O26 Bracketbusting: South and Midwest Regions

Posted by Adam Stillman on March 18th, 2014

Sing it with me: It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The Big Dance is finally upon us. After a terrific regular season, we finally have the bracket in our hands. Before the inexorable slide into ripping them up in exasperation, we are left with hope for a couple more days — hope that we can pick the right Final Four and National Champion. Hope that we can suss out the nearly impossible task of selecting which upsets will actually come to fruition. Will there be another Dunk City-esque run in 2014? Which Other 26 conference team will become America’s next darling? Well, we here at the O26 microsite will try to help you out. Let’s take a look at the O26 teams — starting with the Midwest and South Regions — and discuss the likelihood that each has to advance this week.

MIDWEST

Regional Threats. These are the teams that could be second- and third-weekend squads.

Wichita State's run to perfection was historic. (Peter Aiken)

Wichita State, despite a tough road, could make another Final Four. (AP/Peter Aiken)

  • Wichita State (#1 seed) — The Shockers might be the most polarizing team in the nation. Some people love ‘em and want to see a repeat Final Four run, and others want to see them fall flat on their faces, validating their loud group of detractors. The fact is Wichita State is 34-0 and the first team since UNLV in 1991 to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated. Well, if the Wheatshockers can return to the Final Four, they’ll shut those detractors up. They have arguably the toughest path to the Final Four out of all the #1 seeds. Preseason #1 Kentucky in the round of 32, a criminally underseeded #4 Louisville team in the Sweet Sixteen, and then either #2 seed Michigan or #3 seed Duke in the Elite Eight. Woof. This is Wichita State’s opportunity to show the nation just how good it is. And the Shockers are plenty good. They boast a top-10 ranking in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. Star power forward Cleanthony Early also ranked seventh in KenPom’s player of the year rankings. With additional prospects in guard Ron Baker and point guard Fred VanVleet, the Shockers could find themselves in Arlington, Texas, in early April.

One and Done. These teams have a solid shot at winning their round of 64 game, but are unlikely to reach the second weekend.

  • Saint Louis (#5 seed) — The Billikens were looking like a darkhorse Final Four pick just a few weeks ago, but they stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their final four regular season tilts before falling to St. Bonaventure on a buzzer-beating three in the Atlantic 10 Tournament quarterfinals. The fact SLU got a #5 seed is surprising, considering many had them pegged around the #7 seed range. Still, seedings really don’t mean as much as match-ups in the NCAA Tournament, and SLU wasn’t afforded any favors in that department.  The #5/#12 game against the North Carolina State/Xavier winner is a toss-up, a game the Billikens certainly could win. But horrifically underseeded Louisville awaits in the round of 32. That could signal bye-bye for the Billikens. SLU does boast the eighth-best defensive efficiency in the country (91.2), but any success the Bills will have in the Big Dance depends on their offense. Can they make enough shots to advance? With an offensive that scores just 104.6 points per 100 possession (175th in the nation), that really hasn’t been the case this year. Five senior starters won’t go easily, led by linebacker-esque guard Jordair Jett and undersized but crafty big man Dwayne Evans.
  • Massachusetts (#6 seed) — UMass, just like SLU, is another A-10 team that hit a bit of a rough patch toward the end of the season. The Minutemen lost two of their last three regular season games before falling in the A-10 quarterfinals to George Washington. Do-it-all point guard Chaz Williams carries the load for UMass, averaging 15.8 points and 7.0 assists per game. He’s the type of player who could carry the Minutemen to a win or two in the Big Dance. But unfortunately for them, the road ahead is daunting. First comes the winner of the First Four game between Tennessee and Iowa. I like the Volunteers in that one. UT won its final four regular season games before giving Florida a run for its money in the SEC Tournament semifinals. The Vols also boast a #13 KenPom ranking, sitting in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. If UMass can escape that game third-seeded Duke awaits. That’s as far as the Minutemen are likely to go.

Slipper May Fit. These are teams that could pull an upset in the round of 64 if things go right.

