The Other 26: Bracket Analysis, South and West RegionsPosted by IRenko on March 14th, 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.
These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen (and maybe beyond).
Wichita State (#5, South) – I’m a great fan of the Shockers, who finished the season atop our TO26 top 15 rankings. They have a balanced lineup that can do it all. Inside scoring presence? Garrett Stutz. Steady point guard play? Joe Ragland. Attacking guard? Toure’ Murry. Blue-collar enforcer? Carl Hall. Three-point marksmen? Ragland, Ben Smith, and David Kyles. And they back it up with a solid, steady defense. If this team has a weakness, it’s the lack of a single go-to player, which can come in handy in crunch time in March.
The key for the Shockers’ getting to the regionals may be slowing their games into halfcourt contests. They have a tough first-round draw against VCU and its frenetic defensive style. It will be a challenge to maintain calm amidst the storm that the Rams will bring – Murry in particular can play undisciplined — but if I had to make a call, I’d say that the Shockers will rise to the challenge and get the ball into the lane, where VCU is vulnerable. In the next round, Wichita State would likely face an Indiana team with a fast-paced offense, but somewhat softer defense that is susceptible to dribble penetration. Again, if the Shockers can slow things down and turn it into more of a halfcourt game, they could be on their way to the Sweet Sixteen.
Memphis (#8, West) – No team has a more legitimate grievance about its seed than the Tigers. They have steadily, but markedly, improved ever since a nearly two-hour closed door team meeting following a loss at Georgetown on December 22. Few have taken notice because it came mostly against C-USA competition, but during this stretch, the Tigers have gone 19-3, with their three losses coming by a combined total of 6 points. Oh, and freshman standout Adonis Thomas just returned to the lineup.
How are they doing it? Offensively, led by sophomore star Will Barton, the Tigers attack the basket and get into the lane. Defensively, they guard well everywhere on the court. Their one key weakness is rebounding, which is not a weakness you want to have if they end up playing Michigan State in the second round. But if they can get past the Spartans, this team has as much potential as anyone to make the Final Four.
New Mexico (#5, West) – New Mexico has a balanced offensive attack that features great post play from UCLA transfer Drew Gordon, a cadre of good shooters, and a solid, deep backcourt. Gordon could be the key against LBSU for whom post defense is a bit of a weakness. The Lobos are also likely to have somewhat of a rebounding edge. If they can minimize turnovers and avoid getting hurried and harried, they’ll have a good chance of moving on. If they face Louisville in the next round, they should be able to neutralize one of the Cards’ offensive strengths – rebounding – but will need to be steadier with the ball than usual if they’re to withstand the Cards’ turnover-generating defense.
Long Beach State (#12, West) – It was hard to order New Mexico and LBSU because I think this game is a genuine pick ‘em, and that the winner has a very good shot of then moving on to the Sweet 16. The key for the 49ers will be the return of Larry Andersen from injury. Hopefully the senior guard, the second most important player on the team, will be able to play and play well. If so, the 49ers have as good a shot at the Sweet Sixteen as any team in its pod. Anderson’s shooting will be especially needed in the first round against a Lobos team that likes to pack it in. The 49ers will also need to push the tempo against New Mexico, try to generate turnovers, and avoid getting into a grinding halfcourt game. Like New Mexico, if they face Louisville, they’ll have to cut down on their turnovers and improve their rebounding, but they’ll be competitive in all other facets of the game.
Xavier (#10, South) – Xavier finds itself in this category not because I think all that highly of them, but because heck, who knows what to expect from this team? Sure, they could flame out in the first round, but they’ve also got the raw firepower to make a deep run. Few backcourts have the ability to take over a game the way Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons, and Dezmine Wells can. They recently showed that ability against St. Louis. Combine that with a fairly pedestrian draw – both Notre Dame and Duke are eminently beatable – and a trip to the second weekend is entirely plausible.
Two and Done?
These teams that have a decent (or better) chance of a second round win, but are unlikely to get much further than that.
Murray State (#6, West) – The nation is waiting to find out just how good the one-loss Racers are, creating the kind of anticipation that could either be an inspiration or a burden depending on the team’s mental makeup. Intangibles aside, the good news on the floor is that the undersized Racers’ first round opponent doesn’t start anyone taller than 6’6”. Indeed, Colorado State isn’t the kind of team that’s likely to exploit the Racers’ rebounding weakness and soft interior defense. But things could get dicey after that, as Marquette makes up for its lack of size with aggressive guards who get into the lane and crash the glass. You don’t finish near the top of the Big East without that kind of determination. I put the Racers at the end of this section because there’s still a chance they can get it done, with their own tremendous guard play, led by junior guard Isaiah Canaan. And frankly, I’d love to see them do it. I just wouldn’t bank on it.
VCU (#12, South) – As Shaka Smart himself has conceded, the Rams benefit in non-conference play from opponents’ unfamiliarity with their fast-paced style of play. An atypical playing style that can force better teams into errors and convert easy buckets always makes a team a Cinderella threat. And indeed, as highly as I regard Wichita State, I think a VCU first-round win is a distinct possibility. But can they do it twice to get back to the Sweet Sixteen? I’d say it’s improbable, though as they showed us last year, “improbable” means nothing in March.
