2015 NCAA Tournament Preview
There is one story as we begin the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and that is the University of Kentucky. Teams have gone into the NCAA unbeaten before, last year it was Wichita State, but none since perhaps UNLV in 1991 have gone in with such an air of invincibility. Kentucky is not only perfect at 34-0 they have steamrolled over anyone in their way. They have beaten Kansas a #seed by 32, they have won nearly every game by double digits and both deep and talented to the case where if anyone has an off night somebody can rise up off the bench and the Wildcats don’t skip a beat. In the era of the one and done player, this Kentucky team may be the best team ever to hit the NCAA Field of 68 and if they don’t win the National Championship it will be one of the biggest shockers in the history of March Madness.
The first four begins in Dayton with a match up to see who will be the first team to be lunch meat for the Kentucky Wildcats. Manhattan and Hampton each had up and down seasons, and came out of nowhere to win their conference tournaments. Hampton is under .500 even after winning the MEAC, while the Jaspers of Manhattan who were expected to be in a rebuilding season with a team full of freshmen and sophomores came on strong to win the MAAC. Manhattan beat a solid Iona team on the way to the tournament and overall have more talent and will win this game before being chewed up and spit out by Kentucky. In Tuesday’s First Four nightcap, Ole Miss will face BYU. The Rebels gave Kentucky one of their biggest tests of the season, losing in overtime 89-86 at Rupp Arena on January 6th. However, Mississippi has not played well as of late, losing four of their last five games. BYU on the other hand finished the season strong, winning eight straight before falling to Gonzaga in the finals of the West Coast Conference Tournament, this scenario plays well for the Cougars a team that will be a real live dog once they reach the field of 64.
On Wednesday Night North Florida in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever will fight Robert Morris for the right to play Duke in Friday. Robert Morris is here after upsetting St. Francis of Brooklyn in the Northeastern Conference Tournament Championship Game. The Ospreys are just in their sixth season in Division 1 and were the top team in the Atlantic Sun Conference all season, they even upset Purdue in the regular season so they have ability and will get the win. The nightcap see Boise State getting an unfair placement as they take on Dayton in Dayton. Obviously the NCAA hopes to avoid teams getting home games in the NCAA Tournament, but after Dayton lost the Atlantic Ten Championship Game the NCAA had no choice. The Flyers are deserving of a bid but are one of the final four at large teams meaning they get to play in the first four and that means a home game for Dayton. On a neutral floor, chances are Dayton would win any way, but with the home crowd it means Boise State does not stand a chance.
Kentucky, is the beast that sits atop the Midwest Regional, at 34-0 they are the team to beat and have the pressure of win of buts. However, their deep talented roster is just too much to handle and the chances of them falling on the first weekend are somewhere between slim and none and slim he just left town. I suppose Manhattan does have a chance to beat Kentucky when the tournament tips off for real on Thursday in Louisville. I mean I have a chance to win a Billion Dollar lottery too. If this game is closer than 20 points it will be a stunner. The 8/9 game in Louisville is a different story as Purdue and Cincinnati is a complete tossup. I like the fact that Cincinnati was 2-1 against teams in the Top 25, while Purdue was 0-5. Bearcats win advance to Round of 32 and are the next victim in Kentucky’s quest for perfection.
In Columbus West Virginia faces tournament newcomer Buffalo in the 5vs12 matchup. This is where underdogs excel, the #12 seed has won six of the last eight games in the NCAA Tournament. Of all the 5-12 matchups, this is the most likely for an upset. The Bulls are coached by a NCAA legend in Bobby Hurley, he is already showing signs of an up and coming coach who will likely be one of the most sought after hires in the next few seasons. The Mountaineers are good at creating turnovers, but Buffalo is just too good at taking care of the ball and too fast for them to handle. Four seeds are also vulnerable in the round of 64. However, Maryland has too much talent for that to happen. That being said, the Terps will fall in the next round, with Buffalo reaching the Sweet 16.
