cleveland State
It would be easy to say that Arizona should run away with this game, but after what Cleveland State did to Wake Forest, no one is safe against this team. Yes, Arizona played great in their first round game but Cleveland State dismantled the 4 seeded Demon Deacons, and don’t forget the game before that, they knocked off Butler. I think Arizona takes this one due to their better star potential, but it will definitely come down to the wire.
3. Kansas vs. 11. Dayton
If Dayton plays like they did in Round 1, an upset could be brewing here. Still, I like the Kansas backcourt to take over this game and don’t think Dayton will be able to keep up. Dayton’s keys to the game will be to continue to get Chris Wright touches and try to outrun the Jayhawks. If Kansas gets off to another slow start, it could spell doom this time around.
2. Michigan State vs. 10. USC
USC played very well in their first round game, but don’t expect that same kind of defense to be there when Michigan State rolls around. MSU played very solid defense and I believe they match up very well against the Trojans. While they are one of the hottest teams in the nation, I can’t see Michigan State having a letdown in round 2.
1. UConn vs. 9. Texas A&M
UConn looked like the best number one seed in Round 1, and despite A&M’s 58% shooting from the field, the Huskies should be able to shutdown the Aggies and move to Round 2. I expect big things out of UConn’s starting lineup in Round 2. It will be a test for them as forward Bryan Davis leads a tough A&M squad, but UConn is destined for greatness (check my bracket) and it won’t end here.
4. Washington vs. 5. Purdue
This game will be based entirely on how each team comes out and play. Neither team has a complete talent advantage so whoever establishes themselves will most likely come out on top. I believe the hotter team right now is Purdue, stemming from their Big Ten championship and steady defeat of Northern Iowa. JuJuan Johnson will be important in this one, going up against John Brockman in what should be a solid matchup. Purdue takes it in the end.
3. Missouri vs. 6. Marquette
Once again, expect a big write-up on this one tomorrow but to break it down right now, Marquette just isn’t playing very good basketball. Lazar Hayward showed what he is made of with 26 points but Jerel McNeal looked tired and Wesley Matthews couldn’t hit anything. That may have worked against a slow Utah State team, but Missouri loves to press and will run you to death. If things don’t change quickly for Marquette this one won’t even be close.
2. Memphis vs. 10. Maryland
I am still not very high on Maryland despite their impressive win over a very good Cal team, but did Memphis look bad or what? They sure didn’t get rid of the overrated label on Thursday and will need to play much better against their first power conference opponent in a long time. I think they have the talent to beat a team like Maryland, but will need to step it up later in the tournament.
1. Pittsburgh vs. 8. Oklahoma State
Pitt got a big scare in round one from East Tennessee State, but I’ll consider that their wake-up call. They better be on their game offensively as they face a red-hot Oklahoma State team that loves to run and score. OSU’s defense is a little porous so look for Sam Young and Levance Fields to have big games as Pittsburgh moves on to the Sweet 16.
4. Xavier vs. 12. Wisconsin
Bo Ryan finally beat a higher seeded team in the tournament, but don’t look for him to go 2-2 in this bracket. Xavier played much better than I thought they would and they used their size to their advantage very well. Wisconsin looked pretty good in their victory over FSU, but Florida State really lost it for themselves not capitalizing on some easy buckets. Look for Xavier to use their size and speed as they take down an average Wisconsin team.
3. Villanova vs. 6. UCLA
Just as Pitt did, I think Villanova got their wakeup call against a senior-laced American team. They now face off against a UCLA team that looked less than stellar in their win over VCU that ended up coming down to a last second shot. I look for ‘Nova to shoot early and often and really establish the 3 point line. UCLA will need to run their offense well and work the ball inside to have a shot.
2. Duke vs. 7. Texas
Texas has the potential for an upset in this one based on talent alone, but Duke has played well all year and too many people don’t give them credit because of their past failures in the tournament. This is a very solid team that is playing as disciplined as any other team in the tournament. This game could go either way but I think Duke will take care of the basketball better and is better equipped to play shutdown defense than Texas is.
1. UNC vs. 8. LSU
Here’s to hoping Ty Lawson ends up playing in this one because LSU looked very good in their opening round game. He is expected to play and North Carolina will look to continue their fast paced game like they did in round 1, leading to 101 points. LSU is a very athletic team but I just don’t think they can keep up with a team like North Carolina for 40 minutes.