  • Manhattan (#13 seed) — The Jaspers would have been a trendy upset pick if they weren’t pitted against Louisville. Manhattan forces turnovers, rebounds the ball on the offensive glass, and gets to the free throw line. But Louisville just isn’t a good match-up for Manhattan. The Jaspers don’t take great care of the ball in the first place, and Louisville feasts on teams that don’t. Manhattan coughs the ball up 19.7 percent of the time, a mark that ranks 266th in the country. The Louisville defense forces turnovers 25.2 percent of the time, good for second in the nation. That’s not a recipe for an upset. But if scoring machine George Beamon (19.2 PPG, 37 percent from beyond the arc) goes off, and Rhamel Brown can protect the rim — he’s first in the nation by blocking 15.8 percent of opponents’ shots — Manhattan has a puncher’s chance.
  • Mercer (#14 seed) — The Bears are best known for being the team that prevented America from seeing Round Two of Dunk City this March. That all could change if Mercer can upset third-seeded Duke. The one thing Mercer does best? Shoot the three-ball. The Bears rank 23rd in the country by knocking down 38.9 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Langston Hall — the only Bear averaging double figures at 14.7 PPG — leads the charge by hitting 39.2 percent of his long-range attempts. Could he pull a C.J. McCollum — Lehigh’s star from 2012 — in leading an upset over Duke? The Blue Devils seem ripe for an upset every few years, so why not?

Enjoy Your Parting Gift. These squads are virtual locks to head home with a nice memory of an NCAA appearance and a round of 64 loss.

  • Wofford (#15 seed) — The Terriers have actually been a fixture in the NCAA Tournament in recent years, with this being their third appearance in the past five seasons. Wofford actually stayed within single digits in losses to Wisconsin in 2010 and BYU in 2011. Wofford won the Southern Conference Tournament as the #3 seed, helped by a bracket collapse on the other side that saw top-seeded Davidson go down in the semifinals. The Terriers don’t do much particularly well, with their best KenPom ranking 65th when it comes to keeping opponents off the offensive glass. The name to know here is Karl Cochran. The junior guard averages 15.7 PPG and shoots 39.7 percent from three-point range. Michigan should run away with this one easily.
  • Cal Poly/Texas Southern (#16 seed in First Four) — Enjoy it while you can, fellas. Cal Poly, at 13-19, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history. Texas Southern, meanwhile, is coming from the Southwestern Athletic Conference, a league that hasn’t won a non-play-in game since Southern toppled Georgia Tech in 1993. They’ll meet in Wednesday’s First Four game for a chance to get pummeled by Wichita State on Friday. Either will be happy just to be there, and maybe they’ll even take a 2-0 lead.

SOUTH

Regional Threats. These are the teams that could be second- and third-weekend squads.

VCU's 2011 tourney run was a springboard for the program's long-term success

VCU’s 2011 tourney run was a springboard for the program’s long-term success. (Getty)

  • Virginia Commonwealth (#5 seed) — VCU might be one of the toughest teams to predict in the big bracket. The Rams could lose in the round of 64 or they could make a run to the Final Four. VCU won six straight games before falling to Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship Sunday. The Rams are 12th in KenPom’s rankings and boast the second-best defensive efficiency in the land. VCU’s “Havoc” style can cause a lot of problems for teams not used to playing that way. VCU leads the nation in turnover and steal percentage, thanks in part to Briante Weber’s NCAA-leading 6.7 percent steal percentage. Treveon Graham is the scorer to watch at 15.7 PPG. Their round of 64 opponent — Stephen F. Austin — is no pushover, and UCLA lurks in a round of 32 match-up. Then would come Florida in the Sweet Sixteen. Not saying the Rams do it, but I think they’re good enough to reach the second weekend.
  • New Mexico (#7 seed) — I actually like New Mexico’s chances better than VCU’s when it comes to reaching the Final Four. The Lobos, a darkhorse Final Four pick a year ago, fell flat in a round of 64 upset to Harvard. The deep run might just come a year later than expected. New Mexico is peaking at the right time, coming off a Mountain West Conference Tournament championship win against San Diego State. The Lobos were underseeded and must get past a tough Stanford squad first. If New Mexico does that, the Lobos will have a good chance to get past Kansas in the round of 32. That’s if big man Joel Embiid is still out with his back injury. New Mexico boasts top-40 offensive and defensive efficiency ratings and can stretch the floor with big men Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow shooting jumpers — the latter might be the most improved player in college basketball. Kansas won a previous meeting by 17 earlier in the season in Kansas City, but Embiid was healthy and New Mexico was playing horribly at the time. I think it would be a different story this time around. With struggling Syracuse or offense-deficient Ohio State likely waiting in the Sweet Sixteen, I wouldn’t be surprised to see New Mexico in the Elite Eight before falling to Florida.

One and Done. These teams have a solid shot at winning their round of 64 game, but are unlikely to reach the second weekend.

