Your Last-Second Tourney Guide
By Jeff Rapp
Yes, the NCAA Tournament technically has begun. The First Four wrapped up in Dayton Wednesday night and, tournament officials and CBS broadcasters keep telling us, those games count.
But if you’re like me, and most people out there, the true kickoff to the Madness is the first Thursday, followed by an equally scrumptious Friday, when a flood of 32 games take over the TV screens and the consciousness of the American sports fan.
I have a former boss who despises these two days, believes they are biggest drain on work production since the invention of the cigarette. He’s right, of course. I can remember taking a few hour-and-45-minute lunches in mid-March.
But, hey, only a Scrooge can’t accept that all-day postseason basketball is a wonderful diversion, right?
And if you’re reading this column you’re either a glutton for NCAA tourney information or you are looking for some very last-second tips on filling out your bracket.
Well, here are a couple freebies:
* Don’t get too caught up in picking a plethora of upsets after the first round. Sure, there will be surprises and this promises to be one of the most wide-open tournaments in memory, but many of these teams have 1s and 2s next to their school name for a reason.
In fact, there have been just three times when the Final Four failed to produce at least one No. 1 seed. That happened in 1980, 2006 and the goofy, still inexplicable tournament of 2011 (please don’t mention that year to Thad Matta).
* On the flip side, feel free to go off the top line once or twice. Just once did we have a Final Four with a quartet of 1-seeds – that came in 2008, when champion Kansas, Memphis, UCLA and North Carolina all made it to San Antonio.
* There is a fine balance, though. We can still see Danny Manning celebrating after leading Kansas to the improbable 1988 title – improbable because the Jayhawks were a 6-seed. No seed lower than a 4 has won the whole enchilada since. Since I was an OSU student in 1988 I can attest that was a long time ago.
* And here’s one more tidbit I came across this week: If you’ve got a strong hunch about a team, you better make sure there is someone on it who can play at an elite level.
Several teams in the field are dangerous because they shoot threes well and are statistically balanced – Iowa State, for example. Certainly those are pluses and the Cyclones could reach the Sweet 16 if they get hot. But don’t expect much after that.
Of the past 28 champions, 27 have had at least one All-American on their team. Several successful underdogs of recent years have had a Manning-type player. Think Kemba Walker at Connecticut.
And even having a true standout doesn’t guarantee making the Final Four. Ask Jimmer Freddette, Jim Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal and Glenn Robinson.
But the best way to enjoy the NCAA Tournament is simply to become acquainted with the bracket. Know the matchups, know some of the subplots and know a little bit (but not too much) about the teams involved.
That way you can agonize and glorify in the results of every game and have a handle on the implications afoot.
So with that in mind, I’m going to hit the high points and other points of interest for all four regions.
My first reaction to an up-and-down look at this region was simply the coaching impact.
Louisville, the overall No. 1 of the tournament has Rick Pitino prowling the sidelines. He probably didn’t get enough credit for guiding the Cardinals into the Final Four last year but he is a household name thanks to his many postseason successes.
A former Jim Boeheim assistant, Pitino and a dinky guard named Billy Donovan took Providence College on an unlikely Final Four ride in 1987. He also returned Kentucky basketball to glory in 1996 with an NCAA championship – and nearly repeated before the Wildcats lost to the, um, Wildcats, in an overtime loss to Arizona in the ’97 final.
Since then Pitino has failed as an NBA head coach in Boston and endured shameful reports of his marital affair. But the guy can coach, and he has “Law-a-ville” primed for a run at a title.
Problem is the region also houses Mike Krzyzewski and No. 2 Duke and Tom Izzo’s third-seeded Spartans of Michigan State.
Izzo is the last coach to take a Big Ten team all the way, doing so with Mateen Cleaves-led Sparty in 2000. Coach K has like a zillion wins, a million in the NCAA Tournament, and bagged national championships in 1991, 1992, 2001 and 2010.
Duke has been to 18 straight NCAA Tournaments with Krzyzewski the staple; Michigan State has been to 16 straight and has the Big Ten’s most accomplished mentor.
But there are even more noteworthy coaches in the Midwest.
Veteran head coach Jim Crews, a Bobby Knight disciple, had to take over for the late Rick Majerus at St. Louis and has an even-handed 27-win team.
The 5-seed is Oklahoma State, where Travis Ford has done an excellent rebuilding job. He left UMass after losing to Ohio State in the 2008 NIT finals and has the Cowboys on an upward path.