4. Gonzaga vs. 12. Western Kentucky
This is a very interesting matchup because of Western Kentucky’s play in round 1 against Gonzaga’s early struggles. Unlike Akron, W. Kentucky will put a team away if they jump on them early and Gonzaga will need to be careful not to let that happen. I think Gonzaga will take this game on talent alone, but don’t be surprised to see the Hilltoppers in their second straight Sweet 16.
3. Syracuse vs. 6. Arizona State
Well Temple isn’t playing in this game, and I think Syracuse looked like one of the best teams in the tournament in round one. They got any shot they wanted and played excellent defense against a far less superior team in Stephen F. Austin. This will carry over against Arizona State, a team that didn’t look like world beaters against Temple. Syracuse is starting to play some excellent basketball at just the right time and I look for the Orange to roll in this one.
2. Oklahoma vs. 10. Michigan
Oklahoma won their first round game very quietly while Michigan really struggled to put away the Tigers of Clemson. While Michigan is much better than Morgan State, I think Oklahoma is good enough to ride Blake Griffin to at least the Sweet 16, and should have no problem defeating the Wolverines.
The NCAA tournament tips off Thursday with 16 games and another 16 on Friday. Yesterday we looked at the East and Midwest Regionals and today will be the West and South regionals.
1. Connecticut vs. 16. Chattanooga
My pick to win it all, the Connecticut Huskies, start the tournament off versus the tourney underdogs and will have no trouble. Expect the Huskies to run out in this one and get a big lead early. The Mocs were not supposed to be here and their tournament run will be short lived. Connecticut 82, Chattanooga 59
8. BYU vs. 9. Texas A&M
Due to the restrictions of BYU playing on Sunday, the selection committee had no choice but to put them in the 8 spot against the same team they played last year. Texas A&M got the best of the Cougars in round 1 last year as the 8 seed, but I see a veteran group of players in BYU getting their revenge this year, in a tight game no less. BYU 68, Texas A&M 64
5. Purdue vs. 12. Northern Iowa
Despite this matchup being the 5/12 matchup that always seems to provide upsets, Purdue will not falter here in this one. They are starting to hit their jump shots which could they make them dangerous in the tournament, and while their young age might catch up to them later on in the tourney, it won’t here. Purdue 74, Northern Iowa 62
4. Washington vs. 13. Mississippi St.
A very interesting matchup here, as the improbably SEC champions go up against a very little known team in Washington. It’d be nice to see the Bulldogs continue their streak, but I think Washington is very underrated. They play on the West Coast late at night so no one watches them play, but watch out for John Brockman. He could take this regional by storm accompanied by a very talented back court. I think Washington wins big in this one. Washington 78, MSU 66
6. Marquette vs. 11. Utah State
There will be a big write-up on this tomorrow, but biases aside, Marquette wins this game. Utah State is just way too slow of a team to keep up with a proven team of Marquette. Utah State won 30 games this year and defeated Utah at home on a last second shot, but Marquette’s talent level and speed will be better than any team they have faced this year, and they will get outrun from the get-go. Marquette 71, Utah State 64
3. Missouri vs. 14. Cornell
I had the (dis)pleasure of watching Cornell go up against the Lopez twins last year vs. Stanford in Anaheim, and this year will be the same result as they face Demarre Carroll and Leo Lyons. Missouri is a tough team to figure out, as they play outstanding at home but really struggle on the road. But just speaking on this game, it wouldn’t matter if this game was played at Cornell, Mizzou takes it easy. Missouri 68, Cornell 53
7. California vs. 10. Maryland
This was the hardest game of any first round match-up for me to figure out, so pardon me if I don’t have a lot to say on it. Both teams are semi-backing into the tournament and not playing their best basketball, and while Greives Vasquez is outstanding, I think Cal’s best is better than Maryland’s best, and teams tend to bring their best to the tourney. Give me Cal in a close one. California 72, Maryland 70
2. Memphis vs. 15. Cal St. Northridge
I laugh at a lot of analysts and my friends that say how overrated they believe Memphis is…and then have them beating UConn in the West final. I like to believe that this is the same “C-USA” that Memphis played in last year and dominated, only to lose in overtime to Kansas. Different team? Sure. But what it shows is that the talent is there and I expect a big run out of Memphis in the tournament…and in this game. Memphis 67, CSN 54