In the bottom have of the Midwestern bracket, #6 Butler takes on #11 Texas in Pittsburgh. The Longhorns began the year with high expectations but underperformed all season. After posting a 6-6 record in their last 12 games the Longhorns are lucky to have even made the dance. Butler is playing well as of late, thanks to the return of Andrew Chrabarscz and will advance. Butler would then face Notre Dame, who heads into the tournament with a head of steam, after beating Duke and North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. Look for the Irish to continue to impress as they reach the Sweet 16 with wins over Northeastern and Butler.
In Omaha #2 Kansas awaits a date with Wichita State in Round of 32. The Jayhawks must first get past New Mexico State first, and that won’t necessarily be an easy task as Kansas has struggled down the stretch. If any two seed is vulnerable to go out in the round of 64 it is Kansas. They will survive a scare against New Mexico State, but getting to the Sweet 16 could be a much taller task. Wichita State the seven seed must fight the urge to look ahead facing Indiana, but unless they stub their toe it is hard to see the Hoosiers getting the win here. Look for the Shockers who entered the tournament last year unbeaten to get to the Sweet 16 by winning state bragging rights.
Regionals @ Cleveland, OH
Kentucky, Notre Dame, Wichita State, Buffalo
Kentucky arrives in Cleveland 36-0, they will be facing an ultimate Cinderella in Buffalo who coached by Bobby Hurley will have the fans on their side, and have already seen Kentucky losing by 19 early in the season. The Bulls may keep the game close for a half, but sometime in the last 40 minutes, Kentucky’s talent will begin to overwhelm Buffalo and lead to another easy Wildcats win. Notre Dame and Wichita State may be one of the more exciting games of the tournament as both teams are good at moving the ball and putting points on the board. The Irish will continue their run and reach the Elite Eight.
In their pursuit of perfection Kentucky will face at least one big test, and that first test will be in the Midwest Regional Finals against Notre Dame. The Irish ability to light up the scoreboard led by Jerian Grant will keep them in the game a full 40 minutes. However, in the end Kentucky is too deep and when the game reaches crunch time will have more energy and will get the win to reach the Final Four.
Heading the West Regional is #1 seed Wisconsin who begins their quest to reach Indianapolis in Omaha against Coastal Carolina. No team has a greater nickname than the Chanticleers, but that is where the fun ends for Coastal Carolina as the Badgers will win easily. The next game may not be such a cake walk as Oregon and Oklahoma State meet in the 8-9 game. The Cowboys are another team entering the tournament in slump, the Ducks meanwhile are playing well as of late and Pac-12 Player of the Year Joseph Young is a big reason why. Oregon will beat Okie State and will stun Wisconsin to reach the Sweet 16.
In Jacksonville, Arkansas who played well in their SEC Tournament final against Kentucky takes on Wofford in the 5-12 game. While the 12 seed is always a live dog, Arkansas tempo will be too much for Wofford to handle as the Hogs are a team that can make a long tournament run. North Carolina faces Harvard in the first round and the Crimson who advanced last year won’t catch anybody surprise this year. The Tar Heels are a strong team and will give the tournament an entertaining match against Arkansas. However, like Notre Dame wore down Carolina so will Hogs as Arkansas reaches the Sweet 16.
Xavier earned a six seed by reaching the finals of the Big East Tournament and their three game sweep of Georgetown is impressive, but they are vulnerable against strong shooting teams. BYU who will beat Ole Miss in the First Four are a strong shooting team. Every year at least one team from the First Four advances to the round of 32 and this year it will be BYU at the expense of Xavier. Getting to the Sweet 16 will be a much tougher task for the Cougars and they will surely play Baylor in the Round of 32. The Bears are a physical team playing a Georgia State team that is not very good and handling physical play. This is a mismatch. The Bears will then advance to the Sweet 16 by outlasting BYU in a close battle in Jacksonville.
While Wisconsin earned the #1 seed, the best team in the West is at the bottom of the bracket in #2 Arizona, who is coming off a dominant performance in the Pac-12 Tournament. The Wildcats will easily slay Texas Southern in the first matchup and then take on a VCU team that is also on a bit of a hot streak after winning the Atlantic 10. Shaka Smart will always have Virginia Commonwealth ready to play, but after slipping past Ohio State, they will run into a locomotive in Portland, with a giant A on the side.
