Dissecting Joe Lunardi’s First Bracketology: Three Reaches and Three UnderratedsPosted by Chris Johnson on August 14th, 2012
Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
A three-month chasm stands in the way before another new beginning to another college basketball season. The NCAA Tournament won’t take place for another four months on top of that. But even with that distant timetable, the world’s premier bracketologist, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, thought it pertinent to release his early projections for the 2013 Field of 68. From this faraway August vantage point, reasonable cases can be made for most every team’s inclusion. After all, no one has actually played any games; thus we have no hard evidence – beyond what our speculative eyes can gather from offseason work, recruiting hauls, summer practices and European tours – that any team actually deserves a Tournament berth. As such, it’s hard to find great fault with Lunardi’s summer projections, if only because we have no factual evidence to debunk their authority. In fewer than three months, teams will officially begin their RPI-building missions, hoping over the winter span to construct a Tournament-worthy resume. It’s a long and enduring process, but come March, Lunardi usually has a pretty decent sense of whose season-long body-of-work belongs and whose doesn’t make the cut.
For such a subjective process, Lunardi has over years of trial-and-error deconstructed the Tournament selection procedure into a predictive science. Fans often take his word as fact, or at least to the point where their Selection Show expectations are tempered by Lunardi’s analysis. In that context, it’s not hard to figure out why, even during these late summer months, his brackets drive both positive and negative discussion. The Lunardi bracket craze has reached yours truly, and as a starved college hoops fan, I couldn’t help but pore over its contents. All in all, the entire field seems reasonable, though I did come upon quite a few intriguing placements. To convey my thoughts in coherent form, I’m laying out three teams whose positions seem to be overstating their talent and three others who were undersold by Lunardi’s layout (“Underrateds”). These impressions derive only from the superfluous knowledge we have of each team at this point in the offseason, and how those vague profiles fit within Lunardi’s bracket. When the season begins, my perceptions will no doubt change, as will Lunardi’s March projections, so understand the limited scope from which these interpretations stand. This is merely an avenue to analyze sports’ greatest postseason tournament in a detached and unbiased way, without much in the way of evidence… more than a half-year in advance.
UCLA: one-seed (West)
The ceiling is immeasurably high for the 2012-13 Bruins, who return talented and reportedly slimmed-down big man Joshua Smith, fellow low block partners David and Travis Wear and sure-handed backcourt general Larry Drew II, eligible this season after transferring over from UNC. That’s a solid core in and of itself. With one of the nation’s top recruiting classes on the way, Ben Howland’s squad has the makings of a national title contender. Kyle Anderson and Shabazz Muhammad should step in and wreak havoc on the perimeter from day one, while big man Tony Parker will battle the Wears for playing time on the low block. If the freshmen can congeal with Smith, Drew, the Wear Twins and the rest of the Bruins’ returning group, while Smith makes good on his offseason workout regimen by finally submitting a season commensurate with his all-conference talent, Lunardi’s projection is well within achievement level. But can the freshmen live up to the hype? And if so, can they figure it out in time to help the Bruins get through the non-league slate relatively unscathed? Kentucky accomplished this last season somewhat comfortably, building a championship team largely on the backs of their one-and-done superstars. If the Bruins can follow that blueprint, a similar result should be within reach. Only Shabazz Muhammad is not Anthony Davis (or at least it doesn’t seem that way), and Kyle Anderson is not Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Bruins have loads of young talent, but it remains to be seen whether Howland can mold it productively into the existing team dynamic; or if the freshmen will chafe with Howland’s old-school style of x’s and o’s. If he can bring the pieces together, in true Caliparian fashion, then a top seed is not out of the question. It’s nonetheless an extremely difficult proposition, and the Bruins, in a top-heavy Pac-12, are likely to fall short of that mark.