Who Wins the West Regional and Why? Marquette. Alright fine, just kidding. But this is a very interesting bracket that could go a bunch of ways. On one hand, you have my favorite team the UConn Huskies who struggled after Dyson went down but have that look and feel of a championship squad. Then you have Memphis who are waiting to show the world what they are made of. Missouri fits the bill of a lot of requirements for a national champ in terms of scoring differential and so on. Washington flies under the radar better than any team in the nation and Purdue has a ton of young potential. Marquette has three excellent scorers in Matthews, McNeal, and Hayward and may make a push with a nice draw (Mizzou, Memphis). In the end, I’m taking the Huskies. They are my national champions so I hope that they win the regional and make it to the Final Four. After round one I will do a write-up on why they will cut down the nets in Detroit, but to give you the short version, they have everything. Thabeet is a guy that will carry a team on his shoulders with his inside D. They have A.J. Price, the senior guard that has been through everything and is capable of going nuts on any given night. Stanley Robinson has been excellent as of late and there might not be a better third option in the nation than Jeff Adrien. Add Jim Calhoun to the mix and you have a team that can’t lose. Yes, Thabeet has the occasional off game, but I think he will buckle down and hold his own for 6 games. Just wait for it…
Who is the Biggest Sleeper? They might not be sleepers to win the regional, but Marquette got a fantastic draw in the brackets with potential 2nd round and Sweet 16 matchups against Missouri and Memphis. They lost 5 of thier last 6 games, but let’s not forget those 5 losses were against 3 #1 seeds and 2 #3 seeds. They led in the second half in 4 of those 5 losses, so it will be a matter of closing for the Golden Eagles. If they can keep McNeal and Matthews rested and not sucking air with 6 minutes left in the game, the Elite 8 isn’t out of the question for the Warriors.
1. North Carolina vs. 16. Radford
I’m sure that Radford is thankful that Ty Lawson is doubtful for Thursday’s matchup, but that’s about all they are thankful for getting matched up with the Tar Heels. Psycho T’s last chance for a national championship starts here, and North Carolina always steamrolls their Round 1 opponent, Lawson or not. North Carolina 92, Radford 61
8. LSU vs. 9. Butler
The Butler Bulldogs were probably looking at a 6/7 seed before they got upset by Cleveland State in their conference championship game, so here they are in the 9 spot playing a very quiet LSU team led by Marcus Thornton. This is a tough matchup to guage because Butler can play as well as most teams in the nation but don’t always show it, and LSU relies a lot on athleticism. I’ll take a more proven Butler team in this one. Butler 63, LSU 60
5. Illinois vs. 12. Western Kentucky
This is the best 5/12 matchup that I can find having a chance for an upset due to the injury to Illinois guard Chester Frazier. I haven’t been high on Illinois all year and Western Kentucky loves to spread the court, getting everyone involved and match up very well with Illinois. Western Kentucky 65, Illinois 62
4. Gonzaga vs. 13. Akron
Gonzaga is one of my sleepers in this bracket, especially if Ty Lawson’s big toe keeps acting up and he has to miss any time. I’ve seen Akron a few times on tape and they don’t look like world beaters and I think is Gonzaga is poised for something big this year. Don’t forget they led the nation in scoring margin this year, an important stat come tournament time. Gonzaga 74, Akron 60
6. Arizona St. vs. 11. Temple
Shhh…my official sleeper of 2009 that could very well bust on me in the first round. The Temple Owls are one of my favorite teams in the draft, and when I watched Joe Lunardi pick them to make the Sweet 16, I knew it was meant to be. I love what Dionte Christmas is about and think he is this year’s Stephen Curry. Believe me, he’s got the tools and Arizona St. is very overrated. Take the 5.5 points Temple is getting with ease also. Temple 72, Arizona St. 71
3. Syracuse vs. 14. Stephen F. Austin
It’s time for everyone to stop saying that Johnny Flynn or any of the other Orange are going to get tired because of the 6OT game followed by the OT win vs. West Virginia. All that epic game did was boost their confidence through the roof and make them feel like they could play with anyone (except Dionte Christmas). This team could fall as short as the second round or as far as the Final Four. Flynn has it within himself to do so, but either way they roll in round one. Syracuse 84, Stephen F. Austin 72
7. Clemson vs. 10. Michigan
As much as I hate the Big11Ten, and as good as I think Clemson can be, I have to make Michigan in this game. Big Blue has big wins over Duke and UCLA this year and Clemson has been way too inconsistent for my liking. The Tigers’ best is better than the Wolverines’ best showing, but I think Michigan and John Beilein’s squad come out firing in this one, led by Manny Harris. Michigan 73, Clemson 69
