How’s Your Bracket?
Selection Sunday has passed and the field of 64 has been locked in. Schools from across the nation will once again engage in the melee of basketball games on their quest to the Final Four in Dallas and eventually a national championship. In this edition of the Hot Corner, Knight Times editor J.T. Grugen breaks down what to watch for in this year’s installment of the “madness” and who could emerge as the last team standing.
South Region Preview:
The Florida Gators have returned to their dominance from the 2006 and 2007 seasons, earning the number one overall seed. In January, the competition in their region would be difficult to maneuver through in order to reach the final four. Two months later, the Gators are surrounded by a group of slumping teams. Following a 15-0 start, Big Ten powerhouse Ohio State tripped into the tournament with a 10-9 finish. Looks can be deceiving though: all nine losses were in conference play and none were by a double digit margin.
In the first round the Dayton Flyers would like to change that statistic for the Buckeyes. For several years, Ohio State refused to play their in-state competition for reasons never publically stated. Critics claimed the Buckeyes were “afraid” to play the Flyers, either way though, these two teams will meet in Buffalo, NY on Thursday. Factoring in the tension between these teams, Dayton’s determination, and the struggles of three seed Syracuse, the Flyers could be poised for a sweet sixteen run. From there, the final four is not out of the question.
Outside of the teams mentioned above, the only real threat to a Florida run to Dallas are the Kansas Jayhawks. Unlike last year though, this Kansas team has been plagued with injuries, most notably losing Joel Embiid which has led many to question the durability of KU. A rigorous regular season schedule has prepared Andrew Wiggins and a young Jayhawks team for the gauntlet of competition in the tournament. In the end though, experience will pay off for Florida, who already has a regular season victory over Kansas this year, as they easily march to the final four.
Prediction: Florida Gators
East Region Preview:
An ACC team with a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament usually brings to mind the likes of Duke and North Carolina. Not in 2014 though: for the first time since 1998, an ACC team other than the two atlantic juggernauts has claimed the throne atop their region. The Virginia Cavaliers have been on a roll since the new year: only suffering two losses in conference play, both of which were on the road and one included a close battle with the Duke Blue Devils. One of the glaring holes in this Virginia team though is their inability to score. Not often does a number one seed in the tournament place outside the top 250 in the nation in points per game.
Luckily, this region is stacked with teams that have struggled to score at times. In a potential sweet sixteen matchup, the Cavs could draw the Cincinnati Bearcats, who outside of Sean Kilpatrick have found difficulty putting points on the board. The same can be said about the four seed Michigan State Spartans. Tom Izzo’s squad nearly dropped out of the AP Poll due to a late season slide before winning the Big Ten Tournament over rival Michigan. When the calendar turns to March though, picking against the Spartans is a foolish move.
Senior Keith Appling has finally filled the mold of the team leader. Couple that with Izzo’s coaching and this could be the most powerful four seed we’ve seen in the tournament this millenium. Should the Spartans be eliminated before reaching Dallas, this year’s senior class would be the first under coach Tom Izzo to have never reached the final four in their four years attending the university. There’s a first time for everything, but Izzo’s squad is too dangerous this season. With potential challenges from Harvard and Virginia, Sparty prevails to emerge from the East and earn a date with Florida in the final four.
Prediction: Michigan State Spartans
West Region Preview:
In terms of big names and “attractive” tournament teams, outside of Arizona, the west region is a desert of dark horses ready to make noise in the final four. One of the most appealing first round games will be contested between Gonzaga and Oklahoma State in a battle of eight and nine seeds, the winner likely advancing to challenge top seed Arizona. The Marcus Smart suspension damaged the resume of the Cowboys towards the end of their Big 12 regular season campaign. With their star back in the lineup, Oklahoma State will still have their hands full with a Bulldogs team that finished 30-2 last season.
Either way, the Arizona Wildcats will be tested in the second round. Outside of this section of the region though, the west bracket seems relatively weak on paper. Teams such as Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and San Diego State all stumbled across the finish line to end the regular season, missing various opportunities to improve their tournament standing. In addition, this region consists of teams that prioritize defense with slow-tempo gameplans. For this reason, Arizona should have limited problems on their road to the final four. No defense in the west is good enough to keep up with the Wildcats.
Prediction: Arizona Wildcats
Midwest Region Preview:
Any debate over Wichita State and their tournament fate should be non-existent: this team earned a number one seed. The Missouri Valley Conference elites surprised everyone last year, taking their “Shockers” nickname and applying it all of college basketball. Wichita State reached the final four as a nine seed and tested eventual champion Louisville in a great semi-final game. Picking up where they left off this past November, Wichita State recently completed the rare perfect regular season in NCAA basketball, compiling a 34-0 record.
With a weak schedule on paper, many questioned how the Shockers would fare against tougher competition in March. Well, the committee certainly gave the headline team heading into this tournament no breaks whatsoever. Both teams from last year’s championship game are featured in this region: Michigan, a likely one seed should they have won the Big Ten Tournament, and Louisville, seeded at a head-scratching four spot. Add in the veteran tournament resumes of Duke and Kentucky with several other underseeded teams and the midwest will be survival of the fittest for college basketball powerhouses.
