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Thursday Evening NCAA Tournament Viewer’s Guide
At the time of this writing, we’re 2-for-3 in close games, with Duke getting everything they can handle from UNC Wilmington and UConn and Colorado heading down to the wire after a back-and-forth game. Without any further ado, let’s take a look at today’s later games:
3. Miami – 14. Buffalo (6:50, TNT)
After a down year in which Miami missed the NCAA Tournament, Jim Larranaga has quietly put together one of the better teams in college basketball: the Canes finished tied for second in the ACC and show good balance on both sides of the floor (though they’re slightly better on offense). I was actually lucky enough to catch a Miami game in person this year – unsurprisingly, attendance was sparse in Coral Gables – and they have three exceptional players: point guard Angel Rodriguez (formerly of Kansas State) is a consummate floor general, close to the platonic ideal of the undersized college PG; Sheldon McClellan is a fringe NBA prospect with great shooting splits on high usage; big man Tonye Jekiri is a long seven-footer who puts in the work as a rim-protector and offensive rebounder, but also can hit mid-range jumpers. Miami is a veteran team that could make a run.
Their opponents are back in the tournament for the second consecutive year, as Buffalo has been able to continue the momentum even after the departure of coach Bobby Hurley. The Bulls finished tied for third in the MAC East, but upset the class of the MAC – Akron – in the conference tournament championship. Miami is the best team that Buffalo has faced all year and the Bulls were blown out by all of their quality non-conference competition, but they return many of the same pieces that almost upset West Virginia a year ago.
[After the JUMP: more previews]
5. Indiana – 12. Chattanooga (7:10, CBS)
Despite a totally awesome upset loss in the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana is still a very formidable squad – the Hoosiers won the league going away and have arguably the most potent offense in the East Region (though Kentucky ranks #1 in Kenpom’s Adjusted Efficiency). While IU’s weapons should be fairly well-known around these parts by now – Yogi Ferrell is an outstanding all-around point guard, Thomas Bryant and Max Bielfeldt combine for an interesting big man duo, Troy Williams jumps out of the gym, etc. – but one thing to focus on is the health of Robert Johnson, who was unavailable for the Michigan game. Indiana is already down one starting off-ball guard (James Blackmon) and can ill-afford to have another out for significant time in March. While the Hoosiers can still hum along effectively on offense, Johnson’s defense is a major upgrade over his replacements’.
Chattanooga was the best team in the Southern Conference; the Mocs (which is apparently an abbreviation of “moccasins,” at first a snake, then Native American imagery, and now a mockingbird) won their conference tournament and were rewarded with a 13-seed. One of Chattanooga’s strengths is forcing turnovers, and Indiana has struggled at times with turning the ball over – needless to say, the Mocs have to disrupt the IU offense to have a shot at the upset. Chattanooga’s best two players are juniors: undersized swingman Tre’ McLean and formidable shot-blocker Justin Tuoyo.
1. North Carolina – 16. Florida Gulf Coast (7:20, TBS)
Projected to be the most competitive 1 / 16 game of the day, Kenpom gives UNC a… 96% chance of winning. We’ll see if Dunk City has any magic left after their unbelievable Sweet 16 run in 2013.
3. Utah – 14. Fresno State (7:27, tru TV)
The big draw for this game is Utah center Jakob Poeltl: the Austrian seven-footer possesses uncanny coordination, skill, and touch around the rim and will likely be a lottery pick come June. He’s one of the most efficient players in the country from the field – shooting 65% on the season on well over 300 field goal attempts – and he jumps off the screen when you watch Utah. The Utes got off to a rough start in Pac-12 play, but have won 13 of their last 16 games (and two of the losses came to a phenomenal Oregon team). Unsurprisingly, their primary strengths are two-point shooting and two-point defense, though they’re actually the most foul-averse team in the country – unusual when you have a guy like Poeltl roaming the paint.
Fresno State was a surprising auto-bid recipient after upsetting Steve Fisher’s San Diego State team in the Mountain West finals – FSU finished second in the conference, but were three games behind the Aztecs in the standings. Senior guard Marvelle Harris was the MWC Kenpom POY: he takes up a huge percentage of the Bulldogs’ possessions with reasonable efficiency, buoyed by his ability to get to the free throw stripe. Unfortunately for Fresno State, they probably don’t have the size to check Poeltl as their starting frontcourt goes 6’6 and 6’9.
6. Arizona – 11. Wichita State (9:20, TNT)
This is probably the best game of the day on paper: Wichita State is actually a top ten team in the Kenpom ratings (early-season losses without their starting point guard hurt their chances of getting quality wins, so that’s why they’re seeded so low) and Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker have been around for some memorable seasons for the Shockers. While those two are seniors – and have the clock ticking on their college eligibility – freshman Markis McDuffie is another player to watch, potentially next in the line of great Wichita State players. Despite his success, Greg Marshall has decided to stay in Wichita for the time being and, because of that, the Shockers are always a threat to rip off a long run in the NCAA Tournament.
