Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March Mudness: Clarifying the Murky NCAA Field for Stalwart Bracketeers

Yes, I’m going to fill out an NCAA bracket. No, I’m not going to share it with the world. It’ll be tough enough to deal with my failed projected upsets in private, much less have the international blogosphere be privy to ‘em.

Instead, I’m going to share my wisdom about this year’s teams. I’ve crunched a lot of data in the past few days, and I think I have some worthy observations that might help everyone else feel a little more informed about the field.

Here goes nuthin’:


1. North Carolina (32-2)—A tourney favorite. They have depth and talent. And Tyler Hansbrough. Their path to the Final Four looks almost too easy.

2. Tennessee (29-4)—I’ve watched these guys. They’re great. More talent on a college b-ball court you won’t find. They play a pressing D, and their transition game is breathtaking. They can score in bunches, but they give up tons of points, too. They might go far, but someone with a more controlled style might shut ‘em down.

3. Louisville (24-8)—Rick Pitino coaches good basketball teams. This is one of ‘em. They tied for second in the Big East. But their out-of-conference performance, while decent, was not noteworthy.

4. Washington State (24-8)—My initial reaction to these guys was lukewarm. But check out their rcord. Their overall performance was surprisingly consistent, they beat everyone they should logically beat, and they performed well enough in the tough Pac-10. Who they didn’t beat was UCLA. Could surprise.

5. Notre Dame (24-7)—Strong Big East resume and a balanced lineup. They score, hit their treys at a 41% clip, are strong on free throws, and they have a big man, 6’8” Luke Harangody, who averages a double-double and hits 51.7% from the floor. So why aren’t they a higher seed?

6. Oklahoma (22-11)—Big front line, and presumably battle-tested after playing Big 12 teams like Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, and Kansas State. They are below average both from the foul line and the three-point stripe. A bit of an unknown quantity.

7. Butler (29-3)—Reputed to be under-seeded. They’re ranked 10th in the nation, so why aren’t they seeded higher? They have some good wins on the resume, but nothing earthshaking. And playing in the Horizon League, you almost wonder how they could lose at all to the likes of Wright State and Cleveland State. They had a late-season loss at home to Drake, 71-64. But maybe the tournament committee had the same suspicions I do. They hit their free throws, though.

8. Indiana (25-7)—They’ve underperformed since coach Kelvin Sampson was told to take a hike. They’re talented but appear vulnerable. Best free-throw-shooting team in the tourney.

9. Arkansas (22-11)—They’ve got some size and general ability. They have some decent wins to their credit, including a victory over Tennessee in the SEC tourney (for what that’s worth). They’re mediocre from the foul line and the 3-point line. First-round matchup versus Indiana should be competitive. After that, who knows?

10. South Alabama (26-6)—They don’t really have any top-quality wins, and they lost twice to Middle Tennessee State, a scrappy but generally mediocre outfit. They’re an at-large team from the Sun Belt Conference, with decent shooting numbers but against suspect competition. Their presence here probably makes Arizona State fans grumble. Yet they get a first-round game against Butler in nearby Birmingham, so maybe the gods are smiling on ’em.

11. St. Joseph’s (21-12)—Atlantic 10 at-large choice getting props from the pundits. They’ve got a serious front line (no man under 6’8”), and their shooting numbers in all phases are impressive. Have yet to prove they can beat a great team.

12. George Mason (23-10)—The darlings of the ‘06 tourney. Half of this squad was on that Final Four team. So maybe look out. Statistical numbers are so-so. They’re not very tall, but neither was the ‘06 outfit. Odds of lightning striking twice are pretty slim.

13. Winthrop (22-11)—They’re relatively short, and their stats against generally mediocre competition are unimpressive. Supposedly they play good D. They did beat Miami, however, who beat Duke, Mississippi State and Clemson. Hmmm....

14. Boise State (25-8)—A couple of decent wins (BYU, San Diego), and they shoot treys well. Also strong shooting from the floor. Weak schedule. Survival odds slim to none.