2. Oklahoma vs. 15. Morgan St.
Oklahoma is a very interesting team in this year’s tournament. I love what Blake Griffin is about and do not think the Kansas State comparison are fair at all. Willie Warren is an outstanding freshman and when he wants to be, Austin Johnson is tough to stop. The Griffin brothers will lead the troops into battle over Morgan St., but after that they will need to prove that they are more than just a product of the double-double machine. Oklahoma 78, Morgan St. 60
Who Wins the South Regional and Why? In my opinion, the South has the teams with a) the best talent (UNC), b) the best player (Blake Griffin), c) the hottest team (Syracuse), d) the biggest upset special (W Kentucky) and e) the biggest sleeper (Gonzaga) of the tournament. That being said, it will come down to whether or not Ty Lawson is healthy for the Tar Heels. As the Florida State game showed, they are not outstanding without their star point guard and they need him if they want to advance far. Hansbrough and the rest of the senior-laced squad can carry them to the Sweet 16, but they will need a healthy Lawson from there on out or it could be game over. I don’t think Oklahoma has what it takes to win the regional and Syracuse is bound to fade on their crazy hot streak playing the best basketball in the nation, which leaves one other team: the Gonzaga Bulldogs. They have quietly dominated this year and could come out of nowhere and take this regional by surprise.
Who is the Biggest Sleeper? Obviously I am going with Dionte Christmas and the Temple Owls. I can’t tell you enough how good this guy is. I watched him vs. Tennessee earlier this year when he dropped 35 on the Vols and fell in love with him. Bill Raftery was having way too much fun with the “Christmas” puns during the game, but all I saw was a fierce competitor and a solid supporting cast, especially Ryan Brooks and Lavoy Allen. I think they beat the Sun Devils and after that, Syracuse really does not have an answer for Christmas (Devendorf and Rautins don’t play great defense) and you could see an 11 seed jump into the Sweet 16. From there, we all know it’s about staying hot. I’m just saying…
Who Wins the Final Four and Why? All four of these teams know how to turn it on at the right time which is why I chose them to get to Detroit. If Wake Forest wins it, it will be because all that talent has found their groove at the right time, as well as Jeff Teague lighting it up every game. For UConn, it will start with Hasheem Thabeet and what he is able to do in the tournament. We saw that a big man like Greg Oden can get a team to the National Championship, and that Ohio State team was not as good as this UConn team, despite their record being better. A.J. Price will need to run this team and UConn’s big role players will need to step up, and I believe they will. For UNC, it will be Ty Lawson’s health status and whether or not his big toe his healthy. The talent is there but the offense starts and ends with Lawson. For Villanova, much like Wake Forest, they will need to stay hot and keep shooting well from outside as well as Dante Cunningham pacing them from the inside.
In the end, UConn will take the cake due to their outstanding balance and senior point guard leadership. Yes, they lost to Pittsburgh twice this year, but they crushed Louisville and Marquette on the road and beat Syracuse, Villanova, and Gonzaga this year. The ability to beat anyone is there and I believe Jim Calhoun will have these guys ready. It hasn’t been the pick everyone is talking about (everyone is taking Louisville and North Carolina, it seems) but I just get that gut feeling that they will do it this year. Price and Thabeet get it done, Dyson or not.
It’s the greatest time of the year and I believe the second best day in the sports world (behind only the NFC and AFC Championship games), it’s the NCAA First Round that starts in a couple hours. Good luck on your brackets and enjoy the games!
