2014 NCAA Tournament Preview
It was a season of peaks and valleys and hot streaks, as parity was the rule during the 2013/14 NCAA Men’s Basketball season. Wichita State won all 34 games, but are not highly regarded despite reaching the Final Four last season due to their light schedule in the Missouri Valley Conference. The talent pool is deep this year, with several top pro prospects looking to enhance their draft resume. Kentucky who started the season with the hype of a great freshman class, failed to reach expectations but enter the tournament red hot. Syracuse a team that did not lose until February is limping into the tournament. Usual suspects like Duke and Kansas have strong teams, while Florida starts at the top of the heap. Michigan State also is hitting their stride at the right time after starting strong and enduring several key injuries in the middle of the season. Defending champion Louisville is also hot as the madness begins setting the stage to what should be an exciting wide open tournament.
Once again the tournament begins in Dayton; with the First Four on Tuesday Night Albany and Mt. Saint Mary’s will meet for the opportunity to be chewed up by top seeded Gators. Albany may have the toughest mascot after his scuffle with Stony Brook’s mascot in the American East Championship Game. American East teams don’t have much success in the tournament, but against a 16-16 MSM team I like their chances as they should slow the game down and keeps it low scoring for a win.
The last two teams to be invited into the tournament are both dangerous and could have an upset or two up their sleeves if they get past Dayton. Despite not playing up to their traditional level, Xavier always raises their game to a higher level in March, as they have reached the Sweet 16 in three of their last four trips to the NCAA Tournament. However, since Matt Stainbrook suffered a sprained MCL the Muskateers have lost four of five games. NC State meanwhile needed to push their way into the tournament with a strong showing in the ACC Tournament and have a hot hand with T.J. Warren scoring 40 points in back to back games. The Wolfpack have defense has also been strong as of late and should be able to get the win.
There may be no more unlikely team in this year’s tournament than Cal Poly, who is in the dance for the first time despite a 10-19 record in the regular season. The Mustangs who were 0-16 when trailing at halftime won the Big West Tournament with three straight wins. Even with those wins Cal Poly is still one of the worst tournament teams of all-time at 13-19. Texas Southern out of the SWAC meanwhile won both their conference and regular season championships and have some talent which will make this game a mismatch.
Like Tuesday, the nightcap on Wednesday faces two of the final four teams in the tournament and each can have some legs beyond the don’t call it the play in round first round in Dayton. Iowa enters the tournament playing their worst ball of the season. However, at 20-12 the committee chose the Hawkeyes over SMU and Green Bay to face Tennessee. The Volunteers meanwhile are playing their best basketball of the season and, winning five of their last six games including a strong showing against #1 Florida in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Iowa to me is the least deserving team in the entire tournament and they will continue their end of the season slide with a loss to Tennessee to wrap the First Four in Dayton.
Florida has the top spot in the tournament and should cruise to the Sweet 16 with two games in Orlando as they will get little resistance from the play in winner. In the 8-9 game, Pittsburgh has a clear edge over a banged up Colorado team, but they lack the man power for the upset of the Gators.
Once upon a time Virginia Commonwealth was a mid-major that had a big run to the Final Four, now in the Atlantic 10 they play with the big boys. However, it is there turn to get bitten by the upset bug; Stephen F. Austin has to chance to be the glass shoe wearer of this year’s tournament. The Lumberjacks have quietly won 28 straight games and has a player in Jacob Parker who is capable of putting up big numbers in the front court. Meanwhile UCLA hopes to carry the momentum of the Pac-12 Championship; the Bruins should waltz past Tulsa, but look for Stephen F. Austin to be the surprise of the Sweet 16 with a win over UCLA.
Ohio State has always been the big boys on the block in the Buckeye State; they show little regard to the many other good programs from Ohio, often ducking teams that may give them a hard time. One of those teams that Ohio State has tried to avoid is Dayton, who comes in out of solid Atlantic 10 Conference licking their chops at a chance to beat Ohio State. Winners of 10 of their last 13 games, Dayton is deep team that will give Ohio State fits and get upset in Buffalo. However, they will run into a brick wall when they go up against Syracuse. Despite struggling down the stretch, the Orange are still one of the best teams in the country and will have a huge home court edge in Western New York.
Stanford is ending a long tournament drought, while New Mexico is looking for redemption for last year. The Lobos are the stronger team and should have gotten better than a seven seed, while the Cardinal are just too stagnant on both ends of the floor for an upset chance. Meanwhile Kansas is holding their breaths and hoping Center Joel Embiid who missed his last five games could return for the NCAA Tournament. If Embiid plays the Jayhawks could be in North Texas before you know it. With or without Embiid Kansas should easily beat Eastern Kentucky, and New Mexico on the way to the Sweet 16.
