A is for “Alabama State”
The Hornets of Alabama State make their second appearance to the NCAA Tournament in the last three years. Last time out, in 2009, they lost to Morehead State in the play-in game. This is a team that finished the season with a 17-17 record and were just 11-7 in conference prior to making their tourney run. Shooting is not their strong suit. On the year they shot just 28-percent from deep, which was the worst in the SWAC, and 60-percent from the line, second worst.
B is for “Bulldogs”
After losing to Alabama twice in the last week and a half, Mark Fox and the Georgia Bulldogs were forced to sweat through the entire selection process. Well, turns out they weren’t on the bubble as much as we thought as they grabbed a 10-seed. Led by Trey Thompkins, the preseason SEC Player of the Year, and Travis Leslie, this is an athletic team that could cause match-up problems. Georgia goes as Thompkins goes, but he has suffered through ankle, shin and toe injuries all season long and sometimes they just don’t get him the ball enough. He claims to be as healthy now as he has been all season long, so if he gets the rock they could give Washington fits.
C is for “Conference Tournaments”
The NCAA Selection Committee needs to decide whether or not the conference tournaments mean anything. UConn goes from .500 in league play to five strait in the Big East Tourney and moves to a No. 3 seed. Kentucky beats Florida in the SEC Tournament Final and gets a 4-seed while the Gators get a 2-seed. Makes no sense. Prior to next year’s conference tourney action, please let us know whether these games mean anything or not. It will be greatly appreciated.
D is for “Depth”
Looking for a reason why Ohio State will not make it out of the East Region? Look no further than their depth. The Buckeyes play just seven guys. Only four teams in the entire NCAA Tournament use their bench less than Ohio State. They do, however, have balance, as they feature four players that average double figures (Jared Sullinger – 17.2, William Bufurd – 14.4, Jon Diebler – 12.5, David Lighty – 11.8).
E is for “Easy Road”
Not so fast. It has long been assumed that the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament would get the easiest road. Welp, the committee must have left that logic in the same place that UAB left their so-called quality win that got them into the dance in the first place. The East is loaded. It features the two winningest programs of all-time in Kentucky and North Carolina, three teams from the powerful Big East (Syracuse, West Virginia, Villanova), a George Mason squad that is led by a coach that has done this before and has the talent to do it again, and the Musketeers of Xavier, who are right up there with Gonzaga when talking about mid-majors that are there year after year.
F is for “Final Four Coaches”
Of the 18 teams in the East Region, yep your read that right…18 teams, seven have coaches that have led their teams to Final Fours in Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), John Calipari (Kentucky), Bob Huggins (West Virginia), Jim Larranaga (George Mason), Thad Matta (Ohio State), Roy Williams (North Carolina), and Jay Wright (Villanova). Two of those coaches have brought home National Titles. Boeheim did it with Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony in 2003 and Roy Williams did with it the Tar Heels in 2005 and 2009.
G is for “Golden Eagles”
The Marquette Golden Eagles are the lowest seeded Big East squad in the tournament. But, going through the rigors of Big East play will prepare anyone for the NCAA Tournament. Buzz Williams’ squad is led by a trio of scorers in Jimmy Butler, Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, all of which who have the ability to beat you from beyond the arc. They have been in pretty much all of their games this year. They have just struggled to squeak the close ones out.
H is for “Huskies”
Coming into the season, Lorenzo Romar’s Washington Huskies were expected to be as deep and talented as anyone in the country. They didn’t live up to that hype and actually seemed to be regressing a bit as they ended regular season play with six losses in their last ten games. But, everything appeared to click for the Huskies as they rolled through the Pac-10 tournament en route to their second strait title. Now, the Huskies appear to all of the sudden be playing their best basketball of the season. This is an athletic bunch, with size, that likes to get up and down the court and score the basketball. If they play to their potential, they could give North Carolina all they want in the second round.
I is for “Indiana State”
The Sycamores of Indiana State have won five games in the NCAA Touranment history. Four of those games came in 1979 with Larry Bird running the show. Needless to say, this version of the Sycamores doesn’t have a Larry Bird type player. This is their first appearance since making back-to-back trips in 2000 and 2001 and they are doing it under a first year head coach in Greg Lansing. The Sycamores rely on their depth, defense and three-point shooting to wear down and outshoot opponents. Redshirt freshman guard Jake Odom sets the table for the Sycs. He is active on both ends of the court and is great at getting the lane and finding shooters on the perimeter. Their strengths could cause problems for a Syracuse team that is known for their zone defense.
