College Basketball Nation: ncaatourneybreakdowns2014

Region preview: West

March, 16, 2014

Arizona spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the country after winning its first 21 games of the season, so it’s no surprise it settled into the West frontrunner.

What could ruin the Wildcats’ possible march to their first Final Four since 2001 is a region seemingly packed with sleeper cells. Teams such as No. 6 seed Baylor, No. 7 seed Oregon and No. 9 seed Oklahoma State started the season with promise, hit a rough patch, then ended the season strong. Each of those three teams spent time ranked in the top 20 and finished the season performing like teams capable of making a long tournament run.

[+] EnlargeSean Miller
AP Photo/Wily LowCan Sean Miller lead Arizona through the West Region?
The Ducks sent a message in the regular-season finale by beating the Wildcats in Eugene. No. 4 seed San Diego State fits that description too, emerging as a top-10 team with wins over Creighton and Kansas.

And Gonzaga could long to again play the spoiler role. The Zags proved last year with an early exit in the Round of 32 that they don’t do well as a favorite. The Bulldogs made their mark as underdogs and as an 8-seed would relish a shot to topple Arizona.

Five players to watch:

If you haven’t seen Creighton’s Doug McDermott this season, where and what exactly have you been watching? Not much else can be said about the frontrunner for capturing multiple player of the year honors from national organizations. He led the nation in scoring with 26.8 points per game and he’s capable of single-handedly taking the Bluejays on a long tournament journey.

Early in the season it looked like Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart would be stiff competition with McDermott. He averaged 17.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists. He has gotten the Cowboys back on track after his now infamous foray into the stands led to a three-game suspension.

Like Smart, Arizona’s Nick Johnson can do a little bit of everything on the court. He can play just about every position except center and can defend them as well. Johnson led the Wildcats in scoring with 16.2 points and asserted himself as a leader especially after Brandon Ashley was lost to injury.

BYU’s Tyler Haws won’t make anyone forget Jimmer Fredette, but he’s a volume scorer in the same mold. The 6-foot-5 junior guard averaged 23.4 points per game while shooting 46.7 percent from the floor and 40.4 from 3-point range.

Louisiana-Lafayette point guard Elfrid Payton has one of the quickest first steps of any player in the tournament. He may have limited range from the outside, but that doesn’t stop him from getting to the basket. He averages 19.1 points and 6 assists for the Ragin Cajuns.

Dark horse: Oklahoma State shook off its seven-game losing streak as well as Smart’s three-game suspension to become a formidable team again at the end of the season. They’re a 9-seed with 3-seed talent.

Upset alert: No. 3 seed Creighton could face the winner of No. 6 Baylor and No. 11 Nebraska. The Bears had won six straight and advanced to the Big 12 tournament title game before losing to Iowa State. They’ve been long on talent but short on consistency during the season, but seemed to have worked that out once guard Kenny Chery helped stabilize the offense. The Bears can be relentless on the boards -- they enjoy a plus-eight rebound margin -- and have the talent to score as easily as Creighton can. Although the Bluejays did beat the in-state rival Cornhuskers’ 82-67 in December, that was long before coach Tim Miles’ team found its rhythm.

Team with the most to prove: Wisconsin hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2005 when it lost to eventual national champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Its last Final Four was back in 2000 when Dick Bennett took the Badgers as an 8-seed. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker can give opponents matchup nightmares with their ability to comfortably step outside the post to the perimeter. In five of their past seven tournament appearances, the Badgers have lost to a lower seed, including double-digit seeds Davidson (10), Cornell (12) and Mississippi (12).

Matchup we’d most like to see: Arizona and Oklahoma State in the Round of 32. It could have intriguing matchups within the game such as Smart versus Nick Johnson or possibly Le'Bryan Nash going against Aaron Gordon. The Wildcats have been playing a faster pace since Ashley was lost for the season with a foot injury. The Cowboys can handle a fast pace. Smart and Markel Brown are one of the better backcourts in the tournament.

Most likely to reach Anaheim: Arizona, Oklahoma, Baylor, Wisconsin.

Who advances to Arlington? Arizona.

Region preview: East

March, 16, 2014

Before any team from this region makes the Final Four, it will have to first prove itself on Broadway. Madison Square Garden welcomes the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than five decades, serving as the host site for the East Regional finals. Virginia, on the strength of winning the ACC regular season and tournament, earned the No. 1 seed. But the team that already seems to have generated the most buzz is No. 4 seed Michigan State.