Wisconsin: three-seed (South)
Given Bo Ryan’s track record, it seems foolish to think Wisconsin won’t end up with a top-four seed. With Ryan at the helm, the Badgers have never finished out of the top four in the Big Ten. They return five key rotation players – Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz, Ben Brust, Josh Gasser and Ryan Evans – from last season and welcome in Sam Dekker, a consensus top-100 player in the class of 2012 who could crack the starting lineup on opening night. That continuity is in large part what has made Ryan’s trudgy, slow-down system so effective over the years. Only this season, they lose their floor leader and best player, Jordan Taylor, who over the past three seasons has churned out large doses of pristine, turnover-averse point guard play while fronting the Badgers’ compacted zone defense. His loss cannot be overstated, and while Wisconsin will continue to win from experience and unity and cohesive play, they now lack an elite offensive playmaker. The offense, which in previous years was predicated upon Taylor’s dribble penetration and the resultant open jump shots it created, will struggle as a result, unless the Badgers can find another dynamic backcourt presence to attack the defense off the dribble. Teams no longer have to worry about Taylor’s keen vision, backdoor dimes or clutch three-point shooting. And the Badgers simply don’t have anyone to shoulder his large and varied workload. Wisconsin can win low-scoring games. What they can’t do is overcome a stagnant offense, which is what a Taylor-less attack may become. With an overall deep and talented Big Ten facing the Badgers again next year, Wisconsin may struggle in conference play, even at the Kohl Center where it’s been virtually unbeatable. Ryan will likely figure it out, find ways to maximize his talent and produce another Tournament-worthy team, but a top-four seed seems a bit of a stretch even if the Badgers can fashion new wrinkles and schemes to offset Taylor’s departure.
North Carolina: three-seed (West)
Entering last year’s Tournament, North Carolina was widely considered the one team with the talent, depth and experience to challenge Kentucky. For those of us who refused to believe Calipari could defy the old “championship teams need experience” NCAA Tournament maxim, they were a trendy pick to cut down the nets in New Orleans. Kendall Marshall’s broken wrist precluded the desired title match-up against the Wildcats, but it didn’t require any huge stretch of the imagination to think the Tar Heels could at least reach the championship game, even without their floor leader. Their NBA-bound front line of John Henson, Tyler Zeller and James Michael McAdoo was the one group with the will and the means to thwart Davis and Terrence Jones, while point guard Kendall Marshall and forward Harrison Barnes formed one of the nation’s best perimeter duos. Most of last year’s starting rotation has now moved on to the professional ranks, so next year’s rotation will have a decidedly different look. McAdoo, used in limited reserve minutes last season, will take on a much larger scoring role, while Reggie Bullock, Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland and P.J. Hairston will serve as perimeter playmakers and facilitators. With an intriguing crop of freshmen – highly-touted point guard Marcus Paige and power forward Brice Johnson are expected to immediately break the rotation – thrown in the mix, the Tar Heels could challenge NC State, Duke and whoever else emerges from a deep ACC for the league title. Or, in a more plausible scenario, the large-scale roster turnover left in the wake of last season’s mass NBA-exodus could knock UNC out of familiar top-three seed territory. It’s hard for any team to overcome losing this large a share of scoring production, even if you return a lottery-bound big man and an adept backcourt. The Tar Heels will notch a respectable NCAA Tournament seed, but a top-three slot seems slightly out of reach. Stranger things have happened, but Roy Williams doesn’t appear to have the firepower on next year’s team to contend for prime NCAA positioning.
UNLV: five-seed (South)
The team Dave Rice has assembled in Las Vegas may be the program’s most talented since the glory days of Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon. The frontcourt is the deepest, most versatile and arguably the very best in the nation. Freshman Anthony Bennett should fit in nicely around Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch (the consensus No. 1-ranked center in the class of 2011) and Mike Moser, a Mountain West player of the year candidate with excellent NBA potential. And that’s without mentioning returning veterans Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall, both of whom will battle to remain relevant in an increasingly crowded rotation. The competition will allow a new dynamic to foment, leaving little leeway for complacency out of the uber-talented Bennett or the oft-lethargic Birch. Incoming freshman guard Katin Reinhardt will serve as an efficient complement to the backcourt veterans, a stable trio capable of spacing the floor and piloting coach Dave Rice’s free-flowing system. New Mexico and San Diego State will challenge UNLV for MW supremacy, but the Rebels are the odds-on favorite to seize the league crown, provided all the new pieces congeal in a cooperative and productive way. If the frontcourt dominates as expected and the backcourt serves its “game-manager” role – sound passing, minimal turnovers, tidy ball-handling – the Rebels could enter the conversation for a top-two seed. The one potential pitfall facing the Rebels could be the non-league slate, at which point UNLV may not have found a way to work out the kinks and gel into the dominant juggernaut they can be. Getting through the early part of the schedule is the main roadblock; conference play, outside of New Mexico and San Diego State, should offer little in the way of a formidable challenge. For such a young team, winning on the road may prove difficult, but Rice’s team may be able to erase those concerns on sheer talent alone. A five-seed should be a baseline expectation for a team this good.
