Let’s face it: NCAA Tournament pools are won by people who pick the right sleepers to reach the Final Four, and those that have the foresight to spot a high-seeded bust when they see them. Those cute, 12-over-5 upset picks that everyone in your office had? That doesn’t do it. The big money (figuratively speaking, right?) is made when you choose the middle-range seeded team that makes a deep run, or when you have a top-seeded team getting knocked out in round two.
We all know the basic rule of thumb: all four #1 seeds had never made the Final Four prior to last season. Well, where does the Final Four come from? If you take away the anomaly that was last year, it truly varies. In 2007, we saw two No. 1s and two No. 2s. The previous season, there was a No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and a No. 11.
In short, you can pencil at least one No. 1 seed into the National Semifinals. Despite the anomaly that occurred two seasons ago, there have only been two years since 1979 that no top-seed has reached the Final Four. Double-digit seeds are also not very likely to reach the Final Four. It has happened twice since 1979. However, it is not uncommon to see a team sixth or lower in the Final Four, and fives are also fairly prevalent. The rest of the Final Four teams? Mostly teams seeded two through four.
What’s the point of all this, you ask? We are only nearing the middle of February, but it’s time to look at some teams that can a) ruin your bracket or b) carry your bracket to the top of the standings. The teams in Group A that I will discuss are potential high-seeded teams that I don’t think have the necessary make-up to make a deep run in March. Group B teams are squads that will likely be seeded five through eight or lower, but have what it takes to pull off a few upsets and end up in San Antonio.
Don’t Trust These Teams
Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons have been one of the surprise teams this season, and they are likely to pick up a top-two seed come Selection Sunday due to their trio of wins over Duke, North Carolina and Clemson. However, I don’t think this team has what it takes to reach the Final Four. First of all, they are very young and inexperienced; their roster is filled with players who have never been to the NCAA Tournament, while head coach Dino Gaudio is not a postseason veteran either. Additionally, they struggle to shoot the three. Only one player is shooting above 34 percent from beyond the arc. Furthermore, Wake doesn’t offensive rebound all that effectively, which limits them to one shot opportunity per possession. They are apt for a second-round upset.
Duke: Another high-seeded ACC team that could be gone in the first weekend. The Blue Devils have been near the top of the rankings all season long, and they are No. 1 according to Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. They do everything relatively well, but they have some weaknesses that could cost them come March. The one knock on Duke has been their lack of production inside. Brian Zoubek gives a few rebounds and a couple of put-backs, while Lance Thomas is just 6-8. Neither is overly effective at either end of the floor. Secondly, the Blue Devils have struggled somewhat at the point guard position. Nolan Smith is quicker and better defensively than Greg Paulus, but Paulus retook his starting position last week. Paulus is horrendous guarding the perimeter and could leave them vulnerable against good point guards.
Illinois: After Michigan State, the Big Ten is filled with teams that are prone to early-round upsets. With the way Illinois is playing – and the Fighting Illini’s NCAA profile – they are likely to get a very solid seed come March. However, I’m not overly impressed with them and think they might get bounced during the first weekend. They are very good defensively and aren’t a fun team for opponents to face, but their offense – or lack thereof – will haunt them. Illinois doesn’t shoot the three-ball very well, and they very rarely get to the free-throw line. Additionally, they don’t get offensive rebounds often, which limit their second opportunities. They do have a variety of options offensively, but lack a true go-to-guy and don’t have much – if any – inside depth. Foul trouble could do this team in.
Xavier: The Musketeers are going to have a very gaudy record heading into the NCAA Tournament, which will potentially result in a top-three seed and a favorable first-round match-up. However, in the second round, Xavier could be vulnerable. While the Musketeers are very balanced, they don’t have a legit go-to-guy offensively, which could hurt them late in games. Additionally, they rely heavily on freshman Terrell Holloway at the point guard spot. He has been inconsistent much of the season. Xavier struggles to take care of the ball offensively and is prone to turnovers. It relies heavily on the three-point shot, which spells trouble if their shooting goes cold. Defensively, they don’t force turnovers at all and allow open perimeter shots too often.
