by Paul West
The Madness is finally here! After a whacked-out Championship Week full of upsets and buzzer beaters, the field of 68 is finally set. Before you fill in your brackets, you need some Bracketology. I’m here to help. Please don’t shoot the messenger.
The East looks like the most wide open bracket, with a handful of teams that seem like legitimate Final Four threats. Its play-in game is for the 11 seed, and like the West, it features two teams with reasonable claims to a 1 seed.
1 Villanova vs. 16 Lafayette
The Villanova Wildcats are the Big East champs, wrapping up a 32-2 season. They’re a quick, tenacious team that relies heavily on guard play and ball movement. The Wildcats are 22nd in strength of schedule and 6th in BPI Their guard-heavy, ball-movement offense is reflected in the fact that they’re 13th in assists per game, 38th in field goal percentage and 31st in steals. They’re also experienced and seasoned, which helps them down the stretch in close games. The problem is, they can be vulnerable on the boards and they haven’t got a bona-fide go-to player who can heat up and carry them. 6’3″ junior guard Ryan Arcidiacono is the co-Player of the Year in the Big East, and often sparks the Wildcats with speed, quickness and intangibles. The Lafayette Leopards aren’t big on defense or rebounding, but at 34th in scoring, 18th in assists and 8th in field goal percentage, they can be exciting. If the Wildcats go ice cold from the floor, the Leopards could make it interesting…but even then, an upset doesn’t seem likely. Villanova might be the weak link of the 1 seeds, but they’re probably safe in this round. Pick: Villanova
8 NC State vs. 9 LSU
Neither of these are teams you’d want to put money on, but both of these are teams you want to keep your eye on. The NC State Wolfpack are athletic and loaded with talent, and when they play with focus, their defense and shot blocking can give any offense headaches. At their worst, they’re sloppy, unfocused and don’t seem to have ever played together. At their best, they’re tenacious, balanced and sporting a huge chip on their shoulder (yes, this too I’ve said recently). They’ve split with Duke and UNC, and they beat Louisville by nine. They also got crushed by West Virginia. As for the LSU Tigers, they had Kentucky dead to rights and gave it away. They beat Arkansas and West Virginia. And they lost to under-.500 Auburn, in overtime, in the SEC quarterfinal. They’re big and athletic, they get after it with high energy and they can hustle and scrap their way to wins beyond their talent level. NC State is definitely beyond their talent level, and definitely ripe for an upset. Pick: NC State
5 Northern Iowa vs. 12 Wyoming
The Northern Iowa Panthers just got it done all season, relying on staunch team defense and the 18th-highest field goal percentage in the country. They’re led in points, rebounds and assists by 6’8″ senior forward Seth Tuttle, who brings hustle, skill and brawn. They might be under-seeded at the 5 line, and they’ll have their work cut out for them with the Wyoming Cowboys. The Cowboys scrapped their way to a Mountain West title run, beating Boise State and San Diego State to do it. They have a star in the making in Larry Nance Jr., who missed much of the season with mono. They’re 59th in assists, 60th in field goal percentage, and 8th in points against. Moreover, they’re playing with real mojo right now. If the Panthers stall on offense and Wyoming keeps it close, Nance and company might dance on into the weekend. Pick: Northern Iowa
4 Louisville vs. 13 UC Irvine
The Louisville Cardinals hustle, hassle and rebound. They have 6’8″ junior forward Montrezl Harrell, a dynamo who can put the team on his back for stretches. They also can’t shoot. The UC Irvine Anteaters also defend well, and are 25th in the nation in blocked shots. They have an eraser in the middle in 7’6″ sophomore Mamdou Ndiaye, who also happens to be 300 pounds, and they have a couple of guys who can heat up from deep. The Cardinals have had a tougher schedule and might tough their way through this game, but look out. Pick: UC Irvine
6 Providence vs 11 Boise State/Dayton
First of all, look at these two teams: Boise State and Dayton. Now ask yourself: if they’re good enough for 11 seeds in a tournament with 16 seed lines, why do they have to play their way in? It belies so many aspects of the spirit of the tournament that I could write an entire post just about that issue. Oh wait, I already did, so I’ll just get back to the breakdown. The Providence Friars are 33rd in BPI, and have played some tough games this season. But nothing about them really jumps off the page. The Boise State Broncos are 44th in RPI and 55th in BPI, and they’re also scrappy and have played some tough games. And like the Friars, nothing about them really catches the eye. The Dayton Flyers are yet another scrappy team, and they scrapped their way to the Atlantic Ten title game and lost a close one to VCU. At 28th in RPI and 32nd in BPI, you could argue they deserve about as high a seed as Providence. But here they are. The Flyers are a guard-heavy, tenacious squad that plays aggressive defense and averages 6.8 steals per game. They’re heating up at the right time. Either of the play-in teams could give Providence a run for their money, and this one’s a veritable toss-up all around. Pick: Dayton
