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Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Reading into tourney teams' fortunes

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

At this time of the basketball season, there is only one question: How do I fill out my bracket?

Which teams can you trust and which teams should you punt?

To help, ESPN.com offers up a 66-team cheat sheet (sorry, Iona and Mississippi Valley State), giving you reasons to write each team in your bracket or to write them out.

Sorry, the actual decision is up to you.

As a bonus, we know this is also the time of year we all go a little Cliff Clavin, attempting to impress friends at various watercoolers and watering holes with our insightful knowledge. Included, then, is a newsy nugget to write down.

Now when someone asks you "What in the world is a Billiken, anyway?" you actually will have an answer.

East | Midwest | South | West

EAST REGIONAL

Syracuse (1)

Write 'em in: The Orange have talent at every position and enough depth to play both sides of a football game.

Write 'em out: Syracuse will have to make its NCAA run without Fab Melo. Huge loss, especially on defense. This team also doesn't rebound well -- in part a byproduct of its zone and the long rebounds it produces. That could be problematic.

Write it down: Before Otto the Orange rolled the sidelines, Syracuse had a number of failed mascots. The original, the Saltine Warrior, was born out of a hoax but tabled after complaints from the Onondaga Indian Nation. That gave way to a Roman gladiator, Egnaro the Troll, a random dude in an orange tuxedo, the Dome Ranger, Dome Eddie (he wore Elton John glasses) and a green (we don't know why it was green) monster called the Beast from the East. In two years, they will change it to the Beast from the East that plays in the South.

UNC Asheville (16)

Write 'em in: Jeremy Atkinson is the star, but really Eddie Biedenbach has a balanced team, with five guys averaging double figures. Most critical -- they can all shoot free throws. The Bulldogs rank fourth in the nation from the charity stripe, a big help if they can draw some fouls.

Write 'em out: The Bulldogs predicate their game on getting to the hoop and getting to the line. Which would work well if Syracuse didn't play zone. Asheville also doesn't have a single player on its roster over 6-foot-5. Even without Fab Melo, it'll be tough to guard the Orange that way.

Write it down: During the Great Depression, UNC Asheville accepted vegetables, eggs and milk as tuition payments. The NCAA may hit the Bulldogs with a retroactive postseason ban for it.


Kansas State (8)

Write 'em in: Like their coach, the Wildcats are relentless and aggressive. They want to get the ball to Jamar Samuels down low or let Rodney McGruder take it and drive. When that happens, K-State, with its nasty defense, is tough to beat.

Write 'em out: For all that tenacity, the Wildcats have a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel. They've made a habit of blowing leads late, which could be an NCAA tournament fatal flaw.

Write it down: K-State graduate Herbert Dimond invented the snooze alarm. To which a bug-eyed Frank Martin asks, "What is this snooze thing people are talking about?"

Southern Miss (9)

Write 'em in: Larry Eustachy has done a tremendous job breathing life into the Golden Eagles, happily taking transfers who, like him, are anxious for a second chance. Southern Miss is mostly scrappy, a team that will attack the basket and hope for a whistle. Point guard Neil Watson is the Golden Eagles' most important player.

Write 'em out: This team has not looked much like an NCAA tournament team of late, nosediving with three losses in its final five regular-season games. You have to wonder whether an average shooting team has hit its wall.

Write it down: Southern Miss gives its students off for Mardi Gras, with no classes scheduled for Monday or Fat Tuesday. Perhaps the Golden Eagles were miffed. Stuck in Houston, Southern Miss lost two right around the bacchanalian holiday.


Vanderbilt (5)

Write 'em in: If the Vanderbilt team that showed up in the SEC tournament is the same one in the NCAA tournament, watch out. The Commodores finally looked like the team everyone thought they could be -- talented on the perimeter and strong on the inside with Festus Ezeli. Most impressive against Kentucky was how well Vandy defended.

Write 'em out: All that said, there is this minor problem: Vanderbilt has lost its past three first-round games. Until the Commodores officially beat Harvard, all bets are off.