  • Stephen F. Austin (#12 seed) — If there’s one thing Stephen F. Austin knows how to do, it’s win. As in 28 games in a row. There’s something to be said about knowing how to win. That’s what makes the Lumberjacks a threat to advance to the round of 32, and maybe even the Sweet Sixteen with a win against UCLA. They do a pretty good job of taking care of the ball, which will be key against VCU’s press. They are similar to the Rams in a way, forcing turnovers on 24.4 percent of their opponents’ possessions, good for third in the country behind just VCU and Louisville. Stephen F. (Stone Cold) Austin also hits the offensive glass, ranking 11th in the country in that stat. Desmond Haymon (14.3 PPG) and Southland Conference Player of the Year Jacob Parker (14.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 46.7 percent from three) provide enough firepower to lead the Lumberjacks to an upset or two in the Big Dance.
  • Dayton (#11 seed) — The Flyers ought to be licking their chops at this match-up with Ohio State. Dayton boasts five players from the state of Ohio — including former Ohio State player Jordan Sibert — who’d love nothing more than to take down the state’s powerhouse school. Dayton can score (30th in offensive efficiency), shoot the three-pointer (37.8 percent as a team) and take care of the ball (only cough it up 7.1 percent of the time, 17th in the nation). Against a team like Ohio State, which causes turnovers 22 percent of the time and ranks fourth in the nation in defensive efficiency, this could be one juicy match-up. Sibert leads a balanced Flyer team with 12.5 PPG, while canning 44 percent of his threes. Devin Oliver (12.1 PPG), Dyshawn Pierre (11.1 PPG) and Vee Sanford (9.9 PPG) all can score, too. In the first game of the tournament on Thursday, I like Dayton in an upset. And although Syracuse has struggled of late, I don’t see Dayton flying into the Sweet Sixteen.

Slipper May Fit. These are teams that could pull an upset in the round of 64 if things go right.

  • Western Michigan (#14 seed) — The Broncos pulled off the double title in the MAC and now get struggling #3 seed Syracuse in the round of 64. Speaking of double, a Western Michigan senior duo could make things interesting against the Orange. Guard David Brown scores 19.4 PPG while 6’11” center Shayne Whittington tallies 16.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. The Broncos rank 12th in the nation by hitting 54.1 percent of their shots from inside the arc, while rating 14th with a 51.7 free throw rate. KenPom only gives Western Michigan a 16 percent chance to pull the upset, but with the way Syracuse has played lately — the Orange have lost four of last six in regular season before falling to N.C. State in the ACC quarterfinals — it’s not all that much of a long shot. My worry is that Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone gives WMU all kinds of fits. This will be a game to keep an eye on though.
  • Tulsa (#13 seed) — Who would have expected the Golden Hurricane in the NCAA Tournament? Tulsa won 11 straight games to end the season, including the last three to win Conference USA’s automatic bid, its first since 2003. Danny Manning’s boys hang their hats on defense, boasting the 28th-best defensive efficiency rating in the land. The Golden Hurricane are 14th in the nation in two-point field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to hit just 42.9 percent of their shots from inside the arc. What will do Tulsa in, though, is its lack of perimeter defense. It allows teams to hit 35.3 percent of their threes, the 224th-best mark in the country. UCLA poses a match-up nightmare — and it would for most teams, but especially here — as the Bruins are 19th in the country by hitting 39.1 percent of their three-point attempts. This would be a shocker if it happened, but nothing is impossible in the NCAA Tournament.

Enjoy Your Parting Gift. These squads are virtual locks to head home with a nice memory of an NCAA appearance and a round of 64 loss.

  • Eastern Kentucky (#15 seed) — I actually see Eastern Kentucky being the #15 seed with the best chance to pull off a tournament upset. But that speaks more to the quality of the other three 15s — American, Milwaukee and Wofford. Glen Cosey (18.8 PPG, 42.5 percent from three) is the name to know, and he could very well go off for 30 points. But that won’t be enough against Kansas. The Jayhawks will be more susceptible to an upset without rim protector Joel Embiid, but the Colonels just don’t have enough firepower to advance.
  • Albany/Mount St. Mary’s (#16 seed in First Four) — These are two of the more unexpected teams in the big bracket. Albany (America East) and Mount St. Mary’s (Northeast) both won their conferences as #4 seeds, upsetting heavily-favored top seeds along the way. Albany is a 52 percent favorite to advance tonight to take on Florida. The Great Danes are led by Peter Hooley’s 15.7 PPG and 40 percent clip from three-point range. Mount St. Mary’s is paced by Rashad Whack (17.7 PPG) and Julian Norfleet (17.5 PPG). The First Four winner will get waxed by Florida, but should be ecstatic to play on the big stage.
Adam Stillman (46 Posts)


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