Regionals @ Los Angeles, CA
Arizona, Baylor, Arkansas, Oregon
Arizona will roll into Los Angeles and feeling the West Coast is their territory will dispatch Baylor in the Sweet 16. The game won’t be easy for Arizona, as Baylor’s ability to shoot three pointers makes them dangerous. However, with the Wildcats ability to take away second chance points and play half-court defense, will be the key. Oregon and Arkansas are both equally hot winning 10 of 12 heading into the tournament, and both losing their conference tournament champion games to top level teams. I like Arkansas ability to get up and down the court and their way of creating pressure on defense to lead them into the Regional Finals.
Arizona will advance to the Final Four on the backs T.J. McConnel’s leadership. McConnel will be able to help the Wildcats settle down when Arkansas starts to increase the tempo and turns on the full court press. The game will be close, but in the end Arizona is too athletic to be bothered by the Razorbacks.
Villanova comes into the NCAA Tournament ranked #2 after winning the Big East Tournament to get the top seed in the East. The first round will provide little challenge to the Wildcats as teams from the Patriot League are usually cannon fodder and it won’t be any different for Lafayette. The 8-9 game in Pittsburgh is another toss up as both NC State and LSU come in playing mediocre hoops down the stretch. However, the Wolfpack have excellent ball handlers led by Anthony Barber. LSU, meanwhile often has trouble staying focused for 40 minutes a formula that leads to quick exits in March. Villanova will then take down NC State to reach the Sweet 16.
In Seattle #5 Northern Iowa will take on #12 Wyoming in a battle of mid-majors. Wyoming needed to win its conference tournament and is good at slowing the game down, but the Panthers of Northern Iowa have been strong all year and will get the win here. Last year no 13 seeds won against four seeds, that has not happened two years in a row. If there is any four seed that is ripe to be picked off it is Louisville. The Cardinals have been soft all season, the Anteaters are strong defensively and good at making three point shots the perfect formula for an upset. However, UCI won’t go much further as Northern Iowa advances.
Providence is a very lively team and came within a basket of beating Villanova in the Big East Tournament. However, Dayton once again will have the home court edge after knocking off Baylor in the First Four. This time the Friars have too much talent and knock off the Flyers. The Peter Hooley story is a good one for Albany, as his three pointer brought the Great Danes back to the dance, but a team like Oklahoma is too strong and have too big of presence in the interior. Oklahoma then will go on to beat Providence to reach the Sweet 16.
Virginia might just be the second most talented team in the NCAA, but with some injuries down the stretch their long term outlook is not as good as it once was. The Cavaliers should have no problem against Belmont, but Michigan State will pose a number of problems. The Spartans are clearly better than Georgia and stronger team than the seven seed they were dealt. Tom Izzo is one of the best tournament coaches, and the Spartans always raise their game to a higher level in March. Look for Michigan State to get the upset and reach another Sweet 16.
Regionals @ Syracuse, NY
Villanova, Oklahoma, Northern Iowa, Michigan State
Two great shooting teams meet with Villanova facing Northern Iowa. Both teams are able to hit three pointers, but the Wildcats talent pool is deep and that will be the difference as Nova advances. Michigan State and Oklahoma should be a big game, with the Spartans continuing another deep run with their uncanny ability to win close games driving them forward.
Villanova against Michigan State for a trip to the Final Four will be an interesting matchup but with the game on the line I like the Wildcats balanced scoring which opens up shots from beyond the arc.
Despite losing in the ACC Tournament, Duke is clearly deserving of a #1 seed and could be the best matchup for Kentucky in the tournament if they are able to reach the finals. I see the tournament as the chance for Jahlil Okafor to shine. Okafor is the best overall player in the NCAA and will likely be the first player chosen in the NBA Draft. There is no chance Duke falls early as they will waltz past the play in winner and San Diego State in Charlotte. SDSU is a solid eight seed and should be able to beat St. John’s who will be without Chris Obekpa who was suspended for using Marijuana. Obekpa was the best hope for the Red Storm in the middle and the Aztecs will just overwhelm the undermanned Johnnies.