15. American (21-11)—Best three-point shooters in the tourney, statistically speaking. Hit their free throws, too. Hardly any size, though, and they didn’t play anybody of note. They beat Maryland in College Park, which probably says more about the Terps than it does about the Eagles.

16. Coppin State (16-20)/Mt. St. Mary’s (18-14)—Pick your poison. Play-in game combatants have lousy records and played almost nobody that matters. Maybe they should re-think the system.


1. Kansas (31-3)—Strong in every phase of the offensive game, has size, and definitely a contender to take it all. They couldn’t beat Texas, though. They also have a recent history of underachieving in the NCAAs.

2. Georgetown (27-5)—Big East power does most things well. Proved they could beat the top contenders in their league. Play strong D, and have a serious big man, 7’2” Roy Hibbert. Pundits like ‘em to go far.

3. Wisconsin (29-4)—Well-coached squad that has risen above its penchant for lackluster offense. They beat Texas and Michigan State, which is saying a lot. They’ve got some size, and simply seem to play fundamentally sound b-ball, despite averaging only 68 points a game.

4. Vanderbilt (26-7)—Started the season 16-0, which means they’re 10-7 down the stretch. Not impressive. Only 7-7 on the road, too. On paper, they look great: they have size, hit their treys (fourth best among tourney teams), hit their free throws, and have a wonderful all-around star in 6’6” forward Shan Foster. So why do they look vulnerable?

5. Clemson (24-9)—Solid ACC entry, with wins over Duke, Miami and Mississippi State. They hit their treys at a decent clip, but for some reason aren’t so good from the free-throw line. Average-sized squad. Bit of an unknown quantity in the grand scheme of things.

6. Southern California (21-11)—They beat UCLA, Stanford and Arizona. Pretty good team, with decent size and solid numbers from the floor. Plus they have frosh sensation O. J. Mayo (20.9 ppg). They have an interesting first-round matchup with Kansas State and their frosh sensation, 6’ 10" Michael Beasley (26.5 ppg). Pac-10 resume might bode well.

7. Gonzaga (25-7)—West Coast Conference overachievers whose tough out-of-conference schedule includes victories over Connecticut, Western Kentucky, Georgia and road wins at St. Joseph’s and Virginia Tech. They also lost close games to Washington State, Tennessee and Oklahoma. No other so-called mid-major has better prepared itself to play in this tourney. They get a tough first-round matchup against another pundit favorite, Davidson.

8. UNLV (26-7)—Average height, mediocre shooting numbers and little in the way of quality wins. The Rebels mostly stuck to opponents in the west. When they played Louisville, they got trounced. First-round matchup versus Kent State might be a very good game.

9. Kent State (28-6)—Undisputed champs of the MAC. A couple of decent wins on the schedule, but really good teams (North Carolina, Xavier) beat ‘em soundly. Stats are very average.

10. Davidson (26-6)—On a 22-game win streak. Pundits are raving, “Look out for the Wildcats.” But who did they play? Well, UCLA, North Carolina and Duke. And lost ’em all. The rest of their schedule comprises Southern Conference foes and other non-entities. Spanking Elon, Wofford and Georgia Southern tells us little. They can shoot a little, and they’ve got two 6’8” forwards, neither of whose numbers are startling. Caveat emptor.

11. Kansas State (20-11)—Hotshot freshman Michael Beasley is the story here. They beat Kansas also. Their numbers from the field do not impress, but they manage nearly 80 points per game, with Beasley rebounding and scoring at significant rates. Interesting #11.

12. Villanova (20-12)—Some solid Big East victories on the resume. Not so good from the floor; better from the foul line. Generally strong front line, and well-coached. But they could disappear quickly as easily as they could surprise.

13. Siena (22-10)—Not a bad-shooting team. Average size. Metro Atlantic competition not very good. They tended to lose whenever they played someone from a serious conference. Yet somehow, they beat Stanford. Went 14-4 in the stretch and are on a 6-game winning streak. Mystery team.

