by Paul West
This season was a months-long testament to college basketball’s ever-increasing parity. By Tuesday night of Championship Week, six top seeds had been knocked out of their conference tournaments.
1 Purdue vs 16 TXSO/FDU
The 29-5 Purdue Boilermakers are a hard-rebounding team that features the only biggest matchup nightmare in the draw: 7’4″ senior Zach Edey, one of only three in the tournament averaging a double-double. Edey puts up a whopping 22.3 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 1.5 assists a game, and is this season’s only unanimous AP All American. Purdue doesn’t shoot well from deep; and curiously, they were waxed on the glass in an early February loss to no. 21 Indiana, who completed the season sweep with a 79-71 win at the end of the month. If they can stay out of foul trouble and Edey can dominate, Purdue is a problem–but if opponents can reduce them to a one-man show and control Edey’s impact, Purdue could be in trouble.
The 14-20 Texas Southern Tigers won the SWAC Tournament as an 8 seed, upsetting top seed Grambling and making the big dance for the third straight year. They’re an experienced team that gets after it on the boards, with four players who average double-digit points. The Fairleigh Dickinson Knights won the NEC Tournament after winning the semifinal, thanks to the ineligibility of Merrimack, who’s still in the process of transferring to Division 1 (yes, it’s as silly as it sounds). They’re an undersized and defensively challenged team that struggled against middling competition for much of the season, including getting torched 42-9 in the second half of a loss to Richmond. Led by 16.7 points a game from 5’8″ senior guard Demetre Roberts, the Knights’ key will be to share the ball and find the hottest hand. Pick: Purdue
2 Marquette vs 15 Vermont
The Marquette Golden Eagles have a hectoring defense that forces turnovers, as you might expect of a team coached by Shaka Smart; they also have a potent, ball-sharing, up-tempo offense. 6’3″ sophomore guard Tyler Kolek is second in the country and first in the draw with 7.7 assists a game, along with 13.3 points and 4.2 boards–and he’s the Big East Player of the Year.
The23-10 Vermont Catamounts won the America East Tournament as the top seed, and come in on a 15-game winning streak. They run a deep rotation, protect the ball, and can get hot from three, but they’ll really need their shots to drop if they want to advance. Pick: Marquette
3 Kansas State vs 14 Montana State
The Kansas State Wildcats have multiple wins over tournament teams, and have a tough defense that lets them hang with anyone. They have a dynamic backcourt: 6’6″ senior forward Keyontae Johnson leads them with 17.7 points a game, along with 7 boards and 2.2 assists; and 5’8″ forward Markquis Nowell is third in the country with 7.6 assists a game to go with 16.8 points and 3.5 boards. The Wildcats’ biggest issue is how often they turn it over, a problem that could lead to an early exit.
The 25-9 Montana State Bobcats won a dramatic Big Sky Tournament to land their second consecutive berth, and are on a six-game winning streak. They win by controlling the pace and hitting their free throws, but their offense is mostly anemic. Their leading scorer, 6’5″ junior guard Raequan Battle, puts up 17.4 points a game–but he’ll have to get pretty hot, and their defense will have to get their opponent pretty cold, if the Bobcats want to advance. Pick: Kansas State
4 Tennessee vs 13 Louisiana
The 23-10 Tennessee Volunteers stumbled down the stretch, partly due to the loss of starting point guard Zakai Zeigler, who tore his ACL at the start of March. But they’re anchored by an elite, physical defense that they hope can neutralize opponents. 6’3″ senior Santiago Vescovi has stepped up to help fuel the offense in Zeigler’s absence, but this team struggles to score.
The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns move the ball well, and can shoot from deep, and 6’11” junior forward Jordan Brown is a crafty interior scorer who crashes the glass and can get sneaky-hot from three. They’ll have to get help from one of their secondary scorers and get their threes to drop if they want to advance. Pick: Louisiana
5 Duke vs 12 Oral Roberts
The Duke Blue Devils beat Pitt, Miami, and Virginia on three consecutive nights to win the ACC Tournament. 7-foot freshman center Kyle Filipowski was in peak form all week, and he’s the kind of rangy big man who can take over a game in March. They’re tough on the offensive glass, they’re getting hot at the right time, and they’re an under-seeded threat to go all the way.