Write it down: Led by a bagpiper, new students are officially welcomed to campus during the Founder's Walk, passing through the university's front gates. If the Commodores don't go home from Albuquerque with a win against Harvard, the gates will be locked.

Harvard (12)

Write 'em in: The Crimson aren't flashy. Far from it. Harvard likes to pound the ball inside to Kyle Casey and Keith Wright and play good defense. It may not be aesthetically pleasing, but it works well.

Write 'em out: Unlike most upset-minded teams, Harvard does not shoot a lot of 3s, a usual equalizer in the NCAA tournament. If the Crimson can't generate offense inside, they can't generate offense.

Write it down: Technically, Harvard's nickname is John Harvard but since that sounded rather silly when yelled out at sporting events, students went with Crimson. The board is considering a change to the Jeremy Lins.


Wisconsin (4)

Write 'em in: Bo Ryan's style is tough for Big Ten opponents -- who are accustomed to it -- to prepare for. Imagine how teams in the quick-turnaround NCAA tournament feel. The Badgers are deliberate to the point of monotony on offense, which just wears opponents out. Coupled with very good defense, especially on the perimeter, they are a tough out.

Write 'em out: Slowing it down is fine, but eventually you do have to score and Wisconsin too often does not. The Badgers rank at No. 258 in the nation in scoring with just 63.9 points per game. Those numbers put Wisconsin at a severe disadvantage if it is pressed into a faster-paced game.

Write it down: Soon-to-be-graduated law students toss white canes over the goalpost at homecoming. Lore holds that if they catch a cane, they win their first case. Each caught cane equates to one point scored in the basketball team's season. Therefore the Badgers' lack of offense could be repaired if the law school would merely lower admission standards and graduate more than 275 students per year.

Montana (13)

Write 'em in: If the Badgers don't want to score, the Grizzlies will be more than happy to accommodate. While Montana doesn't mind running, it stops opponents on a dime, holding teams to just 62 points per game. Jordan Taylor will have his hands full with the Grizzlies' solid backcourt of Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar.

Write 'em out: Wisconsin will try to do to Montana what the Grizzlies do to everyone else. If the Badgers succeed in slowing down Montana, Wisconsin wins.

Write it down: The university library houses the oldest authorized editions of the Lewis and Clark journals. The way these two defenses play, the explorers might be the only ones able to find a basket.


Cincinnati (6)

Write 'em in: Cincinnati made more 3-pointers than any team in the Big East, and when the Bearcats are on -- as they were in their upset of Syracuse -- there is very little anyone can do to stop them. Sean Kilpatrick is especially streaky. Mix in Yancy Gates in the blocks, and Cincinnati can put together a tough inside-outside combo.

Write 'em out: If the Bearcats need to win it at the line, it's curtains. At 300th nationally (64.1 percent), Cincinnati is the worst free throw-shooting team in the NCAA field.

Write it down: Smallish copies of the famous lion statues found in Florence, Italy -- Mick and Mack -- guard McMicken Hall. Smallish coach Mick Cronin guards the sidelines.

Texas (11)

Write 'em in: This team goes as J'Covan Brown goes. The best returning player for coach Rick Barnes, Brown has basically carried a young Longhorns team to an unexpected berth, averaging 20 points per game. Point guard Myck Kabongo has been good, if at times erratic, like most young players are. Brown needs to be sensational, and Kabongo controlled for Texas to win.

Write 'em out: This team isn't terribly complicated -- take Brown out of the offense and you've essentially taken the offense out of Texas. Other guys can score, but the Longhorns absolutely need Brown to be in double digits to win.

Write it down: Since 1956, Tom Anderson, the university's carillonneur, plays songs at 12:50 p.m., using the 56-bell chimes in the Tower. Since he takes requests, may we suggest "It's a Miracle" to emphasize the Longhorns' unexpected run to the tourney?


Florida State (3)

Write 'em in: If the team that beat Duke and North Carolina shows up, the Seminoles will be a tough out. Their defense is lights-out, ranking fifth in the nation in field goal percent defense (38.1), and the emergence of Bernard James as a scorer has given Florida State three legit scorers (with Michael Snaer and Ian Miller), plus Deividas Dulkys, who scored 16 in the ACC title game versus North Carolina.