14. Cal State-Fullerton (24-8)—Small, good-shooting team that played almost nobody, and when they played someone good (Arizona, for example), they got whipped. They have a marquee player, Josh Akognon. Surprise seems unlikely.

15. Md.-Baltimore County (24-8)—Behold the Retrievers of UMBC, defeaters of American U. They have almost no size, compiled acceptable shooting stats against other nobodies, and have won playing it close to the vest with few turnovers. I suspect Georgetown’s bench could take ‘em handily.

16. Portland State (23-9)—The Big Sky champs actually have a 6’11" center, Scott Morrison, with good numbers, plus a 5’6” guard named Jeremiah Dominguez who can shoot. When they played serious opponents (UCLA, Washington), they got hammered. One late-season win against Cal State-Fullerton is the biggest notch on the belt.


1. Memphis (33-1)—Here’s a stat: Since 1974, no team has come into the NCAAs with only one loss and gone on to win it all. In Vegas terms, that makes the Tigers practically a lock to lose somewhere along the line. They’re talented African gods with good size and athleticism, but they are also one of the worst free-throw-shooting and 3-point-shooting teams in this tourney. If someone can neutralize their up-tempo pace, they can be had.

2. Texas (28-6)—Look out, below! The Longhorns have the strongest resume in the tourney. Check out these victories: Tennessee, UCLA, Kansas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Oral Roberts, Oklahoma. They’ve got size, balance, a great guard in D. J. Augustin, and they’ve won 12 of their last 14 games. Their free-throw shooting could be a little better, but they’re also playing strong D these days.

3. Stanford (26-7)—Two 7-footers should help the Cardinal advance for a while here. A 13-5 record in the Pac-10’s gotta count for something, but they could never beat UCLA. They also have a strange loss to Siena blemishing the overall record. Their shooting stats are mediocre, so if they don’t get it done inside, they might be in trouble.

4. Pittsburgh (26-9)—Another darling of the punditry. They proved they can beat Duke and their big Big East competitors. They do it with toughness and physicality. The Panthers aren’t really that tall, and their shooting numbers (especially from the 3-point line, ranked 57th in the tourney) are not noteworthy. In other words, they beat you up and play aggressive defense. It seems to be working.

5. Michigan State (25-8)—Among all the high-profile programs, the Spartans can get lost in the shuffle. They’re always hanging around, though, and with good reason. They have a super coach in Tom Izzo, and they play a solid out-of-conference schedule that gets ‘em battle-tested, even if the Big Ten is in a down cycle. They have some good size, they shoot well from the floor and the free-throw line, and they have veteran guard Drew Neitzel calling the shots. And this is huge: They beat Texas. They face a scrappy Temple team in the first round, but my money’s on Izzo and the Spartans.

6. Marquette (24-9)—Solid Big East resume and an out-of-conference victory on the road over tough Wisconsin. Still, Marquette’s other out-of-conference opponents were fairly unimposing, and their shooting stats are only just okay. They do seem to play serious D, though.

7. Miami (22-10)—For once, it’s the Miami from Florida that’s made the tourney. Seems like it’s been a while for the Hurricanes, and it’s their first NCAA since joining the ACC. They beat Duke, Clemson and Mississippi State, and that’s impressive. They’ve got two big men down low, three scrappy guards, they hit their treys and they can shoot free throws with the best of ‘em. The out-of-conference schedule had some weak sisters, but I wouldn’t bet against these guys in a close game.

8. Mississippi State (22-10)—Rather an unknown SEC quantity. They’ve got some decent players, including Tyler Hansbrough’s little brother Ben, and two guys down low, Charles Rhodes and Jarvis Varnado, who bang it up and rebound. But they didn’t really beat anybody, even in their own conference, and they’re weak from both the foul line and the 3-point stripe. If I was one of those bubble teams, I’d wonder what these Bulldogs are doing here.

9. Oregon (18-13)—Oregon is sorta the Mississippi State of the Pac-10. They have some better wins than the Bulldogs (Arizona, Stanford, Kansas State), but still, their resume looks thin in out-of-conference play. I guess losing to UCLA, USC and Washington State means more than winning against lesser or equal teams. The Ducks shoot from the floor very well (both deuces and treys). At least their first-round matchup (against Mississippi State, of course) looks logical.