No. 6 Memphis is led by Josh Pastner, a walk-on freshman on that ’97 Arizona team who enters the week with 30 wins. Memphis scraped into the field as a 12-seed in Pastner’s first year, then an 8, and now a 6.
“We’re moving up,” he said.
On and on it goes in the Midwest – Bryce Drew tries to return some NCAA magic to his alma mater, Valparaiso; Dana Altman enters after directing Oregon to the Pac-12 tournament title; his replacement at Creighton, Greg McDermott, has the pleasure of coaching the best coach’s son in the country, All-American forward Doug McDermott.
And perhaps the most interesting coach of all in the loaded Midwest bracket is Colorado State’s Larry Eustachy. The Rams are the top team in the country in terms of rebounding margin (+12.1) and have five senior starters, so clearly Eustachy inherited much.
Still, he is taking his fourth different team to the NCAA tournament, having previously gone dancing with Utah State, Iowa State and Southern Mississippi.
His reward is an 8-seed and a date with No. 9 Missouri, the only school in the field with six players averaging in double figures in points.
And you can bet Frank Haith would like to move the Tigers through to the Sweet 16 considering his old school, Miami (Fla.) isn’t missing him right now.
Gonzaga played its normal hefty nonconference schedule, rolled to yet another West Coast Conference title, this time by blitzing the entire field, is ranked No. 1 in the nation, and is one of two teams to enter the Big Dance with 30 wins (31, actually).
So how do fans refer to the Zags? As the weakest 1-seed and the highest seed most likely to be toppled.
That may be true, but someone better get a big ax. Center Kelly Olynyk is no joke. In fact, he’s the first known Division I player to play two seasons in a program, stay in said program, redshirt, and then embark on an All-American season.
The 7-0 junior averaged 17.7 points and 7.0 rebounds and shot a blazing 66.8 percent from the field. Imagine him added to last year’s team that took Ohio State down to the wire in the NCAA Tournament last season.
Matta probably would rather not, but he and his Buckeyes may reacquaint with new, improved Gonzaga in the regional final in Los Angeles.
The Buckeyes had to beat Syracuse in Big East country and on the floor of the Boston Celtics to reach the Final Four last March. This time the path is on the left coast, possibly against a Pacific-based power team, and in the same palace where the Lakers and Clippers perform.
Still, Matta is easily the most successful postseason coach in the West. Not only does he own the Big Ten tourney, he is 20-10 in NCAA games with two Final Fours and an appearance in the ’07 title game.
Assessing the West region overall is difficult, though.
Also trying to get to the Staples Center are a handful of talented teams that don’t have daunting NCAA Tournament resumes.
Five-seed Wisconsin is a headache, to be sure, but has made it to one Final Four since World War II. Fourth-seeded Kansas State also doesn’t have much postseason history. And third-seeded New Mexico, champions of the Mountain West, won’t be using The Pit to its advantage and won’t be drawing on much NCAA folklore.
Looking at the field with Ohio State glasses, it’s safe to say Matta at least has comfort of familiarity. Not only has he coached against Gonzaga’s Mark Few, the West is littered with former combatants.
OSU just faced annual foe Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament final and K-State is led by former Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. The 3-14 game between New Mexico and Harvard pits coaches Steve Alford and Tommy Amaker, who once patrolled the sideline at Iowa and Michigan, respectively.
And then there’s 6-seed Arizona, perhaps the most fortunate team in the country at the halfway point when it was still undefeated, but still as feisty and competitive as head coach Sean Miller, Matta’s best friend in the business.
Matta said the other day on a national radio show that the two spoke and didn’t realize they could meet in the Sweet 16 until they started discussing their draws. Such is the isolated life of a college head coach, I suppose.
If they do reunite in L.A., get ready for an entertaining battle that could be on par with the one staged in Lexington, Ky., in 2007 between the Buckeyes and Xavier, where Miller succeeded Matta as head coach.
And speaking of interesting matchups, the West has one right out of the chute in Wisconsin-Ole Miss. That will feature high-scoring and flaky guard Marshall Henderson against one of the most disciplined defenses in the country.
“He’s an exciting player,” Mississippi head coach Andy Kennedy said. “Sometimes I try to remind him, passion is good, emotion is bad.”
Like the Midwest, the South region features several coaches who have been there, done that, like Kansas’s Bill Self, Florida’s Donovan, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and VCU’s Shaka Smart.
Those four have been highly coveted by other schools and even NBA franchises over the years and they know full well what goes into making it to the Final Four.