Write 'em out: If the team that lost to Princeton and Harvard shows up, see you later, Seminoles. Florida State has a tendency to turn the ball over too much -- it averages 16.3 per game, which is 325th (out of 338) in the country.

Write it down: The Unconquered Statue on campus stands 31 feet and depicts a Seminole warrior on a horse. Unconquered? Florida State? The Ivy League would beg to differ.

St. Bonaventure (14)

Write 'em in: Andrew Nicholson is good enough to become a breakout NCAA tournament player if the Bonnies can pull off some upsets. If teams pay too much attention to Nicholson, guys like Demitrius Conger and Matthew Wright can make them pay.

Write 'em out: Nicholson is going to draw an awful lot of attention, so the onus is on everyone else to score enough. That's not been an oft-followed recipe for the Bonnies this year. There's a reason Nicholson averages 18 points per game.

Write it down: Translated from the Italian "buona ventura," St. Bonaventure means "good fortune." Getting a potential first-round draft pick to come to Olean, N.Y., in the middle of an epic rebuilding job? Yep, that's good fortune. Or a miracle.


Gonzaga (7)

Write 'em in: If Robert Sacre and Elias Harris can establish some dominance inside, the Zags will be tough to beat, because that means the guys trolling on the perimeter will have some space.

Write 'em out: This is a tough draw for the Zags, who have to travel across the country to Pittsburgh, while West Virginia drives an hour for a home game. The road has not been kind to Gonzaga, which is just 6-4 away this year. Equally critical is how a young Gonzaga backcourt plays. Gary Bell Jr. and Kevin Pangos will be great, but the young players play a big part in why Gonzaga has been so inconsistent this year.

Write it down: Gonzaga will send two teams to the National Debate Tournament, held the same weekend as the Final Four, in Atlanta. One subject they've got down: Zags not a mid-major.

West Virginia (10)

Write 'em in: With a short ride to Pittsburgh, the Mountaineers will have a decided home-court advantage. Another edge: Kevin Jones. The senior has been terrific all season and is especially good on the offensive glass. To beat the Mountaineers, you have to beat Jones.

Write 'em out: After Jones and his backcourt mate, Truck Bryant, there's not a lot of reliable scoring on this Mountaineer team. The young roster has been guilty of waiting for Jones and Bryan to handle things. If they don't, the Mountaineers won't be around long.

Write it down: In 1949, WVU sponsored its first beard-growing contest as part of the school's spirit week. The contest was suspended this year because no one could beat Deniz Kilicli.


Ohio State (2)

Write 'em in: The Buckeyes appear to have rediscovered their snarl, lost during a midseason semi-swoon. Once a bit disjointed, they have figured out how to play off one another -- when Jared Sullinger is doubled, William Buford and Deshaun Thomas are making teams pay. The defensive play of pit bull point guard Aaron Craft is undervalued.

Write 'em out: As usual, Thad Matta does not have a very deep bench, which means there is little room for error. Forget Sullinger; the real key is Craft. If he hits the bench, the Buckeyes could hit the skids. If Thomas and Buford are both off, that spells disaster, too.

Write it down: During a speech in 1833, Daniel Drake said of the buckeye, "In all our forests, there is not a tree as hard to kill as the buckeye." Despite various attempts to beat and bludgeon, Big Ten officials have said the same about felling the tree that is Jared Sullinger.

Loyola (Md.) (15)

Write 'em in: Unlike their first-round opponent, the Greyhounds actually have a bench, and a productive one at that. Jimmy Patsos will have to go to it and go to it frequently to try to at least wear out the Buckeyes.

Write 'em out: The affable Patsos will win the news conferences. The game may be a tougher matchup, especially for Erik Etherly. The junior earned MAAC tournament MVP honors by powering to the basket, but he wasn't trying to blow by Sullinger. Another issue: Loyola doesn't make a lot of 3s, usually an NCAA tournament recipe for disaster.

Write it down: Each spring the university hosts the Bull and Oyster Roast, an alumni reunion event. They'd love to sprinkle roasted buckeyes on top of the oysters this year.