UNLV (#6, South) — I’m a bit down on the Runnin’ Rebels. As regular TO26 readers know, I’ve consistently pointed to their inability to win meaningful games away from home as evidence of they’re being overrated – and now, overseeded. But Colorado is a pretty decent draw. The Buffaloes are in the tournament solely on account of their surviving the Pac-12 conference tournament, one of the largest collection of BCS mediocrities in years. The Buffs are defensively vulnerable and offensively unimpressive. If the Runnin Rebels can find a modicum of their game – especially their shooting stroke – they should be able to advance. But it will still take the kind of non-home performance that they haven’t put together in a while.
Davidson (#13, West) – Davidson is a popular pick to pull an upset, perhaps because of their giant-killing experience in 2008 and this past fall against Kansas. But there are good reasons to think that this particular team may be able to notch this particular win. Louisville’s offense is uneven at best. It’s best feature is its ability to crash the glass, but keeping opponents off of the boards is something Davidson does fairly well. If anything, it’s more likely that the Wildcats will benefit from offensive rebounds, as Louisville does a very poor job of protecting its glass. The Cards’ defense is otherwise formidable, but if Davidson takes a lot of threes, so all it takes is getting hot from behind the line, and they could be on their way to the next 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.
St. Louis (#9, West) – As noted above, I rate Memphis highly, so I think the Bilikens have a tough first round draw. That’s especially the true when you throw in the athleticism disparity between the two teams. But that’s not to say there’s no chance for Rick Majerus’ crew. They shoot the three well, which gives any team a chance to pull up a March upset. And their big men can stretch the floor, which could disorient Memphis’ defense. Throw in the crafty underneath play of Brian Conklin and the floor leadership of Kwamain Mitchell, and they have a chance. But they’ve yet to beat a team as good as Memphis all year, which makes it hard to feel confident about the Bilikens’ chances.
New Mexico State (#13, South) – The Aggies are a tough, physical team. Their offense features a great inside-out player in Wendell McKines, tough and aggressive post play, and reasonably effective dribble penetration. It could certainly give Indiana fits, as the Hoosiers don’t have the strongest defense. But the same could be said of the Aggies, and that’s where they may lose this game. Indiana can score in many ways, both inside and out. If the Aggies can tighten up their defense a bit, they have a chance of pulling the upset.
Brigham Young (#14, South) – Will the Cougars be riding a high after their incredible comeback against Iona, or are they due for a letdown? Whatever their precise mental state, I think it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to replicate Tuesday’s feat against a Marquette team that manages its relative lack of size much better than Iona does. Both teams play up-tempo, which means we could be looking at another track meet, and Marquette’s athleticism and strength make them tough to bet against under those circumstances.
Colorado State (# 11, South) – The Rams are a good team who certainly merited an at-large selection, but their first round draw is not a great matchup for them. The Racers’ strong perimeter defense can force turnovers (a CSU weakness) and shut down the three-point shot (a CSU strength). And the Rams’ defense, apart from being generally weak, has a particular propensity for allowing teams to score from beyond the arc, which will have the Racers’ three-point shooters salivating. The Rams may have a chance if they can overcome all of these mismatches and if their guards can penetrate and get to the free throw line.
South Dakota State (#14, South) – SDSU has a potent offense that could keep them in this game. Between star guard Nate Wolters’ ability to create and get to the line, a large supporting cast of great three-point shooters, and their overall diligence in taking care of the ball, there’s little doubt that this team will be able to put up points against Baylor. But can they contain the Bears at the other end? Interior defense is not SDSU’s strong suit, and Baylor has perhaps the most athletic, explosive frontcourt in the country. That challenge may be too much to overcome.
Norfolk State (#15, West) – Norfolk State’s strengths may suit them well against Missouri. Offensively, they get the ball inside – where Missouri is vulnerable – feeding their star center Kyle O’Quinn. Defensively, they keep it simple, but effective, forcing teams to take tough shots – again, led by O’Quinn and his interior shot-blocking presence. But at the end of the day, it’ll be tough to stop Missouri’s complement of playmakers and shooters
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.
- Lehigh (#15, South) – CJ McCollum has the ability to exploit Duke’s soft perimeter defense and get to the basket. But at the other end, I don’t think the Hawks will be able to contain both Mason Plumlee and Duke’s arsenal of shooters.
- Long Island (#16, West) – I like Long Island, I really do. They play a super up-tempo style with all five players capable of attacking the basket and knocking down jumpers. But it sometimes gets out of control, as their high turnover percentage attests. More importantly, their defense is very soft and is unlikely to put up much of a fight against Michigan State. Of all the 16 seeds, Long Island may have the best chance of an upset, but that’s faint praise.
- Western Kentucky (#16, South) – The Hilltoppers have pulled off two near-miracles in the last few weeks. First, they won the Sun Belt auto bid after an 11-18 regular season during which they fired their coach. They followed that up last night in the First four with a comeback for the ages, erasing a 16-point deficit in the final five minutes. But it will take divine intervention on a whole other level if they’re to get past Kentucky.