J is for “Jared and Jon”
Ohio State’s freshman phenom Jared Sullinger and senior sharpshooter Jon Diebler provide the Buckeyes with one of the best inside-out combinations in the country. Sullinger is a freak athlete who is an absolute beast underneath. And the thing about Sullinger is that he knows his role. He knows he belongs in the paint. He knows his job is to score at the rim and to clean up the glass. Very rarely will you see the rookie attempting to make plays, away from the basket, he can’t make. Diebler, on the other hand, is the Big Ten’s best three-point shooter of all-time. He has knocked down 362 threes in his four-year career and this season has knocked down 102 while shooting 50-percent. He had a two-game stretch at the end of the regular season where he shot 17-for-20. Unreal. Add in the fact that David Lighty and William Buford can shoot it from the outside and it creates a nearly unguardable combination. Opposing defenses are forced to pick their poison. You either try to guard Sullinger one-on-one underneath and defend the perimeter or throw two guys at Sullinger on the block and allow them to get opportunities from deep. Quite the connundrum.
K is for “Kentucky”
The Wildcats enter the NCAA Tournament playing their best basketball of the season, winners of six strait and they are coming off of their second strait SEC Tournament Championship. Despite their recent success, they received just a 4-seed which would potentially pit them against the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed in the Sweet 16. This is a young Kentucky squad, but like all of John Calipari’s teams, they know how to defend. The freshman (Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb) do the majority of the scoring, but it could be the upper-classmen that lead them to the Sweet 16 and beyond. Junior Darius Miller appears to have finally evolved into one of the best inside-out threats in the country and junior Deandre Liggins provides the Cats with a tenacious defender who brings the attitude on the court that DeMarcus Cousins provided a year ago. Six deep they are as good as anyone in the country, but foul trouble to any of their six contributors could spell trouble.
L is for “Long Island”
Despite this being their first NEC title since 1997, this is a good Long Island team. The Blackbirds have won 13 strait and their 26 wins are the most since 1936-37. They are fifth in the nation in scoring with 83.0 points-per-game. And this is a team without any local talent because the local kids didn’t want to play for head coach Jim Ferry and a Long Island team that really struggled. Despite that they have put together a 37-15 record in NEC play in the last three seasons. The Blackbirds don’t have one player that can kill you, but they have a balanced attack with six players averaging between 8.0 and 13.1 points-per-game. They like to get up and down the court, as do the Tar Heels, so the match-up between Long Island and Carolina should be a fun one to watch if you like to see a lot of points.
M is for “Mason”
In 2006, head coach Jim Larranaga proved to everyone that he knows how to coach when his George Mason Patriots shocked the world by reaching the Final Four. Well, guess what? The Patriots are back and ready to make another run. This is by far the most talented team that Larranaga has had since that run, but this is a different kind of team. Remember how they had Jai Lewis and Will Thomas underneath? Well, this squad is more balanced and more perimeter oriented. They don’t have many weapons downs low. But, this is a veteran team and with the leadership of Cam Long and the experience of their head coach, they could be primed for another March run.
N is for “North Carolina”
We all knew that Carolina had way too much talent to continue their run of mediocrity. Well, as soon as freshman point guard Kendall Marshall joined the fray and began dishing out 8, 9 and even 10-assist games over and over, this became a completely different team. The emergence of another freshman, Harrison Barnes, who put up 40 in their win over Clemson in the ACC Tourney, had a lot to do with their growth as well. Prior to their loss to Duke in the ACC final, the Tar Heels had won nine strait and 19 of 21. Led by Tyler Zeller and John Henson underneath, these Tar Heels average more rebounds per game (45.7) than anyone else in the country.
O is for “Opening Round”
It’s stupid. I refuse to call the action that takes place on Thursday and Friday second round action. It’s not. Only eight teams played in the first round. For everyone else it is still the first round. Plus, how did the committee decide which 16-seed deserved to play in the real tournament and which 16′s had to play in the so-called first round? What’s their criteria? Also, how does an 11-seeded team have to win a game to play in to the tournament? Does that mean that the three 12′s that automatically play in the dance are actually a higher seed than the 11-seeded squad? Worst of all, UAB and Clemson follow their matchup on Tuesday night by playing the first game on Thursday. Yeah, that makes sense. Bunch of idiots.
P is for “Princeton”
Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson had one thing on his mind when he took the job and that was get his team back to the NCAA Tournament. You see, Johnson was on the Princeton squad that shocked the world when they upset defending national Champion UCLA in the first round in 1996. The Tigers won the Ivy in a playoff game against Harvard on a last second shot by Douglas Davis. If the game is close at the end, don’t expect Princeton to be rattled as they won four overtime games this year. Cornell made a run as a 12-seed a year ago. Can Princeton do it as a 13?
Q is for “Questions”
It’s time to stop asking questions of the committee, like how is UK a 4-seed and Florida a 2-seed? or How does the overall No. 1 seeded Ohio State get the toughest bracket? or Why do they pit Morehead State and Louisville against each other in the first round? or How is Louisville a 4-seed and Syracuse a 3 and Cincinnati a 6?