Who emerges in Dallas from this stacked bracket? The biggest trait needed to succeed here will be consistency. Michigan accels in this area as many overlook their difficult Big Ten schedule. In fact, any Big Ten team could have this argument. Four teams from that conference were ranked in the top five in the AP poll at one point this season. When conference play began, all four exchanged wins and losses, collectively hurting the conference. These tough, nail-biting games have already adapted Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin to the madness that ensues every year in the tournament. Therefore, Michigan could join their in-state rivals in Dallas to duel against two one seeds.
Prediction: Michigan Wolverines
Wichita State: Shock the World, Part II?
Lost in the shuffle of mayhem last year, Wichita State, a small university from Kansas in the heart of the Great Plains, became a compelling story coming out of March Madness 2013. Sure, there was the improbable run of a 15 seed to the sweet sixteen, a horrific broken leg injury that made Kevin Ware a household name for the wrong reasons, and Michigan’s comparison to the 90’s “Fab Five” team. Meanwhile, in the chaos of the west region, emerged the Shockers. After making quick work of the Pittsburgh Panthers, Wichita State upset the 31-2 Gonzaga Bulldogs, busting brackets everywhere and questioning the future seeding of non-power conference teams.
Perhaps that was deja vu as the Shockers are in a similar position. While most of the best competition had been eliminated by others, the resume for WSU’s victories is quite impressive. Should they have played Syracuse or Michigan rather than the red hot Louisville Cardinals, there’s a good chance a MVC team could have invaded the national championship. However, this team isn’t thinking about the if’s, their eyes are on the six wins needed to move into the winner’s circle on the bracket. As mentioned in my midwest region preview though, those six wins won’t be easy to obtain.
No matter how far the real bracket skews from the “by the chalk” projections, there is no easy way out for the Shockers. Most teams in their region know the ropes of March Madness. In fact, four teams in the midwest have reached the national championship at least once since 2010 (Duke, Louisville, Kentucky, Michigan). The pedigree and experience among those four teams alone is enough to give them a distinct advantage over Wichita State. With the deck practically stacked against them, the Shockers will be pressing their luck in every round they survive. Who and when the Shockers received their first loss is anyone’s guess, but I don’t see another final four trip for the cinderella story of the year in 2014.
Potential First Round Upsets:
Who had Florida Gulf Coast, the tournament newcomers and a 15 seed in last year’s tournament, over Georgetown in the first round? FGCU is one of three 15 seeds that has defeated a two seed in the past two tournaments, one of many examples that the sport of college basketball is increasing with parity. According to Bleacher Report, the average first round tournament typically features ten upsets, which includes 8-9 matchups. However, the cinderella runs could be scarce this March.
Of the 32 regular season conference champions, only 16 of those schools went on to win their conference tournament, opening the door for several mediocre teams to make a late run into the field and reducing the bubble spots for power conference schools. However, with a poor track record this season from most of those schools, it’s improbable most will make it past the first round.
At the same time, a few double digit seeds have potential to make a run. In the south region, Syracuse finds themselves with a three seed, slumping down the stretch after a red hot start featuring over 20 consecutive wins to start the season. If their woes continue in March, the Western Michigan Broncos could play spoiler to the ACC powerhouse. WMU is a high scoring team that knows how to maintain a lead. In fact the Broncos have not lost after leading by 10 or more all season.
Meanwhile in the midwest, another three seed could find themselves in a one-and-done position: the tournament veteran Duke Blue Devils. For the past two tournaments, the Blue Devils have been on the wrong end of history, failing to reach the final four after winning the big dance back in 2010. This season, the Duke team we all know as a March tournament powerhouse hasn’t played up to their high standards. The team dropped out of the top ten in the AP poll for the first time in several years. Mercer is a big, physically gifted team with the skill to match Jabari Parker. Unless Duke finds their spring magic again, the Blue Devils could be in for a first round curtain call.
Below is the information for when, where, and who the Tri-State area teams will be playing:
Ohio State Buckeyes (6th seed, South Region):
Round of 64: vs. 11 Dayton – Thurs. 3/20 (12:15 PM) – CBS
*Round of 32: vs. 3 Syracuse/14 Western Michigan – Sat. 3/22
Cincinnati Bearcats (5th seed, East Region):
Round of 64: vs. 12 Harvard – Thurs. 3/20 (2:10 PM) – TNT
*Round of 32: vs. 4 Michigan State/13 Delaware – Sat. 3/22
Louisville Cardinals (4th seed, Midwest Region):
Round of 64: vs. 13 Manhattan – Thurs. 3/20 (9:45 PM) – TNT
*Round of 32: vs. 5 Saint Louis/12 NC State – Sat. 3/22
Kentucky Wildcats (8th seed, Midwest Region):
Round of 64: vs. 9 Kansas State – Fri. 3/21 (9:40 PM) – CBS
*Round of 32: vs. 1 Wichita State/16 Cal Poly – Sun. 3/23
* = Future games (teams will only play with win in previous round)
** = TV schedule subject to change. All games will air on either CBS, TBS, TNT, or truTV
photo credit: USA Today