Oklahoma: The Sooners have arguably the second-best profile in the country right now behind Connecticut, and they are very likely to coast into the Big Dance with a No. 1 seed. However, I think this team has several weaknesses that could be exploited early in the NCAA Tournament. The first one is balance; this team has Blake Griffin inside and then a variety of somewhat inconsistent scorers around him. Secondly, Oklahoma is not that great defensively. They don’t force turnovers, give up a lot of second-chance opportunities and are very poor at defending the three-point line. Another potential weakness is their lack of depth, a problem that is magnified even more with the suspension of Ray Willis. If any of the starters – especially Griffin – get in foul trouble, this team could be bounced early.
Don’t Overlook These Teams
Purdue: The Boilermakers came into the season with high hopes and plenty of hype. They returned nearly every key player from last season and were primed to compete with Michigan State for a Big Ten title. However, they have struggled somewhat in Big Ten play without Robbie Hummel, who has been bothered by an ailing back. Once he comes back healthy, though, Purdue is going to be a load to handle in the NCAA Tournament. They have plenty of experience, as they have been in the Big Dance the past two seasons. Hummel and E’Twaun Moore are outstanding offensive players, while Chris Kramer is a lockdown defensive performer. They also have solid point guards and post players, and they are outstanding defensively as a team.
Texas: The Longhorns have been struggling mightily lately, losing three in a row to drop to 4-4 in the Big 12. Plus, they lack a true point guard and a consistent inside scorer. However, this team has the pieces to be dangerous, as evidenced by its wins over UCLA, Villanova and Wisconsin. A.J. Abrams is one of the best three-point shooters in the country, and Damion James is a difficult to defend, inside-outside threat. Justin Mason is a very good all-around player and defensive ace. Gary Johnson is a double-double threat inside. Despite their lack of a go-to post player, they have plenty of bodies in the paint and a few options at the point. Defensively, they are outstanding inside the arc and force teams into tough shots. If Abrams gets hot from deep, look out.
Syracuse: The Orange are another team that have been on a slide of late, dropping five of their last seven to move to 6-5 in the Big East. The rest of the schedule includes road games at Connecticut and Marquette as well as home contests against Villanova and Georgetown. As a result, expect Syracuse to get a seed between five and eight. No one wants to play them, though, when healthy. Jonny Flynn is an outstanding point guard, Paul Harris is a fierce scorer and rebounder, and Eric Devendorf can do a variety of things offensively. When Arinze Onuaku is healthy, he is an efficient inside scorer, and Andy Rautins can really stroke the three. Basically, this team can put up points with anyone in the country, and their 2-3 zone can give opponents fits at the other end.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils were expected to challenge UCLA for the Pac-10 title heading into the season, and their 12-1 start to the season did not dissuade that notion. However, they are just 6-4 since then, with two of the losses coming at home to Washington and Washington State. Still, Arizona State is very solid at both ends of the floor and they can really hit three-pointers offensively. Plus, James Harden is a Player of the Year candidate who can carry this team to a win or two by himself, and Jeff Pendergraph provides excellent balance on the inside. The Sun Devils also have a host of role players who can do a variety of things. Additionally, ASU is an excellent defensive team that slows the tempo of the game and creates problems for opponents.
Gonzaga: For the sake of this column, I was lucky that Gonzaga lost to Memphis at home on Saturday. Why? Because now the Bulldogs are not likely to get a top-four seed despite what will be a very solid record on Selection Sunday. They haven’t beaten a definite NCAA Tournament team yet, and their only quality win is over Tennessee (twice). As a result, expect this team to be a very dangerous five or six seed. The Zags have all the pieces necessary to make a deep run. Jeremy Pargo is a tough point guard, and Matt Bouldin has developed into an outstanding offensive player. Austin Daye is a match-up nightmare, and Josh Heytvelt is a go-to inside player. Plus, Steven Gray is one of the best shooters around. The Bulldogs are also one of the best field-goal percentage defensive teams in the country. Gonzaga might have its best team ever.
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