Georgetown’s John Thompson III could be added to that list since he took the Hoyas to the 2007 Final Four, but he hasn’t replicated that success in the last several years and is just 8-8 all-time in the tournament.
G’Town is the 2-seed and has perhaps the region’s best player in Otto Porter, a 6-8 forward who averages 16.4 ppg and 7.5 rpg. He’s a national Player of the Year candidate, but so is fellow sophomore Ben McLemore.
If any player can turn this tournament into his own playground and use it to vault to the top of the NBA draft like Anthony Davis did last year, it could be the 6-5 McLemore, who didn’t even play for KU last year because of ineligibility.
He’s put up 16.7 ppg while shooting 43.4 percent from deep and 86.3 at the free-throw line. But it’s his ability to make game-turning plays and tough shots that really lifts him and his team. Plus, Kansas has lots of size, experience and help on both ends of the floor in the form of 7-0 center Jeff Withey, forward Kevin Young, and guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford.
The tournament committee did Kansas no favor by putting North Carolina on the 8-line and setting up a potential heavy-hitting second-round matchup in Kansas City. The Tar Heels first have to get by 9-seed Villanova, one of the most puzzling teams in the country.
Jay Wright is 12-9 in the Big Dance and usually gets his Wildcats to rise up in the postseason but they are one of the worst teams in the country in turnovers, They also rely on getting to the free-throw line for 28 percent of their most, which is the highest percentage in the country.
How far Nova advances could have everything to do with how tightly their games are officiated.
Smart, meanwhile, is dealing with being the favorite – VCU’s 5-seed is the school’s highest since 1985 – and not the lovable underdog. Plus, his first-round test is against Akron, a place where he was an assistant coach not long ago.
Teams like Kansas, North Carolina, VCU and Michigan will battle in the top half of the South bracket, it may not matter if Florida gets cranked up.
The Gators fill it from all over the court when right and they can rely on a defense that allows just 53.2 ppg, best in the SEC. If you think UF can’t beat physical teams who slow it down, think again. They’ve beaten Wisconsin and Marquette this season.
The South also features perhaps the most intriguing 6-11 matchup of the tournament as talented UCLA, the 6, will face No. 11 Minnesota, which limped into the postseason after some very impressive early wins.
The Gophers opened as a slight favorite according to odds-makers.
Speaking of Minnesota, some have questioned whether Indiana dropped off a peg after losing at Williams Arena, failing to win on Senior Day against Ohio State and being drummed out of the Big Ten Tournament semifinals with the program’s 12th-straight loss to Wisconsin and coach Bo Ryan.
In between, however, IU won one of the most exciting games of the year at Michigan in the regular-season finale, a victory that secured the program’s first outright league title in 20 years.
Are the top-seeded Hoosiers hungry for more? If so, they appear to have a navigable path to the regional final vs. No. 2 Miami (Fla.) and point guard Shane Larkin.
IU isn’t the only team in the East with some basketball tradition, however.
UNLV, Syracuse, California, North Carolina State and Marquette are all former national title winners. Add in recent Big Dance darling Butler, the 6-seed, and this could be one wacky quadrant of the bracket.
The Hurricanes clearly are the Johnny-come-lately. They are making their first NCAA appearance since 2008 and coach Jim Larranaga will make his first since he was at George Mason in 2011 and Ohio State bloodied his nose in Cleveland.
Still, the ’Canes are the ACC champs, not Duke, and they shouldn’t have any trouble with Pacific or the Illinois-Colorado winner.
The 5-12 meeting between UNLV and Cal seems like a glitch on the part of the selection committee since they already faced each other in December. Then again, the Running Rebels won that contest 76-75, so maybe we are in store for a final-possession thriller again.
“It’s a lot of motivation,” Cal guard Justin Cobbs said.
The winner could stand in the way of Indiana. So could Syracuse, setting up a classic rematch of the 1987 tournament final. Jim Boeheim is still at the helm but the Orange have a lot to deal with this week as reports surfaced the program will face a lengthy NCAA investigation. Syracuse also has a shift to the ACC on the agenda as soon as the postseason ends.
Also potentially awaiting Indiana is Marquette, Tom Crean’s former employer. The third-seeded Golden Eagles can set up that dramatic matchup if they outgun Miami and advance to the regional final in Washington, D.C.
And if you’re into sentiment, how about a run for 8-seed N.C. State, which magically captured the title under the late, great Jim Valvano 30 years ago.
Will we be as captivated this time?
Only one way to find out.