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It’s that time of year again. The field is set. Brackets are filled out. Gus Johnson is sitting on the edge of his couch, waiting to yell “I’m Doug McDermott, and I get buckets!” at his TV whenever the Dougie drains a three.
This year’s tournament is the most unpredictable since at least 2011, when Connecticut took advantage of a weak bracket (no No. 1 seeds made the Final Four) and a hot stretch from point guard Kemba Walker to make an unlikely run to the title game. This year, the field is abnormally strong; if Florida, Arizona, Wichita State or Virginia fail to advance to North Texas it will be due to the depth of their region rather than their own weaknesses.
That’s not to say the top teams are flawless. Florida and Virginia lack players who can create their own shots and Arizona doesn’t have a consistent three-point shooter. Wichita State has played flawlessly, but against vastly inferior competition. But all four teams share one factor that makes them exceptionally tough outs: great defense.
None of the No. 1 seeds allow more than 0.92 points per possession, all ranking in the top 12 nationally in that category. The last two national champions both finished in the top 10 in points allowed per possession, so there is a precedent for one of the top seeds to make a run.
But that won’t be easy. This year’s field is unusually deep and each No. 1 seed has at least three teams in its region capable of an upset. The selection committee had an excess of quality teams, but they still made two baffling mistakes that could hurt an otherwise-great tournament.
Let’s start with those.
You got screwed (snub edition): Southern Methodist Mustangs
SMU’s exclusion from the field is by far the selection committee’s most head-scratching decision. The Mustangs (23-9, 12-6) are too good a team to end their season in the NIT. Like any team coached by Larry Brown (yes, that Larry Brown), they play great defense. They allow only 0.94 points per possession, 16th in the nation, and hold opponents to just 38 percent shooting, 5th in the country.
Ken Pomeroy ranked SMU 32nd in the nation, better than 37 tournament teams. Pomeroy ranked Nebraska, perhaps the most surprising bubble team to make the cut, 48th. The Huskers (19-12, 11-7) are 60th in the nation in points allowed per possession. The selection committee chose Nebraska because of their strength of schedule; the Huskers’ is ranked 19th while SMU’s is 121st. Still, Nebraska’s best win, at Michigan State on Feb. 19th, is no more impressive than the Mustangs’ 21-point blowout of No. 5-seed Cincinnati 11 days earlier. The Huskers aren’t undeserving, but their resume is no better than SMU’s, and any tournament without Larry Brown is a significantly less interesting one.
You got screwed (Group of Death edition): Wichita State Shockers
Well, we’re about to learn how good Wichita State is. The selection committee obviously didn’t respect the Shockers’ (34-0, 18-0) 110th-ranked schedule when they seeded Wichita State in a region with last year’s finalists, No. 4-seed Louisville and No. 2-seed Michigan. The committee also threw Duke, Kentucky, Arizona State and Kansas State into the Midwest region. To get to the Final Four, the Shockers will likely have to play the Wildcats, the Cardinals and either the Wolverines or Blue Devils, in that order.
But the committee’s greatest mistake with the Midwest Region is the team they didn’t include. By seeding Kansas No. 2 in the South, they removed the possibility of a Jayhawks-Shockers matchup in the Elite Eight. Kansas has long refused to play Wichita State despite the wishes of, well, everyone. The committee could easily have swapped the Jayhawks for Michigan without diluting the Midwest’s toughness. And by placing the Jayhawks in the South, the committee set Kansas up for an early failure against this year’s potential sleeper team. Speaking of which…
They’ll ruin your bracket: New Mexico Lobos
Yes, the No. 7 seed, 17th-ranked, major(ish)-conference champion Lobos (27-6, 15-3) are more prominent than most bracket busters. They’re also the most under-seeded team in the tournament.
The selection committee must have been wary of placing them higher after they lost to 14th-seeded Harvard in the first round last year, but New Mexico is a vastly improved team from a season ago. Washing the stench of Steve Alford from their program should get them out of the first round alone. It doesn’t hurt that they have the best frontcourt in the nation, either. Junior center Alex Kirk and senior forward Cameron Bairstow combine for 34 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks per game. Their combined rebounding percentage is an insane 55 percent. Both players can score in the low post, and Bairstow is effective from midrange.
Those two are the key if the Lobos are to get past their potential second-round matchup with Kansas. The Jayhawks (24-9, 14-4) beat New Mexico, 80-63, on Dec. 14, a game dominated by Kansas’ freshman center Joel Embiid. The Cameroonian phenom racked up 18 points on 83 percent shooting, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks, and held Kirk to 5 points. But Embiid will miss the tournament’s first weekend with a back injury, and Kansas has no other big men to contain the Lobos’ dynamic duo. If New Mexico beats the Jayhawks, they’ll have a winnable Sweet Sixteen game, likely against Ohio State or slumping Syracuse.
They’ll ruin your bracket, too (by letting you down hard): Arizona Wildcats
Wichita State may have drawn the toughest region of any No. 1 seed, but Arizona (30-4, 15-3) will be the first top seed to lose. Their potential second-round game against Oklahoma State is a nightmare scenario for the Wildcats. The Cowboys (21-12, 8-10) were perhaps this year’s most disappointing team, but they rebounded from a midseason seven-game losing streak to win five of their final seven games heading into the tournament.
