The Other 26: Bracket Analysis, East and Midwest RegionsPosted by IRenko on March 13th, 2012
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
“Madness is to think of too many things in succession too fast, or of one thing too exclusively.” — Voltaire
We will undoubtedly be guilty of both this week, as we focus obsessively on college hoops… from one game to the next to the next to the next. From the TO26 perspective, this is also the time of year when Division I’s red-headed stepchildren can become the object of the nation’s attention, if only fleetingly. Which teams are best-positioned to stay in the limelight the longest? Which ones are likely to head home after just the briefest of shining moments? Today, we analyze the chances of all of the TO26 teams the East and Midwest regions, grouping them into four categories based on their chances of advancement. Within each group, we order the teams based on their potential to make a deep run.
These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen (and maybe beyond).
Creighton (#8, Midwest) — Creighton’s first-round matchup against Alabama will be fun to watch. The Bluejays will put their highly efficient offense, led by a potent three-point attack, against Alabama’s stout defense, which defends the three almost as well as anyone in the nation. Things will be uglier at the other end; Creighton’s defense has struggled all season, its mediocrity matched only by Alabama’s offense. The good news for the Bluejays is that they’re a bit tougher inside the arc – I noticed a tendency to collapse their defense to the ball line when it goes inside – which is by and large where Alabama operates. At the end of the day, I like Creighton’s chances, as they have steadier guard play, a legit go-to player, solid free throw shooting, and the ability to knock down the clutch three when needed. And if they get by the Crimson Tide, I wouldn’t be stunned by an upset of UNC. Why? The Tarheels’ defense is particularly vulnerable to the three-point shot (which will also make them susceptible to an upset loss to Michigan should that matchup materialize in the regional semifinals).
Temple (#5, Midwest) – Yes, Temple could make it to the regionals, particularly as they’ll have the benefit of starting play against the winner of the BCS Mediocrity Bowl between California and South Florida. Michigan, too, is beatable given the Owls’ ability to take care of the ball and take away the three-point shot, and Michigan’s equally undersized lineup. But the Owls have not exactly inspired confidence with their recent play. They’ve gone 3-2 in their last 5 games – none against Tournament teams – and 2 of those wins were secured only in overtime.
St. Bonaventure (#14, East) – Though they underachieved for much of the year, the Bonnies are probably underseeded. I absolutely give them a chance against a Florida State team that is loose with the ball, doesn’t defend the boards well, and has become increasingly susceptible to the three-point shot. The Bonnies are positioned to take advantage of at least two of those weaknesses, as their three-point shooting has improved during the year and they crash the glass well. What may hold them back is their own propensity to turn it over, though that too has improved markedly over their last eight games, during which they’re 7-1. And of course, I’ve yet to mention the play of star forward Andrew Nicholson, who’s averaged 26 points and more than 10 rebounds per game during that stretch. This is a team that is peaking at the right time. And if they get past the Seminoles, would they have a chance against Cincy or Texas? You bet. The Bonnies would likely dominate the offensive glass against those teams, neither of whom would easily contain Nicholson.
Ohio (#13, Midwest) – They’re baa-aack. And I don’t just mean the team that shocked us all with a first-round upset of Georgetown as a 14 seed two years ago. I mean the team that looked like the clear favorite in the MAC on New Year’s Day. They stumbled to a 7-4 record to start their conference campaign, only to turn it around by closing the season with an 8-1 record, including a 19-point Bracketbuster victory over UNC-Asheville and two wins each over Akron and Buffalo. The Bobcats have a lot of ingredients that make for a potential upset – the ability to generate turnovers, crash the offensive glass, and take three-point shots, along with a legitimate go-to player in DJ Cooper. The problem is the Bobcats don’t always make all the threes that they take, and Michigan, even with a freshman point guard, may not be susceptible to turning it over. Still, this is a genuine upset possibility, and with Temple’s recent softness, if the Bobcats can get past the Wolverines they stand a decent chance of a Sweet Sixteen trip as well.
Two and Done
These teams that have a decent (or better) chance of a first round (oh, beg your pardon — second round) win, but are unlikely to get much further than that.
Gonzaga (#7, East) — The bad news for the Zags is that they’ll be playing in their opponent’s backyard, as the West Virginia Mountaineers are just an afternoon’s drive from Pittsburgh. The good news is that the Mountaineers have struggled mightily since late January. During that stretch, they’ve won just four out of 12 games and their Pomeroy rating plummeted from #20 to #46. There’s more mixed news when you look at the teams’ profiles. Gonzaga does a good job of defending their glass, which they’ll need to do against WVU’s relentless offensive rebounding attack. But they’re also susceptible to inside scoring and may have trouble with Denis Kilicli and Kevin Jones as a result. In the end, I think Gonzaga is the better team, but playing a de facto road game could be their undoing. Even if they advance, I don’t rate them highly against an Ohio State team with the potential to bulldoze Gonzaga inside.
St. Mary’s (#7, Midwest) – An important unknown is the status of guard Stephen Holt, who has missed the last five games due to a knee injury. Holt gives the Gaels an important attacking and shooting presence on the perimeter. Though they may be able to get by a Purdue team that plays surprisingly poor defense without Holt, he’ll likely be needed for a Sweet Sixteen run.
