In the wake of Florida’s SEC Tournament Championship Sunday afternoon, Neil Shulman wrote here that Florida had a relatively “easy” path to the Final Four. Latching onto Billy Donovan’s father’s comments that “the committee didn’t do us (Florida) any favors”, I’ll disagree to some extent as I set out to preview Florida’s regional for the NCAA Tournament, which opened Tuesday night but starts in full tomorrow at noon.
Much more on every team in the bracket, much like my SEC Tournament preview (I looked really smart about UF-Tennessee for 35 minutes, didn’t I?), in a couple of paragraphs but first some more general thoughts about the Gators’ bracket.
First, Florida’s bracket features two teams playing exceptionally well right now, UCLA and Stephen F. Austin, and both are on the Gators side of things. The Bruins just polished off a Pac 12 Tournament championship, which they won by beating another 1 seed, Arizona, and doing it in front of a heavily pro-Wildcat crowd. The Bruins are peaking at the right time. As for upstart Stephen F. Austin, they have the nation’s longest home winning streak– a fact most Gators fans are already aware of– but here’s something more interesting: they’re one of two teams in America (Wichita State) who have won more games in a row than the Gators and they won fourteen road games this season. People are not flocking to Nacogoches, Texas to play the Lumberjacks, so they had to play most the out-of-conference away from their home fortress. It didn’t matter. They just kept winning. Sound familiar?
Second, Florida’s region features three coaches who are in the argument for top five in America, along with Billy Donovan, and another who is one of the game’s fastest risers. Coaching comes right before “great point guard” in the Winning in March for Dummies book (authored by Tom Izzo, am I right?), and Kansas’ Bill Self, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Ohio State’s Thad Matta fit that bill. They join VCU’s Shaka Smart, one of the game’s brightest young minds, in the region along with Billy Donovan. Boeheim has one national title and a handful of Final Fours. His resume is nearly unparalleled and his teams almost always peak at tournament time. Bill Self has won TEN CONSECUTIVE BIG XII championships. That’s patently absurd in a great, not good, basketball league. Self has also won a national championship. Thad Matta doesn’t have a national title– but he does have multiple Final Fours and a Hall of Fame coaching resume, and this year, he’s got a tremendous point guard. Beyond that, Jaime Dixon is a very good coach at Pitt, and Craig Neal, who played under Bobby Cremins at Georgia Tech, is a promising young coach at New Mexico. Quite a group.
Third, speaking of Syracuse…they are one of a pair of teams in the Gators bracket trending in the wrong direction. When you watch Syracuse play, they look tired and they look like every offensive possession is a struggle. They’ve got horrendous losses to Boston College at home and Georgia Tech at home in the last month, and they were upset early in the ACC tournament by a TJ Warren and pray for help NC State ball club. These are all bad signs– but don’t take them so seriously that you write Syracuse’s tenacious zone defense off immediately. The Orange have a great point guard, a Hall of Fame coach, and they played well enough to win against NC State, but caught TJ Warren on a great day. That happens in tournament play.
Finally, if I had to choose one word for this bracket, it would be “coaches”, edging out “injury.” I’ve mentioned the coaching talent. So..injuries. Three teams in Florida’s bracket are dealing with injuries that could impact how this bracket shapes up come Sunday evening. Syracuse has struggled immensely on offense since Jerami Grant went out with back spasms. Grant is back, but how healthy he is remains an enormous question. He’s an enormous key to their spacing on the offensive side of the floor, and probably a large reason CJ Fair was so hard to defend early in the year because Grant really limits who you can trap and double team.
Meanwhile, Kansas is not the same team under any stretch of the imagination without center Joel Embiid. Embiid’s back may improve enough for him to play in the Sweet 16, but without him they are a mediocre defensive team without a rim protector, and they aren’t nearly as devastating on the offensive glass. When their guards miss jump shots, they are easier to defend, and if you have big men, you can give them problems. New Mexico is a very difficult potential second round game.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, VCU is without Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year Melvin Johnson, at least for the opening weekend. That’s a problem because Johnson is one of the Rams’ best perimeter shooters and instrumental in the “havoc” press. He’ll be missed- perhaps as early as the Round of 64.
Let’s do the team previews, in seeding order.
(16) Albany Great Danes
19-14 regular season, America East Tournament Champion
Ken Pomeroy Ranking: 176 (Offense, 222; Defense 135)
Best Win: Vermont, which helped them capture the America East Championship
Worst Loss: Hard to say– they lost multiple games in a small league.