Oklahoma State doesn’t have the interior size that Arizona does (junior center Marek Soucek, the Cowboys’ only 7-footer, plays just three minutes a game), but the Wildcats haven’t played against a backcourt as good as Oklahoma State’s. Sophomore point guard Marcus Smart, at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, dwarfs Arizona’s starting backcourt. The future lottery pick averaged 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals per game, and his 26.7 PER is good. He lacks range on his jump shot but is an elite slasher and good finisher who excels at drawing contact.
Smart is also one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He’s a bad matchup for junior guard Nick Johnson, the Wildcats’ leading scorer. Arizona senior point guard T.J. McConnell plays with the speed and dexterity of Andre Miller. The Wildcats simply don’t have the size or athletes on the perimeter to compete with Smart, senior shooting guard Markel Brown and junior swingman Le’Bryan Nash. Arizona’s best interior players, sophomore center Kaleb Tarczewski and freshman forward Aaron Gordon, haven’t shown that they can take over games with their scoring when the Wildcats don’t get points from the perimeter. The Wildcats’ losses this season have come against teams with great guards (see: Cobb, Justin; Carson, Jahii). They’re a great team, but they got an unlucky draw.
If you don’t know him, you will soon: Caris LeVert, sophomore guard, Michigan Wolverines
Last year, Michigan sophomore center Mitch McGary thrust himself into the national spotlight with brutal screens and timely rebounding during the Wolverines’ run to the Final Four. This year, it’s his teammate, LeVert, who needs to assert himself if Michigan is to make another run.
At 6-foot-6, LeVert is big enough to play small forward, though he’s naturally a shooting guard. LeVert is second on the Wolverines in scoring (13 ppg) and three-point shooting (40 percent) to fellow sophomore guard Nik Stauskas, but LeVert sets himself apart because he’s Michigan’s only player who can consistently create his own shots. Stauskas was the Big Ten player of the year, and he’s an excellent distributor and spot-up shooter, but he’s an average ball-handler and struggles to create shots off the dribble.
LeVert is lanky and athletic, quick enough to drive and a shifty ball-handler who can create for himself in isolation sets and ball screens. In fact, per Synergy Sports, 39 percent of LeVert’s offense comes from isos and screens. He also shoots an insane 47 percent from the top of the key; any team that goes under a LeVert pick-and-roll is begging him to drain an off-the-dribble three. Because of Michigan’s struggles with half-court offense this year, the Wolverines will need LeVert to create offense in tight games during the tournament, especially in the tough Midwest region.
Run, Ralphie, run! (To the second round)
The good news: the Buffs are seeded higher than anyone expected. The bad news: Colorado will face Florida in the second round if they get past Pittsburgh on Thursday. That won’t be easy. Fifth-year senior swingman Lamar Patterson is one of the best wings in the ACC, and he is the Panthers’ entire offense. His 18 points, 4 assists, 40 percent three-point shooting, 25 PER, 30 assist percentage and 29 percent usage rate all lead the team. Patterson has perhaps the sweetest jumper in the country. The Buffs’ perimeter defense has been awful all year; they need to double-team Patterson outside. Colorado coach Tad Boyle spoke about the danger Patterson presents.
“He has great size, he shoots the ball from the perimeter, he’s a great passer,” Boyle said. “The more I’ve watched, the more I’ve learned, the more I respect him.”
Colorado can pay him extra attention without sacrificing much interior defense. Senior forward Talib Zanna is the only other Panther averaging more than 10 points per game. His 9 rebounds a game lead Pitt; no one else on the team averages more than four.
But the Panthers are a very good defensive team. They allow only 0.98 points per possession, and Boyle compared their strategy of hedging hard on ball screens to Colorado’s Pac-12 foil, Arizona. Still, Pitt is limited enough offensively that the Buffs should be able to advance to the second round for the second time in three years.
That matchup would be against the Florida, though, and almost hopeless for Colorado. The Gators (32-2, 18-0) have won 26 straight games and start four seniors, including point guard Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year and the best point guard in the country, and center Patric Young, the most freakishly jacked player in college hoops.
Three Florida players, Wilbekin, senior swingman Casey Prather and sophomore guard Michael Frazier, shoot 40 percent or better from deep. Frazier hit 11 threes in a March 4 game against South Carolina. The Gators don’t have an NBA prospect or a player who can create their own shot, but their elite defense gives them easy transition looks and they move well off the ball in the half court. The Buffs have little chance of advancing to the Sweet Sixteen unless Albany pulls the greatest upset in college basketball history in the first round.
But Albany won’t beat Florida. Neither will Colorado. Neither will anyone. The Gators are balanced offensively, allow only 0.91 points per possession and have an experienced staring corps that’s been to three straight Elite Eights. They play in a region where only Kansas, New Mexico and Syracuse can challenge them (and, realistically, none of those teams are on the Gators’ level). They have in Billy Donovan possibly the best coach in the country, a two-time national champion who excels at molding talent into teams. Florida has been the best team in the country all year, and they’ll be the best for six more games. They will dance to the title.
But who knows? Wofford could make a crazy run to win it all. This is March, after all.
Let the madness begin.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at Tommy.firstname.lastname@example.org.