3 Oklahoma vs 14 Albany
The Oklahoma Sooners are tough, physical and they crash the boards on both sides. They’re 5th in the country in defensive rebounds, and 23rd in offensive rebounds and blocks. 6’8″ junior forward Ryan Spangler was a double-double machine last year, and he’s a tough assignment who combines athleticism and grit. 6’4″ junior guard Buddy Hield is the AP Big 12 Player of the Year, and he drives a starting five that can compete with most starting fives in the country. The Albany Great Danes made the tourney on a big shot by 6’4″ junior guard Peter Hooley, who had recently lost his mother to colon cancer. Hooley isn’t just the center of a feelgood story, though; the big Australian is second on the Danes in scoring and assists. Fellow Aussie Sam Rowley, a 6’6″ senior forward, is the team’s leader in points and assists. The Danes are tough defensively, and they do a good job of getting to the line. This might be close well into the game, but if the Sooners can avoid foul trouble they should win. Pick: Oklahoma
7 Michigan State vs. 10 Georgia
The Michigan State Spartans took Wisconsin to overtime in a thrilling Big Ten title game. 6’5″ senior guard Denzel Valenzine is second on the team in points, rebounds and assists, and he has a flair for the big shot (one such example was his game-winning three-point buzzer beater on Valentines Day…seriously); 6-foot senior guard Travis Trice leads the team in points and assists, and helps set the tone for a Spartan team that’s 4th in assists per game overall. Senior Branden Dawson is a 6’4″ forward who averages nearly a double-double and can battle on the inside against bigger players. And coach Tom Izzo is one of the best postseason coaches in college basketball history. The Georgia Bulldogs are an experienced, scrappy, balanced team that’s tested Kentucky twice this season. They went to two overtimes with LSU and a whopping three overtimes with Mercer, and they’ve beaten Ole Miss twice. The Bulldogs are 5th in the country in defensive rebounds, and 47th in blocks. They bring energy and physicality, and they’re not afraid of a close game. The Spartans are skilled, experienced and well coached enough to outlast them, but there’s one curious caveat: they’re bad from the line. As a team, Michigan State shoots a free throws at a lousy 63.3 percent. If this one’s close at the end and the Bulldogs play the last-minute foul game, that might key an upset. Pick: Michigan State
2 Virginia vs. 15 Belmont
The Virginia Cavaliers have struggled lately. 6’6″ junior guard Justin Anderson broke his hand around midseason, and just as he was set to return, he had an appendectomy. The Cavaliers actually played well in his absence, but since his return, they’ve struggled to look cohesive. But they’re a two seed for a reason, and that reason is twofold: discipline and defense. The Cavaliers are first in the country in points allowed, 30th in defensive rebounds and 73rd in blocked shots. They play a lane-clogging team defense, and they’re patient and efficient on offense. They’re fine with letting things stay close for much of the game while they figure you out, and at some point in the second half they go on a multi-basket run fueled by defensive rebounds and turnovers. They’re extremely dangerous in transition, and 6’2″ sophomore point guard London Perrantes is extremely poised. He also has an interesting knack for the clutch three-pointer, especially for a guy who doesn’t score very much. Virginia’s interior game is fueled by 6’11” junior Mike Tobey, whose touch around the rim has really evolved, and 6’8″ junior Anthony Gill, a sleeper who’s capable of big games. 6’5″ junior guard Malcolm Brogdon has been Virginia’s big gun on offense in Anderson’s absence, and continues to come up big while Anderson struggles to return to form. The Cavaliers are experienced, battle tested from last year’s tournament run, and coach Tony Bennett does a great job of keeping them centered. The Belmont Bruins are the toughest 15 seed in the tournament, with a high scoring and diversified offense. The Bruins are 32nd in scoring, 26th in assists and 25th in field goal percentage, and they hit ten threes per game. They don’t do well on the boards and they don’t defend very well, but if they get hot on offense, the scoring-challenged Cavaliers could be in for a tough game. Pick: Virginia
Upset alert: Half the region. There are a bunch of dangerous lower seeds in the East, and they employ a variety of styles. In fact, the only game in this region that doesn’t seem like a plausible upset is the 1-16.
Watch out for: Again, half the region. The East is wide open. Keep an eye on Oklahoma if they get in rhythm, and if Virginia gets over its recent yips it’s a solid Final Four candidate.
You might not have heard of: Larry Nance Jr. The son of a former NBA standout, Nance missed much of the season and he plays for under-the-radar Wyoming.