Best Player: Peter Hooley. One of a handful of Australians on the Great Danes roster, Hooley is lethal from the arc (over 40 percent) and he’s quick too. Coach Will Brown will use different types of screening and handoff action to free him up outside and he’ll fire at will. You can almost count on him hitting some threes against the Gators tomorrow afternoon. How many will dictate how long the game is interesting.
Biggest Weakness: Turnovers. The Danes turn the ball over at an alarming 20 percent clip– that’s once every five possessions. Anyone can figure out that this is damaging, but it is even more so when you have limited depth and are really reliant on perimeter jump shots falling.
Best Case: Already Achieved It. The Great Danes defeated Mount Saint Mary’s last night to earn the trip to Orlando. Now it is about earning the nation’s respect. They are not going to beat senior-laden Florida led by Billy Donovan tomorrow afternoon.
Prediction: Loss to Florida, Round of 64.
(15) Eastern Kentucky Colonels
24-9, Ohio Valley Tournament Champion
Ken Pom Ranking: 124 (Offense- 47, Defense 225)
Best Win: Two wins over Belmont, a tough team from Nashville that beat North Carolina this year and pushed both Kentucky and Duke. An overtime loss to VCU should also keep folks on their toes.
Worst Loss: This team lost to SIU-Edwardsville, who finished close to last in the Ohio Valley conference.
Best Player: Glenn Cosey, who is the best scorer and perimeter shooter among a talented group of guards. Cosey can also get to the line because he’s quick off the bounce and likes to drive to open up cleaner perimeter looks for teammates. Cosey is also the focal point of a pressure defense that forced nearly 25 turnovers a game– a fortunate thing because if you can beat the traps, the Colonels don’t defend too well in the halfcourt.
Biggest Weakness: Rebounding. That’s a massive problem for a team that’s about to play Kansas, and it probably isn’t softened enough by the absence of Embiid to matter. I could see EKU giving a different two seed– say, Villanova– trouble in this field because they really can get rolling from the perimeter, but when you give up 6 rebounds a game (last in the Ohio Valley), you aren’t going to be able to exploit the interior weaknesses of the Jayhawks at an alarming enough clip.
Best Case: Round of 64, losing close. It’s a big “if”, but let’s say the Colonels are hot enough on the perimeter to keep things close with Kansas, and Kansas’ guards, who don’t scare you like usual, turn the ball over a great deal. Then you’d have a ballgame. Again- the problem is WHO Eastern Kentucky is playing– Kansas is just too dominant on the glass (even without Embiid) for the Colonels to slay a giant.
Prediction: Round of 64 exit to Kansas.
(14) Western Michigan Broncos
23-9, MAC Tournament Champions
Ken Pom: 112 (Offense 130, Defense 121)
Best Win: A good Toledo squad, twice.
Worst Loss: Home to an atrocious Bowling Green squad.
Best Player: Shayne Whittington. The 6’11 Whittington is really a “stretch four” (think bootleg Doug McDermott or post-up-capable Erik Murphy) but he plays center for the Broncos. He’s a decent enough passer and will shoot (and make) the three when left alone on the outside. He was the Broncos’ second-leading scorer and should probably play in the NBA next season. Whittington also keys the defense, as he’s a capable shot blocker and a good rebounder, especially when the Broncos’ go (best Bill Raftery voice “Man to Man!!”
Biggest Weakness: Turnovers, offensive options. Outside of Whittington and guard David Brown, the Broncos don’t get a great deal of offense from anyone else on their roster (only undersized Connar Tava also scores in double figures). They also turn the ball over at a higher rate than anyone in the South Regional (21 percent), which could spell disaster against the long, athletic Syracuse zone.
Best Case: Round of 64, close. It’s extremely unlikely, but with a pro in Whittington and an all-conference type talent in Brown, the Broncos could push Syracuse if the Orange are flat. The problem, of course, is that you have to shoot over the 2-3 zone of Syracuse to pressure them, and the Broncos just don’t make enough jump shots on the perimeter (24 percent).
Prediction: Loss to Syracuse in Round of 64.
(13) Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
21-12, Conference USA Regular Season, Tournament Champions
Ken Pom: 65 (Offense, 162, Defense, 26)
Best Win: Beat all three Conference USA Co-Champions: Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, and Middle Tennessee State; played Creighton close in Omaha
Worst Loss: Oral Roberts, a run-of-the-mill Southland Conference foe, defeated them on the season’s opening night. It has gotten better since.