Every year, painstaking hours go in to countless amounts of brackets, trying to figure out which team will come out on top in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Do you go with the consistent team of seniors, the fast paced, high scoring team, or the shutdown defensive squad that will be in every game? It’s a tough question to answer year in and year out, because if it was easy Las Vegas would be out of business. But to make the process a little easier (luck still being very much involved), I think I have narrowed down the four most important factors in determining who will win the NCAA Tournament. Now remember, multiple teams may have these four factors, but it is who can act on them the best that will hoist the trophy at the end of each year in April. I have looked at the last 10 NCAA winners, dating back to the 1999 Connecticut Huskies and looked at what made these teams so well round and put together. From there, I found the four factors that are ranked in order of importance.
1. A point guard that, when his points and assists are combined, total at least 17, and a free throw percentage better than 70%. If free throw percentage is under 70%, points + assists must equal at least 20.
2. A forward/center that, when his points and rebounds are combined, total at least 17, and has a field goal percentage better than 52%.
3. Have a starting lineup with an average of at least a junior, OR have 2 of the best three players on the team be underclassmen.
1. A point guard that, when his points and assists are combined, total at least 17, and a free throw percentage better than 70%. If free throw percentage is under 70%, points + assists must equal at least 20.
To me, this is the single most important factor when looking at teams that I believe have a chance at winning the NCAA Tournament each year. It’s the reason that Marquette is struggling so much without Dominic James and the reasons Connecticut and Pittsburgh have enjoyed the success they have had this year. Don’t forget about Davidson last year, either. Yes, Stephen Curry was fantastic but his point guard, Jason Richards, led the nation in assists and was a key component to the Wildcats doing so well in March. It’s true that the point guard position goes a lot deeper than points, assists, and free throw percentage, and that stats like A/TO ratio, field goal percentage, and even intangibles need to be taken into account. However, there is a pretty sharp correlation based on the three stats I chose, and if you think about the point guards on the list below, they had just about everything a national championship was looking for. Going to that chart, the last ten national champions have point guards that have fallen underneath this category. The reason I put the last part into the equation was because Jay Williams and Raymond Felton would not have had the credentials to fall underneath this factor, and they were arguably two of the best three point guards on that list. If you shoot under 75% from the charity stripe (which I consider to be a solid free throw percentage), you had better make up for it in any other way that you can, and clearly Williams and Felton did so, with Williams averaging over 21 points per game and Felton averaging 7 assists per game. Taliek Brown from the 2004 UConn Huskies did not make the cut, but you have to take into consideration who was around him. Ben Gordon dished out 4.5 assists per game and he had Emeka Okafor in the post, who was the best player in basketball that year. If you do not have a point guard that falls under this category, it would be important for that team to have a big man equivalent to Okafor (see Oklahoma later). Looking at this year’s tournament teams ranked 1-5, there were six teams that do not have a player on their roster that would fall underneath this category. They are Xavier, Louisville, Utah, Oklahoma, Gonzaga, Missouri, Washington, and Purdue. If you want to include Terrance Williams in the debate, then Louisville would be off of this list, but still the fact that 8 of the top 20 teams in the tournament lack a point guard worthy of taking his team to national championship is surprising. As I said earlier, there will be multiple teams that have a certain factor accomplished, and of those 12 teams in the top 20 of the tournament, this is how each player ranks: The last thing to remember here is that it really isn’t a huge deal where you rank on this list, but rather just that you are on it. For example, Levance Fields and A.J. Price are ranked 9th and 10th on that list, but when push comes to shove I am taking either of them over the majority of the guys ahead of them on that list. Also, if you refer back to the top, Mateen Cleaves is lower on that list than Kalin Lucas is, and if you were to ask most Michigan State fans, the comparison right now is really not that close. Also on the above table, Mario Chalmers has one of the lowest combined score, yet we all know how important he was in the tournament for the Jayhawks.
2. A forward/center that, when his points and rebounds are combined, total at least 17, and has a field goal percentage better than 54%.