The Spartans navigated much of the season the way a No. 1 seed would until injuries decimated their roster. Starters Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Keith Appling and Gary Harris all missed time due to injury, but Michigan State coach Tom Izzo appears to have everyone again healthy at the right time, and the Spartans responded by winning the Big Ten tournament. Among the lovable underdogs in the region is a team from Durham, N.C., but not the team most identify with Durham. No. 14 seed North Carolina Central earned its first-ever bid to the tournament by winning the Mideastern Athletic Conference. The Eagles have a win over NC State on their résumé and one of the nation’s top bucket getters in Jeremy Ingram, who averages 20.5 points per game and put up 37 against Wichita State.

Five players to watch:

[+] EnlargeGary Harris
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsGary Harris' game has risen in recent weeks, giving a newly healthy Michigan State team a great chance to advance out of the East region.
A potential NBA lottery pick, Michigan State sophomore guard Gary Harris is as polished as they come. He can catch and shoot over defenders, drive past them and, after adding a few pounds since last season, he can finish through contact. Harris led the Spartans with 17.1 points per game.

UConn’s Shabazz Napier has a reputation for delivering the clutch shots for the Huskies. He was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year after leading his team in scoring (17.4), rebounding (5.9) and assists (4.9).

Speaking of players of the year, Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim took that award among stiff competition in the Big 12. Ejim can score from anywhere on the court -- shooting 34.5 percent from 3-point range -- and averaged 18.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game.

If you’re not impressed watching North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, make sure to check out what he does after halftime. Paige earned the moniker “Second Half Marcus” because of his knack for erupting for double-digit points after halftime, including 31 points in the second half and overtime in a win over NC State.

Get used to seeing Providence guard Bryce Cotton; he’ll never leave the court. Seriously. Aside from leading the Friars with 21.4 points per game, he actually averaged 41.9 minutes played in Big East games due to several overtime games.

Dark horse: Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament, beating Kansas and a very talented Baylor team to do so. The Cyclones own nonconference wins over Michigan, BYU and Iowa, which are all in the tournament field. They generally don’t beat themselves. Guard Monte Morris led the nation with a 5.71 assist-turnover ratio. DeAndre Kane (17.0 PPG) and Georges Niang (16.5 PPG) are as capable as Ejim of erupting and scoring a lot of points. The Cyclones also shoot the ball well from 3-point range, led by Naz Long’s 40.8 3-point shooting percentage.

Upset alert: No. 12 seed Harvard has a team suited to knock off No. 5 Cincinnati. The Crimson don’t have a lot of flash but boast five players who average double-figure scoring per game, led by Wesley Saunders' 14.0 points. More importantly, coach Tommy Amaker’s bunch has experience. The Crimson return all but one rotation player from the team that knocked off No. 3 seed New Mexico in last year’s tournament.

Conference with most to prove: Three teams from the American are in the region, led by Cincinnati, which finished tied for first with Louisville. The league's reputation wasn’t strong enough to get SMU a bid despite the fact the Mustangs finished tied for third with UConn and Memphis. The Bearcats, Tigers and Huskies can prove SMU belonged after the fact with a strong showing. The tournament could also be a proving ground for Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who has a 1-4 record in the NCAA. It will be the first appearance for UConn coach Kevin Ollie, whose team was banned from the postseason last year due to a low APR.

Matchup we’d most like to see: Virginia and Michigan State in the Sweet 16. Remember the 2000 Final Four semifinal clash between Wisconsin and the Spartans? This could be the long-awaited sequel where the son (Tony Bennett) tries to avenge the loss of his father (Dick Bennett). The Cavaliers play with toughness that Izzo would approve of. The Spartans would present one of the toughest challenges that Virginia’s defense has faced all season. If it materialized, the winner of this matchup would also be the most likely team to advance to the Final Four.

Most likely to reach New York: Virginia, Michigan State, Iowa State, UConn.

Who advances to Arlington? Michigan State.

Region Preview: Midwest

March, 16, 2014

The selection committee might have wrestled with an expected dilemma as it deliberated Wichita State’s final position in the bracket. The undefeated Shockers beat every team they faced this season, but their weak schedule didn’t match the gauntlets that other 1-seed contenders had endured. The solution, it seems, was a decision to test the Shockers by placing them in the toughest region -- by far.

The Midwest Region is no joke. To reach the Sweet 16, Wichita State might have to go through a Kentucky team that hasn’t defeated any elite squads in months but still boasts a roster of future NBA millionaires or a Kansas State team that’s led by the nation’s most underrated freshman, Marcus Foster.

Defending national champ Louisville has looked like a 1-seed for weeks, even though it ended up with a 4-seed. The Cardinals, assuming they defeat Manhattan and possibly Saint Louis, could meet Wichita State in the Sweet 16 in a rematch of last season’s Final Four.

And it gets worse for the Shockers and everyone else in the Midwest Region. Duke is a 3-seed at the bottom of the bracket and Michigan is a 2-seed. The Blue Devils and the Wolverines could both make a Final Four run. Texas and UMass are bunched with them, too.

Only a focused, high-level program will emerge from this madness.