10. St. Mary’s (25-6)—Not sure St. Mary’s wins over Drake and Oregon mean so much, but their victory over Gonzaga does. Otherwise, they’re a classic bubble team that may or may not belong here. Their out-of-conference schedule was mediocre, and their competition in the West Coast Conference (except for Gonzaga) just doesn’t impress. Statistically, they are a bit below average. If they advance, it’s a surprise.

11. Kentucky (18-12)—They probably shouldn’t even be here. There were other bubble teams more deserving. They can prove me wrong with a win against Marquette, and maybe that old Wildcat magic and tradition will prevail for awhile. They shoot free throws well, and they can apparently play good defense, and possibly that’ll sustain ’em. The out-of-conference schedule was decent, but they could never beat anybody that mattered. They had home victories versus Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and doubtless the 12-4 SEC record bulwarked the NCAA selection. We shall see.

12. Temple (21-12)—Not sure about these guys. They shoot well, they’ve got some size, and they’re on a 7-game winning streak. They beat Atlantic 10 foes Xavier and St. Joseph’s, though that might simply be a function of intra-league law of averages. The out-of-conference slate was mediocre, and they didn’t beat anyone who counted. They draw Michigan State in the first round, so their little bubble might burst quickly.

13. Oral Roberts (24-8)—They’ve got some size—6’6,” 6’10,” 6’8,” 6’9”—in the starting lineup, but building a resume as Summit League champs might be like being the best golfer in Alaska. They played a few out-of-conference games worth mentioning—Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas—and lost ’em all. First-round opponent is a small Pitt squad that likes to bang bodies. Might be interesting for a while.

14. Cornell (22-5)—One thing about Ivy League teams—they don’t play nearly as many games as the others in the tourney. That said, Ivy League entries have a history of providing stiff early-round competition (think of Princeton or Penn in years past). The Big Red can offer us this: the best 3-point average in the tourney, and the second-best free-throw average in the tourney. So if they play Ivy League smart, hit their treys, and keep it close enough where foul shots matter, who knows? They beat Siena this year. Siena beat Stanford this year. Cornell’s first-round opponent? Stanford. Go figure.

15. Austin Peay (24-10)—Average height, mediocre conference (Ohio Valley), and when they played anybody good out of conference they were routed. They can shoot a little, but first-round opponent Texas should not be afraid.

16. Texas-Arlington (21-11)—The only thing these guys do well statistically is shoot from the floor (deuces only). They’ve got a 6’9” center named Jermaine Griffin who has decent numbers. The resume is thin, including a 99-66 victory over Schreiner (whoever the heck they are). One and done.


1. UCLA (31-3)—Okay, they’re great. The class of the Pac-10. But freshman center Kevin Love’s back has been sore, and if someone roughs him up, what then? Well, there’re plenty of other talented players, and they should hang in there regardless. The Bruins are not the best 3-point shooters in the world, but that appears to be their only weakness. If healthy, they could go all the way.

2. Duke (27-5)—Strong all over as usual, though not dominating and a little weak in the rebounding department. Someone might outmuscle ’em down the line, but the Blue Devils should be in for the longer haul.

3. Xavier (27-6)—Statistically, one of the best-shooting teams in the nation, in all phases. They play solid D also. A few quality wins out of conference, but a few losses too. They can strike a serious blow for Atlantic 10 respect with a good tourney showing.

4. Connecticut (24-8)—Big East perennial power that does it all well. The front court goes 6’7,” 6’9,” and 7’3,” the latter being one Hasheem Thabeet (sort of the new Emeka Okafor). Thabeet blocks shots and averages 10.5 ppg/8.0 rpg. Could be tough in the later rounds.

5. Drake (28-4)—Another team the pundits like to talk about. But their best wins were in-conference only. They simply didn’t play anybody out of conference, and when they did (St. Mary’s), they got beat. They shoot free throws and play defense (in the Missouri Valley Conference, anyway). But they’re not tall, and they look ripe for the plucking, even being overseeded as they are.