Best Player: James Woodard, who leads a sharp-shooting and quick group of guards for Kansas legend Danny Manning’s club. Woodard has saved his best for March too. He scored 70 points in the Golden Hurricanes last three games, and is averaging 20-plus a night during Tulsa’s current eleven game winning streak.
Biggest Weakness: Perimeter-happy for a team that only shoots 32.5 beyond the arc. That number is somewhat deceiving– during the 11 game winning streak Manning’s young team is shooting at 35 percent. That’s a better figure because three pointers account for over 40 percent of Tulsa’s shots on any given night.
Best Case: Round of 32. I’m not sure either VCU or Stephen F. Austin would be a great matchup for Danny Manning’s club, but they do defend with tenacity. It’s all man-to-man sets and it is all good– their defensive efficiency mark puts them in the company of teams like Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Tennessee and Syracuse– so you know they can make stops. Can they make enough threes to upset UCLA? The thinking here is they can if only because UCLA is one of the weaker high seeds, defensively, in the bracket.
Prediction: Loss to UCLA, Round of 64. Close for a team that features mostly sophomores. They’ll be back. They’ll get better.
(12) Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
31-2, Southland Conference Regular Season and Tournament Champions
Ken Pom: 55 (Offense, 45, Defense, 85)
Best Win: Three wins over conference runner-up Sam Houston State
Worst Loss: They didn’t lose much, but one of the losses was a bit of a red flag– at Atlantic Sun also-ran East Tennessee State early in the year
Best Player: 6’6 forward Jacob Parker, who has the midrange jumper Casey Prather wants to have and can slash to the rim, draw fouls and hit free throws. He’s also rebounding at a 7 points a night clip, and has the quickness to give great help defense on switches and the size and athleticism to alter shots underneath. This wasn’t a really easy call, however– the Lumberjacks have started the same five in 31 games this season. They understand each other and play together.
Biggest Weakness: Size underneath and halfcourt defense. The Lumberjacks, like the team they will play in the opening round, swarm to the ball and will gamble to turn you over on the defensive end. In the Southland, it worked every time (literally, the team went 18-0 in the conference) because they have good, if not great talent and a scheme unique to that league. Outside of it, it could hurt them because once you get into halfcourt sets, they lack a big man to control the game underneath the hoop. Opponents shot 45 percent against the Lumberjacks, which explains the oddly low defensive efficiency ranking (89) given how often they turn opponents over (24.7 percent, or nearly once every four possessions.)
Best Case: Sweet 16. Because UCLA doesn’t defend particularly well, it isn’t outrageous to suggest the Lumberjacks could win two games in March. What will be interesting is whether Stephen F. Austin can “out-VCU VCU”, who shouldn’t be too troubled by the chaotic defense the Lumberjacks play. After all, Shaka Smart’s club rode that defense to a Final Four not too long ago, and they see it every day in practice.
Prediction: Round of 64. Again, this isn’t because I hate upsets but rather because upsets in the tournament are almost always matchup-based. Sure, lightning strikes on occasion (Norfolk State vs. Mizzou, 2012), but more often, it is about system beating weakness (FGCU vs. Georgetown, 2013). Shaka Smart’s “havoc”, even sans Melvin Johnson, is about as bad a 5-12 matchup as the Lumberjacks could have gotten, if you buy into the theory that it is always most difficult to beat a team with better talent by doing precisely what they do. I subscribe to that theory.
(11) Dayton Flyers
23-10, At-Large, Atlantic Ten Conference
Ken Pom: 51 (Offense, 32, Defense, 103)
Best Win: At Saint Louis in March; Beat Gonzaga on a neutral floor in November.
Worst Loss: A Bad USC team from the Pac 12; a bad Rhode Island team in conference.
Best Player: Devin Oliver, a 6’7 forward who leads the team in multiple statistical categories and can beat you inside or outside– he shoots 40 percent from beyond the arc but around 50 percent overall. Oliver paces a very potent offense that passes exceptionally well and is lethal in transition. Ohio State transfer Jordan Sibert is probably the most fascinating story in this game– he’ll play his old team and he’s playing great basketball, leading the team in scoring and shooting a team-best 44 percent beyond the stripe.
