The Other 26: Bracket-Busting, South and West Edition

Posted by IRenko on March 19th, 2013

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I. Renko is an RTC columnist and the author of the weekly column, The Other 26. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.

Oh, well. What’s a royal ball? After all, I suppose it would be frightfully dull, and-and-and boring, and-and completely… Completely wonderful. – Cinderella

It’s time for college basketball’s annual ball, which means it’s time for America to fall in love with Cinderella all over again. There are 36 teams from the 26 non-power-conferences who have been invited to this year’s Big Dance, and while the slipper no longer fits for some of the more prominent of these schools, for the bulk of them, this is a rare opportunity to make a name for themselves on the grandest of stages.

This is the first of a two-part series taking a look at the NCAA Tournament prospects for all 36 teams hailing from The Other 26. We focus today on the TO26 teams in the South and West regions, grouping them into five rough categories, and, within each category, ordering them by their likelihood of advancing.

Regional Threats

These are the teams that have a credible chance of dancing all the way to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.

Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?

Can Kelly Olynyk Lead the Zags to Their First Final Four?

  • Gonzaga (#1, West) — It’s been five years since a TO26 team reached the top seed line. In 2008, Memphis rode its #1 seed all the way to the brink of a national championship, and Zags fans are hoping for the same — and perhaps more — this year. Gonzaga has no glaring weaknesses. They are led by an athletic, skilled frontcourt, the centerpiece of which is NPOY candidate Kelly Olynyk. They get steady guard play from Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, and David Stockton. If they’re to run into any trouble, it will likely be against a team that (1) sports a strong, athletic interior defense that can contain Olynyk, Elias Harris, and Sam Dower and pound the glass, and (2) can hit the three-point shot consistently, as Illinois did in beating them (Gonzaga’s defense allows a lot of three-point attempts). There are a fair number of teams that meet the first criteria in the West bracket, but not many with a lot offensive firepower from the three-point line or otherwise. In short, this is as good a shot as Gonzaga has ever had to make the Final Four. The eyes of the nation will be watching to see if they can make good on their promise.
  • Virginia Commonwealth (#5, South) – VCU is a popular sleeper pick for the Final Four, and there’s some merit to that notion, but here is the most important thing you need to know about them: They are 25-2 on the year (and 14-0 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate over 18 percent. And they are 1-6 (and 0-5 in A-10 play) against teams with a turnover rate under 18 percent. The Rams’ first-round opponent, Akron, falls squarely in the former camp (20.8 percent), a problem for the Zips that will be exacerbated by the absence of their legally-troubled starting point guard, Alex Abreu. After that, things get a bit trickier for the Rams. Their two potential Third Round opponents, Michigan and South Dakota State, rank in the top 10 in the country in turnover rate. Those stats are perhaps somewhat inflated by the fact that both teams play in conferences that don’t feature a lot of pressure defenses, but if you’re looking for a point guard to lead you against such a defense, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better option than Trey Burke or Nate Wolters. It’s true that Michigan has struggled lately in general, and that if you look ahead to a potential match-up with Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen, Havoc’s odds of success improve, but I’d caution against over-exuberance at the Rams’ chances given a potentially dicey Third Round contest.

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Update On The Illinois Coaching Search

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on March 27th, 2012

It has been over two weeks since Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas let go of Bruce Weber. Thomas continued to make the right moves after the firing by pursuing VCU’s Shaka Smart with a huge offer last week.  Reports indicated that the offer on the table was $2.5 million per year, which certainly sent the message that Illinois is committed to winning, at least from a monetary perspective. ESPN analysts such as Jay Bilas have been raving about the Illinois gig being one of the top coaching jobs in the country. Everything was in place, but Smart declined the offer. After Shaka Smart, reports were floating around that Brad Stevens was another potential target for the job but he quickly squashed any such rumors. Other coaches that have denied interest in the job include Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Wichita State’s Greg Marshall so any move to Illinois may be out of question right now. Kansas State’s Frank Martin has expressed interest to leave Manhattan, wound up in South Carolina instead.  So where does Illinois go now? The Illini faithful are a little confused because money is not the issue anymore. The athletic department wants to hire the best coach available and will spend a decent amount of change, but will the other good candidates make the move?

Ohio's John Groce may be the next Head Coach of Illinois. (TimesUnion)

Before we move onto the next list of candidates, it is worth examining if Illinois is still a top job after missing the tournament three out of the past five seasons. Historically, since the Lou Henson era started in Champaign, Illinois has been a competitive program in the college basketball landscape. Regularly competing for Big Ten championships, a couple of Final Four appearances and overall an exciting brand of basketball has transformed Illinois into a legit Big Ten program. The potential recruiting pipeline through Chicago is also an impressive factor for coaches to consider due to the heavy pool of talent flowing through. But in a “what have you done for me lately?” world, Illinois is probably the sixth, maybe even the seventh best job in the B1G, right now - after Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan. Sure, Indiana has been horrible during Crean’s first three seasons, but to quote him again, “it is Indiana.” Michigan is on the upswing with a top recruiting class coming to Ann Arbor and a B1G regular season championship. Purdue is only gearing up for better seasons under Matt Painter. Illinois’ potential over the next 3-4 seasons is not as good as the top five or six teams. Prospective coaches also realize that you can’t just recruit Chicago and expect to cruise in this conference because you need to bring your A-game to the white board. B1G hosts the best basketball minds in the country, specifically from the ones mentioned as the top six teams right now.

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