They face Arizona, one of college basketball’s brand names, but one that’s been slightly underwhelming relative to their lofty standard under Sean Miller. They still have a nice combination of experience and youth – Ryan Anderson (not that Ryan Anderson) is the Wildcats’ best player and he’s a senior; true freshman five star Allonzo Trier hasn’t quite made a Stanley Johnson type impact for U of A, but he’s flanked by seniors like Anderson, point guard Gabe York, and big men Kaleb Tarczewski and Mark Tollefson. The Wildcats fit the profile of a Sean Miller team with their success on the glass, strong field goal defense, and ability to get to the free throw stripe.
Arizona has to be incredibly angry that they’ve drawn such a strong team from the play-in game: Wichita State handled Vanderbilt with ease in Dayton on Tuesday and are probably the most dangerous double-digit seed in the entire bracket. For what it’s worth, Kenpom predicts an upset.
4. Kentucky – 13. Stony Brook (9:40, CBS)
It’s been an eventful year in Lexington for John Calipari’s young Kentucky team – after the exodus of NBA talent this past season, the reloading process hasn’t gone as smoothly as it could have: of their freshmen, Canadian combo guard Jamal Murray has been the best and has likely played his way into the lottery, but fellow five stars Isaiah Briscoe and especially Skal Labissiere have underwhelmed (Labissiere was a top five prospect and he plays the seventh-most minutes for anyone on Kentucky). Fortunately for UK, point guard Tyler Ulis remains from the rotation that took the Cats to within two games of an undefeated season; he’s taken his game to the next level and has been one of the best point guards in the country. He’s engineered the most efficient offense in college basketball, per Kenpom, and his combination of excellent efficiency and pretty high usage is very impressive.
Stony Brook was the class of the America East Conference this year, but needed a herculean performance from senior big man Jameel Warney to make it into the NCAA Tournament: Warney put up a career-high 43 points on just 27 shot equivalents(!) and tacked on ten rebounds and four blocks in a narrow win over Albany. Warney might be the best mid-major big in the country, and for the Seawolves(?) to have any chance against UK, he needs to dominate inside against Marcus Lee and Labissiere. Kentucky is actually pretty weak on the defensive glass, so there may be an opportunity there.
8. USC – 9. Providence (9:50, TBS)
Perhaps the best NBA prospect in action today is Providence’s Kris Dunn; the former five star is a big point guard with excellent vision and passing ability to go along with tremendous defensive tools. Everything for the Friars begins and ends with Dunn – quite often, they go as he goes. Offensively, things can become congested for Providence, as they don’t have the ability to space the floor with three-point shooters. Still, they win their games with defense – rarely fouling, forcing turnovers, and contesting shots well on the perimeter. Dunn is an All-American level player, but center Ben Bentil actually has a very comparable usage rate (and is more efficient than Dunn): both players can get points at the free throw line frequently.
Now at the helm for USC is Andy Enfield of Florida Gulf Coast Dunk City fame. He parlayed that tournament success into a job at USC, and the Trojans have taken a leap forward in his third year in Los Angeles after a combined conference record of 5-31 in the two years prior. USC distributes possessions evenly on offense and is better on that end of the floor than they are on defense. Guards Jordan McLaughlin and Julian Jacobs hold down the backcourt while Nikola Jovanovic and Bennie Boatright establish a solid post presence for the Trojans. Statistically, nothing stands out for USC as particularly excellent, though it should be noted that they don’t have any serious weak spots.
In quintessential 8/9 fashion, this game is effectively a toss-up for the right to face North Carolina in the next round of the tournament.
6. Seton Hall – 11. Gonzaga (9:57, tru TV)
One of the best games of the day will be the last, as a red-hot Seton Hall team takes on a Gonzaga squad that barely squeaked into the tournament by virtue of beating St. Mary’s in the West Coast Conference final. Despite being a bubble team, Gonzaga has a formidable front line: Kyle Wiltjer – the former Kentucky Wildcat – is an all-around scorer as a stretch-four and Domantas Sabonis (son of Arvydas) is a predictably skilled big guy who will be playing in the NBA sooner rather than later. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, their mountain of a center – senior Pryzemek Karnowski – was injured in November and has missed almost the entire season. Still, Gonzaga is a veteran team with a frontcourt that should be a stiff test for Seton Hall.
The Pirates are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade after going on a surprising run to the Big East Tournament title – they took out 2-seeds Xavier and Villanova in the semis and finals, respectively. Sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead is the star for Seton Hall (and checks in at eighth in the Kenpom National POY race as of right now) – he has unlimited range from three, a top 50 assist rate, and has the second-highest usage rate of anyone in the tournament. The Pirates aren’t particularly deep, but boast one of the better defenses in the country, in large part due to excellent defense on shots both inside and outside the three-point line.
Hopefully this very close matchup will close out a day of great basketball.