The trick in the NCAA basketball tournament is figuring out which teams are the real contenders, which teams are pretenders, and which teams are sleepers to go deeper than people would think. In this segment we will delve into teams I love, those I hate, and those teams who are the most confusing in trying to predict. So without further ado, let’s get to it.
Kansas – There is no truly great team in college basketball this season, but the Jayhawks have been the best team in the country for most of the year. They have experience as they return eight of their top nine players from last year’s team that made it to the Sweet 16, and they are a matchup problem because of their size. They are a complete team that ranks fourth in the country in scoring offense (82.2 PPG) and 55th in scoring defense (63.6 PPG allowed). They are the favorite entering the tournament.
Syracuse – Coach Jim Boeheim’s famed 2-3 zone defense looks better than ever (ranked 20th in the country in opponents FG percentage, holding opponents to a mere 39.4 percent from the field). The Orange are a superb passing team, and they are incredibly balanced, with five players averaging double figures. They are not a deep team by any means, using just a seven man rotation, but their top seven players are as good as anyone’s top tier in the country. They are a legitimate title contender.
Ohio State – They are a phenomenal defensive team (ranked 20th in the nation in scoring defense) and they also rank 29th in the country in turnover margin (+3.0). Don’t be confused by all the hype that surrounds Kentucky’s John Wall; the Buckeyes have the best player in the country on their team in guard Evan Turner. Turner is averaging 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game, and, in a field with no great teams, the best player could carry a team to a title.
Maryland – I don’t think the Terrapins can win the title, but depending on their side of the bracket, I love them to get to the Elite 8. They have a great coach in Gary Williams, a great senior guard in Greivis Vasquez, and they are hot right now; winners of nine of their last 10 games. They don’t turn the ball over (28th in the country in turnover margin at +3.1), they knock down their free throws (68th in the nation in free throw percentage (72.1 percent), and they play stifling defense (12th among Division I teams in FG percentage defense – 38.4 percent).
Kentucky – The Wildcats are a very young team, with three of their top four players being freshman, and history shows that experience prevails in the tournament. They are also a poor free-throw shooting team (ranked 199th among Division 1 teams at 68.3 percent), a bad three-point shooting team (142nd among Division 1 teams at 34.9 percent), and they don’t take care of the ball (240th among Division 1 teams with 14.7 turnovers per game and are one of only eleven teams currently projected in the tournament that have a negative turnover margin).
Duke – We’ve seen this from the Blue Devils before; they get highly ranked, earn a high seed in the tournament, and then fall out around the Sweet 16. I know they got to the Elite 8 last year, but since their last championship in 2001, Duke has advanced past the Sweet 16 just twice. Duke’s stats all look good, and they do have three players who all average over 17 points per game, but they rely too much on the three for their success. They need to prove they are still a powerhouse who can win in a tournament setting before I pick them to go deep in the bracket.
Purdue: Just a few weeks ago I really liked the Boilermakers chances to go deep in the tournament, but that was before they lost forward Robbie Hummel for the season with a torn ACL. Hummel was arguably Purdue’s best player, and without him, everything changes. Though they are currently a No. 2 seed, I think Purdue could easily fall in the second round, and I don’t think they will find their way past the Sweet 16 with Hummel sidelined.
New Mexico – The Lobos are 28-3, the eighth ranked team in the country, and their conference (the Mountain West) is pretty strong this season. However, I’m still not a believer in New Mexico. Their stats look pretty strong overall, but they were compiled in on a weak schedule so they can’t be trusted as much as a team from a power conference. The Lobos have won 10 games this season by five points or less and they didn’t play the toughest of schedules. They are a terrible free throw shooting team (234th nationally at 66.8 percent) and a very small team, which means they will be mismatched inside in almost every matchup.
Georgetown – The Hoyas have dominating victories over Duke and Villanova, but they also have losses to Rutgers and Old Dominion. I don’t really trust the Hoyas, but they have shown that, if they turn it on, they are capable of a Final Four run. They will be the toughest team to predict when you go to fill out your bracket because they could really end up on either extreme of the spectrum. Stats don’t matter when it comes to Georgetown because it really depends on whether or not they decide to show up. They will make or break a lot of brackets, and that is certainly intriguing.
Villanova – What Villanova does best is score the ball, as they rank third in the country in points per game (82.8). Yet in their recent six game lull (2-4) the Wildcats are averaging 10 points less per contest (72.3). They are a very deep team that uses a 10-11 man rotation and is led by good, veteran guards. They are a great free-throw shooting team (12th in the nation at 75.1 percent), a good three-point shooting team (52nd in the country at a 37.2 percent clip) and they are a surprisingly good rebounding team (29th in the country in rebound margin at +5.2). The Wildcats could easily make another Final Four run, but if their scoring struggles continue a second round exit is just as possible.