Missouri: six-seed (Midwest)
The lack of familiarity when joining a new league, particularly if it’s a step up in competition, would be troubling to most teams. New teams, new players, new coaches – it’s a lot to swallow when you’re trying to compete for a major conference title. But that goal is hardly at issue for Missouri, even as they make their first go-round in the SEC next season. In fact, Frank Haith’s reloaded squad may be the one group with the chops to challenge Kentucky’s SEC dominance, at least this time around. The Tigers, despite losing several vital components from last year’s Big 12 powerhouse, have replenished their rotation with several talented transfers. Former Connecticut center Alex Oriakhi, when motivated and deployed in a productive way, is with little doubt one of the nation’s best big men. Combo guard Keion Bell enters the fold after an impressive three-year stint at Pepperdine, where he averaged 16.4 points per game. And Swingman Earnest Ross, having established an admirable scoring track record in SEC play for two seasons with Auburn, is a versatile offensive dynamo with the savvy and know-how to break down league opponents. Ross and Bell practiced with the Tigers all last season, meaning Haith’s up-tempo system is already well-ingrained in their collective hoops hard drive. Oriakhi will function much in the same way that Ricardo Ratcliffe – who essentially encamped himself within a five-by-five foot box on the low block and capitalized on easy layups and putbacks – did last season. The backcourt will feature two speedy, high-IQ floor generals in Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey, while Laurence Bowers returns from an ACL injury to provide more frontcourt scoring punch alongside Oriakhi. Year two of the Haith Experiment could yield even better results, particularly if the transfers can implement his unique system with the same crispness and eye-defying speed as last year’s team. While Alabama, Florida and Arkansas could make some noise in SEC play, Kentucky is the Tigers’ main threat. Even if they drop one (or two) games to the Wildcats, Missouri, with a decent performance in non-league play, could be well on track for a top-three seed. A six-seed seems like the worst-case scenario.
Notre Dame: eight-seed (East)
In May the NCAA denied a sixth-year of eligibility to Tim Abromaitis, which at the time seemed like a crippling blow for a team that has long relied on a perimeter-oriented attack with a heavy emphasis on three-point shooting. Abromaitis, in his last full season in South Bend (2010-11), hit 43 percent of his three-point attempts and was expected to carry that impressive conversion rate into Mike Brey’s system next year. The unsuccessful appeal reflected poorly on the Irish’s chances this season, but the bad news was partially offset by the return of Scott Martin, who unlike Abromaitis was in fact granted a sixth season. At 6’8″ and 222 pounds, Martin is a capable scorer, a strong rebounder in traffic, and an altogether high-effort guy who just fits within this front line rotation. Coupled with the glass-cleaning force that is Jack Cooley – a legitimate Big East player of the year candidate – the Irish’s frontcourt matches up favorably with even the best (Louisville? Syracuse?) league counterparts. Beyond the formidable frontcourt, the backcourt is the lifeblood of Brey’s guard-heavy system, and this year’s underrated coterie of guards – Jerian Grant, Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton and incoming small forward Cameron Biedschied – will operate it deftly. Grant should be the primary ballhandler, while Atkins and Connaughton can fire away from beyond the arc. Given Cooley and Martin’s scoring prowess, the offense may incorporate low-block play on a larger scale, a tactical variant to perplex teams zeroing in on the long-range gunmen. Brey’s plucky bunch proved tough in league play last season and appear to have upgraded on several fronts. With Cooley and Martin back alongside an emerging guard rotation, Notre Dame could be in position to challenge the likes of Louisville, Cincinnati and Syracuse for the Big East crown. If the Irish can notch a marquee win or two in the non-conference slate, they should sail comfortably to a top-five NCAA Tournament seed. Notre Dame has proven mentally and physically adequate in going toe-to-toe with some of the nation’s top teams under Mike Brey, especially in conference play. With an upgraded rotation and an emerging star leading the way, anything less than a top-six seed next season will mark somewhat of a disappointment.