San Diego State (#6, Midwest) – The Aztecs are the nominal favorite against NC State based on their seed, but this is a true pick ‘em. SDSU is probably not as good as their seed, or even their record. Several of their wins this year have been by narrow margins. Against New Mexico in the MWC final, they showed a marked inability to generate quality shots out of any half-court offense. Their points came largely off of one-on-one play, typically from Jamaal Franklin. Franklin is undeniably talented, but this is not a sustainable offensive strategy. They’re a better defensive team, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to contend with the aggressive, glass-crashing that NC State will bring or the patient, methodical offense they’re likely to see against Georgetown in the second round.
A Puncher’s Chance
These teams are unlikely to win their second round game, but if things break the right way, have an outside shot at a win.
Southern Miss (#9, East) — After starting the year 20-3, the Golden Eagles are just 5-5 in their last 10 games. Those five wins include overtime victories over Tulsa and East Carolina and narrow victories over UCF and Rice at home. They’re likely to have a tough time scoring against a stout Kansas State defense. Their saving grace is their rebounding prowess, which may be enough to get them some easy baskets on the offensive end and prevent the Wildcats from their usual second-chance bounty on the defensive end. But outside of that, there’s not a whole to get excited about with this team.
Montana (#13, East) — Montana has gotten better and better as the season has gone on. They lost to their Big Sky nemesis Weber State by 15 in mid-January, but beat them twice, by a combined 34 points, in the space of a week to close out the season. The keys against Wisconsin will be to make shots in the half-court set and thwart the Badgers’ three-point attack. The Grizzlies may have more success with the latter, as they’re adept at choking off the three-point line. But scoring could prove tougher. Wisconsin doesn’t give up easy second chance or transition baskets, and they make you work hard for the shots you do get. I could see a low-scoring game where some timely three-pointers allow the Grizzlies to stay in it.
Harvard (#12, East) — Believe me, I’d love to see Harvard beat Vanderbilt more than you could possibly know. But the Crimson did not play their best basketball during the second half of the Ivy season, losing twice, edging Columbia in overtime, and beating Princeton and Cornell by three and four points, respectively. Keith Wright can sometimes shrink against bigger, more athletic frontcourts, which could make his introduction to Festus Ezeli an unpleasant one. Jeffery Taylor and Lance Goulbourne are likely to neutralize Kyle Casey as well. The three-point shot that underdogs often ride to upsets has not been as big a part of Harvard’s game this year as it was last year. And the Crimson are not likely to get to the free throw line as often against a more formidable, athletic defense.
Still, there are reasons for hope. First, Vanderbilt is three-point dependent team, which means they’re always susceptible to the whims of an off shooting night. On top of that, Harvard may actually have an edge at the point guard spot, which is Vandy’s biggest weakness; if Brandyn Curry can harass Brad Tinsley on the defensive end and beat him off the dribble on the offensive end, that would give Harvard a big boost. Finally, the Commodores have an unfortunate history of first-round flameouts, and there is the looming possibility of a letdown after an emotional SEC tournament championship.
Belmont (#14, Midwest) — Belmont is a popular choice to pull a first-round upset. They have a high Pomeroy rating (#23), they take and make a lot of threes (a great equalizer), they’ve won 14 in a row, and they have a year of Tournament experience under their belts. But I am not sure that Georgetown is a great matchup for them. The Hoyas have the best three-point defense in the country. Their long and rangy starting lineup now features four players 6’7” and taller. This could make it difficult for Belmont’s relatively short shooters – namely, Drew Hanlen and Ian Clark – to get good looks. Georgetown also plays solid defense around the rim, where Belmont sometimes struggles to finish. On the other end of the court, Georgetown’s one weakness is turnovers, but this Belmont team doesn’t force turnovers at the frenetic pace that last year’s did. In fact, this Belmont team doesn’t play great defense generally, and without a high turnover rate, they could really struggle, as the Hoyas will have the edge inside and on the glass.
Detroit (#15, Midwest) — Do I think Detroit will beat Kansas? No. Do I think they might have a shot? Yes. The Titans started the year in disappointing fashion, hampered in part by the suspension of center Eli Holman. But they finished the season strong, winning eight of their last 10 in the competitive Horizon League and sweeping four in a row in the conference tournament to secure their bid. The keys for the Titans will be their defensive play inside — where the shotblocking combo of Holman and Lamarcus Lowe may be able to contain Thomas Robinson – and their ability to force (and score off of) turnovers out of a Jayhawks team that is sometimes susceptible to them. In the end, I suspect that Detroit’s poor shooting and Kansas’ ability to control the glass on both ends – if nothing else – will prove determinative, but I wouldn’t count the Titans out.
Enjoy Your Parting Gift
These teams are virtual locks to head home with a nice memory of an NCAA appearance and a second round loss.
- Loyola (MD) (#15, East) – I’ll say this for the Greyhounds: they’re not likely to make things easy for Jared Sullinger. Shane Walker, Erik Etherly, and Jordan Latham will swarm the Buckeyes inside. At a minimum, Sullinger will have to hit his free throws.
- Lamar (#16, Midwest) / Vermont (#16, Midwest) – Neither team has a profile that UNC should fear, though frankly, we’ll be rooting for Pat “I didn’t challenge my team, I threw them under the bus” Knight to earn the trip to Greensboro for the potential entertainment value.
- UNC-Asheville (#16, East) – The team that beats Syracuse will play good interior defense, crash the offensive boards, and make their threes. UNC-Asheville has given us no reason to believe they can do any of those things.