Regionals @ Memphis, TN
Florida, Kansas, Syracuse, Stephen F. Austin
Florida will continue their winning ways in Memphis as they will burst Stephen F. Austin’s bubble in the regional semifinals as Casey Prather will prove too much for the Lumberjacks to handle. Meanwhile Syracuse and Kansas should be one of the better matchups of the Sweet 16. Where Syracuse had a huge home court edge in Buffalo, Memphis should be friendly for Kansas. The Jayhawks are a loaded team and can win the whole tournament if they get hot. This one will be close throughout as Kansas advances.
When Kansas landed Andrew Wiggins, the expectations were high in Lawrence, and while the Jayhawks did not quite reach the lofty expectations in the regular season they have the team that could make a run in the NCAA Tournament. I see Wiggins have a breakout tournament as he tries to boost his draft stock, look for Kansas to edge Florida on the way to Dallas and the Final Four.
The East Regional may be one of the more wide open regions as Virginia was the last to earn a #1 seed by winning the ACC Tournament Championship. However, they face stiff competition. The Cavaliers will not have a big fight until the Sweet 16. The 8-9 game is a true toss up, but I like George Washington to edge Memphis before losing to Virginia.
Early in the season, Michigan State was ranked #1 and looked like a power house, but injuries led to them slipping in the rankings. However, with the arrival of March they are getting hot at the right time, winning the Big Ten Tournament. They deserved better than a #4 seed but it should matter little as they are perfectly poised for a long run. Harvard should be able to beat Cincinnati in the other first round match in Spokane.
Providence needed to win the Big East Tournament just to get a spot in the dance, and their reward is a North Carolina team playing its best basketball of the season. The Tar Heels are an up and down team that has the perfect tournament makeup, led by James Michael McAdoo and Marcus Paige. UNC could have a long run in them if they avoid their season long free throw struggles. After beating Providence, UNC will have their work cut out against Iowa State, the top scoring team in the country. However, I believe Carolina’s ability on the board will go a long way to the Sweet 16.
Villanova lost its chance to get a #1 seed when they were stunned in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament against Seton Hall. The Wildcats, may be the best overall team in the East Region, but their struggles in close game could come back to haunt them like it did in the Big East. Milwaukee could throw a scare in them, but led by James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston Villanova should advance. In the second round no matter who Villanova faces it will be a rival as former Big East foe faces St. Joesph’s. The Hawks are a strong shooting team that should shoot their way past the Huskies, but in a matchup of teams from Philadelphia look for Villanova to go on to Madison Square Garden.
Regionals @ New York, NY
Virginia, Villanova, Michigan State, North Carolina
For the first time in 63 years games in the NCAA Tournament will be played at Madison Square Garden. Fans at the Garden will be treated to four strong teams, as Virginia faces Michigan State in the Sweet 16. The Spartans were the best team early in the season and are hitting their stride at the right time. Tom Izzo teams have a habit of raising their game to a higher level in March and this year it has not been any different. This will be one of the Spartans toughest games but I see them as the better team despite the seeding. In the other regional semifinal, I see Villanova continuing their Garden struggles as North Carolina scores an upset to reach the Elite 8.
Michigan State and North Carolina met early in the season, with the Tar Heels winning by 14 points. This time I see a complete turnaround, as the Spartans led Adreian Payne advance to the Final Four.
Standing atop the Western Regional is Arizona, who if they bring their A game will be hard to beat. They do have a pair of early tests as Weber State is better than your average 16 seed, but the Wildcats defense will be too strong for the upset. The 8-9 game features two talented teams in Gonzaga and Oklahoma State. The Cowboys looked to be a dead team walking after the Marcus Smart incident, but have been red hot since Smart returned from suspension. Here I give a slight edge to tournament stalwart Gonzaga. However, in the end this pod is all Arizona.
Not many teams are more exciting than the up tempo Oklahoma Sooners, who average 82.2 ppg behind 38% shooting from three point range, I see them shooting both North Dakota, and New Mexico State out of Spokane. New Mexico State comes in with a tough defense that has helped them win five straight since a post-game brawl against Utah State. The Aztecs meanwhile are in a scoring slump, a good defense and a team in a scoring slump is not a good combination for #4 SDSU.
Not too long ago Baylor and Nebraska were Big XII rivals, however with the dizzying conference realignments Nebraska is now in the Big Ten. Both teams are playing well, but the Bears have a clear talent edge and will advance. However, the true star is Creighton led by Wooden Award favorite Doug McDermont. McDermont is getting comparisons to Larry Bird complete with a reenactment of his classic SI cover. McDermont and the Blue Jays are ready to fly and will dispatch both Louisiana and Baylor.
Home cooking will be served in Milwaukee, as Wisconsin and their questionable tournament pedigree have a #2 seed and the crowd in their corner. If they fail to reach the Sweet 16 the Badgers will be seen as immense failures. Wisconsin has a better offense than years past and will be beat American with ease. However, Oregon could be a big road block. The Ducks also have an easy win over BYU. The Cougars are without a key player in Kyle Collinsworth and a bad team on the road. Truthfully BYU should not even be in the tournament as both Green Bay and SMU are more deserving. The Ducks would have a better chance to reach the Sweet 16 if Wisconsin did not have the huge homecourt edge in Milwaukee. However the Badgers do not make too many mistakes and get to Anaheim.