Instead, now it’s time to get some answers to the questions that we have pertaining to these teams? Will Ohio State’s lack of depth come back to haunt them? Can North Carolina put together a complete 40 minutes? Can Syracuse beat a perimter-oriented offense? Wil Kentucky’s six-man rotation and youth bite them?
The fun thing about these questions is that, unlike the ones pertaining to the selection committee, we’ll actually get answers.
R is for “Rookies”
There are some stud rookies in the East Region. In fact, four of ESPNU’s top 50 players are in this region and they are all freshmen, in Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Harrison Barnes (North Carolina), Brandon Knight (Kentucky) and Terrence Jones (Kentucky). And that list doesn’t even count Ohio State’s Aaron Craft or North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall, who have both developed into two of the top floor generals in the land.
S is for “Syracuse”
The highest rated of the three Big East teams in the East Region, Syracuse has shown signs this season where they could beat anyone in the country. Defensively, they are known for their 2-3 zone and when they are active in it they are extremely effective. But, a few lapses and some streaky shooting by their opponents causes problems for them way too often. Rick Jackson is a beast on both ends of the court and the Orange need both Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph to click offensively if they want to advance in March. When they are feeling it on the offensive end, this is a very tough team to beat.
T is for “Tu Holloway”
Who’s the leading scorer in the East Region? It’s not Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Knight or Terrence Jones. It’s Xavier’s Tu Holloway. The junior guard out of Hempstead, NY is the only player in the East region averaging more than 20 points per game with 20.2. He has the ability to score at the rim, from distance, distribute, rebound and defend for the Musketeers. Basically, they go as he goes. This region is loaded with dynamic point guards in Aaron Craft, Kendall Marshall, Brandon Knight, Isaiah Thomas and others, but Holloway could be the best all-around player of the bunch.
U is for “UT-San Antonio”
Beep! Beep! The Roadrunners of UT-San Antonio dance on to the NCAA Tournament despite the fact that they finished 9-7 in regular season Southland Confererence play, which was good enough for 7th in the league. In fact, they needed a win on March 5 at UT-Arlington to even secure a spot in the Southland Conference Tournament. They downed Arlington and then when on to beat three of the four best teams in the league in four days and that is why they are dancing. On the season, UTSA shot just 42-percent from the floor, which was second worst in the Southland.
V is for “Villanova”
Villanova is the first team in the history of the tournament to come in with five strait losses. They also enter losers of 10 of their last 15. This is the same team that was ranked in the top ten at one point. They have the same exact personnel. Nobody knows what’s wrong. They rely heavily on their three-point shooting, but remove Corey Stokes from the equation and the Wildcats shoot less than 30-percent from deep. All of their guards have similar styles in that they are moreso of the mold of break-down guards that like to take defenders one-on-one. That style of play equates to low assist totals despite the fact that they are a guard-oriented team.
W is for “West Virginia”
Bobby Huggins’ squads are known for their defense and rebounding. This team is no different. The thing that has limited them this season is their lack of consistency on the offensive end. If they don’t get production on offense from the likes of Kevin Jones, Truck Bryant or Joe Mazzulla, usually their defense will keep them in the game, but it’s not always enough to pull out a victory. Jones is the most consistent of the bunch and on the season averaged 13.1 points and 7.4 rebounds. On the season, they allowed opponents to shoot just 29-percent from beyond the arc, which is the fourth best mark in the country.
X is for “Xavier”
After struggling early, Chris Mack’s squad found themselves in a very familiar place once conference play began and that is atop the A-10. The Muskies rolled through conference play, compiling a 15-1 record. But, still questions must be answered of their 9-5 non-conference mark. The best non-conference wins were over Iowa, Butler and Wofford. Was their resurgence due to improved play or a lack of quality in the A-10? A first-round bout against Marquette should settle that pretty quickly.
Y is for “You Gotta Be Kiddin’ Me”
How is UAB in this tournament? Sure, their RPI is 31, but their lone big win is against VCU. VCU! That’s it. They didn’t play anyone else. Their strength of schedule is 71, their non-conference strength of schedule is 171, their record against Top 50 RPI teams is 1-4. They played in just one neutral court game all season long and that was a loss in the quarters of the C-USA tournament. Come on NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, You Gotta Be Kiddin’ Me!
Z is for “Zeke Jr.”
As in Isaiah Thomas of Washington. Yeah, I know he’s not really Isaiah Thomas’ son. But, it’s hard to find a “Z” when doing these things so I went with it. Anyways, just like the real Isaiah this kid can flat out play. He leads the Huskies with 16.8 points-per-game and has the ability to score in many ways. He can get to the rim and pull from deep. He also leads Washington in threes made with 60 and shot 36-percent from distance. In the Pac-10 tournament he proved the ability to knock down big shots en route to their conference tournament championship. If the game comes down the closing seconds, Lorenzo Romar will be happy giving the ball to his gritty guard.