6. Purdue (24-8)—Interesting team. Their stats don’t jump out at you, but they did beat Wisconsin and Michigan State, plus out-of-conference Louisville. They play D, and wear ya down, and sometimes that’s a good strategy in the tourney.

7. West Virginia (24-10)—They’ve got size, even at the guard slot, and the Mountaineers have balance throughout the lineup in scoring and rebounding. Sometimes they look absolutely great. But their shooting stats are not impressive as far as it goes. Their out-of-conference schedule was a mixed-bag of obvious success plus close losses to teams like Tennessee and Oklahoma. They’re a serious Big East team with something to prove, and their first-round matchup versus Arizona should be a dilly.

8. Brigham Young (27-7)—An average-shooting team which is worse from the free-throw line. They’ve got a big center, 6’11’ Trent Plaisted, with solid numbers. They beat Louisville and lost to North Carolina and Michigan State, then mostly trampled on their Mountain West brethren. Their seed is about right, but how good they really are is as yet unknown.

9. Texas A&M (24-10)—They beat Texas, and that seems to be the great qualifier tourney-wide. If you can hang with the Longhorns, you gotta be pretty good. The Aggies have size all over, but their shooting is only so-so. The out-of-conference performance is good but not great. Other victories included Oral Roberts, Baylor and Oklahoma plus the non-tourney Ohio State. Keep an eye on these guys.

10. Arizona (19-14)—So here they are, with 14 losses and a fill-in coach, Kevin O’Neill. Being a Pac-10 team helped the Wildcats get into the Dance, for sure, but also, their shooting numbers are quite good (top 15 in the tourney in all phases). Plus, they’ve got their usual good size and a star guard in Jerryd Bayless. O’Neill stresses defense, and improvement is nigh. Despite their struggles—they’ve lost 8 of their last 12—they’re capable of a very good game.

11. Baylor (21-10)—Another good Big 12 team. They shoot pretty well, rebound less so. Played a decent out-of-conference schedule and defeated Notre Dame and Winthrop. First-round matchup versus Purdue will be a challenge, though.

12. Western Kentucky (27-6)—For a team from a little-regarded conference (Sun Belt), the Hilltoppers have done pretty well historically in the NCAAs (15-20). They didn’t really beat anybody this year, not even the toughest in-conference foe, South Alabama. But they shoot treys well, play defense, and have a star in 6’5” guard Courtney Lee. They line up against Drake in the first round. A tempting 5/12 upset could be in the offing.

13. San Diego (21-13)—They got in because they won the West Coast Conference tourney. But also, they’ve got wins over Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and Kentucky. Their shooting numbers are lackluster, and the Toreros tend to get into really close games, which might not be a good idea when facing off in the first round versus a physical group like Connecticut. Need a miracle to survive.

14. Georgia (17-16)—These guys aren’t even a bubble team. They were never in the running for selection at all, then went ahead and won the SEC tournament. It’s a nice story and all, but it looks like a total fluke to me. Pretty rare air as a #14-seed for an SEC team, though. If I’m first-round opponent Xavier, I wouldn’t give ’em an inch—play ’em tough and vanquish ’em fast.

15. Belmont (25-8)—A Nashville team only blocks from my condo-crib, but sentiment can’t impede the truth: They’re not even one of the top 30 teams in the tourney shooting treys, and that’s their strength! Somehow these slow white boys from the Atlantic Sun Conference have managed 13 in a row to close the season, and are making their third consecutive NCAA appearance. It’s all very nice and I wish ’em luck, but Duke is lying in wait.

16. Mississippi Valley State (17-15)—Statistically, these guys don’t do anything well. They even got outscored by their opponents on a per-game average. They did play some serious out-of-conference competition but got smoked by ’em all, including a 71-26 drubbing at the hands of Washington State. MVSU does better at producing wide receivers, like Jerry Rice. One and way done.

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