Five Players to Watch

[+] EnlargeFred VanVleet
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesFred VanVleet brings balance to Wichita State.
Fred VanVleet (Wichita State): The sophomore point guard is ranked fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio nationally (3.89). He’s the steady presence for a team that hasn’t lost a game since last season’s Final Four. VanVleet’s most significant quality, however, is his balance. If he has to be a distributor, he can be that. But he’s also willing to create offense. Plus, he’s a solid defender.

Nik Stauskas (Michigan): Stauskas, the Big Ten player of the year, led Michigan to a conference championship. He’s averaging 17.5 PPG and connecting on 45 percent of his 3-pointers. The Wolverines reached the national championship game last season with the help of Trey Burke. Stauskas could be the program’s next postseason star.

Julius Randle (Kentucky): He certainly has his flaws (2.7 turnovers per game). But Randle is a problem for most opponents. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward is averaging 15.3 PPG and 10.6 RPG for the Wildcats. He can be a dominant talent and have his way in the paint. If Kentucky is going to find a way to validate the preseason hype that surrounded John Calipari’s program, it will need Randle to elevate his game for the remainder of the season. And he’s capable of that.

Jabari Parker (Duke): The freshman was a contender for national player of the year until Doug McDermott ran away with the crown. Parker is the most recent Duke star who could lead his program to the Final Four. He’s arguably the most effective scorer in the country who is not named Doug McDermott. He can hurt teams from the field or inside. He’ll be in the NBA soon. But first, Parker (19.2 PPG, 8.8 RPG and 1.3 BPG) might try to carry the Blue Devils to Dallas.

Russ Smith (Louisville): Smith is still the best two-way player in America. He’s ranked 10th in offensive efficiency (among players with a usage rate of 28 percent or higher) and 26th in steals percentage (4.20), per Ken Pomeroy data. That’s a fancy way of saying that the All-American is a true playmaker for Rick Pitino on both ends of the floor. Last season, Smith helped Louisville win the national title. He could do it again this season.

Dark Horse (Kentucky): Yeah, this sounds crazy. But Kentucky showed some signs of life in the SEC tournament. And the Wildcats had a chance to knock off Florida in the final seconds of the championship game. They didn’t win. But they’re more focused than they were in their 84-65 loss at Florida March 8. Most of the teams that beat Kentucky this season were nationally ranked programs. And Florida is the only team that really crushed them. They’re big and athletic at every position. They’re certainly flawed and might not get beyond Kansas State in the second round. But what if Kentucky finally puts it all together in the next few weeks after securing a shot at someone other than Florida? Could it make a run? Maybe.

Upset Alert (UMass over Duke in the third round): Derek Kellogg’s squad has been all over the place this season. Although UMass averages 76.1 PPG, its offense is barely ranked in the top-100 of Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. But Kellogg has a bunch of 6-9ish big men such as Raphiael Putney and Cady Lalanne, who could give an undersized Duke team trouble. Chaz Williams (15.8 PPG) is only 5-9 but few players have more heart. He’s a senior who hopes to end his career with an NCAA tourney run. If the best UMass team shows up, and that’s definitely not a guarantee, the Minutemen could reach the Sweet 16.

Team/coach/player with most to prove (Wichita State and John Calipari): This one is a tie. Wichita State, whether it’s fair or not, has to justify its top seed after securing its undefeated record against a lukewarm schedule. Anything short of a Sweet 16 appearance for the Shockers -- and maybe that won’t even be enough -- will fail to do that. But they’re not alone. Calipari kicked off the season by declaring that “we are college basketball.” Kentucky, right now, is the most disappointing team in college basketball. Calipari has already failed with this group. And a brief stay in the Big Dance with a team that featured the strongest recruiting class, perhaps, in recent college basketball history would only solidify that.

Matchup we’d most like to see (Louisville-Wichita State in the Sweet 16): Last season, Wichita State and Louisville played one of the best games in the entire tournament when they met in the Final Four. The Shockers had the Cardinals on the ropes with a double-digit lead but Louisville finished strong. It was scrappy until the end. We could see the rematch in the Sweet 16.

Most likely to make it to Indianapolis: Kentucky and Kansas State are both intriguing picks but Wichita State is too disciplined to lose to either in the third round. So the Shockers will be in Indianapolis. They’ll be joined by Louisville, a team that seems capable of defending its national title. Duke and Michigan will be in Indy, too.

Region preview: South

March, 16, 2014

Florida’s path to the Final Four is littered with possible pitfalls in teams that certainly can’t match the consistency of the bracket’s top overall seed -- Billy Donovan’s team hasn’t lost since Dec. 2 -- but all of them have experienced success in spurts. The winner of Colorado-Pitt could challenge the Gators in the third round. Pitt's Lamar Patterson is the kind of dynamic threat who could ruin dreams. Colorado has been up and down since losing Spencer Dinwiddie to a season-ending knee injury in January, but the Buffaloes are a strong defensive team.