Coming in at a close second place to the most important factor in the tournament is a presence of a big man. Not only does he give you high percentage shots, but can also lure in defenders that leave jump shooters open and can shut down teams in the paint on defense. If a team has a solid big man, it can change the way that the game is played and how the other team prepares for him. You look at this year and Tyler Hansbrough has been a nightmare for defenses, DeJuan Blair comes out of nowhere in his first game vs. UConn to truly show how important a big man can be, and also Hasheem Thabeet, affecting just about every offensive possession teams have against the Huskies. Just as it was for the point guard spot, this factor misses a few elements that some would argue are more important such as blocks, fouls and the always important intangibles. But once again, a player that can do well on the offensive end usually has talent overall, and as you will see every guy on this list has a passion for the game that will take his team deep into the tourney if everything clicks. Going back to the past 10 tournament winners, it amazed me how every team (except the Michigan State Spartans) had an absolute force inside. There wasn’t one player on the list that I didn’t think about and say, “Wow, he really did make the difference for that team in the tournament”. All the way from Emeka Okafor’s dominating performance, down to Darrell Arthur shutting down Joey Dorsey in the championship game before getting him to foul out. It’s debatable that this is even more important than having a stud point guard. The big boys in the front court are more consistent on a game-to-game basis, permitting they do not get into foul trouble and at times can change more parts to a game than a smaller guy could. Another thing to note for teams that do not have a big man but have solid guard play, the Michgan State Spartans did not have much of a force inside but used their guard play of Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, and Charlie Bell to will their way to a title, so don’t be upset if your team did not make the cut for this year’s tournament. Also, the 52% field goal mark was chosen based on this year’s big men and how they have shot from the field. Clearly from the last 10-year mark, the players that cut down the nets were higher than that for the most part. Moving forward to this year’s top 20 ranked tournament teams, the only teams that do not have a player to fall under this category are Duke, Memphis, Washington, Florida State, and Louisville. Just as it was for the guards, ranking is not that big of a deal, but rather being on that list means that you have the minimum credentials for what we have seen to be national champions come April. Also, one quick note is that there were a few teams that had two player fall under this category and they were Oklahoma (Tyler Griffin), UConn (Jeff Adrien), Gonzaga (Austin Daye), and Syracuse (Paul Harris).
3. Have a starting lineup with an average of at least a junior, OR have 2 of the best three players on the team be underclassmen.
Everyone knows that it is vital to have a team that has been to the tournament or has some big game experience. Young teams that have not been together as long do not have the same chemistry as a Pittsburgh or a Marquette or a North Carolina. They also most likely have not played in as big of games as the NCAA Tournament and definitely not on the same national stage. What I did for this factor was consider the last 10 national champions and how young or old they were when they won it. Simple math says that Freshman = 1, Sophomore = 2, Junior = 3, and Senior = 4. For all but three teams, the starting lineup average was over three. For the three teams that did not fall under the same category, they all had sophomores or freshman that led the team in scoring or could be considered the team’s best players. Those were Duke in 2001, who had four sophomores including Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy to go with senior leader Shane Battier, then came Syracuse in 2003 that was clearly led by freshman Carmelo Anthony and underclassmen Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara. The third team to fall under an average of a junior were the Florida Gators, who had four sophomores. Those sophomores were also the reason the team won the national championship in Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and point guard Taurean Green. The other seven national champions had an average that was greater than a junior, so what I decided was that, despite the disadvantage a younger team has, if their young players are really that good then they should be taken in as having the experience factor because clearly they are being thrown into the line of fire right away and succeeding at it. Out of this year’s tournament teams, the teams that did not fall under this category were Duke, Florida State, Kansas, Wake Forest, Oklahoma, Syracuse, Washington, Illinois, and Purdue. Out of those teams, the ones that still make the cut (2 of the 3 best players are underclassmen) are Duke, Kansas, Wake Forest, Oklahoma, Syracuse, and Purdue. That leaves the only teams that are inexperienced in the wrong places being Florida State, Washington, and Illinois. The graph below shows each team above a “3 average” and who is the oldest.
If I had to make a fourth factor in who does well in the tournament, it would probably come down to either head coaching, perimeter jump shooting, or free throw shooting. Anyways, these are my big three factors and I will break this down and tell you what it means for this year’s tournament and who is going to succeed, but to end the blog let’s take a look at each team and see how many check marks each team received in the factor department. In regards to the experience factor, if a team fell underneath the sophomore rule but passed the test, I counted it in the tally and there is an asterisk next to their number. And the last thing I want to preach to anyone out there reading is that these are simply numbers based on the last ten years. The numbers may be different from the last 20 and there is a chance that Louisville can win the national title. All this shows is that Lousiville does not the same make-up of a team that won the title 10 years ago. I think that Lousiville could potentially be a Final Four Team, but what these stats show, based on my factors, is that the Cardinals will not be hoisting the trophy come April. Enjoy and leave me comments!