Stephen F. Austin made a strong run last year, upsetting Virginia Commonwealth. Facing a slumping Utah team, the lumberjacks are primed to cut down another five seed. Look for SFA to advance in Portland. Georgetown will face its biggest test in the round of 64 as Eastern Washington is the strongest #13 seed. Tyler Harvey is the nation’s leading scorer and the Eagles have a regional advantage with the game in the Pacific Northwest. Joshua Smith is the key for the Hoyas, but his constant foul trouble will be the Achilles ‘ heel for Georgetown. In a battle of underdogs look for Eastern Washington to fly on to the Sweet 16 for their first time in school history.
Larry Brown is back in the NCAA with a strong SMU team. The Mustangs dominated the American Conference all season but could only manage a six seed. They face a UCLA team that may be the least deserving tournament team. If any bubble team has an argument they should have gotten in the Bruins are the team they seem to target. Look for SMU to make quick work of UCLA in Louisville. However, they won’t go much further as Iowa State is a strong team that is surging at the right time. The Cyclones blew through the Big XII tournament and upset Kansas with a great second half comeback. Iowa State will blow past UAB and SMU on the way to the Sweet 16.
Gonzaga may have their best shot yet for a trip to the Final Four. The Zags led by Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos will open the tournament in Seattle and make quick work of North Dakota State. Moving on they will face Davidson. The Wildcats of Davidson won the Atlantic 10 regular season, but lost to VCU in the Conference Tournament. They have a ten seed and will face Iowa in the 7-10 game. The Hawkeyes are not a real strong team and not great at shooting the ball. Davidson will win the game but go home after a loss to Gonzaga.
Regionals @ Houston, TX
Duke, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Eastern Washington
Midnight will strike for Cinderella Eastern Washington as they face Duke in the Regional Semifinals. Duke led by Jahlil Okafor is just too strong. Unless Tyler Harvey has a game for the ages Eastern Washington is doomed. Gonzaga meanwhile will have its hands full with Iowa State. The Cyclones have one of the best offenses in the NCAA and will look to push the tempo, but with lockdown defender Gary Bell Jr. Gonzaga should be able slow down ISU enough to get the win.
Duke versus Gonzaga may be one of the best Elite Eight matchups. The Blue Devils and Zags are both capable of winning the National Championship, but in the end Jahlil Okafor will be the difference as the Blue Devils go to the Final Four.
Final Four-Indianapolis, IN
Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, Duke
It’s a good year for the Wildcats as Kentucky, Arizona and Villanova will be in Indianapolis for the Final Four along with the Duke Blue Devils.
Kentucky is the clear favorite still; there ability to run nearly two teams out there is the key to their success. After losing in the Championship Game last season, Kentucky has been focused on one thing. The fact they have not lost any games is just a side note for the Wildcats and Coach John Calipari have been focused on winning the NCAA Tournament all season, and while Arizona is a good test for them, their depth will be too much for Zona to overcome.
Three decades ago Villanova pulled off one of the great tournament upsets, beating Georgetown for the National Championship. This team may be better than that team that won in Lexington, but the competition is also better. This is not going to be a wide open tournament, there will be upsets but in end the top of the field is too deep. Villanova is part of that top level and so is Duke. America wants to see the Blue Devils get a chance against Kentucky, only Villanova stands in Coach K’s way. Villanova was overlooked all season and their ability to rain threes will be the Blue Devils undoing. Look for Villanova to advance all the way to the Championship Game.
UCLA was a dynasty; Indiana in 1976 was a great veteran team putting a great unbeaten run together for the National Championship. Kentucky deserves to be in that conversation for one of the great teams of all time if they cut down the nets on April 6th. It’s hard to imagine Kentucky losing in the Finals two years in a row. Villanova if they can find that perfect game light up downtown Indianapolis from the arch can get the upset. However, Kentucky has too much talent. In these days of the one and done player, Kentucky has had the perfect storm come together. A disappointing 2013 where they were not invited to the tournament after the 2012 team won and left, a team last year that was the best draft class that used a late season surge to reach the finals and this year’s top draft class. This is how Kentucky put together the perfect team. Truth be told the most exciting game for the Wildcats is the Blue and White games in practice, as Coach Cal has two units that could compete for the National Championship alone, put them together and you get 40-0. Just one worry is, will the NCAA one day take this title away in their dumbass vacating wins and titles policy years down the road after finding recruiting violations, because a team this good makes you wonder what John Calipari did to put it together.