The 30-4 Oral Roberts Golden Eagles score 84.2 points a game, and are one of the more highly regarded mid-major teams in the draw. Six-foot senior Max Ambas went off in the tournament two years ago, and this year is averaging 22.2 points, 4.4 boards, and 4 assists a game; 7’5″ (yes, really) senior Conor Vanover is a shot-blocking machine who also puts up 12.9 points and 7.2 boards a game. Pick: Duke
6 Kentucky vs 11 Providence
The 21-11 Kentucky Wildcats struggled early in the year, but figured it out in the second half and are one of the rising stars in the draw. 6’9″ senior forward (and former West Virginia Mountaineer) Oscar Tshiebwe is one of three in the draw to average a double-double, with 16.5 points, 13.1 boards, and 1.6 assists a game; he dropped 37 points and 24 rebounds in mid-January against Tennessee, the most boards in a 35-point game in a quarter of a century. Coach John Calipari has helped his young squad round into form in time for the tournament, but they’re kind of streaky and will need to stay locked in.
The 21-11 Providence Friars are a tough squad that crashes the offensive glass and is efficient on offense. They’re led by Kentucky transfer Bryce Hopkins, a 6’7″ sophomore who scores 16.1 a game with 8.5 boards and 2.3 assists. They aren’t great on defense, though–unusual for a team coached by Ed Cooley–and they might struggle to keep up with a hot-shooting opponent. They’ll also have to right the ship, and they’ve lost four of their last five. Pick: Kentucky
7 Michigan State vs 10 USC
The 19-12 Michigan State Spartans are a sharpshooting team with a few players who can get hot from behind the arc; but they haven’t got a clear go-to scorer, they don’t force turnovers, and they’re not that good on defense. Still, they’ve beaten Kentucky, Indiana, and Penn State, and have a pair of one-point losses to Purdue and Gonzaga. Coach Tom Izzo tends to prepare his teams well, and this experienced bunch could swipe a game with hot shooting.
The 22-10 USC Trojans rely on defense, two-way efficiency, and the experience of a team that’s in the tournament for the third time in a row. 6’3″ senior guard Boogie Ellis puts up 18 points a game, with 3.7 boards and 3 assists–and he’s one of only two Trojans averaging double-digit points. He’ll have to get hot, and get help, for USC to advance. Pick: Michigan State
8 Memphis vs 9 Florida Atlantic
The 26-8 Memphis Tigers beat Houston in the AAC title game, cementing their status as one of the most dangerous teams in the draw. They’ve also beaten Texas A&M, Alabama, and Auburn, and they have a potent offense that shares the ball and plays downhill in transition. 6-foot senior guard Kendric Davis averages 22.1 points a game with 3.7 boards and 5.6 assists, and 6’9″ senior forward Deandre Williams puts up 17.8 points with 8 boards and 2.9 assists. When the Tigers get rolling, they can beat anyone–but they don’t get a ton of defensive stops or limit second chances, and could be vulnerable against an elite offense.
The 31-3 Florida Atlantic Owls are a bit undersized and haven’t played the toughest schedule, but they’re not to be taken lightly. They score 78.8 a game, they run the floor and move the ball well, they rebound beyond their size, and have a few players who can hit from three. Their x-factor might be 7’1″ senior Vladislav Goldin, a Texas Tech transfer who’s played against elite competition and is a serious paint presence. He can give them balance on both ends of the floor, to make their spacing and quickness harder to handle. Pick: Florida Atlantic
Bracket busters? This region has a few. Keep an eye on Louisiana, Providence, Florida Atlantic, and Oral Roberts.
Best player you might not know yet? Marquette’s Tyler Kolek, second in the country in assists; Kansas State’s Markquis Nowell, third in the country in assists; Nowell’s backcourt mate Keyontae Johnson; and Louisiana big man Jordan Brown.
Who makes the Final Four? Kentucky. They’ll stay hot, dial in, and win a slugfest against Edey and the Boilermakers.