Regionals @ Anaheim, CA
Arizona, Wisconsin, Creighton, Oklahoma
Arizona was 21-0, but has not been the same since Brandon Ashley suffered a foot injury. The up tempo Sooners could be a problem for the Wildcats, cut Oklahoma has won just one of five games against teams in the Top 25. In the other regional semifinal Creighton and Wisconsin are rather evenly matched, but stopping Doug McDermont will be too tall of order as Creighton advance.
By the time they reach the Elite Eight Arizona will be one of the last #1 seeds standing, but with McDermont and Creighton’s advantage on the boards they will crash in Anaheim as Creighton advances to Dallas and the Final Four.
Somebody does not like Wichita State. The tournament committee had no choice but to give them a #1 seed after they went 34-0. However, in the region of death there path to the Final Four is even tougher than last year when they were a #9 seed. The Shockers first round will be a cake walk, but from there it gets brutal as they will likely face Kentucky. Kentucky after a one year absence is back in the tournament and looking to get back to the Final Four after winning the tournament in 2012. At the start of the year Kentucky had hype with what was called the greatest freshman class ever assembled. However they spent most of the struggling to live up to the hype. As the season ended Kentucky started to get it figured out and could make a long run in the tournament. They will beat Kansas State and take out Wichita State on the way to the Sweet 16.
The group of death continues with defending champion Louisville getting a #4 seed. Now the Cardinals are not as good as last year, but to doubt their chances at repeating is to do so at your own peril. The Cardinals may have gotten lost in the new American Conference, but this is still a top 10 program and should have gotten a #2 seed. The disrespect from the committee will only motivate them as they knockoff a solid Manhattan team and NC State who will go from play in the to the thrilling 32 by beating St. Louis.
Since the creation of the First Four that has been one livewire that has a chance to wreck some brackets. This year that team could be Tennessee who gets a winnable matchup against UMass, who is making their return to the tournament after a 15 year absence. However, the Vols won’t get passed Duke. The Blue Devils led by Jabari Parker has the talent for a long run and with Coach K leading the way it could be another great run for Duke.
At the bottom of the group of death is Michigan the #2 seed, who likely would have got a top seed if they won the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines are still one of the best teams in the country with Nick Stauskas and Chris LeVert leading the way. Michigan has one of the best defenses and should have no problem getting to the Sweet 16. Look for Arizona State to edge Texas in the other second round match before being Michigan’s second victim.
Regionals @ Indianapolis, IN
Michigan, Duke, Louisville, Kentucky
No Sweet 16 game will be more entertaining and more intense than Kentucky vs. Louisville. The Blue Grass State rivals are the last two NCAA Champions. Both are capable of winning this year, though Kentucky has trouble with consistency. If John Callipari can convince players like the Harrison twins to return next year the Wildcats will be a favorite to return to Indianapolis next year for the Final Four. However, with Russ Smith looking for a second championship look for Louisville to win both bragging rights and the regional semifinal game. Not to be out done, Michigan will battle Duke in the other Sweet 16 matchup. Both teams have trouble rebounding and this game’s battle of the boards will be key. In the end the Wolverine defense and a Midwest setting will help Michigan reach the Elite 8.
Another game that should be close is Louisville and Michigan. The Cardinals seem to be hitting their stride at just the right time. Russ Smith ability to steal the ball and ignite the half break is the remedy for the Michigan perimeter defense and the reason the Cardinals will fly on to the Final Four for the third straight season.
Final Four-Arlington, TX
Creighton, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan State
Everything is bigger in Texas, and that could not be more true for AT&T Stadium aka Jerry World. With a capacity near 100,000 this Final Four is nearly a lock to shatter attendance record. By the time it gets to Dallas, we will be down to four teams, but getting there will be one of the more wide open tournaments as there are at least 20 teams that could cut down the nets.
Louisville who was cut down the nets last year will be in Dallas with the hopes of doing it again. With Russ Smith as their playmaker it will be hard to doubt they can, as he ability to steal the ball gives Louisville a big defensive edge against Creighton. The Blue Jays meanwhile will hope to ride Doug McDermont to the Promised Land. The problem, with one player carrying a team is that when you get to the end against an experienced champion like Louisville you need more answers and Creighton just don’t have them.
In the other semifinals a pair of teams with loads of talent meet with Kansas facing Michigan State. Both teams have players that can take over the game with Andre Wiggins leading the Jayhawks, while the Spartans are paced by backcourt mates Keith Appling and Gary Harris. Michigan State also has the edge with a mental toughness that comes from Coach Tim Izzo. I see a big game from Appling and Harris as Michigan State knocks off Kansas.
To be the man you need to beat the man, and Louisville will be in the Championship Game for the second straight season. Both teams are peaking at the right time and have the experience and ability to win the championship. In the end it will come down to who can defend better and I believe that team to be Michigan State. Look for a Sparty Party in Dallas as Michigan State beats Louisville 81-74 for the Championship.