UCLA, which won the Pac-12 tourney title with a victory over Arizona, or VCU, which forces more turnovers per possession than any team in the country, might await the Gators in the Sweet 16. But one of the region’s sleepers, Stephen F. Austin, has won 28 games in a row. And Florida will probably have to deal with Syracuse, Ohio State, New Mexico or Kansas, all strong contenders at the bottom of the regional bracket that could block the Gators’ path to Dallas.

The Jayhawks are the most intriguing team in the South Region. Prior to the "Selection Show" on CBS, Bill Self said that the team’s doctors are confident that Joel Embiid, who has missed recent action with a back injury, will be healthy enough to compete if the team advances to the Sweet 16, which is no guarantee. Kansas at 100 percent can beat any team in this region. Will the Jayhawks be healthy? We’re not sure yet.

Five Players to Watch

[+] EnlargeScottie Wilbekin
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsScottie Wilbekin's ability to make the pass, shoot the 3 and keep the Gators calm is a big reason Florida is a favorite to win the national title.
Scottie Wilbekin, Florida: The Gators' point guard is the leader of a program that many call the favorite to win the national title. Wilbekin, who is averaging 3.7 APG and shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line, has helped Florida maintain its composure in tough matchups. He doesn’t panic and that helps his veteran teammates stay focused under pressure.

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: After scoring 41 and 30 in his two previous games, Wiggins struggled in a loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 tourney semifinals Friday. But consider his numbers. He started the game 2-for-11, but he made five of his next 10 shots and finished the game with 22 points and seven rebounds on a rough night. The Kansas freshman might be the best player in America right now.

Lamar Patterson, Pitt: Every year, someone emerges in the NCAA tournament who puts together a stretch of otherworldly performances that lead to unexpected results. Patterson could be that guy this year. Earlier this season, Patterson was in the national player of the year conversation. He’s scored 24 points or more in seven games this season.

Kyle Anderson, UCLA: In the Pac-12 tourney championship over Arizona, Anderson collected 21 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists. The versatile guard/forward is one of the toughest matchups in the country. He can play point guard and run Steve Alford’s offense. But he’s also big enough -- 6-foot-9 -- to make an impact inside, too.

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Yes, the Orange continue to struggle (Jim Boeheim’s squad has lost three of its past four), but when the program surged to the No. 1 ranking earlier this season, Ennis was the catalyst to the rise. He hit clutch shots and controlled games, especially down the stretch. He’s averaging 12.7 PPG, 5.6 APG and 2.1 SPG. If Syracuse regains its old form somehow, Ennis will probably be responsible for that recovery.

What to Watch

Dark horse -- New Mexico: Craig Neal’s squad beat San Diego State in the Mountain West tourney title game. The Lobos also had a previous matchup and loss against Kansas, a team they might face for the second time this season in the third round of the Big Dance. They have a big, talented frontcourt with Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk. Kendall Williams is a pro. And they’ve won nine of their past 10. New Mexico could be the last one standing in the South Region.

Upset alert -- Dayton-Ohio State: Dayton standout Jordan Sibert (12.5 PPG, 44 percent from the 3-point line) will certainly be motivated when the Flyers, an 11-seed, face 6-seed Ohio State in the second round. Dayton had won 10 of its previous 11 games prior to Friday’s loss to Saint Joseph’s in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Archie Miller’s program has wins over UMass, Saint Louis, Gonzaga and Cal. And the Flyers are ranked 30th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.

Team/coach/player with most to prove -- Johnny Dawkins: Bernard Muir, Stanford’s athletic director, has been clear that he desires more than just an appearance in the NCAA tournament from the Cardinal. So anything less than a strong showing could affect the job status of Dawkins, who will lead the Cardinal to their first NCAA tourney appearance since 2008.

Matchup we’d most like to see -- Florida-Kansas: A possible rematch between Kansas and Florida -- the Gators defeated the Jayhawks 67-61 in Gainesville, Fla., on Dec. 10 -- to decide the regional winner and Final Four slot is the most intriguing game in the South Region. Kansas, if Embiid is ready to go, is as capable as any team in the field. And the Gators have been the unanimous top team in the country for weeks.

Most likely to make it to Memphis: This might be the most unpredictable region of them all, but the NCAA tourney is all about picks. Florida will cruise to Memphis. UCLA might struggle with VCU in the third round, but the Bruins will be too much for Shaka Smart’s squad on their way to the Sweet 16. It’s hard to see Kansas in Memphis without Embiid’s help. The Jayhawks have been too inconsistent. But New Mexico will gladly take a slot in Memphis. And Syracuse will regain its mojo and end up there, too.