Biggest Weakness: They lack an inside scoring presence if you slow tempo and guard the three point line. If that sounds like what Ohio State and Thad Matta can do, then you get the idea…
Best Case: Round of 32. The Flyers are an outstanding rebounding team (limiting opponents to 29 percent of their own misses) and a good-enough three point team to test Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, but they lack the creative, go-to-scorer in the halfcourt to win that game against superior athletes. Ohio State isn’t a great club, however, and giving Aaron Craft a run for his money would be just fine for Dayton, who insist that the Buckeyes won’t schedule them out of conference because it is just too risky.
Prediction: Round of 32. The Flyers have exactly the kind of efficient offense you need to defeat an Ohio State team that really struggles to score the basketball. It will be tough to see Aaron Craft go out in the Round of 64, but his legacy in Columbus is secure. I don’t think Ohio State can control the tempo enough to pull this game out, and look for the upset.
(10) Stanford Cardinal
21-12, Pac 12 At-Large
Ken Pom: 36 (Offense, 39, Defense, 59)
Best Win: At UCONN in December; Beat UCLA at home in February.
Worst Loss: At a bad Oregon State club in conference, crushed by UCLA in rubber-match in conference tournament.
Best Player: Chasson Randle is easily the Cardinal’s best player, averaging nearly nineteen points a contest. He can beat you attacking the rim and from outside (39.7). Undersized four Josh Huestis gets runner-up mention here– he’s the Cardinal’s leading rebounder and the one guy Johnny Dawkins must have on the floor nearly all the time. Huestis averaged 36 minutes a game this year, and he actually played 39 or 40 minutes four times in the final six games- a staggering number that has everything to do with Stanford’s lack of frontcourt depth.
Biggest Weakness: Depth. Mentioned above, but note that the Cardinal’s bench average only around eight points a game. That’s not much production and could spell an early exit this week.
Best Case: Round of 32. Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis will have their hands full against New Mexico’s potent frontcourt, which will really place the emphasis on the Cardinal to help on defense and, alternatively, dictate tempo. It’s not that the Lobos can’t play you in a tough halfcourt game, but Noodles Neal’s club doesn’t want to, really. Stanford can win if they pick their spots in terms of when to run, and if the big men stay out of foul trouble and score.
Prediction: Lose to New Mexico in Round of 64.
(9) Pittsburgh Panthers
25-9, At-Large, ACC
Ken Pom: 16 (Offense, 18, Defense, 34)
Best Win: Crushed Stanford in November on a neutral floor. After that, there isn’t much to see here, save a “we held on” win over UNC at the ACC tournament.
Worst Loss: Home loss to Florida State. Otherwise, the Panthers beat who they should beat, lost who they should lose to, and played everyone close.
Best Player: Lamar Patterson. It is ridiculous this guy wasn’t on the midseason and end-of-year Wooden Award list, not because he would have won but because he is the key to Pitt’s offense, and he’s the reason they can stretch defenses a bit more than recent Jaime Dixon teams. Patterson’s jump shot is a work of priceless art. Beyond Patterson, 6’9 center Talib Zanna is a strong body near the rim who moves well for his size and is tenacious on the glass, averaging 3.5 ORB and 8.5 TRB a night. He’s one of the only big men in America who won’t look weak next to Patric Young, should they meet in round two.
Biggest Weakness: Size and three point defense, which seems odd for a Pitt team. Despite how good Zanna is on the glass, and the fact that the Panthers have a reasonably decent rebounding rate (+3), they lack anyone beyond Zanna who is above 6’8. Even more odd, Dixon’s old teams used to lock you down on the perimeter and force you to out-tough them inside. They still want you to out-tough them, but they allow 34 percent makes on the perimeter (140 nationally) and if you hit jump shots (see, Duke) you can handle them.
Best Case: Elite 8. There were flashes at the ACC tournament, where they beat UNC worse than the score and pushed Virginia in a one-possession slugfest. Lamar Patterson gives them a superstar, which you’ll often find on a major conference March Cinderella. They have just enough offense to beat every team in front of them on the way to the Elite 8, and Dixon is no stranger to extended tournament runs (two Sweet 16’s already).
Prediction: Round of 32. I think the Panthers will dispatch of Colorado handily in the Round of 64 but will fall in a close until the last five minutes Round of 32 game against Florida. It is just too difficult to see UF losing to an offensively-limited club like Pitt in what essentially will be a Gators home game.
More to come. The comments, as always, are yours.