In stark contrast to last year’s tournament in which the four teams manning the frontline were clearly superior. This year’s number one seeds appear to be much more vulnerable. A prime indicator of this is the fact that only Louisville and Memphis were able to successfully win their respective conference championship (last year all four number one seeds won their conference tournaments). The parity seems to permeate beyond the rest of the field, as three of the major conference tournaments were won by teams that are seeded fourth or lower. That said, with the equality being so pronounced in this year’s field, perhaps now more than ever, each pick could potentially make or break a bracket. In an effort to enhance the quality of internet and office pools across the country, eight teams will be highlighted over the course of a two part series: This article will focus on unheralded/underrated teams to watch, and will be followed by an article discussing some traditional powers that maybe poised to flounder.
Teams to watch:
Arizona 19-13 (9-10 Pac 10):
Perhaps the most schizophrenic team in the field of sixty-five. While the
Wildcats have glaring losses against such teams as UAB (in Tucson) and UNLV (a fifteen point road loss), they have a host of notable wins that came against such teams as: Kansas, Gonzaga, Washington, USC and UCLA. Furthermore, with the possible exception of North Carolina, Arizona has arguably the most talented trio in the field, as Nic Wise (15.1ppg, 4.6 apg 1.5 stl) , Chase Budinger (17.9ppg 6.3 reb, 1.4 stl), and Jordan Hill(18.5ppg 11reb, 1.8 blk) each average over fifteen points per game. Much as been made of Arizona losing five out of their last six games, but four of the loses were against ranked competition, and all but one were at the hands of teams within the field of sixty-five. Bottom line: if the Wildcats can survive Luke Nevill and a very balanced Utes attack, they pose a very serious threat to fourth seeded Wake Forest in the second round; as Wise and Hill could effectively match the productivity of Jeff Teague, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu. And the Demon Deacons really don’t have an answer for Budinger’s overall offensive versatility.
Key Stat: Arizona is 7-0 in games in which Nic Wise has scored 20+ points.
West Virginia 23-11 (10-8 Big East):
Long-time viewers of our site will recall that the Mountaineers were included in last year’s edition, and they did not disappoint as the promptly made a run to the sweet sixteen, dispatching two-seeded Duke in the process. While this year’s West Virginia squad is lacking a talent the caliber of the departed Joe Alexander, Led by the versatility of Da’Sean Butler (17.3ppg 6reb 1.3stl), the outside shooting of Alex Ruoff (87 3pt made), and the emergent inside presence of freshmen Devin Ebanks (7.7 reb); they still possess a number of ingredients that will make them a tough out for anyone. Furthermore, as with any Bob Huggins coached team, they play a very rugged and physical brand of defense which can be very troublesome for teams that are not accustomed to the Big East style of play. Assuming the Mountaineers get past Dayton, look for them to defeat Kansas, as their combination of tournament experience, defensive schemes, and ball control (they are 17th in the nation in assist to turnover ratio with an average of 1.275) could prove to be too much for the young less experienced Jayhawks.
Key Stat: In the Month of March Devin Ebanks is averaging 14.8ppg and 10.3 rebs. If this level of production continues, he can provide a dominant interior presence to compliment Ruoff and Butler’s more perimeter oriented skill-sets.
Oklahoma State 22-11 (9-7 Big 12):
Being successful in the NCAA tournament is usually based on several key elements: a dominant interior presence, stellar guard play, consistent outside shooting, and stifling defense. Legitimate championship contenders (North Carolina & Louisville immediately come to mind), more often than not possess all of these attributes. However, during every tournament some dark horse team makes a serious run because their excellence in one facet of the game allows them to trump a number of opponents in a single elimination contest. The latter description is definitely accurate for Stillwater’s finest, as Obi Muonelo (12.6ppg 40.1 3pt%), Terrell Harris (13.8ppg 36.7 3pt%), Byron Eaton (14.1ppg 5.5apg, 2.2stl), and most notably James Anderson(18.6ppg 5.8 reb, 1.1stl & 413pt%), are collectively probably the most explosive guard quartet in the nation. The Cowboys average an astounding 81.1 points per game (which is good for 6th in the nation), and shoot an equally impressive 38.4 percent from three (25th in the nation). While the Pokes have a daunting opponent in their first round match up with Tennessee, and should they survive that, an even stiffer challenge against number one seeded Pitt; ultimately Oklahoma State’s success will be determined by rather or not they impose their style of a play on their competition. If either Tennessee or Pittsburgh is able to establish an inside presence, given their small lineup the Cowboys are toast. However, if their guards are able to control the tempo and shoot effectively from outside, then they are capable of moving to the round of sixteen and perhaps, beyond.
Key Stat: Byron Eaton 5.5 assists per game accounts for 46% of Oklahoma State’s total of 11.9 assists.
Western Kentucky 24-8 (15-3 Sunbelt):
Having won 15 out of their last 17 games, the Hilltoppers are unquestionably one of the hottest teams entering the field. Led by guards AJ Slaughter (15.8 ppg 3.1 reb, 3.6 apg & 1.3 stl) and Orlando Mendez-Valdez (14ppg, 4.1 reb, 4 apg, 1.1 stl, 40.6 3pt%), Western Kentucky possesses a balanced attack that features four double figure scorers. While the Hilltoppers’ scoring average of 71.8 points per game is far from stellar, it is more than 7 points more than first round opponent, Illinois’ average of 64.6. This statistic becomes even more critical when one factors that the Illini’s leading distributor, Chester Frazier (5.3apg) will be unable to suit up; making an already stagnant offensive attack even more sluggish. Should WKU advance and face Gonzaga in the second round, as is evident by his 25 points 9 rebounds performance against Louisville (a Hilltoppers road win by the way), AJ Slaughter has enough game breaking ability to make the reigning Sunbelt Conference champions more than competitive against the Mark Few coached Bulldogs.
Key Stat: 1. As in Western Kentucky’s assist to turnover ratio. If the Hilltoppers are to beat Illinois and have any chance moving forward against Gonzaga, they are going to need to do a better job of spiking up the assists and decreasing the amount of turnovers. The latter is will prove to be especially critical against the Illini.
Others to watch: Southern California, Marquette, Purdue, UCLA, Arizona State and Gonzaga.